Disclaimer: All characters belong to JKR. It is an honor to play with them for just for a little while. Truly.
AN: Thanks to Ariadne. Another thanks to those who reviewed. I do appreciate every single one. Never think you need to say something witty or significant. A simple "I'm here and enjoying it" will do. I don't bite. Much.
Hermione sat next to Severus in the front row, holding his hand in her lap. Even though no one could see, the fact that he allowed her to show any gesture of affection in public told her that he was not all right. He had said very little since returning from the forest with Narcissa's body the night before, and Hermione had had the sense to let him alone.
They had decided to hold the funeral service in the hospital wing to include Draco. He sat upright in bed, staring off into the distance in shock or grief. Madam Pomfrey had told Hermione that Draco did not sleep, choosing to stare out the window after she had worked on the terrible cuts above both knees. While drying a tear, she said that he would be fine physically; it was his mental state that was at stake. She said that some time in the night, Severus had come and spent hours with Draco, talking to him until near dawn.
Severus, seeing that Draco was in no condition to speak on behalf of his mother, stood and moved to a teacher's podium they had brought in from a nearby classroom. Everyone present watched in silence as he ran his hands slowly along the edges of the wood. He seemed deep in thought, and gripped the sides as he often did while teaching.
After a pause during which he looked down, he began.
"Narcissa Malfoy, to most of you, was a former follower of Voldemort. She only came into your lives recently as someone changing sides in the process of redemption. Someone living on the outskirts of society, and not truly accepted by either side. Her contribution to the Order in her short time with us was astounding. She helped to deliver two Horcruxes and provided information on a third. For that alone, she should be honored."
Severus remained silent for a moment, daring anyone to disagree before continuing, "I will miss her wit and intelligence. In years past, whenever we crossed paths, she would somehow invent increasingly creative ways to insult me. Anyone else I would have hexed into oblivion, but Narcissa I left alone, respecting her as a formidable opponent. We traded verbal abuse and sharp criticism as casually as any of you might discuss the weather over tea. In the end, we may have had our differences, but underneath our words, we had an understanding. We both knew the true depths of madness that is being part of Voldemort's inner circle, and were working towards his destruction. I will not lie and say that I didn't enjoy working with her towards such a goal."
He leaned forward and brought his hands up to the top of the podium's ledge, gripping it tightly. The sound of the wood as it creaked under his weight disturbed the silence in the room. Even outside of the classroom, his presence commanded attention, bringing all eyes to his.
In a strong voice tinged with danger, Severus said, "There is no reason for me to temper what I am about to say in present company. We all know what we are to face soon.
“There is little room for morality in war - some acts are beyond even the most evil of this world. To kill the mother of your own child is one such example. It is something that cries out for at the very least, outrage - and, at most, the most severe revenge. To ignore such a tragedy would drag humanity down yet another notch."
Severus looked directly at Draco, and declared, "I will not allow that to happen."
For the first time, Draco looked at Severus with interest dawning on his face. Hermione noticed that Draco looked extremely worn and somehow much older - his days as a student and part of a family at an abrupt end. Kitty sat unmoving in Draco's lap, staring towards where Narcissa's coffin stood.
Severus stepped out from behind the podium, moved to the coffin, and trailed his hand along the edge.
Turning back to an audience that did not dare speak, Severus said, "Remember Narcissa as a devoted mother and someone who, in the end, was working towards Voldemort's imminent destruction. Her actions last night bespoke the kind of selfless sacrifice I have only witnessed only one other time..."
Severus spoke his last words directly to Harry. "And that is a story we know all too well."
Hermione sat down across the table from Severus. She had come from lunch, bringing him a plate since he couldn't leave the potion. On the way, she saw Ron, but as soon as he spotted her, he awkwardly found he needed to go in the opposite direction.
"If he wants to be a child about this, then so be it," she thought, but still she worried she had lost him as a friend.
Severus was in the process of measuring out a foul-looking liquid that smelled nearly as bad as it looked. She admired him for a moment as he worked. His eyes were narrowed in concentration, leaving a slight crease in his brow. Deep thought preventing him from displaying his normal irritated facial expression, leaving an almost peaceful, albeit intense look. Hermione noted that even his breathing seemed slower.
"Severus?" she said, leaning forward. "I'm sorry."
Distractedly, Severus muttered, "What have you done now?"
"You know what I mean," she said, watching as he employed what felt most natural to him. Denial.
Severus shrugged as he adjusted the flame. "I'm fine. Go console Draco if you wish to wallow in such things."
Hermione came around the table and put her hand over his, stopping him.
When he opened his mouth to protest, she shook her head, saying, "Don't even try it. I know for a fact you need to wait at least six minutes before the next stage."
He raised an eyebrow, but made no further argument, offering silence as his best defense.
"Tell me," she said, pointing to the stool next to him.
Remarkably, he sat. He watched her for a moment before he said, "If you must know."
She quirked a smile, indicating that she wasn't going anywhere.
He leaned his elbows on the table and, tensing his shoulders, said, "I knew Narcissa for most of my life. As you know, Lucius and I were supposedly friends, even while Voldemort was thought to be conquered."
"You knew he might come back?"
Severus nodded. "Yes and no. I had no doubt that there might be a way, so I needed to keep my image intact. That meant being part of that social circle, if you care to grant it such a name."
Hermione rubbed her hand on his back, feeling the rough texture of the wool and the vibration of his voice as he spoke.
"Narcissa was always someone who would offer a challenge in the sport of verbal fencing," he said, watching the flame caress the bottom of the cauldron. With a hint of a smile, he said, "I daresay she was my only equal in that realm."
Severus looked at Hermione for a moment before continuing. "While Lucius was hardly a kind father, he was an even worse husband. I do believe that sparring with me was the only diversion Narcissa had from what must have been a lonely, even isolated existence. When I would move to leave after an evening of successfully insulting each other in increasingly vile ways, she would give me the slightest of nods, telling me that we had had quite a match. In Lucius' eyes, Narcissa and I were bitter enemies. The fact that he allowed me to insult his wife spoke volumes about his disregard for her."
He leaned forward and reached out his hand, bringing it close to the heat, staring into the flames, allowing his eyes to lose focus.
"I, of course, blamed her for the Unbreakable Vow, but I know - she only did it out of love for Draco. She knew no other way - and had no one else."
Hermione leaned her head against his shoulder, watching him move his hand towards the flame, close enough to touch, then back again.
She didn't think he would speak again until he said, "In the last Order meeting - when we heard that Lucius had broken out of Azkaban, she looked to me. All I could offer her was the same nod. The same acknowledgment."
He shook his head and took a deep breath, pushing himself to sit back up. "She should have told me that she was going. With Lucius out, she should have never left. I could have -"
"Severus, it wasn't your fault," Hermione interrupted, placing her arm around his shoulders. "I'm sure that Draco doesn't blame you."
Severus thought for a moment, "No, he doesn't. He blames himself."
Hermione asked hesitantly, "He's going to fight for revenge, isn't he?"
"Yes," he said, running his hand over the table's surface. "I expect nothing less of him."
"Because you know," Hermione stated, turning to watch his face.
Severus looked at her quickly, and, as if deciding that the conversation was over, rose and returned to the potion.
Hermione let him work in silence for an hour or so, busying herself with a book on the behavior of Dementors before she ventured to speak again. Thinking of nothing better to say, and knowing he couldn't resist a question about potions, she asked, "Can nothing be done for the smell?"
He glanced at her with an expression that vaguely resembled relief at her leaving their earlier topic of conversation alone.
"It is far from a pleasant business," he stated, slipping into a teaching tone. "Just as you witnessed that night, Lupin could kill and have no memory of his actions. To commit a terrible act, to know what you have done, and be able to mourn your mistake, is one thing. To never remember, or to fear what you might have done, is another," he said, holding up a flask to the light before adding its contents to the cauldron. The potion's color brightened for a moment before moving towards a sickly brown.
"No, I wouldn't expect the potion that keeps the mind in place to be palatable. Life doesn't work that way, so why should potions be any different?"
Hermione nodded, then spent the next few minutes examining the texture of the wooden table, her mind returning to how to approach Ron.
"Something is wrong. Tell me," Severus said.
Hermione looked up and realized that he had been watching her. She shook her head slightly as she found a sharp piece in the table's surface to worry with her nails. "It's nothing, really."
"Upon reviewing the day so far..." he said distractedly, timing his stirring, "I don't recall offending you; however, I could be mistaken. As you are well aware, I offend so often it is commonplace to me. Accept my apology and apply it wherever you may see fit."
She gave a small laugh and caught his eyes, seeing a slight grin on his face. "You don't need to worry. You are not in trouble; however, I will accept your apology. I'm sure you'll need it soon."
With a nod, he started to dice a root into microscopic pieces. "Excellent - however, that leaves my original question unanswered."
Picking at a raised part of the table, she said, "Am I that obvious?"
"You are, and I'll thank you to not dissect my work surface. This table is one of the few things I have that has not been blown up, spilled on, broken, or written on by idiotic first years who should have their magic forcefully removed for the safety of innocent furniture," he said, pushing a powder from a cutting board into the potion.
Severus put the board down, moved behind her and wrapped his robes around her shoulders. When she smiled, he raised his arm, covering her eyes and murmured into her ear, "I have noticed that you like this. You'll find that my exemplary memory can be utilized for good as well as evil. What can I do to convince you to tell me?"
"It's not something you'll want to talk about," she said. Talking to Severus about Ron was not top of her list - especially when wrapped in his robes with that voice.
"Try me," he said into her hair.
Hermione leaned back against his chest, and said, "Fine, Ron won't speak to me since we got engaged."
"This is a problem?"
"Severus!" she said, trying hard not to smile. It was extremely difficult to allow a smile at all given the events of the past twenty four hours.
"It is a simple question. Innocent in its intent," he said lowering his arm, but still holding her close.
"Yes, it is a problem," she said seriously, "Ron is my friend."
Holding her tighter, he asked, "What will you do?"
Shaking her head, she said, "I don't know - wait him out, I guess. I can hardly force him to talk to me."
Severus smirked while running his hand over her hair. "That is true. You cannot force him."
"Very good, Harry. Now try again," Remus said as he bent to retrieve his wand.
Severus entered the Great Hall and took a seat next to Minerva. He watched as Lupin neatly dueled with Potter, each of them alternating Disarming spells. He scowled at the notion that this type of training was doing anything useful. Not unless Voldemort had suddenly acquired good manners and would wait patiently while Potter retrieved his wand or tied his shoe - instead of simply killing him.
Sensing his irritation, but without turning away from the lesson, Minerva said, "Temper, Severus. You may not agree with Remus' style, but he is a competent teacher."
Severus snorted, but said nothing.
"Care to verbalize your eloquent nasal expression, Severus?" Minerva said, turning to him while Remus and Harry prepared for another round.
"Do I dare?" he drawled, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair.
"Yes, please elaborate. It seems you have an opinion."
"Minerva, you know my opinion. Potter needs to work on true fighting skills, not this Sunday-after-tea-dueling-club nonsense," he said in disgust.
She sighed and said, "Severus, you should agree that we had to continue while you healed. Now, when you are better-"
"I am fine," he interrupted, growling as another boring dueling round completed.
"Severus, you are not. Poppy told me she had to practically replace most of the stitches last night. Besides, you two wounding each other randomly is not our best strategy at the moment, with two more Horcruxes still remaining..."
Scowling, he left the stitches comment alone, and said, "Speaking of the wounded, as soon as Draco is well enough, he and I are going on a little field trip."
Turning in her chair to face him, Minerva brought her voice down, "Now, Severus, you listen to me. You are not taking him out of this castle. He has had enough, do you hear me?"
Ignoring her anger, he said clearly, "Do you have a better suggestion for retrieving the Horcrux currently residing in the Riddle mansion? Send an Owl requesting it be forwarded to us, perhaps? Lucius has undoubtedly already informed Voldemort that Wormtail was under the Imperius. Luckily, I believe it to be too risky for him to move the Horcrux; however, it will undoubtedly be heavily guarded."
Leaning closer to her, he said, "Draco is the only one who knows that house."
Minerva listened to him and said nothing at first, watching as Harry and Remus exchanged jinxes. After a moment, she said, without looking his way, "It's a thought worth considering."
Severus began to grin after this small victory, but his grin was quickly replaced with an involuntary sneer as he watched Harry and Remus' civilized duel. Hermione moved to sit next to him and whispered in his ear, "You look even more disgusted than normal, Severus. What? Too orderly for you?"
He didn't respond to her question; rather, he indicated Ron, who stood watching the dueling with interest. "Spoken to you yet, has he?"
Hermione looked at Ron sadly and replied, "No. Just sort of looks at me, makes a face and walks away. Wouldn't speak to Harry either. He'll eventually come around, I suppose."
Severus muttered, "Gutless wonder..."
"Severus, leave it be, please..." Hermione whispered.
Keeping his eyes on Ron, Severus asked, "Minerva, in your opinion... where do you envision the final battle taking place?"
Minerva, seemingly surprised by the suddenness of such a question, thought for a moment. "I haven't completely considered that, to be honest, Severus."
"Interesting," he said thoughtfully. "And who - do you think - shall be present?"
Hermione didn't appreciate how Severus was staring at Ron, or the path his thoughts seemed to be taking.
"Well, I would hope we would all be there to help in some way. The Death Eaters, of course, would need to be dealt with. I know you may have found a way to divert them using the Mark; however, I imagine they may already be there. Goodness knows what else he may bring with him, given the chance. Why do you ask this now?" Minerva asked with a puzzled look.
Severus' face darkened further as he continued to stare at Ron. "No reason," he muttered, then he stood abruptly and strode across the Hall. He stopped directly in front of Ron, surprising him into taking a step backward. They regarded each other with contempt; however, Severus' stare was proving impossible to endure for long, forcing Ron to look away.
"Weasley!" Severus stated loudly, even though Ron was mere feet from him. He drew his wand slowly and said as Ron's eyes widened, "Disarm me."
Ron's mouth fell open in shock. In a confused, wavering voice, he managed to say, "What?"
"Are you deaf in addition to dim-witted? DISARM ME!" Severus roared, his voice echoing off the walls.
"Severus, is this necessary?" Minerva asked hesitantly.
Gritting his teeth, Severus kept his eyes fixed on Ron as he said, "Yes. It is necessary."
Remus moved slightly, about to say something. Without turning his head, Severus raised his wand at Remus and said simply, "Don't."
Ron, stunned at the prospect of fighting Severus, stood rooted to the spot - speechless. His eyes moved from his parents to where Harry and Remus stood, then to Hermione for a split second.
Severus crossed his arms and growled, "Oh, well done. Please enlighten me, Mr. Weasley. Just which bed will you be hiding under when the final battle occurs?"
Looking disgusted, Ron said, "I won't be hiding."
Feigning embarrassment, Severus said, "Oh, my mistake. You intend to be there? As a spectator? Where would you like your seat for the best view of the festivities?"
Suddenly, Severus leaned even closer to Ron, and asked with a sneer, "Do you think that Narcissa meant to meet death out there last night?"
A small, stuttering voice emerged from Ron. "No."
Everyone waited in silence, watching the exchange. Hermione met Harry's eyes as he stood, the duel forgotten. She gave a slow shake of her head, indicating she had no idea what Severus was doing.
Severus' lips curled at the sight of Ron positively frozen in front of him. Taking on an accusatory tone, he asked, "Tell me, Mr. Weasley, do you think for a second that a polite owl will arrive with a perfectly lettered invitation for Potter to come outside and duel in a civilized manner? It is unfortunate for the rest of the world that the insane do not play by the rules."
Ron only looked confused, wanting nothing more than to be out of the range of Severus' glare. A flicker of anger rose in his eyes, though.
"When the last Horcrux is found and destroyed, Voldemort will be mortal. As mortal and you and I. Do you know what that means?" His black eyes bored into Ron's as he loomed over him.
Ron shook his head in a vain attempt to placate Severus into possibly leaving him alone.
"What it means you small-minded twit, is the final battle will have begun. Now that may sound grandiose to you, but believe me there is no other way to put it. Whatever phrase or illustrative terminology you use, it is all the same. There will not be any orderly dueling. In fact - you may awaken one night to find the castle overrun by Death Eaters. Just think, Weasley - you are alone, and Fenrir Greyback in all his rotting glory is in your very bedroom, just salivating at the prospect of biting another. Or - even better, enjoying the slow, sickly, tearing sound as he removes your throat the old fashioned way: with his teeth."
Molly and Arthur looked disturbed, but remained silent. Severus glanced in their direction for a moment. "No, there is no telling when it will happen. Where you will be at that moment. Who will be left standing, torn, broken, tortured - dead."
Severus turned back to Ron. "Still refuse to learn how to fight effectively?"
Ron's angry face matched his hair. Severus raised an eyebrow, noticing how Ron's hand was twitching towards his wand.
"Going to attack me, Weasley?" he asked in an encouraging voice. "Allow me to assist."
Severus leaned in closely, and said in a voice so low only Ron could hear, "It's not my fault you were of the too-little, too-late persuasion."
"Shut up!" Ron shouted, drawing his wand. Everyone in the room jumped at the shift.
Ignoring Ron as he raised his wand to strike, Severus provoked him further, "Don't blame me you never had the guts to tell her."
Jerking his wand higher, Ron shouted, "Shut up, you greasy bastard!
"Strong words, Weasley. Care to back them up?" Severus said calmly, a smug grin playing on his face.
Hermione watched them stare each other down, knowing Ron had no hope. He was more lucky than skilled when it came to fighting. Severus was right, by provoking Ron into training to fight better, he just might be saving his life.
Ron held his wand steady. His expression had changed into a quiet, determined look of someone preparing themselves.
"Expelliarmus!" Ron yelled.
Severus simply stood aside as the spell bounced harmlessly along the floor. Harry ran his hand through his hair and shook his head.
"Impressive, Weasley. I daresay that would have worked on a family of rabbits. Certainly not on myself or a blood-thirsty Death Eater," Severus taunted. "Here-," he said, casually tossing his wand aside.
Ron watched as Severus' wand hit the floor, rolled and settled to a stop near Hermione.
"We'll pretend that your sad excuse for a spell worked," Severus said, holding his hands up, imitating the fear of an unarmed opponent. "Now, hit me with something that will do more than put me to sleep."
Ron looked shocked for a moment, then charged forward, yelling, "STUPEFY!" Severus dodged the spell easily, watching with interest as it tore down the length of the Hall, grazing the wall and throwing several torches out of their brackets and onto the floor.
Severus turned back to Ron and made a show of flexing his hands. In an instant, Ron found himself thrown across the Hall, sliding into a group of benches.
Ron looked up to see Severus standing over him with a smug look on his face.
"Weasley, I can hear your spells years before they hit your lips. Worse than Potter was - before he learned better," Severus said, gesturing to where Harry stood.
As Ron angrily pushed a bench off of one of his legs, Severus said in a low, deadly tone, "You will begin speaking to Hermione again. And don't look at me as if I have gone completely insane. Look at me as if you cannot fathom why nature allows me to draw breath..."
Ron replaced his shocked look with one of revulsion. Everyone in the room stood motionless, wondering what they could possibly be discussing.
Satisfied with Ron's improved facial expression, Severus snarled, "If you ever make Hermione feel like this again, I will hex you with so much force the dozen or so children you will most undoubtedly sire will bear a mark."
Ron's eyes widened as he absently rubbed one of his legs.
"Understood?" Severus growled.
Ron didn't respond other than to get to his feet, looking like he was crafting various ways to see Severus dead.
Quirking an eyebrow, Severus said with a smirk, "Interesting thoughts, Weasley. Care to learn how to put them into action?"
"Stop - doing - that!" Ron raged.
"I asked you a question, Mr. Weasley - and it should be 'Stop doing that, sir."
Ron appeared murderous, but remained silent. His hands were clenched into fists, gripping his wand so tightly it threatened to break.
"Need more convincing?" Severus asked loudly. "Do you know what being a Death Eater does to one's sense of morals?"
Severus didn't expect an answer, only taking a moment to allow Ron's anger rise yet another notch higher.
"No? Well then, I'll give you a small hint. Lucius wasn't always a delusional fanatic, yet last night he attempted to murder his entire family. How does that descent occur? Enclose yourself in a world where the most wicked, dark, and disturbing things occur without a second thought, and you start to slip. The bar of acceptability moves ever so slightly lower until your idea of normal is the most vile and disgustingly destructive behavior known to man."
Stepping closer to Ron, Severus continued, "You had the pleasure to meet some of these fine upstanding people during the interaction lovingly referred to as the Department of Mysteries battle, I believe? And again, here, just a few weeks ago? Just think - some of them have had more time to not only slip further into the sea of delirium, but to hone their capacity for mindless violence while in Azkaban."
Ron shook his head, choosing to look at the floor in an attempt to escape Severus' glare.
"They will kill you in a heartbeat and not even care to know your name," Severus said in a disturbingly knowledgeable voice.
When Ron refused to look at him, Severus snarled and took a fistful of Ron's robes, shaking him as he yelled, "Paying attention, Weasley? Or do you still think this is a game?"
Harry stood with his wand at his side. He, along with everyone else, said nothing. There was no need, because even though Snape's delivery of the message was severe, everything he said was true.
Severus shoved Ron away, and said in a thoughtful tone to those in the room, "I have no intention of teaching anyone to kill, as this world has enough murderers. However, if you think for one moment that you should also not be able to defend yourself - you are on your own. It is far from heroic to fall in battle due to nothing more than your own ignorance."
Looking at Harry, Severus said, "After all, the burden of required murder is on only one of us. Potter must speak the two words you all know and take a life. No matter how evil the victim, the burden is the same. That being said, this fight is not Potter's alone."
Minerva stood. "Severus?"
Severus turned to meet Minerva's eyes as he declared, "It is time to resurrect this 'Dumbledore's Army,' and, as an answer to the question of where the battle will occur..."
He spread his arms out, indicating the castle and said, "Where else?"