A/N: This is it, dear readers, the completion of my second-largest fic in the Harry Potter universe, my answer to HBP. I've had a lot of fun writing it over the past year, and many thanks to all of you for your great patience during the long delays. I hope you've enjoyed it too, and PLEASE take a moment to review to give me your final thoughts on the conclusion of this tale!
Also: I'm pleased to announce that my Pirates of the Caribbean story, The Curse of the White Sword, is now complete, and International Magical Co-operation is also updated today!
Chapter Thirteen: Bound
Ginny watched Harry pore over Defense books with a concentration that would put Hermione to shame. "After Bill's job already, are you?"
"He wanted to know what I thought of them, actually," Harry murmured, before he looked up and realized she was teasing him. He smiled sheepishly, rather like a much younger Harry she only vaguely remembered anymore. "So complain to him about using me as hired help."
"You are hired help," she pointed out, grinning.
"Then what are you doing?" he asked, moving over so she could sit closer to him.
"Bucking for House points, of course."
"And importuning a member of the staff, Miss Weasley, I'm shocked!"
Harry and Ginny jumped apart, jostling the library table they were sitting at, both of them turning scarlet. Hermione grinned wickedly at them. "See if I ever turn a blindeye to you and Ron snogging again," Harry growled, but he was grinning too.
"Just don't think Madam Pince won't wear you out if she catches you," Hermione warned, collecting fallen books and stacking them back up on the table.
"Haven't you heard?" Ginny asked. "She's retiring."
"Good lord, no! I thought she'd never leave!" Hermione cast a speculative glance over the library, as Ginny had known she would.
"I guess she thought the end of the war would be the right time—quitting while ahead and all that," said Harry. "Why, are you thinking you'd like that job along with teaching Transfiguration?"
Hermione sighed. "That wouldn't exactly be feasible; they're both full-time positions."
"I think Headmistress would throw a wobbler if you didn't take the Transfigurations position. She's very particular about who will succeed her," Ginny said. "And when it comes right down to it, being librarian is rather mindless, isn't it? I'd be bored."
Hermione's expression went from wistful to outraged. "Being a librarian is anything but mindless, Ginny Weasley! There's more to such a job than just checking books in and out. Not to mention I see a great deal of appeal in a post that would allow me the time for research of my own, and where better than here?"
Harry shot Ginny a faint smirk and returned his attention to his books. As Hermione wandered off into the stacks, he muttered, "Bill's talking about the Transfigurations job after he finishes teaching Defense."
"Good thing," Ginny sniggered. "I suppose it's not that big a surprise, Hermione preferring to live in the library and do research all the time." Then Harry frowned. "What?"
"Nothing." He stared at the page beneath his hand without reading it.
Ginny eyed him. "You could send an owl, you know."
Without looking up, Harry just shook his head.
"He doesn't want to hear from me."
"I don't think he knows what he wants," Ginny said, hiding her resentment of Snape from Harry. Harry no longer liked to hear the former professor criticized, especially regarding his decision to leave. "Harry, he does still feel beholden to you; he won't complain if—"
"He is NOT beholden to me!" Harry snapped, green eyes flashing.
Having seen Harry's temper at full burn many a time, Ginny wasn't terribly bothered by his ire itself, but rather that this was one of the only subjects that could raise it. "I'm not calling that stupid fake 'debt' of his. Ever."
"I didn't mean it like that—"
"I don't want to talk about it, Ginny." His tone left no room for doubt. She sighed, and he softened a little, but repeated, "I don't want to talk about him."
He returned his attention to his books, and Ginny sighed.
Minerva McGonagall was somewhat taken aback to find Harry Potter immured in the library when any respectable seventeen-year-old ought to be outside enjoying the spring. Not that Potter looked his seventeen years; with his eyes focused on his book, he appeared fully adult. And yet at other moments, he seemed absurdly young to have done all that he'd done over the past few years.
Will that child ever fully heal? she wondered.
Remus Lupin and Molly Weasley were in a constant state of worry about Harry's mental health. Minerva and the more objective Order members were of the opinion that the young man was not likely to pose a danger to himself or anyone else, but there could be little doubt that Harry remained overshadowed by his experience. He was quiet, painfully so at times, and his eyes still looked haunted.
But fussing over him would accomplish nothing. So she folded her arms and said, "So, Mr. Potter? Is it you I have to thank for Miss Granger's change in career plans?"
The situation was hardly hopeless, she reminded herself; the sly smile and mischievous flicker in green eyes was proof of that. Harry gave her an overly-innocent look and said, "Actually, it was Ginny's idea. She mentioned Madam Pince is retiring."
"I do hope she's prepared to furnish me with a new Transfigurations professor if I'm unable to fill that post," Minerva replied, feigning irritation.
Harry didn't miss a beat. "Should I apply?"
Severus had always complained of "Potter's cheek" in the past; Harry had never appeared so to Minerva, so she had dismissed it as petty ranting, but now she wondered if there was a grain of truth there. She pushed back another pang of regret, for the boy who should have had far more opportunities to fully develop his cheeky potential, and for the man who had been far more valuable to the school and that boy than anyone had given him credit for. "I do not believe you completed seventh year Transfigurations."
"Neither did Hermione."
"Actually, she did." Harry looked surprised. "You did not know? She pursued independent study in several subjects early last autumn, and will sit her N.E.W.T.s in another month."
He chuckled wryly. "She'll pass them all, I suppose."
"Quite impressively, I have little doubt." Minerva took the seat opposite him without invitation and examined the titles of the texts he was reading. "Our Professor Weasley has quite an aggressive curriculum in mind."
"There's no point in a Defense class that doesn't teach you how to defend yourself."
"Was that your idea?"
"No, Bill's. But he's right."
"The Ministry will not be entirely pleased. There are still those concerned about teaching aggression to schoolchildren," Minerva said carefully, watching his reaction.
She got what she hoped for. "The Ministry can go hang," Harry replied, if not with the fierce emotion of his former days, at least with conviction. "People aren't leaving school unprotected just for their paranoid peace of mind." Then he caught Minerva's suppressed smile and raised his eyebrows. "Or are you teasing me?"
She was mildly insulted. "I do not tease, Harry Potter. It was a fair warning. However, I have no doubt that you are capable of handling the Ministry now."
It was as well that the Headmistress had warned Harry, because the Hogwarts Board of Governors paid the school a surprise visit a few weeks later, to introduce the newly-elected members to the Headmistress, and to "see to it the school's in working order for the autumn opening."
Harry was in Bill and Fleur's quarters with Ron, Hermione, and Ginny as they all got ready for dinner. "Right nuisance, I think," Ron said, squirming as Hermione fussed with his collar.
"And we all know what they're really doing here," Ginny muttered, examining her hair in the mirror next to Fleur. "Snooping about Harry."
Harry shrugged, leaning back on the sofa. "We knew someone from the Ministry'd turn up sooner or later."
"Technically-speaking, the Board of Governors aren't part of the Ministry," said Bill. "On the other hand, I'd bet Galleons to gnomes that Lucius Malfoy's replacement is a Ministry ringer."
"Do you think zey will cause Hogwarts trouble?" Fleur asked, pausing from brushing Bill's hair to cast a nervous glance at Harry.
Ron and Hermione too exchanged worried looks, but Harry waved them off. "Can't be any worse than the trouble they've caused before."
"Knock on wood, mate," said Ron.
"Not that much worse, anyway," Harry amended it with a wry grin.
Ginny came to sit next to him. "I'm rather surprised you're coming to dinner with that lot at all—I'd be trying to beg off under any circumstances."
"I figured I'd have to deal with them eventually. Half the Order's here tonight. And while the defeat of Voldemort's fresh in their mind, maybe they'll still be a bit afraid of me." Hermione and Ginny giggled, and Ron applauded.
"That's the spirit!"
"Where's Fred and George?" Hermione asked as they left for the Great Hall.
Bill snorted. "Mum and Dad found an excuse to get them well out of the castle this evening. As much as I'm not terribly worried about the Board, I'd prefer that our first meeting with them before reopening not include the twins."
"Now zat is a wise choice!" Fleur declared, and they all laughed.
Far be it for life to be too easy for them. The person elected to replace Lucius Malfoy on the Hogwarts Board of Governors was Cornelius Fudge.
"Always did take a serious interest in magical education," he prattled. "So when I put my name forward for the position, Minister Scrimgeour gave me his full support. I've got many good ideas for making improvements to Hogwarts."
Harry stiffened, but Hermione put a light hand on his arm. He, Ron, and Ginny looked at her, but she gave an imperceptible shake of her head. "He's posturing," she murmured, out of earshot of the head table where the Headmistress sat with the Governors. "They're not going to give him any power over them, not the newest elected Governor."
Regarding the other eleven rather puffed-up, ostentatiously-dressed wizards at the head table, Harry decided she was probably right; that lot didn't look like they wanted any change to the current routine that would involve more work for them. Probably why Dumbledore was able to get away with as much as he did, he thought with a mental sigh. Of course, much of what Dumbledore had got away with had kept Harry alive, but Harry's feelings about Dumbledore were too conflicted anymore for thoughts of him to be comforting.
"And Mr. Weasley's to be confirmed as Defense professor, no trouble there," one of the Governors, a Mister Oswald Sturdevant-Phipps, was saying. "Good man, Weasley. Good credentials." He nodded to Bill at the teachers' table.
"Much obliged, sir," said Bill with a blithe smile, before winking at Harry and the others.
"Have you had the chance to review my submission of Miss Granger for the position of Librarian?" Headmistress McGonagall asked.
Mister Reginald Derringswankham waved dismissively. "Yes, yes, no problem with that, although I have to say, it seems a dreadful waste of talents for a witch of Hermione Granger's abilities to be shuffling books about." This time it was Harry who put a restraining hand on Hermione's arm, while Ginny began sneezing quietly into her napkin.
"Have we got any names for the Transfigurations position yet?" Sturdevant-Phipps asked.
"Hard slot to fill, that one," Mister Benedict Primblemon pointed out, sounding pleased with himself for the observation. Ron shot Harry and Ginny an appalled look, and Harry distinctly saw Hagrid roll his eyes.
"I am in discussions with Madam Weasley regarding the post," said the Headmistress, nodding to Fleur. "We had thought to appoint Remus Lupin to the position, but he is also qualified to teach Potions, which Madam Weasley is not, which would have the advantage of filling two positions with limited applicants."
"How's the curriculum there at Beauxbatons? I trust you frogs at least know your Transfigurations, eh?" Primblemon simpered.
Fleur froze with a forkful of lobster halfway to her mouth, Hermione's mouth fell open, and Madam Pomfrey buried her face in her hands as everyone else in the Great Hall who wasn't one of the Governors tried not to fall out of their chairs. The governors, however, were sniggering at the cleverness of the joke, while McGonagall shot Fleur a VERY apologetic look. Fleur leaned across the table to some of the other Order members.
"'e did not really say zat, did he?"
"Think 'e did," Hagrid muttered, blushing. "Glad Olympe ain't here."
"I wish she was," Moody said with a nasty smile. "Bloody useless dolts, every one of them."
"Have to say, Minerva, I don't know about appointing a werewolf as Potions Professor," Sturdevant-Phipps went on. Tonks scowled, and Harry agreed with her sentiment, but they'd all expected this. "Parents'll complain."
"Qualified teachers of Potions are difficult to come by, Oswald, even more so than Transfigurations," McGonagall replied. "And I have complete faith in Professor Lupin, whatever the subject he is chosen to teach. He was, you recall, an instrumental and unswervingly loyal member of the Order of the Phoenix against Lord Voldemort."
"Don't know," Fudge said. "You know there are those in the Ministry with…reservations…about allowing half-breeds in contact with children."
"He's not a half-breed," Harry said sharply, ignoring Hermione's hand on his arm.
All twelve governors jumped in their seats at the sound of Harry's voice, and he was a little gratified to notice a few of them shooting glares at Fudge. But then Primblemon spoke up, albeit with far less assurance than before, "The Council of Magical Beasts and Beings has been discussing the status of werewolves since before you were born, Mr. Potter, and they constitute—"
"He…is… not…a half-breed," Harry repeated, glaring at the man as hard as he could. Primbledon gulped and looked at the others. Someone kicked Harry under the table.
Derringswankham cleared his throat. "Well, as Minerva says, Lupin did good work in the war, and his qualifications are fair. Whatever our reservations about werewolves in general, this one's done enough to merit a bit of trust, so long as he's not unduly influential with the students or loose on the grounds…"
Ginny pinched Harry hard, which robbed him momentarily of any breath to respond, but the Headmistress mercifully changed the subject. "In any case, I expect there will be a good deal of reassignment of the staff after this first year. We have many people in new positions immediately after the war who may desire to move onto other things or teach subjects that appear to be a better fit. And I for one am hoping that as our world becomes accustomed once again to peace, more qualified teachers will be interested in seeking work at Hogwarts. I have plans for the reworking of several class curriculums, including Muggle Studies, Divination, and Defense, as well as the creation of new courses in more fundamental subjects that are not primarily magical."
"Taking your cues from the Americans, are you?" said Moody, raising his flask to her in a salute.
"The Japanese, actually, were the first to incorporate fundamental maths and non-magical sciences into their curriculum," McGonagall said. "I've been corresponding with their Professor Toda of the Osaka Hall of Witchcraft and Wizardry for the past two weeks, and I've come to believe that such a program would greatly improve our students' education."
"The maths I can see the benefit of," mused Professor Vector, "but what sort of sciences do you have in mind?"
"Professor Sprout and I have been talking with Neville Longbottom, Professor Hagrid, and some of the Healers at St. Mungo's about creating a new course in biology," Madam Pomfrey said. "I've found that Muggleborn students tend to know a good deal more on the subject of basic human and animal anatomy than our wizard-raised children, which puts the latter at a disadvantage when they seek to enter Healer studies. An expansion of our curriculum is long overdue."
"The same holds true for Herbology—our Muggleborn students grasp the fundamentals far better, as they are taught simple plant biology in Muggle school," Professor Sprout added.
The governors looked at each other and shrugged. Ron rolled his eyes, and Harry and Hermione shared a smirk. "If everyone here's for it, don't see the problem," said Sturdevant-Phipps. "Although you'll get the usual pureblood objections to deviation from magical study."
"It's hardly a deviation, but rather a complement," said Professor Sprout. "Magic is not the cause of all workings of the universe, and it's certainly not the only tool. All plants and animals need food, water, and air to live, and the patterns of arithmetic can be found in spells and magical objects as surely as in counting one's money at Gringott's."
"Can't argue with that, I suppose," said Derringswankham. Ginny elbowed Harry and nodded toward Fudge. The former Minister looked disgruntled.
"I don't think his idea of improvement to Hogwarts is the same as Professor McGonagall's," she muttered.
"I don't think his idea was for improvement to Hogwarts," Hermione whispered back, and they all snickered.
"Sure you can't be persuaded to accept your Order of Merlin, Mr. Potter?" one of the governors suddenly asked.
Everyone sitting near Harry winced, and he looked up, startled. "No!" He hadn't meant to sound quite so emphatic, and McGonagall was giving him a pleading look. He forced a smile and groped around for something diplomatic to say, finally settling on, "Seeing the wizarding world free again is reward enough for me, sir."
Ron choked on his crème brulee, and most of the Order members stifled laughter.
Primbledon shrugged. "Well, most of your colleagues here took theirs, and your name is on the plaque with the rest of the Order of the Phoenix ranks in the Ministry Atrium." Harry caught Hermione and Ron looking nervous, but let it go. He supposed they'd find some way to drool over him. "Right under Dumbledore's, in fact, rest his soul."
Beside Harry, Ginny sucked in her breath, and his heart did clench at hearing that, but he managed to keep that thin smile plastered on his face and nodded like an idiot. "Ahem. A lot of people did great things in the war," Tonks said hurriedly. "They're talking of renaming the Magical Law Enforcement Department after Madam Bones."
"Good woman, Amelia. Damn shame," Moody agreed. "It'd be a fit tribute."
Sturdevant-Phipps gestured with a piece of broccoli. "In fact, the only one aside from Potter there who didn't accept his award was that Snape character."
Harry went rigid, but the governors didn't notice. "What ever happened to him?" one of them asked.
"Thought he was dead."
"No, he was at Hogwarts in the immediate aftermath," said Fudge. "Some final details or other, so the Headmistress says."
McGonagall cleared her throat. "Merely making certain that we'd accounted for all Voldemort's remaining strongholds and followers."
"Pfft. Keeping his nose clean, as it were, eh?" Fudge contemplated his asparagus. "Never thought much of that one—unsavory, he seemed. I rather wondered why he was offered the Order of Merlin at all."
"Well, he was in the Order," said Primbledon.
"He was a Death Eater before that," Sturdevant-Phipps replied. "Turned spy, so Dumbledore said, but the old man was always too trusting for his own good. We all know it was Snape who killed him—"
"Gentlemen!" McGonagall said sharply. "I must remind you that the Headmaster's death remains a painful subject for the staff here."
The governors blinked simultaneously. "Ah, right. Sorry about that. I suppose it's to be expected, an end like that. Still," Fudge munched on his food and blathered on, "if Snape were the best candidate for a professorship, I'd as soon take a werewolf." Ginny was squeezing Harry's arm so hard that her knuckles had turned white. His blood was starting to thunder in his ears. "At least Lupin here was a real Order member. Honest, you know."
Lupin was watching Harry nervously, but neither he nor any of the others could seem to think of a means of cutting off this line of discussion.
"I agree," Primbledon said. "Untrustworthy. Questionable loyalties right to the end. Glad he's not around anymore, doesn't belong at Hogwarts. Doesn't belong among decent people."
Moving carefully to hide his anger, Harry got up from his seat, turned away from the head table, and left the Great Hall.
Remus found Harry in the library, staring at the first page of a Defense book. "The Board of Governors is made up of bureaucratic fools, more interested in the status of the position than any responsibility associated with it. Pay no mind to them."
Without looking up, Harry muttered, "I don't."
Remus didn't argue, but sat down across from him. "Do you want to talk?" Harry shook his head. "All right."
But instead of leaving, he found himself a pile of Potions books that he ought to peruse while planning the course material for next year and returned to sit beside Harry. They read in somewhat companionable silence until Harry noticed that it was Potions Remus was working on, and stared at the books for several minutes. Then he rested his head on his arm on the table, looking tired and sad. Remus put an arm around him.
"They and many others are wrong about Severus, Harry."
Harry smiled wanly. "I know. And everyone who matters knows." Then he looked at Remus. "Would people have hated him so much if I hadn't said…so much about him?"
"You mean when you disliked him?" Remus asked. Harry nodded. "Remember, you're not the only one who influences opinions, and Severus has never been easy to get along with. Nearly twenty years worth of Hogwarts students have had opinions of their own of Professor Snape."
"But I was the one who saw what happened in the Tower," Harry said. "I told everyone he murdered Dumbledore!"
"You told us what you saw," Remus said firmly. "And had anyone else been there, they would have thought the same thing. You saw what Albus wanted you to see, don't forget that. Although attitudes towards Severus have hardly been friendly, the assumptions made by many on our side—deliberately instigated, you know—may well have saved his spying work, and by extension, his life. And by further extension, countless other lives."
Harry still looked troubled and leaned back in his seat. "I don't understand him."
"There's no reason why you should."
The look in the boy's eyes startled Remus then, and Harry's words startled him even more. "Yes, there is."
Ginny was shaken at first when Hermione and Ron went running around the castle in a panic, saying that Harry was gone. But once she heard from Professor Lupin about his conversation with Harry that morning, she calmed down and told Ron and Hermione to do the same.
"I think he's gone to Canada."
When she suggested that to McGonagall, the Headmistress looked relieved and comprehending, but Ron and Hermione simply looked baffled. "Why would he do that?" Ron demanded.
"He has his reasons, Mr. Weasley, I'm sure," said McGonagall.
The early Canadian spring was yielding a great array of magical plants, herbs, and fungi, and Severus found himself very busy almost every day, harvesting, preserving, and storing. The conditions around the house posed a problem initially, but some creative warding and protective charms kept the premises safe, and granted him access in and out.
During his foraging excursions, he found the oak tree that had been infested with Brown Leechvine—the growth had worsened over the past months, and the tree was now visibly dying. Severus found, to his utter astonishment, that he actually entertained thoughts of trying to kill the parasite and save the tree, despite how far gone it was and the danger to every other plant for miles. Instead, he put up a narrow Barrier Charm around the infected oak to keep anything from carrying the Leechvine's seeds to other plants, and left it.
It was a good thing he'd got away from Potter and the rest of those Gryffindors when he did.
He was returning from harvesting magical lichens from the rocks at the base of cliffs one afternoon when he spied a figure sitting on the steps of the house. Startled, he dropped his prizes and went for his wand, but the figure rose, and he realized who it was.
The boy looked a good deal healthier than he'd been when Snape had last seen him, but he seemed rather small, like a nervous schoolboy again. "Sir."
Severus collected himself, retrieved his gathered lichens, and went to meet him. "What brings you back here?"
Potter shrugged, toeing the stones under his feet. "I wanted to see it again, I guess. If it's the same as I remember it."
He was lying, of course, but Severus elected not to press him. "Have you been waiting long?"
"Most of the day."
"What?" Severus looked at him incredulously. "I told you this house remains open to you. You need not have waited for me."
The boy's eyes hardened. "I wanted to."
Severus mentally shook his head. Silly child. But there was no point in arguing—it would only lead to mention of the debt, and that would almost certainly send Potter into histrionics all over again. So he simply led the way into the house.
Potter was quiet when they entered, looking around with a slightly-furrowed brow as if trying to reconcile what he saw with the fading memories of the Horcrux. Hmm, perhaps the boy wasn't being entirely untruthful, although Severus kept expecting him to broach some new subject.
That thought was cut off when Hattie came into the hall and balked at the sight of Potter. She recovered quickly and began offering food, drink, bed, and anything else he wanted, but the boy wasn't fooled.
"Hattie, I'm sorry."
"What? Oh, Master Harry is silly—when would Masters like dinner?"
Potter shot a distressed glance at Severus and knelt, trying to get the elf's attention as she bustled around him. "Hattie—"
Hattie dodged his hand, under the guise of continuing to flutter around, but Severus did not miss the self-preservation in the act, and neither did the boy. "Hattie."
She stopped, looking nervously at him.
"Master Harry wishes to speak to you. You will stay where you are and listen."
The elf obeyed, but cringed. Potter noticed and sighed. "I treated you badly when I was here before, and I'm sorry. I…wasn't myself."
Severus had to restrain a laugh, but the elf's ears drooped timidly, "Master Harry need not apologize…"
"Master Harry is apologizing, and you will listen to it," Severus informed her before he could catch himself.
With a quick glance at Snape, Hattie then patted Harry's hand. "No harm was done, young Master. Hattie understands Master was ill."
"Get up now, Potter, you've made your obeisance and repentance," Severus told him.
Surprisingly, the boy obeyed, blushing slightly. "I just thought it was the right thing to do." Snape refrained from snorting. "I was sick, Hattie, and I'll be a lot less trouble this time." He grinned.
"Maybe now that Master Harry is back the nasty snakes will go away?"
"What?" Harry exclaimed, just as Severus hissed, "Hattie!"
The elf's eyes went wide. "Oh no! Bad Hattie! Bad Hattie!"
She only managed to hit herself with her feather duster twice before Harry grabbed her. "Stop it!" She stopped, staring at him tearily. "What are you talking about?"
Hattie looked at Severus, and Harry turned accusingly to him. "Your serpent friends seem convinced that I did away with you," he admitted. "I've had to ward the house and the vicinity to keep them away, but they still surround the area. Perhaps there is something you can do, then."
Releasing Hattie with an order not to punish herself, Harry made for the door. "Yeah, let me talk to them. I'll send them away."
"They are aggressive," Severus warned, trying to pull him back, but the boy shook his head.
"They're…" he paused and dropped his eyes. "They're like that because I taught them to be." Severus frowned, and Harry looked at him. "I told them things…I shouldn't have, I made them dangerous to people. Snakes aren't evil—they didn't know those things until I told them."
"You were influenced by the Horcrux," Severus quietly reminded him.
"Still," Harry straightened his shoulders and went outside. "I have to explain it to them now. Or more people will get bitten—I encouraged them to bite people!"
Snape eyed him, then relented, "Very well. I will drop the wards. Do not endanger yourself; they may be confused."
The boy nodded. Severus lowered the outer wards, but kept a mild ward-off charm around himself and Potter, in case the serpents became agitated.
The results were instantaneous: the bushes rustled as snakes of all sizes and colors came slithering directly toward the house. Despite his awareness of the ward that would keep them from actually touching either of them, Severus nearly reached out and pulled Potter back. Even the boy stiffened as the creatures surrounded him.
Then Harry knelt and began speaking in Parseltongue. The serpents reared up as though startled, tasting the air with their tongues, but then one of them, a large Rat Snake almost nine feet long, began answering him. Harry spoke back, and whatever he said, the snakes did not like it. Several of them began hissing in a threatening manner, rearing away when Harry extended a hand, and Snape suspected that only the ward-off charm kept the foolish boy from being bitten.
"What is it?"
"They don't believe it's me," Potter breathed, looking over his shoulder at Snape. "I don't smell right, they say!"
Severus carefully moved closer to him, getting warning hisses from the serpents. "The Horcrux affected both your mind and your body, as well as your magic. Many animals will sense such a change."
"But how can I make them understand? They'll attack any person they find if I don't!" Harry said in dismay.
Aware of the options before them, Snape replied, "You may not be able to."
Harry shook his head. "No. I have to convince them." He knelt and began talking to the creatures again, but they flattened their heads and hissed, some even lunging toward him. They did not trust the boy now, Severus could tell. Several began to turn and slide away into the bushes, and the boy started after them.
"Potter." It appeared to Severus that he would follow every one of the snakes, begging and pleading in Parseltongue, until he dropped or they bit him. "Potter." The boy's back remained to him, stubbornly arguing with the serpents, so Severus caught his arm. "Harry." The boy stopped and let Severus pull him to his feet, but he would not look at Snape. "You are a stranger to them now. They will not change the behavior taught them by the Horcrux."
"By me, you mean," Harry muttered.
"You were not—"
"Don't say it!" Harry wrenched away furiously. "You—of all people—don't you dare say it! It was me! We both know it was me no matter what excuse anyone comes up with!" Severus stared at him, startled, and he sighed and turned away. "They all act like I was possessed. Like he was completely in control of me and that's why I did all those things."
The boy's babbling made little sense. "The interaction between your own personality and the Horcrux is difficult to understand," Severus said carefully. "They may not comprehend exactly what its effect—"
Harry interrupted with a shake of his head. "That's not it. They're…they're in denial about…me. What I've done." He sighed. Severus simply waited and listened. "They think it wasn't me who did it. But it was, because…everything I did, it was because of things I felt before. Before the Horcrux, I mean." He sat down on the steps of the house, watching the snakes with a bleak expression.
Severus raised his eyebrows. "You felt an urge to train armies of vicious snakes?"
The boy laughed bitterly. "Sort of. I set a python on my cousin Dudley once—by accident, before I knew I could speak Parseltongue."
"I heard that—I thought you were inventing that story."
Harry shook his head. "No, it really happened; I was ten. Thought it was bloody funny. After Ron and Hermione explained Parseltongue to me, I used to think about…"
At last, comprehension of the Horcrux's hold over the boy dawned on Severus. By the look on Harry's face, he knew it. "You resent your friends?"
The boy winced, but muttered, "Sometimes."
The picture was strange in Snape's mind, but it began to come together. "And your fame."
Harry laughed. "All the time."
"How can you not see?" he demanded. "The Ministry, the Daily Prophet, Rita bloody Skeeter, people staring and whispering and asking stupid questions…why the bloody hell were you so jealous?"
Severus opened his mouth to deny the suggestion, then closed it again. Harry scowled at him, then closed his eyes. "They laughed at me, you know," he said in a small voice.
"The Prophet? Yes."
"Not the Prophet. Ron and Hermione." Severus blinked, and Harry explained, "When Umbridge wouldn't teach us real Defense, and they wanted me to form the DA. It was because I got away from Voldemort—I told them I didn't really know how to fight, and they laughed at me!"
"You learned," Severus said quietly. "And you showed an inclination for teaching Defense."
"I know, but…a part of me…"
"Hated them for it, despite their rightness and their good intentions."
Harry nodded. "And they think I'm a bloody saint."
"Or perhaps they simply do not care," Severus pointed out. Harry frowned, and he went on, "You may find, Potter, that those who know you are less deluded about themselves and each other than face value suggests. By your age most individuals have recognized their own darker impulses. I doubt your friends are blind to what you are capable of."
"If that were true, how could they stand to be around me?" the boy protested.
Severus laughed at him. Ignoring the boy's offended look, he said, "This from the child who was horrified by the prospect of my being imprisoned for the crime of being a Death Eater—even though I am one."
"You were one."
"Precisely my point."
Harry sighed. "I don't understand. How can I just…forget what I did?"
"You can't," Snape informed him. "You can only live with it—without feeling sorry for yourself."
"And you'd know all about that!" Harry snapped, then winced and turned away.
Severus wasn't surprised. "So grant me the authority on the subject: it is a pathetic state of being. In addition, however inspired by your own more base impulses, the transition from thought to action was greatly influenced by the presence of the Horcrux. I—and I suspect your friends as well—would venture to opine that you would never have taken those actions, however great your anger, on your own. And your figurative self-flagellation for your relatively-minor crimes supports that."
"Minor?" Harry jumped to his feet, outraged. "I beat up Hattie for no reason, treated Ron, Hermione, and Ginny like…like—I nearly got you killed!"
"Yes, but you did not kill me. Or anyone. And do not," he anticipated Potter's next protest, "equate the Dark Lord's death with murder—that is an insult to his victims. It was not only Albus Dumbledore who forced that action on you; the Dark Lord WOULD have killed you that day, had you not defended yourself to the death. And he would have gone on killing: your friends, your teachers, everyone on the side of the Order." He folded his arms, unmoved by the boy's belligerent stance. "You are not the plucky hero, Potter, whatever the Daily Prophet says, but nor are you the black-hearted villain. Nor are you a martyr. To claim any such title is arrogant."
Potter looked somewhat chagrinned. "And I thought you thought I was the most arrogant prat to ever live."
"No, that was your father," Severus replied, surprised by his own good humor at the reminder. "You merely do not respond well to difficulty."
"And you do?" Harry exclaimed, but he was laughing.
Why that seemed reassuring, Snape could not guess. "I have never said that I did," he settled for answering.
Harry looked away. "You did better than me."
"Your friends and the Order would dispute that," Snape reminded him.
"They don't know." The boy's eyes darkened. "You're one of the Order. You are. They can't pretend you don't belong."
Severus suspected there was something else prompting Potter's attitude, but couldn't guess what had transpired to make the boy so vehement. All the same, he felt he ought to point out, "I care little where others think I belong."
Visibly irritated at Snape's lack of concern, Harry said, "I do."
"Why?" he asked before he could stop himself.
Closing his eyes, Harry muttered, "Because if you don't belong, neither do I. We…did too many of the same things."
Severus snorted. "Hardly." The boy started to argue, but he interrupted, "You don't know what you're talking about, Potter. Do not try to compare our actions. You do not know half of what I've done."
"Then why was what my dad did after your OWLs the memory you hid?" Potter demanded impertinently.
Severus glared at him, but the boy held his gaze. "What does it matter to you?"
Harry shrugged. "I've always wondered that actually—once I got over what was in the memory, anyway."
"You were not meant to see it."
"Not by you," Harry said dryly, but then looked somewhat ashamed. "Sorry. I didn't mean…I didn't know."
"Your curiosity has nearly been the death of you on a number of occasions, Potter, whatever Albus may think of its charm," Snape informed him.
"Wasn't just curiosity," the boy explained. "I thought you were hiding something about the Department of Mysteries. Dumbledore wouldn't tell me what was going on. I just... When I saw my dad, I should've stopped, but…" Harry's eyes were bleak. "I never knew him, you know. Anyway, whatever Dumbledore did, it was me who looked."
Navigating the boy's roundabout attempt at apology and explanation, Severus shook his head. "What exactly is your point in all this?"
Harry flushed and looked at his feet, then at the serpents still creeping just out of reach of the house. "I guess it's that…I've done things because…I can. Doesn't matter why or whether I have to. I just did. No one made me. And now I…"
Severus figured out at last what the boy was getting at, and briskly gestured to the door. "There is no need. Go back inside. I'll deal with—"
"No!" Harry shot to his feet. "It was me who caused them to be dangerous. I'm the one who has to." He dropped Snape's eyes for a moment, then forced himself to look up again. "It was me," he insisted quietly. "It's not your responsibility."
A twinge of some strange emotion struck Severus then, for reasons he could not quite understand and didn't want to dwell on. "You need not punish yourself, Potter," he said without thinking. Harry blinked. "You've acknowledged your role in this…event," he went on, gesturing to the snakes. "It is not necessarily for you to end it yourself."
Harry waivered, then sighed and turned away. "Yes, it is," he said.
So Severus relented, but remained silently where he was as the seventeen-year-old in front of him turned to the animals he had talked with for weeks—and corrupted—and performed a spell that incinerated every living snake for a mile.
The magical fire had vanished in the time it took to draw a breath, and the hilltop around them was quiet, but for the whispering of the trees and the lapping of Lake Superior below the cliff. Severus stepped forward and put a hand on the trembling boy's shoulder.
"Snakes aren't evil," Harry said in a rough voice. "They're not. People think Parseltongue is dark because of snakes, but it's not. They weren't dangerous to people until they met me."
"Harry…" Severus searched for some consolation, but found none. He settled for reminding the boy quietly, "It's over."
Minerva McGonagall apparated to Agawa Bay the next day. The look on her face when she saw Harry indicated that she'd come looking for him. "Sorry," he said, chagrinned. "I guess I should have left a note."
"Quite," the Headmistress said, shooting Snape a reproachful glance.
Harry looked defensive at thtat. "He didn't know I was coming."
"Nor that you hadn't bothered to tell anyone," Severus added, giving the boy a glare of his own.
Minerva shook her head as Harry beat a hasty retreat down the path to the shoreline. "You and that child are far too much alike." At the expression on Snape's face, she snorted. "Well, you are! Really, Severus, it is precisely the sort of thing you would do, abscond without a word to anyone and assume that no one would miss you—precisely the sort of thing you have done, I should say."
"Hardly," he said, sounding miffed at being compared to Harry Potter. "You knew where I was going, as well as when and why." His eyes were focused on the shrinking figure of the boy moving down the water's edge, hands in his trouser pockets, and then he seemed to force himself to turn away. "Come in."
She followed him into the house and accepted tea from the elf. "Given the circumstances, it's the why that puzzles me."
"You know why," he said shortly and took a large swallow from his cup.
"If Potter desired you to be in self-imposed exile, why is he here?" she pointed out.
"Whoever said it was for him?"
"I did not!"
"Don't be coy with me, Severus Snape, it didn't work when you were my student either."
He glared at her—looking quite like a scolded student. "I…am…not…coy." She simply smiled. "And as I told you before, I have my own reasons for keeping away from the general public."
"Yes, yes. Suddenly, you are unable to withstand curious eyes and whispered gossip."
It was refreshing to goad him again. She had not had a chance to do it in quite some time. "I beg your pardon?"
"Tush, Severus, you have never cared in the slightest for the opinions or speculation of others, and however the last few months of the war have affected you," she gave him a knowing smirk, "I sincerely doubt that particular trait has changed. Your other reason, as you said before, was concern for Harry, which as I say now, would seem to be moot, given that he is here."
"He had unfinished business."
Severus told her about the serpents. She grimaced. "Oh dear. You mentioned his dealings with them before you brought him back, but I had forgotten that they were not dealt with. Is he very unhappy?"
To one less acquainted with him, Snape's curt nod might have been interpreted as indifference. "He takes too much upon himself." This time he anticipated her next remark and scowled, so she withheld comment and raised her eyebrows innocently. "It had nothing to do with me!"
Minerva felt a pang then, for this confused man who would resist so fiercely the idea of anyone being attached to him or concerned for him. No longer having the heart to tease him, she said quietly, "You know that's not true."
"I know nothing," he snapped and put down his cup, stalking to the parlor window. Looking toward the water, she observed, where Harry had gone. Or is your resistance to the idea that you yourself are capable of caring for another? Severus went on, "I am sure he will return to Hogwarts with you."
"More than likely," she agreed, irritated with him. "When, like yourself, he refuses to admit to anything that has passed between you, what choice does he have?" Severus turned sharply towards her, she went on coldly, "I am used to seeing seventeen-year-old boys play the martyr, but I would like to expect better from you."
His black eyes flashed, and he bared his teeth with a fury that was the terror of students. She, however, was quite used to it. "If you have come here to play Albus, you can bloody well leave."
I'm impressed; you have not gone that low in quite some time! Aloud, Minerva met his temper with stony calm. "I prefer to think of it as intervening on Harry Potter's behalf, since heaven knows that boy won't speak up on his own. Not unlike you."
"Potter would prefer an ocean between us, Minerva!"
"You are entirely wrong, Severus, and either you are lying to me or you are lying to yourself!" she snapped. "If you had seen him during the Board of Governors' meeting yesterday, listening to their uninformed and disparaging remarks about you, you would not be able to deny it." Severus paused, his brow furrowed. Minerva continued, "I must say, he has changed. I recall a not-too-distant time when Harry Potter would hear no kind word about you; now he will hear no ill word against you." She added wryly, "I feared we would have an incident involving one or all of the governors ending up with asparagus protruding from various bodily orifices."
He could not contain a bark of laughter at that mental image, and muttered under his breath, "Perhaps we are more alike than I did realize." Then he caught himself. "That does not mean Potter wants me back at Hogwarts when he is to teach there."
"Harry, Severus. It is Harry now, you know it and I know it." Minerva smiled at him, unable to deny that she was now definitely channeling Albus Dumbledore—but with the interests of Harry and Severus themselves in mind this time instead of any number of "greater goods", I do hope! "The war is over. There is no need for pretending anything."
All right, that came out sounding far more saccharine than she'd intended, and she knew she'd asked for it when Severus replied, "Does that mean you intend to shed your previous reputation as the second most frightening professor at Hogwarts in favor of…warm and fuzzy, I believe is the term?"
It was her turn to laugh incredulously. "Hardly. But I mean to enjoy life free of war." She folded her arms and stared him down. "And there is no reason why you may not do so as well."
Severus looked away. "Perhaps I have not earned it."
"Codswallop. I know all about your 'debt' to Albus, and while I do hope that wasn't his intent, his making it a lifelong obligation has led you to the conclusion that your penance must be lifelong. I do not agree, and nor, I am quite certain, does Harry." Severus looked back at her, frowning, and she pressed, "I know you were tempted by the Potions mastry again. There is no reason for you to refrain from taking the chance to please yourself at last."
He was wavering. She could tell. "I do not know if it would be wise."
"Harry wants you to come back, Severus. The two of your are connected irreversibly. You have shared experiences with that boy that his friends, however deeply they love him, cannot understand or relate to. Nor is there anyone other than Harry who can understand what you yourself went through."
By the look on his face, he knew it. "And you think this connection requires proximity?"
"I do," she told him. Seizing the last weapon in her arsenal, she drove it home. "Otherwise, I shall be forced to give the Potions position to Remus Lupin."
Fewer people than Severus had expected were genuinely surprised when he arrived back at Hogwarts with Minerva and Harry. Apparently more people than he or Harry had realized were in comprehension of the apparently-unbreakable connection that the past year's events had formed between himself and the boy.
Not that he and Harry talked about it. There really was not much to say. Harry never did ask him, on the day they returned or in the years that followed, why exactly he had chosen to do so. Perhaps Harry already knew the reasons.
Perhaps the reasons no longer mattered.
It was, however, easier than Severus expected to talk to Potter about other things. Ironically, what awkwardness remained between them was assuaged while the boy was immersed in his N.E.W.T. preparations. In a fit of insane courage (according to Ron Weasley, at any rate) Harry decided to make an attempt at his Potions N.E.W.T. along with the necessary Defense and other subjects. He approached Severus, calmly formal, just before his eighteenth birthday to request tutoring, and Severus presented him with the study plan that he normally used for seventh-year N.E.W.T. students. Well, in truth, he modified it somewhat in consideration of Potter's needs and schedule, but it didn't take a great deal of extra effort. And it did make him look well when Harry received an "Acceptable."
He found some aspects of the new curriculum to be somewhat disconcerting, but Miss Granger insisted that the additional coursework in biology and maths would have a positive impact on his students' comprehension of Potions.
And as usual, the girl was insufferably right.
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry reopened on September 1st, with a host of students new and old, not to mention professors. There was, predictably, a good deal of whispering and gasping over the presence of Professor Potter, assistant to Defense Professor Weasley, but the student body quickly found that their legendary young professor's personality did not exactly match his reputation.
At school, Harry was a quiet young man, behavior sometimes interpreted by his students as shyness or timidity, but his first participation in a Defense practical killed that theory. Decisively. Harry Potter's prowess at combat spells was not to be exaggerated and quickly became the stuff of legend, but when students got up the courage to ask if he'd learned this fighting the Dreaded Lord Voldemort, the young teacher just smiled and demurred.
The presence of Ron and Bill Weasley as professors, not to mention Ginevra Weasley as their student, guaranteed that a fair number of the faculty could be seen using the Quidditch pitch almost as often as the House teams, and the group organized Hogwarts's first annual Teacher-versus-Student Quidditch match. Potter played Seeker. They lost, and Ron Weasley ranted for weeks about the injustice of Headmistress McGonagall's refusal to take Quidditch skill into account in her hiring practices.
Hermione Granger thought the whole thing was uproariously funny. Severus was quietly amused. He found himself in an unexpected meeting of the minds with the new librarian as well, the first time he saw her storming about the library fuming about student carelessness towards books.
When Harry took over the Defense position one year later, he was a good deal more tolerant of student foibles.
"Perhaps if I were able to hex my students repeatedly in class as you do, I would be so as well," Severus remarked during a staff meeting.
The others laughed. "You really want this job again?" Harry asked with a too-innocent smile that had become something of a trademark with him, making the others (especially Lupin and the Weasleys) laugh harder.
"Cheeky brat," Severus muttered, and earned himself a scolding from the Headmistress for "lack of professional courtesies.
Harry was indeed cheeky from his teens into his twenties and beyond, although it was often to subtle for the students to notice. He was nonetheless a popular professor, whereas Severus retained his title of Greasy Git in the eyes of the little urchins. Harry opined that Hogwarts would not be Hogwarts without a Greasy Git making the students miserable.
"Keeps them on their toes."
"I see. Of course, you have no objection to myself playing the villain, whereas you remain the sainted boy-hero in their eyes."
"Well, if you want to trade places that badly…"
If the students (or the faculty, for that matter), were puzzled by Professor Potter's and Professor Snape's increasingly-frequent collaborations on various oft-dangerous projects, no one ever got the courage to ask about it. Harry might not be terribly gifted with Potions, but Severus found himself appreciating the young man's creativity in coming up with bizarre magical problems to solve simply for the amusement of coming up with new spells.
By the time Potter was in his second year as Defense Professor, he and Snape had blown up the Potions laboratory four times. Then Granger got involved with one of their experiments and they blew up the entire dungeon, causing Headmistress McGonagall to ban them from testing their creations in the castle proper, so they built a shielded laboratory on the grounds near the Whomping Willow.
Ron Weasley promptly started a betting pool among the staff for how many times the thing would be demolished each year. There was also speculation on how long it would be before Harry Potter's list of magical achievements and accolades exceeded even that of Albus Dumbledore.
It was not to say that Severus Snape and Harry Potter ever forgot the events of the past, let alone their animosity. They rarely mentioned it to each other, and never to others, although they talked often enough about other things.
Perhaps that was the point—their ability to speak of other matters permitted them to leave the unpleasant ones behind. The past was not forgotten, but it was forgiven; even Severus could not deny that. After all, if that was the emotion that had destroyed the last remnant of Lord Voldemort in the world, creating a companionable professional relationship afterward wasn't all that difficult.
In time, they were even able to think and speak of Albus Dumbledore without resentment for the man's various machinations in their lives, quite possibly because they both had to admit that neither one of them would have survived the war without it. And for better or worse, it was he who had bound them to each other, not by a debt for crimes past or careful tutoring, but by their shared, unshakable loyalty to the man, whatever his own faults.
Interestingly enough, Dumbledore's portrait, although they consulted him on matters relating to the school and their work on occasion, never again mentioned the war, the Horcrux, or the exorcism, or his feelings for Snape and Harry. In all the years that followed, whatever they accomplished—and they accomplished a great deal—Dumbledore never said he was proud of them.
He did not need to.
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