Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 35 of 60

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The next morning found all of them crowded into the small bathroom; Severus had apparently woken (although Hermione personally doubted that he had been to sleep) with his arm hurting him more than it should have done, burning with almost the strength of a Summons, and had decided that he didn't dare wait any longer to remove the Dark Mark. He wasn't completely certain how Voldemort was able to keep track of his followers through the brands, but he wasn't willing to take the risk.

She was trying to think about that, trying to guess what he was about to do, but his appearance was distracting, to say the least. She hadn't seen him in Muggle clothing since last summer – his jogging gear didn't really count – and she hadn't really been paying attention then, but now she couldn't stop staring at the odd sight of Severus Snape wearing jeans. Black jeans, naturally, and she wasn't sure the boys had even noticed the difference, but...

He was sitting on the edge of the bath at the moment, slowly and methodically rolling up the sleeves of an old and rather ratty-looking grey jumper – his home clothes were if anything even shabbier than his school ones – watched by the three of them. Glancing up, he scowled. "You don't need to be here."

"Hermione does," Harry pointed out mildly, "and do you really want me and Ron left alone and unsupervised? God knows what we'd get up to."

"It's not as if you could make this house any worse," he muttered, paying more attention to his arm as he exposed the Dark Mark, standing out clear and black against his pale skin. The edges were slightly reddened, almost as though it was a new tattoo.

"What are you actually doing?" Ron asked interestedly.

Severus gave him a sharp look, as though judging his sincerity, before shrugging his thin shoulders. Picking up his wand, he tapped his arm gently. "Arcanum hominis revelio," he said softly. Greenish-black fire glittered around the Dark Mark and began to spread, radiating outwards from the brand and following his veins down his wrist to his fingertips and up his elbow past his sleeve; after a few moments the dark lines reappeared from under the jumper and spread along his other hand and up his neck and face.

After a moment he began to speak softly, not in his usual brisk lecturing tone. "Ordinarily with that charm you would see my magic. What this shows is that the Dark Mark is tied to my magic, overlaying it with what is in effect pure Dark Magic. Such a tie grants additional power to the Death Eater, and also gives the Dark Lord a greater measure of control over his followers. To remove it, I need to untangle my magic from the magic of the Mark and draw the dark magic back, to isolate it in the brand itself so it is no longer spread throughout my body; then I can remove the Mark itself."

"Won't that weaken you?"

"A little, perhaps, but I was quite powerful to start with; in any case, as I have taught you, strength isn't as important as knowledge and instinct. The weakening should be only temporary anyway; my body will compensate eventually."

"How is the Dark Mark done?" Harry asked.

Severus' expression shut down completely, walls forming behind his dark eyes as his face turned stony. "None of your business," he answered shortly. Hermione thought she recognised something of his expression and was glad he hadn't decided to answer that question truthfully; she was absolutely certain she never wanted to hear him say it aloud. Harry scowled, but accepted the rebuke and fell silent, and after a moment Severus shivered briefly and returned his attention to his arm, starting to slowly move his wand tip back and forth across the brand as his lips moved.

Most of the words he was chanting were inaudible, and the few that she could hear weren't in any language she recognised. She wasn't sure how many languages Severus spoke; she had seen journals in foreign languages on his desk several times, and he certainly seemed able to swear fluently in several tongues – admittedly she didn't know for certain that he had been swearing, but the tone of his voice at the time had seemed pretty conclusive. Whatever this language was, she couldn't identify it, but something in the sing-song rhythm suggested it might be related to whatever his odd healing song was.

It took a while before there was any discernible effect, but gradually the watching teenagers noticed the dark veins on his face beginning to fade and recede, and then those on his right arm. After almost an hour, Severus was sweating and starting to look tired, but the darkness writhing under his skin was now confined to his left arm; as they watched, the inky tendrils recoiled still further, his skin shimmering oddly until the Dark Mark itself seemed to be moving.

"That's really, really creepy," Ron observed from where he was standing by the door. Beside him, Harry nodded fervent agreement, staring at the writhing brand with a faintly sick expression.

Perched on the edge of the bath next to Severus, Hermione gave them both withering looks. "You could try being a bit more helpful."

"Why break the habits of a lifetime," Severus muttered caustically, reaching to put his wand down on the edge of the sink. Picking up the flannel from the bottom of the bath, he ran it under the tap and wiped his face. "Well, that was the hard part," he observed, studying his arm.

The lack of expression in his eyes gave him away, and Hermione looked at him. "Does it hurt?"

"Yes," he admitted calmly. He glanced at each of them in turn. "I don't think you're going to want to watch the next part."

"The fact that you said that makes me think I should be here to watch," she replied suspiciously. "What are you going to do?"

Severus was spectacularly ill-equipped to look innocent, but he gave it his best shot. "Remove the Dark Mark. I thought I explained that already."

Turning away from her, he retrieved his wand and started Summoning things to him. Hermione examined them; his switchblade, Blood-Replenishing Potion, dittany, and a slightly dusty plastic bottle of Dettol disinfectant that looked as though it was ten years old. Slowly she turned to stare at him. "You're going to cut it out?" she demanded, horrified.

He returned her gaze without much expression. "It's the only way. I can't make it simply vanish; it has to be anchored to my flesh, even if just in a small area. The only way to get rid of it completely is to remove the anchor along with it."

"Yeah, but with a penknife?" Harry asked.

"It's hardly a penknife, Potter. Make yourself useful and look after the Blood-Replenisher until I ask for it, if you're going to insist on staying." Calmly, Severus slid off the edge of the bath and knelt beside the tub, turning the cold tap on and shoving his arm into the water.

"Severus..." Hermione began weakly.

He gave her a level look. "I'm not doing this for fun, Hermione. I have spent a lot of the last two years studying the Mark. Would you prefer I simply amputated my arm? That is the only alternative." His gaze softened fractionally, although his voice did not. "Are you going to help, or are you going to whine at me?"

She glared at him instead and angrily took the knife and the disinfectant, cleaning the blade thoroughly before handing it back to him. Ignoring them all completely, he shifted to get a little more comfortable before removing his arm from the flow of water and swiftly dragging the edge of the blade across his skin, making four shallow cuts around the edges of the Dark Mark to guide him before slowly beginning to slice more deeply.

After about ten minutes, a very pale-faced Ron excused himself and left the room rather hurriedly. Harry looked like he very much wanted to do the same, but after swallowing hard he stayed where he was, staring fixedly at the potion he was holding and doing his best to ignore what was happening as the metallic scent of blood grew stronger.

Hermione didn't think of herself as being squeamish any more – she had always had quite a strong stomach, and over the past two years she had seen this man injured in quite horrific ways often enough to have thought herself more or less immune, but this wasn't quite the same. Severus had an expression of acute concentration on his face, his brows furrowed and his shoulders hunched as he leaned over his arm, his hair shoved untidily behind his ears out of the way; rarely did he show any signs of even mild discomfort, let alone true pain, as he slowly and methodically cut deeper into his arm.

It was fascinating, in a horrible sort of way, she reflected. She could see the different layers of tissue now as he started to peel back the section of flesh that he was cutting free, skin giving way to a (very sparse) layer of fat before the fibres of muscle became visible as he washed blood from the wound. When he reached the big blood vessels he started to put the knife down, and Hermione swallowed before saying quietly, "I'll do it." Picking up her wand, she moved to his shoulder and leaned past him; as he cut through each one, she cauterised them with murmured spells almost instantly, keeping the blood loss to a minimum.

"You're losing a lot of blood," Harry said thickly, still staring determinedly in the other direction. "Couldn't you – burn it all?"

"I could," Severus agreed; his voice was slightly tight with a faint edge of what might be pain, but he sounded remarkably unaffected considering what he was doing to himself. "But that would cause a lot more damage. Burns are more severe than other injuries because the burn continues even during treatment; for something on this scale I would end up cooking half my arm and would probably never regain the full use of it. Blood loss is the lesser of two evils." He paused, before adding rather unkindly, "And of course the smell of burning flesh would leave me with a house full of teenagers being sick. That isn't terribly unusual around here, but usually only on a Saturday night."

There were a few things Hermione could have said in response to that, but the one she chose turned out to be the most effective; keeping her voice down, she murmured tartly, "Stop trying to look down my shirt and pay attention to what you're doing."

To her frank amazement, when Severus turned away and hunched more closely over his arm, she noticed that the back of his neck was rather pinker than usual. Grinning in delight, both at having made him blush like a teenage boy and at the fact that he really had been staring at her chest, or at least thinking about it, she moved away and perched on the edge of the bath once more.

By the time the knife was half way underneath the sizeable piece of flesh he was cutting free, mid way under the skull itself, he wasn't blushing any more. In fact he was chalk-white, and starting to look decidedly unwell, sweat beginning to trickle down his face. Pausing for a moment, he swallowed and said thickly, "Potter. Potion."


"Harry," Hermione snapped exasperatedly at him.

"Sorry, sorry. Here." He handed the vial over and Hermione held it to Severus' lips; he sucked down a rather arbitrary dose and nodded in acknowledgement when she took it away. Blood-Replenisher was one of quite a depressingly high number of healing potions that he had developed a resistance to, but hopefully he wouldn't need it many more times.

"Are you all right?" she asked him a few moments later, staring at him.

He gave her an irritated look. "Stop fussing."

"You look almost green. That isn't blood loss, and I know you're not squeamish."

Severus grimaced and returned his attention to what he was doing. "Toxic shock syndrome," he said tersely. "That damned potion from the cave is still in my system. It's reacting with all the healing potions I've had to take since." He swallowed again and licked his lips, shivering, before adding nonchalantly, "I'm going to be fairly ill on and off over the next few days, I imagine." He continued in the same nonchalant tone, "Stop glaring at me like that. It's worth it, and there's no choice anyway."

There wasn't really much else she could say to that. Biting her lip, Hermione kept silent, watching as he reached the base of the skull and began to cut beneath the writhing snake. By now the skin directly around the brand was starting to look almost black, and the flesh he was cutting free looked darker. He was also less successful at concealing how much this was hurting; his left hand had cramped and curled into a fist some time ago and he was visibly trembling as he worked the knife steadily down his arm, finally turning the blade and cutting upwards towards the skin once more as he cleared the Dark Mark.

Harry almost bolted from the room when the piece of flesh fell to the bottom of the bath with a horribly unpleasant wet splat, one hand clamped over his mouth as he made his escape. Hermione very nearly went after him, but she forced herself to stay put, breathing shallowly through her mouth and staring in horrified fascination as Severus rinsed his arm under the tap, exposing the long and broad but comparatively shallow wound gouged out of his forearm.

Regaining her wits enough to hand him the bottle of dittany, she watched him carefully dripping it over the wound, each drop smoking slightly when it hit the raw red flesh of his arm. When he rinsed it again, they both looked at the web of scar tissue that had formed.

"Dittany shouldn't leave such deep scars..." she mused as he stood up.

"This isn't an ordinary wound," Severus replied. His voice was hoarse and a little strained. When she looked at him, he was staring fixedly at the chunk of discarded meat in the bottom of the tub, blood still seeping from it and the Dark Mark visible on the skin still attached. Reaching out without looking, he picked up his wand and wordlessly Vanished it without ceremony, dropping his wand on the floor and returning his fixed stare to his arm as he backed up to lean against the sink. Very slowly he traced the new scarring with a finger; he didn't appear to be breathing.

"...Severus?" she asked uncertainly, still not used to using his first name.

He looked at her, and she saw with surprise that his eyes were glistening. "I'm free," he whispered, his voice shaking slightly as he blinked rapidly once or twice. He glanced down at his arm again, then looked back at her and repeated hoarsely, "I'm finally free..." before hastily looking away and swiping at his eyes almost angrily as his hair fell across his face.

Her throat tightened as she stared at him. For the first time, she could see in his face a shadow of the boy he had once been; she wasn't sure she had ever seen him so vulnerable. Hermione hesitated for a moment before deciding that the time had come for a bit of rash Gryffindor impulsiveness; standing, she moved closer and hugged him before he had a chance to move away, something she wouldn't have dared to do even a week ago.

Severus froze, suddenly and painfully tense, drawing in a sharp breath, and her nerve failed her. She started to pull away, about to apologise, when he relaxed fractionally; abruptly his arms came around her and he hugged her back fiercely, almost too tightly. Tangling her hands in his jumper, she buried her head against his chest and breathed in the scent of him, feeling him shivering fitfully as he gradually relaxed a little and loosened his embrace slightly. Winding her arms around his waist, she leaned against him, listening to his breathing hitching momentarily as he fought for control again, smiling; she felt a strange blend of happiness and sorrow for him, realising just how long he had suffered being a Death Eater and hating what he was.

It felt like a long time, but it was probably only a few moments before he sighed and relaxed fully, his breathing evening out, and she felt him rest his cheek against her hair. She allowed herself to enjoy his embrace a moment longer before she shifted sideways; he started to draw back, but she kept her arms around his waist as she moved around to press against his right side, reaching out to touch his left arm gently and explore the new scar.

He let her do it, still trembling slightly, his right arm tightening around her shoulders, and when she looked up at him again his eyes met hers with an expression that made her shiver as they began to burn once more. Smiling, surprised at her own daring, she moved out from under his arm to stand in front of him, her fingertips still resting lightly on his forearm, licking her lips as she stared up at him.

After a moment he blinked slowly and sighed, a rather hesitant half-smile tugging at the corner of his lips, before reaching out to draw her closer and slowly lowering his mouth to hers. Outwardly this kiss lacked the almost frightening passion of their first, but she could taste it below the surface, just barely restrained. His tongue coaxed her lips apart and he began to explore her mouth gently, as she melted against him and reached up to twine her fingers through his hair.

When he began to draw back, she followed his movement, separating just long enough to draw in a breath before daring to kiss him in return. He tasted mostly of Blood-Replenishing Potion at the moment, but underneath that she could taste him as she rather tentatively explored his mouth as he had done to her, her tongue sliding against his. His breath hitched for a moment as he kissed her back, but he was still taking care to keep it relatively gentle. One hand slowly wound its way into her hair as the other slid lower over the curve of her buttocks, pulling her more closely against him, and as she shivered in response she tugged his shirt free of his trousers so her hands could feel bare skin on his scarred back, drawing almost a growl from him.

Finally they broke apart, both breathing more heavily, and stared at one another. His black eyes were still burning with a hot excitement that made her shiver again, uncertainty mingling with desire. Swallowing, she said shakily, "We can't keep doing this."

"I know," he agreed softly, with a huskiness to his voice that sent another shiver through her. "It's not – not fair to either of us."

Trying to ignore the fact that all she really wanted to do was kiss him again, Hermione attempted to pull herself together. "What... what exactly is this?"

He looked away, regaining control of himself. "...I don't know," he said, a little awkwardly. "It... it should be wrong, but..." He hesitated, then turned and gave her a very direct stare, his gaze boring into hers with painful intensity. "I have never felt like this," he said quietly with deliberate emphasis.

"Like what?" she asked uncertainly. "Do you... do you really want me?"

Severus blinked at her, tilting his head to one side, before barking a rough laugh. "That may be the only truly stupid thing I have ever heard you say," he observed in a dry tone, before shaking his head. Before she could react, he reached out and seized her wrist. "Does this answer your question?" he asked bluntly, pressing her hand unceremoniously against his groin.

Startled, she reflexively tried to pull back, but even as he let go of her wrist she tentatively flattened her palm to feel the outline of his erection, tracing its length with curious and hesitant fingers before looking up at him, unsure of his reaction. His eyes were burning again as he stared down at her, and his voice was rough and husky as he said softly, "Yes, Hermione, I want you very much. More than I should."

She breathed out, relieved as much as anything else. "Good, then. I was afraid I was making a fool of myself."

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

Blushing slightly, she nodded. "I – I've been thinking about this for a while," she confessed, part of her thrilled to see the answering fire in his eyes.

"I..." he started, before being interrupted by a crash from downstairs. Abruptly looking seriously annoyed, he growled something under his breath before stalking past her to the doorway and leaning out. "Potter!"

"Sorry," Harry called distantly.

"What are you doing?"


Severus visibly ground his teeth and looked back at Hermione. She gave him a wry smile. "Go and make sure they're not doing too much damage. It's okay."

He shook his head. "No. We haven't had a chance to talk. Once things get moving again we may never get a chance. This needs sorting." He raised his voice. "If anything's out of place when I get down there, you're both going to be sorry!" Pulling the door half-closed, he turned to look at her, suddenly looking unsure of himself again as he reached up to scrub a hand through his hair. "I don't know what's going to happen," he said slowly, not quite meeting her eyes. "I don't know what promises I will be free to make. But... this isn't a game to me. I don't – I don't quite know what it is I feel, right now, but I very much want to find out. When there's time," he added wryly, glancing through his hair at her.

Hermione nodded, then stifled a laugh. "In between Horcruxes, I'm sure we'll have plenty of time to deal with something as simple as this," she offered as dryly as she could manage, drawing a soft huff of amusement from him in response as he nodded. "I – it's not a game to me, either," she added before she could stop herself, relieved that her voice wasn't shaking. He met her eyes for a long moment, then nodded slowly.

Another crash from downstairs broke the mood entirely; Severus went another shade paler and hauled the door open again. "Stay away from the cellar!" he shouted, grinding his teeth again and adding in an undertone, "Although it would serve you right if you didn't."

"Why don't you want us to go down there?" she asked, more relieved than otherwise by the change of subject. They both needed more time to sort out their thoughts and feelings before attempting to find out just what lay between them in more specific terms, and there were other important things to be done as well.

"Because that's where I keep everything that's too dangerous to keep at Hogwarts," he replied in a distracted tone. "Aside from my basic Potions stores it's all illegal and most of it is very dangerous indeed, even to me." He sighed. "Go and sort them out, please."

"You don't want to do it yourself?"

"I'm likely to strangle one of them," he replied with an oddly disarming crooked smile, before wiping his forehead. "Besides, I think I'm going to be sick again soon, and I don't particularly want an audience."

"Fair enough. Can I get you anything?"

He shook his head and tried to smile at her. "No. Thank you." He sighed. "We'll talk, soon."

"Don't worry about it right now. One thing at a time." She smiled back at him. "I'll wait." After a moment she added mischievously, "By the way, I like the jeans."

Severus scowled reflexively and looked away. "All my decent clothes are still at Hogwarts," he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck.

Hermione judged it was probably better not to tease him any further right now, even though she really, really wanted to discuss the drawer of rock band t-shirts she'd discovered yesterday. It was summer, he couldn't keep wearing a sweater for ever. "I said I liked them," she chided him gently, heading for the door and glancing back at him.

He gave her the long, almost expressionless look that he used when he wasn't sure if something had been meant mockingly or not, trying to judge her sincerity, and she smiled at him. His eyes softened, before his expression changed; recognising the signs, she left him to it.

Severus spent most of the next two days in the bathroom, except for short miserable periods sitting shivering on the landing while one or other of them hastily showered or used the loo. Harry and Hermione spent the time starting to educate Ron about the Muggle world, aided by the small, cheap black and white TV they had found in the bottom of the cupboard under the stairs and by another brief trip down the road to the shop to pick up everything they had forgotten the first time around. Hermione had been delighted to find a box of old records in the same cupboard, but there was no sign of a record player anywhere and she had to make do with the radio in the kitchen.

Life promised to be very strange for a while, she reflected. There was a lot to adjust to – Severus had warned them that he had lived alone since he was their age and wasn't used to houseguests, which they had all translated to mean that they had to be very, very careful of his temper. Hermione had already had to face the reality of having to share a bathroom with two teenage boys; in less than a day she had given two lectures on housetraining. Harry was at least vaguely familiar with the concept of housework – and hygiene – but she was seriously considering rubbing Ron's face along the bathroom floor as though he were a puppy. All right, with so many boys around it was understandable that Mrs Weasley hadn't been able to adequately train them all, but really. The situation wasn't helped by Severus being ill so frequently, but at least he had proved able to clean up after himself so far.

Meals promised to be a bit strange until the teething troubles were worked out, too. Weirdly, Ron turned out to be quite a good cook, although he had absolutely no idea how much food cost and they had needed to virtually tie his hands together in the shop. Harry could manage the basics easily enough. Severus was also quite good, although by his own admission he usually couldn't be bothered and wasn't particularly interested. Of the four of them, Hermione was almost amused to find she was by far the worst, since she'd never cooked anything in her life, and had been relegated to kitchen helper by unanimous vote – she had never wanted to be a domestic goddess anyway.

As if the situation wasn't weird enough, she had been looking more closely at this house, looking past the surface as she had tried to do with his rooms at Hogwarts, and she was starting to understand the closed, distant look that had been in Severus' eyes since they'd got here. Most of the obvious problems were the usual neglect – quite obviously he hadn't bothered to change anything since his parents had died, except the bathroom – but it looked as though it had all been pretty bad to start with.

Ron had simply accepted it as Muggle weirdness, since to her knowledge he'd never been in a Muggle house in his life, but she'd seen Harry looking around and frowning occasionally. Both of them came from reasonably well-off families, even if Harry's relatives hadn't treated him very well, but they could both recognise poverty when they saw it. It seemed very peculiar that any witch could allow herself and her son to live in such conditions – surely domestic abuse wasn't possible against someone who could use magic. Which, presumably, was why nobody at Hogwarts seemed to have paid much attention.

The signs were there, though. She'd felt ill when she'd noticed the marks in the paint on Severus' bedroom door; at one point there had been a bolt on the outside, and there were dents along the bottom on the inside. More marks on the outside of the cellar door showed that too had once been bolted from the outside. And the fact that he still lived here, like this, spoke volumes about his psychological scars; she had been looking at the neighbouring houses too, and frankly this neighbourhood scared her. It was the kind of estate adorned with burned-out cars and used needles – in fact, she was pretty sure the house directly opposite was dealing drugs, and there were sirens in the distance every few hours.

Evidently Severus had been making plans in between bouts of illness, since it was obvious from his expression when he finally rejoined them in the world of the living once more that he had a plan in mind. Accepting the sandwiches Hermione put in front of him with a nod – and acknowledging her stern look with a wry arch of one eyebrow – he took a bite and swallowed before asking, "Has there been any communication from the Order?"

"Not really," Harry answered. "Remus contacted us yesterday to say everyone's fine and that we're to sit tight here, and Mrs Weasley keeps sending letters via Pig to make sure we're okay and that we're eating properly," he added with a grin.

Severus snorted and chewed another mouthful. "All right, then. Ready to go to work?" They nodded, and once they had all finished eating they trailed after him into the living room and settled comfortably in a rough semicircle around the fireplace. Hermione lit the fire and Severus tossed a handful of Floo powder into the flames. "12 Grimmauld Place. Hello, the Order. Anyone home?"

"Identify yourself," a harsh voice growled.

Severus rolled his eyes. "Why bother, Lupin? You wouldn't believe me anyway."

"Snape. I thought you were dying."

"Sadly no. Who else is there?"


"Minerva. You're at Headquarters permanently now, I take it?"

"Yes. Is everyone all right there?"

"We're fine, Professor," Harry assured the flames. "We did say we were. Everything's okay."

"Is Dumbledore there?" Severus asked, his voice hard.

"He's upstairs resting. He is very angry with you, Severus."

"Not nearly as angry as I am with him, believe me," Severus replied flatly. "What's happened since I spoke to you?"

"With respect, Severus, you aren't in the Order any more."

"Oh, now you all learn caution. Fine, I can read between the lines. Is Bill Weasley there? I need to speak with him as soon as possible."

"I – I think so. But, Severus... what's going on? What are you up to?"

"Ask Dumbledore, when he's finished wallowing in self pity and got over the shock of not pulling the strings any more. He might even tell you, although I doubt it. I need to speak to Weasley."

"Is it really a good idea to speak to her like that?" Ron inquired from the far side of the fire during the pause that followed.

"Probably not, no, but she can't get in here any more than the Death Eaters can," Severus replied almost flippantly, "and I've had enough of all of them right now."

"I've been meaning to ask," Hermione said, "is there any way we can communicate with the portraits?"

He shook his head. "I'm afraid not. Phineas will be at Headquarters passing on the gossip, and Dilys can keep the Order updated about anything happening at Hogwarts or St Mungo's, which is where her other portrait is, but neither of them have access to this house." He held up a hand as the green flames flickered once more. "Mr Weasley?"

"Yes, Professor. You needed to speak to me?"

"Yes. I need you to get in touch with your old contacts at Gringotts."

"Gringotts? Why?"

"If you stop interrupting and listen, I'll tell you," Severus growled in exasperation. "I need them to agree to look the other way for a couple of hours while the four of us access Vault 439."

"That's not your vault..."

"Well done," he replied sarcastically. "I would hardly need you to intercede if it were."

"They're not going to give you access to anyone else's vault."

"I know that, Weasley. I'm not asking them to. I need them to disable the anti-theft ward on that vault for an hour or two and to ignore the alarms on the back door during the same period. I can deal with the rest."

"You know about the back door?"



"I'm a spy," Severus replied, rolling his eyes again. "Start negotiations as soon as possible, Weasley. I need you to buy as much time as possible and I need them to remove the goblin-bound spell that traps anyone who doesn't work for Gringotts. They don't have to touch any human-origin protections that might be on the vault or its contents, but ask for that first so you have something to concede – they might even do it. Ask for six hours or more initially, as well – the absolute minimum I need is an hour, but two hours would be far safer and more would be better."

"What are we offering in exchange?"

"They know what we're in a position to offer, probably better than you do. Let them name a price, but don't commit to anything until you've checked in with me."

"When do you need this to happen?"

"I don't know yet. We have plenty of other work to do as well. The sooner the better, but make sure they agree to give us at least twenty four hours' notice; otherwise they will probably announce one day that the two hours was the day before."

"Do I need to demand that they don't speak to the vault's rightful owner?"

He barked a rough laugh. "No. They won't. Trust me on that. Just do the best you can; it's vital that we get into that vault, and I don't like our chances of doing so without Gringotts discovering it."

"Is there any point in my asking what this is about?"


"Okay, then," Bill replied cheerfully. "I'll see what I can do. No promises, mind. The whole wizarding world has lost a fair amount of credibility recently. Hey, is Ron there?"

"Yeah. Hi, Bill. How is everyone?"

"Hi, little brother. We're okay. Mum's worrying herself silly though because your hand – and Harry's – are both stuck on Mortal Peril on the clock."

"Well, obviously," Harry joked, grinning. "We're staying with Professor Snape. I'd call that pretty perilous. For some of us, anyway," he added with a sly look at Hermione, before yelping as Severus reached out and slapped him – hard – around the back of the head.

"Whatever that was, you probably deserved it," Bill said calmly through the fire. "I'd best get moving, anyway – this is likely to take a long time. Did you need to speak to anyone else?"

"Not today, no."

"Okay. Good luck, then."

As the Floo call ended, Severus sat back on his heels and pushed his hair back from his face. "We're off to a good start, then."

"What's going on?" Hermione asked. "Whose vault is number 439, and why do we need to get into it?"

He held up a hand. "First things first." Slowly he turned hard eyes to Harry and Ron and said in a dangerously silky voice, "If I hear any more witty jokes about things that do not concern either of you, I will not be responsible for my actions. I have reached the absolute limit of my temper. Is that clear?"

Harry had the decency to look ashamed of himself. "Sorry." Ron merely nodded uncomfortably.

Severus held the stern look for a moment longer before nodding. "All right, then." He stood up slowly and moved to one of the armchairs, and the others followed him to sit down. "Vault 439 belongs to the Lestranges," he said without preamble, "and we need to get in because that is where Helga Hufflepuff's cup is."

There was a short pause while they absorbed this, before Ron said quietly, "Oh, bugger."

"Yes," Severus agreed dryly. "However, that is unfortunately the easiest of the remaining Horcruxes to get to. We need to devise a way of getting to Nagini, but before that, we need to unravel the mystery of the fake locket. That must be our next step. Potter, do you have it? I didn't have a chance to look at it in the cave."

Harry nodded and fished in his t-shirt, pulling the chain over his head and handing it over. Hermione moved to perch on the arm of Severus' chair and looked over his shoulder as he turned it over in his long fingers, examining it carefully, finally drawing his wand and investigating further.

"This can't really tell us much," he said finally. "It was Transfigured out of an old quill; there's nothing special about it."

"There's a note inside."

Raising an eyebrow, Severus opened the locket and unfolded the note, reading it slowly several times before sitting back and whistling softly through his crooked teeth. "Well, I personally am glad that the Dark Lord didn't discover this," he observed. "It would not have been healthy to be a Death Eater during the rage that would have followed." He regarded it pensively. "R A B... it doesn't sound familiar. But I think I recognise the handwriting from somewhere..."

"A former student of yours?" Harry suggested.


"Who?" Ron asked eagerly.

Severus gave him a withering look. "I have been a teacher for fifteen interminably long, dreary and tedious years, Weasley. I have taught hundreds if not thousands of annoying young witches and wizards; I cannot possibly remember them all. And this may not have been a student anyway. The timing seems wrong; I started teaching only a few months before the first war ended. I assume that thi must have been another Death Eater..." His voice trailed off and he fell silent, staring down at the scrap of parchment in his fingers.

"We only know most of the Death Eaters by their surnames," Hermione said quietly. He didn't respond, and she realised after a moment that he hadn't even heard her. Smiling wryly, she stood up and gestured to the boys, and they left him to it and retreated to the kitchen.

"He really wants us to break into Gringotts?" Ron asked.

"I doubt that he wants to, but, well, if that's where the cup is, then we don't really have any choice," Harry said glumly. "I'd rather try it with Snape than on our own, though. I don't think even Hermione knows enough for us to have a hope of getting away with that. What's this back door he was on about?"

"A back way in and out of Gringotts, I guess. I dunno, Bill's bound by all kinds of charms against talking about the security measures. You reckon we can do it?"

Harry grinned. "Ron, mate, we shouldn't have been able to do half the stuff we've done. We've got this far, haven't we? Might as well keep going. We're half way there – three Horcruxes gone, three to go."

"Good point. Just try not to get us both killed by Snape before we're done."

"You deserved far more than a slap," Hermione said grimly.

Harry tried to look innocent, and failed. Ron snickered. "Come off it, 'Mione. You're snogging Snape and we're not allowed to say how weird that is?"

"No, you're not," she snapped, angry with herself for the blush she could feel heating her face. "Because it's none of your business."

"What's going on with you two, anyway? Have you had a chance to talk yet?" Harry asked, kicking Ron under the table – he kicked Hermione as well by accident, but she decided not to make an issue of it. He did look serious now, and slightly concerned; that was annoying, but he did mean well. Besides, it had been bothering her.

"I don't know what's going on," she admitted quietly. "We've not exactly had many chances to talk, no. There are more important things to worry about right now. Horcruxes, and so on. I... I know he's definitely still interested..." She blushed again, remembering feeling the hot, hard length of his erection straining at the fabric of his jeans; apparently he was extremely interested. Clearing her throat, she continued hurriedly, "And he implied that it was at least a bit serious, but... well, time's not really on our side right now. The war..."

"He's not – I dunno, leading you on, or anything?" Ron asked awkwardly.

"No. No, nothing like that. He's not – you know, he's not trying to... pressure me, or anything." She shrugged and half-smiled. "I think he's almost as confused as I am, to be honest. There hasn't really been time to think things through for ourselves, let alone talk to each other."

"What about..." Harry hesitated, looking decidedly unhappy. "What about my mum?" he finished in a whisper. "I mean, Dumbledore – well, he implied they were... you know..."

"They weren't. Severus told you that himself. There wasn't anything going on. You and I have talked about this already."

"No, okay, but..." Harry huffed in frustration and shoved his hands through his messy hair. "I'm sorry. You're right, it's nothing to do with me, but..."

"It's all right, Harry. You're worried about me. I don't mind that. I still don't know, to answer your question, but I don't think it's an issue. It was all a long time ago. I'm sure he still feels something, but it's nothing to do with... whatever we are. He hasn't really said much but he did make a point of telling me that although he's not quite sure about this, he hasn't felt this way before, so I think that was his way of assuring me that isn't a problem. I mean, he knows that I know about – her." She sat back in her chair. "He's not the kind of man to play games. If there wasn't something real, he wouldn't be... if it wasn't serious, he'd say so." I hope.

As they exchanged uncertain glances, Severus came into the kitchen, his eyes alight and the fake locket dangling from his fist, and said without preamble, "I know wh is – or was, rather."

They crowded around him. "Who?" Harry asked.

Severus almost smiled. "A bit of family history for you, Potter; his name was Regulus. More specifically, Regulus Arcturus Black."

Harry gaped at him. "Sirius' brother?"

Severus nodded. "He was in Slytherin, a year or two below me; he joined the Death Eaters when he left school too, but he never really had the heart for it. He started looking for a way out almost immediately. He came to me, once, implying that he'd found out something about the Dark Lord, trying to persuade me to join him, but..." He shook his head, his eyes shadowed. "I didn't dare even ask what he'd found out. All I dared do was not tell anyone else that he was thinking of running. He didn't last long; I think he was caught in less than a week after he fled. Apparently it was long enough for him to do this, though. He always was a clever boy."

Later that night, snuggled down in the bed that smelled like him – she still hadn't been able to persuade him to sleep in his own bed – Hermione turned her thoughts away from the war to focus on Severus. It was high time she sorted out just how she felt about him. Jokes aside... she wasn't sure, but she had a feeling that she really might be in love with him.

It certainly wasn't a crush. She'd been through that with Lockhart – a memory that still filled her with shame – and she remembered how superficial it was. Besides, even with the best will in the world, nobody could possibly describe Severus as good-looking on any level. He certainly had his good points; his black eyes were beautifully expressive when he wasn't using Occlumency, and there was something appealing about his smile on the very rare occasions when he genuinely smiled, and his voice ought to have been illegal, frankly. He looked better now than he ever had, once he had started actually making the effort to look after himself. But still, whatever drew her to him, it certainly wasn't his looks.

She wasn't really sure what it was. Once she had started spending more time with him properly and they had begun to get to know one another, they had turned out to have at least a few things in common; when he wasn't being malicious, they had a very similar sense of humour, and they were both intelligent and widely read people. She admired his complete dedication to what they were doing; she trusted him; she felt safe in his presence, despite everything he had done. And the mere memory of his kisses had her fidgeting and pressing her thighs together as her pulse sped up a little bit.

This wasn't something that could be analysed, though, she told herself wryly. She was treating it like an Arithmancy equation, or something; she was definitely over-thinking it – her intelligence might be her greatest strength, but it could be a weakness as well, sometimes. She liked Severus; she liked talking to him, spending time with him – she liked kissing him, too, she admitted, smiling to herself in the darkness. She'd trust him with her life, and in fact had done on several occasions. When she had thought he was dying she had been more frightened than she had ever been, and the idea of losing him caused almost physical pain. Every new event of any importance in her life, good or bad, made her want to tell him about it before anyone else. If that wasn't love, then it was so close that she couldn't tell the difference. It was worth remembering the smell of the Amortentia in their first Potions lesson with Slughorn, too, even if it had taken her a long time to recognise the scent.

As for what he felt... she had been thinking about their conversation in the bathroom a few days ago, and the sneaking suspicion had begun to dawn on her that in this respect, Severus seemed to be as inexperienced as she was. In hindsight, his uncertain attitude seemed less about his being unsure of his feelings and more about his struggle to express himself – he wasn't the kind of man to be uncertain of what he was feeling, but he definitely had problems with opening up to people.

He had been so confident when he kissed her that she was certain the physical aspect wasn't going to be a problem, but although she was sure he knew what he was doing sexually she was growing increasingly certain that he knew absolutely nothing about the emotional side of things. She remembered wondering about his feelings for Lily and speculating about how strong they still were; she recalled thinking back then that he seemed so lonely and that there probably hadn't ever been anyone else in his life of any real importance.

Small wonder that he was unsure of himself, then, really. Perversely, it made her feel a bit better. Hopefully they could work it out together, and at least neither of them would have any real expectations based on previous relationships. And part of her found his awkwardness rather adorable, which would have absolutely infuriated him if he had known about it. In a weird way it was nice to know that she could get through his armour and find his vulnerable side.

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 35 of 60

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