Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 36 of 60

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Severus leaned against the crumbling brickwork and took a long drag on his cigarette, his eyes half-closed. It was nice to get a few moments of peace to himself; it was late enough at night now that even this neighbourhood was quietening down, although by the sound of it the neighbours were still shouting at each other. They'd been screaming abuse at one another for the past ten years; he barely noticed any more, except that it did remind him just how dreadful the local accent was. It still made him cringe to remember that he had once spoken like that.

He looked out at the overgrown mess that had once been his back garden, but he wasn't seeing the cracked paving or the weeds, too busy thinking about the past few days. There was a hell of a lot to get used to. Having someone else in the house, or three someones in this case, was a real change – aside from Pettigrew's mercifully brief residence last year, he'd been the only one here since his parents had died. It startled him every time he heard voices, but at least it was helping keep his memories at bay.

And, of course, there was Hermione. Half-smiling ruefully to himself, he exhaled a thin plume of smoke, relaxing against the wall. Their attempt at a proper talk hadn't been terribly successful, but he'd barely been able to speak at all at that point; absently he ran his fingers over the new scar on his left arm again, unable to leave it alone. They had at least managed to tell one another that it was mutual and probably not casual, and to be honest that was about as far as he'd managed to get by himself anyway. Sooner or later he'd have to do better than that and attempt to behave like an adult, but for the moment he was happy with how things were progressing.

His smile became a smirk as he finished the cigarette – his dreams had been growing progressively more vivid since their first kiss back at Hogwarts, and since the second encounter in the bathroom, well... more cold showers, sadly, since the downside of sharing a house with other people was a complete lack of privacy and it was somewhat distasteful to take more direct action with all of them so close by. Still, he considered it was worth it, and he was privately amused at the strength of his reaction to a couple of kisses; he really had gone too long without human contact, and hadn't even realised how much he was damaging himself. It hadn't all been about arousal, though... when he wasn't puking his guts out in a very strong stress reaction over the past few days, he'd been thinking about her, in between all the other plans he was working on, and mostly he'd been thinking about when she had hugged him.

Somewhat to his dismay, Severus couldn't honestly remember the last time anyone had hugged him. Well, he had a feeling the last time had actually been the night Draco was born, when a very, very drunk Lucius had hugged him shortly before passing out, but that didn't count. Lily had hugged him the first time she'd seen him after being offered a place in Hogwarts, and he remembered having no idea how to respond, but that had been the only time that he could recall. His mother probably had when he was very young, but most of his early memories were deliberately hazy now and he didn't remember. Had he really not been hugged properly since he was eleven? He had searched his memory quite thoroughly over the past couple of days, and he couldn't remember. No wonder it had affected him so much, he reflected as he re-entered the kitchen and locked the back door behind him.

That was going to take a lot of adjusting to, as well. Sharing his life with anyone, even in the smallest degree, was completely and utterly foreign to him. It had taken most of a year for him to stop flinching if she touched his hand, and longer than that before he had even been able to consider actually talking to her honestly. He did genuinely want to tell her how he felt about her – not that he had been able to properly articulate it even to himself yet – but he knew he couldn't, not yet. He'd spent too long shut away from everyone, and it was going to take a while to learn to be any different. But when she'd hugged him, feeling the warmth of her body and realising again that someone else really did care, it had eased something in him that he hadn't known was there. And seeing her break away from his kiss, her face flushed and her eyes glowing with new arousal... he'd never felt more like a man.

He still wasn't quite sure what was between them, but if Hermione could be patient with him for just a little longer, he'd give anything and everything to keep it.

Over breakfast the next morning, Severus produced the locket again and swung it back and forth on its chain, as they looked at it solemnly. "Any bright ideas?" he asked mildly.

"How do we find out whether he managed to destroy the real one?" Ron asked. "Would he have known how?"

"I don't know. Regulus wasn't much for the Dark Arts, not compared to the rest of us. He was more interested in problem solving." Severus looked thoughtful.

"Kreacher," Hermione said quietly. She'd been thinking about it earlier, once she'd been able to stop thinking about Severus for five minutes – something that was becoming progressively more difficult, especially at moments like this when his hair was damp from the shower and his eyes were glittering with regained health and keen intellect.

The others looked at her sharply before Severus snapped his fingers. "Yes. He'd know. Regulus was the blue-eyed boy of the family. Potter, call the elf." Abruptly he smirked at Hermione. "And you can stop looking at me like that. I'll have you know that I have a SPEW badge in my desk at Hogwarts."

Ron and Harry both started laughing as Hermione stared at him incredulously. "You what?"

He snickered, his eyes dancing. "The staff room was full of your little campaign for weeks."

"Oh, God." She could feel herself blushing. I'm never going to live this down.

His expression softened – slightly, at least, although he was still clearly amused. "The overall conclusion was that your heart was in the right place. Most of your teachers were quite impressed."

"And you?" Harry asked boldly.

Severus snorted. "I thought it was funny," he replied with disarming honesty. "Call Kreacher here. This is the first real lead we've had, and I think it's time we broke the habit of taking all year to get around to some sort of grand finale each summer; I want this finished as quickly as we can manage it."

"Do I just – say his name?" Harry asked uncertainly. "I've never needed to call him before."

"You're asking the wrong person, Potter. If my mother's family ever owned house elves, it was many generations before I was born. I assume so."

Harry exchanged a glance with Ron, who shrugged. Clearing his throat awkwardly, he said, "Kreacher?"

Severus left the three of them in the kitchen talking to the house elf. As soon as he heard the name they needed, he raced into the living room and lit the Floo, calling to Headquarters, and was somewhat dismayed when Dumbledore answered. The old man's voice was icy as he said coldly, "Severus."

"Dumbledore," he replied with a calmness he didn't feel. "How's the arm?" he asked nastily.

"You have no idea of what you've done."

"Because I don't really care that much," Severus replied calmly and honestly. "I am more use here, hunting Horcruxes with these three, than I would be as a pariah after murdering you when the entire wizarding world would hate me. And even with me in charge, assuming that part worked the way you hoped, Hogwarts would be a place of nightmares. Far better that it be closed completely until this is done. God Almighty, Dumbledore, what on earth were you thinking? I would have been a pretty frail barrier between the two sides, the Order would be flailing around like headless chickens in the aftermath of your death, and do you really think three teenagers should be roaming the country looking for Horcruxes by themselves? They're good, but they're also very young and untried. Potter isn't even of age yet."

There was a very long silence. Severus sneered at the fire; he hadn't been expecting an answer anyway. His former employer would also have quite a lot to adjust to, especially if Minerva had actually taken over the leadership as he hoped. Finally Dumbledore said stiffly, "I will fetch Bill."

It wasn't actually Bill that Severus wanted to talk to, but it wouldn't do any harm to check how the negotiations were going, so he said nothing, absently tracing the scarring on his arm again as he waited. A few moments later Weasley's voice reached him. "Hello, Professor."

"Mr Weasley. Have you made progress?"

"Well, sort of. I think they'll be willing to grant what you're asking for, but we're stuck on price now."

"What are they asking for?"

"Two things. One of their goblins is being held prisoner; we think he's at the Malfoys, possibly with a couple of our people. We think Ollivander is there and maybe some others. They want him rescued, which we're working on anyway, that part isn't the problem."

"What is?"

A sigh echoed through the Floo. "They want Gryffindor's sword."

Severus blinked at the flames. "So?"

"What do you mean, so?"

He shrugged. "Let them have it, if they want it that badly. It's a lot less than I thought they'd ask for."

"We can't just give it to them."

"Why not? They made it, Weasley. They know the enchantments on it. They know that the sword will answer a call from the Head of Hogwarts, from Godric's biological heir, or from any Gryffindor in dire need. As long as you remind them of that fact, I don't see why they shouldn't have the sword the rest of the time. It's not as if we use it much. They can't stop it being wielded by those who are supposed to wield it, so as long as we agree to give it back each time once it's not needed, I don't see a problem."

"...I hadn't thought of it like that. I don't know if the Headmaster will agree, though."

"It's not actually his sword," Severus pointed out calmly. "He's allowed to use it as a courtesy. If it belongs to anyone, it belongs to Potter. I can get him to sign something if Gringotts want a contract of shared ownership or something."

"Don't you need the sword?"

"Not at the moment. There are other ways of doing what we need to do. And if we do ever truly need it, we can get it, regardless of who claims to own the thing. You say they'll agree to what I asked for, if you can agree a price?" Not that he really wanted to try breaking into Gringotts – he was nowhere near as certain of how to go about it as he was pretending to be – but if the goblins would co-operate just a little, he thought it was at least possible, and God knows he was good at bluffing. They certainly disliked Bellatrix enough – no surprises there, everyone disliked her, including her husband.

"I think so. They seem to believe you're going to get killed, so it doesn't really matter what they promise you."

"Always nice to have a vote of confidence. I don't intend getting killed, if that's any consolation. Anyway, this is good news but it isn't why I called. I need to see Mundungus Fletcher as soon as possible."

"Dung? Er, there might be a problem there. He's gone underground. Nobody's seen him in weeks. We caught him looting one of the rooms and he bolted with a load of stuff, and now we don't know where he is."

Severus bared his teeth at the flames angrily. "Then find him. It's vital that I speak to him; I need to know what happened to one of the things he stole."

"He won't tell you."

"I'll say pretty please," he replied sarcastically; he didn't intend to ask. "As soon as you find him, have Kreacher or – what's the name of the other elf that follows Potter around like a puppy?"


"Oh, yes, Lucius' old elf... Have Kreacher or Dobby bring Mundungus to Potter as soon as you find him. Speaking of Lucius, you said the goblin and the other prisoners were at Malfoy Manor?" That was news to him, but obviously they would be changing as much as possible to render his knowledge obsolete as quickly as they could.

"We think so. Our intelligence isn't up to much now you're not there, but we're as sure as we can be."

"If they are, I know exactly where they'll be. I'll send you a plan of that part of the manor later." Lucius wasn't daft; his friend wouldn't put up too much of a fight, just enough to be plausible.

"Okay, thanks." There was a pause. "Professor, what's going on? Dumbledore won't tell us anything. All we know is that he's given Harry some sort of task, and Ron and Hermione are helping him. And you, I guess, although I don't think you were supposed to."

"No, I wasn't," he agreed calmly. "I didn't much like my part of the plan, so I changed it. You don't need to know what's going on, Mr Weasley. What you don't know can't be tortured out of you, and it's vitally important that the Dark Lord doesn't learn what we're doing until it's too late. If we succeed, we can kill him. That's all you need to know right now."

"Yes, sir. By the way, Mum wants the four of you to come to the Burrow at the end of July for Harry's birthday."

"It'll be too dangerous. You know what will happen the instant he turns seventeen."

"Yeah, we know. She wants us to celebrate a couple of days early."

"We'll see."

"If that means no, then you're telling Mum yourself, Professor."

Severus snorted despite himself. "Hell, no. Your mother is more frightening than half the people on the other side put together. It doesn't mean 'no,' anyway, it means 'we'll see.' I don't really want a house full of sulking adolescents if I say no."

"Yeah, there've been a lot of jokes about you babysitting." He could hear the younger wizard grinning and rolled his eyes, unable to summon his usual scowl. "Are they all still alive and well?"

"I've resisted the urge to murder them for years despite everything they've done to me. I doubt I'm going to give in now." He had to admit, Potter and Weasley were growing up, albeit very slowly; they weren't quite as unbearably annoying as he had imagined they would be, although he would still vastly prefer it if they were a long way away.

"Fair enough. Good luck."

"And you."

He sat back on his heels as the green flames died down to orange, extinguishing them with a flick of his wand, and cocked his head to listen to the quiet voices from the kitchen, nibbling absently at the ball of his thumb as he thought things over. There wasn't really anything else they could do just yet, not until the Order came through with either an agreement from Gringotts or the location of Mundungus, both of which were likely to take some time. Maybe he'd finally have enough time to speak to Hermione properly, although he still wasn't sure what he was going to say.

"Can we give ourselves nicknames?" Harry asked at dinner.

"No," Severus answered without looking up from his book, propped up against his plate.

"What kind of nicknames?" Ron asked interestedly, swallowing his mouthful.

Harry shrugged, grinning. "I dunno, I was just thinking... I mean, royalty would be cool."

"Royalty?" Hermione repeated.

He nodded, his grin broadening. "Sure. Weasley is our King, after all, and we've got the Half-Blood Prince here, and the Princess of Gryffindor..."

Severus very slowly raised his head and gave Harry an expressionless stare. "Making you the queen, Potter?" he asked in a far too mild voice. "I had no idea you swung that way. Miss Weasley will be heartbroken. Although it does add an interesting new dimension to your constant battles with Draco..."

Harry went very red indeed and shut up hurriedly, as Ron and Hermione both burst out laughing.

Two days later, the boys were starting to suffer badly from cabin fever. Hermione was reading quite happily, having discovered a box of old fiction paperbacks under the stairs in a forgotten corner with the vinyl collection, while Harry and Ron started arguing about what to watch on the TV – she considered it a pointless argument, since the television was old and cheap; there were only four channels available anyway, the sound didn't work on one and the picture scrolled continuously on another, so they only had a choice of two.

Severus had shown no interest in the television – apparently he usually only watched the news on it anyway – and was once again conspicuously absent, supposedly working on clearing out the cellar; it was increasingly obvious to her that he hated this house. She doubted he was sleeping well and he didn't seem comfortable here. More than that, she had noticed a complete absence of even the small personal touches his teaching quarters had held. The paperbacks she had found were the only non-work-related books in the house; all the others concerned either potions or were magical reference books, including a couple of shelves of books about the Dark Arts he had forbidden them to touch. There was the box of records, but nothing to play them, and no music or musical instruments anywhere. There were no art materials, and no pictures save for the single photo of his parents – marks on his bedroom wall suggested he had gone through the normal teenage obsession with posters, but there was nothing now, no paintings or anything else. His few hobbies were evidently kept strictly separate from his home life.

The argument developed into a wrestling match when the boys started fighting over the switch; without bothering to even look up from her book, Hermione non-verbally Summoned it, turned the television off, and tucked it down the side of the cushions in the armchair she was curled up in. I'm so glad I don't have any brothers.

Quietly absorbed in the rather battered copy of Frankenstein, and idly wondering how long it would take before Severus lost patience with the noise and stormed out of the cellar to vent his growing frustration at them, Hermione nearly had a heart attack when a deafening crack scared the living daylights out of her and several figures materialised right on top of Harry and Ron.

Severus arrived a heartbeat later, so quickly she might have thought he had Apparated himself, except that the house was layered with wards to prevent it. Staring at the chaos with a slightly bewildered expression, he caught her eye and shook his head slowly before raising his wand and separating the combatants with a few swift flicks.

Aside from a rather dazed Harry and Ron, the new arrivals turned out to be a struggling, shabby figure being held tightly by a pair of house elves. By the sound of it, Mundungus was attempting to yell, "Let me go!" but was being rather hampered by the rolled-up sock shoved in his mouth. Dobby was scolding him shrilly and Kreacher was hissing, a rather unpleasant sound.

A moment later Harry added to the uproar, launching himself at the thief with a howl of rage; Hermione picked up Sirius' name, but her friend wasn't really coherent at the moment. Ron picked himself up off the floor, cast a very apprehensive look at Severus and promptly came to cower behind her armchair.

"Don't be a prat," she hissed at him.

"I'm not, I'm being sensible," he retorted in an undertone. "Snape's been moody for days, he's obviously spoiling for a fight and he looks like he's about to lose it. I don't want to be in his line of sight when he does – been there, done that, bled for it. You're safe but some of us don't have your protection."

She was about to argue, until she saw Severus' face. A nerve was jumping under his eye, which was always a danger sign. He looked very tired, quite stressed and a little frustrated, as well as seriously annoyed. A moment later he bared his teeth, shoved his wand into his belt and waded into the chaos, unceremoniously seizing Harry by the back of his t-shirt and hauling him back. "Potter, shut up," he snapped, giving him a shake for good measure before deftly tripping him and dumping him on his back on the floor. "Stay there until you've calmed down. Don't make me have to paralyse you. I've had enough." He turned and glared at the others. "Fletcher, so help me, if you don't stop it right now I will not be responsible for my actions."

The short wizard stopped struggling and spat out the sock. "Snape? What – what's goin' on? Why're these –"

"Did I tell you to speak? No. So shut it. Silencio." Severus pinched the bridge of his nose, scowling. "Right. Has everyone decided to grow up now? I'm so glad."

"We is bringing Mundungus Fletcher to you, Professor," Dobby declared, somewhat redundantly under the circumstances.

"Yes, thank you, I can see that," he muttered. "Right then, Fletcher. Did the elves tell you why they brought you here?" Mundungus shook his head; he had gone very pale under the dirt and was starting to look a little frightened.

"Because you've been stealing again, Fletcher," Severus explained coolly. "Everything of Black's has passed to Mr Potter, here; he was rather upset to learn that you had been pawning his inheritance around Knockturn Alley. Needless to say, he'll be settling that particular debt with you at a later date. Right now, we are concerned with the fate of one object in particular. Don't try to speak; I'm not remotely interested in listening to your lies or your excuses, and your breath is repulsive." He stalked over and reached down to seize a handful of the man's straggling hair. "Look at me. Legilimens."

There wasn't much to see from an outsider's point of view. Mundungus' eyes were wide and blank, and Severus was scowling slightly in concentration. A few moments later Severus let go of him and moved away; he was grinning as though Christmas had come early. "Too perfect," he said quietly, his eyes gleaming with pure predatory vindictiveness that made all three former students shiver reflexively.

"What is? Who's got the locket?" Ron asked, apparently no longer so afraid.

"Dolores Umbridge."

"God, really?" Hermione asked, startled. After a moment she started to smile as well, returning Severus' grin. "Well, this should be fun then." They all still owed her a lot.

"Not really," Harry said sullenly from the floor, rubbing his ribs. "How're we going to take on the Ministry?"

Severus gave him a blank look. "We're not. She doesn't actually live there, Potter. We'll find her home address. We're all going to leave the Ministry well alone; the Death Eaters have taken over almost completely already, and our merry little band consists of Undesirable Number One, a blood traitor, a Muggleborn, and the half-blood who betrayed the Dark Lord. I'm not going anywhere near the place."

"Plus Umbridge hates Hermione personally," Ron interjected cheerfully.

Severus snorted. "Hardly surprising. I gave Gryffindor twenty points for that little stunt; that's how good it was."

"And the world didn't end?" Hermione asked sarcastically.

He raised an eyebrow. "I took the points back when I realised what an idiot you'd been later on."

"Liar." Even Severus wasn't that much of a bastard. Possibly.

His eyes gleamed briefly in the first proper smile she'd seen from him in days. "Many, many times," he agreed cheerfully, rubbing his hands together briskly.

"What are we going to do with him?" Ron asked, indicating the cowering Mundungus.

Severus gave him a rather indifferent look and raised his wand. "Obliviate." The squat wizard's eyes drifted out of focus, and Severus turned his attention to the two elves. "Dump him outside Borgin & Burkes. He owes Mr Borgin a great deal of money, so that should keep him occupied for a while. You can find him again later when it's time to recover everything he took." Apparently Dobby and Kreacher were also part of the very large group of people too nervous to argue with Severus Snape; sketching jerky bows, they vanished with a sharp crack.

Ron frowned. "What did you do that for? I like Dung."

That earned him a withering stare. "He's a gutless little worm who would sell his own mother for a few Knuts. Five minutes after we let him go he'd be running to absolutely everyone with news of where we are and what we're planning, especially if he thought they would pay him for the information. Unless you'd prefer I killed him instead," he added with an edge to his voice, the brief flash of a good mood fading as though it had never been, turning on his heel and stalking back into the kitchen.

Hermione's temper snapped. Giving Harry and Ron a pointed look, she followed him and shut the door behind her, casting Muffliato before asking in exasperation, "What's wrong with you? You've been acting like this for days."

He turned at the door that led to the steps down to the cellar and glared at her. "Do you really have to ask?"

"Oh, don't you dare say it's my fault."

Blinking, he backtracked hastily. "That's not what I meant."

"Isn't it?"

"No!" The vehemence in his voice silenced her, as did the frustration in his eyes. He stared at her for a moment, then shook his head jerkily, his eyes growing dull, and slowly moved to drop into one of the battered chairs around the table, leaning forward to rest his head in his hands.

"Severus?" she asked uncertainly. "What's wrong?"

"Everything, I think, or almost everything," he said after a moment, lifting his head to show her the crooked half-smile she liked. He sighed. "Sorry."

She rolled her eyes. "Severus, we've had years of you being a bad-tempered bastard. I think we're immune by now." Pulling out another chair, she sat next to him and reached to rest her hand on his scarred forearm; since recovering from the Dark Mark's removal, he was keeping his shirt sleeves rolled up, although sadly he hadn't been wearing t-shirts yet. There were faint red lines on his skin; she'd seen him absently scratching at the scar a few times now. "Talk to me, for once, instead of snarling at me. For the sheer novelty value, if nothing else."

"Impudent wench," he murmured, but he was already looking a little better. Resting his chin on his hand, he looked down at her fingers resting on the scar inside his forearm and sighed. "I never wanted any of this, you know," he told her quietly. "I've never wanted to be in charge of anything. I'm a follower, not a leader. I don't want to be sitting here trying to come up with ways to do the impossible, knowing that lives depend on whether or not I can think of something in time. I'm not suited to it. I would far rather have someone I trusted simply tell me what to do."

He hesitated, then looked directly at her and spoke with uncharacteristic frankness, his gaze startlingly open. "I'm so scared of making a mistake that I can't sleep, not that I've ever found it easy to sleep in this house. This wasn't what was supposed to happen. I've betrayed everything and now I'm... floundering, for lack of a better term, trying to keep moving and hoping like hell that I don't screw up. And then there's... us."

Severus looked back at where her hand rested on his arm. "This wasn't supposed to happen, either. Whatever this actually is, because you're an intelligent young woman, Hermione, and I'm sure you've worked out by now that I haven't got a clue what's going on between the two of us. I haven't been avoiding you because I don't want to talk. I've been avoiding you because I don't know what to say." His crooked smile came and went again. "I could do without Statler and Waldorf as an audience, too."

She grinned despite herself. "They're not that bad, admit it. I mean, I'd prefer they weren't here either, sometimes, but..." To be honest, things would be ten times more awkward without the boys acting as a buffer and giving the two of them time to sort things out. Either she and Severus would have had a terrible fight by now, or sheer tension would have led to something she at least wasn't ready for – she did want him, but it was all so new to her, she'd never felt like this before about anyone, and she wanted a little more time to get used to it before moving further.

He breathed out slowly. "Let me show you something, Hermione." As she watched, he gently drew his arm away from her and rested the fingers of his left hand on his right forearm. "Finite," he murmured softly. Uncomprehending, Hermione stared at a rather nasty scar that had suddenly become visible, encircling his arm, and at the battered and tarnished strip of metal bound around the limb just above it. Severus loosened it with his fingers and let it slip down to his wrist. "Do you recognise this?"


He held his hand out to her and she looked more closely. Her breath caught, and she stared at him, confused. "It's the bracelet I gave you for your birthday." She hadn't given it another thought, actually, since he'd accepted it; she would never have seen it under his work clothes anyway, with their long buttoned sleeves, and when she had seen his bare arms he'd been hurt enough that she had been concentrating on healing and hadn't thought to look for it.

"Yes," he agreed quietly. "Or, rather, it is what is left of it."

"What happened to it?" she asked, leaning closer. It was blackened, scuffed, dented and bent, and frankly looked like it had been run over or something.

"It saved my life," he said simply.

"I don't understand..."

"Nor do I." After a moment he began to explain. "It was when I was being tortured. You saw how close to death I was. It was worse than you know; I was dying. And then something happened that I cannot explain. You remember how drained you were, afterwards? That's because you had been using your magic for hours before I was dumped outside the gates. I don't know what happened, or how, or why, but somehow the bracelet was drawing on your magic to heal me, when I was dying. Without it, I would be dead. I know that, because it has formed a life debt."


Severus shrugged. "I owe you for my life. Don't look like that; I don't care. I owe you for far, far more than that anyway, and I don't need magic to remind me." Before she could ask just what he meant by that, he continued calmly, "That was the night I decided to find another way. I decided to abandon my godson, to break the promise I made to Dumbledore on my knees, to turn my back on everything I still believed in and throw myself into the fight rather than letting other people dictate the course of the future. And I did it for you. Because this..." He tapped the scar lightly with a finger. "This means something. I think it might be something worth living for."

Forcing words past the lump in her throat, she managed to stammer, "Severus, I – I don't know what to say..."

"Welcome to my world," he replied dryly, half-smiling as he looked at her. "I'm no good at this, and I never have been. I rarely know exactly what I feel, and I've never been good at expressing it. This absolutely terrifies me, more than anything else I've ever experienced. And there's still no time to think. Because tomorrow, with luck, we're going to find and destroy the fourth Horcrux, and then we need to find a way to get to the other two."

Hermione nodded slowly, thinking about everything he had said, relieved that he had confided in her at last. "I never noticed that you didn't like being in charge," she said after a moment, and saw his eyes dance with wry humour in response.

"You weren't supposed to notice. It would be a very poor defence mechanism if it didn't provide any defences."

She grinned at him. "You're actually a softie under all that, aren't you?"

He almost laughed. "Really, Miss Granger," he drawled, mockery in his eyes, "I told you myself that I am a bastard. That part isn't an act."

"You'd be insufferably boring if it was," she told him happily. "By the way, you know Statler and Waldorf think we're snogging right now, don't you?" If not doing more than just kissing. The thought didn't make her quite as nervous as it had done previously.

"Is that an invitation?" he asked silkily, before smiling – a proper smile, that very rare expression that softened his eyes and eased a lot of the lines in his face. "It's tempting – you have no idea how tempting. But not now. We both still have much to think about." He reached for her hand and raised it to his lips, brushing a kiss across her knuckles, and just that light touch was enough to make her shiver. "Go and think of some fun things to do to Dolores Umbridge tomorrow. We all have scores to settle. One thing at a time."

"Okay. But..." She hesitated and he looked at her inquiringly. "I – I'm not playing games. I know what you've been thinking, a few times. Like at Slughorn's Christmas thing. That wasn't – it was never about Ron, or anyone else, at least not entirely. It was mostly aimed at you, I think, even if I didn't realise at the time. I was trying to work out what was going on, and – and I wanted to make you see me as something other than just a schoolgirl."

He chuckled softly, his eyes glittering. "You succeeded admirably," he said dryly. "I couldn't sleep for three days after that little stunt, and I remember several long cold showers. It wasn't necessary, though. I hadn't seen you as 'just' a schoolgirl for some time before that." Abruptly his smile turned so wicked that it should have been illegal, making her shiver again. "I spent half a term the previous year trying to think of a tactful way to hint to you that you needed a proper sports bra if you were going to be running with any man under the age of at least eighty. You have no idea what that did to me."


Severus grimaced and pushed his hair back from his face. "I'm only human, Hermione. I wasn't comfortable with thinking about a girl less than half my age in those terms, particularly one of my students, but it didn't take me long to realise that I couldn't stop it." He shrugged and gave her a rueful smile. "It helped that you have always been mature for your age, at least."

More pleased than otherwise, she returned the smile before changing the subject. "So what can we get away with doing to Umbridge tomorrow?"

His expression was decidedly evil and rather unsettling.

Severus left late the next morning to pay a visit to Headquarters; he was back less than half an hour later with an address written on a scrap of parchment and the information that Umbridge would probably be back from work at around half past five that evening. Hermione and the boys spent the rest of the day gleefully coming up with progressively less likely and more gruesome ideas of what they could do to her, given that after they had robbed her they would have to Obliviate her anyway; they also confirmed Mundungus' story, finding a photo of the new Ministry in the Daily Prophet and enlarging it to confirm that Umbridge was wearing the locket around her neck in place of the string of pearls she had worn previously.

The house itself had them all staring for a little while. It was Harry who said after a pause, "It should be against the law to make pretty thatched cottages look that creepy."

"It is a bit sinister," Hermione agreed. Harry had his Cloak; the others were Disillusioned, skulking behind a neatly trimmed hedge full of concealed thorns. "Severus?"

"Yes?" his voice replied from somewhere to her left, where he was examining the front door to find out what spells were in place.

"If she's wearing the locket openly, why hasn't anyone at the Ministry realised what it is? You said the Death Eaters had fully taken over by now."

"None of them know what it is. Unless you're actively looking for something that feels like a Horcrux, you'd miss it. I walked straight past Ravenclaw's diadem for years and never felt a thing, and nobody spotted the diary either."

"You-Know-Who would recognise it, though, wouldn't he?"

"I doubt he's there. The Ministry was only ever a means to an end; he's not interested in governing, just in using the power it represents to do whatever he wants. On the few occasions when he does visit, he wouldn't take any notice of low-level minions, only of whoever he left in charge."

"She's touching the Horcrux, though," Ron said from somewhere on Hermione's other side. "She's got it round her neck. Shouldn't that – I dunno, send her mental or something?"

"How would we tell?" Harry asked with a bite to his voice; she didn't need to see him to know he was rubbing the back of his hand.

Severus was silent for a few moments before he replied quietly, "Potter's right. Dolores Umbridge is... flawed; I saw that in your fifth year. There is a... darkness in her that gave her that sadistic streak. She had to justify it to herself first, but once she had, she was able to freely abuse anyone she chose. The Horcrux will only magnify what is already there, which goes a long way towards explaining the horrors we've seen in the papers in such a short time. If she were to wear it for too long, she would eventually be taken over by it; she would end up joining the Death Eaters, and rising very high, before the Dark Lord realised that she was slowly turning into – well, his clone, for lack of a better term, at which point he would be able to possess her completely, although I can't think of why he would want to. But that would take years. Weasley, come here for a moment."

"Me? Why me? I don't know anything about lock spells. I mean, Fred and George tried to teach me a bit, but..."

"You don't say," Severus replied sarcastically. "Come here. You're the only pureblood in our group and one of these wards is keyed to blood purity; if I tried to break it, I would be hurt, as would Potter, and it would probably kill Hermione to try."

"I've been meaning to ask," Harry said conversationally, "what exactly is my blood status? I mean, people keep saying I'm a half-blood, but I'm not because neither of my parents were Muggles. My mum was a witch and my dad was a wizard, so I can't be a half-blood, but I'm not really a pureblood either, am I? Is there such a thing as a three-quarters-blood?"

"Well, there's three-quarters of a train platform, so I don't see why not," Hermione pointed out. He was dead right, though, although she hadn't ever really thought about it before.

"You're a freak," Ron told him cheerfully. "But then, we knew that."

Even across the garden, they heard Severus snort. "You could pass for a pureblood in the right circles, Potter, because you have the surname of a very old pureblood family. Your father's bloodline goes back past Godric Gryffindor. Most people know your mother's name, but it's doubtful many will remember that she was Muggleborn. Evans is a fairly common surname."

"Oh... so people know you're not a pureblood because it was your father that was a Muggle?"

"Yes. My surname gives it away."

"Hence the Half-Blood Prince?" Hermione asked mildly, remembering that Slughorn had thought she was related to a long-dead pureblood wizard because they had the same surname.

"Must you constantly bring that up?" he gritted. "Weasley, get a move on, will you?"

"Sorry, sorry. Hang on, I think I've got it now."

"How's it looking?" Harry asked uneasily. "I don't think we should hang around out here. It feels like someone's watching us."

"Or something," Severus said darkly. "The wards are down, but the door is still locked. Give me a minute, it's been spelled to be magic-proof."

"You can pick locks?" Hermione asked interestedly as a faint scratching sound came from the direction of the door.

"I would look very stupid right now if I couldn't," he replied dryly. "This is an easy lock, it won't take long."

Abruptly Harry took his cloak off, bundling it up and stuffing it inside his jacket before drawing his wand. The others instantly cancelled their Disillusioning charms and went for their wands; Severus drew his wand and held it in his teeth as he continued to work at the lock. He was wearing his now clean and repaired robes, apparently out to intimidate Umbridge, and it stirred slightly in the breeze and pulled tight across his shoulders.

"Harry, what is it?" Ron asked urgently.

"Dementor," Harry said, shivering. "I can feel it coming."

"She's got a Dementor guarding her house? That's paranoid, even for the Ministry."

"Paranoia comes on tap there," Hermione muttered, looking around. "Ground or air, Harry?"

"I don't know. Wait – there. Ground. Crap, there's three of them..."

Severus left the lock and stood up, crossing swiftly to stand with them as the three hooded figures drifted closer. As the cold swept over them, all four raised their wands. "Expecto patronum!"

Four silvery animals charged forward, followed immediately by Severus swearing in a shocked voice and almost dropping his wand. The teenagers looked at him curiously; he was staring after the Patronuses with a stunned expression on his face, and he had gone very pale.

Hermione followed his gaze. Harry's stag had taken on one Dementor, and her otter and Ron's terrier were working together to take on the second one; the third was backing away from a snarling silver fox with the rangy build, tattered brush, torn ear and patchy fur of an urban survivor. She thought for a moment it was just the shock of seeing Prongs, but that didn't make sense; the staff would all have talked about Harry having his father's Patronus.

"...I take it that's not what your Patronus used to be?" she asked Severus quietly. Personally, looking at it, she thought it was absolutely perfect for him; cunning, tough, fierce and adaptable. And possibly rather battle scarred, under the silver glow.

He was still staring at the fox as though he had never seen it before, since apparently he hadn't. "No," he agreed quietly in a slightly hoarse voice. "I haven't been able to cast a Patronus at all in over a year. Before that... before that..." He hesitated, licking his lips, keeping his eyes on the Patronuses as the Dementors began to retreat. "Before that," he continued slowly, "it was a doe. As Lily's was."

Quite a long silence followed that; none of them really knew what to say. Lily Potter was very much a forbidden topic, and they hadn't tried to discuss it with him since Dumbledore had revealed the truth to them all.

It was Ron who broke the mood. "Your Patronus was a girl?" he asked with a deliberately mocking grin; he had grown much better at judging when his humour was appropriate and when it wasn't.

Severus blinked, returning to the real world, and gave him a withering look. "Because your little puppy-dog there is the height of masculinity?" he asked sarcastically as Harry and Hermione tried not to laugh. "Believe me, it wasn't my choice."

"So why has it changed?" Hermione asked, as the Dementors finally gave up and left and the Patronuses faded; the otter ran over to the fox before they vanished, she noticed.

He gave her a faintly incredulous look. "You can't think of any reason why it might have begun to stop representing her during your fifth year?" he asked pointedly. Before she could respond to that – not that she would have had any idea of what to say – he continued briskly, "As for why it didn't take a new corporeal form until now, I imagine it's to do with removing the Dark Mark, as well as my own increased clarity of thought. I suppose now it is finally free to take its real shape; I think the fox was what it always should have been, what it would have been had I been less... emotionally troubled."

"Not an otter, then?" Ron asked, and visibly cringed at the white-hot glare the question earned him. "Sorry. Forget I said anything."

"Idiot," Severus muttered, although he didn't sound as angry as he seemed. Turning back to the door, he knelt on the step once more and returned to the lock.

Harry kicked Ron gently. "That's for unrequited love, stupid," he whispered. "Think about it. I bet Tonks' isn't the wolf any more now Lupin's stopped being an idiot."

"Wrong," Severus said distantly, apparently having heard despite the low tone. "It's the difference between freedom and a chain."

The boys looked blank. Hermione smiled a little, pleased at the implication – an otter really wouldn't have suited him anyway. "He means I don't demand anything of him," she explained calmly. "I'm not a source of guilt or obligation. He doesn't have to be someone he's not, with me, so he can be himself." Severus was a lot healthier now than he had apparently been as a boy, no longer having to define himself through other people and learning to actually be himself for possibly the first time.

"So matching Patronuses mean an unequal relationship?" Harry asked, looking a little uncomfortable.

"In my case, yes, but not always," Severus provided without looking up. "And if you don't want me to eavesdrop, you might as well actually speak to me."

"Would you answer?"

"It depends on the question. But not right now. Ah, got it." There was a click and he stood up, opening the door. "Come on. She'll be home soon, especially if the Dementors raise the alarm." He stopped in the doorway. "My God."

"What?" Hermione asked from behind him. He moved, and she stared. "Jesus. How can there be this much lace in the world?"

Harry gagged as he followed them inside. Ron looked ill. "It's Great-Aunt Tessie all over again."

"Yeah, your old robe would look great here." Harry rubbed his eyes. "I would have expected cats..."

"Oh, please," Hermione told him, grinning. "No self-respecting cat would put up with her; why do you think she had to settle for those ugly plates? Crookshanks would have had a field day in here, clawing everything to ribbons and spraying it all." Her familiar usually had impeccable manners despite being a tomcat, but this much lace would tempt any cat to start scratching.

"So much pink. It's Lockhart on Valentine's Day, only worse."

Harry and Ron both turned to smirk at Hermione. That would have been bad enough, except behind them Severus was doing the same thing; she felt herself blush and hated it. She hadn't realised he knew about that as well. It must have been an Occlumency lesson. Damnit. "I hate you all."

"I doubt it," Ron said cheerfully. "So what's the plan?"

"We conceal ourselves and wait. As soon as she closes the door behind her, Potter will Disarm her and Hermione will put her in a Body-Bind. Weasley, you get the locket off her neck, and try to only touch the chain; drop it on the floor as soon as you've got it away from her, and make sure it's out of her reach. I'll deal with it if she has time to cast anything."

"Why don't we just Stun her?"

"Because I want to use Legilimency – well, no, that's a lie, I'd rather drink raw sewage than look through her head. But I want to find out what's really happening at the Ministry; the papers won't report everything, and with Kingsley gone our only deep contacts there are Arthur and Tonks, neither of whom see much. Besides, she might actually know something useful about the Death Eater movements, although I doubt it."

"You can't do that while she's unconscious?"

"Oh, yes. But where would be the fun in that?" Severus replied with a straight face, his eyes glittering with cheerful malice. "We'll have to wipe her memory afterwards, but before that I want her to know exactly what's going on..."

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 36 of 60

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