Disclaimer: All characters belong to JKR.
AN: I must thank Ariadne, as always, for her patience and encouragement throughout this editing effort.
We are nearing the end folks.
Severus stood at the end of the corridor, rehearsing in his mind just how to tell Draco that he had willingly released his father. His only hope would be that Draco would understand the critical part Lucius had yet to play, but Severus knew that this scenario did not have a high probability for success, considering what Hermione had shared with him. Revenge can be both a noble and crippling pursuit, and, unfortunately, Draco was well on his way to being consumed by the overwhelming drive to avenge his mother's murder.
"Bit of trouble, Severus?"
Severus looked up and scowled at the portrait of a long-dead Slytherin patron to the school.
He crossed his arms and glanced in the direction of Draco's door. "You could say that."
Leaning forward, the patron said decidedly, "Never stopped you before."
"This is different. Usual strategies do not apply here," Severus said, trying to gather his thoughts.
The patron seemed to join Severus in deep thought, then stated quite clearly, "A Slytherin does not change his strategy, regardless of the circumstances."
Severus furrowed his brow for a moment, then shook his head. Striding towards Draco's door, he said over his shoulder, "Not this time."
Finding the door ajar, Severus leaned in and called Draco's name. Receiving no response, he pushed the door open further and looked inside. His eyes were drawn to a few small pictures on the mantel that Draco must have retrieved from his dormitory. Approaching the mantel, Severus stared at the collection, the last remnants of a home and family that Draco no longer possessed.
Several smaller portraits showed random relatives standing with a young Draco on his first day at Hogwarts, but it was the larger, central one that caught Severus' eye. It showed Lucius, Narcissa and Severus gathered around the end of a formal dining table. No one was smiling, of course; none of them did in those days, but Narcissa looked strangely different. She sat in a high-backed chair with Severus on her left and Lucius on her right. While a complete stranger would have appeared more at ease next to her than Lucius, it was Severus that Narcissa was leaning towards, with a slight trace of a grin on her face.
Severus stood, staring at the portrait in silence, then reached up and took it into his hand. Remembering that night, he could recall that Narcissa had just informed him that he had better not attempt any semblance of amusement as it would surely ruin the portrait. He ran his hand over the frame, wondering why Draco would keep a portrait with his father in it, then realized that there were none with just his mother.
"She gave that one to me; said it was her favorite."
Severus turned quickly, the portrait held tightly in his hand.
Draco approached Severus, his eyes dropping to the frame. He took it from Severus' hand and gripped the sides as he stared down at it.
With a haunted smile, Draco said, "I thought I was something special, having a portrait of my parents with you. The others told me that you looked even more evil back then."
Severus nodded slightly, unsure of where to start. "It was a different time."
Draco kept his eyes on the portrait for a long time, then closed his eyes.
"I saw him leave."
Severus remained silent, watching as Draco ran one finger over his mother's image.
"At first I was furious," Draco said as he replaced the picture to the mantel. "Then I decided you must have your reasons."
Severus, wary of Draco's calm reaction, said carefully, "He is, at this moment, delivering misinformation to Voldemort that will allow us to hold this battle on our own land and our own time. The advantage is extremely valuable."
Unsure whether Draco was absorbing what he said, Severus placed a hand on his shoulder, intent on explaining further.
"Killing in the heat of battle isn't murder," Draco said fiercely. "Promise me you'll give me that chance."
Severus searched Draco's eyes and found that he was serious; far more serious than at the Riddle mansion.
Draco raised his arm sharply, shoving Severus' hand away. He crossed the room and leaned his hands on the windowsill, pressing his forehead against the glass.
Severus stood, at a loss for words.
"It's not the same," Draco muttered, staring out over the Hogwarts grounds.
Watching Draco, Severus thought that sometimes strategies change in a heartbeat, and that unspoken promises could still be kept.
Kitty batted the cage forcefully, sending it skittering across the table before it caught in a groove between two planks. Wormtail cried out, pressing himself against the back of the cage only to find the cat circling again. Lowering his head to peer inside, Kitty methodically wedged a paw between two of the bars, pushing further, hooking a claw...
Suddenly, the cat was replaced by a piece of toast being shoved through the bars.
"That'll be enough," Remus said, dropping Kitty to the floor.
Kitty turned, glared at Remus, and ensured that every occupant of the Great Hall heard the sound of his displeasure before strutting away with dignity.
Minerva sat next to Severus, asking casually, "Have you prepared for tonight?"
"Yes, coming along quite well," Severus said shortly. He swept his eyes across the Hall to where Weasley was laughing at something undoubtedly insipid, and daring to place a hand on Hermione's shoulder for a brief but life-threatening moment.
Severus saw Minerva's hand waving out of the corner of his eye. "And how is that, Severus? Do share."
"Knowledge is obtained in the most unusual ways at times, Minerva," he said without a glance. He could feel her trying to examine him through his annoying curtain of hair.
Minerva leaned back in her chair and said, "Cryptic as always. What would I ever do without the challenge of battling with you over the most mundane questions?"
"I haven't the faintest," Severus muttered. His stare had traveled to Wormtail, his thoughts rambling down the road of what use the wretch could serve.
Minerva watched Wormtail sitting up in his cage, eating a piece of toast far larger than he was, and asked, "What are we to do with him?"
"I have an idea," Severus drawled, his eyes narrowing in thought.
Minerva knew that look well, and immediately shook her head, preparing to argue. "Severus, no more of that. Peter has done terrible things, but..."
"Minerva, without the Dementors to carry out our dirty work, what else is there?" he said severely, casting a sideways glance. He sighed at her expression as it became more and more irritated. "There is something else that has been overlooked - until now."
Her irritation dissolved to curiosity. "Please share."
Severus pointed his fork towards where Harry sat with Ginny. They were quietly eating breakfast, leaning on each other. Ginny whispered something to him and he placed his arm around her shoulders and laughed.
"Our dear friend Peter owes Potter his life."
Minerva's eyebrows rose. "Yes, I'm aware of the night in the Shrieking Shack..."
Severus stood, his eyes riveted on the cage where Wormtail sat with his long hairless tail wrapped neatly around him as he turned the toast in his paws.
"Peter Pettigrew, better known as Wormtail, will fight on the side of the light. Like it - or not," Severus announced as he walked around the edge of the High Table.
Severus drew his wand and pointed it towards the cage, and suddenly Wormtail the rat became Wormtail the rat-like human, still holding the piece of toast to his mouth.
Wormtail looked stunned after having spent over a day trapped in his Animagus form to find himself sitting on a Hogwarts table in the Great Hall. He stood slowly and pieces of the broken cage fell to the floor.
All eyes were on Severus as Wormtail stood before him at the High Table. Wormtail felt around his clothes for a moment before squinting to see Severus holding his wand up.
"Looking for this? Really. Do you think me that dim-witted?" Severus spat, taking methodical steps towards Wormtail. "Mr. Potter, I do believe this involves you."
Harry rose hesitantly and approached Severus.
"I do believe that Wormtail here, previously known as Pettigrew, owes you something," Severus stated and crossed his arms, looking at Harry expectantly.
Confusion crossed Harry's face before clearing. "Oh, yeah. Yes, he does."
Wormtail's eyes widened in understanding.
Harry stepped forward, his hands tightening into fists at the mere sight of him. "Peter Pettigrew, I saved your life in the Shrieking Shack that night and now call upon your Wizard's life debt to me."
Wormtail's hands were crowded around his mouth as if he was trying to chew all of his fingernails at once with nervous energy. His eyes shifted around the room, flitting from face to face before returning to Harry. Finding no solace, he dropped his gaze to the floor.
Severus cleared his throat. "Even your feeble mind can grasp without much effort that you are bound by old magic to this debt?"
The Order members drew closer, listening to the exchange. Minerva slowly stood, her fingertips spread on the table, touching the smooth surface tentatively in anticipation of Peter's words.
For the first time, Wormtail spoke. The nervousness he displayed in his actions was evident in his shaking voice. "Yes, I understand."
Interested in this turn of behavior, Harry looked from Severus to Wormtail. Various whispers spread through the crowd as they took in this development.
"You will turn against Voldemort and fight alongside us in the inevitable battle that is to come," Severus said, ignoring how Wormtail flinched at the sound of the name. "You will protect Potter with your life - even if it means throwing yourself in the way."
"I will," Wormtail said with resignation. There was no avoiding this.
Severus said in disgust, "Remember, Pettigrew, you are still the most vile piece of flesh somewhat resembling a human ever to walk the earth - next to Voldemort himself. This is the only way you will redeem your horrid soul even in the slightest. I, myself, would rather kill you where you stand. I am not the only one who wishes you dead, either."
Wormtail cringed as if struck, and said nothing. His eyes found Remus for a moment before quickly looking away.
Severus approached Wormtail and observed how he cringed as if awaiting an impending blow, clearly the best position to take whenever in Voldemort's presence, and a difficult habit to shake. "Care to share with us?"
When Wormtail looked around the room again, his eyes came to a halt on Remus. Molly placed a hand on Remus' shoulder and whispered something into his ear as Tonks held his hand and firmly took his wand.
"Dementors," Wormtail announced, hunching his shoulders protectively as he saw the raw hatred on Remus' face. "The Dark Lord commands them. There is a spell to compel them to do your bidding. Similar to the Imperius."
Severus narrowed his eyes and said with interest, "And?"
Wormtail flinched as if the sound of Severus' voice alone was a threat. He took a deep breath through his hands, that seemed to be permanently occupying space around his face, before looking resigned to his fate.
He turned to Harry and said, "I know the spell."
Harry looked stunned at what Wormtail had just said. Dementors under Voldemort's command. While he processed this information, he was aware that everyone was watching his reaction. Thankfully, he heard Snape speak.
"Voldemort will undoubtedly send the Dementors ahead of any attack. You will be on the grounds, accompanied by someone, and awaiting their arrival," Severus ordered, ignoring how Wormtail become increasingly apprehensive by the minute. "You will then tell them to go into the forest and await your next command."
Severus swiftly reached out and gripped Wormtail, twisting his shirt and vest. "Of course - if you are lying..." to which Wormtail firmly shook his head "No."
Shoving Wormtail away, Severus sneered, "Thank Potter for saving your wretched life. Until needed, you will reside in the quite comfortable accommodations that Moody has set up in the Room of Requirement."
As Moody took Wormtail away, Harry said, "I remember Dumbledore telling me I would someday be glad to have him in my debt. There is no way he can avoid it?"
Severus shook his head. "There is no denial of such a bond, and honor plays no part when it is called upon. It is the same type of old magic that your mother invoked by sacrificing herself."
"You know of that old magic," Harry said quietly, knowing that Severus had been affected by two life debts; the first to his father and the other to Dumbledore. It was more a statement than a question.
Harry later swore to Ginny that he saw a flicker of pain pass through Severus' eyes before he answered.
"Yes. I do."
Wide grins appeared as Fred and George once again erected a map of the Hogwarts grounds and explained which traps they had set. Molly covered her mouth in shock at times, and at others appeared almost proud of their creativity, no matter how wild.
Hagrid joined them, and small icons representing the various creatures he managed appeared on the map. They leaped about impatiently in their places and performed small actions whenever he pointed to one. When Hagrid pointed to a Hippogriff, it sprung to life and flung its wings back proudly.
The portrait system of communication, it was determined, could be used to a certain extent, but the charmed parchments the twins were working on would be key. Fred and George happily announced that the range was now as far as from the Astronomy Tower to the Quidditch pitch.
Moody, Remus and Tonks joined in and outlined their security and prisoner-management strategy. An agreement was reached that during the battle they would collect prisoners and keep them in the Room of Requirement prison that Moody had conjured.
Minerva's conversations with the Ministry had confirmed their suspicion that Azkaban was no longer a viable prison and that the Ministry had no immediate solution. Essentially, they were on their own. Arthur sadly reported that Percy had no interest in rejoining the family, that he had suspicions that there were several Voldemort supporters within the Ministry, and that he was investigating. Molly shared that Charlie had sent an owl stating he was on his way, but no other details, most likely since the message could be intercepted. Bill shared the news that, after his having spoken with the Goblins extensively, they had no intentions of choosing sides; however, they had agreed to seize control of Lucius Malfoy's account, considering he was an escaped criminal and a confirmed murderer.
Poppy reported that her meetings with Molly, Ginny, Hermione and Neville had gone well and that, with the return of Professor Sprout, more healing plants could be produced. Neville announced that his lessons with Professor Snape were productive and that the results would be revealed soon. He then flashed a sheepish grin at Severus who, shockingly, acknowledged the expression with a quick nod.
Severus recounted to everyone that he had, indeed, allowed Lucius to leave. Ignoring all gasps of protest, he calmly explained that Lucius would hopefully convince Voldemort that the gates would be opened at noon on the upcoming Saturday. Severus explained how, once the Death Eaters, along with Voldemort, had made their way onto the grounds, the wards would be replaced to prevent their departure.
The final Horcrux would be destroyed only when Voldemort was trapped, effectively making him mortal.
Severus stood and looked around the room.
"Less than four days remain before the gates will be thrown open. Dream of it. Dread it. Wish that the time go terrifyingly fast or excruciatingly slow. Either way - spend the time wisely."
After breakfast, Severus turned his attention to where Harry, Ron and Neville stood, and called to Remus and Moody, "Take everyone but Mr. Weasley. He and I shall have a private lesson."
Ron paled and remained still while Harry and Neville stepped away as if he was suddenly afflicted by some contagious disease.
After a moment, Harry reached out and gave Ron a push, muttering, "Oh, just get a move on."
As Ron approached, Severus removed his outer robes, tossed them onto a nearby table and stated, "Outside."
Once out in the sun, Severus turned and studied Ron as he stood before him. "Regrettably, injuring each other this close to a battle would be foolish, to put it plainly. However, you must learn to defend yourself if you intend to live. Please tell me you are taking this seriously?"
Ron regarded him with suspicion, but managed to say, "Yes."
Severus watched him for a moment. "Mr. Weasley, do you know why I am doing this?"
Ron appeared to want to seize the opportunity to notify Severus of exactly how much of a vindictive, power-abusing git he really was, but he responded aloud, "No."
Choosing to ignore the lack of proper address, Severus stated, "I am doing this because, as it stands now, you will undoubtedly die - quickly and not at all pleasantly. As you know, that is not something I can allow, considering that Hermione unfortunately prefers you alive. Are we clear?"
Ron nodded reluctantly.
"Fine. We've already established that we hate each other, so let's dispense with the formalities. You will learn how to successfully block spells. I will only cast to disarm."
Ron appeared visibly relieved to hear this piece of news.
"Disappointing, I know," Severus said with an evil grin.
"Stop doing that," Ron spat, his anger flaring immediately.
Severus smirked and strolled around Ron, enjoying how he tracked his movements.
"Close the gaping hole that is your mind and you won't have that trouble," Severus countered.
Ron, seething with rage, drew his wand.
Severus casually ignored Ron's newfound anger and drawled, "I don't believe that Hermione would enjoy your doubting her sanity for being with me either."
Without warning, Ron screamed, "Stupefy!" - which Severus neatly sidestepped.
Before Ron could react, Severus made a dismissive motion with his hand, and he found himself thrown through the air to land hard onto his back. He stared at the sky for a moment before Severus' face came into view.
"I - said - disarm - only. You do understand English - don't you?"
Ron growled as he pushed himself up to sit, and he could feel the lump on the back of his head starting to grow.
"Focusing that wild anger into something constructive would be far more useful, Weasley. Remember, your dislike of me means nothing, as we are on the same side."
Ron rose to his feet and closed his eyes, but the redness in his face and his clenched fists plainly displayed that he was losing the battle with his temper. When he opened his eyes again, Severus had moved off several yards and had his wand trained on him.
"Block me, Weasley," Severus said.
A second later, Ron watched as his wand flew uselessly into the grass.
And again, many more times.
After Severus had disarmed Ron another dozen times, he stopped and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Mr. Weasley, how did you ever survive at the Department of Mysteries?"
Ron shrugged. "We just fought as a team. It just all happened so fast."
"And - tell me why I am able to disarm you without any effort?" Severus asked, sighing when Ron only looked doubtful. His brow creased as if he was attempting to decipher a puzzle as he thought for a moment.
Ron stood with his wand loosely in his hand and shrugged, awaiting some elaborate Snape-like method of informing him of just how stupid he was. What he received, however, was a calmly asked question.
"Tell me, Mr. Weasley, in a game of chess, what is the most basic strategy to achieve victory?"
Ron thought for a moment, then answered, "To avoid being taken."
Severus pointed at him suddenly, causing Ron to jump. "Exactly - and what do you think is your greatest asset when in a duel with an opponent far more powerful than yourself?"
"Erm... avoid?" Ron ventured.
Severus nodded. "The Death Eaters are an experienced, but far older lot. More powerful, but also not as nimble. The key to your survival is to simply not be there when the spell comes. Attempting to cast requires you to remain still for a moment of concentration. You cannot afford that - the battle is too close to change the fact that you are an utter failure at non-verbal spells. Dodge their spells and hit them before they have a chance to react to your movements."
Understanding dawned in Ron's eyes as he nodded.
Severus attempted to disarm Ron several more times and was only successful twice. When Ron had managed to avoid him completely for over ten minutes, Severus lowered his wand and looked satisfied.
Ron appeared to be amazed at his performance.
"Yes, Weasley, I am capable of successfully teaching something," Severus stated flatly, a trace of amusement in his eyes. "Look to your strengths. If you focus too much on your shortcomings, you will fail to see the positive. You are quite good at this. I imagine you should survive a few hours at least."
Ron snorted and rolled his eyes. However, his reluctant smile was genuine. A compliment from Snape, no matter how backhanded, was a rare thing.
Severus smirked and said, "You're welcome. To avoid raising suspicion, you may resume hating me now."
"Leave, Remus," Tonks ordered, grinning and pointing towards the door. When he didn't move, she playfully began to shove him towards it.
Ginny shook her head as she worked on Hermione's hair, resorting to aiming her wand at it threateningly.
Remus chuckled and turned to catch Tonks in his arms. "And just where am I supposed to go?"
"You're dressed. Go help Severus. I'm sure he's hopeless," she suggested and gave him a long, lingering kiss. She traced his hair lightly and, with a hand on his shoulder, said, "I shall see you later."
Remus soon found himself standing outside of Severus' rooms, listening to him cursing loudly inside. As Remus took a deep breath and shook his head, he raised his hand to knock.
Severus jerked the door open and scowled. "Lupin, what are you doing here?"
"Say it with me, Severus, my name is Remus," he said with an exasperated sigh.
Severus sneered; however, it lacked the threatening manner it had once had. "Answer the question, Remus."
"I'm here to help you dress," Remus said with a shrug. "Or so I have been informed."
"What?" Severus said with a frustrated glance down. "I assure you I can dress myself just fine."
Remus folded his arms and leaned against the door frame. He pointed in the general direction of his rooms, "That, and I seem to have been evicted."
Severus said nothing, but opened the door further and walked back into the sitting room.
Remus looked around the room and said, "Without sounding like Tonks, what are you wearing?"
Severus gave up on trying to rid himself of Remus, and instead took a deep breath. "No idea. My dress robes are too heavy. It'll be my frock coat, I imagine; however, it needs to be dressed up," he said while touching the coat where it lay over the armchair. "Hermione..." he said, then stopped, after catching himself, "She likes it, but it doesn't fit me well anymore."
"You're very thin, Severus," Remus observed.
Severus looked up sharply in surprise that anyone would have noticed. Fingering the coat, he muttered defensively, "I've had an interesting year."
Remus smiled sadly. "I'd say you've had an interesting twenty years."
"Yes, well, thank you for that most enlightening observation. Unless I can gain weight in the next hour, there is no solution," Severus said in frustration, pushing his hair back.
Remus moved and slowly placed both hands on the back of one of the armchairs. When Severus observed him obviously crafting how to say something, he said, "Out with it."
"Severus, you are the only one amongst us to know the true nature of Voldemort and what we are up against."
After a deep breath and several moments of silence, Severus answered, "All too well."
Remus concentrated on the chair's fabric before asking, "We are alone, so tell me honestly. Do you feel Harry is ready?"
The expression on Severus' face before he lowered his head worried Remus, as it was not full of promise. He watched as Severus stepped around the other armchair, trailing his hand along its back and looking towards the floor in thought. When he fixed his hands on the chair and hunched his shoulders, it did nothing to raise Remus' hopes.
"I would be lying if I said there was such a thing as 'ready' for a fight with Voldemort. That would give the impression that the only goal would be to reach a certain level and then call it a success. Voldemort is, by far, more powerful than any wizard alive." Severus looked at Remus gravely as he said, "I have no doubt that I would have a difficult time surviving even a casual duel with him alone."
At Remus' expression of growing dread, Severus continued, "That being said, Potter will not be alone. In the end, there is nothing in the prophecy that says that he cannot have help to at least incapacitate Voldemort."
Remus nodded in agreement.
Severus, spread his hand over his frock coat, tracing each button. "I do not live in a fantasy world where the forces of good inexplicably win over evil. That by the virtue of simply being good anyone deserves to be victorious. The world simply doesn't work that way. Fate will strike down the most pure of hearts, and allow the most dark and despicable to live long, destructive lives. There is no explanation, but to go into a battle such as this believing that fictional things such as luck and righteousness will push the odds in his favor would be foolish, to put it plainly."
As Severus observed Remus cross his arms and pace, he said, "A long explanation, but as you indicated yourself, you wanted the opinion of someone who knows. I am looked upon as being too cynical. I would rather have Potter know his true abilities and limitations than go out there with some inflated fantasy that he will stand before Voldemort, deliver a valiant speech on good and evil, revenge and justice, and then strike him dead. It simply won't happen."
"That much is true, Severus. No one can argue with you on what it is like to face him. I surely won't start now," Remus said thoughtfully.
"All of that aside, I can say this: we will be able to do this if we work together. Once I destroy the final Horcrux, it is everyone's mission to end this nightmare, with Potter striking the final blow," Severus said, as Remus paced another complete lap, his head tilted down as he walked.
Severus gripped the back of the chair and said, "Not the answer you were hoping for."
Shaken out of his thoughts, Remus replied, "No. I agree. It is something that needed to be put into words. Sometimes, reality is both startling and liberating at once."
"Over the coming few days, I believe it best to keep Potter's confidence level high. I am still working on a modification of the Felix Felicis potion to help close his mind. There is also something to be said for sheer bravery as well," Severus said thoughtfully as he held the coat up. "For tonight, though, let him enjoy things, before this undeniable burden draws near enough to become a crushing weight."
Remus agreed, and said with a faint smile, "Tonight is for you and Hermione. There is no sin in putting war aside for a few hours. You two truly are a stunning couple, I never thought I'd see the day."
Severus snorted, and quickly changed the subject. "Which leads me back to my lack of a tailor and adequate nutrition."
Remus smiled gently and said, "Never doubt the ingenuity of house-elves."
"What do you think?" Minerva asked as Ginny and Harry entered the Great Hall. The house-elves had decorated the Hall much as they had the first time they had been under the impression that Hermione and Severus were engaged. Green, silver, red and gold were somehow mixed to look lovely in various ways, including on the chairs and tablecloths. The High Table was set with beautiful plates with both the Slytherin and Gryffindor crests.
Ginny raised her eyebrows and said, "It looks absolutely beautiful." Harry nodded in agreement, with a strained smile.
Tonks and Hermione arrived, and, while Hermione took in the sight of the decorations, Tonks waved a hand towards her as if to say, "Approve?"
Minerva smiled and nodded, holding a hand over her heart as she took in how beautiful she looked.
Hermione wore a simple strapless deep red dress with her hair nicely tamed and up in a style similar to that she'd worn when she attended the Yule ball. It had taken Ginny almost an hour, and countless charms, to force her hair to submit to her will. The result was worth it. Small wisps were left to frame her face, and, without her large mane, the delicate curve of her neck was visible.
Hermione turned to see Ron gazing at her before he hesitantly approached.
"You look... well, ah, I mean-" he started, and was nodding either as if Hermione had made some witty comment or he had forgotten the English language. He again had his shoulders hunched up around his ears.
"Nice, you look nice," Ron said with something that resembled relief at having successfully managed to assemble a sentence.
Hermione smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks, Ron. I get the general idea," to which he nodded gratefully and took his seat.
An elbow was being prodded into her side. Hermione looked over at Ginny and was stunned beyond words.
Severus had entered the Hall with Remus, wearing his frock coat with the tails as she liked, but with a silver vest and a white-collared shirt. Every piece of clothing was tailored within an inch of its life, fitting him perfectly. His hair was pulled back and definitely showed evidence that he had voluntarily washed it without her usual threats.
"That coat... he's going to kill me with that coat. Did he actually comb his hair too? Hang on, is Ginny talking?"
"Have you heard anything I've said?" Ginny asked with a giggle. She passed her hand in front of Hermione's face before giving up and sharing a look with Tonks who had just given a congratulatory wave to Remus.
"You look stunning," Hermione breathed as he approached.
"I believe protocol states I am supposed to say that to you," he said as his eyes traveled over her and arrived at her hair. "And you are beyond stunning. There are an assortment of exquisite descriptions that shall come to me later. Of that I am most certain. But not now."
"Something tells me I should be extremely flattered to have rendered you speechless, or at least hindered you in some way," Hermione said with a grin.
He tilted his head and agreed, "Quite."
"Your hair," she said, leaning over to see how it was tied back.
"Too much of the hopeless romantic style?" he asked apologetically. "Lupin's idea."
Hermione laughed. It seemed he would never have any tact in accepting any sort of compliment. "No, but what happened to the coat? It fits you... well."
He glanced down, and said in a quiet voice, "I'm afraid I couldn't follow your earlier advice to quote 'wear the coat, if anything' , so this is the next most acceptable thing."
Hermione looked shocked for a moment, then smiled at the thought that he remembered things like that.
After dinner, Minerva rose and said, "Everyone, if you will... Even in the preparations for what we all know is to come, life must move on. We are here to celebrate the love between two of our own. I have watched them grow closer and can say that, in my time, I have never seen a truer love than this. Tonight is for Hermione and Severus, and I invite them to take the first dance."
Severus took Hermione's hand and bowed. When she smiled and said under her breath, "so formal..." he replied just as quietly, "They are watching us. After all, we must play the parts for which we are destined."
She rose and took his arm. As they arrived at the center of the room, she asked, "Should I help you? You know, with the steps?"
Severus only grinned, placed a hand on her waist and clasped his other in hers. He leaned forward slowly to breathe into her ear, "Yes, you may hold on."
As the music started, he pulled her close and began to move her around with an ease that seemed familiar. Simultaneously exact and subtle; every change in tempo, every rise and fall, each space of near silence was filled with a movement so expressive it took her breath away. With both authority and kindness, he guided her and kept her within his circle of control. At times, he would allow her to move outwards, only to snatch her back to collapse onto him, and stare intensely into her eyes. It was the kind of dance that exuded a strong presence, a deep passion, possession and intimacy shared only by soul mates. When the music turned to a slower pace, he held her close and rocked her easily, every so often lowering her into a dip in which she had no choice but to allow her head to fall back. Whenever in that position, he would lean over her and ensure that she could feel his breath travel around her neck.
After a while, they barely noticed when Minerva led everyone in polite applause, let alone that others had begun to take to the floor. To them, it seemed no one else was in the room.
"How did you learn?" Hermione asked and moved to rest her forehead against his, astonished that he allowed such a gesture in public. The devilish grin she had come to both love and fear appeared on his face.
Without words, he eased her into a dramatic dip and indicated upwards with his eyes. When she looked up, she was met with the smiling, and upside down, face of Neville Longbottom, who was dancing with Minerva. Reaching out, Minerva smiled and patted Severus on the shoulder.
"You asked Neville to teach you to dance?" Hermione gasped as he gracefully pulled her back up to him. "But he said-"
"That our lessons were going well?" he finished for her and grinned proudly. "I see no deception there, only the selective exclusion of details."
Hermione laughed softly and whispered into his ear, "You, my love, are the master at wordplay, secrecy and utterly romantic gestures."
The vibration of his laugh against her hand. "As I said before, I only do what the occasion demands. Apparently there isn't anything I wouldn't do for love anymore," he said, and raised his arm to cue her to spin. "Even this. And you are, after all, the perfect partner."
Hermione blushed. "I'm not that good. You seem to have natural grace."
Tilting his head in a slight bow, he murmured, catching her eyes, "Thank you; however, I was not only speaking of dancing this time."
She smiled and raised her head in a mock snobbish fashion. "You, sir, are taking advantage of the fact that the light is dim and we are no longer the center of attention. Do you intend to dance or to whisper alluring things to me?"
He smirked and said, "Both."
Severus held a hand on her back as he turned her a few times before bringing her close again.
Hermione was stunned at how affectionate he was while dancing, as if the music granted him some magical permission to express himself. "Something had changed inside you."
He raised an eyebrow slightly before agreeing, "That it has - I cannot deny that."
Leaning forward, she pressed her head against his chest, thankful that the lights had been lowered and the music was at a quiet lull.
After a while, she said, "Promise me something?"
"I will do my best," he said, tilting his head down.
"This..." she said, lifting her head to look into his eyes. "Keep this. I can't put it into words, but the way we are now. Don't ever let it go."
He studied her for a moment, knowing that in a few short days everything could change - or come to an end. There was a plea in her eyes, something that demanded remembrance. In times filled with quiet desperation, it was only possible to make promises the heart alone could keep.
Severus' eyes moved slightly as if to see if anyone was watching before leaning in to kiss her softly.
A promise - the only one he could keep.
"I would never dream of ruining perfection."
Ginny watched Harry pick at a plate of food as they sat out a dance. After he had stared down intensely at the plate long enough, she reached over and took the fork from him. "Harry, are you all right?"
He sat back in his chair and gazed out onto the dance floor, where Severus and Hermione were moving flawlessly to the music. "I'm fine."
Ginny put his fork down. "Hit home didn't it?"
"What?..." he started, but then seem to know exactly what she was referring to. All of the battle preparations taking shape made what was to come all too real. "Yeah, I suppose so."
"Harry, when I look into your eyes - I see it there," Ginny said, and tried to lean forward enough to make him look at her. "You have to be able to tell me. Everybody needs someone; it's a fact."
Harry ran a hand through his hair, then dropped it on the table, hard. "And tell you what, Ginny? That I don't know what's going to happen? That I have no control over my life and just want this over..."
"I know, Harry."
"No, you don't," he said a little too harshly.
Ginny looked out onto the dance floor again and waited for him to calm down. Growing up surrounded by boys had taught her a thing or two about the male mind. She watched as Ron was dragged onto the dance floor by McGonagall and she glanced over to see Harry half-heartedly enjoying Ron's suffering.
"Ginny, I'm sorry, I-" he said, then shrugged as if he had no explanation.
She nodded and took his hand, "It's all right. We'll find our way, Harry. Please remember... how much I care about you. We all do."
Harry stared down at their hands and allowed his words to be drowned by the music, "If only that was enough."
"Lovely job, if I may say so myself," Tonks said with a nod towards Severus and Hermione.
Remus turned so he could see them, and said with an air of pride, "If you are complimenting my successfully dressing Severus, then, although it is a strange honor, I'll take it."
Tonks giggled, "He does clean up well. How did you get him to tie his hair back?"
"A strategically placed comment on the fact that women love that look," he said with a chuckle.
"And he bought that? Oh, he is most definitely in love," she laughed. "And the coat and vest?"
Remus smiled. "Elves."
"You're a good friend, Remus, even to a reluctant victim like him," Tonks said and dramatically posed as he lowered her into a dip.
Remus laughed. "Thank you. It's hard work, but I think someday he'll call me by my first name without being threatened."
The Great Hall doors opened to reveal Charlie Weasley in his traditional dragon-keeping attire, complete with boots and a singed jacket.
"Am I late?" Charlie called. He smiled as he caught sight of Molly and Arthur as they waved, excited to see he had arrived safely. Molly had brought the clock with her from the Burrow, even though it only moved between “Mortal Peril” and “Traveling,” and had been watching it faithfully.
Severus stepped apart from Hermione as Charlie approached. Charlie quickly hid his surprise at Severus' appearance as they came within speaking distance.
"Well?" Severus asked.
Charlie brushed what looked like cinders off his sleeves. "I've got good news and bad news."
Severus scowled and impatiently made a “Go on” motion with his hand. "Skip to the end, Weasley."
"All right then. The bad news is we had four but misplaced one."
"Misplaced? Mispl-" Severus began, then pinched the bridge of his nose before continuing in a slow, deliberate voice, "I am interested, Mr. Weasley. How exactly do you misplace a dragon?"
"Well he sort of got away - broke free really. Flew over London for a while, then kind of circled Big Ben. But don't worry," Charlie said quickly when he saw the expression on Severus' face darken.
Arthur paled at the horrible thought of thousands of Muggles staring up at the great clock only to see a dragon firmly perched on its face, breathing fire and flapping its great wings wildly.
Charlie held his hands out in a calming motion. "We cast Muggle concealment charms on them. He's around somewhere. They usually follow their own kind."
Severus rolled his eyes and said, "Fine; keep them as you did for the tournament."
"Will do," Charlie said and turned to head out the Great Hall's doors. Before he got far, a huge shuddering boom shook the Hall, sending large chunks of plaster to the floor.
Everyone froze as silence fell. Again, another boom, and then a loud scraping sound, all from above.
All eyes shot to the ceiling, staring in awe and disbelief as large sections gave way, exposing the night sky. Suddenly, the view through the gaping hole was obscured by a shadow which then disappeared with a rush of air.
Charlie jogged over to the nearest window, craning his neck to look up into the sky. He then looked back at everyone with a great smile.
"Found him!" he called with a relieved expression on his face. Charlie scanned the room and called, "Hagrid? Could use your help!"
Hagrid nodded, rose, and was beginning to leave the Hall when the unmistakable vision of a dragon soared past the windows. He stopped and squinted as if to catch details as the tail waved by before whipping around to rise up into the sky.
Hagrid's face lit up as he cried, "Norbert!"