Now that the Order had a plan, a place and a time to look forward to, things changed.
They met again on Sunday afternoon, two days later, to discuss the best course of preparations, all the time eyeing Hermione warily. She kept very silent, having discussed all her proposals beforehand with Severus and Harry. When she talked, it was in the low, calm voice of a mature professional, She looked people squarely in the eye, refusing to let them avoid her, but it was obvious for everyone who knew her that she had withdrawn deeply inside herself.
It was Moody who stressed the importance of additional duel training, especially for those who were out in the rough. He even offered to take over the training himself, perhaps with the help of Remus, who agreed happily.
The additional meetings were easily accepted, too. Everyone who had time, or wished to report something, had now a chance to do so every evening at eight o'clock. Mrs Weasley proposed one compulsory longer meeting on Saturday afternoon that would bring the information together and allow those who hadn't attended every day a chance to keep up with the others. It was also agreed that selected members of the Outer Circle would participate in that meeting, and that the Order would introduce further members to the Inner Circle.
Everyone was surprised when Severus named Fred and George Weasley as his first choice, and while Bill and Arthur seemed quite pleased, their mother/wife clearly wasn't. But Potter had argued most vocally for their inclusion, and whether it was the shock about Snape and Harry Potter agreeing on something, or his actual arguments, the Order finally agreed to the idea.
Other names began to drift in, among them the Professors Flitwick and Vector, and the healer Hannah Jones, who had belonged to the Outer Circle for many years now. Remus Lupin proposed that students already belonging to the Outer Circle like Ginny Weasley, Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood should at least attend the duel training they would set up.
They were, after all, endangered enough already by the knowledge they possessed, and as the training sessions would take place anyway, there was no reason not to teach them how to fight properly.
Molly Weasley hadn't liked that idea, either and hadn't stopped complaining until Tonks had told her that her children would grow up, no matter what she did. All they would do was help insure that they really reached adulthood. Mrs Weasley had been rather quiet after that.
All in all, the meeting was a total success for Severus. Over the course of three hours he had managed to coax the Order into all the changes and improvements he had considered most necessary. Details would follow, of course, but this one afternoon had transformed the Order from a passive political gathering to a council of war. And every decision they had passed tonight would better their chances to not only survive, but bring this age long conflict finally to an end.
But although he was more than satisfied with the outcome of the night, Severus couldn't forget how this success had been achieved, and at what cost. Whenever he had a free moment, his eyes would linger on Hermione, proud, strong Hermione, who had given the performance of her life on Friday night and stared them all down, only to collapse in shivers and trembles once they had been back in the safety of his chambers.
Both Potter and Draco had knocked on their tapestry a few minutes later and asked to come in, and Severus had let them happily, believing that the presence of friends, of those who had accepted her, might relieve her, but though she had pulled herself together and talked and even smiled, it obviously hadn't changed the way she felt.
And when he remembered how they had looked at her when they walked out of the room, when he remembered the expression of disgust on Moody's face when the old auror had called her a Death Eater, he understood why she had fought so hard for her anonymity, an anonymity she had now irreversibly lost.
During their long, second Inner Circle meeting his patience had nearly snapped more than once. They had simply not looked at her, had averted their eyes and hearts away from her. When they had referred to information gathered by her, they would look at Severus, not at their Master Spy, and when Severus asked for her comment or confirmation, they would lower their heads and concentrate hard on the table surface.
And she seemed to accept it all. Where he would already have exploded, hissed and sneered at them and staged a dramatic exit, she just looked at them with sad understanding in her eyes. Evoking in Severus the urgent wish to hex them all, every single one of them, into oblivion, because they hurt his Hermione.
But he could do nothing against her wish, and when he asked her afterwards why the hell she was allowing them to treat her in such a way, she had just smiled and told him that they 'needed time'.
After he had watched her pick on her dinner Sunday night and answer his comments with monosyllabic nonsense, he had decided that she was right. They needed time. But that included her. And so he informed her on Monday morning that she should skip her useless afternoon classes and meet him here at one o'clock sharp because she needed time with him.
He would wipe that resigned smile off her face, and he would make her laugh again, no matter how much she wished to suffer in silence.
The afternoon sun shone through the great windows of the gym and turned Hermione's hair and body golden as they fought.
It was a pleasure to watch her. As little time they were able to spend together these days, as seldom was the chance to see Hermione so free of worry or the nervous energy that carried her through the day. But when she fought, like other women might do when they danced or enjoyed a night out, she seemed to forget everything around her.
It had taken him longer than normally to coax her into this state. Even after they had finished the warm-up and began with easy kicks and blocks had there been a frown of worry on her forehead. It had taken a barely missing kick to her nose to stop any thoughts about the world outside this gym, but once she had concentrated on her body alone, tension and weariness had bled out of her with every motion.
Her face open and expressive, her teeth exposed in a silent laugh of pleasure and thrill, she danced with him, knives glittering and bodies moving in impossible flashes of speed.
Severus found it hard to defeat her these days, partly because her progress in the art of fighting was so fast that she could now easily surpass everyone of the Order and even rival some of the best fighters he had trained with.
But it wasn't her ability that endangered him more than once this afternoon and forced him to concentrate deeply on the intricate steps of magic and blade Hermione performed. It was her sheer, pure beauty, her joy that seemed to radiate around her and took his breath and mind away every time he looked at her.
How had Minerva called him? Infatuated? He would never admit it in the open, but here, in this room of truth and ability, he accepted the term as most fitting.
She won against him this golden afternoon, for the first time ever, and when her knife was at his throat, her body pressed against his back, she stood on tiptoe and leaned forward. He could feel her breath tickling the tender skin of his ear. Then she softly placed her lips on his neck and licked his sweat away.
He moaned. "It is forbidden to torture prisoners, Hermione," He whispered, and her laugh against his skin made him moan again.
"Is that so?" She whispered back and goosebumps raced down his spine. "Then I am afraid I will have to free you, Severus."
Her tongue flickered once more across his neck as she withdrew her blade. When she stepped away from him, it was as if the world had suddenly lost some part of its colour. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply to regain at least part of his control, then turned around to her.
She had walked over to the ceiling high windows and sat down on one of the chairs Draco and Potter had placed there. Her gaze fixed on the burning line of the horizon, she absently opened her slide, combing her hair with her fingers.
Severus found that he couldn't take his eyes from her. Her skin was glistening wet in the afternoon light and her hair wove an aureole around her head. The image made his heart ache.
"'The barque she sat in. like a burnished throne/ Burnt on the water: the poop was beaten gold;/ Purple the sails, and so perfumed that / The winds were love-sick with them. / Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety: other women cloy / The appetites they feed; but she makes hungry/Where most she satisfies'", he quoted, watching her with dark, burning eyes.
She let go of her hair, turned around and smiled at him playfully.
"'The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne/ Glowed on the marble, where the glass / Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines / From which a golden Cupidon peeped out'", she quoted back at him, "'Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair / Spread out in fiery points / Glowed into words, then would be savagely still. / I think we are in rats' alley / Where the dead men lost their bones'. I never thought you would prefer Shakespeare over T.S. Eliot, Severus!"
He mock scowled, walked over to her and swooped her up in an embrace: "That´s what you turned me into, you wretched woman", he complained, "a hopeless romantic without a sense for modern poetry. Next I will start carving your name into the trees around Hogwarts."
"I would forbid that", she teased back, "I like those trees better than I do my name!"
She leaned against him, her cheek resting on his chest, and closed her eyes. Minutes passed as he stood and held her, his eyes on her lowered head and the once relaxed line of her shoulders. Then she sniffed, her nose twitching adorably, and wrinkled her mouth.
"A shower, I think," She announced dryly. "Urgently."
They both followed her advice willingly, but when she joined him back in the library, ready to settle on their favourite sofa, he took her hand and led her over to the kitchen.
"What is going on?" She asked. "Does Jane want to see us?"
He shook his head with a smile. "Jane isn't here today," He answered. "But she would only disturb me anyway."
"Then what are you up to?" She questioned, a mixture of curiosity and insecurity in her eyes.
"Tonight, I have decided to let you enjoy one of the many advantages that comes with being loved by a Potions Master," He told her in a grave and important voice.
"What," She asked back amusedly. "Have you hidden a love potion in there, or a bottle of Felix felicis?"
"Even better," He answered, and, puffing out his chest and assuming the pompous posture of Fudge. "Tonight, Hermione, I am going to cook for you."
Her pearly laughter filled the kitchen with sun, but when he moved over to the pans and pots and chose a heavy pot, she looked distinctly surprised. He grinned, walked over to her and escorted her to a chair by the window.
"Tea or juice while you wait?" He asked.
"Severus, are you serious?" She asked back, her eyes widening slightly when he opened a storage cupboard and started rummaging through it. "I mean, I never knew you could cook!"
"There are a lot of things you don't know about me yet, Miss Granger," He retorted playfully. "And Potions Masters are the best cooks of the wizarding world. Out of principle. Tea or juice?"
"Juice, I think," She answered, slightly confused. "I… But have we got time for this? The Order meeting will be in less than two hours!"
"I am also a very efficient cook," He announced pompously. "And, besides, those wretched idiots can wait a few minutes for us. They wasted enough of our time with their stupidity already."
"That's not true, Severus," She disagreed, her voice suddenly sad. "I can understand it. They just need time. I have shocked them badly."
"They don't need time, they need a good whipping," He answered in a tone that left no room for discussion, then walked over to the hearth and poured a golden liquid from a small pot into a mug. "Here," He said, handing it over to her. "Hot apple juice with cinnamon. Simple but brilliant."
He touched her cheek for a moment, a tender caress that softened her features and made the line of her shoulders relax. Severus still couldn't believe how willingly she reacted to his touch, how much it seemed to mean to her. But this was no time for intimacy or serious talks. This was a time for bickering, and sarcasm, and dry, condescending humour that would create a backbone strong enough to last through tonight's Order meeting.
"Besides, last weekend wasn't the only time when they behaved as if they had raisins instead of brains. Have I ever told you how the Order reacted during the first war, when they found out that Remus was a werewolf?"
He launched into a long story about the Order's behaviour around Remus while he started to prepare their early dinner. He had decided on a saffron risotto with seafood, both because it took little time to prepare and because he knew how much Hermione loved shrimps and crabs – a rather un-British taste that was seldom satisfied by the meals served in the Great Hall.
When he described in great detail how Minerva, rather young back then and a far cry from her pristine older self, had squeaked in a most undignified way every time Remus walked by her, and how a barely graduated Hufflepuff who had never been any good in Defence Against the Dark Arts anyway had started to carry garlic in his pockets whenever he went to a meeting, Hermione smiled.
By the time he told her how Remus had taken to wearing bells so that he wouldn't cause any more nervous breakdowns, he was rewarded with the first laughter from Hermione. He moved on to other stories about the Order's little idiocies and hypocrisies over the years, and by the time his preparations were finished, the last trace of sorrow and bitterness had vanished from her face.
Dinner was excellent, as Severus informed her without the least bit of self-consciousness, and Hermione agreed amusedly.
While they ate, Severus launched her into a heated discussion about Asiatic versus Italian rice, both outdoing each other with nonsensical arguments. Severus had never known anybody who loved mock arguments as much as Hermione.
And when he finally challenged her to a game of anagram-guessing, the carefree joy on her face nearly resembled her feelings during their afternoon duel.
Without knowing it, Severus was playing a role Hermione knew by heart from her many years with Harry and Ron. Whenever she had become too obsessive about something, they would bicker, behave like fools or make puppy dog eyes at her until all worry was rushed away in a flood of laughter and friendship.
Granted, Severus' way of making her forget her worries was much different – where Harry and Ron had been foolish, he was witty, where they had been silly, he was sarcastic, and where they had indulged in wild speculation (not seldom about Severus himself, but she wouldn't tell him that), he was supplying memories from over twenty years of experience with the people he talked about.
But the feeling of being cared for, of being someone's centre of attention and the reason someone was willing to make fun of himself, was the same. It was even stronger with Severus, who normally didn't tend to silliness at all
And while she listened to him, and laughed, and echoed his self satisfied comments with praises of her own, she realized how much time had gone by since someone other than Severus had behaved like that around her. The realization hurt, but only for a moment. Then she relaxed again, concentrated on the excellent meal Severus had prepared for her, and felt happiness bubble up in her throat like the finest champagne.
On this early Monday evening, Harry was the first to arrive at the Headquarters, settling down on one of the sofas a textbook on advanced Charms in his lap. He had begun to study whenever and wherever he found the chance to do it, and even the jokes and comments of his fellow Gryffindors when they found him at the breakfast table, his nose in a book, didn't disturb him any more.
He and Draco had planned to meet in the living room area of the Headquarters tonight as they were used to do when both had time before the meetings. What Draco had termed their "lessons" and Harry his "torture-sessions" were still taking place in Snape's private gym of course, as neither Draco nor Harry had the wish to let the Order even glimpse what they were doing there.
Seeing the Boy Who Lived stumble over obstacles while trying to balance a book on his head, or hearing him recite the twenty oldest and greatest wizarding families while Draco groaned and complained about his Gryffindor stupidity would undermine his authority, Harry was quite certain about that.
But the other things they did, talk about the school and their fellow students, analyze the defence-mechanisms of Hogwarts or stage their next public quarrel, were exactly the sort of things the Order should see. Or at least Draco and Hermione had said that. They would show them that he cared, that he worked hard and was able to act strategically, they had told him.
Harry had thought them rather overdoing it. The other Inner Circle members that arrived earlier hardly ever seemed to notice them. But when he had once looked up from the discussion of an article from the Daily Prophet, he had found Moody's sharp, quick eyes resting on him, and once he had turned around from the contemplation of a book shelf and found himself eye to eye with Tonks and Shacklebolt, both watching him with a strangely judging expression.
Harry's first reaction had been irritation, but then nervousness had settled in to stay. He himself was surprised by how nervous he felt, after all, being stared at had always been a large part of his life in the wizarding world. It had taken one of the private sessions with Draco for him to understand why he felt clammy and self conscious every time one of the Order looked at him this way.
"Of course they are watching you," Draco had told him when Harry had described those peculiar looks. "You are the only one who can defeat Voldemort. In every battle we might fight, you will be the centre piece, perhaps even the leader. They are wondering whether you will be up to it, or whether you are just a scarhead who was lucky once."
Harry of course answered the scarhead with a "ferret", but it was a rather half-hearted, automatic response. A leader? How the hell was he to lead? And who would ever agree to be led into battle by him? Even the thought was pathetic.
Draco must have seen the rising panic in his face, for he had rolled his eyes as he always did when Harry behaved "especially Gryffindorish".
"Don't act as if it were such a big thing," He said. "After all, you've been leading your very own merry little band of imbeciles ever since you entered school."
"They aren't imbeciles," Harry protested.
"No," Draco agreed with a pretence of thoughtfulness. "One is Hermione, your weasel counts rather as a natural catastrophe, and the Lovegood girl is not imbecile but raving mad. But still you led them to battle in the Department of Mysteries, and you won against the Death Eaters of the Inner Circle."
"You are talking about a time when I landed all my friends in hospital and got my Godfather killed, just because of one bad decision I made, Draco," Harry answered tiredly, not really wanting to think about his fifth year, but it seemed Draco hadn't made his point yet.
"Exactly," The Slytherin answered seriously.
"That's what leading is about, Potter. Making decisions, giving orders that other people will follow. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong. But someone must do the job, and that someone has to possess both the knowledge and ability to decide and the strength to carry the responsibility for his decisions."
"You don't know what you're talking about, Draco," Harry answered. He felt so weary. Even thinking about how he had stumbled his friends into a battle they could only lose back then gave him the creeps. And to imagine that he would be forced to do it again, to lead the people he loved, the people that had taught him everything he knew to battle – it made him want to curl into a ball and whimper a little.
"I don't know what I'm talking about?" Draco asked, and something in his voice caused Harry to look up to him. He found his friend's face suddenly changed, harder and colder than he had seen it for a long time. "You are talking to the Malfoy heir, Potter, the man whose father is Voldemort's right hand. I have been trained to take over that job since before I could walk. I had to act according to my status when you hadn't even learned to read. And I knew the consequences of failure long before you had left that dismal cupboard of yours!"
Somewhere along the way, his words had turned into ice and his grey eyes were dark as if a winter storm drove towering waves across them. Harry couldn't help but stare. He hadn't seen Draco like this for months – defiant, cold, and every inch the prince of Slytherin.
But unlike the times Draco had worn this face in his presence before, Harry now knew it for what it was – an impenetrable mask, erected against hurt, and fear, and pain.
He had lowered his head in shame.
"I am sorry, Draco," He had said. "I didn't think. I should have known better."
He had heard a sigh, and felt Draco walk through the room towards him.
"Gryffindors," He had heard his friend say resignedly. "Haven't I told you never to apologize? How long does it take to learn a concept as simple as that?"
But although the words had betrayed nothing but frustration, the hand that had rested on his shoulder for a moment had told him that he was forgiven.
Harry smiled at the memory, his head still lowered over his book.
"Don't grin like that, Potter, it doesn't become you," Draco's voice drawled from the row of tapestries.
"Staring at me again, Draco?" Harry countered lightly. "I can't help wondering if you haven't got any other hobbies."
"You mean apart from torturing Gryffindors and irritating Order members? What else is there worth living for?" Draco asked, walking over to him and collapsing onto the couch with a muffled sigh.
It had delighted Harry to see that Draco had started to abandon his stiff posture and perfect manners around him. The first entrance of an Order member would, of course, find him sitting upright again, his back perfectly straight, but as long as they were alone Draco almost behaved like a normal person his age. Almost.
"Now, don't play the bad boy, Draco," Harry answered sweetly, not able to help the grin that spread on his face. "I happened to walk across the room while you talked to Mrs Weasley yesterday, and I couldn't help but overhear what she said to you…"
Draco groaned and clutched a pillow against his chest, as if searching for protection.
"She told me that I was much too thin," He confided to Harry in a whisper, his eyes widened comically like those of a small child, frightened of a storm. "She said she would make me eat more!"
Harry chuckled. "If you don't take good care, you will soon be adopted into the Weasley family," He commented happily, causing Draco to groan and bang the pillow against his forehead.
"The disgrace!" He whined.
"Careful, Draco," Harry protested, his smile now downright sardonic. "Or people might start to think you're really a nice person, somewhere deep inside, perhaps someone worthy of Gryffindor."
This caused Draco to turn around and bang his head against the edge of the sofa. The effect was however slightly ruined when the Slytherin straightened and promptly used both hands to smooth back his hair and remove an imagined wrinkle in his robes. Harry snickered. Draco was just unbelievably vain.
"It was inevitable," Draco finally said in a defeated voice. "I am barely able to keep my dignity with you around. And now that I am not the freshest scandal in the Order, people will just forget my dangerous and evil origins and treat me as one of your imbecile friends." He shrugged.
"Yes, now that they have someone else who is dangerous and evil for them," Harry agreed quietly, all humour vanished from his voice.
Draco nodded, his face serious, and opened his mouth as if to agree. Suddenly, Harry could see something in him change, his shoulders straightening, his eyes narrowing nearly unnoticeably.
"What do you make of the news about Gringotts?" He asked, and without turning around, Harry knew that another member of the Order had entered the room.
They kept the conversation on light political topics, seemingly concentrated on each other while from the corner of their eyes they searched for Hermione and Snape. But although the room filled with a surprising amount of people given the fact that it was Monday evening and most had spent the majority of their weekends here, Spymaster and Master Spy were not among them.
It was past eight already, and the atmosphere in the room had changed to one of barely repressed nervousness, when the tapestry connected to Snape's chambers glowed golden and they stepped through, Snape first, Hermione following him closely.
The effect was immediate.
It was not that the conversation in the room stopped or even changed tone, it was just that, while the men and women of the Inner Circle talked on, it was clear to everybody that they weren't listening to each other. Even while they talked, all their attention was fixed on Hermione.
Her face had been relaxed when both had entered, a tiny smile grazing on her lips. Now, while Harry and Draco watched her, they could see her shoulders straightening, her posture stiffening, and her eyes losing all expression.
Whatever Snape had done to make her relax, Harry thought, it wasn't enough to withstand the collective disapproval of the Order. Already he could see her retreat into the safety of her inner hiding place, could see masks slide back in place.
Then, Snape turned his head to her side, and, bending slightly towards her, whispered something in her ears. Harry strained his ears, and imagined to hear something about werewolves, and bells, but was sure that he had misheard when Hermione's face broke into a grin.
"Touché," He heard her answer, and it was in the rich, relaxed voice of his friend again, not the brittle tone of the old woman that had been in her place for the last day.
As if Draco had listened in on his thoughts, he too bent over to Harry.
"It is unbelievable how well he knows her," He whispered. "That effect would have taken me hours."
Harry nodded. "Me too," He admitted. "But then I never was very good at saying the right things at the right time."
Draco chuckled. "The first true thing said tonight. Though I must admit that…"
His eyes darkened. His sentence, unfinished, gave way to silence. But Harry, concentrating on the same thing that had taken Draco's attention away, didn't even notice.
Madeye Moody was walking towards Hermione. And considering the way their last contact had ended, that couldn't be a good thing.
"Miss Granger," The ex-auror began, and Harry could see Hermione visibly bracing herself. He knew that she had expected revenge from Moody – she had told him as much. But now wasn't the right moment, not when she was relaxed for the first time in days. Harry secretly prayed that this confrontation wouldn't lead to another ugly scene between her and the Order.
But whatever Hermione was thinking, or fearing, when she turned around to the old auror, her face showed nothing but calm expectation.
"Mr Moody," She answered the greeting, inclining her head slightly to show her respect.
In an abrupt, strangely awkward movement, Moody stretched out his right arm, and Harry could Hermione tense in the expectation of an attack.
But that attack never came. Instead, Moody offered her his hand, and after a moment of hesitation, Hermione took it.
"My respect," Moody growled in his usual tone of voice, and if it sounded a bit rougher than normally, the change was barely audible. Pumping Hermione's hand up and down a few times, he let go of it again and leaned forward slightly, examining her face closely.
"Although there's nothing I hate as much as spying, secretive sneakery, I know a fighter when I see one. And you, young woman, are a warrior. Your abilities demand respect. And I apologize for my behaviour. It is good to have you guard our backs."
That said, he turned around and walked to his place, not giving anyone the chance to react to his words.
As he watched his friend, for the first time in his life, Harry found himself wishing fervently for the presence of Colin Creevey. For the expression in Hermione's face practically screamed for a camera.
She looked so nonplussed, so totally taken aback that Harry couldn't help but snicker in amusement. Her eyes flickered over to him, still impossibly wide, and he mouthed a "Constant Vigilance". The annoyed narrowing of her eyes made him snicker even harder.
But Draco's elbow silenced him quite effectively, reminding him at the same time that they weren't alone. Slowly, Harry let his eyes travel away from Hermione. Snape, he couldn't help noticing, appeared incredibly smug, just like he did when a Slytherin had brewed a difficult potion correctly in class.
The rest of the Order however looked even more nonplussed than Hermione, and more than a few seemed rather ashamed.
Which is only right, Harry thought grimly. Moody was attacked by her, and yet he's the only one with enough courage to accept her. They ought to be ashamed.
He sent an angry glance towards Shacklebolt, who averted his eyes. And to think that I was so impressed by all of them when I first met them. Being a grown-up really loses its glamour when you become one yourself.
But although it was obvious to Harry that a few of them were beginning to second guess their behaviour towards Hermione after what Moody had done, none of them came forward to repeat his gesture. Only Bill and Tonks sent excusing smiles in Hermione's direction and were answered with a slight nod and a smile.
Mrs Weasley however looked even more irritated than before, probably not understanding how a man like Moody could apologize that way to a girl. There'll be more problems coming from that direction, Harry thought. She probably won't accept any of us fully until we're past thirty.
He was still thinking and worrying about Mrs Weasley when Professor Dumbledore opened the meeting, happily greeting everyone who had found the time to attend. It would be a rather short one, naturally. They had met only yesterday, and as most of the members still had a day job that needed time and attention, not much could have been accomplished. But still there were things to report.
Dumbledore had talked to their possible candidates for the Inner Circle, and all had agreed readily. Remus had taken over the job to talk with Ginny, Luna and Neville, and while the latter had turned deadly pale after the offer of extra Defence training, they all were quite eager to participate.
It was Snape, however, who had used his morning to best advantage, and for the first time Harry wondered if Hermione really had been his only reason to quit teaching. Being the only one that could fully concentrate on Order work day and night, he had used what little had been left of their weekend and Monday morning not only to put their maps and tactical diagrams up to date, but also to develop a formula so complicated that it took Harry and most of the others several minutes to even remotely comprehend it.
As far as Harry could say, Snape had gathered every shred of information they had on Death Eater attacks, including the number of Death Eaters involved, weaponry, locations and the number of muggles, muggleborns or other wizards hurt, maimed, driven to insanity or killed.
Even the thought of sifting though information like that made Harry feel slightly queasy
He had then compressed all that into a long string of numbers and runes according to the rules of some arithmantic principle developed by a 19th century wizard - or at least Harry thought so, for from that point on his understanding had become slightly fuzzy – added the rune used to develop patterns and see more clearly, as well as an arithmantic logarithm. The resulting formula would tell them more about Voldemort's attack patterns.
Or something like that.
Harry could see that Draco, who was sitting opposite to him, had tuned Snape out completely. To the rest of the Order he was probably looking attentive and highly interested, but he had that far away gleam in his eyes that told Harry he wasn't listening at all.
Not many had fared better than they. Tonks eyes had glazed over and Mr Weasley looked slightly dazed. Professor McGonagall seemed more than a bit annoyed by the smug smile Snape wore in his face, indicating that he knew nobody had been able to follow him. Dumbledore looked as happy and serene as always, but Harry had seen how many Lemon Drops the Headmaster had eaten over the last ten minutes, and with that amount of sugar it was probably impossible not to look that way.
Hermione, sitting to Harry's left, was concentrating on a parchment, filled with numbers and runes, on which she hastily scribbled notes. Harry had the resigned suspicion that she had understood every word.
"Now then," Snape summarized in a slightly bored tone, and Harry could see several people around the table straightening up. Hopefully, their Spymaster was finished with the details now and would present them with the working solution. "If I interpret the existing data correctly, we can assume that his Grimshaw's formula must be multiplied with Norral's logarithm number three under the influence of the crow. That should give us the attack pattern…"
"I'm afraid that's not quite right, Severus," Hermione interrupted calmly, not even raising her head from the parchment she was studying.
Nervousness awoke among the Order, and Harry could see many of them shifting restlessly on their chairs. This wasn't the way such things usually happened. Normally, Snape would finish his report, the others would congratulate him on his work without having understood very much, and everything would be perfect.
Nobody was supposed to criticize Snape. He didn't take well to that. But Hermione seemed to ignore that age long behavioural pattern.
"You made a mistake when you connected the runes to your condensed incidence formula, do you see? You have to begin with Longarius' rune and only then you can add the numbers."
What? What the hell is she talking about? Harry asked himself. One look towards Draco was answered with a tiny shake of the head. The Slytherin had obviously no idea what Hermione wanted to say, either, and he had been taking ancient runes for the past three years.
Snape stopped short, consulted his own parchment and studied it for a second.
At the other end of the table, Harry could see Tonks swallow nervously. She had studied under Snape and knew how he behaved when someone corrected him as well as Harry. He would probably start sneering and scowling every second now…
But they were yet again surprised.
"You're right," Snape answered simply, scratched out a figure of his formula and then added: "What would you take to be the most likely incedence coordinates, then? I'm not sure whether we shouldn't use Longarius or Heymann first."
"Heymann, I think," Hermione answered a moment, not noticing that the whole room was staring at her by now. Neither she nor Snape had glanced up once since their discussion had started. "But I'm not entirely sure about the effect Norral's logarithm will have on them. You should probably add a containment rune, just to be on the sure side, or would that interfere with the final outcome?"
Snape shrugged, "Your guess is probably better than mine. What do you think, Albus?"
He finally looked up and his eyes met a row of speechless faces. Even the Headmaster was amazed.
"What?" Snape asked, irritation rising quickly in him. "Did I say something funny, or why are you looking that way?"
"She told you that you have made a mistake, Severus," The Headmaster pointed out weakly.
"Yes," Snape answered impatiently. "And she was perfectly right. Her grasp of ancient runes is, after all, superior to mine. So what is it that makes you look like a frog, Albus?"
"It's only that when I told you in seventh year that I couldn't read your instructions, you threatened me to shrink my tongue and use it instead of the shrivelfigs. I only said I couldn't read your handwriting," Tonks threw in, not knowing whether to be amused or shocked. "And I never saw you admitting to a mistake before, at least not without a lot of shouting."
"You really told her you'd shrink her tongue? I have to remember that one for the next time you behave like a prat," Hermione commented him, amusement glittering in her eyes. She completely ignored the choking sound Remus to her left made. "You really are a frightful teacher, you know that?"
"I'll have you know that awe inspiring is a much better description," Severus answered, seemingly indignant. "A lot of hard work went into that persona."
"And I always thought it came quite naturally to you," Hermione commented innocently, and the room froze again. Severus Snape didn't like it when somebody made fun of him. Not at all. Everyone of them knew that. Only Professor McGonagall did it, sometimes, and she had known him since he was a child.
But he only scowled at Hermione half heartedly, and a bit more convincing at the rest of the Order.
"Very funny," He said. "Now that we have all had a good laugh and trampled my ego to death, could we please continue? What was the rune you proposed?"
"Containment rune 3.4," Hermione answered as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
And to her nothing had, Harry realized as he remembered the behaviour he had witnessed between Snape and her during the past weeks. It was just that they had stopped pretending in the presence of the Inner Circle, at least to a certain degree.
Harry looked around and saw the amazement in those faces around the table. If that was enough to freak them out, he thought warily, how would they react to the fact that their Master Spy and Spymaster were sharing chambers – and, as far as Harry knew, a bed?
"Harry," Ron began, biting his lip with nervousness. "I have been thinking a lot these past weeks, and I…"
He sighed, cleared his throat and started again. "I have spent the last weeks thinking about my behaviour and I have finally realized… that is…when I look at what I did with objective eyes, I must say that it was wrong… It's only that I felt so alone when you two were off at Order meetings, and then even Ginny and Neville were angry with me…No, forget that I said that."
He took a deep breath. "I was just so… shocked, I guess. I had always imagined a future for all of us, after we defeated You-Know-Who. And in that future, you were alive and happy and Hermione and I were… I mean, I always thought I knew her better than anybody in the world, better even than you with your tempers and your secrecy – sorry, you know how I mean that. And then it turns out that while I am busy planning a future for 'us'," He laughed bitterly at the word. "That all the time she has walked into a direction leading away from me.
"I guess I just felt like a complete fool, and I wanted that feeling to go away."
He stopped his speech abruptly, and, eyeing his red face in the mirror with disgust, grumbled: "Oh, stop whining you dolt! You can't expect them to pity you. Just stick to the facts."
He took another deep breath and straightened. "All I want to say is that I don't expect you or her to forgive me. I only want a chance to do my part in this fight. I don't know if there is any need for me in the Order, or if your plans still include me, but if they do, I am willing to do anything to defeat You-know-… Voldemort."
"And I also want you to know that I apologize. Not to Snape or that ferret…Draco Malfoy," He corrected himself, turning even redder. "But to Hermione… and to you, because in a way I betrayed your friendship, too. I will try to be a better friend in the future, someone that deserves your confidence again."
He stopped, nodded as if satisfied with what he had achieved, and, with another deep breath, turned to another mirror a few feet to his left. Flattening his hair with one hand and adjusting his school robes with the other, he finally dried his sweaty palms on the black cloth of his robes.
„Hermione. I just want you to know that I apologize..." He began to practice his second speech.
The text Severus quotes when he watches Hermione braiding her hair is from Shakespeare's „Anthony and Cleopatra", Act Two. The quote Hermione answers with is out of T.S. Eliot's „The Waste Land" (where Severus took the password to his chambers from), II: A Game of Chess. Eliot here alludes to Shakespeare.
The allusion with the carving of Hermione's name into the trees is from Shakespeare's „As You Like It", where a love-sick man does exactly that and is criticized because it damages the trees.
Let me again remind you of my forum! I was away for a few weeks, and update delays like that will always be found in the forum so that you don't have to wonder what happened to me! Check in and leave me a note, or discuss the story with fellow readers!