Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 37 of 60

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During the tense minutes while they waited for Umbridge to arrive, Hermione reflected that it was nice of Severus to give them each something to do, but she was certain it was absolutely unnecessary. He would probably prefer to deal with this by himself, to be honest, and she doubted that he would actually need any of them at any point. It was obvious now why he was allowing her to stay around, but she still hadn't quite puzzled out why he was letting the boys get involved or why he had been so reasonable to them over the past year. The Order would naturally be suspicious if she was staying with him on her own, but she couldn't really see him caring about that. Harry and Ron seemed to be taking it all for granted, and even enjoying bantering with him as though he were anyone else in the Order – they almost seemed to have forgotten five years of intense hatred, but she knew Severus had not. She was starting to suspect he was only allowing it because of her, or at least that was why it had started originally – by now, weirdly, the three of them did seem to be sincerely getting along.

The sound of a key in the door interrupted her wandering thoughts and she raised her wand, slowly so as not to disturb the renewed Disillusion. She could see the shimmer of Ron nearby doing the same; Harry was truly concealed thanks to his Cloak, and she wasn't sure where Severus was, which was rather the point.

The plan worked without a hitch; less than ten seconds after the front door clicked shut, Umbridge was unarmed and motionless on the floor with her eyes bulging in outrage and shock, and Ron had the locket held above his head triumphantly as they cancelled their concealing charms and Harry folded up his Cloak, holding the toad's stubby wand in his other hand. By mutual accord, the three of them let Severus move forward to speak first; he would certainly be much better at gloating.

He looked very much Professor Snape again as he slowly and deliberately walked into Umbridge's field of vision, smirking with all his former cold, mocking arrogance that had made them all hate him for so many years; Hermione was amused to find that it had the exact opposite effect now, and that she was enjoying this far too much. He might look far better than he thought he did in Muggle clothes, but part of her had missed seeing him in his robes. Umbridge seemed to be enjoying it rather less; her eyes were bulging dangerously far now, shock giving way to fury as she recognised him.

Severus held his wand dangling loosely from his fingers, almost negligently, clearly not considering her a threat; even that, he made into an elegant insult. "Good evening Dolores," he murmured silkily, his expressive voice becoming a mocking drawl.

Trying very hard not to laugh, Hermione carefully relaxed her Body-Bind enough to let the toad speak – not that she had much to say, being reduced to a hoarse, "You!"

"This is going to be a very scintillating conversation, clearly," Severus drawled, his eyes glittering with contemptuous amusement, before he moved a step to one side. Taking her cue, Hermione moved to stand beside him, and Harry moved to his other flank with Ron.

Umbridge's eyes moved from one to the other, growing even wider as her face began to flush with fury. "You... all of you... what..."

"Was she this eloquent in your 'Defence' lessons?" Severus inquired idly, the inverted commas dropping into place clearly, arching one eyebrow in slight disdain.

"She was clear enough when she was telling us that the Ministry thought Harry was a liar and wouldn't risk letting us learn anything," Hermione replied, trying her best to imitate his smirk; she knew she couldn't hope to emulate him, but she had her own vindictive streak, and this was fun. "And when she thought she had scared me into sobbing and betraying all my friends."

He almost laughed as Umbridge managed to swell even further with anger. "That is the government for you. Very talkative when things are going well in their blinkered minds, but when someone actually dares to disagree with them, they cannot cope with the shock."

"She was clear enough when she was threatening to Crucio me, too," Harry said grimly. He wasn't smiling and didn't seem to be enjoying this as much as the rest of them were.

Severus shot him a sharp look, apparently not having known that, before looking back at their victim. "Did she, indeed. How very foolish. And dangerous, for someone in her mental condition... using the Unforgiveables is more than simply pointing your wand and saying the words." His smirk returned as he took a step closer. "Is this true, Dolores?" he asked mockingly. "Ah, wait, I overlooked the fact that you are not physically capable of agreeing with Potter. I can sympathise with that, to some extent," he added dryly, his eyes gleaming.

"Severus, I don't know what you think you're doing, but whatever plan you have, you would be of more use at the Ministry..."

"Oh, shut up, you vicious and incompetent hag," Severus told her in a rather satisfied tone. "Tell me you don't believe that I actually liked listening to you babble nonsense all year, or that I was actually helping you. We had wagers running in the staff room, you know, concerning who could annoy you the most and which students would come up with the best stunts."

"Who won?" Hermione asked with a delighted grin.

"Professor McGonagall took the pot at the end of the year, despite my best efforts and those of Professor Flitwick, but I did win some money thanks to certain young wizards and their fireworks." He smirked briefly and looked back at their victim. "Now, Dolores, we are going to have a little chat, although I do find it very irritating to talk to you. I suggest you co-operate, since the four of us have been rather busy and have grown a little short-tempered of late."

"You dare threaten me, Snape? The Minister – the Dark Lord..."

The smile that crossed Severus' face then left his eyes cold and almost cruel, his face set in hard and unyielding lines. "The Dark Lord does not frighten me any more," he replied softly, "and whichever poor fool you have set up as a puppet Minister doesn't frighten anyone."


"Pervert," he answered in a distant tone, his lip curling with scorn. "Even among the Death Eaters, the darkest dregs of our society, few would hurt children for fun. You sicken me, and that is not easily done, I assure you. I don't believe I want to bother with a pretence at civil conversation; I can get the answers I need easily enough. And afterwards..." His tone lightened, almost whimsical. "Well, young Gryffindors, what shall we do with her?" he asked, nearly teasing, his eyes mocking.

"Transfigure her into a toad!" Ron said enthusiastically.

Fighting a laugh, Hermione contributed, "Take her back to the Forbidden Forest and give her back to the centaurs!"

"Curse her so everything she says becomes croaking noises."

"Turn her skin and hair pink."

"Make her smell of catnip and fish."

"Blow her up like a balloon, like Harry did to his aunt."

As though the mention of his name had flicked a switch, Harry finally spoke again, in a rather odd voice. "Find her foul quill and make her bleed."

"Stupefy," Severus said hastily, flicking his wand at Umbridge as Ron and Hermione turned to stare at their friend – they'd been joking about it all day, but he had actually sounded serious. "Potter, what – ah... I see." He moved forward, turning to glance warningly at them and motioning them back a little, as Harry stared down at the unconscious witch with an ugly look on his face that they hadn't seen in a long time.

Hermione hesitated, torn between wanting to go to her friend and wanting to trust that Severus knew what he was doing, looking between the two of them anxiously as Harry's hands clenched into fists and his eyes hardened. Ron took a step forward, and Severus reached out to grab his shoulder, pulling him back and giving him a warning look before moving forward himself.

His voice was very quiet as he spoke to Harry, but the atmosphere was so still that they could hear him clearly. "Well, Potter? What shall we do now? You could get revenge on her now, if you wanted to. The only witnesses are your friends, who would never say anything, and myself – and I don't care. None of us would stop you. What she did to you was obscene. You will bear the scar she gave you for the rest of your life. So, what will you do about it?"

"I hate her," Harry said in a strained voice that was thick with anger.

"I know," Severus replied calmly.

"I want her to suffer."

"I know."

"...I want to hurt her."

"I know."

Harry raised his wand and stopped, staring down at the unconscious woman who had tortured him for daring to tell the truth, who had prolonged the war by at least a year because of the way she had interfered with the Order at Hogwarts, who had tried to cripple them all and leave them unable to protect themselves. For a long, frozen moment, nobody dared breathe, before abruptly he dropped his wand and turned away, hunching his shoulders and exhaling raggedly with a muffled curse.

"Well done," Severus told him quietly, without even a faint trace of sarcasm for possibly the first time ever.

Scrubbing a hand through his hair, Harry tugged his glasses off and started to clean them on the hem of his t-shirt. "Does it get easier?"

"Yes and no. It never gets less painful, but you learn to deal with it more easily."

"Does it ever go away?"

"Ask me again in fifty years or so." Severus nudged Harry's wand over to him with the toe of his boot, and he picked it up and put it back in his pocket.

"How do you live with feeling like this?"

"You find things that are more important, and you learn to forget that you feel like this. You learn to ignore it, until you need it, although I am living proof that it doesn't always work. The first time is the hardest; you've won the first battle."

"What would you have done if I hadn't managed it?"

"I would have stopped you."

"Can one of you translate, please?" Hermione asked, finally losing patience. "I don't understand anything the two of you just said."

They exchanged glances before Severus gave her an amused look. "You wouldn't. It was... very definitely a male thing, I think. I doubt it would make sense to any woman, even one as perceptive as you."

"I didn't understand it either," Ron said plaintively.

"Well, you're not much of a man, Weasley," Severus told him dryly, drawing a yelp of outrage from him as Harry stifled a half-hearted laugh, looking a little better.

"Severus..." Hermione said warningly. He gave her the closest he ever got to an innocent look, before shrugging one shoulder.

"Potter has finally learned to properly control his anger. Truthfully I wouldn't object if he hadn't managed to restrain himself – I doubt Dolores Umbridge has ever been on the receiving end of pain in her life; it might do her some good to start understanding what she does to other people – but given his existing temper, I don't think it is a good idea for him to start dabbling in the Dark Arts. Fortunately, he didn't."

"Okay, that's great, but... this thing is whispering," Ron said uneasily, holding the locket up by its chain.

"What?" Severus asked sharply.

"I can hear it whispering to me. It's not loud enough for me to hear what it's saying..."

"Don't open it! Christ, boy, haven't you learned anything? Give it here." Severus gingerly took the chain from the redhead, who looked rather shaken by the vehemence in his voice, and held it at eye level, narrowing his eyes. "Hmm. Interesting."

"Severus, you're being cryptic again," Hermione told him irritably, giving Harry a pat on the arm before crossing over to peer at the locket past his shoulder. "What's interesting?"

"This one seems considerably stronger than the diadem was."

"Maybe it was the first one he made?" Ron suggested, rubbing his hand on his jeans.

Harry rejoined the conversation, looking a little better. "No, I told you about the memories. The diary and the ring must have been the first ones. He didn't manage to get hold of Slytherin's locket for a while. Why would this be stronger?"

Severus narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "The diary was able to drain Miss Weasley's life force and to possess her, albeit only temporarily. The ring was powerful enough to curse Dumbledore fatally. I believe that either this must be the third he created, or it is somehow enhanced by his blood ties to Salazar Slytherin. Perhaps both."

"It would make sense for it to be the third," Hermione said pensively. "Each one would be weaker, wouldn't it, because it would be a smaller piece of his soul? This doesn't seem like it's going to possess or curse any of us, as long as we don't open it, and it hasn't done much to Umbridge yet. So that means the diadem was a later one?"

"Later, yes, but not much later, because he still looked more or less human when he went back to Hogwarts to hide it," Harry contributed. "I reckon the diadem was the fourth one, which means Nagini and Hufflepuff's cup will be the weakest ones, doesn't it?" he added, looking relieved.

"That would make sense," Severus agreed guardedly, "but don't celebrate too soon. We have to get to them, after all. Destroying them is relatively easy."

"Are you going to burn this one too?" Hermione asked. He met her eyes for a moment, both of them remembering the diadem, and she grinned; his eyes glittered with amusement and a certain lazy heat that had her heart beating faster, before he looked back at the locket.

"I suppose so. We don't have any basilisk fangs around, and Gryffindor's sword is better off where it is right now, which doesn't leave us with many options."

"Why do you get all the fun?" Ron asked. "Can't we get to destroy at least one?"

"I told you before, I am not teaching either of you Fiendfyre. It would kill you, and probably anyone near you. If you can think of another way, then by all means take a turn." Ron scowled, and after a moment turned it into a mock-pout that became a rueful grin as he gave up.

"Fine. It's not fair, though."

"Life isn't fair," Severus told him mockingly. "So, you three, in rather more seriousness now... What do we do with her once I have what information she possesses?"

"What would you do if you were doing this by yourself?" Hermione asked uncertainly.

He shrugged. "Kill her, simply because it is the simplest solution and the least risky. But I am not by myself, so I am asking you all. What do you think we should do?"

"How is it the least risky? Wouldn't people miss her?" Ron asked, frowning a little.

Severus shrugged again. "Perhaps, but the Ministry is full of quill-pushers who can organise, and most of them don't have many emotions – she would be easy enough to replace, and besides, even Death Eaters have standards; I can't think many of them like her much. Nobody would look too hard if she didn't come to work tomorrow."

"You can cast a strong enough memory charm to stop her remembering what happened, can't you?" Harry said.

"I can, yes." He regarded each of them in turn. "Think it through to the end. She forgets what happened today... and she goes back to work tomorrow. The Horcrux wasn't controlling her. She chose her side – she isn't under the Imperius curse. She will return to interrogating and registering Muggleborns and half-bloods, to separating families, to turning innocents over for torture or imprisonment."

The three of them exchanged looks. Finally Harry shook his head jerkily, rubbing the back of his hand. "I can't think about this. You guys decide."

Ron and Hermione stared at one another before looking at Severus. Finally Ron asked, "What are our choices? Kill her or let her go?"

"'Our' choices?" Severus asked softly. "Could you kill her, Weasley? Like this? Even if you believed it was for the best... could you kill her in cold blood? She can't fight back."

"...I don't know. I – probably not, no." Ron licked his lips uncertainly.

"There's no shame in that." Severus shrugged again. "I can do it, if that's what we decide is the best option, but you need to think it through. This isn't a matter for jokes now. This woman certainly deserves to suffer, but none of you have the stomach for it, and nor do I any more. Do we kill her, or do we let her continue as she has been, turning our government into a concentration camp?"

There was quite a long silence, before Hermione said very quietly, "Is there a third option?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because there normally is, with you. Nothing's black and white, remember?"

Abruptly he smiled, arching an eyebrow. "Good. There is always another choice. Any thoughts on what?"

"Make her do something different," Ron suggested. "The Imperius curse, maybe." He grinned. "Make her help little old ladies across the street."

"Ha," Severus murmured, his eyes glittering for a moment. "You're thinking along the right lines, I think, although the Imperius curse wouldn't hold her for long – it goes too deep now, she's too twisted. Have any of you ever read A Clockwork Orange?"

"I've seen the film..." Hermione replied.

He gave her a sceptical look. "Really?"

"...I've seen some of the film," she amended with a sigh, glaring at him.

He smirked at her. "Did you manage to see the ending?"

"No, but I know the story..." She blinked. "Can Legilimency do that?"

"Translate, please," Harry said plaintively. "I've heard of the film but I don't know what it's about."

"It's about a young man who's an absolute sociopath, spends all his time stealing and raping and beating people up. The government did something to his brain and made him physically unable to harm anyone. Is that possible, Severus?"

He shrugged again. "I have no idea, to be truthful. I wouldn't do anything that extreme anyway; it would be noticed. But it might be possible to limit the damage she can cause. The question is whether or not it is worth trying – I doubt she has managed to rise so high that someone else can't take over from her in mere seconds. Let me wake her up and see what we can learn, and then we will decide..." He raised his wand once more. "Ennervate. Petrificus Totalus. Legilimens."

Severus watched the images flickering before his eyes, making no attempt to look for anything specific yet, getting used to the unpleasant feel of her mind. He hadn't been lying when he had spoken of raw sewage – this was going to leave him wanting a long bath. He had known people like her, twisted and dark and ugly, but there was usually a reason – a bad childhood, or sheer insanity, something. With Umbridge... nothing. She hadn't been terribly popular at school as far as he could see, but she hadn't been bullied either; she had been a non-entity. No dark family secrets, either. And, most worrying of all, she wasn't actually insane. There was a worrying cold rationality to her; she genuinely believed in what she was doing, and a dark sadistic part of her enjoyed it.

It made his skin crawl, frankly, and he was beginning to wish he had let Potter attack her, although that would have done unfortunate things to the boy's psyche. He was actually quite impressed that he had managed to control himself – Severus wasn't sure he could have done the same at that age, in those circumstances. No. Focus now. He returned his attention to the flashes of memory, and looked for the Ministry, watching Umbridge's rise to power as briefly as possible – he really hadn't wanted to know just how she had got Fudge to promote her; God, that was enough to make him want to vomit. Fudge ousted after the disaster in the Department of Mysteries, and Scrimgeour taking over only to prove just as ineffective... word reaching them of Hogwarts being attacked, and then suddenly Death Eaters everywhere... Brief hours of chaos, a ruthless and startlingly precise takeover. And then... control.

Hearings and interrogations, relieved purebloods, nervous half-bloods and terrified Muggleborns. Dementors everywhere, and prisoners in chains. Magic Is Might – that too nearly made him sick. Hail to the master race. He was more relieved than ever that he had escaped this; he had no wish to have to pretend to follow this abomination. A brief and distant glimpse of Voldemort himself, arrogant and twisted and monstrous as ever, flanked by the Malfoys and the Lestranges – mercifully, not Draco. Umbridge's thoughts were confused; part of her didn't want to follow him, but the Horcrux had already got a hold on her, and was feeding on her desire for power. The Taboo... Snatchers – press gangs? That was new...

As he had expected, nothing much about overall strategy. She'd had no contact with any of the inner circle and only ever seen the Dark Lord once at a distance – just as well, or Snake-face would have recognised the locket and then all Hell would have broken loose. Severus didn't want his former master to learn what they were up to until they had destroyed the locket and the cup; in an ideal world Voldemort would remain blissfully ignorant right up until the moment his snake dropped dead, by which time it would be far too late.

Breaking the connection with some relief, he stood up again, rubbing his hands on his robe and feeling rather soiled by what he'd seen in her head. "Well, that was fun," he muttered sarcastically, non-verbally Stunning Umbridge again so they could talk relatively freely. "She doesn't really know anything useful, not from our point of view, although I did get a few scraps the Order may find useful."

"What's it like at the Ministry now?" Weasley asked. "I got the impression from Mum that Dad won't really say much, and Tonks isn't back at work yet."

"If she's got any sense at all – which, come to think of it, she probably hasn't..." That brought indignant huffs from all of them, but Severus stuck by his opinion – Lupin aside, they hadn't seen Nymphadora Tonks let loose in a Potions classroom. She had actually been a worse and more dangerous student than Longbottom, although not by very much. "As I was saying," he continued, giving them a stern look, "if she has any sense at all, Tonks will not go back. Half-bloods are having a rather difficult time at the Ministry at the moment." He gave the prone and paralysed Umbridge a look of disgust.

"I'll send a full report to Minerva later. For now, the short version is that Scrimgeour is dead and has been replaced by Pius Thicknesse, formerly Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement – Thicknesse is not a Death Eater; Yaxley put him under the Imperius curse last year. In fact, Yaxley now has his old job. My former colleague here is in charge of the newly formed Muggleborn Registration Commission," he added grimly, avoiding Hermione's eyes – it was all too easy to imagine her in the memories he had just seen and he didn't need any new nightmares.

"Muggleborn Registration Commission?" Potter repeated, sounding angry again. "Is that what it sounds like?"

Severus nodded. "All Muggleborn witches and wizards must be registered and controlled – and imprisoned. The new Ministry claims to have research 'proving' that they stole their magic from 'real' witches and wizards. I doubt many prisoners are going to survive," he added bleakly. "The ones sent to Azkaban are the lucky ones."

"Surely people aren't turning up to be registered?" Hermione asked, and he shook his head.

"They got to Hogwarts' records; your fellow students are being hunted down as we speak. There are gangs of Snatchers roaming the length of Britain. They are also after anyone labelled a traitor – mostly us, but also the known Order members, and any purebloods or half-bloods daft enough to openly object to what is happening."

"What can we do?" Potter asked, his usual hero complex rearing its ugly head again.

"We do nothing, Potter. We have our task. We pass this to the Order and let them decide what they can do with the resources they have. The four of us can do nothing about this. This is what you agreed to." His voice was softer than it might ordinarily have been; Severus wasn't any happier about this than the boy looked. "It will not be easy to do anything. You've seen the Prophet now. It's little more than a Death Eater newsletter full of lies and propaganda. The vast majority of wizarding Britain don't know what has happened."

He gave them a moment to absorb this, biting his lip absently before he caught himself and stopped with an annoyed scowl. Clearing his throat, he said quietly, "I'm going to recommend Arthur gets out of the Ministry – it will leave them blind, but he's being watched and it's too risky. The Order are going to need to reorganise themselves – they'll need a new Secret-Keeper for Headquarters before Dumbledore dies, or they'll have to find somewhere else to use."

"There are plenty of safe houses..." Potter began, and Severus choked back a hollow laugh, shaking his head.

"There's no such thing as a safe house any more. I held back as much as I could, as much as I dared, but I couldn't avoid revealing anything at all. They know approximately where Headquarters is, although obviously the Fidelius charm still protects it while Dumbledore lives. They know where the Burrow is and I wouldn't trust in the protection surrounding it if they decide that's where you three are hiding. I didn't tell them directly where Shell Cottage is but they know of its existence. The Order need to pick one hideout, either Grimmauld Place or somewhere entirely new, and stay there. I'll tell Minerva that later." He shook his head. "It's worse than I thought. This is going to take years to repair." After a moment he shook off the dark mood. "All the more reason for the four of us to succeed as quickly as possible, then."

"Are my family in danger?" Potter asked quietly.

Severus shook his head. "Your aunt's house is protected in a number of ways. We're not daft. And I never told anyone where they were. You don't share a surname with them; the Dursleys are just three Muggles as far as the Death Eaters are concerned. They're in no more danger than any other Muggles would be."

"Did – did you see anything in her head about my brother?" Weasley asked in a small voice. "Nobody's heard from Percy since we saw him at Christmas. Mum's clock says he's not dead, but..."

"I didn't see anything about him," Severus replied softly. "I don't think he will be in any immediate danger, if he keeps his head down. He has made it clear he is not affiliated with his blood-traitor relatives. He will be watched, no doubt, but he should be safe enough." Unless he came to his senses and tried to run. He kept that to himself; no point upsetting them too much.

"This means I dare not do much to Umbridge," he said quietly. "She stands higher than I thought, and if she suddenly changes her stance, or vanishes, people will grow suspicious. The Dark Lord and several of the others are capable of breaking a memory charm if they know it's there. God, don't look at me like that," he added tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I don't like it either, but it's more important that we keep what we are doing a secret until we have Hufflepuff's cup and some way of killing Nagini. If the Dark Lord finds out we know about the Horcruxes before we've destroyed them all, he'll protect the remaining ones so strongly that we'll never be able to get to them, and we'll lose the war. I told you, sometimes there are no right choices."

He watched the three of them exchanging glances, seeing his own anger and frustration mirrored in their faces. Finally Hermione said in a small voice, "She can't be allowed to get away with it, Severus."

"She won't," he replied quietly. "Not for ever. When this is done, she'll be punished for everything. One way or another. I promise you that." Even if I have to do it myself. Not that he thought it would be a problem – once he told the Order the truth about her and showed them Potter's hand, they'd fall over themselves to make the bitch pay. He shrugged helplessly. "I don't see any other choice."

He met her eyes for a long moment, seeing true anger but mostly a kind of annoyed resignation – she understood, but that didn't mean she had to like it. He glanced at the others; Weasley was staring at nothing, probably worrying about his family, and Potter was obviously fighting his anger issues again. Sighing, he shook his head irritably. "Come on, let's get this over with and get out of here. Disillusion yourselves and get ready to leave. Weasley, still got the locket? Good. Don't drop it. Or open it." He cast his own Disillusion again and levelled his wand at the unconscious witch. "Ennervate."

As she came around, he leaned closer and whispered, "We owe you, Dolores. For Potter, and for Minerva, and for everyone else you've ever harmed. What goes around, comes around. We'll be seeing you soon." Straightening up, he flicked his wand briskly, removing the Body-Bind, and concentrated. "Obliviate."

As an afterthought, as he left, he aimed at her one last time and murmured a rather nasty little jinx; it would take a few days to start having an impact, but it would slowly begin to do a number of unfortunate things to her digestive system that would gradually worsen until she started being very ill indeed. There was no reason why they should let her escape completely unpunished, even if this was far more petty than anything he had wanted to do.

Once they had left Umbridge's house, Severus insisted on using Side-Along Apparition to take them somewhere else – somewhere that turned out to be what looked like the inside of an abandoned warehouse or factory or something. Hermione was still trying to work it out when Ron asked, "Where are we?"

"Somewhere I can destroy a Horcrux without damaging anything too badly," Severus replied. "Once we add a few protective charms, anyway. I know my house isn't much, but it's all we've got right now and until I can afford somewhere else I'd rather not risk burning it down. Potter, do not use magic while we're here, under any circumstances."

Harry looked blank. "Why?"

"You're still under seventeen. All underage wizards have something called the Trace put on them as soon as they start school; it's designed to detect it if you use magic outside Hogwarts."

"That doesn't make sense," Harry objected. "I've been using magic since we left Hogwarts."

"You've been using magic at my house, or Headquarters, or Umbridge's pile of vomit-inducing pink lace. As with many things the Ministry does, the Trace is easy to fool – if there is an adult wizard in residence, they are assumed to be the source of the magic. Purebloods and half-bloods are supposedly able to control their children so their Traces don't work very well. When magic was done near you at your aunt's house, they knew – or assumed – it was you because there were no wizards living nearby. The same with you, Hermione, had you ever actually broken that rule. I got away with using magic in the holidays because they assumed it was my mother."

"Does that mean I could have used magic outside school and nobody would have noticed?" Ron asked indignantly.

"Assuming you could have done so without your mother catching you, yes," Severus told him dryly. "Either way, Potter, just don't use magic here. You'll need to Side-Along with someone to get home. Stop pouting, it's only for another week, isn't it? Hermione, Weasley, help me protect the walls so I don't accidentally burn this place down. Potter, make yourself useful and keep an eye on the locket. If the whispering gets louder or anything about it changes, tell me – I don't like the way it seems so much stronger than the diadem was."

"Should you be using Fiendfyre right now?" Hermione asked in an undertone as they worked. "You seem more stressed... I mean, last time was certainly fun," she added, grinning and trying not to blush, "but we're not alone this time..."

"Behave yourself," he told her, his eyes glittering with a hint of a smile, before it faded. "I don't think I'm going to react as well this time, no. Once you've seen it destroyed, you should take those two and go home; leave me to calm down a bit. I won't lose control, not dangerously, but I would prefer not to say or do something I later regret and it will be better if I'm on my own."

"I'd rather not leave you..."

"I know, and I appreciate your concern, but trust me on this, please. I won't be in danger, but you might be. I know what I'm like, and I don't want to risk hurting you, physically or otherwise. I'll be able to control myself more easily if there's nobody else nearby to worry about. Besides, Potter will probably need to talk."

"I didn't realise he was still so angry about things," she said quietly. "He's seemed so much better recently."

"That sort of anger doesn't go away," Severus told her softly. "He'll be fighting it for most of his life. As I have done. He's got the knack now, though, and he will control it."

"Are you sure you're going to be all right?"

"For the last time, yes," he told her, sounding exasperated, although his eyes were smiling again. "Stop worrying about me."


He snorted, trying not to look pleased, and flicked a hand at her. "Come on, let's get this done."

Hermione stood to one side with Ron and Harry, at what Severus said was a safe distance, watching him preparing; he stood over the locket with his eyes closed, breathing slowly and evenly.

"What happens to You-Know-Who when one of his Horcruxes is destroyed?" Ron asked idly while they waited.

"We're not sure. It weakens him a bit, presumably," Hermione replied. "And it makes him less stable – Severus thinks he's so much crazier this time around because the diary had already gone, and he said things did get worse after Dumbledore broke the ring."

"Oh, good, he'll get even crazier. That's going to be fun," he said gloomily.

"Crazy people make mistakes, remember. I think Severus is hoping it will scare a few of the other Death Eaters into backing off a bit and not trying so hard, too."

"Have you two talked much yet?" Harry asked.

She rolled her eyes, amused. "We're making progress, yes. It would be a lot easier without you two around, though," she added, mock-glaring at him. "All right, he looks like he's ready now," she added before either of them could respond.

Severus had opened his eyes, which were remote and Occluded and distant. He raised his wand, his lips moving silently, and Hermione watched again as a spark appeared at the tip of his wand and began to glow brighter and brighter before forming a slender thread of fire so hot it was almost white. The thread flowed downwards and split to touch the locket at several different points, and the chain instantly melted and dissolved into a few spots of liquid metal before the locket itself began to heat up.

She could see that Severus was finding it more difficult this time; he was trembling slightly and his eyes were almost glassy as the power rose around him, stirring his hair and his robe. The lines of his face hardened; she'd seen this in the Room of Requirement, watching in nervous fascination as so many different emotions played over his face, but his anger seemed stronger now. Hardly surprising – she wasn't exactly jumping for joy about what they'd learned from Umbridge, and she was certainly not happy about having to let her go.

The locket was glowing red now, and rocking back and forth slightly as it grew hotter and finally started to melt; Severus bared his crooked teeth in a silent snarl, beginning to sweat, narrowing his eyes as he concentrated. For a long moment, everything seemed frozen, as the temperature rose and the pressure in the air increased; then something gave way and the locket jerked, rolling over. The catch melted and it fell open; there was an absolutely dreadful scream that faded into a mournful wail and died away, and the locket abruptly became a puddle of brightly glowing molten metal as the Fiendfyre suddenly vanished.

For a heartbeat Hermione thought it was Severus who had screamed, but it wasn't; he had staggered slightly when it happened, but apart from that he hadn't moved, and he wasn't blinking as he stared unwaveringly at the remains of the locket. His eyes were burning with terrible hate, as they had done before, his hands clenched into fists, and the only sound was his heavy breathing.

"That felt weird," Harry said thickly, rubbing his scar. "Really, really weird."

"It hurt?" Ron asked.

"No... just felt weird."

"Helpful, mate."

At the sound of their voices, Severus turned slowly to look at them. His expression was a little distant, and it was hard to tell if he actually knew what was going on at the moment, but his eyes were burning as he stared briefly at each of them, his gaze lingering longest on Hermione. She could see desire there, as she had before, but it seemed darker now and she could understand why he wanted them to leave. "Come on," she told them softly. "He'll be fine."

It was only about half an hour before Severus came back, joining them in the living room. He looked tired, more than anything, but a lot calmer. Pulling something out of his pocket, he tossed it onto the small coffee table beside his armchair; a fused, twisted lump of metal. "Anyone want a souvenir?" he asked sarcastically. "Salazar would be so disappointed to know what had become of his heirloom."

Hermione refrained from asking if he was all right; she knew the question annoyed him, and he almost certainly wouldn't answer honestly anyway, and he looked all right. "So, that makes four Horcruxes. We should be celebrating, shouldn't we?" she asked lightly.

"What did you have in mind?" he asked, with a gesture that took in the shabby surroundings. "Don't say alcohol, either of you," he added without missing a beat as both Harry and Ron opened their mouths.

She looked around and shrugged, conceding the point. "Fair enough. It seems a shame nobody else knows what we're doing, though."

"We'll just have to make up for it by having a hell of a party when it's all over," Harry said confidently; he'd cheered up a lot since earlier.

"Goody," Severus muttered sarcastically.

"I still want a chance to destroy a Horcrux," Ron told him. "I mean, I know it's dangerous, and it looked dangerous, but... it looked really cool."

Severus gave him a long, expressionless stare, his black eyes narrowed. Finally he pronounced dryly, "You're an idiot."

"He's not wrong, though, this time," Hermione murmured, watching in some amusement as he tried not to look pleased.

The next morning Hermione was sitting cross-legged on the bed and slowly working a comb through her curls, idly watching Severus, who had come upstairs to dig through his clothes to find something to wear after his shower. The boys had the radio on downstairs, far too loudly as usual, and he was distractedly humming along under his breath; she wasn't sure he had actually realised, but she was enjoying listening to him. He finally grabbed a dark flannel shirt from the wardrobe and turned, half-smiling at her as he headed for the door; smiling back at him, she asked, "Severus?"


"I've been meaning to ask – why don't you have more music here?" He looked blank, and she shrugged, keeping her tone light. "You've got all those records, but nothing to play them on, for a start..."

"Ah." He leaned against the doorframe and gave her a slightly sheepish look. "I used to have a turntable. I had a... disagreement with it a couple of years ago, and never got around to replacing it. I don't know if you can even still buy them any more, actually. Isn't everyone using cassettes and progressing to CDs now?"

"Not everyone; there are still record shops around. What sort of disagreement?"

"The drunken sort, as you well know," he chided softly, his eyes crinkling slightly at the corners. "Oh, don't look at me like that. I haven't had a drink in months."

"Harry and Ron did notice there wasn't any booze around here."

"No, there was, when we first got here. I got rid of it all that first night, because it was that or drink it all. I'm not an alcoholic, usually, but during the first war and its aftermath I lost control, and I was drinking too much this time before I stopped. In peacetime, I don't have a problem, but right now it's safer if there isn't any alcohol nearby." He shrugged and added, "If they'd tried the stuff I usually drink, they'd have been very, very ill indeed, anyway – and it is technically illegal for any of you to drink in the Muggle world, or for Potter to drink at all, come to that."

"Because you care so much about that," she teased gently, remembering brandy lacing spiced tea a year ago. His eyes warmed briefly with the same memory, and she leaned against the wall, returning to the original subject. "You don't have a piano here either."

His smile faded and he shrugged. "I can't play here, even if I had the space. It... feels wrong."

"I heard you play once," she told him softly, wondering briefly how he was going to react.

Severus frowned slightly, seeming more puzzled than anything else. "Really? How?" he asked.

"Dilys, of course! She showed me a passage in the dungeons that runs past your bedroom. The walls were too thick, I couldn't hear very clearly, but... you're very good."

He rubbed the back of his neck with a slightly uneasy expression, nodding neutrally. "...Thank you, I think," he responded awkwardly.

Relieved that he hadn't stormed off, Hermione smiled at him and returned to carefully combing her hair. "How long have you been playing? I shouldn't think many wizards learn the piano."

After quite a long pause, he exhaled and leaned his head back against the doorframe, his dark eyes half-closed. "Lily's mother had a piano. It was the first time I had ever heard one, or seen any sort of musical instrument except in magazines. I was fascinated. Neither of her daughters cared, so she taught me a few simple scales, and how to read music; then I went to Hogwarts, and became interested in other things, and that was that for many years. After the first war was over, I had too much on my mind, too much going on – well, I was a wreck, frankly..."

Hermione nodded, remembering Madam Pomfrey's notes. "Hardly surprising, really," she said softly as he paused for a moment to gather his thoughts.

He nodded distractedly, his eyes distant. "I needed something safe to calm me down. I had always liked music. It was the summer, and I was listening to the radio – I couldn't listen to the things I usually enjoyed, the rhythms were too jarring, so I was listening to a lot of classical music, and it seemed to help, sometimes. So I saved up and bought a piano and some music, and taught myself to play properly." After a moment he smiled a little. "That makes it sound a lot easier than it actually was... it took years."

"It was worth it," she told him quietly, deciding not to mention his singing just yet; he was clearly uncomfortable with talking about this. "What about art?"

"Oh, I always liked drawing," he said more casually. "It was a nice cheap hobby, after all. Even a household as poor as ours usually had a stub of pencil and some scraps of paper lying around, even if they were only old betting slips."

"You seem good at that, too."

"Only with some things. I can't really explain it very well."

"There aren't any pictures here at all. There are paintings in your rooms at school, but none here..."

"No. That's... I really hate this house," he said quietly, shrugging a shoulder. "Putting paintings here, or even just redecorating, would be like... planting flowers around the edges of a land fill site. Nothing could make this place look better. And I can't draw here, any more than I can play the piano. The atmosphere is... wrong." He gave her a speculative look. "Why do I suspect this is more than merely your usual endless curiosity?"

She smiled at him. "I'd like to hear you play properly sometime, that's all. I suppose I'll have to wait a while."

His smile turned crooked. "They're not cheap. I think it might be a while before I can afford another one of that quality. The one at Hogwarts... suffered an accident."

"Oh, no. You didn't..."

"Not deliberately," he replied softly, sounding tired. "And I wasn't drunk. It was the night Dumbledore chose to dig up ancient history for Potter... I truly do not remember what happened, but the following morning half my possessions were destroyed beyond repair." Pain flickered briefly through his eyes, before he shrugged. "I'll replace it one day." Hesitating for a moment, he glanced at her a little uneasily. "You never did say how you knew..."

"Nobody told me anything, except that your Gryffindor friend was dead," she said quietly. "I didn't recognise her surname for a while, and her first name was never mentioned. It took about a year for me to put all the little pieces together. And I didn't tell anyone else." She met his eyes steadily. "It really doesn't make a difference to me, you know."

Severus searched her gaze uncertainly before taking a deep breath. "It doesn't make a difference to me, either," he said quietly. It had clearly cost him something to say it; it was almost sweet, and a little sad, to see just how hard he was trying.

Hermione smiled a little, starting to realise just how much they were both over-thinking things, sliding off the bed and crossing the room to him; he watched her in momentary puzzlement that yielded to something darker and more intense before he dropped the shirt on the floor and moved to meet her. The kiss started slowly, and she closed her eyes, relaxing into the warmth of his body as she wound her fingers into his hair; his mouth opened under hers, his tongue pressing past her lips, and things suddenly became less gentle. She arched her back to press against him as his hands slid down her back and under her top before pushing the cloth upwards, his fingers warm on her skin as he pulled her closer and they kissed more fiercely.

When they pulled apart briefly to catch their breath, she stared into his eyes breathlessly, her heart pounding against her ribs as she reached up to touch his face. He half-closed his eyes as her fingers brushed his lank hair back out of the way and gently trailed down his cheek, swallowing, before opening them again and giving her a look of such pure want that she almost couldn't breathe, feeling her whole body react. Smiling very slightly, he cupped her face gently in his hands, leaning in for a slower, sweet kiss that had her melting against him to feel his growing arousal, before to their mutual dismay they heard footsteps thundering up the stairs.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Severus whispered against her lips in a rather hoarse voice, before straightening up and giving her a look that was half-laughing and half-annoyed and did nothing to dispel the heat in his eyes. "Are you sure you want to keep them?"

"Feel free to kill them," she assured him breathlessly, tugging her top back down. "I'll lie for you in court."

"Don't tempt me." He bent to retrieve the clean clothing he had dropped, shaking his head and giving her a long, intent look filled with promise. "One day we're not going to be interrupted," he told her in almost a growl, before sweeping out of the room – not easy to do in jeans instead of flowing, billowing robes, but he managed.

As the bathroom door clicked shut, Hermione leaned out of the bedroom doorway and glared at the culprit just reaching the head of the stairs. "Harry, I am going to hurt you."

"What did I do?"

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 37 of 60

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