Unlike Percy, the weather had a sense of humour and provided the perfect backdrop to the day. It started off bright and sunny, mocking Severus in its exuberance, but then, as the evil hour came closer, it closed in and turned gloomy.
By 3pm – Snape had objected that it would interrupt lessons; Percy had responded that this was the point – it was bucketing down, so that Snape was obliged to listen to each new arrival inform him that it was raining (as if he didn't know), and that they were wet (which was self-evident, and an almost inexorable consequence of rain when people were too stupid to remember the right spells), and that it was a shame that the weather was so bad on such an important day.
By the time Hermione, Ron and Harry presented themselves at the door to Hogwarts, Snape was in a foul mood. "I know it's raining," he snapped at someone ahead of them in the line, as they waited to be greeted in their turn. "Yes, it is annoying. Yes, it is wet."
"Same old Snape, then," Harry muttered, only to be firmly shushed by Hermione.
A teacher plucked the offending guest away from the Headmaster, one that Hermione didn't recognise, and was directed towards a hot toddy and some soothing words. They moved forward to face Snape. It wasn't the same old Snape, not as far as Hermione was concerned. He seemed a bit shorter for one thing, now that she was no longer sat in class, and there were a few streaks of white in his hair. Perhaps he was encouraging the grey so that he would look venerable, or perhaps it was the added stress of overseeing Hogwarts' reconstruction that had added the streaks.
"Good afternoon, Headmaster," Hermione said pleasantly, shaking his hand firmly.
"Aren't you going to tell me that it's raining?"
"Indeed not, Headmaster. I think that's obvious."
He humphed. "You're the only one that thinks so, then. I'm pleased to see you seem to have marginally more sense than the others; you have at least remembered to cast some drying spells."
"I do tend to do that when it's raining," she said gravely. "But then I've always been a know-it-all."
Only a dark gleam in his eye betrayed his amusement, though it stopped well short of Dumbledorean twinkling. It disappeared completely as he turned to the boys. "Potter," he said shortly. "Weasley."
"Snape," Harry said. Ron just nodded.
If they were dogs, their hackles would be raised and there would walking round each other all stiff-legged and growling, thought Hermione. It's just as well they weren't dogs, because the thought of them having to sniff each other's bottoms was not a pleasant one.
The tableau was disturbed by the arrival of the Minister, who came bustling up full of his own importance, leaving a trail of flunkies labouring in his wake. "So we're all here then?" he said. "Good. Good. Have you seen the portrait?" Percy asked. "Rylestone was really rather off-hand when I asked to see it."
"No," Snape said shortly. "I wasn't really interested."
Snape and Harry had one thing in common then – they were united in their dislike of Percy – and neither of them was prepared to take up the burden of the conversation. Not that their opinion was unusual: as far as Hermione could tell, the only people who liked Percy were his parents, and that only intermittently. More people liked Lucius Malfoy than Percy, which was a dreadful thing to say.
"He is a genius, Minister," Hermione replied, soothing his ruffled feathers. "I think we have to forgive him his little eccentricities. Rumour has it that he threw a pot of paint over your predecessor."
"Good heavens." Percy's smile was quickly suppressed as he remembered how solemn the occasion was, and he rearranged his face into a more appropriate expression. That little glimpse of personality, reminded her of Ron. Someone needed to take Percy in hand, find him a girlfriend to get him pointed in the right direction, and a couple of kiddies on the way so that he'd be too tired to keep interfering at the Ministry.
Not that she was volunteering for that role.
Surely someone would be eager enough to be the Minister's wife that they were prepared to overlook that they'd have to marry Percy Weasley too, and maybe they could bring out the Weasley sense of humour before he turned into a dried old stick.
One of the older students came hurrying along the corridor – at least Hermione hoped it was one of the older students and that she wasn't reaching the stage when Aurors and teachers were looking young, because that would mean she was getting old – and muttered something into Snape's ear.
"Apparently they are ready for us Minister," Snape said. "If you would be so good…" He gestured for the Minister to precede him into the Hall.
There was a moment of calculation for the boys. Percy was wondering whether it would look better to go into the Hall with Harry, the boy-who-lived-three-times, Ron and accentuate the Weasleys' claim to greatness, Hermione who controlled the purse strings, or the Headmaster who was technically his host.
Ron took the decision out of his hands by muttering something under his breath about looking after Molly, and disappearing into the crowd. Harry was hoping to go in with Hermione, but knew that he was expected to go in with either Snape or Percy.
He hated Snape with a deep and burning hate, which had settled down to a dull ache over the years since polishing off Voldemort. It was one thing to know that Dumbledore's death had all been part of a deep plot, and to even admire the courage of the man for doing what he had done. It was quite another to come to terms with the bullying he had endured at school. There'd been no deep reason for that, other than Snape hating Harry and Harry hating Snape. It was a comfortable hate that had been part of him for so long that it was like a part of him; he could no more give it up than give up an arm.
His dislike of Percy was new-found and growing. It was a nice question which one he disliked the least.
Snape was wondering whether it was too late to manufacture some sort of emergency that needed his attention, or drop the anti-Apparition wards and just vanish, claiming he'd been abducted by Neo-Death Eaters determined to disrupt the ceremony.
Hermione had no such moment of indecision. Snape was obviously the best choice to sit next to, as he wasn't likely to irritate her with banal chit chat, and Harry should therefore be thrown to the lions. That's what friends were for, after all. She signalled her intentions by moving a little nearer to the Headmaster, and giving Harry a little shove in the direction of Percy.
Harry glared at her, but gave in with relatively good grace. He wasn't that keen on spending time with Snape, and dealing with Percy merely required him to nod every once in a while and make mmm mmm noises. Bitter experience had taught him that it was unwise to say yes to anything unless you had been listening carefully and had a lawyer to go over the fine print of your promise – a mere mmmm was sufficiently non-committal to pass as interest but not leave you facing some hideous task, like killing a new Dark Lord, or, worse, agreeing to attend some Ball with somebody's daughter.
Snape was equally grateful to be spared the company of Potter, and caused him to smile at Hermione – something he'd never done before – an action which, as it turned out, fell very clearly into the category of pebble-causing-avalanche. It wasn't that she thought that he was handsome when he smiled; he was not. It didn't even make him look younger. But it did make Hermione think that the expression looked so awkward and unfamiliar on his face that someone really ought to make the effort to make him smile more frequently.
She hadn't gone so far as to identify herself as the person to make Snape smile, or even come up with some suggestions as to how this should be effected, but a tentative conclusion had been made: Snape should smile more.
The Great Hall was filled with children, and specially invited guests that Percy most wanted to impress. Hermione could see the white-blond hair of the Malfoys seated together in the second row –it would have been in very poor taste to be in the front row considering the day's purpose, but they were making a determined push for any advantages that might be going as a result of this reconciliation.
Hermione nodded politely to Lucius and Narcissa, and smiled a little more warmly at Draco. He may be an irritating little ferret, but there came a point when you realised that you had more in common with people who had been involved in the war – even if they had been on the wrong side – than normal people. Normal people didn't understand why you didn't want to sit with your back to the door, or why loud noises made you jump, or the vital importance of not creeping up on people unless you wanted to be hexed.
Draco, not yet aged into impassivity like his father, pulled an expression that made him look like he was sixteen and sitting in Binn's class again.
On the dais, where the High Table was usually placed, were two rows of chairs for the Very Important Guests, and in the very centre a large lectern which purported to be in the shape of a phoenix but which bore a strong resemblance to a half-plucked chicken being readied for the pot.
Even when borrowing others glory, Percy made a figure of fun.
Harry sat on one side of the Minister, and Snape and Hermione to the other side. It was always sensible to have as many people as possible between the two of them to act as a buffer.
Ron's escape had only been temporary, and he had been herded into a seat next to Harry by his proud mother. She was watching him fondly from the audience, as she dabbed at her eyes with a large handkerchief. His brothers, sitting either side of her, were pulling faces at Ron and making him squirm with embarrassment until Molly spotted what they were up to and clipped them round the ear.
Percy winced, and Hermione felt mildly sorry for him. Compared to Fudge or Scrimgeour he was actually a decent Minister who was trying to make the world a better place even if the way he went about it was muttonheaded. So she fixed the younger Weasleys with a glare that spoke volumes about their next tax return being enquired into with a fine tooth comb, and they subsided into a mock reverent attitude that wouldn't fool anyone that knew them for more than five minutes but would have to do.
Percy took up his position behind the lectern and coughed meaningfully.
The hubbub in the room continued as loudly as before.
Percy coughed again, Snape glared, and gradually a little hush descended on the chattering crowd.
"My fellow wizards and witches, we are gathered here today to commemorate the actions of a brave few who stood against Lord Voldemort at a dark time in our history," Percy said, his voice wavering a little.
"We have all heard of the way in which Professor Snape made a terrible sacrifice at Dumbledore's behest, giving him the chance to spy more effectively…"
Harry shifted awkwardly on his seat, whilst Snape glared into the middle distance. Snape hadn't been very understanding about Harry's determination to kill him and had never accepted Harry's apologies for very nearly hexing off his limbs. It was the sort of faux pas that was hard to live down.
"… and we all know of the brave actions of members of my family – Mum, Dad, Fred and George, Charlie, Bill, Ronald, and even little Ginny - …"
Ginny and Ron scowled at him, but Percy continued unperturbed.
"… Harry Potter and all the other members of the Order, some of whom have specifically asked for their names to be kept out of things, but who we honour nonetheless. However, this is not merely the time for bringing up memories of the past, no matter how precious they might be to us…"
"Instead, it is a time when we should all join together in putting the past behind us, when we should join hands with our neighbours and make sure that nothing like this can ever happen again."
There was a scattering of applause, which grew in volume followed the lead of Hermione, Harry and Ron who were clapping the sentiment wholeheartedly. Once it was clear that they were backing the Minister, their fellow wizards and witches followed suit.
"And now I'm sure that our esteemed Headmaster would like to say a few words," Percy said, one the applause had died down.
"Minister." Snape acknowledged Percy with a nod. "Those who were there need no reminder of their actions, and should not look to be remembered for doing no more than was required. Nor should you seek to make any of us into heroes. We were not. Albus Dumbledore was a great man, no doubt, but he was not infallible. Harry Potter brought down Lord Voldemort, but he did not do so alone. If Miss Granger and Mr Weasley had known at eleven where their choices were taking them, perhaps they would have turned aside."
The crowd were silent. It wasn't the kind of silence that usually prevailed when someone made a speech, occasionally punctuated with coughs, and sniffles and the odd murmur; it was absolute. The sort of silence that followed the announcement of a death in the family, or that your house had burned down.
This was not what they had come for.
"Fate and prophecy forced us into these events; who is to say that others might not have achieved the same things? Even done them better? The Order was composed of fools, charlatans, liars and murderers. They picked their noses and scratched their arses the same as the rest of us – apart from Minerva McGonagall, who I'm sure always used a handkerchief, even when she was alone in her room. She deserved a medal for her devotion to this school, for all the students she taught, and for eighty years' service to Gryffindor House, because that was true heroism – doing the job you're paid for, to the best of your ability, without thanks, and making the world a better place little by little."
He stopped. People weren't quite sure whether that was the end of the speech, or he was winding his way up to say something else, and they didn't offer even a smattering of polite applause until Harry stood and began applauding, followed shortly thereafter by Hermione and Ron.
Snape sat down, looking disgruntled, though that was pretty close to his usual expression.
"Er, thank you, Headmaster," Percy said, rising to his feet once the smattering of applause died down. "Sentiments I'm sure we all agree with." He paused, looked at the notes for the rest of his speech, and muttered something that sounded very much like, "Sod it."
Percy looked round the room, his audience waiting with indifference and boredom for him to complete his speech. "Sentiments which I wholeheartedly endorse," he said again, with more vigour. "It's easy for us to forget that these were real people, with flaws, good bits and bad bits, and to think that being heroic is something that's done by good people for good reasons, when it's usually done by people who don't have a chance to run away. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Order of the Phoenix."
The applause was louder this time, and Snape's expression lightened a little.
The Minister gestured for the Headmaster to precede him down the aisle separating the serried ranks of chairs, and Harry and Hermione followed, forming a small procession.
"You know, I think he's mellowed," Harry whispered to Hermione. "He's nowhere near as nasty as I remember."
"My hearing is still as acute as ever," Severus said, turning to them under the cover of acknowledging someone in the crowd.
Harry grinned, unrepentant. "Good thing you can't take points off me anymore, then."
"Not from you, no," Snape replied, and his smile was rather more edged.
"Shush," Hermione said, and prodded Snape's arm. "Eyes front; let's have a bit of respect, and save the bickering for later."
Snape stiffened in outrage, then conceded the point by stalking forward in silence. Harry's grin widened, but whatever he was going to say by way of gloating was silenced by the hard glare that Hermione sent in his direction.
They were a sombre group that gathered round the portrait. Percy had insisted on a grand unveiling, so it was covered by a red velvet curtain that was to be opened by pulling on a gold tassel so large that it wouldn't have looked out of place in Malfoy Manor.
Percy looked over the group, making sure all the latecomers were in place. "I don't think that there is anything I can say that would add to the Headmaster's comments, so, without further ado, I give you..."
He paused dramatically, tugged on the rope pull, and drew back the curtain.
"...The Order of the Phoenix."
If Snape had been asked, he might have pointed out the dangers of putting a volatile group together – and it was only might, and only after holding forth for some time on the overall insanity of the project – but he hadn't been asked. Consequently, the charms to bring the portraits to life had been cast, as had the die, and the curtain parted to reveal a scene that the living members of the Order had to admit was accurate if not flattering.
Sirius and Severus were nose to nose arguing, on the verge of drawing their wands to settle the dispute, with Remus plucking at Sirius' arm trying to stop him, whilst the other portrait people stood round shouting at each other.
Silence fell as they realised that they were now on view.
Sirius and Severus gave each other one last hard glare, and then took up positions on either side of the painting with the other members of the Order lined up between them, determined to keep them separate and maintain the impression of a collection of quietly brave heroes.
The headmaster snorted. "Which is just what we'd expect from your sort, Black."
Sirius opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He coughed, then took another breath. "What have you done?"
"As if I was going to let you onto the walls of my school without taking the necessary precautions - you can't say a single word to my detriment, and if you try, you'll be silenced," Snape said, and his portrait counterpart smirked broadly. "I will not be disrespected in my own school."
"Hah!" Black shouted. "There's only one Headmaster here that I have any respect for, and that's Albus Dumbledore."
Severus' smile widened still further, a glint in his eye. "And yet," he said softly, "he isn't here, is he?"