Thank you so much for the reviews yesterday!
And several people guessed correctly: that was the second-to-last chapter. This chapter ends the story. I suppose I'm not entirely ruling out a sequel, but this ending will make it difficult. Far more likely that I'll be absent from fandom a few months, and then begin another, different story.
Thank you for reading!
Chapter 50—For the Foreseeable Future
Snape looked up with a sneer. "You have been poking about your food for the past hour, Potter. Do you ever intend to eat it and act like a grateful human being, or should I tell my house-elf that we have a dog at our table and will need proper meals for it?"
Harry ignored him. If he responded to taunts like that, it was entirely possible that he would miss the subtle signs that would identify the sleeping potion he was sure Snape had put in the food.
Then he straightened and narrowed his eyes. What if the reason I can't identify a sleeping potion in the food is the fact that it's not a sleeping potion? No one said it had to be, and Merlin knows Snape has more ways than one to manipulate me. So, think. What other kind of potion might he want to dose me with?
And once he thought of that, and thought over their past history, he knew. He bent down and took a deep sniff of the food, and this time noted an acrid undertone he wouldn't have picked up on before, as if the food had been very slightly broiled in vinegar. He sat back and smiled at his guardian.
"You can tell the house-elf that you have a dog staying with you, if you want," he said. "But until you stop having it put suggestion potions in my food, I'd rather starve than eat what it makes."
Snape raised an eyebrow and studied Harry for a moment. Then he nodded. "And how powerful a dose?"
"Fairly powerful," Harry said. "You overdid it."
"No, I did not," said Snape. "My house-elf overdid it trying to cover the smell, which to such a magical creature stands out quite strongly."
Harry considered that. It might well be true, for all he knew. But Snape could also be lying to test him.
"All right," he said finally, taking a chance.
Snape rolled his eyes even as the house-elf appeared with another plate of food, this one, Harry noted almost immediately, lacking the acrid scent. "And do you know that, Potter? Or will you accept my word as the final arbiter of truth and justice that it is?"
"Neither," said Harry cheerfully, and started eating the sandwich in front of him. He'd spent more than half an hour trying to identify the potion in his food this time, and he was fairly hungry. "It's an educated guess based on what little I've read about suggestion potions in the past few days."
Snape only smiled. "Do tell me if you feel any unusual urges to dump cold water over your head in the next few hours," he murmured, and turned back to the book he held.
Harry nodded and continued eating. That was the game they played at meals, so far, and probably would until Snape got tired of it: he put some kind of potion into Harry's food, or not, and Harry had to try to identify it. If he did, then he got food without the potion, as well as an advance in his knowledge, which Snape would say was by far the more precious gift. If he didn't, then Snape got to have a few hours of peace as Harry slept it off, and then a game of "I told you so" when Harry awoke.
Well, so far he had. This was the first time Snape had used a suggestion potion. It almost certainly wouldn't be the last. Harry chewed and decided to study suggestion potions more. Even if Snape used something different tomorrow, which he might do in the interests of being predictable, he would undoubtedly come back to them.
And Harry had had enough of other people gaining control of his actions.
That was why he appreciated Snape's guardianship, he thought, sniffing his pumpkin juice carefully before he took a sip. The man played games with him, games that could end with either of them losing, though of course they were usually tilted in Snape's favor. Harry had a chance to win, and he learned as he did so, and it kept him far more alert and occupied than he would have been at Hogwarts by now, especially with the way that he continued to tear through his textbooks.
From the outside, his life probably looked horrible. But Harry had come to terms with it, and for now, the way he thought about things made sense for the limited world he occupied with Snape.
Everything was a game.
Severus watched out the window of Bolthole as Potter swooped on his Firebolt around and around the heavily warded meadow, and snorted. He had not warded it for the boy. He had thought, in the days before Potter came to live here, that he might finally have the freedom to start an herb garden not as dangerous as the Forbidden Forest, and not as cramped as the indoor greenhouse.
Of course, Potter had proceeded to save only those plants he recognized, trample the rest, and turn the trampled ground into a temporary Quidditch Pitch.
The boy whirled around steeply and plunged towards the ground. Severus rolled his eyes in disgust and turned back to his potion. He was sure Potter would not kill himself, and neither was he doing it to worry Severus and try to gain some advantage in this unending contest of theirs. He had to know that Severus regularly became so involved in brewing that he did not look out the window for hours at a time. He usually knew when Potter came back inside, though; he had charmed the wards to sting him when that was the case, if only in self-defense.
An owl tapped at the window. Severus let it in and relieved it of its burden without interest. Much post had come for the boy in the last month since he had changed his residence to Bolthole. Most of it was equally without interest, requests for autographs or for the impossible, as if just because Potter had killed the Dark Lord with Legilimency he should have been capable of laying hands on some terminally ill child and healing her, too. Severus recognized the owls from his clients at once and removed them to a separate part of the house, one inaccessible to the boy. He did not want his professional reputation to dip as Potter sought a way to sabotage the potions.
He paused when he saw the crest on this letter, though, and recognized the handwriting. After a moment, he opened it.
The letter was written on parchment thick and creamy enough to make a point, in ink that was actually golden.
May 20th, 1997
From: The Ministry of Magic
Dear Mr. Potter,
You are cordially invited to a recognition ceremony for your services to our world, to be held at Stonehenge on the fourth of June, at three-o'clock. You will of course oblige us by being an hour early, so that we may take some prefatory photographs and speak to you of a few honors that we wish to confer upon you. Among them is the Order of Merlin, First Class.
Please respond immediately. I look forward to seeing such an honored ally again.
Rufus Scrimgeour, Minister of Magic.
Severus had to smirk. He suspected the casual mention of which honor the Minister meant to confer on Potter in the last sentence was entirely Scrimgeour's doing, even if he had dictated the letter—which he looked to have done, as the handwriting in the letter itself was unfamiliar. And the brisk tone was best. Scrimgeour had to have known how many similar letters Potter had ignored in the last few months, and so this one gave him little choice about appearing and said nothing about the length of time the ceremony would take.
Scrimgeour was another one who joined in their game-playing. So they openly tried to manipulate one another, and everyone knew the manipulations existed even if not exactly what they were at first, and so they all got along very comfortably.
Of course, one did not truly ignore or refuse an Order of Merlin. And Severus did not intend to give Potter the option to do so. He went to write an answer to the Minister.
If Potter does not want me interfering in his life, he should have intercepted his own post.
Harry tugged the collar of his formal dress robes and did his best not to glare at Snape. They were appearing in public for the first time since Harry had gone from Hogwarts to Bolthole, and he and Snape had to at least look like guardian and ward, so that Dumbledore, whom Harry fully expected to try something if he had the chance, had no excuse to try and get him back. Glaring as if they hated each other was not part of the plan.
Of course, it seemed that Scrimgeour had invited most of the Ministry dignitaries, including people with titles Harry wasn't sure existed. He had to move around an enormous crowd of people, shaking hands, nodding, making small talk, and posing for so many pictures that the muscles around his mouth hurt. He couldn't even enjoy Stonehenge, which had been warded and cleared of all Muggles for the occasion, because by the time he even thought of glancing at the rocks, someone else needed to speak with him.
Snape made rounds himself, of course, but to smaller numbers of people and with much more polished grace than Harry could manage. And he seemed to receive nearly as many Potions commissions as compliments or attempts to win his attention for some mad project or personal ambition. At least the time he spent here wouldn't be wasted, the way Harry felt his time was.
Then make use of it.
Harry took a deep breath and stood straight. He could make use of it, couldn't it? He didn't have to let anyone impose on him. He'd learned that lesson with Dumbledore. If the mindless chattering and the photographs bothered him so much, and he had no choice about facing them, then he should learn to extract what advantage he could from them.
For example, a portly witch had just stepped up to him, one hand extended for him to shake it. "I just wanted to meet the one who saved us all," she gushed, words that Harry had heard, in one variant or another, three hundred times already today.
He managed to force a smile onto his face as he held his hand out. "And what's your name, Madam?"
"Flora Polyphonia," she said, and simpered at him. "You wouldn't have heard of me, of course. I give money to make some of the finest brooms in the world—my contributions were behind the development of the new Firebolt—but I prefer to keep my involvement quiet."
Harry felt a surge of interest. If that was true, then he might get something out of this after all, something very concrete.
He put as much of a wistful small-boy tone into his voice as he could. "Do you know…"
"What?" Polyphonia seized eagerly on his words, as if she imagined that he would ask for something only she could gratify.
"I've often thought that I might play Quidditch for the English national team someday." Harry turned a shining face up to her, trying to imagine the way Colin Creevey had looked in his first year. "But of course, I can't do that without the best broom, and the broom I have is a few years old by now. I'll always treasure it, of course, because it was the last present from my godfather, but if you know they're making a new Firebolt—" He sighed and shook his head. "I was just imagining what I could do with it."
The witch abruptly looked uncomfortable. She glanced away from him, then leaned near enough to say, "Well, of course, the broom won't be ready for sale to the public for quite some time yet."
"Oh, I'd keep it dead secret that I had it," Harry reassured her solemnly. "And anyway, if it did become public knowledge, it wouldn't matter much, would it? I mean, no one would be angry. I'm Harry Potter."
He struck a pose that he'd seen Malfoy use a time or two with Rita Skeeter. If the woman had any sense, it would have disgusted her. But instead, the witch just looked more and more uncomfortable.
"The broom truly is not ready, Harry," she said.
Or you have nothing to do with making it, Harry thought coolly, studying her. Involved with the development of it but wanting to keep your name out of the public eye, my arse.
"Too bad," he said, with a slight shrug. "I was looking forward to riding it." He turned away with a motion he knew was coolly dismissive—he'd learned it from Snape—and took his course back to the center of the ring, where Scrimgeour would give him the Order of Merlin.
Snape had been watching, of course, because Snape watched everything. He appeared at Harry's shoulder as the Minister began his speech and murmured, "At last you are learning not to surround yourself with idiots. Amazing that it only took you sixteen years to learn to do so."
"I obviously haven't learned completely, have I?" Harry said, not breaking stride, and glancing slightly sideways at him.
Snape would have retaliated, Harry was certain, but Scrimgeour called Harry up just at that moment, and Harry held a fixed smile for the cameras as they went through the little ceremony. His brain felt detached from it all, scanning the cheering faces in the audience and wondering how many of them would want something from him, and if it was going to be like this for the rest of his life. If so, he would just have to learn how to deal with it. He thought he'd made a good start.
And then his eye caught on two faces in the crowd, and stopped. Ron and Hermione had received permission from their parents to come and see him, then. Ron was applauding harder than anyone else in sight, a big grin on his face, and Hermione had a more solemn expression, but she no longer looked as if Harry were going to turn into a monster right in front of her.
I still have friends. Despite everything, I still have them.
Harry raised his hand—no one needed to know that he was really only waving to two people—and smiled with true graciousness, and then stepped forward to say the "few words" he and Scrimgeour had decided were necessary.
Severus remained behind the Minister, studying Potter. The boy had grown into some of his fame, then, but he was having ridiculous delusions of grandeur if he truly thought he could outmaneuver Severus. Severus had won their latest battle, the one that had ended in Harry capitulating and agreeing to come to this ceremony, rather decisively, and Potter would do well to remember that.
"—a few words about my mentor, Severus Snape."
Severus blinked and stood straighter. The brat had turned so that everyone, or at least most of the people directly in the front of the crowed, and therefore the ones that most mattered, could see him. He gestured with one hand, and his voice rose, aided by the Sonorus charm that Scrimgeour had cast before he started rattling on about Potter's greatness.
"Professor Snape was the one who trained me in the Legilimency I needed to defeat Voldemort," said Potter, and if he thought it was ridiculous that most in the audience still flinched at the sound of that name, at least he didn't have to look at them, and see just how ludicrous it was. "He is also the one who stopped an earlier plan of mine that would not have worked, and has been showing me how to survive in a world that I once believed to be beyond my control. He made sacrifices through years as a spy in the Dark Lord's inner circle that have not yet been honored enough. He truly deserves your applause, both for being a hero himself and for helping me stand here today."
The applause was deafening. Severus sneered half-heartedly, and reminded himself never to get too comfortable. They weren't clapping for him; they were clapping because Harry Potter had asked them to.
And then Potter went on in a tone that matched the rest of his speech, so much so that Severus did not realize at first what he had said.
"He has also graciously agreed to heal some of the harms of the war that would otherwise go unhealed. For example, he will be contributing some of his time and potions to the Ministry's Committee on the Unity of the Magical Arts, which has been set up to discuss new regulations on which magic is truly Dark, and to blend potions, charms, and others studies to try and create a stronger understanding of the way these different fields interact. And he has agreed to heal Draco Malfoy, whose memory has been left in a sadly damaged state due to a Legilimency attack in December of last year."
Severus froze, staring at Potter. Potter raised an eyebrow at him—he was facing Severus, so no one else in the crowd saw that particular expression—and gave him a slow smile that was far too Slytherin, really.
Severus had not agreed to either of those things.
But he could not refuse, of course, not when Potter had called him on them in public, and not without damaging his own "heroic" reputation which he relied on to help him with an even better life in the future.
He smoothed his frozen expression into something as near a smile as he was capable of, and stepped past Potter to cast the Sonorus charm on his own voice. He would pledge these duties, and he would perform them, because Potter had trapped him with no way out of it.
But he would outmaneuver Potter in turn. That was the way it worked. They might help each other, but each thought the other worthy of help only if he proved he was, constantly and unendingly.
Perhaps Severus deserved this, for underestimating Potter.
Not that he would ever admit it.
Rufus wanted to howl in laughter. But he didn't, preserving the outward show of calm decorum that would be expected of the Minister of Magic at an event like this.
He enjoyed the sensation. It made a great difference from wanting to howl in frustration but not being able to do so because he had to deal calmly and rationally with his opponents, after all.
He stood with his arms folded, and watched as Snape came forwards and accepted the terms of his "further service to the magical community" with a practiced polish. Potter stepped back and stood watching him, with a smile that many would only take as further proof how much he adored his mentor.
Once or twice, Snape looked at Rufus. Rufus sent a benign smile back.
He had been the one to admit that Snape's contribution to the Committee on the Unity of the Magical Arts would be welcome, since he was a Potions master, but Potter had been the one to propose the idea. And his thought that Snape should be made to heal the boy whose mind he'd destroyed was nothing short of inspired.
Potter and Snape were both in capable hands—their own, and those of the other. The last Death Eaters were being dragged into custody even as they stood there. The Wizengamot was quiet at the moment, or rather, buzzing furiously in Dumbledore's direction, because they did not approve of his "borrowing" Time-Turners any more than Rufus did, and more and more investigation revealed more and more unaccountable "borrowings." Dumbledore, no fool, was lying low for the moment and not trying to interfere openly in British politics.
Rufus loved his life.
Harry knew his victory over Snape wouldn't last, of course. But nothing did, just like his frozen state of mind after he killed Bellatrix, or his grief over Sirius, or his anger at Dumbledore.
Or his fights with his friends.
He found Ron and Hermione easily enough after the ceremony. Hermione had cast some spell that let them shove past other wizards without appearing to do so. Harry reached them, and received a handshake and a slap on the back from Ron, and a hug from Hermione.
"Do you feel better now?" she asked, stepping back and staring at him.
Harry nodded firmly. "The wounds in my mind have healed further without as many people around as there were at Hogwarts," he said. "And I've been studying hard enough to make my brains fall out of my ears. Believe me," he added, when Hermione looked doubtful. "When Snape says study, it happens."
"And have you—" Ron said, and then stopped.
"Come to terms with what I did? Yeah." Harry faced him. "I wish I could have come up with a way to defeat Bellatrix that didn't put Fred and George in danger. And what I did to her was unnecessary." He shuddered slightly, then shook his head. He didn't dream about his venture into Bellatrix's mind anymore. Snape said it was because he refused to give Harry any more Dreamless Sleep, and so Harry had forced himself not to need the psychological crutch of the potion. Harry thought it had far more to do with conscious control of his Occlumency. "I should have insisted on a few more days to learn how to send dreams warning them."
Ron gave a tentative nod. Harry didn't think they'd ever be exactly back to normal, but this was better.
"Would you mind if I wrote to you?" he added quietly. "You'd have to send the letter with Hedwig, because Snape would go mad if he thought I was receiving personal post by other owls. The constant pleas for help from total strangers are bad enough. But—"
"Of course we'll write!" Hermione said firmly.
"Of course," Ron echoed.
Harry relaxed. "Good." He couldn't say he missed his friends as terribly as he once would have, but he'd missed them. He thought that was a sign his empathy had recovered. Snape would probably say it was a sign of softness in the head, of course, but Snape was very far from knowing everything.
"What are you going to do, mate?" Ron asked then, predictably enough.
"I have a talent for some potions, believe it or not," Harry said vaguely enough. There were some things he still didn't feel comfortable telling them. "And there's Quidditch. But the more I look into charms, the more I think I'm interested in inventing spells. There's always something I want to do, and which the charm doesn't quite do. Or you have to cast two spells practically at the same time to get that result, and no matter how quickly I cast them, it's not enough."
"Being a spell creator takes a lot of work, Harry." Hermione, predictably enough. "Research, knowledge of several fields of magic, a training course as intense as any Auror training, and—"
Harry gave her a concentrated look. "And you think I'll have trouble with that?"
Hermione snapped her mouth shut, as if she were remembering, as she should, how quickly Harry had mastered Occlumency and Legilimency. "Maybe not, no," she said at last.
Harry nodded. "And that's not necessarily a fixed and final career. I might become a dueling instructor, or a Legilimens consultant, or something else entirely. But for the foreseeable future, I'm Snape's ward." He looked over his shoulder and found his guardian watching him with half-shut eyes, no doubt plotting his revenge. "Of course, I turn seventeen in two months."
That was Ron's voice, and he sounded serious. Harry turned to face him again.
Ron had his chess-playing look again, as if, should the answer to his question be negative, he was ready to interfere and change it. "Are you happy?" he asked.
Harry smiled. It was a relief to be able to do that, finally, without feeling like he was hiding some great secret from his friends behind the expression. And despite the fact that Snape would undoubtedly try to take revenge sometime soon after they got back to Bolthole, despite the fact that other people would of course try to control him in the future, and though that future wasn't settled beyond a doubt yet, Harry knew the next words he spoke were true.
"Yes," he said. "I am." He hesitated, then added, because it was the only way he thought he could make them understand, "I'm free."
Thank you again, very much, for reading and/or reviewing. If you're interested in any further stories, I'll post news about them in my profile.