Disclaimer: Still belongs to JKR. Yes, still.
AN: A permanently affixed thanks to Ariadne. My apologies in advance...
Severus turned back to the rest of the Order, watching their collectively shocked expression at what he had just declared. Hogwarts would be turned into a war zone. It was a strategy that would be to their advantage, and no one could argue the fact that it made sense. The problems were - how would they draw Voldemort in, and would the attack come before they found the last two Horcruxes?
Minerva nodded sadly. “We shall meet after dinner tonight to discuss our plans.”
Hermione watched Severus give Ron a glare and join Minerva and Harry. She was surprised to see Ron approach and stand in front of her, shoving his hands in his pockets and hunching his shoulders. His way of standing irritated her no end; it looked to her as if he was either perpetually unsure of something or mortally embarrassed.
After Ron had struggled but not said anything for an awkward space of time, Hermione sighed, rolling her eyes.
"Do you intend to say anything, or will you just stand there and expect me to read your mind?"
"Erm, no," Ron mumbled, glancing in Severus' direction, then back to the floor.
Hermione leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms, and said, "Well then. Get on with it."
Frustration crossed his face and he muttered, "Oh - never mind."
Severus watched the exchange while carrying on a conversation with Minerva and Harry. Over Minerva's shoulder, he saw Weasley walk away and Hermione appear even angrier than before.
Minerva's last sentence trailed off as she noticed Severus' expression darken considerably.
Before she could ask, he said, staring past her, "Excuse me for one small moment."
Minerva and Harry watched as Severus took no more than three strides towards Ron. At the sight of Severus' approach, Ron halted, hesitated, then seemed to sharply change his mind about leaving.
Severus returned to Minerva and Harry, acknowledging their perplexed looks with the slightest hint of a grin.
"What exactly was that, Severus?" Minerva asked suspiciously.
Severus watched as Ron returned to Hermione, and muttered, "Nothing of consequence."
"If I didn't know better, it looked like-" Harry began.
"Yes, Potter, we are all well aware of how accurate your interpretation of events has been - aren't we?" Severus interrupted in a voice that declared the topic closed.
Hermione looked up to see Ron swiftly return, sit next to her, and glance nervously in Severus' direction. When she caught Severus' eye, he offered a slight grin and then, with an innocent look, returned to his conversation.
Hermione asked irritably, "Have something to say this time?”
“Look Hermione, I'm sorry I acted like-" Ron began, staring at his hands.
“A prat?” Hermione supplied.
Ron looked insulted for a moment, then shrugged and agreed. “Yeah - thanks. Um - it's all just, well…” he said, but weakened, and couldn't seem to find words.
“Shall I fill in the gaps?” Hermione offered.
Ron only nodded while examining his robes.
“Ron, we are still friends. I don't want to lose that, all right?” she said, concerned for the future, “We can't afford to be divided. Not now.”
Ron again nodded in agreement, tilting his head so he could both look at Hermione and keep an eye on Severus.
Hermione took Ron's hand and said, “Besides, Severus doesn't seem to be the possessive type.”
“No…” Ron agreed, shaking his head vigorously. “No - no, of course not. Not overbearing at all.”
“Good, so we're all right now?”
Nodding with relief, Ron said, “Yeah - yeah, we're good.”
“Great. Look, I'm going to the library for a while,” Hermione said and stood to leave.
“Okay - yeah, see you later,” he said, raising a hand to wave.
As Hermione went to leave, Severus barely raised one eyebrow at Ron and moved his head in Hermione's direction.
Ron jumped up and practically ran after Hermione, calling, “Hey, wait up!”
"You're supposed to eat it, not push it about. The miles it travels around the plate doesn't count," Hermione smirked, glancing sideways at Severus at dinner.
A slight crease appeared on his brow. "Hermione, I have survived quite well without your dictating how I should eat."
"That isn't eating, that's rearranging, and I'm only teasing you," she said with a grin. "All right then. How's this? Eat your dinner..." she started, and then, turning her head slightly, added, "sir. Does that help?"
Finally quirking a cautious smile, he said, "Marginally, although I don't require you to call me 'sir.'"
"Not even a little?" she asked, laughing at his confused expression.
"What's wrong, don't like your..." she said trailing off as she tried to figure out just what was on his plate.
Sitting back, he said, "In a former life I believe it was a chicken or some other type of bird."
"Not hungry then?"
"Quite observant," he said with a smirk. "No, my mind precludes appetite at times. When something is about to come about, when I'm on the edge of unraveling a problem, all time, and, more importantly, food, is ignored. I am coming closer to a modification of the Felix Felicis to help Potter close his mind. He may be able to keep me out while leisurely sitting in my rooms; however, in the heat of battle that will not be easy. And you? I could have used your help."
"Surprisingly enough, Ron is speaking to me again," Hermione said, studying his reaction.
Revealing nothing, Severus casually poured himself another drink. "Is he? Fascinating."
"Yes. Interesting how he just couldn't help but both apologize for his behavior and follow me around for the majority of the day - even to the library," she said suspiciously.
“Did he? There is certainly a first time for everything,” he drawled.
Hermione stared at him incredulously.
Ignoring her scrutiny, Severus said with interest, "Discuss deep, thoughtful subjects - did you?"
"Things like the complexity of Ancient Runes, the constellations..."
Hermione shoved him, trying to yell and whisper at the same time, "Severus, quit it!"
"Ah - you discussed Hogwarts' history, did you? No? Well, I must give up. I truly don't know what else is in his head - other than small figures perpetually playing a round of Quidditch."
Keeping her voice low, she asked, "Why did you tell him to talk to me?"
Ignoring her question, Severus said, suppressing a grin, "Very much the type to have a small cheering section chanting his name as well."
"I'm losing patience," she said in a hushed, threatening voice.
Gesturing with his fork as if he had hit on something, Severus declared, "Perhaps a band. Yes, definitely a band."
"Severus!" she cried, pounding her fist on the table.
Hermione turned around to find a few people looking at her curiously her over their soup. Luckily, she and Severus were seated at the table's end. Fred and George exchanged gestures that indicated she was crazy, and Minerva regarded her with a disapproving frown before returning to her meal.
Severus, however, had suddenly found interest in his food, effectively making her appear unbalanced to have called his name when he was clearly right next to her.
"Did it make you happy that he spoke to you?" he asked without looking up from his plate.
Reluctantly, she admitted, "Well, yes, but-"
"Then there is your answer. True love cares nothing for social boundaries. It affected your happiness, so it was simple.”
She wanted to be mad at him, but just couldn't. "Even though that is borderline interference - I still find it strangely sweet. Could you please not do it by threatening people?"
“I prefer to call it aggressive persuasion,” Severus replied with a defiant grin.
Rolling her eyes, Hermione said, “Fine, I'll play your word game. Please don't persuade people so hard. I can take care of myself in that respect. Ron means a lot to me as a friend, and it would make me happy if you'd be nice to him.”
Severus made a groaning noise in his throat.
“How about being civil to him?” Hermione offered.
“I shall devise some way to achieve that goal - for you,” he said, with a slight bow of his head.
Still suspicious, she said, “Please do.”
He regarded her for a moment before leaning close to her. “You and I need to pick up a conversation we've started before. Later," he said in a low voice. The look in his eyes told her exactly what he meant.
"Oh?" she said, sounding amused. “You've got quite a talent for changing the subject when it suits you, Severus.”
“A talent useless on those intelligent enough to notice,” he said with a grin. “It was worth an attempt, although I knew it would fail.”
“Oh, I never said it failed. Just that I noticed,” she whispered as a devious smile spread on her face.
Hermione reached under the table and placed her hand on Severus' knee. Immediately, he jumped up, ramming into the table and knocking a candle and pitcher over. Several disgruntled faces leaned forward, staring down the row as Severus tried to compose himself, cursing under his breath in a language Hermione was thankful she didn't understand.
"Are you all right?" she asked innocently, grinning and waving at a few people before they turned back to their dinner. She could hear Ginny giggling, and was glad that Ron was seated on the far side of Hagrid, who could obscure almost anything from view.
"You are pure evil, woman," Severus muttered, irritably reassembling the table setting.
Leaning slightly against his shoulder, Hermione carefully put her hand back on his knee, enjoying how he tensed. "Evil? Really, Severus. Evil is such a strong word."
Severus gritted his teeth. "Not. Here."
"Oh, no, never here. Never," she whispered in his ear, laughing softly as he recognized his own words from the Entrance Hall.
"It is my only pleasure to know that you are enjoying yourself," he muttered, relieved as her hand left his knee, but horrified to find it relocated to his coat.
Severus took hold of her wrist, hissing, "What are you doing?"
"Nervous?" she asked, smiling as if they were engaged in a perfectly normal conversation.
Severus looked at Hermione and shook his head. Trying to ignore how she was fingering a button on his frock coat.
Angling her body to hide what she was doing, she looked into his eyes, daring him to remain still.
An eyebrow twitched as they stared each other down.
"Stop..." he pleaded, but couldn't manage the harsh tone he intended when faced with her amused expression.
"Fine..." Hermione said, removing her hand. "But, all I did was this..." Hermione then not only put her hand on his knee, but slid her hand upwards a few inches, sending him scrambling to get up.
"Severus, is there something wrong?" Remus asked with a trace of a smile.
Severus glared at Hermione, who was innocently busying herself with her soup, and growled, "No."
Taking his seat again, he leaned close to her, breathing in her ear as she ignored him, “You're asking for it, witch.”
She grinned, stirring her soup casually. “Am I now? Fascinating.”
"Yes - you are," he said irritably, brushing his coat off.
Hermione moved so they were barely inches apart, face to face.
Severus' hand stilled in mid-brush, then sank into his lap. At first he moved back, but then he leaned forward, helpless to resist her challenge. He was studying her, holding back. His expression was predatory, making promises without words.
“Kiss me - just once,” she said quietly.
He moved hesitantly closer, sharing warmth, desperately close to touching, until he suddenly remembered himself and retreated. He glared past her as people further along the table argued loudly about something.
She whispered, “You did it once.”
“That I did; however, I had no idea all of Scotland was watching,” he growled.
Hermione smiled and nudged him, “You will need to do it in front of quite a lot of people. You do know that - don't you?”
Looking disgusted, he muttered, “I do.”
“You'd rather face Voldemort wandless than be even remotely affectionate in public, wouldn't you?” she asked, suppressing a smile.
He considered for a moment. “It is a close competition.”
Trying not to laugh, she leaned towards him and whispered in his ear, ensuring he could feel her breath on his neck, “When the time comes - and everyone is watching - will you manage to retain consciousness?”
Severus drew his shoulders up and gently pushed her away, saying in a low voice, “Now you are teasing me in more ways than one.”
With a grin, she whispered, “Later.”
As Minerva sat at her desk, the room quieted. She folded her hands and took the type of deep breath people take before addressing subjects for which they have no affection.
“We will address what Severus suggested this morning. Time is of the essence, as we have no idea what Voldemort's plans are at the moment. We must begin to prepare for what is to come, and draw on our strengths. I am in this position as Headmistress of a school, not as an army- or war strategist."
Minerva looked around the room in silence for a moment before continuing, "It is important that we be prepared and know our enemy. Only one among us is able to offer both and to lead this effort."
Several people looked at one another questioningly.
Minerva turned to Severus, and said, “We will work together towards this, but, in the end, I grant you the authority as leader. Will you accept?”
Severus looked slightly surprised at her words. “I will.”
“Agreed, then. Let's discuss our thoughts. Severus, I have the distinct feeling you have strong opinions on the matter?” Minerva said.
Severus rose and paced in thought for a few moments before he said, “I believe that first an inventory of resources and assignment of responsibility should be performed. Hermione, since you are most adept at note-taking, will you do the honors?”
Hermione rose and took a piece of parchment from Minerva. She began to take notes, building what would become their playbook for battle.
“Hagrid?” Severus asked, standing with one hand on Minerva's desk. “Can you speak with Firenze and the Centaurs, gather the Thestrals, and also round up any of the less desirable types of creatures you can find?”
Hagrid nodded. “I can do that.”
“Also, the Hippogriff… are there more?”
“There are, yes. Not as tame as old Buckbeak, but good enough.”
“Good. Train them to patrol the gates and surrounding area. The one known as Buckbeak will come inside the castle. When at least two more are trained, bring them inside as well. Keep them at three points in the castle from which they can be directed to fly.”
Looking impressed, Minerva asked, “Flying weapons, Severus?”
“Won't be a problem.” Hagrid said, nodding. He seemed both proud and worried to think that the creatures he cared for might help win the war.
Severus' eyes turned to Alastor Moody. Arriving at a decision, he crossed the room and said in a sincere voice, “Moody?”
Alastor Moody remained seated, looking reproachfully at Severus for being the one chosen to lead anything. “Yes?”
“Finally, your fanatical sense of paranoia will be put to full use,” Severus said in a tone as close to a compliment as he was ever going to grant. “If you are willing - I'd think you should handle security; the grounds, wards, patrolling - everything that falls within that realm.”
Moody regarded Severus in silence for a long period of time. To the careful observer, a great deal passed between them in that time. From Moody, distrust of someone who he still believed to be on the wrong side; from Severus, caution in dealing with someone who would happily throw him in Azkaban - if it still stood.
Moody glanced around the room. His mechanical eye, however, remained firmly on Severus. He finally said, “Yes, I will.”
Severus nodded, then said, “Tonks and Lupin... Since separating the two of you would surely cause you to wither and die in a most dramatic fashion, and I don't care to hear the screams of the heartbroken, you are both with Moody.”
Remus looked irritated at first, but then softened as he most likely figured this was as close as Severus would get to being kind.
Severus turned and looked out over the sea of red hair filling the room. “Since I cannot simply address anyone as Mr. Weasley without you all responding, I will reluctantly use given names.
“Fred and George, I've observed your penchant for traps and tricks,” he said with a disdainful sneer. Having been tormented as a child hardly warmed Severus to such talents. “You will now have the project of a lifetime then. You two will arm the castle and grounds with traps.”
The twins brightened considerably, grinning at each other as if their fondest daydream had come true. Molly and Arthur exchanged worried glances at the prospect of setting them loose.
“Charlie, tell me…” Severus said, crossing his arms as he stood in front of him. “What would it take to get every dragon you can get your hands on here to Hogwarts?”
Charlie contemplated for a moment before responding. “Quite a lot.”
“Tell the powers in charge that we are looking to save the Wizarding world,” Severus said seriously. “Enough?”
“Severus, I think we've found that dragons cannot be tamed,” Minerva stated from her desk.
Turning towards her, Severus said, “I have no intention of taming them, Minerva. In fact, I would like them to be as wild as possible - and hungry.”
Minerva looked both slightly ill and impressed. Not wishing to extract further details, she made a “go on” motion with her hand.
Charlie nodded, and said, “Will do. I'll leave in the morning.”
“Arthur, Bill, you are in the business of recruitment. Arthur, you are to carry on from within the Ministry and find out where people's loyalties lie. Attempt to rein in Percy. Bill, if you are up to it, continue to ascertain how the goblins at Gringott's feel. Molly, you will help with healing, along with Poppy and Hermione.”
A devious grin appeared on his face as Severus walked over to stand in front of Ron. “Mr. Ronald Weasley.”
Ron made an attempt to keep the mix of apprehension and disgust from his face, but failed miserably. Hermione watched the exchange of disdain between the two of them with interest, her quill poised to take notes.
“I'm told you are skilled at wizard's chess?” Severus asked, raising an eyebrow.
Ron, looking confused, responded cautiously, “Yes?”
“That shows ability at analysis - and strategy?” Severus suggested - and waited.
Ron, sensing that he might actually be serious, said slowly, “I suppose so.”
“Excellent. You will work with Potter on strategy, and present your thoughts to myself, Minerva and Hermione before sharing with the rest of the Order for discussion. When you're not learning to fight at a level where you won't get yourself killed in the first two minutes of battle, of course.”
Before Ron could respond, Severus moved on. “Mr. Longbottom, you are to work towards growing as many healing herbs as possible. You will also learn to brew healing potions adequately, even if it kills you. You will also learn to fight. It would be in your best interest to do well in both areas - wouldn't it?”
“Yes, sir,” Neville said hesitantly.
“Minerva, if you can owl Professor Sprout to return?” Severus said without taking his eyes off of Neville.
“I will,” Minerva replied.
Nodding towards Ginny, Severus said, “Miss Weasley, aside from lending moral support to Potter, will also assist with healing. That brings the total of five people involved in preparing healing supplies or learning to heal. Poppy, you will be needed to hold classes to teach the others.”
Poppy smiled sadly and nodded.
Turning to Harry, Severus said, “The map you undoubtedly are still in possession of will go to Moody, Lupin and Tonks to be used in the process of security. As far as communication, owls may be used; however, they can be intercepted.”
Ron turned around in his chair towards Fred and George and said, “You two had those charmed pieces of parchment. The ones you two always used in class to send notes. You can write on one and it'll show on the other.”
Severus looked interested. “The range?”
“We've only tried in the same room. Twenty feet?” George shrugged, looking at Fred for confirmation. Both were trying to ignore their mother's disapproving look.
“Make it a mile,” Severus said, and turned away from them as if the matter were closed.
Severus looked at Minerva, saying, “I believe that will cover things here. The Ministry should be handled with care, so I shall leave that to your discretion.”
Minerva sighed. “Yes, I am considering how to engage with Scrimgeour.”
Severus asked, “Poppy, how is Draco?”
Poppy answered, prepared for a fight. “He is coming along nicely, but requires rest.”
Ignoring Poppy's glare, Severus pressed, “How soon until he can leave?”
“Severus! He needs to heal properly," Minerva said sternly, standing up from her desk.
Severus crossed his arms, stating, “He is needed to help obtain and destroy a Horcrux. There is no time to wait.”
Poppy offered, “Severus, he can walk, but should rest at least another day.”
"No, Severus. You will allow him enough time to recover," Minerva argued, with a glance towards Poppy for reinforcement.
Everyone's eyes moved from Minerva to Severus as they drew closer in the middle of the office.
"Minerva, need I remind you that madmen hardly allow time for recovery? If fact, that is precisely the time that Voldemort will strike. He knows that we will come for the Horcrux; it is only a matter of when. I need Draco. Pure and simple," Severus said, scowling.
Minerva shook her head the entire time he spoke. "Severus - " she started, but was interrupted as the office door opened.
Draco, his jaw set, entered the office on tentative legs, his wand gripped tightly in his hand. He walked determinedly towards Severus, and said, “I'm ready.”
Severus regarded Draco for a moment, then said, looking at Minerva, “We go now.”
“Are you certain, Draco?” Severus asked as they walked towards the gates. He observed as Draco seemed either to be concentrating on walking convincingly well or to be deep in thought.
“Yes,” he said, without emotion, staring at the long grass.
They had left immediately from the meeting. Severus hoped that Hermione would understand that a dramatic goodbye would not help him, so he was relieved to see her only smile nervously as he placed a hand on her shoulder. When he leaned over to whisper goodbye, she grasped his hand and surprised him by kissing him on the cheek in a way that no one could see.
Once outside the gates, Severus realized the significance of the place and wished they had discussed more on the way. Severus noticed the nearly full moon, sliced by the branches as they swayed. When Severus looked back at Draco, he was staring towards the tree, scarred from his tearing at the bark in his grief. A testament to what had happened there.
“Once we arrive on the grounds we will undoubtedly trip the wards,” Severus said, hoping to shake Draco from memories he didn't need to dwell on. “Speed will be key. Do you have the location firmly in your mind?”
Draco nodded, saying, “Yes, there is a side entrance that was used for the last few meetings. The basement stairs are located on that side of the house.”
"Draco, if things should go wrong, you are to return here. Leave me. Understand?” Severus said.
When Draco looked indecisive, Severus stepped closer, and said in a dangerous voice, “Draco, listen to me. There will not be any heroes here. You are to return here without a second glance if I tell you to go.”
After a moment, Draco nodded reluctantly.
Once they Apparated, Severus took in the sight before him. The mansion was enormous and nearly impossible to fully ward without the full attention of a powerful wizard. An evil presence surrounded the house, spreading to the trees, which seemed sinister, their branches twisted into wooden monuments to torment and subversive intent. Long-standing abandonment removed all warmth from the dwelling, reducing it simply to a structure that occupied the hill, threatening to randomly drop pieces of roof tiles or boards onto the ground. They skirted the edge of the trees around the grounds in silence, gradually drawing closer to the side of the house.
At least the wind is on our side, Severus thought as the wind rose sharply, pushing the tangled tree branches together.
While Severus concentrated on stepping through the brush, he thought through just how best to take down both Macnair and Goyle without total war. He was not concerned as much with Wormtail, as he was a coward once spells started to fly, choosing to cower as Death Eaters had their fun at meetings. Macnair and Goyle would be a handful without the element of surprise, and Draco was hardly fully capable in his state. Of course, there could be more guarding the house, but he preferred to push that thought aside for now. Draco was still in obvious pain as they walked, and Severus unobtrusively slowed his gait to allow him to keep up.
They approached a decrepit-looking set of stairs leading to a door sitting crooked in its frame, connected only by one rusty hinge. The top few stairs were missing and the railing on one side was completely missing.
Severus climbed the stairs and looked over his shoulder to where Draco stood at the bottom and whispered, “Remember my words, Draco. It does the Order no good to lose us both.”
Draco responded, his eyes fixed on the door, “That will not happen.”
With a nod, Severus turned, reached up, opened the door, and was met with a flash of green light.