It wasn't until the following Friday that Severus had an opportunity to check in with Harry. The eighth years had Defence in the last period of Friday afternoon, and given the intensity of the conversation in their last meeting, Severus was unwilling to wait any longer before checking that the Boy-Saviour was doing alright.
Severus watched Harry closely while he and Malfoy practiced different types of restraining spells. After his initial concern, Severus now had to acknowledge that they made good sparring partners. Though there was no real attempt to harm, there was enough history between them that the duel was always hard fought on both sides, and enough ego in the both of them that they didn't always play fair. It made for better training for them both since it was closer to a real-life dueling scenario. Moreover, Severus could see how they were learning from each other's skills. From Potter, Malfoy learnt a variety of new spells and how to cast them with speed, accuracy and power. Potter, in turn, learnt from Malfoy's cunning, becoming much more strategic in his casting.
Severus observed Potter casting first the adhaesit hex and then the ligatus charm on Malfoy. The spells were both cast perfectly and, Severus noted, non-verbally, which Potter had taken to do whenever he was doing partner work with Malfoy. Severus didn't know if Harry was trying to hone his skills of just doing it to intimidate Draco.
The pair had swapped and Harry now stowed his wand safely away in his cloak while Draco had his turn at casting, since they were not required to block in this lesson.
"Quo ligatus erumpere!" Draco called as he moved his wand in the corresponding corkscrew. Instantly, Harry's arms were yanked behind his back by the invisible force of Draco's spell. Blue cords of magic enclosed his wrists like handcuffs.
"Quite straightforward." Malfoy commented, satisfied with his work.
Potter nodded his agreement, "Want to try another?" He said as the blue wires fell away from his wrists.
Severus blinked, unsure of what he had just seen. The students had all been instructed that when they were casting it was also their responsibility to free their captive partner from their bounds when they were successful. Yet as far as Severus could tell, Malfoy hadn't cast the counter charm. Which meant that Potter had freed himself non-verbally and without a wand. Which was…a little astounding.
Yet it had happened so fast Severus couldn't even be sure that what he thought had happened had indeed happened. Malfoy hadn't seemed to notice anything untoward and Potter appeared to be either unconscious of what he had just done or unaware that it was in any way out of the ordinary. Severus continued to observe the pair, watching Harry closely, but he saw nothing unusual.
More time had passed than he had thought Severus suddenly realized, and called an end to the practical. "Your next assignment," Severus instructed once they were all back in their seats. "Is four feet on the most appropriate way to restrain an opponent in three different scenarios. Due on Monday. You are dismissed."
The class erupted in noise and movement, the students particularly raucous as it was the last lesson of the week. The professor intercepted Harry on his way out of the classroom and waited while the young man spoke to his friends before returning to the professor's desk.
With the classroom now empty, Severus began, "I wanted to ensure you were alright after our conversation on Wednesday."
Harry shrugged, seemingly unaffected. "Sure, I'm fine."
"Good." Severus nodded, unsurprised by Potter's nonchalance. "You know where I am if you need to talk."
"Yeah, sure, thanks, Professor." Harry started to leave.
"You did some nice spell-work today." Severus commented before he could go. "You are certainly perfecting your non-verbal spell-casting."
"Oh, thanks Sir. I try and practice non-verbally where I can."
"Have you been practicing much without a wand?"
"Not really, a bit maybe." Which was an answer sufficiently vague that Severus couldn't catch him in the lie."
"Hm," Severus hummed non-committedly, fingers drumming on the table as he scrutinized the boy.
Harry suffered the silent examination for as long as he could, "If that's all, Professor…?"
"Actually, no, there was something else." Severus stopped the boy's departure once more. "I have, tonight, another meeting with Mr Weasley."
"He is yet to speak."
"Oh, right," Harry shrugged. "I'm not sure how I can help, Sir. It was Ron's decision not to speak to you."
"You have influence there, you cannot deny."
"We're friends, I don't make his decisions for him." Harry countered.
"I'm not saying you do, but your friends do listen to you. They respect you and trust your judgement."
The Gryffindor pulled a face.
"Harry, when you were eleven years old those friends of yours followed you past a giant three-headed dog. How many times since have they been right there beside you when you've had to do something dangerous or potentially life-threatening?" Severus stared him down. "Why do you think they did that?"
Harry shrugged. "They're my friends."
"Yes," Severus agreed. "But they followed you through all these things because they believed you; they believed in you."
Harry shook his head, "You're exaggerating my influence." He muttered. "And I'm not telling Ron what he can and can't say to you, he makes his own decisions."
"Perhaps we should leave it there for today." Severus said, sensing that the conversation may soon turn hostile and disappointed by the tone it had taken so far.
"Yeah." Harry agreed, feeling tense. "I guess we should." Reluctantly he gathered his bag and books, uncomfortable with leaving when they had argued and not sure why. His fingers were tingling and Harry knew he needed to get to the Room of Requirement fairly soon to blow off some excess energy.
By the time he was at the door, Professor Snape had already pulled out a set of pupil scrolls and was splashing red ink ruthlessly across the pages. Harry reached for the door handle and paused, looking back. "Er, Professor…"
Severus looked up and eyed the young man standing awkwardly at his office door curiously.
"You should try chess."
Severus frowned. "Chess?"
"With Ron." Harry clarified. "Ron likes Wizards' Chess."
"Ah," Severus nodded, understanding. "I see. Thank you, Mr Potter."
Harry nodded with a smile and left feeling relieved that the tension in the room had gone.
Potter was a genius.
That wasn't a word Severus had ever used in connection with Potter before. Dunder-headed. Idiotic. Reckless. Brave – even. But never 'genius'.
Nonetheless, Severus had to hand it to Potter; having Weasley play chess was an idea of pure gold.
The boy looked completely baffled when Severus had pulled out his chest set and slid it onto the desk between them. Weasley was still maintaining silence but his expression was an open book. Where Potter became an unreadable mask of calm indifference, Ronald plastered everything he thought and felt across his face.
Severus gave him a look full of as much disdain as the question deserved and spoke slowly as if to an imbecile. "It's a chess set."
Ron rolled his eyes. "Well, yeah, but – you wanna play now?"
"Unless of course you would rather sit here and talk?"
Ron's nose wrinkled. "Nah m'alright."
"Chess then?" The Professor offered again.
Weasley couldn't help his eager nod. "Yeah, alright then."
Despite his initial hesitation, Severus could see how Ronald began to relax as he played his first chess moves, his muscles visibly losing their tension.
They fell into comfortable quiet as they played, different from the enforced silences of their previous meetings. The game was slow-paced and thoughtful, and it soon became apparent to Severus that Mr Weasley was no beginner. Harry had said that Ronald enjoyed chess, but he had failed to mention just how good the boy was.
Severus could see himself enjoying these meetings in the future. It was rare for him to find anyone who matched his skill level on a chess board. Dumbledore had, before his death, but since then the Professor hadn't played. Weasley, however, posed actual challenge and Severus found himself mentally stimulated as he countered the boy's moves.
"Who taught you to play like this?" Severus queried, taking his turn. "Your father?"
"Ha! No." Ron laughed at the thought. "Nah, Dad knows the rules and stuff, but he plays worse than Harry. Bill was the one who taught us to play strategically, although it's rare he beats me now." The red-head smiled proudly.
"With all your siblings, you can't have been short of practice partners."
Ron stared at the board, carefully considering his next move. "Yeah, although Ginny's not brilliant and Charlie was never that interested in chess. Percy was pretty good, if you could bare his company for that long, and the twins were ace. You should've seen them play each other, they could read each other's mind before a single piece had even been moved."
Ron played his move silently, a pained expression on his face as he recalled once more how he would never again see his twin brothers play a game of chess together. Severus, understanding the sharp pain of grief the boy was faced with, allowed him quiet as he considered his returning move. He wouldn't push the boy on it yet. It was early days and Severus didn't have the same concerns as he had with Harry, that Ronald might be under some great secret distress.
Grief was a painful but simple emotion, and with time it would ease. Harry's thoughts and feelings, Severus suspected, were far more complicated and deeply intertwined with his own sense of self that more than time would be needed for him to feel whole again.
Severus moved a piece. "I take it you taught Potter and Granger how to play when you started school?"
"Harry, yes." Ron confirmed, relaxed again. "But Hermione never did get on with chess – particularly Wizards' Chess." He smiled fondly thinking of her horrified expression in first year. "I don't think it helped that she had to see me get injured when I played the knight in that Wizard Chess game under the school."
"Hmm," Severus recalled the carnage left in the trio's wake as he followed them down to the Mirror of Erised.
It was fortunate that Ron was Snape's last meeting of the evening since their chess match continued until well after curfew. At last, Severus out-maneuvered his student and, with a swish of his wand, every piece was fixed and returned to its starting position on the board.
Severus was about to dismiss the boy to his bed when a gentle knock at the door interrupted.
"Enter." Severus called through the door.
A familiar bespectacled face popped apologetically around the door, looking relieved when he clocked Weasley's presence. "Sorry, Professor, I didn't mean to interrupt, I was just checking Ron was still with you."
Ronald, looking at the clock for the first time since they had started playing chess, turned a guilty expression towards his best friend. "Bugger, sorry mate, I didn't realise how late it was."
Severus watched the Gryffindors' interaction with interest. Potter, and Granger Severus assumed, had waited up for Weasley, had come looking for him when he didn't come back, though they were at Hogwarts and there was no discernable threat.
"Nah, it's fine." Harry dismissed his friend's apology. "I didn't mean to disturb you, I just wanted to check you were still her. I'll leave you to it." Harry began to leave before Ron stopped him.
"It's okay, I think we're finished anyway, right, Professor?" Weasley turned to him.
"Of course." Severus agreed. "My apologies for keeping you so late, I hadn't realised how long it would take to defeat you on the chess board."
Ronald grinned, bright and childish, "I'll get you next time, Professor."
"I have no doubt. Good night Mr Weasley, Mr Potter." He bid to each of them.
"Night, Sir." The young men departed, leaving Severus to his thoughts.
He was finally making some progress with Weasley, it seemed. The boy had been downright pleasant by the end of the night. The improvement in their relationship couldn't have come sooner judging from the Gryffindors' behaviour. It seemed as though Draco hadn't exaggerated matters, the Golden Trio was inseparable…and paranoid.
"So, Jimmy and Ritchie stick with the chasers, they're the biggest threat on the Puff's side. Ronald, they're strongest playing down the left so be particularly vigilant on that side." Ginny tied up her hair as she directed her team with authority. She was calm and succinct, and Harry tried to focus on what she was saying and not how her hair gleamed in the sunlight as it fell softly into place.
"Dean, keep wide and stay alert, their beaters are new but not to be under-estimated and Harry," she turned her business-like expression towards him and said simply, "Catch the snitch."
"Yes Ma'am." Harry gave her a nod and grinned, then ducked as Ron clipped him affectionately around the back of his head.
"Let's go." Ginny led the team out onto the pitch and Harry reminisced about his first ever Quidditch match when he was scared out of his little mind. Much had changed since then. Harry wasn't scared anymore, not of Quidditch at least, he wasn't even that bothered about winning, he just wanted a good game, the thrill of flight.
The whistle blew and fourteen brooms ascended to the upper rafters of the stadium. Harry rose to one of the highest positions where he knew he would have a better view of the whole pitch and the game ensuing below. Being Seeker wasn't particularly interactive and Harry had always enjoyed those moments of calm within the game when he could drift around the pitch with the breeze on his face and the muffled murmur of the crowds in his ear.
He still had a job to do of course, and Harry kept an eye always scanning the skies for that tell-tale twinkle of the Snitch. The Hufflepuff Seeker, Summerby, was a 7th Year who Harry recalled playing against in 6th Year. He had a few years' experience by this point and Ginny considered him a credible threat. From what Harry remembered the boy had a keen eye but Harry had beat him with broom agility in their last match.
Harry drifted around the pitch, swooping near to the teachers' stand and inadvertently catching Professor Snape's eye. He thought back to their conversation on Wednesday and how incensed the man had been. Harry still found it a bit disconcerting that the Professor, or anyone really, should care all that much. Now he wondered what the Professor intended to do about it. As far as Harry was concerned, that part of his life was over and he had no intention of revisiting it.
Action from the Hufflepuff team below caught Harry's attention and he looked down as the Hufflepuff chasers neared the hoops. Quick passes and skillful positioning allowed them to out-maneuver their Gryffindor counterparts who struggled to keep pace with them. A well-aimed bludger from Jimmy knocked one of the Hufflepuffs off course but the opposition prevailed and a sharp shot from the Hufflepuff captain zipped past Ron's outstretched hands and through the left goal hoop. The Hufflepuff stand erupted in cheers. Harry groaned slightly and set about searching for the Snitch once more.
It was a mere 25 minutes into the game when Harry spotted the Snitch. From across the pitch he caught the unmistakable reflection of sunlight, its wings fluttering, greeting him like an old friend. He glanced over at Summerby who was closer to the snitch than Harry, but who evidently hadn't yet spotted their mutual target. Harry briefly considered pretending he hadn't seen it either, reluctant to end the game so quickly, but decided it wasn't worth Ginny's wrath if she ever found out. The youngest Weasley may not be as obsessive as Oliver Wood had been but she was just as fiercely competitive.
He drifted around the pitch at a leisurely pace so as not to arouse the suspicions of his opponent, always keeping the snitch in his peripheral vision. Heading towards the Gryffindor goalposts where the snitch was flitting in and out of the hoops behind Ron, Harry waited to make his move until he was closer to the snitch than Summerby.
The Hufflepuff seeker had flown away, up high and towards the Gryffindor stand. Harry saw his chance and kicked up the speed. Ron, seeing Harry headed straight for him, shifted out of the way so he would have clear access and Harry felt the change of energy in the stadium as their movements drew the attention of the crowds. He sped towards the hoop on the left, hand outstretched and ready to clasp around the gleaming, golden ball. He only grazed the snitch with his fingertips, however, before the ball dropped down with sudden speed. Harry followed swiftly, tipping the nose of his broom towards the ground and chasing the snitch in a spiraling descent around the goal post.
Harry felt his heart racing, exhilarated by his purposeful plummet towards the ground. He was oblivious to everything but his own objective. The crowds, the noise, even the other players disappeared; it was only him and his broom and the little golden snitch.
The ground grew closer but the snitch stayed on its downward trajectory and so did Harry. At last, with only two feet to spare, Harry reached out and snatched the snitch from the air. As he brought the wriggling device close to his chest, his other hand yanked hard on the broom and he threw his weight to the side to counter the downward motion. The speed and force of his flight knocked his balance at the rapid change of direction, throwing Harry sideways off his broom and tumbling hard into the ground. He half-bounced, half-rolled over a few more times before coming to a halt with a groan. Sighing as he rolled onto his back, Harry held up the snitch between his thumb and forefinger until he heard Hooch blow the whistle and announce Gryffindor's win.
Harry laid still on the ground, catching his breath and waiting to come down from his adrenaline high. He could feel that the right-hand side of his back was pretty banged up. No doubt he'd have a good bruise by the morning.
Madam Hooch descended gently beside him as Madam Pomfrey rushed over. Harry began to sit up before the Mediwitch tutted at him. "Lay down, Mr Potter, before you do yourself any more damage."
"I'm fine." Harry argued but laid back down nonetheless.
Pompfrey ran a series of diagnostic charms while Harry lay still, looking up at the sky above him and various people's heads as they bobbed in and at of view. Ron was around, and Ginny; both initially concerned, they were now fairly reassured that there was no imminent risk to his life.
"Well," Pompfrey said, concluding her assessment. "I don't imagine their will be any lasting damage, but I should think you'll be rather sore for a few days." She said in a tone that indicated she thought he very much deserved to feel sore.
Harry sighed, "Yeah, I figured."
"Perhaps, Mr Potter, no-one ever informed you of the rules of quidditch." Harry heard the nasal drawl of the Deputy Head before his tall, black figure loomed above him.
"Sir?" Harry sat up with a wince.
"You do realise that almost killing yourself when catching the snitch is not a compulsory element of the game." Snape drawled, clearly unimpressed.
Once Ron had helped him to his feet, Harry could see clearly the dissatisfied expression of his Professor.
"I'm aware." Harry replied simply, rubbing his side.
"Yeah, but it makes it more entertaining, don't it?" Ron quipped and then gulped when Snape turned his severe gaze on him.
Snape took an intimidating step towards them both, reaching slowly into his robes. At last he pulled out a small glass jar and held it out to Harry.
"For your bruises, Potter."
"Thanks, Sir." Harry took the salve gratefully.
Snape was already walking away when he replied, "Do try not to kill yourself before your Defence essay is due."
The mandatory Gryffindor celebrations were in full swing. Raucous laughter permeated the room and Harry, having enjoyed the atmosphere to his fill, was happily sequestered away in a cosy corner. Ron and Hermione had left the party early for some 'alone time' and Harry was chatting with Neville about the Herbology course Professor Sprout had recommended for once he left Hogwarts. Ginny approached quietly and sat down on the sofa next to Harry, too close to be entirely platonic. She leant into his side and, without thinking, Harry put his arm around her shoulders.
Neville smiled kindly and began to leave discreetly, giving them their privacy.
"Neville, wait a second." Harry stopped him leaving as he suddenly remembered that he needed to speak to both Neville and Ginny. Neville sat back down as Harry cast a Muffliato to encase the three of them. "I have something I need to talk to you both about."
Sitting up and reclaiming his arm, Harry turned so he could look at them both. His fellow Gryffindors listened with interest, curious about the reason for this talk.
"So, you both know that Ron and Hermione and me are in the Order, right?" Harry looked at Neville, knowing Ginny was fully aware.
"The Order of the Phoenix?" Neville clarified, somewhat unnecessarily.
Harry nodded. "Yeah, so, I wanted to ask if you both are interested in joining?"
"Joining the Order?" Neville checked again.
"The Order of the Phoenix."
"Yes." Harry replied more emphatically. "So? I know the Order isn't as crucial now that Riddle's dead, but we're still working on tracking down the last Death Eaters. So, what do you think? Interested?"
"You want me to join the Order of the Phoenix?" Harry nodded. "But why? Why me?" Some of Neville's old insecurities creeped in.
"Why wouldn't we want you?" Harry countered. "You're loyal to the light, you helped defeat Voldemort, not to mention you're skilled and brave." He said firmly. "So are you interested or not?"
"Yeah!" Neville breathed, still a little stunned. "Sure, thanks mate." He grinned.
Harry shrugged. "Don't need to thank me, it's your own actions that have earned you your place. I'll let you know when and where the next meeting is, alright?"
"Yeah, sure. Thanks, Harry." Neville smiled gratefully and walked away with a re-ignited confidence.
When they were alone again, Harry turned to Ginny curiously. "You haven't said anything."
She looked sadly at him. "I've always wanted to join, you know that, but they'll never let me." She said with a tone that was resigned to the fact.
"The Order! Half of them are my bloody family. My brothers, my dad is in charge and that doesn't even cover the real barrier – mum."
"It's okay," Harry reassured. "I've sorted it."
"I already brought it up at a meeting." He explained. "Your mum was reluctant at first, but I told her you would duel Death Eaters whether you were in the Order or not. Your dad agreed and your brothers sure as hell know you can handle yourself. The Order already voted. You're in."
"Seriously?" Ginny asked disbelievingly.
"Seriously." Harry chuckled. "Don't get too excited though, it's not as great as you'd think. Mostly it's a lot of long meetings where we sit around and talk about all the things we don't know."
"Yeah, I know." Ginny said, more soberly. "It was more just the thought of them all being in danger and me being just – powerless."
"Yeah, I get it." Harry lifted his arm once more and Ginny settled into the space there.
They were quiet and content for a long time before Ginny spoke softly. "I've missed this."