Disclaimer: All characters belong to the great JKR.
AN: Thanks to Ariadne, who, as her plaque indicates, is my editor-in-chief.
Hermione watched as Severus spoke to Fred and George after breakfast in the Great Hall. In the few days since the engagement dinner, he had been checking in with everyone from time to time, but largely leaving them to their individual roles. He spent most of his time in the lab, working on the Felix Felicis potion enhancement for Harry. It had been moderately successful in trials, enabling Harry to block Severus from his mind for the most part. Severus, however, was not content for something that worked most of the time, and so went back to brew a new batch.
At night, Severus studied the spell that they hoped would interfere with the Dark Mark. If they could isolate Voldemort, they could keep him from calling the others. Obviously, with no way to test the spell, it was unknown if it would work. Hermione knew enough to leave him to his own devices when working on things so complicated, and so only checked in on him to force him to eat.
Even now, he was spending yet more time discussing what looked like a bit of parchment with the twins while his food sat untouched.
Remus and Moody had taken up helping out with dueling practice while Severus worked. During meals, a Thestral or Hippogriff might fly past the windows as a reminder that preparations were, in fact, taking shape. Hagrid mentioned happily that Norbert remembered him, and, miraculously, would come when called. A frightening sight even for the strong of heart. Charlie, however, snorted and stated that while it was touching that Norbert loved Hagrid, it would be preferable if the other three wouldn't all try to take to the sky, cages and all, in an attempt to follow him.
Hermione spent most of her time with Neville, Molly and Ginny in the hospital wing, learning healing spells and practices from Poppy. She listened to Neville describe proudly how he thought using a newly discovered herb in a healing potion would increase its effectiveness, and how Severus had set him up a work station to try it. She smiled at how Severus had come to the realization that not everyone responded well to a good hard push in order to reach their potential. With every passing day, however, it became harder for Hermione to enter the wing without wondering who would be brought there during the battle, and in what condition.
"All right, Hermione?" Ron asked, bravely sitting in Severus' chair.
"As well as possible," she said with a shrug, realizing that she had been staring into space for a time. She felt strangely calm, and couldn't accept the fact that there was nothing more that could be done.
"You know, Hermione, I-" he started, turning a fork over in his hand. "I want you to know before tomorrow that I care, you know - even though -" he said, with a glance over to where Severus was talking with his brothers.
Hermione smiled faintly. "Thanks, Ron, I know." She gave him a hug and then felt him twitch. Hermione did not need to look to know it was because Severus had seen.
Once she'd released Ron, he said, staring past her, "I've got to... I'll see you later, yeah?" and quickly rose to leave.
"Must you frighten him so?" Hermione asked when she felt Severus sit down behind her. The Hall was empty with the exception of the twins seated at the far end. They were completely engrossed in some sort of liquid they were pouring on the floor, and laughing almost maniacally about the effects.
Severus wrapped his arms around her and murmured into her hair, "I assure you, I did nothing to frighten Mr. Weasley. If he insists on living in fear of me, the position of someone considering me his Boggart is, indeed, vacant."
Hermione laughed. "So you and Neville are friends now? I see."
"I wouldn't say friends; however, once a man allows another to lead while dancing, the relationship certainly takes a strange turn. I doubt that Longbottom fears me now," he said, holding her close. Hermione leaned back against him and closed her eyes, noticing how he was obviously shifting behind her to ensure no one could see them sharing this moment. She could hear the mundane sound of the house-elves clearing the breakfast plates away. In her mind, she couldn't help but note that, within twenty-four hours, the most routine of tasks could not possibly take place.
"It is both strange and advantageous to hold a war on your own grounds, and exactly at the time you wish. It is also the most wearing on the nerves. The condemned suffer far worse than those struck down in an instant," Severus said with a tinge of dread. "Anticipation can be torturous as well."
"Reading my mind again, Severus?" she said, holding one of his hands up.
He looked over her shoulder, watching as she traced his fingers against hers. "It doesn't require Legilimency to know what would be going through your mind today."
With a deep sigh she said, "No, I suppose not."
Severus passed by the rose bushes, trailing his hand along the thorns.
This day. Each passing hour brought reality closer - what he was about to do. He had assumed the anticipation would be high - had accepted it with firm resignation, but his mind kept calculating.
The time - how much was left?
Would he fail them all?
Tilting his head, he walked, eyes traveling over the uneven edges of the rose bushes. His mind drifting - only the occasional snag on his fingers allowed reality through the thin veil of daydreams. Walking with no destination in mind, Severus passed through the gardens and into a clearing.
Where he found him.
Severus approached quietly and stopped when he saw Draco hang his head and place his palm to his face. In his casual clothing, Draco appeared frightfully thin, the sharp angles of his shoulders betraying just how little he had eaten in recent days. Severus inwardly cursed himself for not noticing the decline and for pushing Draco to do even more for the Order. The same way he had done to his mother.
He didn't move; rather, he continued to run his hand over the stone, tracing her name. It was heart-wrenching that the weather did not correspond to emotion or tragedy. It was a beautiful day with a soft, warm breeze. The air pushed though the hanging willow branches, giving them their own motion; a lulling, soothing sway, as if nature was apologizing and offering a different sort of comfort.
Draco turned his head slightly. "Why did you keep his name?"
Severus was startled beyond words.
He had told Draco the night of Narcissa's murder. Minerva and Hermione knew as well, but it still struck him hard to have anyone speak to him about his own mother. A physical pain, the kind that cannot be helped.
Lowering himself to the ground, Severus stared up through tree branches to the sky.
"I had no real choice in the matter at the time," Severus said quietly, hating how his voice was not as strong as he had expected.
Draco nodded slightly, his hand passing over his mother's name. He had not spoken much that day, but Severus had honored his only request - that his father's name be omitted.
A silence passed between them, the only sound the soft rustle of the trees branches against each other. Severus watched the shadows sway across the grave, and his thoughts once more drifted, replaying the events of that night, how he failed to protect her, he could have saved her, saved both of them.
"I'm going to kill him tomorrow," Draco said without emotion. His hand, pressed flat over his mother's name, drew slowly into a fist.
Severus remained silent, but shook his head.
Draco turned on him, preparing for a fight. "I can't let him get away with it."
Severus studied Draco's face. The rage, pain and vengeance there were almost too much to bear.
It is the same.
Draco took hold of Severus' robes and leaned over, raging, "He can't get away with it! They'll just lock him up; you have to let me!"
Severus sat, unmoving even as Draco pounded a fist into his shoulder. After his rage had drifted into tears, Severus raised his arm around Draco's shoulder.
Staring at the name Narcissa Black etched forever into stone, Severus said, "He will not escape justice. I promise you."
Hermione and Severus approached the Quidditch pitch as dusk approached. The setting sun spread a warm glow over the pitch, with deep red stripes of sunlight alternating with shade from the spires. Hermione thought to herself that it was almost a shame that this was not a sight that could often be experienced, as school was out at that time of year. As they drew closer, Hermione saw Harry and Ginny waiting.
Once on the pitch, Severus removed his outer robes and dropped them on the ground.
Hermione sat next to Ginny and put an arm around her. "Talk to me, Ginny."
"I can't without crying, Hermione, and I can't do that around him. Not now," Ginny said, looking down into her lap.
Hermione thought for a moment. "I think it'd make you feel better if you try."
Ginny shook her head. "I know I'm supposed to be encouraging. Keep his confidence up. I don't think I'm doing a good job, though."
They watched as Severus and Harry approached each other. The sun made it impossible to see any details, only their silhouettes. Harry nodded as Severus handed him what was most likely a small flask of the Felix Felicis potion.
"I'm sure you're doing the best you can. We're as prepared as we can be for something like this," Hermione said, noticing several black dots which appeared to be Thestrals, flying off in the distance. "The waiting is worse than if they all just broke through the wards, I think."
"He has barely spoken these past few days. I see him watching out the window, but not really seeing," Ginny said, her voice breaking as she stared at Harry. She shook her head slowly. "He's gone, Hermione. He's in some world where I can't reach him. I don't need to be older to know."
Hermione saw that Severus and Harry were sitting across from each other, obviously trying to determine if the potion had worked. Severus flinched slightly, and Hermione assumed that, as sometimes occurs with Occlumency, Harry had cast a hex to force him out.
"Ginny, Harry needs to be like this right now, I think. What he is facing is terrible, and no words can help him deal with that. That kind of comfort only comes from it being over with," Hermione said sadly.
Hermione assumed from the lack of frustrated gestures on Severus' part that the potion seemed to be working.
They both watched for a few minutes in silence before Ginny said, with an uneasy attempt at humor, "So... who are you going to cheer for?"
Hermione looked at Ginny seriously and said, "Harry."
Severus held his hand over his eyes as the sun fell lower in the sky, stretching their shadows across the pitch. The warm light tinged everything red even as a chill crept into the air. Some faraway voice interjected into his thoughts, reminding him that this might be his last sunset.
Harry nodded. "I think so, yes."
They looked into each other's eyes as Severus muttered, "Legilimens."
Severus was met not only with an immediate and impenetrable wall, but with an overwhelming feeling of something much larger than himself. He couldn't even pick up a hint of the emotion which he had always been successful in discerning, at least, even when the victim fought valiantly against him. Traces of thoughts or images were almost always there in the forefront, ready to be taken, even from the better Occlumens he had come across in his time. Harry offered no such traces. There was nothing there except an unforgiving wall. Nothing he tried allowed him to gain any ground, and, instead, he found himself unceremoniously shoved out.
Harry watched as Severus broke the spell, closed his eyes, and turned his face to the sky, muttering, "Finally."
For the first time in days, Harry could do nothing but smile. He stood, and, looking down at the man that he, at one time, had wanted to kill almost more than Voldemort, offered his hand to help him up. Severus opened his eyes, and, looking impressed, took his hand, and rose.
"I suppose we should. One last time?" Harry said with a shrug.
"I believe that would be beneficial; however, we cannot carry on as we've done in the past. However enjoyable that was, you cannot be injured at this point. Neither of us can risk it, actually. You will instead both shut me out and try to disarm."
Harry agreed and drew his wand. Severus moved off a distance before turning and drawing his own, holding it low as he stepped around in an arc. He watched as Harry concentrated for a moment, a look of great intensity in his eyes.
Without warning, Severus lunged forward and cried, "Legilimens!" When he was met with the same resistance and a strong push out, he released the spell. Before Harry could fully relax, however, Severus reached out and snatched him tightly by the shirt, twisting it and pulling him close. With a sneer, he cast the Imperius Curse and shoved Harry away.
Severus' eyes held a strange glint as he watched Harry try to fight the curse. He circled Harry while instructing him to kneel. Instead, he found himself up against an amazing amount of resistance. Harry gritted his teeth while fighting the curse, refusing to bend the slightest bit. After a long stretch of time, Severus released the curse and stepped back. When Harry took time to catch his breath, Severus quickly disarmed him.
Harry watched in surprise as his wand flew onto the grass.
Severus snarled, "Think you will have a moment to rest up? Maybe take some tea between rounds? Do not treat me any differently, Potter!"
Gritting his teeth, Harry stalked towards where his wand lay.
"Or aren't you taking this seriously?" Severus said in a cold voice.
"I am!" Harry yelled as he picked up his wand. "More than you know!"
Severus crossed his arms. "Prove it to me. I am standing here in the open and you have yet to do anything."
Harry seethed in anger. Severus, however, made no move, and only narrowed his eyes as Harry raised his wand. Hermione and Ginny sat in silence, watching the two wizards as they attempted to stare each other down, the angle of the setting sun spreading their stark shadows across the grass.
As Harry prepared to cast again, Severus interrupted him, "Tell me, Potter. How much intensity do you plan to employ tomorrow?"
Harry was dumbstruck.
"The question is..." Severus said in a slow voice, as if he were speaking to a child. "If Voldemort were standing here, how would you react?"
"I'd kill him," Harry said, then winced at how simple that sounded when spoken aloud. It was the phrase and mission he carried around in his mind; however, the "how" was not clear.
"Interesting," Severus pondered. "I don't feel as if I'm about to die, here."
Harry gripped his wand and looked furious.
Severus smirked. "That's it. Use that and disarm me. With the potion you are unstoppable. Remember that."
Harry didn't hesitate and advanced on Severus fiercely, casting one spell after another. Severus reeled and stepped backwards as he blocked most, and avoided others. Watching Severus on the defensive seemed to drive Harry onward, encouraging him to become even more aggressive. Soon, he disarmed Severus for the first time.
With each successive round, it required less time as Harry became more confident. They continued as the sun set, draining the color out of the sky. By the time the last gray light threatened to leave them in darkness, Severus raised his hand to stop.
As Severus retrieved his wand from the deep shadows, he asked, "Feel ready?"
When Harry didn't respond for a moment, Severus approached him. "Harry?"
Shaken out of his thoughts by the sound of Severus using his given name, Harry shifted, saying, "I do. I mean I don't know what's going to happen, but I think I've prepared as much as possible. With your help."
"It's all that you can do. Remember that you are not alone tomorrow."
Harry nodded solemnly.
"There is one thing you should know," Severus said as they began to walk over to Ginny and Hermione. "I only gave you a tenth of what you will take tomorrow."
Harry's mouth fell open.
"You may close your mouth," Severus said with faint scowl. "Yes, you possess the ability to best me with only a trace of the potion, which means you are better than you think. I needed to reduce the potency of the confidence to achieve the Occlumency enhancement. The resistance to the Imperius, however, you achieved on your own."
Harry's entire demeanor changed for the better. "Thank you, sir."
Severus quirked a grin. "You are about to destroy the reason most of my life has been a complete disaster. There is no longer a need to call me 'sir'."
Harry appeared shocked at Severus' words. He smiled faintly and asked, "Will it expire at midnight?"
"No," Severus said. He couldn't help but laugh. As they approached where Ginny and Hermione sat, he noticed that Tonks had joined them.
"Where is Lupin?" Severus asked, picking up his robes and brushing them off. He caught sight of several Hippogriffs soaring in the direction of Hagrid's house, presumably for their evening meal.
Tonks said casually, "Guarding Wormtail."
Severus looked at Harry. How Remus felt about Peter's betrayal was no secret; he'd gone as far as attempting murder the night in the Shrieking Shack. While Severus trusted Remus to look after Wormtail in his Animagus form, he was not comfortable with the type of conversation that would be occurring now.
Without a word, Severus turned and moved swiftly towards the castle.
The Room of Requirement door opened, allowing a precious amount of torchlight to creep in along the floor. Further down the dimly lit row of cells, a specially reinforced version stood with small mesh wire lining. Even a rat couldn't escape, never mind the fact that the room was heavily warded, a perfect use of Moody's vigilance. As the light reached the cell, Wormtail raised his head and squinted. The shadow of a man approached, the light shining from behind exaggerating his height. The distinct outline of the wand in his hand was written on the stone floor as he approached with measured steps. Wormtail's eyes widened, and he went to scramble back further into the cell, as though that could somehow shield him. No one ever approached him without hatred or revulsion.
"Remus..." Wormtail said in a gasping voice.
"I want to know. Do you intend to fight tomorrow?" Remus said evenly, his hand flexing around his wand as if to gain a better grip.
Wormtail moaned. "I- You know I have no choice. I must protect Harry-"
Disgust spread across Remus' face. "Only because he saved you! Kept me and Sirius from ridding the world of you! You could never possess anything even remotely close to bravery without some sort of threat or without hiding behind whomever is stronger."
Wormtail only cringed and held his head in his hands.
"Thought this conversation was over, did you? It's never over, Peter..." Remus said, gazing at the ceiling as if trying to keep his temper. "No, betrayal is never over. At least not in my mind. I think about it every day." He shook his head at the memories. "They deserved so much more, including Harry. You took that all away, and in the process you destroyed Sirius too."
"You don't know what the Dark Lord is capable of, he - "
"It doesn't matter what Voldemort is capable of!" Remus yelled, his voice bordering on vicious. "A schoolboy could have threatened you and you would have betrayed them! And why? Why did you join him? Even worse, you helped him regain his body! All of this is because of you!"
Wormtail held his hands up and stuttered in a whining voice, "I don't know, it all happened so quickly! I wanted to be a part of something, then I couldn't get out!" He moaned and held his head as if it was splitting apart. "I'm sorry..."
"My last thought before going out there will be that you will fulfill your duty, then die. If you think you are walking away from this you are sadly mistaken. I won't allow it. James and Lilly deserve justice," Remus threatened, promises of vengeance in his voice.
Remus' breath came in hard gasps of air, barely in control. He raised his wand and said through gritted teeth, "If you even think about betraying us now, I swear..."
Severus stood in the doorway, his eyes shifting from the cringing mass in the cell to Remus. He could tell that Remus was, at least, contemplating injuring the wretch. Severus could not allow that to happen on the eve of a battle in which they needed him, no matter how well-deserved the retribution.
When Severus reached Remus, he placed a hand on his wand arm, saying, "I need to speak to you."
Remus stared at Severus and slowly allowed him to lower his wand. Wormtail watched the two of them with wide eyes from the back of his cell. When Severus raised his eyebrows slightly, Remus reluctantly moved towards the door.
Before leaving, Remus turned and said with complete hatred, "Die in battle against him, Peter. It's the least you can do."
Hermione stood at the bedroom door, unable to speak. She almost didn't see him, a still shape amongst objects made ambiguous by the dim light.
In the dark, he stood with his arms outstretched, his hands gripping the drapes, holding them open. Head tilted down, he rested his forehead against the glass.
The sight of him like that - nearly condemned - stopped her heart along with her breath.
"Hermione," he said grimly, startling her.
He turned his head and allowed one hand to slide down the length of the drape, spreading the fabric out wide before letting it go. It swayed, cutting the gray light in half.
She concentrated on the strip of light as it moved, eventually becoming still. The need to speak to him was there, but the words - nothing prepares anyone for such conversations. Another shape on the floor, the shadow of his hand on the window. It turned to the side and moved out of the light. The sound of fabric running through his fingers and the light almost shut out.
In the flicker of the light from the sitting room, she could see him raise both arms, grip the drapes and tear the rail down. Bright moonlight flooded the room as the drapes fell to the floor.
"We shall need the light," he stated and turned to look at her.
She entered the room, approaching him slowly. "Severus, I-"
"Danger is not contagious, Hermione," he said softly, then removed his robes.
With measured movements, she shook her head and sat on the edge of the bed, nervously running her hand over the sheet. Somehow, concentrating on the texture of the fabric removed her mind from the downward spiral of possibilities, scenes of despair, desperately trying to remember the last of everything before the unknown eclipsed it all.
She heard him cross the room and lay his robes across the chair in the corner. He was watching her; she could feel it. When he stood before her, she gripped his coat in her fists and simply pressed her head against him.
After a deep breath, Severus laid his hand on her head then brushed her hair aside. "Hermione, if anything should happen to either of us tomorrow-"
"Don't talk like that - please," she interrupted painfully, almost moaning, as if speaking of death forced it across the line from possibility to truth.
Hermione kept the grip on his coat, but felt him move to her side and sit on the bed.
"Look at me."
His hand brushed her cheek, downward and curled under her jaw, insisting.
He met her eyes and said, "Too often, things are left unsaid. If I have learned one thing, it is that words can either ruin life or make it worth living."
Hermione closed her eyes, rejecting the fact that his touch somehow brought the reality of it all too close.
"You must understand, I have a part to play in this that will be extremely dangerous. Once they realize they are trapped, every Death Eater will wish me dead immediately, as I am the prize. Not because I am the enemy now, but because I am the one who turned." Severus ran a hand over his forearm and said, gazing at it, "There are many amongst his followers who have little heart in it anymore, but are trapped. They will come after me simply because I was successful, while they are bound forever. For that reason, I will be the most desired target."
"Because they have orders to not harm Harry," Hermione said thoughtfully, falling into logic.
Severus smiled sadly. "You are, as always, one step ahead."
"What will you do?"
He took her hand in his and said, "There is not much I can do, other than play my part. You must understand, the way you may see me out there..."
Hermione ran her hand along his chest to rest over his heart. "I know you. All I need to do is look into your eyes to know. No one else can see that."
He nodded and stared downward. Silence fell between them, but Hermione dare not break it.
"You must know that my greatest fear is expressing my feelings. It is as if speech fails me at times like these. I look at you, even in the most ordinary moments, and experience what can only be an indescribable love, something that binds me to you like nothing else in this world. It is an undeniable force that demands that I tell you, draw you close and ensure that this is kept alive, never wanting for reassurance. I know very little about love, and am playing by pure instinct, following what no books can possibly teach me. That is by far most unsettling for me. I fear at times that I am failing."
"You are not," she whispered and kissed him gently. Her hands moved to his throat and started to unbutton his coat, her fingers sliding between each one.
Severus closed his eyes. When he opened them again, she could see the change.
Her hand stilled, halfway down, across his heart.
"I do know that you have brought so much into my life that, if it must end tomorrow, I could be content in the final moments. A large difference from the way I felt when you found me. My thoughts then were filled only with regrets, of being found as something less than strong, and of failing to fulfill great ambitions, all of which seem frivolous now. My pride meant the world to me then, whereas now I would make a fool of myself if only for the knowledge that, whatever the cost, it made you happy in some small way."
Hermione smiled gently, remembering that the man before her asked a student to teach him to dance. Nothing could have expressed his love more. Her hands had continued their path on their own, freeing each button on his coat, requiring no thought as she looked into his eyes, in utter awe of his words.
He looked at her with both love and a sense of finality. "I do know this. In death, my final thoughts would be of you. Somehow, I think - I could face it easier. I have already accepted it in a way. I owe you so much - you will never know. Even now, I cannot form the words to adequately express it..."
"Severus, words are not important. I know from the moment you wake and look at me in the morning, the way you touch my hair when you think I am asleep; the look in your eyes and the simple touch of your hand speak volumes. Sitting in silence with me while reading says more than an evening of words can ever achieve. All of these things tell me how much you love me. This is something that can't be ignored. It simply is."
"Yes," he said, nodding as if she had captured it exactly.
With a tilt of her head, Hermione took his hand and clasped it in hers. "The fact that words are not important can only mean that we are strong. That we can sit in perfect contentment and not say a word is incredible in itself. You have the ability to say you love me without a sound, and that is more amazing than a million poems or beautiful speeches."
She reached out and brushed his hair back behind one ear. When she brought her hand back, she followed the edge of his jaw and lifted his head so he would look at her.
Realization dawned in his eyes. To go out there without first showing her how much he loved her would be a crime of sorts, a rebellion against the unwritten rules of love that must not be transgressed.
Severus moved her onto her back and took her lips to his. With slow, almost sorrowful movements, he kissed her with a restrained passion that spoke of completion, ensuring that everything would be performed perfectly, for fear of never having another opportunity. They exchanged deep, passionate expressions of love through touch, extending the act into a remembrance of their bond so that it would, if need be, extend past death. Soon, their somber expression blended into a needful energy. With a hesitant progression, it was as if they both realized that if this was to be their last performance, it should be most memorable yet.
Hermione took her hand from his, and, without breaking the kiss, struggled with the buttons on his shirt, choosing to rip it open in the end. He watched in unrestrained awe as she left kisses along his scar, as if to tell him that she loved every inch of him, including how destructive his life had been.
When she reached for him, his eyes slipped closed and she heard him breathe her name.
Hermione smiled and caressed his face as he moved over her. She thought he looked so young in that moment, mostly because, with her, he left his guard down. Fully exposed, he wore his emotions for her to see, and no words could replace the way he was looking at her in that moment.
"What shall it be tonight?" she asked with a sad grin.
Severus kissed her once more as he waved his right hand, bringing it back into a fist. As snow began to fall, a soft wind carried it around in a swirling motion, casting a blue haze in the air.
He leaned down to murmur into her ear, "Passionate snowfall makes no sound."
AN: The final battle. Anyone excited?