"What are the plans you wish to discuss?" Lucius asked as soon as the door had closed on the small group. Snape stepped behind his desk to fetch a roll of parchment he had prepared. The blond wizard followed his every move with the determination of a hunting hawk.
"Why don't we sit down and let the headmaster explain his plans over a cup of tea?" Harry stepped in. Braver people than Snape – not that he knew many – would have become fidgety under Lucius's gaze.
"Of course," Snape agreed. "Harry, why don't you pour the tea while I get the papers?" He smiled weakly at the teenage hero. Harry did as he was asked and ushered Lucius and the reporter to the small coffee table in front of the fireplace.
"Has he woken up yet?" Gloria Gainsy asked with a glance at Dumbledore's portrait, which gently snored in its frame above said fireplace.
"Yes," Harry smiled. "I talked to him on several occasions. He never speaks much though; we merely exchanged some small talk."
"What a pity," the witch crossed her legs elegantly, revealing a crimson high-heeled shoe. "I'm sure he could help the wizarding world a lot with his advice."
Snape joined them and sat in the last free armchair. "He helped with some advice during the war." The man accepted a cup from Harry with a small smile. "But it was exhausting for him, since it was so soon."
"Your plans!" Lucius reminded his former co-deatheater before he could elaborate.
The reporter opened her mouth to protest, but she closed it when the blond wizard glared at her. She looked up at the portrait longingly before she turned to Snape to learn about his plans.
"As you know," started the headmaster, "we have more students here than ever before. Many of them lost their families in the war. I – we – ," he looked at Harry pointedly, " are worried about a group of nine. Those children are muggleborn orphans."
"There have always been muggleborn orphans," interrupted Lucius. "Potter himself was barely in a different situation."
"It's different," Snape insisted sternly. He shot the blond wizard a glare that would have sent most students running, but Lucius was not impressed. "Harry did not know about the magical world and the war that had cost him his parents. The truth was revealed to him little by little, but these children know that the magical world lost them their families. If we just drop them off at their muggle relatives' for the holidays, they will have no reason to regain the trust in our world they surely have lost last year."
"What can we do to help?" asked Gloria.
"We thought they should have magical guardians." Snape leaned back in his seat and looked at his guests expectantly.
"What do you expect of a magical guardian?" asked the witch.
This time Harry answered the question. "We want the magical guardian to spend at least part of the holidays with their charge and to keep in touch with the muggle family. Those people need to understand what happened to the children and their families. They have to see that what happened is not the children's fault and that the wizarding world is healing and can be trusted with the children."
The witch nodded. "This sounds reasonable. Have you already found guardians?"
"This is where I hope you will come in, Miss Gainsy," admitted Snape. "If you wrote about the project, people would volunteer."
"I volunteered to be the guardian of the youngest child," Harry added. "I spoke with Dad about it and we agree that we need a bit of an age difference, so there's not really a choice which child I can take."
Gloria looked deep in thought. "You could grant me an interview about the project. Stories about the Man Who Killed Him always sell well. Your project may even make the front page."
"And what would my part be in your scheme?" Lucius made himself heard for the first time since Snape had explained his plans.
Harry smiled brilliantly at the former deatheater. "We want you as a guardian, of course. Can't you see what a signal that will be to the magical world? Wizardkind unites for the good cause."
"I can see that," the blond wizard drawled. "I guess I'm willing to do it if I get to choose the child."
Harry and Snape exchanged a glance. "That can be arranged," said the headmaster.
"Wonderful!" cried Gloria. "We can make this a big story with Harry and Severus Snape and Lucius Malfoy involved. Give me a day to talk to some people."
The small group agreed to meet again in a week. That way, Gloria had more time to talk to her editor and Lucius pointed out that, given enough time, he would be able to get another volunteer or two. Since the next holidays were only at Easter, they could afford to take a little time.
Once Harry was back at the East Tower, Hermione, Ron and Draco cornered him and he had to tell them what they had discussed at the headmaster's office. In return, Hermione informed him how McGonagall had threatened to hex Ron and Draco personally if they didn't work out how to get along. As a result they had agreed on a truce since neither of them was brave (Ron) or stupid (Draco) enough to face a furious Head of Gryffindor.
The next week was spent teaching and studying. It was so normal that Harry thought it could not be true. He actually started to feel like a student again. He had breakfast with Snape thrice, but apart from that his life didn't differ from any other student's. It was clear that this could not be permanent but the Man Everybody Looked Up To would certainly not waste the chance to be normal for a little while. Harry enjoyed.
The following Sunday found Snape's office crowded with people. The headmaster was busy handing out cups of tea and conjuring chairs while his guests eyed each other suspiciously or exchanged the latest gossip.
Harry had brought Arthur Weasley, who had volunteered to become a guardian immediately when he heard about the project. Lucius Malfoy had brought a wizard who was a little younger than he was. The man whose name had yet to be revealed was smaller than the blonde wizard, but of heavy build. His hair was a bluish black and he sported a small moustache. Gloria had Rita Skeeter with her. The older witch looked at Harry from time to time. Harry thought she looked a bit scared.
The last guests were Madame Rosmerta and Aberforth Dumbledore, whom Snape must have invited. Harry glared at the headmaster. Was it asked too much, to be informed about things beforehand? He was working hard to help the man after all! Even if he was forced into this by a life debt, he deserved a little respect!
Harry was surprised when he realised that he would have helped with this project without the life debt, too. Snape's plan was reasonable and a good thing for the students involved. There was no force or coaxing needed to get Harry's help. The teenager coughed to cover the little yelp of surprise that escaped him before he could catch himself.
"I see we have already several volunteers," said Snape when everybody had tea and a seat. He summoned a muggle clipboard from his desk. "May I assume that everybody present is informed about what we want to do?" He only continued when he had got nods of confirmation from every single witch and wizard present. "We have nine children who need guardians. Eight of them are still free; the youngest got assigned to Harry."
"Why does Potter get to choose first?" asked Rita.
Arthur Weasley and Aberforth Dumbledore glared at the reporter angrily, but Snape calmed them with a raised hand. "It's a question of age. I'm sure you agree that it would not be wise to assign a youth a guardian who is barely older than he or she. We have only one orphaned first year without magical relatives. Therefore Harry gets Miranda Smith as a ward."
Harry stifled a sigh. He had hoped that the child in question was a boy. He was not very good with girls.
"May I first ask who of the people present agree to become guardians?" Snape continued, oblivious of Harry's unease. Arthur Weasley, Lucius Malfoy, his friend, Aberforth Dumbledore and Rita Skeeter raised a hand. "Five more? Excellent!" cried the potions master. "That's more than I dared hope for."
"Do you really think it's a good idea to give Rita Skeeter influence over an impressionable child?" Harry interrupted.
"I could be very helpful to a child," the blonde witch defended herself.
"What is in it for you?" Harry snapped. He had never seen Rita do anything that did not serve her own purposes.
The reporter smiled. "Since Gloria here got the story about the project at large, I thought I could write a report about the time I spend with my charge. I'm sure our readers would be eager to hear how the project goes once it's under way."
The teenage hero glared at the witch angrily. "You will not exploit an orphan! Do something, Snape!"
The headmaster smiled (it looked a bit strained since he was not used to it). "Miss Skeeter will be guardian of Bertram Morris."
Harry huffed, but calmed down at a small sign from Snape. He made a mental note to ask the older wizard why he thought Bertram Morris could handle Rita Skeeter later.
It was easy to find charges for Arthur Weasley and Aberforth Dumbledore. They both smiled kindly and stated they were ready to help any kid Snape needed them to. Lucius Malfoy's friend, Aramis Greengrass, was easily satisfied, too, only Lucius had several stipulations for his charge.
He wanted a Slytherin boy, who in spite of being muggleborn knew about pureblood customs.
"I'm sorry, Lucius," said Snape. "The only Slytherin I had is already taken. Mr Morris will be Ms Skeeter's responsibility. I have one boy left, a Hufflepuff. There are two Ravenclaw girls and a Gryffindor girl."
"I suggest you take the youngest," said Mr Greengrass soothingly. "They are easier to influence. You could achieve a lot with a young child."
"Which one is the youngest?" asked the blond wizard.
Harry nearly choked on his tea because of the face Lucius made when he learned that the youngest girl was a fourth year Gryffindor, Edith Ironbank. It turned out, though, that the older Malfoy was not one to back away from challenges. Ms Ironbank was certainly in for an interesting time.
Once Snape had Gloria and Rita on his side for his magical orphan project, Harry had surprisingly little to do with it. He did not mind. There was more than enough to do if he wanted to pass his NEWTs in less than six months time. He had also fallen behind with his Defence lessons for the lower years and there had been too little time he was able to spend with Ginny.
Harry decided to catch up on the last first. He got Snape's permission to take Ginny to Hogsmeade (which the headmaster granted grudgingly) and walked her down to the Three Broomsticks on Wednesday afternoon with happy smiles plastered to both their faces.
"I felt a little neglected," Ginny informed her boyfriend. "I know that you have important things to do with Snape insisting on that life debt and I will admit that that orphan project is a good thing, but nevertheless…"
"I missed you, too," Harry squeezed the hand he was holding. "I had high hopes for this school year. It's our last together and whatever career we both choose we won't live that closely for a while. Things will get even more complicated next year."
"It doesn't have to," Ginny pointed out.
Harry smiled. "It has to. You know that your mother would skin me alive if we lived together without getting married first and I really don't think that either of us is old enough for that. I don't want you to wake up in five years and realise that you don't want me."
"That won't happen," Ginny reassured him. "But you are right. Mum would skin you alive."
Harry registered that she didn't agree aloud with them being too young to get married, but was wise enough to drop the topic. They had reached the first houses of the magical village and there were other things than plans for the future to discuss.
Dinner with Ginny at the Three Broomsticks was the memory Harry clung to for the next weeks whenever things became desperate. With their NEWTs drawing closer, the teachers seemed to think they hadn't learned anything yet and tried to press seven years worth of education into a month. Harry spent every waking moment studying and he even caught himself practice spells in his dreams more than once. (His favourite dream of that sort was the one where he practiced disrobing charms with Ginny. It left him thinking that it was a lucky thing that Molly Weasley had no access to his dreams.)
The routine life had settled into was only interrupted by an interview Harry had to give Gloria Gainsy for the orphan project. By the end of February, Snape announced proudly that they had found the missing guardians. Alonso Flourish from Flourish and Blott's, Mercury Barnes – a Gringott's curse breaker – and Cassandra Flowby, a St Mungo's healer, had been chosen from fifteen volunteers to be guardians of the remaining children.
Harry was looking forward to spending the Easter holidays at the Burrow. He needed a little quiet before the last big effort before their NEWTs was required. After the near debacle at Christmas, Harry went to talk with Snape weeks before the holidays.
"Of course you can go and see the Weasleys," Snape agreed over a cup of tea in his office. "But I have to remind you that you will be expected to spend one day with Miranda Smith and her muggle relatives."
Harry nodded. "No problem. Where do they live?"
"Near Cardiff; you do know how to apparate, don't you?" Snape asked.
Harry huffed. "You saw me do it several times!"
"I just wanted to make sure," Snape smirked. "You splinching on their doormat won't exactly further the Smiths' trust in magic, you know."
"Haha!" Harry hid behind his teacup. Had Snape just teased him?
Harry decided to go to the Smiths' first. Once he was done with his guardian duties, he could enjoy his holiday with the Weasleys to his heart's content. In an especially clever move, he decided to go to King's Cross on the Hogwarts Express to make an appointment with Miranda's muggle relatives. Ginny squealed with delight when he told her they would be able to hide away for hours because he had looked up charms to keep them unnoticed.
Snape smirked at him when he told him about his plans – the taking the express part not the snogging Ginny senseless part – but didn't comment.
"You don't mind, do you?" Ron asked Harry while they boarded the train. "Hermione and I really need some quality time together."
"It's okay," the wizarding hero told his best friend. "I'll find somebody else to sit with." He grinned. This was easier than he had thought it would be.
Ginny arrived a little later. "Fffff," she huffed. "I thought Luna was going to follow me forever!" She took off her shoes and sat beside Harry in a cross-legged position. "Luckily Justin asked her to sit with him! They make a nice match."
Harry nodded but he couldn't have cared less where and with whom Luna had ended up with. He slid his arm around Ginny's shoulders and pulled her closer.
Mr Smith reminded Harry unpleasantly of uncle Vernon. The man had as little neck and as much moustache. Miranda mirrored his expression of unhappiness about the family reunion. Mrs Smith was nothing like aunt Petunia though. She rather looked like Mrs Weasley, a friendly plump woman with reddish hair. The woman smiled genuinely when she greeted the girl but the welcome was rather short since she was busy keeping three younger boys in check.
"Let's go, girl," said Mr Smith. "I don't have all day."
"A word, Mr Smith," Harry said as politely as he could when he wanted to throttle the man.
"We're in a hurry," growled the muggle.
Harry smiled weakly. "It won't take long. My name is Harry Snape, I was assigned Miranda's magical guardian and I wanted to ask whether it was okay if I dropped by later today."
"A magical guardian, eh?" the man growled. "Where were you when the girl was orphaned?"
"Actually I was busy fighting the guy who killed Miranda's parents," Harry snapped, losing his patience. "So, may I come to talk to you and your wife?"
"Who's that, Paul?" Mrs Smith joined the conversation. The three boys were eating chocolate behind her.
"He says he's the girl's guardian."
"We are her guardians!" protested the muggle woman.
Harry turned to her. "Of course you are but it was decided that it would be helpful for you to have a magical person to help with any questions which will certainly arise sooner or later when you raise a magical child. May I drop by later today?"
"Of course! We already have a couple of questions." The woman smiled. "Come around nine in the evening. The boys should be in bed then."
"Nine then," Harry smiled at Miranda. "I'll see you, Miranda."
"Yes, Sir," the girl replied earnestly.
"Harry," Harry corrected her. With a last encouraging smile at the girl, Harry went to the waiting Weasley family. He was going to apparate to the Smiths' from the Burrow in the evening
Mr Weasley took the family to the backside of the building. "I got us a portkey," he said proudly and showed an empty milk bottle. George smiled at him. "Thank you, Dad. That's very convenient."
When the group of Weasleys, Harry and Hermione gathered around the bottle, Harry noticed it for the first time. Mrs Weasley glared at Hermione angrily. A quick glance at the girl showed that she had noticed it, too, but Ron was oblivious to his mother's anger.
The Weasley matron bustled off to the kitchen to prepare food for her children as soon as they landed in front of the Burrow. Hermione moved to follow her but Harry stopped her. "I'll go," he mouthed. Thankfully the girl didn't argue but followed Ron and his siblings to the garden.
"Mrs Weasley," Harry started awkwardly when he entered the kitchen, "may I help you with dinner?"
"That's a lovely thing to suggest," the witch replied kindly, "but you really don't need to. I know some great household spells. Dinner will be ready in a jiffy."
"But I'd love to," Harry insisted. "Please, Mrs Weasley. I never had a mom to help in the kitchen."
"Certainly your aunt let you help from time to time." Mrs Weasley handed him a basket of carrots. "If you want to help, you can cut these."
The youth cut the first carrot before he replied. "My aunt Petunia never let me help. Sometimes she made me do all the cooking but only if she needed something easy done. I fried eggs and bacon. The most complicated thing I ever made was potato soup." He smiled weakly.
"Oh Harry! That's terrible!" cried the witch.
The boy shrugged. "It's over."
"But your home was supposed to be a safe haven for you!"
"It was," Harry smiled. "Hogwarts is the only home I ever knew." He swallowed hard before he changed topic. "Mrs Weasley, about Hermione…"
"I can't believe Ron brought her here after her true colours were revealed!" Mrs Weasley cried.
"Well, Ron saw through Malfoy's plan immediately," Harry smiled. "Malfoy tried to win Hermione over at the start of the school year. He nearly succeeded. – You know our Hermione, she can't resist intellectual stimulus. – But she soon saw her mistake and reconciled with Ron. Malfoy tried to get her back by staging their row in front of the press. As I said, Ron saw through it immediately."
"That's my Ronald," Mrs Weasley cried proudly. "He's so clever and sweet."
Harry laughed. "I don't know about sweet but clever he is."
Dinner was delicious. Hermione got the biggest portion of stew and Harry felt a bit proud when everybody praised the cooks although he hadn't done more than cut the carrots and parsley.
There was still a little time after dinner before Harry had to go to the Smiths'. George tried to convince the youngsters to play a round of quidditch near the house but they refused. Ron and Hermione disappeared to Ron's room and Ginny convinced Harry to go on a walk up the hill, not that he needed much convincing. "You should have come to Hogwarts if you wanted to play with us," she winked teasingly at her brother.
"And here I thought you had come home to see me," George pouted. They were already through the small gate when he cried after them. "Oi, sis! You are a girl! Say, do you think it's too late to ask Angelina out tonight?"
"Depends on how nicely you ask, mate!" Harry cried back. Ginny giggled and waved at her brother. "I'm not sure George does nice," she whispered. "Too boring for him." The witch led the way up the hill to a small group of trees. Harry conjured a blanket and they sat and looked down at the muggle village. It was quite romantic to watch the lights go on.
At a quarter to nine they got up from their spot and Harry walked Ginny back to the Burrow before he apparated to Sully.
The Smiths lived in a quiet street which reminded him strongly of Privet Drive. The lawns were neatly mown and the rose bushes stood straight like soldiers in a parade. There were lace curtains behind the windows. Neatly polished silver or grey cars stood in front of the houses and at nearly nine o'clock in the evening only a few stray cats were on the street.
Harry didn't mind. That way his apparition remained undetected. He used a quick spell to make sure his robes were clean before he hid his wand in his sleeve and walked the last meters to number 23.
It was Mrs Smith who opened the door for him. "Do come in Mr Snape," she smiled at the young wizard and held the door open invitingly. "Tea?" she ushered Harry to the living room where her husband and Miranda were waiting.
"Yes, please," Harry accepted a cup and sat beside Miranda. "How are you, Miranda?"
"Fine, thank you, Sir."
"Harry," Harry corrected her kindly. "Unless we are in the classroom."
"In the classroom?" asked Mr Smith. "Are you one of her teachers? But you can't be older than 20!"
"18, actually," Harry admitted. "Actually I'm a student but due to the events of the past few years Hogwarts has more students this year than ever before. The oldest students help out with the lower years."
"Does the girl see a real teacher ever?" barked Mr Smith.
"No student has more than three student teachers," Harry explained. "Miranda has student teachers in Herbology, Potions and Defence Against the Dark Arts. Apart from that she's taught by very experienced teachers. The student teachers have been known to be the top of their year in the subjects they teach."
"Potions?" snarled Mr Smith. "You actually make potions? I thought that was a superstition!"
"Even non-magical people use basic potions knowledge," Harry explained patiently. "You do use herbs for medical purposes, don't you?"
"So she could become some kind of witch-doctor if she's good at potions?" asked Mrs Smith.
"Potions certainly is very important if you want to become a healer but there are other subjects which are required. Miranda has another year before she needs to choose additional subjects. I will discuss her options with her when the time to choose comes. We can do it here if you want to give her your advice."
"Of course we want to be part of Miranda's education!" cried Mrs Smith. Harry could tell by Mr Smith's expression that he didn't quite agree but since the man stayed quiet, so did Harry.
"What do you teach?" Mr Smith broke the ensuing silence.
"Defence," Harry took a sip of tea.
"They let a boy of 18 teach children how to defend themselves?" Mr Smith sneered. "That's disappointing. You certainly know that we got landed with the girl because her parents were killed by some evil wizard. I was hoping she'd learn to look after herself at that school."
Harry put down his cup. "The ability to defend oneself is not a question of size or age or even knowledge of spells. Voldemort was a vicious madman. We still don't know how many he killed. The current count nears thousand; muggles, witches and wizards. He killed powerful people who knew lots of spells and yet he met his downfall in a boy who used the first disarming spell he ever learned. Miranda is as good at Defence as can be expected at her age. I didn't know more than she at that age." He smiled at Mrs Smith who refilled the cups.
"That's already cold," snarled Mr Smith.
"I'll make a fresh pot," the woman hurried to say.
"Allow me," Harry drew his wand and cast a warming spell.
"Oh, so magic is actually good for something," Mr Smith glared at his niece. "Why don't you do anything useful from time to time?" Miranda shrank back in her seat.
"She's not allowed to before she reaches the age of 17," Harry informed the family. "Unless in cases of emergency, of course."
"What I'd like to know," said Mrs Smith, "is whether we are in danger because we took Miranda in. We have three children."
"Four," Harry corrected her.
The woman nodded. "I meant we have three who are completely helpless against magic." She smiled at Miranda kindly.
"As far as we can tell there is no danger for you. Voldemort's loyal followers have been caught or killed." Harry smiled reassuringly. "It's getting late. Are there any more questions you wish to ask?"
"You will come back, won't you?" asked Mrs Smith. "In case questions arise."
"I can come back later this week," Harry offered. They agreed on the evening before the students had to return to Hogwarts. Tired, Harry apparated back to the Burrow. The house was already dark but for the flickering light of a candle in the living room.
Ginny was sitting on the sofa, reading a book. Harry cleared his throat and she put the book down.
"How did it go?" the witch asked.
Harry shrugged. "Not bad. The uncle dislikes Miranda but the aunt seems to care for her. I have to return there before we return to Hogwarts. They have lots of questions and need time to think."
"I'm sure you are a great guardian," Ginny pulled Harry down onto the sofa and snuggled up to him.
"I'm good at a lot of things," Harry grinned.
Ginny chuckled and allowed him to demonstrate.
The next few days were happy ones. The youngest Weasleys and their guests went hiking, played quidditch – although Hermione wasn't very comfortable on a broom – or helped Mrs Weasley in the house. George came for dinner almost every day.
The oldest Weasley brothers, Bill, Charlie and Percy, came only for the actual Easter dinner. Bill brought his wife, Fleur, and Percy his new girlfriend, Maia. Charlie came alone and was teased for it mercilessly by his siblings.
"Come on, little brother," laughed Bill, "even our Ginny-baby brought a boyfriend! How come you came home alone?"
"George came alone," Charlie pointed out. The dragon keeper blushed.
"Angelina stays with her family," George informed him. "I'll meet her later."
"You won't stay?" Mrs Weasley asked, a bit disappointed.
George grinned. "Don't tell me you stayed at home all the time when you were my age."
Mrs Weasley opened her mouth to answer but didn't say anything when her husband cleared his throat and winked at her.
"Is it only me," Ron interfered, "or did we just digress from the point? Are you hiding something from us, Charlie?"
"Any meetings later?" added Ginny.
Charlie blushed. "Ha!" cried Bill. "I knew it! Who is she?"
"It's not like that," muttered the dragon keeper. "I'm meeting some of the guys for a beer later."
"Ah," laughed George. "You're going hunting! That's perfectly acceptable. No need to be ashamed."
"Ignore them, Maia," Percy said pompously. "Not all Weasley men are like cave-men."
The girl, a petite brunette, smiled weakly. The cave-men and Harry chuckled. Fleur and Hermione rolled their eyes.
"That's enough, boys," scolded Mrs Weasley. "Stop it this instant!"
George saluted. "Yes, Ma'am. We'll behave!"
The meal was delicious like always. Mrs Weasley, assisted by Ginny and Hermione, had made a greater variety of dishes for the occasion as well as a sinfully delicious chocolate cake.
"Thank you for those cooking charms, Mrs Weasley," said Hermione. "I will practice. Maybe Ginny can help me."
"Be prepared to eat lots of chocolate cake, boys," cried George.
Ron glared at Hermione. "Don't you dare practice those charms at Hogwarts! How would the house elves feel if you took over their job?"
"Oh Ron!" cried Hermione. "That was a thoughtful thing to say!"
"I always thought the Hogwarts house elves made a particularly delicious chocolate cake," said Percy. "Don't you agree, Maia?"
"Quite," the girl spoke for the first time. "Although I must admit that your mother outdoes them easily."
Mrs Weasley chuckled merrily and put another slice on Maia's plate.
Harry watched the whole exchange contently. It was good to have a family. For an instant he asked himself how Snape was spending the evening.
Miranda opened the door for Harry when he returned to the Smiths'. "Good evening, Sir," she greeted Harry. "My aunt is tucking the boys in and my uncle isn't home yet. Aunt Mary says we're to wait in the living room."
"Why won't you call me Harry? I told you to repeatedly," Harry smiled as he followed the girl inside.
"I'd rather not. I can't in class after all," the girl replied shyly.
"But you can while we are in private," Harry tried to convince the child. "I won't be your teacher but for three months but I'll stay your guardian."
"If you agree, I'd rather start calling you Harry when you left school," piped the girl.
"So," Harry sat on the armchair the girl indicated. "How are you? Is everything alright? How are your relatives coping with magic?"
"My aunt is a lovely woman. She doesn't care whether I'm a witch or not. My uncle…" The girl shrugged. "I think he doesn't know what to make of it. Sometimes I think he's scared. Sometimes I think he's just annoyed because he's not sure whether magic is useful or dangerous."
"I'm here to answer his questions. I hope that helps."
There was a sound in the hall. "Uncle Bertram is home," Miranda rose and went to welcome her uncle home. "Mr Snape is here," Harry heard her say.
Mr Smith entered the living room an instant later. "Mr Snape," he greeted Harry. "I've been awaiting your second visit. There are some things I'd like to know."
"I'm here to answer your questions," Harry reassured him.
"Then let's start right away. Who was that guy who killed my brother and where is he now? Are my sons in danger?"
"First of all," Harry said carefully, "there is no danger for you and your children as far as we can tell. As I said at my last visit, Voldemort's followers have been caught or killed."
"And that Voldemort bloke?"
Harry fidgeted in his chair uncomfortably. He didn't like talking about Voldemort's demise. "He's dead," he said, hoping that that would be enough for the muggle.
"Are you sure? It could be what the government wants to make us believe."
Harry swallowed hard. "I am sure, Sir," he said softly. "I killed him personally."
Mr Smith shrank back and Harry felt he had to elaborate to reassure the man. "Voldemort," he explained, "rose for the first time before I was born. When I was one year old, he killed my parents. My mother sacrificed her life willingly to save mine and when he wanted to kill me, he was severely injured. It took him more than a decade to recover. When he finally returned, he went after me. Last year, there was a big battle at Hogwarts. The forces of Light and Dark fought. At last it came down to a confrontation between him and me." Harry sighed. "I won."
Mr Smith stared at the young wizard, dumbfounded. "You are a murderer!" he then cried.
Harry nodded. "I am," he said heavily. "My only excuse is that it was the only way to stop him."
"Why aren't you in prison?" Mr Smith asked suspiciously.
"It isn't like I decided to go and kill somebody," Harry said defensively. "Voldemort killed hundreds, if not thousands. I'm considered a hero for ridding the world of him. Throughout history there have been evil wizards and witches and only one of them has been stopped by other means than killing them."
Mr Smith contemplated what Harry had said before he continued. "Can Miranda kill?" he then asked. The girl gasped.
"No," Harry replied firmly. "First of all, her magic is too weak and too unfocused at this stage. Apart from that, killing with magic is difficult. You have to mean it without a trace of doubt. Miranda is a kind girl. I don't think she has it in her to actually mean harm. Only few witches and wizards have the ability."
"But you have," Mr Smith sounded fearful.
"Actually, I just threw the killing curse he had uttered at me back at Voldemort. I don't think I could cast a successful killing curse myself. Magic is good, Mr Smith, and useful. Voldemort and what happened due to him was terrible but that was just one man having gone evil. Magical people have lives similar to everybody else's. They have families and friends, jobs and homes. The only difference is that they use magic for certain tasks."
"What is important for me as Miranda's guardian," said the muggle, "is that she gets an education which enables her to make a good living. Can magic help her in that?"
"Of course!" cried Harry. "Oh, good evening, Mrs Smith!" He smiled at the woman who had just joined them. "There are lots of magical professions she can learn. It's too early to actually decide though. She needs to see which branches of magic come easier to her than others."
"What branches of magic are there?" asked Mrs Smith.
Harry was glad to be back on safe ground after all the talk about Voldemort. He explained about the different subjects which were taught at Hogwarts. Mr and Mrs Smith listened intently.
"I'm not sure I understand the difference between Charms and Transfiguration," sighed Mrs Smith after a while.
"With your permission, I can demonstrate," offered Harry.
The woman nodded and Harry drew his wand. He first charmed a chair to walk around the room. Then, after a few words of explanation, he turned the chair into a statue of a fairy and then back into a chair.
"Can Miranda do that?" Mr Smith asked.
"Not yet," smiled Harry. "But in a few years she will. Please remember that she's not allowed to do magic at home before her seventeenth birthday. If she did she was in severe danger of losing her place at Hogwarts. Speaking of Hogwarts, you need to pack your things, young lady." He took his leave a little later, after promising to return during the summer and watch over Miranda at Hogwarts.
Snape called a meeting of all eighth years a week after they returned to Hogwarts.
"I have news which you won't like," he said without preamble when Hermione, who had hurried into the common room just on time with her arms full of books, had sat down. "Due to the loss of staff during the war, they don't have enough examiners. Therefore the exams will start three weeks earlier than we thought. NEWTs for the eighth years will be first, then NEWTs for the seventh years, then OWLs, then the rest."
"What?" shrieked Hermione. "And you're telling us that now? I devised a studying plan around Christmas! You can't just take three weeks from us! If they can't hold all exams at once, why can't we sit ours later, during July?"
Snape managed to look sorry for her. "Hogwarts still needs a lot of repairs, you all know that. We need all the time we can get during the summer for that or we'll have another emergency school year."
"You'll have an increased number of students anyway," Harry pointed out. "It will be just us you get rid of."
"We'll manage," Snape reassured him. "Especially if the castle is back in full working condition. As for your exams, several staff members offered extra studying sessions for you if you're willing to work late."
"I'm not sure I can handle an increased workload," sighed Pansy Parkinson. "Not with the first years I teach." Several of the other students agreed.
"Can we get a time turner for those extra lessons?" asked Hermione.
"What is a time turner?" asked Neville.
Snape explained. "Unfortunately there aren't any left at the ministry. I had that idea myself and asked. According to Mr Shacklebolt, somebody had the presence of mind to destroy the last few," he looked at Harry pointedly, "that were left before the deatheaters got them."
Several students shuddered visibly at the idea of Lord Voldemort's followers being able to manipulate time.
"We'll take the late night lessons and try to make the best of them," said Harry. He wasn't happy with the idea. More lessons meant even less time with Ginny. The only good thing was that the girl needed to study for her NEWTs, too, or she would be very annoyed at him for not having time for her.
"I wish we hadn't dropped Quidditch," Ron moaned beside Harry.
"How would that help?" asked Draco, bewildered.
Ron shrugged. "If we hadn't, we could drop it now to get more time for studying." The silly remark eased the tension and everybody laughed. Even Snape looked a little merrier.
The headmaster dismissed the eighth years after giving them the schedule the staff suggested – Harry noted that the man himself was giving up a half dozen evenings to tutor them in Potions. "A word, Harry," he said when everybody scrambled to their feet to leave.
"Yes?" Harry had homework to correct and an essay about secrecy charms to write.
"How did it go with Ms Smith's family?"
"Not so bad, actually." Harry told the man. "First I thought the family disliked her just like mine had me but it turned out they were just worried because they didn't understand about magic and what it meant for them. I answered a lot of questions and promised to come back. This programme was a good idea. I wish there had been something similar when I was younger."
Snape shook his head. "Do you really think anything could have changed Petunia's attitude? Speaking of her, have you seen her since the end of the war?"
Harry glared at the older man angrily. "Why would I?" he spat. "She made me think my father was a drunken good-for-nothing who had killed his wife and nearly his son. She made me think my mother didn't care enough for me to keep me out of a car with a drunk driver! She kept me in the dark about my heritage and she knew about the magical world all along!"
"She was jealous," Snape reminded him softly.
"That's no excuse for letting uncle Vernon belittle me and call me a freak! By the time Hagrid came to bring me my letter, I was convinced I was a worthless burden for anybody who had the misfortune of having to deal with me!"
Snape snorted. "If you were you hid it well."
"What do you know?" Harry was shouting now. "All you saw was a child looking like James Potter and you took your petty grudge out on me from the first moment you set eye on me!"
For a moment anger flashed in Snape's eyes but it was gone as quickly as it had come. "You're right," he said softly, "though not entirely. I saw James Potter's son, but also my friend Lily's. During your first lesson you made it clear that you were nothing like Lily. You had come unprepared. James would have, but not Lily; never Lily. I was angry that you had nothing of her in you."
Harry felt like throwing things at the man. With a jolt of grief he remembered the one time he had devastated this very office in the past, with a different headmaster in residence. Using all his willpower, he reined his anger in.
"I had read the first three chapters," he said softly. "Twice. And when you made that little speech, you know…" He tried to imitate the potions master's deep voice. "I can show you how to bewitch the mind, ensnare the senses…" Harry paused sadly. "I was fascinated with your subject. The things you promised to teach us! But then you started your crusade against me." He imitated Snape's voice again. "Mr Potter, our new celebrity… By the time you asked me your questions, I was so scared, I couldn't have told you my name."
"You were cheeky! Don't lie about being scared!"
Harry shrugged. "I'm a Gryffindor. When have you known us to cower?"
Snape snorted. "I forgot."
"Is there anything else?" asked Harry. "I need to study."
"No," Snape shook his head. "You need to concentrate on your exams. I'll try to let you work in peace."
"Thank you," Harry smiled weakly. "And thank you for organising the extra tutoring."
"You and your peers shouldn't have a bad start of career just because your seventh year happened to be the one the Dark Lord struck."
Hermione and the rest of their study group were working on the transfiguration project McGonagall had assigned them when Harry returned to the eighth years' tower. Harry joined them with a curt nod instead of a greeting. Draco pointed him at the paragraph in the textbook they had been discussing.
It was well after midnight before anybody went to bed.
Harry – and all eighth years but Hermione – hadn't worked as hard as during the weeks after Easter ever before. Some nights he barely managed four hours of sleep. The teachers tried to help but whatever little time they were able to buy them was used for correcting homework of the students they were teaching. By the middle of May the eighth years were asleep on their feet.
"This cannot go on," the headmaster said to the assembled youths in their common room. "Close that book when I'm talking to you, Ms Granger."
"Sorry, professor," muttered the girl. Several other students closed books, looking guilty.
"In the state you are in, all of you," Snape said sternly, "you are most likely to fail every single exam." He raised his arms to stop the protests coming from the students. "Therefore I hired some people who will take over your lessons for the next two weeks on one condition."
"You have people you can hire?" cried Pansy.
"I have," sighed Snape. "To be exact, I asked your parents and other relatives to help. As you all know, they cannot take over lessons on a permanent basis but they agreed to take over for a fortnight on the condition that you sleep eight hours per night."
Some students sighed happily, others – Hermione and Draco – looked ready to protest.
"A spell will be used to make sure that you keep your end of the bargain," Snape continued. "The auxiliary teachers will arrive later today. You are expected to inform them about what you planned to cover in your lessons. Defence lessons will be taken over by Lucius Malfoy, Potions by George Weasley, Charms by Molly Weasley ..." Snape continued the list but Harry was not listening. Lucius Malfoy was going to teach his students and he had to speak with the man in order to inform him about the syllabus.
The prospect of spending time with the blond wizard made Harry feel uncomfortable. True, he had learned to get on quite well with Draco but Lucius was an entirely different story.
The blond wizard arrived after the last lesson of the day.
"Mr Potter," he greeted Harry solemnly.
"Mr Malfoy," Harry smiled weakly. They had met in the defence classroom. Harry had turned one of the students' tables into a big desk. Books and stacks of homework were waiting for the older wizard.
"So, what do we have here?" asked the man.
"Let's start with the first years," Harry suggested. "We started on dark objects. Here, I marked in the book what we have done so far. These," he unrolled a scroll of parchment, "are the lists of students. There are two. The regular first years and those who should be in their second year but aren't."
"Halfbloods and muggle born," nodded the blond wizard.
Harry agreed with a curt nod. "I… Are…," he stuttered, "are you comfortable with teaching muggleborn students? These children have difficulties enough finding their place in the wizarding world as it is."
"I'm perfectly comfortable teaching muggleborns," Lucius informed him. "You will remember that in the end I saw the wrongness of the Dark Lord's ways."
"I didn't mean any offence," Harry hurried to say. He felt himself blush. "It's just… I guess if you were used to certain ways for so long it must be difficult to change."
"It can be done," muttered Lucius. "Let's get this done. Severus said you needed all the time you could get."
"That's true. As for the second years…"
It took a total of three hours. Lucius Malfoy volunteered to correct the third year essays on werewolves to "get an impression of what they knew". A lot earlier than usual, Harry returned to his room to study.
Although their relatives helped, by the time the exams started, Harry and the rest of the eighth years were beyond exhausted. Ron was practically asleep on his feet when they went down to the Great Hall to sit their first exam, Transfiguration.
"I need to do well," the redhead yawned. "My future depends on these tests!"
Harry felt sorry for his friend. True, he wanted to succeed himself; but at least he had a fortune – two actually – to rely on in case he failed. Ron didn't have that luxury. His NEWTs determined which job he was going to get and how much money he was going to be able to earn. Given the condition the boy was in, Harry thought it would be a great success if he didn't fall asleep on the examiner.
"Two more minutes," muttered Hermione. "Can't they let us in early?"
"It's better they don't," Draco replied, "or some of us might be snoring by the time we get our questions."
"Then we should make sure you're awake," said Snape from behind them. The potions master was holding a tray of small steaming goblets. "Help yourselves."
"Is that legal?" Hermione asked doubtfully.
Snape smirked at the girl. "As long as I don't give you anything wit-enhancening I'm well within my rights as headmaster to dose you with whichever potion I see fit."
"What is it?" asked Draco.
"A mild form of pepper-up. It will last long enough to help you through the written exam. Unfortunately it's not allowed for the practical in the afternoon. I suggest you ask the house elves for strong coffee after lunch." The headmaster looked at Ron pointedly.
Harry was the first to reach for one of the goblets. "Thank you," he smiled.
The test was the most difficult Harry had ever sat. There were not only more questions than he was used to, they were also more detailed. Hadn't he spent a year in that tent with Ron and Hermione, he wouldn't have remembered more than half of the spells they asked for. As it was, he had practiced the magic he had to describe in dire situations. It was, Harry found, easy to remember a spell when it had saved your life at some point.
Three hours later, the examiner, an ancient wizard in canary yellow robes, collected their papers with a wave of his wand.
"Could somebody please turn the tables back?" he asked as he started putting their exams into his bag. "We need to hurry. Since I'm the only examiner here, our schedule for your practicals is tight."
Harry, Ron and Hermione acted without thinking. They had done so much magic together during their year on the run, it came to them naturally. Harry worked on the tables and Ron turned the chairs they had used for the exam back into the benches which were normally used with the house tables. Hermione restored the candelabras which usually stood on the house tables.
"Excellent!" applauded the examiner when they were done. "Mr Snape, would you kindly turn this candle into a bird?" He pointed at one of the candles on the nearest candelabra. Harry did as he was told and turned it into a small sparrow. The bird chirped and took flight immediately.
The examiner nodded. "Good. Can you make a slightly more spectacular bird?"
Harry laughed. He and Ron had played that game from time to time when they were bored. He aimed and the sparrow was turned into a raven in midflight. "Your turn, Ron," Harry laughed.
Ron didn't need to be asked twice. He pointed his wand at the raven and turned it into a mocking bird. Next, Harry made a blue tit, then Ron made a parrot, Harry a swallow and at last Ron turned the swallow into a vulture. Hermione rolled her eyes. "Really, boys," she sighed and pointed her wand at the bird. It burst into a shower of confetti. Harry and Ron laughed at her and turned the confetti into a flock of canaries. The girl frowned and a spell later the canaries had become ducks.
It was wonderful to relax in a game after the hard work they all had put into their studies lately. The trio forgot about the other students and continued their game with increasing speed. Every now and then one of them made a bird explode to increase the number of creatures and make it more difficult for the other two to transfigure them all at the same time.
"Help me, Hermione," Ron cried after a while. "He's doing it again!" Hermione complied and they continued the game two on one. Nevertheless Harry won because he was the only one of the three who had mastered the art of turning part of the flock into small, fast birds and the rest into ground-bound birds, kiwis on that particular day.
The examiner clapped his hands enthusiastically, bringing the trio back to the present. "That was wonderful! The focus! The skill! The speed! Excellent! Excellent! You're all three excused from the practical part of the exam. Now remove the bird droppings and we can call the rest of the school in for lunch.
During the meal, the examiner sat with the headmaster and Professor McGonagall. Harry could tell that he was telling them about the bird game. Snape looked over at Harry. The pride he saw in the man's eyes warmed Harry's heart.
The exam Harry feared most was Potions; not because he thought he was not able to pass but because he found that he wanted to pass well. He was, after all, a potions master's adopted son! What would people say if he got anything but top marks?
He spent the evening before the exam studying. There were some which he knew by heart, mainly medical potions, because he had needed them during his quest for the horcruxes but most he still found difficult to remember. Why would he want to manipulate anybody's mind or emotions?
Ron looked just as desperate as Harry felt. In fact, most of the eighth years looked anything but relaxed. The only ones who looked remotely relaxed were Draco and Hermione.
The girl was sitting beside Ron, her advanced potions text in her lap, reading. "What are you studying for?" groaned Ron. "You certainly know all the books by heart!"
"Well," Hermione blushed, "since all of you are busy, what am I to do? Some light reading can't be wrong, can it?"
"Light reading?" echoed the redhead in disbelief. "Light reading?"
Draco put down his book on the other side of the room. "Why don't we take a walk?" he asked. "Let Weasley and the others study in peace."
Hermione looked undecided.
"You are not taking my girlfriend on a walk!" cried Ron.
"Shut up, Weasley! There are people trying to study in here!" cried Justin Finch-Fletchley. The Hufflepuff looked very pale.
"You would all have more peace and quiet if we went," Draco pointed out.
Harry decided to interfere before the situation could get completely out of hand. "Draco," he said softly, "could you help me with this potion? I have difficulties understanding what the wormwood does in it."
"Wormwood?" asked Draco, rising to the bait. "That's easy. There are not many different uses for wormwood. Basically…"
Parvati interrupted him before he could continue. "Wait, I want to hear that, too." She moved closer to the blond with her book. Others followed her example and within two minutes Draco found himself in charge of a remedial potions workshop. Even Ron was part of the group.
The next day, Harry made a mental note to buy the blond a thank you gift. There were several questions he was only able to answer because Draco had explained things the previous evening.
The theoretical exam went well enough. The practical was a different thing. First Harry was relieved when he saw the task they were set. The examiner asked them for a burn ointment which was an easy enough task. The trio had made several batches during the last year. In fact, this was one of the few potions recipes he knew by heart.
What he didn't take into account though was that he hadn't brewed in a full class room all year.
It took Neville barely ten minutes to blow up his first cauldron. Unknown ingredients splattered Harry's worktable. He gritted his teeth, cleaned away what he had done so far, cleaned his table, tools and cauldron and set up a strong shield charm before he started anew.
He nearly cut off his finger when Goyle started to curse behind him. Something was wrong with the other boy's daisy roots. At least this time Harry didn't need to empty his cauldron but his finely diced bark of beech was unusable due to the blood he had spilled on it. While he cleaned the blood away, Harry searched his memory frantically. Had he overlooked the daisy roots in the recipe or was Goyle wrong? He didn't remember the recipe!
A cough on his right – Hermione – brought Harry back to the task at hand just in time to prevent his potion from boiling over. He added a dash of dragon saliva and hurried to cut new bark.
By the end of the lesson, Harry's hair was singed, he had cut two fingers, his left eye was burning because he had got sweat into it, one of his lenses was broken, his table looked like a battle field (there even were blood stains) and his potion had the wrong colour. It was bright blue instead of a soft lilac.
The young wizard felt defeated when he handed the examiner a vial of his brew for testing. The wizard turned to the witch on his right, a healer from St Mungo's had come to help him test the eighth years' work.
The woman, a curly redhead, raised a brow and opened the vial. She smelled the potion, dipped her finger in and spread a little of the salve on her wrist. Harry crossed his fingers. He might still pass if the woman didn't sprout fur or boils where she had put his potion.
"You added thyme, Mr Snape?" the woman asked, surprised.
Harry nodded meekly. He just hoped that wasn't too bad a mistake. Thyme was not in the recipe but the explosion of Neville's second cauldron had made it hard to think at the time he had added the herb.
The woman beamed. "He made the revised version. It was only in the last issue of Potions Monthly. Excellent work, Mr Snape; as can be expected of a potions master's son."
Harry blushed. He had done well! Now all he had to do was try and hide that it had been by accident.
Since the NEWTs were over, Harry and the other eighth years took their classes back over. Harry spent an afternoon with Lucius Malfoy going over his students' achievements of the past weeks.
The blond wizard turned out to be surprisingly pleasant company. He had made tables for each class which contained information about each student's work. He could tell who had said what when and whether he or she had been able to answer questions correctly.
"I was surprised you were able to tell anything about your students with the mess your records were in," he said as he stirred the tea Harry had just poured for him.
"I had trouble to," Harry admitted.
The blond man smiled. "I thought so." He took a sip of tea. "I took the liberty of organizing your records a bit."
Harry leaved through the tables. "This is amazing! Why didn't anybody tell me how to do it?"
"Perhaps they thought it was the obvious way to proceed. People tend to forget to mention what they consider obvious." Lucius Malfoy smiled apologetically.
Harry hummed noncommittally. "Is this correct?" he cried. "Andy Barnes hasn't managed a single essay better than a T? I knew he was bad but had no idea how bad he was!"
"Ah, yes, Mr Barnes," purred Lucius. "I organised tutoring lessons for him. He needs them desperately."
"Who will tutor him?" Every single teacher and eighth year was already teaching more lessons than was wise.
"I will," said the blond wizard.
"You?" Harry was taken aback. "Forgive me, but Andy Barnes is muggleborn. I thought…"
"That I wouldn't teach a muggleborn student?" Lucius Malfoy stared into his tea cup. "To be honest, I wouldn't have a year ago but I have met some people since the end of the war who taught me how wrong I was. I never cared to get to know any muggleborn person. Your Ms Granger, for example, she's a muggleborn and she helped you save my son. She's as powerful a witch as any other I know. Or that young wizard who works for my lawyer; I never knew about his parentage. I'd never have guessed he was muggleborn!"
"I'm glad you saw that blood status has nothing to do with the worth of a witch or wizard," Harry smiled.
"It's more a question of education," agreed the blond man. "And we can make sure that every young witch and wizard gets a proper education. Purebloods and halfbloods have a head start since they grow into the wizarding world from an earlier age, but muggleborns can catch up if we help them. I intend to found an organisation to take care of the problem. I was hoping you were going to help me get the publicity we need."
"You want to extend Snape's guardian programme?"
"Basically," agreed Lucius. "I want to start sooner though. If we could get the names of the muggleborns before they got their Hogwarts letter we could work with the families for a year or two."
"Then we should ask Snape to help," Harry pointed out.
"I don't see why not," Lucius nodded. "The more help the better."
"Then we should continue the discussion with him present."
They agreed to ask the headmaster for a meeting after the exams. When Lucius took his leave, it was already time for dinner. Harry sighed. The summer was only a couple of weeks away and Merlin knew he needed a holiday.
Two weeks later Harry found himself in an unusual situation: he had a free afternoon. It was something he hadn't had in some time and therefore he had no plans at all how to spend it. It would be nice, he thought, to go down to the lake with Ron and Hermione but they were nowhere to be found and when he asked Draco whether he had seen them, the blond winked at him and said that, yes, he had but Harry'd better not tell them. Harry blushed and left the tower at a hurry.
Ginny was still busy with her work. She had two more exams to sit, among them Potions which was not her very best subject and when Harry asked whether she wanted to go with him for a walk she looked at her boyfriend as if he had gone mad. Hastily, Harry added that he was just making sure she saved some time for him next week and took flight.
On his way down the stairs, Harry thought how ridiculous it was. It was his first free afternoon in months, and here he was, bored. At last he thought of the one person who might be glad to see him.
The stone gargoyle jumped aside without waiting for a password when Harry approached the headmaster's office. Snape was sitting behind his desk, sorting through stacks of parchment.
"Hullo," Harry greeted him awkwardly.
"Harry," the older wizard smiled. "How are you doing? The worst of work is finally over. It must be good to have your freedom back, eh?"
Harry sighed. "It's not much use with everybody else being so busy."
"So you are bored and thought of seeing the old git for lack of better company?"
The boy blushed. "Actually I was going to ask whether you need help with anything. I want to enjoy the holidays and all work I can get done before they start I'd like to get out of the way."
If Snape saw through the lie, he didn't say anything. "Well, there are several things I could use your help with. Lucius mentioned a project to contact muggleborns' families before the children get their Hogwarts letters, the mentoring project needs some work, too. The ministry wants a report about what we did and how it went. If the report shows the project is having good effect on the children, they might help us next year. And there is, of course, still some grading to do." He paused and Harry could tell there was more. "And we haven't made a public appearance as father and son in some time," Snape muttered at last.
"Then why don't we go to Hogsmeade," Harry offered. "We could do some shopping and have dinner at the Three Broomsticks."
"Why not," agreed the potions master, "I could do with a break." He glared at the stacks of parchment he had been working with.
On the way down to the village, Snape interviewed Harry about his Potions exam. The teenage hero expected to be chastised for having succeeded through luck again, but Snape only laughed good-naturedly. "You have to know when to keep a spoiled potion and when not," the potions master explained. "The most spectacular discoveries were made like that. Your mother had great instincts when it came to deciding what to keep and what not."
"Does panic count as a reason to keep a brew?" giggled Harry. "I was so scared what the public would say if I failed!" He blushed. Actually he had worried more what Snape would say but he wasn't ready to admit that.
"Ah, yes, the One Who Saved Us All is useless at potions. Take away his Order of Merlin!" Snape snorted. "As if they would have cared!"
"I don't want to be remembered for only that," Harry muttered.
"I know," Snape sighed. "You are young, Harry. You have time to prove yourself in many ways. Trust me, your Potions grade will not be what anyone remembers, no matter how good or bad it is."
"Really?" Harry doubted that the public would ever forget his NEWT grades. Normally, he couldn't even buy a bag of chocolates without making the newspapers.
"Really. Why don't we go and get you some festive robes?" Snape asked. "You will need them for the graduation ceremony."
"Graduation ceremony? I never knew there was one!"
"There's one every year," Snape pointed out.
"How come I never knew?"
"Only family and friends are invited," Snape pointed out. "You have no magical relatives left and your aunt wouldn't have let you stay for the ceremony. Did you never realise that the seventh years didn't take the train back to London in June?"
"I thought that was because they were allowed to apparate or fly," Harry admitted.
"No, they stay behind for the ceremony the next day," Snape explained. They had arrived at Gladrags. "Now, what shall you wear…" He led Harry to the department for formal clothing.
Harry looked at his reflection in the mirror, pleased. How'd have guessed that Severus Snape, who hadn't been seen in anything other than black robes in years, actually had fashion sense? The older wizard had chosen grey trousers and robes with green trimmings and a white shirt for Harry without much ado. The boy had been reluctant to wear green again but then he remembered how everybody had said that he looked stunning in green because of his eyes at the yule ball. When Snape assured him that it was considered inappropriate to wear house colours for the graduation ceremony he agreed to try the clothes on, and he looked marvellous in them.
He was startled out of his reverie by a whistle from the mirror. "You look good enough to eat," the magical device informed him. "I wish I had a mouth!"
Harry felt himself blush and the blush deepened when he heard Snape chuckle behind him.
They had Harry's new outfit owled to Hogwarts before they went to the apothecary's. There, Snape started a lengthy discussion about discounts and the quality of the dragon saliva they were selling.
"You know very well that the amount of dragon saliva has to be at least doubled if the beast has eaten a bird before the saliva was harvested. I can practically hear this bottle cackle!" he snarled at the shop assistant.
"Professor Snape, certainly adjusting the amount is not a problem for an expert like you!" cried the hapless young man.
"I'm not going to pay for three batches of potion when I can make only one!" cried the older wizard. "But why do I expect you to understand that. I'll never understand how Master Browning hired a thunderhead like you, Stubbins! Fetch your master, I want to discuss this with somebody who has the brain to follow the argument."
The assistant blushed and ran off.
"That wasn't a nice thing to say," Harry pointed out.
"It's true!" snarled Snape, though with less vehemence. "I taught him for seven years. Stubbins was my worst student ever before you and Longbottom entered my classroom."
"Hey! I passed my NEWT!" cried Harry.
Snape's expression softened. "Yes, you did," he admitted. "And you did better than I dared hope for."
"You were hoping I was going to pass my NEWT?" The thought that somebody had worried about how he was doing in his exam was nice, even if that somebody was Snape.
The older man shrugged. "I have a reputation to lose."
Harry didn't rise to the bait. "I'll go to Honeydukes," he said instead. "This will take you quite a while I guess."
Snape nodded. "Why don't we meet at the Three Broomsticks in an hour? Or make that one and a half hour; I need cat fangs and bat ears, too."
Harry agreed and set out for the sweet shop.
Snape was already there when Harry entered Madam Rosmerta's realm. The boy waved to show that he had spotted Snape at one of the tables. To his surprise, the older wizard waved back.
"Did you get what you wanted?" Snape asked as Harry sat down and signalled Madam Rosmerta.
Harry held up a bag of chocolates. "Here, would you like some? I've got plenty."
"Is there any dark chocolate?" asked Snape.
Harry rummaged in the chocolate bag and with a small cry of triumph held up a bar. "I knew I had got some." He handed it to the potions master.
Snape's words of thanks were interrupted by Rosmerta who levitated a tray to their table.
"Good afternoon, Mr Potter," she greeted Harry and the boy muttered "Snape" without thinking. "Ah, of course, Mr Snape." The witch smiled. "It's difficult to remember sometimes. There was no insult intended." She put bowls of soup in front of the two wizards and a mug of butterbeer beside Harry's. "Your father was not sure you wanted dessert," she looked at the boy questioningly. "I have vanilla ice cream and treacle tart."
"I'd like treacle tart, please," Harry smiled.
The meal was pleasant, with amiable chat. Snape was proud he had got a vial of mermaid tears for free as compensation for the bad quality of the dragon saliva. Harry congratulated him and laughed at all the appropriate points of Snape's account of the discussion leading to that.
Neither of the two wizards noticed the witch with the quick quote quill who was sipping a gillywater at the counter.
Two weeks later, Harry was trying to groom his hair for the graduation ceremony when Malfoy walked into the boys' bathroom.
"That's a fight you can't win," the blond pointed out good-naturedly.
Harry made a face. "Possibly," he admitted, "since I don't want to use tons of hair gel like certain others."
"Hair gel?" Draco asked. He pointed his wand at his hair and muttered a spell. The tousled blond tuft of hair arranged itself into his usual slick style.
"Hang on!" cried Harry. "You're doing this with a spell?"
"Of course! What else would I do? Attack myself with a comb?" Malfoy snorted. "Wanna a hand?" he then offered.
Harry bit his lip. "Okay," he said after a moment of consideration. "But I'll hex you into oblivion if you make matters worse."
Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Stand still!" he ordered and cast a spell.
Harry's mop of hair lay flat immediately. The Gryffindor turned this way and that to see better but Malfoy was not content with his handiwork.
"That's not you," he stated and cast another spell. Harry's hair curled. "No, even worse." Another spell was followed by another and another. Finally the blond gave up and ruffled up the other boy's hair. "There, that's you."
Harry looked into the mirror. His hair looked as messy as ever only a little shinier. "Can you teach me that spell?" he asked.
The blond shrugged. "The incantation is Capilli," he said, "but you need to practice since the wand movement determines the result." He picked up his toothbrush and demonstrated a swish. "Curls," he said. A flick. "A ponytail." A double flick. "Longer hair. – And be careful not to perform a triple swish. It will give you green hair."
"Capilli," Harry repeated the incantation. "I'll practice later. We need to go or we'll miss the ceremony."
"Father would kill me!" cried the blond. Together, the boys rushed out of the bathroom just in time to catch up with the other eighth years on their way to the Great Hall.
Once again, Harry, Ron, Hermione and the others stood in the small chamber where they had awaited their sorting eight years ago. The room was more crowded than it should be for there were two years of students assembled; the eighth years who had lost a year in their education due to Lord Voldemort and the seventh years who had finished theirs as they were supposed to.
Luckily the ghosts of Hogwarts didn't come this time to walk through the waiting witches and wizards. If anybody had tried to move away from them, chaos would have ensued for lack of room.
Outside, there were the buzzing sounds of guests arriving for the ceremony. "I wish they'd hurry up," sighed Ron. "Or they'd at least thought to enlarge this room!" added Malfoy.
When, finally, the sounds of people died down, there was a soft plopping sound and a house elf clad in a festive damask napkin appeared among the students. It was Kreacher, Harry realised.
"Kreacher is honoured to lead the first generation of witches and wizards who finished their education in freedom to the Great Hall." The elf bowed deeply.
"They allow a house elf to lead us to the ceremony?" growled Pansy Parkinson.
She was told to shut up by several people, Slytherins among them. "Don't forget," Harry added, "that without the house elves we wouldn't have won the battle of Hogwarts. They are our allies."
The girl bit her lip but remained quiet. "At least he didn't say friends," she muttered when she left the chamber last in the queue of graduates.
The Great Hall had been decorated with garlands of flowers. Banners of all four houses were on display on the front wall and the sides of the room were decorated with smaller banners which Harry didn't know.
"What are those?" he asked Ron in a low voice.
"Family banners," Ron explained. "Every pureblood family has one. Do you see the green and silver one with the white rose and the snake? That's the Malfoy banner. On the other side, the red and blue with the ermine and fish, that's ours."
Harry craned his neck. "Is there a Potter banner?"
"Most likely," Ron whispered back as they walked down the aisle to the head table. "But not here. Over there, black with a lily and a pestle, that must be Snape's banner. That one's for you."
"Snape is not a pureblood," Harry pointed out.
Ron snorted. "If what he did in the war didn't earn him the right to have a banner, then I don't know what would have."
Harry nodded, a little sad because his father's banner wasn't in its rightful place. He made a mental note to find out what it looked like and how to get to use it in the future instead of Snape's.
At the front of the hall was a lectern where Snape waited for them. On one side of it sat the teachers, facing the families and friends, and on the other were chairs for the graduates. Snape motioned them to sit down and they obeyed, more nervous than they thought they would be. The exams were over! All they had to do was take their diplomas and shake a few hands!
Harry tried to dry his sweaty hands on the inside of his sleeves. Malfoy, who was sitting beside him made a disapproving noise and shook his head slightly when Harry looked at him. Luckily everybody in the room was looking at Snape who was about to start his speech.
"I'm proud." Snape started his speech with a short statement and paused. "Very proud," he continued after a few seconds.
"This year was the most difficult Hogwarts ever faced and this is not a figure of speech, ladies and gentlemen. Those of you who read 'Hogwarts, a History' are aware that only in 1523 did the castle house more students but back then thrice the number of teachers were available. To be honest, I was not sure we would be able to make it but in a common effort we managed."
Snape paused again.
"Everybody, teachers and students alike, ministry employees and parents, worked together and as a result we made a great step towards rebuilding our society. Today I'm proud to present their diplomas to two years of students. A year ago we lost many in the horrible battle which took place here at Hogwarts."
Sadness showed on the headmaster's face for a moment.
"It would be wrong to think that they can ever be replaced. They can not; but these young witches and wizards who leave Hogwarts today, fully trained, will help to heal the wounds the battle left in our world."
Somebody in the audience blew their nose.
"This year has been an extremely busy one, but also a happy one for me personally. After years of hiding and spying I was finally able to acknowledge the friendship which linked me to Lily Potter and do what she would have expected of me. I was finally able to take care of her son, Harry, who is now also my son by adoption."
Snape turned to smile at Harry. The younger wizard smiled back awkwardly.
"Once again Harry has done me proud. Without him and his peers, Draco Malfoy, Ronald Weasley," Snape continued to name all the eighth years who had taken over lessons, "and last but not least Gregory Goyle, what has been achieved could not have been done." Snape turned to face the eighth years fully and applauded. The assembled families joined the applause proudly.
"Now," Snape said when the applause had died down, "it wouldn't be fair to make our graduates wait any further." He waved his wand a stack of rolls of parchment appeared in front of him. "When I call your name, you will come to me to receive your diploma. Once you got it, we are curious to see your first spell as a fully trained witch or wizard."
"Did you know?" Harry whispered to Malfoy under his breath.
"That we had to do magic in front of all those people!"
Malfoy chuckled. "Of course! Everybody knows!"
Harry turned to Hermione. "Did you know?"
The girl looked at Harry as if he had grown whiskers. "Of course! It is mentioned multiple times in 'Hogwarts, a History'."
Harry sighed. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Most people do a transfiguration or a charm," Hermione pointed out. She pointed to the lectern where Hannah Abbott had just received her diploma and conjured a multitude of colourful butterflies which fluttered around her for a moment and then rose to the ceiling where they dissolved in sparkles. The audience clapped politely. Hannah bowed and returned to her seat.
Harry thought frantically what he was going to do as a first spell. If only he had known beforehand! He observed nervously what the others were doing.
Hermione conjured a harp which played a sweet melody before it dissolved into thin air. The audience sighed happily. It took a very powerful spell to make a musical instrument which played from the start.
Neville presented a small bean to the assembled witches and wizards and with a clever spell turned it into a magnificent bunch of colourful flowers. Everybody clapped politely, only his grandmother sobbed happily when the boy left the stage to bring her the flowers and kiss her cheek.
Draco Malfoy turned his school uniform into elegant business robes.
And then it was Harry's turn. He stepped to the lectern to receive his diploma. "You could have told me," he muttered to Snape under his breath.
The older wizard smirked. "You are the Man Who Saved Us All. You could perform Wingardium Leviosa and they would cheer for you," he muttered back at Harry.
Harry grinned back at the other wizard. With a little swish and flick of his wand he levitated Snape about a meter high and left him hover beside the lectern. The headmaster folded his long legs and clasped his arms to his breast; he scowled at the younger wizard. Harry smiled and added a small red fez to the whole picture.
The audience was stunned but applauded enthusiastically when Snape's scowl changed into a broad grin.
Once everybody had their diplomas, the students left the stage to join their families and receive their congratulations and well-wishes. Harry, who had no family, stayed on the stage awkwardly. Normally he would have joined the Weasleys but seeing that they had two graduates among their own children nobody seemed to miss him.
Harry turned around when somebody touched his shoulder gently.
It was Snape. "Congratulations," the headmaster said awkwardly. "I'm very proud of you."
"Thank you," Harry beamed at the man. It was good to have somebody to be proud of and for him.
Snape cleared his throat and then produced a small wooden box from the pocket of his robes. Looking a bit nervous, he handed it to Harry.
"What is this?" asked the younger wizard.
"Your graduation gift. It's traditional."
"You bought me a graduation gift?" Harry was dumbfounded.
Snape shrugged. "Somebody had to," he pointed out.
Harry shook his head. "You didn't have to, but I'm glad you did. Thank you. May I open it?"
The headmaster nodded his consent and Harry opened the box. In it was a small gold signet ring. "It's tradition to wear it on your smallest finger."
Harry put the ring on and looked at the signet closely. He was puzzled. "Shouldn't the signet look like the family banner?" he asked.
"Yes, but although you made quite some progress in potions I thought a pestle was not appropriate for you. And if the Man Who Killed the Evil Git doesn't deserve his own signet then I don't know."
Harry smiled. The new signet was beautiful. It held the lily from Snape's banner but where Snape had the pestle, Harry's signet held a lightning bolt.
"Do I use the same symbols on my banner?" he asked.
Snape nodded. "I thought you'd use Gryffindor red for the background."
Harry beamed at the man. "That's a good idea! Thank you very much!" He bent forward awkwardly and hugged the potions master. First Snape stiffened but after a moment he hugged back.
It took about a half hour before the hall was empty but for a few. The new witches and wizards had left with their families to start their new life with a celebration. Ron had informed Harry and Hermione that tradition required a party or at least a celebratory meal in a nice restaurant.
At last only the Weasley clan and Hermione were left.
"Harry, are you coming, dear?" cried Mrs Weasley. "There's a party at the Burrow."
Harry looked at Snape uncertainly. Being his adoptive father, the headmaster was supposed to organize Harry's celebration.
"Only if Severus can come," Harry replied dutifully.
The headmaster smirked at him. "Harry, Molly and I agreed weeks ago that it would be cruel to make you celebrate apart from your friends." He shooed the new wizard toward the Weasley group playfully.
"My parents are coming, too!" Hermione cried excitedly. "I hope they will like side-along apparition!"
"It's a pity, dear," said Mr Weasley as the group made their way out of the castle, "that the muggle repellent charms cannot be lifted for the parents of muggleborns during the graduation ceremony."
"Those muggle repellent charms were cast by the founders themselves," Snape pointed out. "They are so closely linked to the castle that nobody can be sure the castle wouldn't collapse if they were taken down. It is a pity that muggleborns can't invite their muggle family members, but neither can halfbloods."
"Yes," agreed Molly, "but those have magical relatives, too. It's sad to receive a diploma and have nobody there to be proud of you."
"I know that my parents are very proud of me even if they weren't present at the ceremony," said Hermione.
"This year there were many without family support," sighed Arthur.
"And there will be even more in years to come," Snape pointed out.
Molly nodded sadly. "It's heartbreaking how many were orphaned by that maniac!"
"That's why our orphan projects are so important," Harry pointed out. He looked at Snape shyly. "Not every child is lucky enough to be adopted into a family."
The potions master gaped at the young Gryffindor. "You consider yourself lucky?" he asked, dumbfounded.
"Yes," Harry took Ginny's hand in his as they walked side by side. "First I was angry that you made me give up the Potter name but I've come to realise that although I was supposed to pay a life debt I got a lot out of the arrangement." He stared down at his shoes. "Probably more than you," he whispered awkwardly. "I was rather difficult, I guess."
Snape laughed one of those rich deep laughs Harry liked so much. "I knew what I was getting myself into," he pointed out. "I had dealt with you before. Anyway, you are right. The orphan projects are important. I hope you are willing to help even after you have left Hogwarts."
"Of course," cried Harry and the Weasleys muttered approving comments. "If it wasn't for the projects, I'd come to visit my Dad." He blushed. A quick glance at the potions master revealed a matching blush on the older wizard's face.
The party was merry. The food was excellent. Hermione's parents were thrilled with apparition and their daughter happily took them side-along near the Burrow. The later it got, the merrier the company got. Somebody accused George of having spiked the bowl but he denied having anything to do with it. Why would he do that, he asked, if there was a full-fledged potions master present?