Hi there. Yes, I'm still alive and still writing. Lots of stuff been going on in the real world, and the characters in this story stopped talking to me for awhile. But here we are. Hope this was worth the wait. Happy Leap Day!
Warnings for some dark imagery. But this hasn't been exactly a puppies-and-rainbows story so you shouldn't be shocked.
Standing in the lobby, she nervously brushed a stray lock of brown hair behind her ear. Legally, she knew they were on solid footing and that this would likely go off without a hitch. There wasn't even a need to disguise herself. Bill Weasley had said as much. He knew their laws inside and out, after years of working there. She trusted that he knew what he was talking about. But oh if they were wrong…
She shook the thought out of her head. The Blacks may have disowned her long ago for marrying a muggle-born, but under Goblin Law, Andromeda Tonks was still considered her sister's next of kin. Not only that, Goblin Law was matrilineal – as far as the Goblins were concerned, all property in the Lestrange name was presumed to be Bellatrix's. With Bellatrix officially a fugitive, Andromeda had full rights to the contents inside.
She was escorted to her sister's vault in a matter of minutes. She did not even have to produce a key.
Dumbledore had described the object to her in detail – even showed her a memory of it, how it had looked just before it had been acquired by its new owner. The Goblin left her to the vault, and she was able to search. While an ordinary intruder might have been subject to the many dark curses on the objects within, Goblin magic protected her from their onslaught, as she was considered the treasure's rightful owner.
But Andromeda did not want the gold – she could practically see the blood that had come with such wealth. She was rich in the ways that mattered. If the future of the Wizarding World depended on her retrieving this cup – whatever its importance – she would do it. She would willingly wade into the bowels of the Black family fortune that she had turned her back on decades before, to retrieve an object that Dumbledore had told her would save them all. Lighting her wand, she cast a quick Accio – it shot into her outstretched hand, an object flying to its rightful owner.
She couldn't describe exactly why the cup was so repulsive to her, but it was. It reminded her of everything she'd ever hated about her family, her upbringing, the painful dissolution of her family. She felt the weight of so many wasted years, of horrible memories and angry words, and needed nothing more than to simply leave this horrible place. Clutching the cup to her chest, which somehow made the churning in her stomach and the pain in her heart hurt even more, she hurried out of the vault without stopping to look around. There was no point – she was never coming back.
After Apparating to the designated rendezvous point, she practically shoved it into Dumbledore's outstretched hand. "I'm done," she said, fighting back tears. "This is all I can do for you this time. I've lost too much and built too much to risk it all again. I've rebuilt my life one; I can't do it again. I know Dora has her reasons for her involvement, but…" She shook her head. "Keep her safe."
Dumbledore placed his hand on her shoulder. "You have done far more than I had any right to expect, Andromeda." His eyes twinkled, and his mere presence calmed Andromeda a bit.
Severus, standing behind Dumbledore and next to Bill Weasley, spoke with a flat tone but there was some sort of feeling in his otherwise dispassionate expression. Andromeda could not quite put her finger on it. "She is an asset," he said. "While no promises can be made…" he seemed to refocus before continuing. "None of us take these risks lightly."
After Andromeda left, the three men turned to face each other.
"Well," said Dumbledore in a tone that was far too cheerful for the circumstances. "Who would like to do the honors?"
Neither man volunteered.
"How does this thing not affect you, sir?" Bill asked Dumbledore. "Whenever we come close to one of these things, it takes all of my strength to not succumb to my worst worries and fears."
Dumbledore smiled as he replied. "I assure you, Bill, it affects me just as much and consumes me with worries that no mortal man should have to bear. However, we all have our coping mechanisms." And his eyes twinkled as he withdrew the Sword of Gryffindor from his sleeve.
"Gentlemen, if you will excuse me…"
Hermione's knees and palms scraped against the hard stone floor as two Slytherin girls shoved her to the ground. "Mudblood!" they shouted, spitting on her.
Don't let give them the satisfaction, she told herself as she stood up with as much dignity as the situation would allow.
A group of Half-Blood Hufflepuffs walked past, having witnessed the whole thing. They gave her a quick look of concern, but then averted their eyes and scurried away. It was becoming clear that there was little to be gained these days by doing the right thing.
Severus collapsed in pain as the blade plunged into the cup, gasping for air and gripping his forearm. Hundreds of miles away, Remus did the same.
"Does he know?" Bill asked worriedly.
Severus clenched his teeth and shook his head in short, jerked movements.
"Voldemort himself can no longer feel a connection to his horcruxes," Dumbledore said. "But those who are connected to him and still retain their souls…"
Severus took little comfort in the thought that he had kept his soul decades after he had first sold it to the man he was now working to destroy.
"Most will merely believe the Dark Lord is angry," he said finally. "Only Remus and I know what it really means."
"You aren't walking around by yourself anymore," Ron said firmly, tending to Hermione's wounds.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Ron, if I hide behind you not only will they not stop, you'll put your own self at risk. They're making threats against blood traitors now. I can take care of myself. I did."
"I don't care," he said. "I may not be smart, and I may not be strong, but I was put in Gryffindor for a reason, and I don't think it's just because of my last name."
"Ron, if this is about your Gryffindor pride – "
He rounded on her, his eyes intense. He gripped her shoulders.
"I'm not losing you," Ron said.
Hermione placed her hands on either side of his face, seeing his very real fear. "You aren't going to lose me, Ron."
He shook his head. "No," he said resolutely. "I'm not."
The four cats fanned out to search the Room of Requirement, searching for the Object. None of them knew what it looked like or where it was, but they had been told to search for something that seemed evil.
Severus had been convinced that there was a horcrux in Hogwarts, and Minerva had agreed. She, Crookshanks, Mrs. Norris, and Severus's kitten searched and searched. Minerva had suggested it; she said that given Crookshanks' ability to spot what Wormtail really was years earlier, they had a sense for evil and could track it down.
If there was an object in Hogwarts, it would be in here, and they would find it.
Hermione took her seat in the back of the classroom for her first course of the morning. The row in front of her was completely empty. In the next row, the Half-Bloods sat, Harry, Dean, and Seamus among them. He turned and gave her an encouraging look. In the rows in front of him, Ron and Neville and nearly all of Slytherin took the prime seats – the front row seats Hermione had always occupied.
The first day they had been seated in this order, by proclamation of the Headmaster, Ron and Harry and Neville had led a revolution of students in the requisite show of protest after lengthy discussion with Dumbledore and Lupin and Snape. It had warmed Hermione's heart to see it, as she knew this would have happened even if they were not working to help provide Snape and Lupin with cover. Now that was over, and Hermione – the only muggle-born in her year – sat alone in the back.
Crookshanks leapt to the top of a forgotten table. Something had drawn him up here. He met the eyes of the bust. He looked at the crown on top. Something about it felt wrong. He folded his ears, arched his back, and hissed.
Minerva appeared in her cat form behind him a short time later. She too felt it. She carefully moved forward and picked up the diadem between her teeth.
Severus Apparated, as was the headmaster's privilege, out directly from his office to an empty, protected area where he had met Dumbledore on a stormy night and sold his soul for the second time.
Severus knew what horrors could be unleashed by this horcrux. He knew that even Dumbledore feared them, and that was why he sent them away before destroying the cup. He hoped Occlumency would help him keep his focus on his mission.
Ron and Hermione huddled in his bed.
"We could get in so much trouble for this," she whispered, feeling safe with him.
Ron kissed her frizzy hair, wrinkling his nose as it tickled him. "Worth it."
Severus didn't dare look at the diadem.
"Severus, please!" Lily's likeness wailed as the Fiendfyre surrounded the diadem. She rose like a phoenix from the flames. Her voice was just as he remembered it. "Please!"
Severus steeled himself as best he could, using every ounce of strength to control the fire – one false move and it could turn on him. He would not look at her.
"I loved you," Lily said. "I loved you until the end."
"No," he couldn't help but whisper, forcing himself not to look at her. More than he regretted what had actually happened, he had tortured himself for many years with the idea that Lily had loved him and that he, not realizing it, had pushed her away. It was easier to believe that she hadn't loved him back. It was easier to move on if that was the case.
"You never moved on," Lily wailed as the flames began to melt the diadem, reading his mind and his fears despite his best efforts to Occlude them. "I forgive you."
The words he'd waited 20 years to hear. He faltered – he looked at her.
Those eyes. They were the most brilliant green he had ever seen. Her hair was dancing flame. She was even more beautiful and even more striking than she had been in life, and here he was, burning her, destroying her again. And now she was burning to death.
Severus jerked his gaze away just as the fire started to turn against him, burning his wand hand. Crying out in pain, he channeled it into his magic, forcing the flame on Lily, engulfing her. Her screams were terrible. He hated this war, hated this dark lord, hated Dumbledore, hated her for dying, hated himself most of all for what he was being forced to do.
"Severus, please!" she screamed in pain. "Please stop!"
He panted, tears flowed down his face as he refused to allow himself to look at Lily again. He shielded himself, but his control was hanging on by a thread.
As soon as the cries died down and the horcrux was nothing but a pile of ashes, he fell to his knees, choking out sobs as he vomited.
Remus rolled in pain on the ground, crying tears of relief through the pain.
They were close. So close now.
He hoped he lived to see it.
A very disheveled Severus showed up on her doorstep. He was unkempt and shaking and positively vulnerable.
Nymphadora Tonks let him in without a word.
"I know we agreed that…"
She put her fingers to his lips, stopping him from speaking further. She then held out her hand. He took it. She led him up the stairs.
Albus Dumbledore sat in the Hog's Head long after closing time. Now that he no longer lived at Hogwarts, it was the closest thing he had anymore to a family home.
Aberforth lumbered down the stairs, pausing at the sight of his brother but also not seeming surprised to see him. "You can get the hell out," he said in a thick brogue.
Albus gave his brother a long, sad look. "Do you really wish me to?"
Aberforth scoffed and turned back up the stairs. "Since when has that mattered?"
After the door slammed, Albus stared at the cold and empty fireplace. Four horcruxes were now destroyed, one that had been hidden in the very school where he had been headmaster for over 50 years. How had he missed it? How many lives could have been spared had he not been so blinded, so sure of himself?
He looked at the portrait above the fireplace. It was empty. Ariana always left whenever Albus arrived. He had not seen her in years.
Albus sat in the cold, dark, empty room all night, alone in every sense of the word.
Severus pored over the Marauder's Map, as was his custom each night. It was late, and it was dark. It had been charmed to glow red if a certain name ever appeared on it. Tonight, it did. After what seemed like forever, Severus spotted the name crawling around along the corridor leading to Gryffindor tower:
Severus grabbed his wand in one hand and the map in the other as he leaped over the desk on his way out of the Headmaster's office. He quickly cast a Lumos. There was no time to alert anyone else – they might lose him if he delayed. He knew that Wormtail had been sneaking into the castle, and this was his chance to catch him, to capture him, to kill him. He wouldn't let him leave again. He couldn't risk it – this would be his task alone.
The Headmaster's office was sealed completely against visitors, he had made sure of that after they first began to suspect Wormtail was coming in to Hogwarts. That room was secure. But the rest of the castle…
He raced through the castle, taking every secret passage and shortcut he knew, his eyes flashing desperately between the map and where he was going. Wormtail was still there; he didn't appear to be moving. He didn't appear to realize that anyone was chasing him.
Severus slowed as he approached the corridor. Wormtail was still there. Severus had long since perfected a near-silent walk through the castle, and used it now to great effect. The sound of his footprints was hidden by the soft snoring of the portraits. He doused his spell and silently made the candles in the corridor light very softly, just softly enough to reveal anything or anyone in his path. Wormtail was just around the corner in the corridor leading to the tower. He aimed his wand, ready to strike, and rounded the corner.
No one was there. No rat, no person, nothing.
Severus chanced a quick look at the map. Wormtail should be right here – within a few steps of him. Gingerly, he stepped forward a bit and increased the light from the candles a bit more. He looked at the map. His name and Wormtail's were superimposed over each other – Severus should literally be standing on top of him right now.
Remus had assured him that the magic was the same and, like the original map, it never lied. It had been tested and re-tested for accuracy.
Severus lit his wand and pointed it around him – at the edge of the wall, behind some of the portraits (ignoring the protestations of their inhabitants). Nothing. He abandoned all pretense and made the candles as bright as they would go. He craned his neck up at the ceiling – no rat. No Wormtail. He checked the map again – Peter Pettigrew was now walking in a slow circle around Severus. Taunting him. Severus trained his wand on the corresponding spot in the corridor, spinning with Wormtail, wherever he was. His movements became less smooth, his breath faster, his pulse more rapid.
"Hominem Revelio." Nothing. So Wormtail wasn't under an invisibility cloak or Disillusioned. There was clearly no rat here – not on the floor, not on the ceiling. Nowhere.
In a final act of desperation, Severus began firing curses at the place where Wormtail should have been, just in case. Nothing; they flew to the far end of the corridor and ricocheted off the walls – stunners, revealing spells, Levicorpus, every non-lethal curse he could think of.
He stared at the map. Wormtail continued to circle him.
Severus fell to his knees, grabbing at his hair in frustration and dropping his wand. In his desperation, he cried out.
"WHERE ARE YOU?"
I'm just saying, had you put me in charge of the Horcrux hunt, this war would have ended sooner.
I couldn't be bothered to look up whether Goblin Law exists or has been written down by anyone, and it frankly suited my story to not do so because I could make the law mean what I needed it to, so if I've violated some canon here, just squint.
The idea of students at Hogwarts being segregated in their classrooms according to blood status is inspired by the excellent story "The Professor's Discretion" by Twelve Years in Azkaban. Read it if you haven't already.
No estimate on when I will write/post the next chapter, but I promise that it is coming. Hopefully before the next Leap Day :)