Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 40 of 60

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The summer came to an end both literally and figuratively at the beginning of September. The Prophet began publishing scathing stories about every member of the Hogwarts staff, mocking the school for not opening, claiming that Dumbledore and his Mudblood allies had somehow cursed the place to prevent the next generation receiving the education they deserved and 'learning the truth'; every petty little scrap Umbridge had managed to dig up as High Inquisitor was splashed across the pages and hyped up as dramatically as possible, mostly focusing on the lack of purebloods among the teachers, the 'propaganda' in lessons, and the fact that 'every single representative of the school has been too cowardly to make themselves available for comment'.

As if that wasn't depressing enough, the weather had broken, and it was now grey and dull and raining almost all the time. According to Severus, it was like this for most of the year, which probably added to the bleak atmosphere of not just this house but the whole estate; it also made the damp worse, and none of them had a clue how to improve it.

All things considered, it was something of a relief when a small silvery Patronus in the shape of a weasel materialised on the kitchen table one morning, interrupting Harry and Ron arguing and arm wrestling while Hermione tried to keep her breakfast out of the way and Severus tried to ignore them all. The Patronus sat on its hind legs and spoke in Mr Weasley's voice. "Good morning, Severus. Bill says he's heard from Gringotts; tomorrow, from ten am until twelve noon. He says you'll know what he means... all this secrecy is very tiring, you know! Love to the boys, and Hermione."

"Well, then," Severus said into the ensuing silence as the weasel faded away. "Tomorrow we get to go and rob a bank."

The following morning, Hermione was starting to feel almost physically ill. Her nerves weren't suited to this. The boys were all right, thrilled with the adventure and genuinely looking forward to this insanity, and Severus had been doing things like this for decades and was completely unruffled – she might have thought it was just another bluff, but he'd slept like a log all night. She knew that, because after the past few weeks of sharing a bed with him she had learned that Severus clearly didn't know that he snored, so when he was only pretending to be asleep – after a nightmare, for example, although those were growing less frequent – he was suspiciously silent.

Studying her reflection in the bathroom mirror as she braided her hair back, she bit her lip worriedly, and heard a soft chuckle from behind her as Severus moved into view.

"Stop that," he chided her. "I'm the only one allowed to bite your lip now." He reached past her for his toothbrush and toothpaste as she moved to one side to let him near the sink. "You haven't eaten. I made those two famine-faces leave you some breakfast, but you should probably get down there quickly before Weasley gets too tempted. How he isn't the size of a zeppelin by now, I will never know."

"I'm not hungry."

"No, I'm sure you're not, but you're going to go and eat it anyway," he told her firmly, before starting to brush his teeth. He explained somewhat indistinctly, "It's important, Hermione. We're going to see some action today. You're going to be needlessly worrying yourself sick, and we've got quite a bit of walking to do, and it's likely we'll be using magic as well. You'll need to eat."

"Is it needless worry?" she asked. "Are you really as confident as you seem, or are you faking it?"

He raised his eyebrows before leaning forward to spit into the basin. "I admit I don't know exactly what we're going to be facing, but this really isn't complicated. I know exactly where the back door is and how to get in, and I know exactly how to get to Bellatrix's vault from that door, and I know how to get out again. None of Gringotts' defences will be in place there, so all we have to worry about is whatever else she's added."

"Oh, is that all?" she replied sarcastically as he rinsed his mouth, and he snorted.

"Relax, woman. Look at me. Do you trust me?"

"Yes, of course I do."

"Then relax. I've done this sort of thing before. I know what I'm doing, and I'm not going to take chances with your life. Or theirs, I suppose, annoying though they are."

"What if Bellatrix shows up while we're there?"

"Don't start playing 'what if'. If she does, the goblins will keep her busy. Half the reason they agreed to this is that they hate her almost as much as I do. You've seen enough to get an idea of what she's like – there is no love lost between the goblins and the purebloods, believe me."

"But –" she started, and cut off with a startled yelp as Severus unceremoniously seized her by the shoulders and kissed her soundly to shut her up.

"Stop it," he told her sternly when he let her go. "I'm not going to let anything happen to you. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Professor," she told him impishly, and stifled a laugh when he glared at her.

"I don't see why we had to leave so early," Ron complained. "Dad said ten o'clock, right? It's not even half past nine yet."

"We're not there yet, Weasley," Severus told him. "It's quite a long way to the outer limit of Gringotts. We're going to need as much time as possible."

"Where are we?" Harry asked.

"London. The Docklands, more specifically. If the weather wasn't so foul you'd see the river just over there. We're going to that warehouse to the left, the one with the blue graffiti on the door saying something rather unpleasant about Kevin, whoever Kevin is. Now pay attention – this isn't a spy movie. We're not going to sneak over, flattening ourselves against walls, ducking and generally acting like idiots. I'm going to walk over there and you're going to follow me as if we have every right to be here. Keep your heads up, don't look around, don't run. Try and act normally."

"You'd really rather be doing this by yourself, wouldn't you," Hermione noted as they did as he instructed. They were all dressed in nondescript clothes, plain trousers or jeans and dark jackets, easy to move in and unremarkable – Severus really had done this before, clearly.

"Yes, frankly," he admitted. "I know my capabilities far better than I know yours, and it is less stressful to only have to look out for myself. Equally, though, we may find ourselves facing something that needs more than one pair of hands. And if anything unexpected happens we can always sacrifice Potter and make our escape," he added slightly more loudly.

"Professor McGonagall ordered you to take care of us," Harry replied easily.

"Unavoidable tragedy, such a shame, we'll build a memorial to his memory, let's move on," Severus drawled, smirking, before slipping his wand unobtrusively from his sleeve as they neared the warehouse. "Alohomora." He replaced his wand in his belt and opened the warehouse doors. "Inside, quickly."

"It's not locked by magic?" Ron asked as they followed him in and he shut the doors behind them.

"Goblin magic doesn't work the way ours does, Ron," Hermione told him.

"This isn't the back door anyway," Severus added, "not precisely. This way. Don't dawdle."

"Do you think he knows he's gone back to acting like a teacher?" Harry asked Hermione in a low voice as they headed quickly through the warehouse by wand light. "Whenever he speaks like that I keep expecting him to take points off me."

"This is important, Harry. Think about what we're about to do. I'd let him speak to you however he wants."

"Listen to her, Potter," Severus agreed without looking around, striding quickly towards the far corner of the building. "In fact, all of you, listen to me. I'm not Dumbledore, I'm not going to make you all solemnly swear to obey me – frankly, I wouldn't believe it if you did, not after the past six years – but I want you all to listen if I tell you to do something. I don't know what sort of traps we might find once we get in there, and stopping or dodging when I say so may well save your lives. This isn't a game. Understand?"

"Yes, sir," Harry said reflexively, causing the other three to stifle laughter.

"Interesting that you finally learn respect now I'm not teaching you any more," Severus told him dryly. "Here we are." He stooped and tapped his wand sharply on the dirty concrete floor on a spot that looked no different from anywhere else, and stepped back as a shimmer spread across the ground and became a trapdoor that then swung open to show a ladder leading into the darkness.

"Where exactly does this go?" Hermione asked doubtfully as she and the boys peered in.

"The old sewer system."

"Yuck!" Ron exclaimed, and Severus gave him a withering look.

"The part we're going to hasn't been used in centuries, Weasley. Do you really think the goblins want their emergency exit filled with human sewage? We go down here and through a few tunnels, to the edge of the Gringotts wards. Then we wait for ten o'clock. Pay attention to the route, we might be leaving in a hurry. And keep up; we're going to have to move fast. I had hoped for more time." Without further ado, he gripped his lit wand in his teeth and sat down at the edge of the hole, twisting deftly to lower himself onto the ladder and starting to climb downwards.

So far, things had gone perfectly. The tunnels were old brick, but in good repair, and despite Ron's fears the air was clean enough, although it was chilly. There weren't any rats, and the only sound aside from their rapid footsteps was water dripping somewhere in the distance. Hermione was still nervous, but not as scared as she had been, as she followed Severus; there was something reassuring about his confident attitude, even the edge of Professor Snape-style snarkiness that was showing through. He knew what he was doing, and she found it hard to think of anything they might encounter that he couldn't deal with.

Severus' watch beeped, startling them all. He was the only one who had a digital watch, although he hadn't explained why he had it. Extinguishing his cigarette, he drew his wand and glanced at them calmly. "Ready?" They nodded, and as he stepped forward over whatever mystifying invisible line that formed the boundary of Gringotts, they followed him.

What had appeared to be just another brick-lined, roughly circular tunnel with a shallow trench in the bottom faded away, and they halted in confusion, staring around the cave they now found themselves in. "What the..." Ron began. "This isn't part of Gringotts, is it?"

"Yes and no," Severus said unhelpfully. "Come on. We've still got quite a way to go to reach the vaults, and unfortunately most of it is uphill."

"Why didn't you ask them to remove the spells so we could Apparate?"

"They wouldn't have done it. Basic rule for any negotiations; don't ask for impossibilities and don't offer anything you can't afford to lose."

As they walked, and occasionally climbed, he explained a little more. "Gringotts is far more extensive than anyone fully realises except those who work there. At various points it connects to natural caves under London, like this one, and to the sewers, and old mines, and to the Underground – there's another exit in a side tunnel off the Northern line somewhere that they call the mouse hole, but that is only one way, and inaccessible by anyone who isn't a goblin. This cave isn't technically part of the bank's official territory, but the goblins control it anyway. There are alarm wards placed every few feet throughout the cave, and probably a lot of delightful traps and snares designed to kill thieves in horrific ways; that is why we needed Gringotts to co-operate before we tried this. Otherwise we would have had to try and bluff or trick our way in through the main entrance, and I can't see that ending well."

"How do you know all this?" Ron asked. "Bill's bound by all kinds of charms to stop him talking about security. I guess everyone who works for the bank is, at least the humans. Do you know any of the goblins?"

"Not personally, no." Severus smirked suddenly, his eyes glittering in the dimness – there was light here, of a sort, although Hermione had no idea where it was coming from. "Initially, I heard of it the same way I came across quite a lot of my information. I overheard it in a pub."

"You're kidding."

"No. You would be amazed – and quite worried – by how many important secrets you can hear in a pub. Especially in Knockturn Alley."

"I dunno why we're surprised," Harry muttered. "How many weird and scary animals has Hagrid won off blokes in a pub by now?"

"Precisely. You can find virtually anything down there if you know where to look. I also spoke to a few Gringotts employees about working for the bank, back in the days when there was still a chance that I might be able to choose my own damned career instead of wasting it on you lot. The rest was investigation and trial and error."

"Have you been here before?"

"Not this far, no, but I've been through the tunnels to the edge of their wards. It's not much further – there's a short climb ahead, and then we'll be inside Gringotts properly and quite close to the vaults we want. The Lestrange vault is on one of the deeper levels, luckily."

"You all right, Hermione?" Harry asked, looking over his shoulder at her. "You've been pretty quiet."

"I'm fine. Why does the girl always have to be the weakest one?" she asked, irritated at the fact she was starting to sound a bit out of breath. "I'm fitter than either of you two, for a start."

"Probably fitter than me, too," Severus agreed dryly. "Unfortunately, on average, women tend to be weaker simply because you're smaller. Less muscle mass and a smaller lung capacity. And running doesn't really train you for climbing; besides, it's been months since we stopped jogging."

"You've been getting other exercise though – shit!" Ron's mutter hadn't been quite quiet enough; there was a scrabble and a thump as he fell with quite a hard impact onto the rock. "Damnit! I think my knee is bleeding."

"Good," Severus told him, in a cold voice they hadn't heard for a long time. "That wasn't funny."

After a pause Ron said quietly, "I'm sorry."

"Not as sorry as you will be if I hear you say anything like that again. Do I comment on how long you seem to be spending in the shower of late? Then keep your mouth shut."

They finished the final climb in silence.

By the time they reached the semi-familiar rough stone tunnels under the bank, the atmosphere had eased a bit. It could have been a lot worse. When you lived in such close quarters, you had to accept that there wasn't much privacy, not even with magic, and you learned to ignore it. Ron had apologised without arguing or trying to justify it, and the comment hadn't been meant maliciously; he always teased his friends, and occasionally both he and Harry forgot that Severus didn't actually fall into that category. Besides, there were more important things to deal with right now.

Severus seemed to have forgotten all about it, focusing instead on what they were doing; he had gone back into predator mode, almost prowling along as they followed the metal rails fixed to the floor, his eyes gleaming alertly as he constantly looked around. This ability to focus on the present to the exclusion of all else had defined him since their first year; Hermione knew he wouldn't allow himself to lose his temper until this was all over and they were back at the house, by which time he probably would have truly forgotten it, or calmed down enough to pretend he had. Which was lucky for Ron, really, although it didn't mean she wouldn't make him regret it. She could tolerate a certain amount of teasing, but she wasn't going to allow jokes about her and Severus' sex life.

"All right," Severus said finally, breaking the silence. "Bellatrix's vault is around the next corner. Wait here for a moment." He moved forward, shifting his weight smoothly to the balls of his feet and prowling down the tunnel without a sound; he really was good at this.

"I really am sorry, you know," Ron murmured as they watched his shadowy form progressing further down the tunnel.

"You need to remember you can't go as far with him as you can with me or Harry," she told him quietly. "He's not your friend, Ron. Or Harry's. Believe me, he hasn't forgotten any of the last six years. He still doesn't like either of you very much."

"I kind of figured that," Harry said calmly. "We assumed he was only putting up with us because of you. It's one of the reasons I worked out he probably liked you – there's absolutely no other reason he'd tolerate me. Anyway, for Snape, that was actually really friendly. Yeah, Ron cut his knee, but that was an accident. It was only a Trip Jinx."

"It was friendlier than I would have been. Don't joke about that, okay?" Apart from anything else, it would backfire; she knew she could embarrass the boys a lot more than they could her. They were both still virgins, after all, and being male they could only talk about sex by boasting to other men, not by listening to a female friend.

Before the discussion could continue, they saw Severus reach the corner up ahead. He froze for a second, then backed up hastily, pausing for a long moment before turning and hurrying back towards them; he had gone pale, he was scowling, and muttering obscenities under his breath that had the boys staring – Hermione was used to hearing him swear when he was under stress, but they weren't.

"What's wrong?" she asked swiftly.

"Something I wasn't expecting," he muttered, running a hand through his hair. "Fuck." He exhaled shakily and shook his head. "Weasley, do you pay attention when your brothers talk about work?"

"I already said Bill can't tell us anything about the bank..."

"I meant a different brother. How much do you know about Charles' job?"

"Charlie? Uh, well, I used to like listening to his stories, but... wait, why? Is there..."

"Yes," Severus said grimly. "There's a sodding dragon outside the vault."

The dragon was asleep, at least for the moment, so they each took it in turns to creep to the corner for a look. Once Hermione had got over the shock – aside from Norbert, and the Triwizard Tournament, she had never seen a dragon before, and she'd never been that close to an adult – she found it rather sad, actually; the dragon looked quite old and neglected and unhealthy. There were some ugly scars on its face, and its scales were cracked and peeling. Its wings were tattered and there wasn't enough space in the passageway for it to extend them, or even to stand up properly by the look of things. And its back legs were chained to the floor.

Regrouping further down the tunnel, they all stared at Ron hopefully. Clearly even Severus didn't know how to deal with this; of everything he might have thought of, paranoid Slytherin that he was, he obviously hadn't expected a dragon. "Double-crossing pointy-faced bat-eared bastards," he muttered irritably. "No wonder they were so certain we couldn't pull this off. More fool me for only specifying that they remove their magical defences, instead of including any physical guards. Well, what can you tell us?"

Ron shrugged uneasily. "I dunno. I don't recognise the species, because it's in such a state. I can't even tell if it's male or female."

"I don't want to know its life story, Weasley, I want to know how we stop it eating us. I can tell you dozens if not hundreds of uses for virtually every part of a dragon corpse, but all I know about live dragons is that they're resistant to most magic. How do we kill it?"

"Do we have to kill it?" Hermione asked, a little sadly; the boys didn't look happy either.

"I don't think we can," Ron said before Severus could answer; by the look on his face he hadn't been sure how to respond anyway. Her lover's practicality bordered on the ruthless sometimes and she doubted it had occurred to him to do anything except kill it. "It takes a full team to Stun an adult dragon that size. Charlie's not had to kill one very often but from what he says it's almost impossible, and I think the method is different for every species. I dunno how to do it but I don't think even the four of us together would be good enough."

"If the dragon drops dead, won't Bellatrix work out someone's been in her vault?" Harry added, clearly on the dragon's side as well. "I thought we were trying to make it look like we'd never been here."

Severus gave them all a frustrated look. "Bleeding-heart Gryffindors," he muttered, although he didn't sound all that sincere; Hermione remembered Dilys telling her once that he liked animals. "Fine. If we don't kill it, what do we do? I know they're almost impossible to Stun, I remember that from the Triwizard Tournament."

"It's already asleep," she pointed out. "We just need to stop it waking up. So that means we need to stop it sensing us, right?"

"Those scars on its face," Harry said, nodding. "I think its eyes were damaged, and it's obviously been down here in the dark for a while. I don't think it can see very well."

"It's not its eyes we have to worry about. Dragons can hear and smell really well," Ron said.

"A Bubble-Head Charm would stop it smelling us," Hermione said instantly. "It purifies all the air."

"Okay, fine. That just leaves its hearing. Ron, how do dragons' ears work? Can we plug them with something? Maybe even puncture its eardrums or something – temporarily, at least."

"No good, it'd wake up. It's only sleeping – even a dragon would feel that."

"Severus, would Muffliato work?" Hermione asked, turning. She found him looking at them with his head cocked thoughtfully to one side, a slightly speculative look in his eyes as he watched them planning, one eyebrow raised. "What?"

He shook his head with a slight smile. "Nothing. It doesn't matter. I don't know if Muffliato would work or not – it was never meant to block out all sound, only human conversation. It might work, if we don't make too much noise, and if the dragon doesn't react to a sudden faint buzzing noise. If it finds tinnitus annoying we might have a problem." He looked at his watch and bit his lip; Hermione recognised her own nervous habit with a start. "We're losing time. I suppose we have to try it. Who's best at the Bubble-Head spell?"

"Hermione," the boys said in unison, and he snorted softly.

"Fair enough. I'll do Muffliato, a spell always works best for the one who created it. Don't speak above a whisper and try not to make many other noises. Potter, Weasley, you two get Shield Charms ready and watch the dragon. If it so much as twitches, shield us and we all run for it. I'm not duelling a bloody dragon, no matter what's at stake. I don't know how the hell they got it down here."

"Just brought it down when it was little, I suppose," Ron said with a shrug, and Severus shook his head.

"My vault isn't far from here – my mother's family is about the same age as the Lestranges. There definitely wasn't a dragon here last summer. It's obviously been kept underground somewhere, but not here. Come on, let's see if this works..."

So far, so good, Hermione thought guardedly, watching the dragon warily. For a moment she was reminded of the first year, and trying not to wake Fluffy as they gingerly pushed his paw out of the way; the dragon's breath was actually worse, since the filtering of the Bubble-Head Charm was only one way. Its laboured breathing hadn't altered when the spells were cast and it was still asleep, for the moment. Nearby there was a box containing what looked like giant football rattles, and a couple of swords, which explained the scars on the poor thing's face.

Catching her looking, Severus whispered, "We'll report it to the RSPCA later," and smirked when she glared at him. Unrepentant, he led them past the dragon's shoulders to one of the half-dozen vaults it was guarding. "This is where we find out if the goblins upheld their part of the bargain," he murmured, gingerly extending his left hand and holding his palm an inch or two from the door for a moment before cautiously touching it with a fingertip and exhaling with relief when nothing happened.

"Right. We still have about an hour to get what we came for and get the hell out. I want you three to start trying to open the door; you know how to detect the spells on it by now. I want to go and get something from my vault while we're here, since there won't be another chance. I won't be long. If you get the door open, do not go inside yet, just stay in the doorway and look for the cup by eye and see if you can find it. Do not touch anything until I get back. If the dragon starts to wake up or if someone comes, run for it, and don't wait for me. Understood?"

"I'm coming with you," Hermione whispered instantly. She tried to smile when he looked at her. "I hate babysitting. And you know I'll only worry."

"I am literally going twenty feet around the next corner. I'll be five minutes at most."

"Even so."

He mock-scowled at her. "Fine. Potter, Weasley, make a start, and for God's sake be careful."

Leaving the two of them very cautiously starting the charm work needed, Hermione followed Severus further down the tunnel, side-stepping to avoid the dragon's tail and following the rails around the corner. She'd never been this deep below ground; her own vault was only on the first level down, although Harry's and Ron's were both quite a bit further in. "I didn't realise your mother's family was so old," she said softly.

He glanced back at her and shrugged. "Nor did I, at first. I understand the Princes were quite prominent once, many centuries ago, but they were never a particularly large family or a very wealthy one and the bloodline dwindled quickly to a single family line, largely because they were too smart to closely interbreed but too stubborn or stupid to seek fresh blood by marrying half-bloods or Muggleborns. I am the last. And as you will see in a moment, there was nothing left to inherit – I understand my great-grandfather had a serious gambling problem and lost what little of the estate that remained."

"Why did your mother marry a Muggle?" she asked curiously. She doubted it had been for love; someone of Eileen's blood and upbringing shouldn't have spoken to a Muggle often enough to form any sort of attachment, especially a working-class man from somewhere like Spinner's End.

"I haven't got a bloody clue," he replied shortly, his eyes hardening; this was still something of a forbidden topic, although he had indicated that he would talk about it eventually, when he was ready. Nodding without taking offense – he couldn't help snapping sometimes – she kept silent and followed him to another vault door, identical to all the others, and watched him digging a key out of his pocket.

"Don't you need a goblin to open it for you?"

"The pureblood vaults on these deep levels don't need it. They'll respond to anyone of the right bloodline. Weasley's family are on the first level that are controlled solely by Gringotts, and Potter's is a level above that – although he could probably use Gryffindor's, I suppose, if it still exists. That's down here somewhere, I assume." He sounded somewhat distracted, his posture tense as he opened the door and stepped inside.

Hermione peered in curiously; it was huge, much larger than her own vault, although the goblin had explained to her parents that hers was a school vault designed only to hold school spending money and when she finished her education she would be upgraded to a permanent Granger vault somewhere else that would be much larger. This cell-like cave was about the size of the Charms classroom at Hogwarts, although it was hard to accurately judge; it probably looked bigger than it really was, because it was almost completely empty. Six large chests stood open against the wall nearby; two were half-filled with a jumble of gold, silver and bronze coins, although not much of either by the look of things. A third held an assortment of small boxes and bags. The other three were empty, and there was nothing else in the vault.

She recognised the closed, almost shamed look on Severus' face, as he crossed quickly to the third chest and began digging through the boxes and bags inside it with rapid, jerky movements; she'd seen it before in Ron's eyes when they'd stopped at the Weasley vault. The peculiar shame that came from being poor, and hating it. Leaning against the wall and trying to sound as though it really wasn't a big deal, she observed mildly, "I've seen your lab, you know. I've seen where most of your money must have gone. It's not as though I think you blew it all on the horses or something." And she still hadn't forgotten the money he had given her parents to help them leave quickly; they hadn't really needed it, but their own money was tied up in the business and it wouldn't have been easy for them to get hold of any spare cash that fast.

"Don't," he said tiredly without looking up. "That's not where most of it went. Most of it was taken by the Dark Lord and is now helping to fund the abomination at the Ministry, and the rest was spent on... damage limitation. Please don't try to make me feel better about this." He pulled a small bag from the bottom of the chest and stood up, glancing briefly into the bag before retying it shut and shoving it in his pocket, clearly not going to explain what it was.

"Severus," she said conversationally, "what, exactly, have I ever said or done in the past six years to lead you to think that I give a damn about money?" That earned her a sharp look, before he nodded, conceding the point. Giving the sparse contents of the vault a disgusted look, he shrugged and walked past her, holding the door until she was out before closing it and locking it again. "Are you going to tell me what's in that bag?"

"Not yet, no."

When they got back to the Lestrange vault, Harry and Ron were both peering with exaggerated caution around the open door, looking pretty pleased with themselves. Hermione took a look; it was a cave much like the one she had just seen, only this one was stuffed with glittery treasures that would put an army of magpies to shame, everything from chests of coins and jewels to preserved skins of magical creatures, statues and gold-inlaid furniture. So this is how the other half live?

"She doesn't half own a lot of crap," Ron observed in a whisper.

Severus gave him a look. "Crap?" he repeated quietly. "Have you any idea how much some of these things are worth, Weasley?" He looked back into the vault. Hermione saw his gaze fixing on a set of cut-glass potion flasks on a shelf, each filled with different coloured liquids and with their stoppers inlaid with jewels, and there was undisguised hunger in his eyes; he clearly knew what they were, and just as clearly wanted them.

"Can we nick some of it, then? It'd be a bit daft to rob a bank and not get any money from it..." Ron said hopefully.

From the look on his face, Severus was obviously very, very tempted, as he hesitated before finally shaking his head with a frustrated expression. "We can't. The idea is that nobody knows we've been here. The goblins will know what we've taken, but there's so much here that neither Bellatrix nor Rodolphus will know anything is missing, if we're careful." He gave the potion bottles another longing glance and sighed wistfully. "We're wasting time. Go inside and look around, but make sure someone's always here holding the door open, just in case. Don't touch anything."

It turned out there were a lot of gold cups and goblets and so on inside the vault, and examining each one visually for an image of a badger wasn't easy, but there was a lot of magic humming in the air and none of them really needed the warning not to touch anything; at least half the items seemed to be enchanted, and Ron was the unlucky one who found out there were Gemino and Flagrante curses on the rest, burning his foot when he stood on a loose coin that promptly multiplied and grew red hot.

Finally Harry said softly, "I think I know where it is."


He pointed to a shelf well above any of their heads. "Up there, because that's the only cup we can't easily reach, and that's typical of our luck."

"Ha. Probably true." Severus shaded his eyes and squinted upwards. "I think you're right."

"So how do we get to it without touching anything?" Ron asked from where he was taking a turn to hold the door and keep an eye on the dragon. "Can you fly to it?"

"Not really. There's no moving air down here. I'd have to take a hell of a run up, and there's not enough room. I can't stop and hover without a decent updraft."

"Mobilicorpus?" Harry suggested, doubtfully.

"It would be tricky – an inch in the wrong direction and everything will come crashing down and burn us all very badly. I'd rather not be burned again if possible." Severus bit his lip absently, staring at the cup with an annoyed scowl.

"I'm the tallest," Ron said slowly. "I reckon I could lift one of you on my shoulders or something, at least for a minute or two. Hermione's lightest, I think, but to be honest you and Harry are both pretty skinny too, and have longer arms..."

"Thanks, mate," Harry said before Severus could respond, his green eyes glimmering with laughter for a moment. "I'm not that skinny any more, anyway. It could work, but then how do we get the cup down without touching it? We'd need dragonhide gloves or something, unless we can undo the charms on it."

Severus sighed irritably. "All right, we need to take a look at it more closely. If you think you can manage it, Weasley, give me a boost up so I can see the damned thing, but if you think you're going to lose your balance, tell me now. Being buried under a lot of red hot metal sounds like one of the more unpleasant ways to die."

Ron was smart enough to actually think about it, as he switched places with Harry and came over. "If you can steady yourself against the edge of the shelf just in case, it should be fine. The shelves aren't charmed, are they?"

"No. All right, then."

Ron made a stirrup with his hands for Severus' boot and shifted his legs apart a bit to brace himself, as the older wizard reached up to grip the edge of the shelf with one hand and rested the other lightly on the redhead's shoulder, balancing as Ron straightened up. It looked horribly precarious, and Hermione bit her lip furiously as she watched anxiously; Severus was doing his best to look like this was perfectly normal as he cautiously reached out with the hand not gripping the shelf and began examining the cup.

"It's the right cup, at least," he reported softly. "I don't know if I can take the charms off... Finite... no, I'd need a lot more time than we have. Hold still a moment, Weasley, I need both hands." Moving very carefully, he reached into his pocket and drew out the bag he had taken from his vault, gingerly and slowly transferring a couple of small items from it back into his pocket. "All right, Potter, let's see your Seeker reflexes. Come here."

Hermione took over as doorstop, glancing for a second at the still-sleeping dragon before turning her attention back to the others.

"Take this bag, Potter. Now, in a minute I'm going to use my wand to hook one of the handles, and I'm going to drop the cup. You need to catch it in the bag, without letting it touch your skin or letting it hit Weasley's back. Once it's in the bag, it will be fine, it's reinforced dragonhide – close the drawstring immediately so you can't accidentally touch it. Do you think you can do it? If you miss, we're in trouble, because it will probably bounce and knock some things over. Decide quickly, Weasley's starting to sweat."

"You're not heavy, I'm just worried about losing my balance, thanks to your comforting description of being burned," Ron muttered. "In fact, you're really not heavy. My little sister weighs more than you do. I can understand why Mum's always trying to feed you now."

"Shut up, Weasley. Well, Potter?"

Harry took the bag and stretched the mouth of it open as far as he could. "I think so, although if you can control the fall when you drop it that will help."

"I'll try. Ready? Then here we go..."

All of them held their breath as Severus carefully pushed the tip of his wand through one of the handles and lifted the cup off the shelf, lowering it gingerly towards Harry as far as he could before it started to slip. Harry held the bag open, concentrating so fiercely he had started to sweat as well, as the cup dropped neatly straight into the bag and all four of them exhaled heavily in relief. Harry hastily tied the bag shut and backed off, as Severus slid his wand back into his belt.

"All right, then. Slowly, Weasley, I can't see behind me to step down..."

"Here," Hermione said quietly, moving forward to help him – and unashamedly using the opportunity to touch his backside as she guided him backwards, squeezing playfully. He gave her what was obviously supposed to be a look of rebuke, utterly spoiled by the way his lips twitched as he tried not to grin.

"Behave, you," he murmured almost under his breath, as Ron straightened up with a relieved expression. "Let's get out of here."

The vault door clicked closed with a quiet finality that suggested they had been right to hold it open; the goblins had probably only arranged for it to be opened once. Harry hefted the bag. "What are we going to do now? Go back to where we did the locket, and destroy it?"

"No, I want a turn this time," Ron said, grinning. He held up his hands when Severus glared at him. "I know, I know, not Fiendfyre. I've got an idea. Please?"

After a long pause, Severus' dark eyes narrowed slightly. "Go ahead, but if something goes wrong, I am going to feed you to our scaly friend here and tell your mother it was an accident."

Still grinning, Ron nodded as though this had actually been a joke and beckoned to Harry, lowering his voice and whispering to him. Harry grinned too and moved carefully towards the sleeping dragon, opening the bag and gently upending it before pulling it off, leaving the Horcrux standing upside-down on the floor of the tunnel a little way in front of the dragon's head. He backed off to stand with Hermione and Severus as Ron tore the sleeve of his jacket and used the frayed bit of cloth to very carefully brush across the scales at a certain point on the dragon's neck; Hermione dug her fingers into Severus' arm, holding her breath and wondering what the hell her friend was doing.

The dragon twitched slightly before drawing in a rattling breath and coughing irritably. The cough produced a small fireball, which slagged quite a respectable stretch of the stone floor of the tunnel despite having passed through the golden cup first; the cup turned white hot in less than a second and melted, rather anticlimactically.

Everyone stared at the dragon with bated breath for a few moments, as it coughed again and shifted, turning its head slightly, before settling down again and continuing to sleep.

"Well," Harry whispered, "I guess it worked."

"I told you dragon fire would do it," Ron said, rejoining them with a broad grin. "Charlie told me the sanctuary in Romania has a whole section for destroying dangerous items, they get 'em sent from all over the world."

"Not bad, Weasley," Severus conceded, before clouting him hard across one ear. "But you didn't know for certain that it would work. Please don't gamble with evil fragments of the Dark Lord's soul in future. Especially since if the dragon had woken up we would all be in a great deal of trouble. Speaking of which, let's get out of here before it does wake up. No, leave the charms – they'll evaporate in an hour or so anyway, and it gives more time for our scent to fade. Come on."

The mood in the tunnels as they walked briskly back towards the cave was cheerfully upbeat, all told. Five Horcruxes down, and only one left; all right, it was the most difficult one, but still, they were so nearly there! Even Severus was almost smiling, and the boys were practically bouncing along. For her part, Hermione mostly just felt relieved they'd made it out without anything going disastrously wrong, although it was certainly nice to see everyone in a better temper, particularly her often-surly lover.

Harry was trying not to laugh, and the soft muffled noises attracted her attention. "What's so funny, Harry?"

He grinned at her. "Just thinking about the cup... it looked a lot like the Holy Grail, to me. Reckon this is Castle Arrgh?"

Caught by the idea, she stifled a laugh. "No, but the next Horcrux hunt is going to involve a quest to find a shrubbery."

"Ni," Severus said with a straight face, his eyes glittering, and Hermione grinned at him, delighted that he'd got the reference and joined in. She was certain now that somewhere in the house there had to be a VCR and a box of videos that they hadn't found yet, unless he'd had a 'disagreement' with them too.

"Don't you mean Nagi-ni?" Harry asked innocently, and Severus groaned, giving him a disgusted look.

"God, Harry, that really was absolutely terrible," Hermione told him.

"Yeah, actually, it was. Sorry!" He grinned. "It's a shame we don't have any coconut shells, though."

"Well, coconuts are non-migratory," Severus observed dryly.

"What are you all talking about?" Ron asked blankly.

"Muggle thing," Harry and Hermione chorused simultaneously.

"Harry," Hermione said after a few moments, giving him a suspicious look.


"I know you're trying to come up with some sort of joke about Castle Anthrax. Stop it."

He gave her a transparently innocent look that absolutely did not work. "Yes, o Zoot."

She rolled her eyes. "I mean it, stop that. I'm not into spanking."

She should have known better; Severus, walking next to her, lowered his head and murmured under his breath, just loudly enough for her to hear, "What about the oral sex?" and she felt her face turn bright red. Turning, she punched him just under the rib cage the way he'd taught her, and he doubled over with a wheeze of breathless laughter as the air left his lungs, straightening up after a moment with a wicked grin and a muffled cough.

Harry hadn't heard the exchange, mercifully, and looked rather bewildered. "Do I want to know?"

"No, absolutely not," Hermione said firmly, stepping on Severus' foot as she overtook him and trying to ignore his quiet, throaty chuckle that sent a shiver down her spine. "Come on, Sir Galahad, let's get back to Camelot."

"Why do I have to be Sir Galahad?" Harry protested. "That's not fair. He was a wimp."

"Well, who would you prefer? You don't get to be King Arthur. Sir Lancelot, maybe, running into walls and killing everyone? Sir Bedevere the total idiot? Sir Robin the chicken? Or Bors, who gets killed by a white rabbit? Or the Black Knight who just gets hacked to pieces, perhaps."

"Can't I be Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film and go on holiday?"


"So who are you, then, if you're not going to be Zoot?" he asked, grinning.

"I don't know, there weren't many women in it. Now come on, or I'll turn you into a newt."

"I don't know what any of you are talking about!" Ron whined.

Hermione smiled. "We'll explain it later, Ron. I think between the three of us we probably know the film well enough to be able to re-enact the whole thing, although some of the voices might be difficult. I can do a bad French accent..."

"I can do a very poor Scottish accent," Severus volunteered, having regained his breath. "It's a very good way to annoy Minerva, actually."

"I've been dying to ask this for years," Harry said. "How have none of the other teachers killed you?"

He smirked. "None of them are good enough." Further conversation was interrupted when his watch beeped again, and he swore. "Shit!"

"What is it?"

"That's the five minute warning. We've got five minutes to get out of the cave and into the sewer before they re-arm the wards; I thought we had more time than that... Run!"

Hermione was incredibly grateful for having spent so many mornings over the past two years out running. Having to get up so early, often in foul weather, and having to occasionally deal with Professor Snape in a bad mood had seemed like a terrible price to pay at the time, but without it she'd be in real trouble now. She was out of breath, but not badly, and she was also used to running in poor light with only her wand to show the way.

The boys weren't so lucky – the only running they had ever done was to get to lessons on time. Harry was doing well enough, although he was starting to wheeze and his glasses were beginning to steam up, but Ron was beginning to falter – his burned foot wasn't helping; she had healed the burn but it was probably still a bit tender.

Severus was keeping pace with him, as much as possible on the uneven floor of the cave, and probably wishing again that he was on his own; Hermione recalled the first time she'd seen him run, at the end of the third year when she and Harry had used the Time-Turner. They had seen him sprint from the castle to the Whomping Willow, and although neither of them had been in any fit state to acknowledge it at the time, looking back now she could appreciate how fast he'd covered the distance. He could have left them all behind, especially now he was regaining his health. In fact, she supposed, he could have just flown, however that worked.

In the end it was Harry who fell. His foot caught a gap in the rocky floor and twisted, and he slammed painfully to the ground with a yelp, almost immediately trying to struggle to his feet.

"Keep going!" Severus snarled when Hermione tried to stop, shoving Ron forward as he skidded around. Seizing Harry's arm, he hauled him upright. "Come on, Potter, run or die. I'll leave you behind if I have to." He sounded as though he genuinely meant it, but despite that he pulled Harry's arm over his shoulders and half-dragged him along as fast as he could limp.

"How much time...?" Ron panted.

"No idea. Save your breath."

Five minutes had never seemed so long; Hermione quickly learned that maintaining a brisk jog for an hour was very different from maintaining a flat-out sprint for even a couple of minutes. By the time the end of the caves came into view a serious stitch had her hunching over as she ran and sent fire stabbing through her with every agonised breath, and Ron was obviously about to collapse, and from the laboured breathing behind her Harry and Severus weren't doing any better. She had been trying to count the seconds in her head, but she'd lost count when Harry fell; still, they had to be almost out of time.

She wasn't sure what the Gringotts wards actually did, and right now she didn't have the breath to ask. They probably didn't do much in themselves, she reflected, trying to think of something other than the tight burning feeling in her chest; probably they just trapped people so other security measures could be employed. Even so... a faint humming noise reached her ears and the tiny fine hairs on her arms stood on end, and she dragged in enough air to gasp, "Is that..."

"Yes," Severus panted hoarsely behind her. "Going to be close..."

The four of them crossed the barrier at the last possible second, it seemed – Hermione felt the sting as the reforming ward just caught her, a nasty electric current that hurt more from the shock than because it was particularly painful in itself. Ron yelped as it hit him, and Harry and Severus both collapsed, having caught more of it, although from the way Severus was swearing he was probably all right.

A moment later Hermione revised that estimate; he could at times be startlingly foul-mouthed, but the language he was using right now was so coarse she didn't actually understand half of it. Harry squirmed upright, panting and rubbing his arms, and slumped back against the wall of the tunnel. "Ow," he commented breathlessly, before blinking. "What's with him?"

Hermione hunkered down next to Severus, who had curled in on himself and was still swearing breathlessly; she could see his hands shaking. Quietly, she asked a question she hadn't thought she would ever need again. "Severus, what number?"

He stopped swearing, although by the sound of it only because he had run out of breath, and panted heavily for a moment before growling curtly, "Eight." He sounded more annoyed than hurt, but she didn't believe it; grimly she started the nervous charms she had learned what seemed like a lifetime ago.

"What's the matter?" Ron asked breathlessly. "It didn't hurt much."

"Old nerve damage," Hermione said shortly, trying to monitor the tremors. "It would be easier to see how well this was working if you'd stop fighting to pretend it's not happening, you know," she told Severus, who ignored her.

"We don't have time for this. We need to get further away."

"Shut up, Severus," she told him. "I need to fix Harry's ankle before we can move anyway, and we're all too out of breath to go anywhere right now. We can take five minutes to get our breath back. Were you lying when you said eight?"

"No," he replied sullenly, closing his eyes somewhat sulkily, although after a moment he did co-operate by uncurling and shifting slowly and painfully onto his back, trying to control his breathing and relax. "Son of a bitch... I suppose it was going too well, wasn't it."

"It could have been a lot worse," she replied absently. "Are you sure it's only eight? You're shaking a lot more than I remember."

"I wasn't prepared for it. I... there are things I do when I know I'm going to get hurt. Meditation, and so on. Bracing myself. I didn't expect this sort of pain today." He exhaled heavily, scowling. "Damnit. I'm going to be sore as hell tomorrow."

"I'll go easy on you," she promised teasingly, trying to distract him – and suspecting, accurately, that part of his annoyance was the fact that they were unlikely to have much fun later if he was hurt. His lips twitched, his scowl softening, and the shaking began to ease. "It shouldn't be too difficult to avoid electric shocks in future."

Opening his eyes, he gave her a look. "To answer the question you were so carefully not asking, no, this isn't permanent. It took about a year for me to heal and recover after the first war. It will take longer this time, but it isn't permanent." Sighing, he relaxed a little more. "This isn't quite the same as the Cruciatus. It's easing. This is what those charms were really meant for." He raised his voice. "Potter, how bad is your foot?"

"I've managed to get my trainer off," Harry reported. "It looks pretty swollen, but I can move my toes, so I don't think anything's broken. It hurts like hell, though."

"You should try it from my end," he muttered, shivering briefly and relaxing further. "God, that's better. Thank you." Slowly he pushed himself into a sitting position and leaned back against the wall.

"You're welcome. Okay, Harry, let's look at your foot – the sooner we get home, the happier I'll be."

Footsore and tired, the four of them limped into the living room a while later and promptly collapsed; the boys sprawled on the battered sofa as Severus sank into his normal armchair and Hermione immediately shoved him to one side just far enough that she could curl up against him. Usually they weren't really demonstrative in public, but the boys were used to the idea by now and Severus seemed too tired to care, absently sliding an arm around her waist and relaxing.

"What now?" Harry asked wearily. "Please tell me it involves sleep." His stomach growled audibly. "And food."

"I need to contact Headquarters briefly with a message for Dumbledore. Then food and sleep sound like good ideas," Severus agreed wearily. "We did well today," he added, and Hermione grinned at the boys, all three of them knowing that was the closest he would get to praising any of them. He drew his wand and Summoned the Floo powder to him, tossing a handful in the direction of the fire he had just lit, raising his voice enough to call, "Twelve Grimmauld Place. Anyone home?"

"What do you want?" Lupin's voice said in an impatient tone from the green flames a moment later.

"Good afternoon to you, too, Lupin. I assume nobody else is around, if you're being that impolite. I have a message for Dumbledore, if you would be so kind as to pass it on," Severus drawled with all his former cold sarcasm. Listening to him, nobody would have guessed that he was half-lying casually in an armchair with Hermione curled up on his lap.

"Fine. What is it?"

"The only one left is the snake. I need to know everything he hasn't told us already."


"He'll know what I mean. Tell him."

The Floo call ended without another word, and for a moment there was silence before Harry said blankly, "Well, that was friendly. Why does he hate you so much all of a sudden?"

Severus laughed shortly. "Because I told the school he was a werewolf. Because he blames me for Black being killed at the Ministry and for Nymphadora getting hurt at Hogwarts. Because he's had to endure his first full moon in years without his precious Wolfsbane. And because it's not 'all of a sudden' at all; he has always hated me, or at least disliked me. He just never had the balls to admit it."

"Even Harry doesn't blame you for Sirius any more," Ron objected, frowning. "Tonks wasn't your fault no matter how you twist it. Nor is the Wolfsbane."

"Thank you for that completely unnecessary vindication, Weasley," Severus told him dryly. "It doesn't make any difference. Lupin always disliked me almost as much as his little friends did, he is simply hypocritical about it. Besides, he does have the right to dislike me now, after I outed him."

"Are you saying you regret it?" Harry asked.

"No. I set you the essay on werewolves to pay him back for the Boggart, but I didn't tell everyone until he showed that he could not be trusted to take precautions and avoid accidents." His voice had cooled. "It is sheer luck that none of us were bitten that night and he has nobody to blame but himself."

"And you," Ron said, trying to lighten the mood.

Severus snorted. "I suspect the real cause of his mood is actually Nymphadora pushing him to stop dithering around and do something."

"He can't exactly tell her he's still mourning Sirius," Hermione murmured, too quietly for the boys to hear. That had only been a guess, but from the near-silent vibration of laughter, Severus agreed with her. More loudly, she said, "Well, I don't see why that's your fault."

"I'm the Marauders' scapegoat," Severus replied with a shrug. "Enough. We have successfully destroyed our fifth Horcrux today; I think that calls for a celebration, of sorts. I'll go and get some decent food for once. If neither of you annoy me before I go, I might even pick up some beer for you."

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 40 of 60

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