Continuing Tales

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 43 of 60

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Hermione was humming to herself and making breakfast the next morning when Ron and Harry shuffled downstairs, both looking a little the worse for wear – and in the latter's case, somewhat startled – but reasonably intact. "I'm surprised you're both still alive," she greeted them cheerfully.

"Dad held Mum down so I could make a run for it," Ron explained with a grin, "and Harry came back here directly from wherever he went. I don't think it's going to be safe for either of us to go home until we can take You-Know-Who's head as a peace offering. And I'm pretty sure Gin's gone into hiding at Bill and Fleur's."

"Probably for the best," Hermione agreed dryly, before turning to smile sweetly at Harry. "Did you have a nice time?" she asked innocently.

He went bright red, but held his own surprisingly well, retorting, "About as nice as yours, I'd say. We found Snape's shirt half way up the stairs – well, what was left of it, at least – and your bra was on the landing."

"Oh, is that what happened to it," she replied urbanely, refusing to be embarrassed even though she was pretty sure neither she nor Severus had remembered to shut the bedroom door yesterday and therefore whoever had shut it had probably seen more than they should have done.

"Also, Snape's whistling to himself in the shower," Ron added. "Badly."

Probably true, Hermione conceded. Severus had a lot of musical talent, he played the piano like a professional and his singing voice was absolutely unbelievable, but he was the only man she had ever met who managed to whistle not just tunelessly but completely out of tune.

"So what happened?" Ron asked as he started to make tea for everyone. "Did he fall on his knees and admit everlasting love or something? Because you look pretty happy today too."

Resisting the urge to look at her left hand – Severus hadn't asked her to keep it a secret, but she'd like to keep it to herself for a little while before telling anyone, at least until she was used to the idea; it wasn't a problem because Harry and Ron were male and would never notice any jewellery, let alone what finger it happened to be on – she grinned. "Hardly. This is Severus we're talking about. I've said it to him, but he hasn't said it back yet."

"What? Why not?"

Oh, dear. It seemed they were going to have to have this conversation. Rolling her eyes, Hermione passed them both some toast and took her tea. "Ron, you love me and Harry, don't you?"

"What?" He sounded amusingly panicky. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"Do you? Yes or no."

"Er... well, I – I guess so... but..."

"Harry, you love Ginny, right? I hope so, anyway, or Mrs Weasley really is going to murder you, if her brothers don't get to you first."

"I, uh..."

"It's a simple question, Harry. You do love her, don't you?"


"You see?" she asked cheerfully of the room at large. "Men aren't good at saying that word. Men who weren't brought up in stable family environments are worse. It's fine. I know how he feels, so he doesn't have to say it."

More than that, she remembered last night. Severus hadn't said a word after she'd told him that she was sure, but his touch had been gentler and more tender than she had ever known him as he had taken her once more, especially when compared to their earlier almost violent passion. And when he had come, he had buried his face in her neck silently, shaking and almost crying. She had never seen that side of him, and afterwards he had pressed himself against her, his arms almost too tight as he held her. He usually fell asleep first, but she was certain that this time he had stayed awake for a long time after she had drifted off, and he had been awake when she opened her eyes.

Yes, Hermione was absolutely certain that he loved her; he wouldn't have been so terrified if he didn't.

Severus himself came downstairs a few minutes later. He looked tired, supporting her suspicion that he hadn't slept, but he looked relaxed and calm enough, and his eyes crinkled slightly at the corners in a teasing hint at a smile when he saw her. For her part, Hermione's little thrill of happiness on seeing him was almost ruined when she noticed a bruise on his neck, and she hastily buried her face in her cup to hold back a fit of the giggles; she didn't remember giving him a love bite.

As they settled to breakfast, she wondered idly why he hadn't seen fit to either heal it or conceal it; he must have seen it when he'd shaved. At least all the marks on her skin were hidden under her clothes this morning; she had a bite of her own over her collarbone, and his fingers had left bruises on her hips. She was pretty sure she'd actually drawn blood on his back and shoulder last night, but he certainly hadn't said a word of complaint; even so, she made a mental note to cut her fingernails later, just in case.

It still didn't seem quite real, Hermione reflected later as they all settled to research again – although she wasn't convinced that any of them were paying much attention. Harry was very clearly daydreaming, staring happily into the distance; Ron was trying to avoid looking at anyone else, apparently starting to feel a little left out; Severus was certainly going through the motions, but she was reasonably certain that he didn't even know which book he was looking at; and her own thoughts weren't really focused on her book either.

She was engaged. That in itself was pretty huge. Not only that, she was engaged to Professor Snape, which was just bizarreAlthough she didn't really think of him like that any more; when she remembered the man who had taught her in her earlier years, he seemed almost like another person entirely. So much of it had been an act, and none of them had ever realised that there was anything beneath that outer shell of cold dislike. She turned a page to give herself an excuse to glance briefly at her ring, still trying to get used to the idea.

Eighteen was young to be engaged, these days. But it hadn't always been – her parents had married when her mother was only nineteen, and as for the wizarding world, they had only just begun to move on from childhood betrothals. And really, it was just a word, just a way of formalising the feelings she already knew about. When it came down to it, she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him; it didn't really matter what label was put on that or what trappings came with it. She'd never been the sort of little girl who spent hours dreaming of her perfect wedding.

And, of course, it was rather dependent on their both surviving the war. Which was all the more reason for her to be paying attention to what they were supposed to be doing, she told herself sternly, resolutely trying to pull her thoughts away from her man to focus on less pleasant matters.

It was Ron who broke the silence with an annoyed huff some time later. "I don't get it. Why's it so hard to kill the snake?"

"Because we don't know where she is," Severus answered distantly. The fact that he had missed a chance to say something insulting indicated pretty strongly that he wasn't paying much attention.

Hermione explained, "There's lots of spells that will work to kill her from a distance; we've got a list of them now. The ones I've underlined will destroy the Horcrux as well..."

"I've been thinking about that," Severus interjected, dragging himself back to the real world. "A Horcrux bound to a living vessel is far more vulnerable than one stored in an inanimate object; it is tied to the host's life force rather than existing independently. It will be much easier to destroy. Anything that can kill Nagini will destroy the Horcrux inside her. It need not be a spell; it depends on how we manage to locate her."

She nodded. "That's good to know. Anyway, what we need is a way to make sure the spell – or whatever – can find her. You-Know-Who will have her somewhere safe. She could be hidden behind all kinds of things and we've no way of knowing, so we need some way of getting past anything."

"Well, what kinds of magic can do that?" Harry asked, shaking off his own daydreams.

"Not many. Healing magic can't be blocked, but it requires physical contact – usually, anyway," Severus added rather dryly, absently flexing his right arm; Hermione noticed for the first time that the copper bracelet was visible, now being worn openly on his wrist.

"We don't want to Heal her anyway," Harry pointed out.

"Healing magic can be used to kill as well, Harry," Hermione told him gently. "Remember? Severus told us that's what the Killing Curse was for, originally. And that's one of the reasons it can't be defended against."

"Okay, but it won't work now. What other magic can't be blocked easily?"

"Certain types of blood magic, but it's unbelievably dangerous to fuel a lethal spell with your own blood, especially when dealing with something as dark as a Horcrux. Again, it's not easy to send that sort of spell over an unknown distance either."

"Can we do something to find the snake?" Ron asked. "Track her down? Maybe we can sneak in to wherever she's being kept and kill her that way. Or just burn the building down with Fiendfyre or something."

"No, we can't," Severus replied. "One, using that much Fiendfyre would do unfortunate things to the psyche of whoever tried it and probably kill them, at which point the spell would run riot and wipe out everything in sight. It's not a toy. Two, if we had a way of finding her, we'd be able to use that to kill her, instead of simply locating her. Tracking and location spells require some sort of focus; most commonly the tracers use the magical signature of whoever they are looking for, but if that's not possible then you need living tissue – blood, skin, hair, something like that. For Nagini, we'd need blood or venom or scales; then we could use thaumaturgy to anchor a curse to that link and kill her, or to create something physical to destroy that would resonate to kill her with it."


"Thaumaturgy. It's an advanced branch of Arithmancy. The basic principle involves setting something up on a small scale and using it to make something happen on a large scale – for example, 'killing' a sample of tissue to cause the original source to die."

"Oh, I get it," Harry said. "Like a voodoo doll?"

"Yes, exactly."

"You-Know-Who used to drink her poison in some kind of potion, right?" Ron asked. "Were you ever involved in that?"

Severus shook his head. "No. That was before he returned fully. I am astounded that anything Pettigrew brewed didn't kill him, frankly, but nobody else had access to her."

Harry said thoughtfully, "Nagini might be a Horcrux, but she's still a snake. What happened when she shed her skin?"

"I really don't know, Potter. Given her importance to the Dark Lord, I can't imagine he would have left so much as a scale lying around. I would think he would make sure all the dead skin was destroyed. For all I know, she didn't shed her skin at all; I don't recall ever seeing her peeling."

"If we knew what kind of snake she was, could we create a link between a similar snake and her?" Hermione asked; she already knew that Severus didn't know what species she was, but it was still worth a try.

He frowned slightly, thinking about it. "Not really. There might be a way, but I think it would only be possible to create a blanket spell that would destroy every single snake of that type, which would disrupt a lot of ecosystems and seriously upset the natural balance. It would also be unbelievably complex to work out, take a vast amount of power to achieve, and would require us to find out what kind of snake she is and then find a way to steal a similar one. Even with a Parselmouth, that might be a little difficult."

"Oh, this is stupid," Ron said in a disgusted tone. "Harry, mate, can't you just stick your head outside and yell in Parseltongue for her to show up?"

"Somehow, Ron, I don't think she'd want to listen to me. The basilisk didn't. Just because it can understand me doesn't mean it'll listen. She belongs to You-Know-Who."

"Parseltongue works on things that aren't really snakes as well," Hermione said absently, thinking. "The basilisk wasn't a true snake. The carving on the tap to open the way to the Chamber of Secrets wasn't even alive. And that construct that Malfoy threw at you in the Duelling Club in second year wasn't a real snake either, but it listened."

"Yeah," Harry said sourly, giving Severus an annoyed look. "Lucky me."

"If it's any consolation, Potter, I was hoping that the snake would go for Lockhart when he tried to stop it, rather than bothering you."

"Throwing him across the room wasn't enough?" Ron asked, grinning. "Although that was probably the only cool thing we'd ever seen you do."

Severus snorted contemptuously. "I was making a point to Dumbledore; the man was obviously a fraud. Anyone weak enough magically to be hurled across the room by a simple Disarming charm was clearly not capable of teaching, let alone apparently running around the world defeating dangerous Dark creatures. Besides, he was irritating me."

Ron sniggered. "That crack about love potions on Valentine's Day? Was anyone daft enough to ask you?"

"Of course not. Stupid as most of the students are, none of them are suicidal."

"Why did Dumbledore hire him? Was it just because you were the only other person to apply?"

"No. I suspect it was because Lockhart looked like someone Dumbledore... used to know a long time ago." He snorted again before turning. "We're getting sidetracked. Why were you thinking about false snakes, Hermione?"

"I don't know," she said in frustration. "I'm just trying to think of another angle. Can you sense snakes somehow, Harry?"

He shook his head. "Nope. If I know they're there I can talk to them, and understand what they're saying, but that's it. They don't come and find me or anything either."

"Wormtail's Nagini's keeper, right?" Ron asked. "Can we kidnap him and get him to tell us where she is?"

An ugly look passed through Severus' dark eyes for a moment. "No, we can't. It's far too risky to directly attack any of the Death Eaters; we saw something of what a battle would be like at Hogwarts, and if they hadn't all been so busy trying to kill me that they were getting in one another's way, the toll would have been a lot higher. They have more people than we do, and they're better and more ruthless fighters."

"We beat them at the Ministry..."

"You got lucky," Severus said flatly. "Lucius was trying to avoid actually committing murder in case he had to try and explain it later, Bellatrix was too busy gloating to pay attention, and the rest of the men they had with them were idiots. Had it been a real fight, without any ulterior motives, you would all have been captured or killed in minutes."

"Okay, so much for that plan," Hermione said hastily, trying to change the subject back to the original topic.

He nodded. "In any case, Peter Pettigrew is already dead," he said dispassionately.

"What?" Harry exclaimed. "When did he die?"

"Over a year ago."

"You never said anything to us," he accused.

Severus shrugged. "It wasn't important."

"What killed him?" Ron asked.

Hermione abruptly guessed the answer even before Severus spoke; his expression was blank, his eyes cold. "I did."

They stared at him silently for a while before Harry asked quietly, "Why?"

"He was in my way," Severus replied indifferently. "He had been sent to 'assist' me; the Dark Lord insisted that he move into my house and annoy me all summer. He was spying on me, of course. I allowed him to see enough to prove my loyalty – the Unbreakable Vow – and then I ensured that he disappeared. I had too much to do without having to avoid him. And he deserved death."

"Revenge?" Ron asked in a rather subdued voice.

He inclined his head slightly. "Partly, I admit. But that wasn't why I did it. Nor did I indulge myself; it was quick. Quicker than he deserved. I risked his exposing my true loyalties and he was interfering with the work I needed to do. In addition, neither side gained anything from his being alive. I believe Dumbledore hoped to use his debt to you in some fashion, Potter, but I decided that any advantage we might wring from it wasn't worth the price we might pay if he lived that long."

"What if You-Know-Who had realised what you'd done?"

"Don't underestimate him. He didn't see everything but he saw most of it. I'm sure he knew I was responsible, but he couldn't prove it, and Wormtail had outlived his usefulness. He was a servile, snivelling coward who seriously annoyed everyone around him, including the Dark Lord. Nobody was ever going to mourn him."

"Does anyone else know?"

"No. Although I'm sure many of the Death Eaters suspect that I had a hand in his disappearance. It is well known that he was a former Marauder and that I disliked him on that basis."

"Back to Nagini," Hermione said hastily; they could talk about this later. "Do you know where You-Know-Who might keep her, Severus? Where's his main hideout?"

He shrugged. "All my information is out of date. Now that I've defected, the Dark Lord will have changed his habits as much as possible precisely so that my knowledge will be rendered useless. He was using Malfoy Manor as his base of operations but he certainly won't be now, especially after the Order's raid to recover the prisoners. I don't know how we're going to find him once we've destroyed the final Horcrux; as soon as Nagini dies he's going to check on the others, realise what we've done and go into hiding."

"That doesn't sound like him," Harry said. "I'd have thought he'd come to find us, frothing and screaming and wanting to kill us all."

"He's insane, Potter, but he's not stupid," Severus pointed out. "He spent a very long time trying to make himself immortal. When he realises that it hasn't worked, he is going to panic. He would only confront us directly if he thought he could win. Like most tyrants, he is a coward at heart, and once he knows that the Order have made him mortal again and are coming for him, he'll run. But that is a problem for another day. Which brings us back to Nagini."

"So," Ron summed up, "we need some way of finding the snake, or something that will let a spell get to her and kill her no matter where she is. And the best way to do that is to get something of hers. There wouldn't be anything left behind somewhere she used to live, would there?"

Severus looked doubtful. "I wouldn't think so. I suppose I could check a few of the old meeting places, but I don't know any of the more recent ones and I didn't pay much attention to where the snake was staying."

"Something left behind," Harry said slowly.

They turned to look at him. "You've thought of something?" Hermione prompted him hopefully.

"I – I don't know." He looked at Severus. "This thaum-whatever – thaumaturgy?"


"How strong a trace do you need?"

"The stronger the better, obviously, but depending on what it is, I can work with something fragile. What's your idea, Potter?"

"Well, Mr Weasley survived being bitten, right? Would there be – I don't know, some sort of – of residue left in the bite? He's still got a scar from it. Maybe there's still a bit of the poison in his blood. I dunno."

They all stared at Severus, who was staring at the wall, his lips moving slightly and his eyes narrowing, his brows furrowing in concentration. "...I'll be damned," he said finally, slowly. "It could work. I'd need to analyse some of Arthur's blood to see if there was anything there strong enough to use, but it could work."

"It wouldn't hurt my dad, would it?" Ron asked anxiously.

"No. If there is a trace in his blood, I can isolate it." Severus blinked slowly and half-smiled. "You've just had a good idea, Potter. I assure you, it will only hurt for a moment."

"Ha, ha," Harry replied, grinning. "I'm sure it hurts less than the pain of you admitting I've thought of something."

"Behave, both of you," Hermione ordered, grinning in response to the changed atmosphere in the room.

The increased optimism in the house didn't last long. Later that evening, Hermione finally surfaced from her brooding and asked softly, "Severus, can we talk?"

He looked up, and from the expression in his eyes he already knew what her answer would be as he replied cautiously, "About what?"


After a moment he sighed and sat straighter in his chair, leaning sideways to set his book down. "I wish you hadn't made this public," he murmured, looking more resigned than anything.

"Do you want us to go?" Ron asked awkwardly from the sofa.

Severus shook his head. "No. It's fine. I suppose you should hear this too." He leaned back and closed his eyes, gathering his thoughts, and finally sighed again. "There isn't much to say. He was in my way, so I killed him. I don't regret it. I don't like killing, I didn't enjoy it and I wasn't happy to do it – it really wasn't about revenge, although I suppose I didn't try very hard to think of alternatives – but I'm certainly not sorry. It needed doing."

"What did you do with him?" Harry asked uncomfortably.

"One more dead rat floating in the canal didn't attract attention. I melted down his silver hand and Vanished it." He hadn't opened his eyes and was clearly unwilling to look at any of them. "Don't look at one another like that," he said tiredly, "as if this is somehow shocking. He was a very long way from being the first person I've killed, and even murder isn't the worst crime I've ever committed."

"Who was the first?" Hermione asked, trying to keep her voice gentle, and saw him flinch at the question. It was time she forced herself to face and acknowledge this part of his life; she'd been avoiding thinking about it for too long.

"I don't know his name. He was a middle-aged Muggle."

"How old were you?"


One of the boys swore softly, but Hermione kept her eyes on Severus' face, even though he still wouldn't open his eyes. "How many have there been since then?"

"Not as many as you probably think, but... the first was too many." He sighed. "Twenty three, all told, not counting those I killed when we fought at Hogwarts, and not counting the ones who indirectly died as a result of something I said or did, or did not say or do. Pettigrew wasn't the most recent, either."

"You remember them all that clearly?"

"I can't forget," he replied starkly, his expression hardening slightly and his voice growing dull. "I don't know most of their names, but I remember every single face."

"Which one was the worst?" Ron asked, and he shivered, his eyes squeezing more tightly shut.

"I won't answer that."

"Were they all Muggles?" Harry asked. The boys seemed sincerely concerned, Hermione noticed; there was morbid curiosity there too, but no disgust or fear – at least, not much. Unfortunately she doubted Severus was in any fit state to notice, or that he would care if he did.

"No." He did open his eyes now; they were bleak and cold and shadowed. "They weren't all at the Dark Lord's command, either," he added crisply. "I've killed for the Order as well as for the Death Eaters."


"Who else would do it?" he spat in sudden anger. "Murder is always wrong, you know that as well as I do, but sometimes it is necessary. I'm already bound for Hell so what's a few more deaths on my conscience, a bit more blood on my hands?"

Hermione broke the silence that followed. "I didn't think you believed in Hell."

"Everything has consequences," was all he said in reply.

"But... you did it for us."

"Not all of it."

"No, but most of it. That counts for a lot."

"You don't know what you're talking about," he said wearily, his gaze growing bleaker still. "Even now, you still don't know everything I've done. Some things can't be justified." He sighed again, a look of resignation passing across his face before his expression hardened with a kind of grim resolve. "Potter, do you know why I really changed sides, why even after your mother's death I persisted on this course and continued to try and protect you?"

Harry thought about it, looking as though he was a little afraid of the answer – Hermione felt the same, and by the look on Ron's face so did he. "You owed my dad a debt..." he said finally, rather hesitantly.

"That was paid when I stopped Quirrell knocking you off your broom in your first year."

"I don't know, then, sir. I thought it was because of... her."

"Slightly, but she was dead and my actions couldn't change that. I didn't care about you. You might be half hers, but you're half his as well, and some wounds go too deep to heal entirely. No, it was to ease my own guilt, to try and pay a different sort of debt and make up for what I had done."

"And what was that?"

It was Harry who asked the question, but it was Hermione that Severus looked at as he replied very quietly, "I'm the one who overheard half the prophecy and told the Dark Lord."

In the stunned silence that followed, he stood up slowly and began to pace back and forth, his eyes now staring into the distance at something only he could see and filled with a kind of resigned sorrow. "I didn't know who it meant then, but that's no excuse. I knew I would be condemning some innocent to death, but at that point I still wanted to please my master above anything else and I told him what I knew. Later, when he declared that it referred to the Potters, I did everything I could to protect them, but it wasn't enough."

"You killed them," Harry whispered. He had started to tremble.

He shook his head. "No, not directly. But I don't deny that I made them targets. I made it possible for them to be killed. I am not wholly to blame, but I bear much of the responsibility. That's why I stayed true to the Order after she died, to try and atone for that first terrible mistake."

"Does anyone else know?" Ron asked hesitantly.

"Dumbledore. Trelawney knows I was kicked out of the building during her interview, unless the sherry's dissolved that memory by now, but she doesn't remember making the prophecy; only Dumbledore knows everything. At least, he thinks he does, but as usual he knows the facts without understanding them."

Severus turned to face Harry, cocking his head to one side, an odd half-smile twisting his lips. "There you go, Potter. You were right to hate me all these years, even if you only now know why. I don't have any more secrets, not important ones. Make of it what you will. You can curse me if you like, or hit me, or leave. I won't try and stop you."

From the look on Harry's face, any of them was an option. Hermione stared between them both, the man she loved and the man who was her brother in all but name, and had no idea what to say or do. Severus' face was a mask, his eyes lifeless and haunted and the rest of his features utterly expressionless; Harry was staring at him, visibly shaking, those expressive green eyes filled with all the pain and anger of the orphaned boy who had no memory of his parents beyond hearing them scream as they were murdered.

"You killed them," Harry repeated in a hoarse whisper, blinking back tears as his expression twisted.

Severus looked back at him numbly; Hermione didn't even have words for the emotions in his dark eyes now. It was a stark reminder of just how damaged he was. She had always known there were terrible things in his past that he hadn't told her about, but she hadn't guessed this. She couldn't even begin to imagine how much it had been hurting him for so long. He made no attempt to reply, just looked back at Harry dully and waited, and when Harry drew his wand and aimed it at him she knew he wouldn't try to defend himself.

"Harry," she said softly, watching his hand shaking so much that any curse he used would only have a fifty-fifty chance of actually hitting him. "Don't do this."

"Did you know?" he hissed at her, his voice thick with rage. "Did you?"

"No. No, I didn't know." Swallowing, she tried to find the right words; she couldn't even look at Severus again, because if she did she was going to start crying. "But this won't help, Harry. I don't know what you're thinking of doing, but it's not going to change anything. It won't bring them back."

She looked at Ron for help; he avoided her eyes and shook his head, clearly on Harry's side. That was fair enough, she supposed – family meant more to the Weasleys than anything else.

The two men continued to stare at one another. Harry was crying now, shaking worse than ever, but he kept his wand up and aimed. "You betrayed them," he said thickly, and a nerve jumped under Severus' eye.

"Yes," he agreed very quietly. "It's the worst thing I have ever done, and I have spent the rest of my life trying to atone for it. If my apology would mean anything to you, you have it."

Harry choked, making a sound half a sob and half a furious laugh. "Shut up!"

"Harry, please," Hermione said quietly. She wasn't sure what frightened her most; the fear of what Harry would do, or the fear that Severus would let him. "I – you have every right to feel like this. I'm not trying to justify what happened. It was terrible, and tragic, and it shouldn't have happened, but... remember the prophecy. Your parents had already defied You-Know-Who three times. He would have gone after them sooner or later, and – neither of them were the type to hide safely, were they? How – how many people do we know at school who've lost one or both their parents?"

"Shut up!" he snarled.

"Don't speak to her like that," Severus said quietly, his voice still empty of any recognisable emotion. "Your problem is with me, not her."

"Why is she always defending you?" Harry spat furiously.

"I don't know."

Hermione turned and glared at him. "Yes, you damned well do!" she told him angrily, before making a decision and turning back to Harry. "Because of this," she told him, and held up her left hand.

There was a very long silence. Severus was still holding his blank mask, not so much as a flicker in his black eyes betraying his thoughts; Ron had gone pale enough that his freckles stood out like a rash. Harry had so many different emotions playing across his face that he was likely to have a stroke before he managed to sort himself out, as he stared at her with his mouth open. A small part of her started laughing hysterically, deep inside, as she waited for the final reaction.

After an uncomfortably long pause, Hermione lowered her hand. "Severus, can you go and have a cigarette or something while I talk to Harry, please?" she asked quietly. He nodded without looking at her and left, walking stiffly and clearly glad to escape, his shoulders hunched.

Ron finally broke the awkward atmosphere. "Is that what I think it is?" he asked in a rather strained voice.


"When... when did he ask?"

"Yesterday. After I got back from Headquarters." She smiled a little sadly, remembering the look on Severus' face and how scared he had been. That I don't know had showed her just how far they had to go; he found it so difficult to believe that anyone would want him or love him, it was heartbreaking.

"And you said yes?"

"No, I just nicked the ring to sell later," she retorted sarcastically. "Of course I did."

"Why?" Harry asked softly. He didn't sound angry any more, and he had stopped crying, but the tangled emotions in his eyes said the crisis wasn't over yet. Hardly surprising – he'd had a very bad shock and he never had got over learning that his parents had been murdered.

"Because I love him, Harry. I love him very much. I know you don't understand that, and I don't blame you, really – it is pretty weird, after all. But I do."

"He killed my parents," he said helplessly, sounding so confused.

She nodded, blinking until the threat of tears seemed to have passed. "He was only about our age, Harry, and he was alone and scared, and he wanted to keep himself safe. Even I don't know much about what it must be like among the Death Eaters, but some of the things that have been done to him... I can't say I wouldn't have done the same in his place. If he'd known what would happen he wouldn't have done it. That doesn't make it right, of course it doesn't, but he's not totally to blame. And it's certainly not his fault that Pettigrew betrayed them and told You-Know-Who where they were." Although I'm sure he thinks it is.

"You saw his face, mate," Ron said slowly. "I know he hated your dad, but... I don't think he hated him that much. And I don't think he'd have put your mum at risk deliberately." He looked at Hermione. "He's pretty screwed up, isn't he?"

"Oh, God, you have no idea," she said with feeling, trying to smile, before looking at Harry. "He meant it, you know. He won't stop you if you want to leave, or if you go out there and hex him or something. I'd rather you didn't, though."

He shoved a hand through his hair and sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm not going to. I – I think I understand why he... you remember that lesson where I wouldn't tell you what he'd done, about why I had to control myself? I reckon I understand why he did it now. I'm still not going to tell you," he added, looking a bit more like his usual self, before shaking his head slowly. "We don't know anything about him at all, do we?"

Her smile was a bit more successful this time. "No. I don't know much, really. He's the most complicated man I've ever known."

"But you still said yes, when he proposed."

"I know the important things," she replied with a shrug.

"Did he go down on one knee and stuff?" Ron asked, his lips twitching as he suppressed a grin. "I'm trying to picture it and it's a really weird image."

Hermione stifled a laugh, wondering what her friends' faces would look like if she told them that Severus had actually proposed after sex, while they were both still trying to catch their breath. "No, nothing like that. I don't think he'd planned to ask yet, actually. It was a bit impulsive, I think. And he thought I'd say no," she added, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. For such a smart man, he can be an idiot sometimes.

"He asked you to marry him but he hasn't said he loves you," Harry said slowly.

She shrugged. "I know, but it's complicated. Like Ron said, he's pretty screwed up. It works for us, okay? It works for me."

"Nobody else knows yet, do they?"

"No, so don't say anything. I don't know when we'll get around to telling anyone else, not with everything else going on."

"What are your parents going to say?" Ron asked.

"I don't have the faintest idea. I'm trying not to think about it at the moment," she admitted ruefully. "It's only been a few hours. I'm still trying to get my head around it. One thing at a time, okay? Anyway... are you all right, Harry?"

He shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. I think so. I might have to go and sit upstairs and keep away from him for a little while, though."

"Well, take a couple of books with you and try and do something useful. I'd better go and see if he's all right."

Hermione padded out into the overgrown back garden to look at her fiancé uncertainly, thinking about what he'd told them. It had shocked her badly, but she knew him well enough to see the pain in his eyes as he'd admitted it at last, and to see the faint touch of relief at the confession. She didn't like admitting to herself that he was a murderer, but she had known it for a long time anyway, and it obviously hurt him, and she was relieved to find that more than anything else she was concerned for him. "Severus?"

He turned to face her, and in the instant before his shields settled again she saw real fear in his eyes. Even when that expression was hidden, he looked grim and resigned and clearly assumed the worst, and for a moment she wasn't sure if she wanted to hug him or smack him; how anyone as smart as he was and as skilled at reading people could still be so blind at times, she had no idea.

The former impulse won, which was probably just as well, and she moved closer to him. "It's okay."

Severus regarded her expressionlessly now, secure behind his walls once more, and arched one eyebrow slightly. "Hardly."

"No, it really is," she insisted quietly. "Harry's upset, yes, and shocked, and angry, but he didn't blow up about it. He'll talk it over with Ron and sort himself out. I don't know how Ron feels about it all but it's not really his business. And it doesn't change anything for me, either." He looked sceptical, and she tried to resist the urge to yell at him. "Yes, it was a shock, and I don't like thinking about that part of your life, but it's not as if I didn't know you'd killed people, and I'm certainly not going to cry over Pettigrew. As for the prophecy, and Harry's parents... I know you, Severus, and I can see how much it's hurt you. You couldn't have known what would happen, and I don't blame you for telling the Dark Lord either, under the circumstances. It was wrong, but so is everything that's happened in this damned war. It doesn't change how I feel about you."

The scepticism had given way to uncertainty in his dark eyes now, although the rest of his expression was still stony. Ignoring this, she moved closer still, holding his gaze fiercely. If he looks away now, I really will slap him. Deliberately she held up her left hand, seeing the faint flicker in his eyes as he registered it at the edge of his vision. "You're not getting rid of me that easily," she told him as lightly as she could, trying to ease the mood.

He continued to stare at her for a few moments, before finally something in his eyes softened a little and he relaxed fractionally, breathing out slowly. "You're too stubborn and optimistic for your own good, sometimes, Hermione."

"Probably," she agreed quietly, "but you gave up on yourself decades ago, so one of us needs to keep fighting." Severus flinched, swallowing, and she asked softly, "Have you really been carrying this much guilt for all this time?"

He looked away from her at last, hunching his shoulders a little. "Yes," he whispered.

"No wonder you hated yourself so much." She moved closer still, closing the last bit of distance between them, and reached up to touch his face. "You're not a monster. It took me a while to realise it, I admit, but you're not. You're not the man you think you are, Severus, or the man so many people have said you are. You're so much more than that. I wish you could see what I see when I look at you."

"And what is that?" he asked uncomfortably.

"I see the man who's saved us. The man who risked everything to protect me, and my parents. The man who's never stopped trying to protect Harry, for whatever reason, even though you knew we all suspected you right from the start. The man who nobody except me seems to like, or trust, or appreciate, or value, including himself. I see you, Severus," she told him. "Bravery, scars, self-loathing, anger and all. And I still love you, no matter how hard you try to persuade me otherwise. I just wish you believed it."

He sighed and looked away again, automatically twitching his head so his hair fell over his face and hid his eyes; she was really starting to hate that defensive gesture. "I do believe it, or at least I'm trying to. But I'm almost forty, Hermione. I'll be thirty eight in January. And last night was the first time I've ever heard those words directed at me from anyone. Is it so unreasonable that I'm finding it difficult to get my head around the idea? If you do truly love me, then you're the only one who ever has."

She sighed. At least I enjoy a challenge, or I'd be crying right now. "I do hate being smarter than everyone else. It's not my fault they were all idiots who didn't appreciate you."

That startled him into laughter for a moment, although it didn't last. "Perhaps," he replied noncommittally, looking a bit better, before glancing at the house. "How is Potter?"

"I don't know. Shocked, upset, angry – but he's okay, I think, or he will be. He's made a lot of progress in the last year."

He nodded, leaning back against the crumbling brickwork and relaxing a little. "I suppose we should be thankful Dumbledore hadn't already told him."

"Definitely. That would have been a real mess." Sighing again, she added, "Speaking of Dumbledore..."

Severus gave her a wary look. "Yes?"

"I was speaking to Phineas yesterday. He thinks Dumbledore might only have a couple of weeks left. It sounds... bad."

He searched her eyes for a moment before nodding, still holding the expressionless mask of Occlumency to hide his thoughts. "I suppose I should have expected that. All right. We would have had to return to Headquarters soon anyway to find out what we do next. Let's try to make some progress with Nagini – Arthur Weasley's blood might be good enough. If it does work, I can use a poison, so if I get that started, then in a few days we'll go to Headquarters. We'll get a blood sample and try to see Dumbledore, and see if we can piece together what's going on."

"You sound tired," she observed quietly, looking at him. He looked tired, too. His health had improved at first once they'd left Hogwarts, and he did seem to be sleeping better these days, but looking at him now she could see that things were beginning to get to him. He looked like he'd lost weight again, and the shadows under his eyes were deeper than one night of missed sleep could account for.

Severus did his best to summon a smile. "I am, but it's not the end of the world. We're almost there."

Chasing the Sun

A Harry Potter Story
by Loten

Part 43 of 60

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