The Sugar Quill
Author: imc130d  Story: Controlling the Center  Chapter: Default
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Controlling the Center

Controlling the Center


By imc130d


A/N: This is J. K. Rowling's sandbox; I'm just playing in it.  I'd like to thank Helen H, who beta'd this story.  I should also point out that this is the third story in a series, and I recommend reading "A New Game" and "King and Bishop", in that order, prior to reading this one.




"Your father never made peace with Professor Snape, and your godfather never could.  But you must.  You still have much to learn from him, and too much is at stake for you to allow your focus to be divided any longer".


Hogwarts in July.  Four years previous, Harry Potter might have cheerfully traded the contents of his Gringotts vault for the ability to be in this place at this time, rather than in Little Whinging or almost anywhere else.  And now I am here, he thought as he walked the empty halls, listening to the faint echoes of his trainers mix with the mutterings of portraits, and I would almost rather be anywhere else.


He had protested somewhat when Headmaster Dumbledore had told him that if he wanted to gain special admission into the NEWT-level Potions class, he would have to petition Professor Snape himself.  And when he arrived at the Burrow, he had grumbled about it to Ron and Ginny, although only half-heartedly; he could see the reason in Dumbledore's remarks.  But instead of commiserating, Ron had surprised him.




"Dumbledore may have a point, Harry."  Ron looked down at the silvery scars on his arms for a moment.  "I usually beat you at chess."


"You usually beat everybody at chess, Ron," Harry had replied, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Ginny's mouth quirk up on one side.  But Ron didn't smile.


"I usually beat you at chess because I get control of the board.  And I get control of the board because I get control of the center.  I've never trusted Snape, even knowing that Dumbledore does, but in a way, he's in the center of the board between you and...Voldemort... and I don't know if you can afford him as an enemy."


Harry frowned.  "I didn't choose him as an enemy.  He chose me."


"Yeah.  But once he did, you...we...chose him back.  And we keep choosing him.  Maybe it's time to stop."


"You sound a bit like Hermione,"  Ginny said.  This, finally, had caused Ron to smile.


"Bloody hell, I do, don't I?"  He looked down at his arms again.  "Guess I'll have to teach her to swear properly, just to keep things balanced."




So Harry had decided to approach Snape at Hogwarts, rather than making Snape come to him; he reasoned that this might make the Potions master more likely to grant his request.  Unfortunately, this meant dragging an escort (Nymphadora Tonks) out to the Burrow, then on the Knight Bus to Hogsmeade, and from there through the secret passage from the Honeydukes cellar into the castle.  He had been so impressed by Tonks' deft handling of the Honeydukes employees that he almost asked her to mediate his meeting with Snape.  But he eventually decided that the conversation should be entirely private, and so he left her near the statue of the one-eyed witch.


Harry paused in front of the door to Snape's office.  The last time he had been in this room, it had gone badly.  Very badly, in fact; Snape had thrown him out, almost bodily.  He began to wonder if he really wanted to do this.


C'mon, Potter, you're a Gryffindor, he reminded himself, and knocked.




Harry pushed the door open, and walked into Snape's office.  From the effect this had on the professor, Harry might have been Voldemort himself, or worse yet, Sirius Black, returned from the grave.  Snape was on his feet, wand extended, faster than Harry could even see.


"What are you doing here, Potter?"


Harry was so astonished he completely missed the question.  "Wow!  That -- that's the fastest -- can you teach us that?"


For a moment, Snape's face went completely blank.  Then as he sat down, it returned to its familiar coldness, and Harry felt a small twinge of disappointment as it did.   "Considering the results of my attempt to teach you Occlumency, I think it unlikely.  Again.  What are you doing here, Potter?"


For a moment, Harry didn't answer, wondering why Dumbledore hadn't told Snape that he was coming.  But Snape was still glaring at him.  "Oh...right."  Harry had to struggle to remember how he'd planned to approach the issue.  First, the olive branch.  "I came to apologize, sir."


Again, that unexpected blankness.  "Apologize?  You?"


"Er...yes.  For intruding where I shouldn't have.  With the, er, Pensieve.  I shouldn't have done that, and I'm sorry."  He glanced towards the spot on the desk where the Pensieve had been that evening, and noted without surprise that it wasn't there.


"Are you now,"  Snape breathed, and then he was in Harry's mind, and as Harry thought, I didn't know you could do that without saying Legilimens, he saw the words flash across his mind.  Then he remembered what Dumbledore had taught him, and brought forth a particular memory:  his first day of Potions class, first year.  "Harry Potter.  Our new -- celebrity", he heard Snape say, and knew that Snape heard it too.  And then as suddenly as he had entered, Snape left Harry alone in his head.


"You know, Potter, if you want that technique to work, you're going to have to learn to pick relevant thoughts to project,"  Snape sneered, but he looked vaguely thoughtful.  "So.  I am supposed to believe that you came all the way to Hogwarts simply to apologize?  My first years lie better than that."


"No, sir.  Erm... I came to ask for an exemption."


"Of what sort?"


"I'm familiar with your admissions policy for NEWT-level Potions, and..."  Harry swallowed.  "I'd like to take the class anyway."


"I see."  Snape steepled his fingers together and looked over them at Harry.  "Request denied.  You may go."


It was only one word, but it slipped out before Harry could squelch it.  "But..."


"But what?"  Snape was on his feet again.


"I -- nothing.  Nothing, sir."


"If it WAS nothing, you would have SAID nothing.  But what, Potter?  What is so terribly important that you think I should tarnish my record as Potions Master for you, of all people?"


Well, this is going excellently, isn't it Potter?  "I don't know."


"You don't know.  Is this where you tell me to ask Miss Granger, because she so clearly knows?"


"No, this is where I ask you to tell me, because if anyone knows, it's almost certainly you," Harry snapped.  "I've never liked you or your teaching methods, Professor, and I know you don't like me much as a student, or anything else.  But I don't know what I'll need to... fight... Voldemort."  Realizing how close he had come to telling Snape something he shouldn't, Harry tried to make what he had said sound plausible.  "I -- I can't afford to pretend that he won't continue to come after me, and I can't afford to simply drop Potions.  Not now.  And I'm not sure I can learn what I need to know without your help.  If I've got to sit through two more years of you to learn it, then so be it, but I can't let it go."


Although Harry had calmed down a bit as he finished speaking, the words still echoed around the office.  Harry kept his face carefully blank as he had learned to do, but inwardly he cringed.  That's torn it.  I'm going to have to learn Potions secondhand from Hermione anyway.  And as he looked at Snape, he could see a tightly compressed rage leaping outward from the pupils of his eyes.


"I'm sorry to have --"


"SILENCE!"  Startled, Harry complied.  Snape looked away for a second, and a square black wooden chair appeared in front of his desk.


"Sit down."  Again, Harry did as he was told; wonder at Snape's ability to conjure without using his wand distracted him from protesting. 


Snape looked at Harry, eyes narrowed.  "You Gryffindors really are thick about some things."  He scrunched up his face and imitated Harry's voice.  "I've never liked you or your teaching methods.  IDIOT!"  He leaned forward.  "You're not supposed to LIKE my teaching methods.  You're supposed to LEARN from them!"


Harry glared at Snape, all attempts at control abandoned with his hopes of reaching any understanding with the professor.  "Oh, yes, Professor, I've seen how well people learn when they're given incomplete information.  Tell me, how many of your students received O's on their Potions OWLs last year?  Because EVERY fifth year in Dumbledore's Army earned one in Defense Against the Dark Arts."


"And if you had applied yourself in Potions to anywhere near the same degree, you would have earned an O on that exam as well," replied Snape.  "Or in Occlumency, for that matter."  His tone was as mild as Harry had ever heard it, but the rebuke was still clear, and this infuriated him even more.


"Applied myself?  Would it have been so difficult to have said at any point, 'By the way, Potter, if you're too thick to simply clear your mind, try using a single thought to clear out everything else and then fading that thought to black?'  Because I might not have got Sirius killed if you had!"


Snape sneered at Harry.  "Is that what this is all about, Potter?  Feeling guilty about losing your puppy?"


This, finally, was too much for Harry.  He got up to leave.  The door to Snape's office slammed, and Harry was thrown back into the chair.


"Oh, no.  Not until you sit there and actually learn something today, you self-centered Gryffindor twit."


Harry glared at Snape, but he didn't say anything.  Snape assumed an expression of mock incredulity.


"Amazing.  Our little celebrity has finally learned how to listen.  Let me tell you something, Potter, about your precious godfather.  If he had any sense whatsoever, we would not be here having this conversation today."


Harry didn't remember reaching for his wand, but he had it pointed at Snape's throat almost before he understood what the Potions master was saying.  "Take that back!"


"No."  Snape calmly stared at the point of Harry's wand, as if to silently ask if Harry actually intended to use it.  Slowly, Harry lowered his wand in response.  As angry as he was, he knew full well that hexing Snape would not aid his case.


"Sirius Black may have been a talented wizard, but he was reckless and overconfident, and it cost him his life.  There were witnesses to his duel with Bellatrix, Potter, witnesses on both sides of this little war, and every one I've listened to said that if Black had been more careful Bellatrix would not have got the better of him.  I'm the only person who can tell you that, and I don't intend to tell you twice.  You didn't get Sirius Black killed.  He got himself killed."


Harry put his wand away.  "Is that all, Professor?"


"No, it isn't.  You and your little Gryffindor friends have been running amok at this school for five years, playing at heroes and villains, and blithely doing whatever you please.  It has been an unfortunate trait in your house for far too long, and if you actually expect to defeat the Dark Lord it is something you will have to LEARN TO CONTROL!  Otherwise, your end will match that of your beloved Sirius Black: premature, and at the hands of your enemy!"


Snape paused, and looked at Harry curiously.  "You are familiar with chess, Potter?"


Harry nodded, startled.  What was it with chess all of a sudden?


"Good.  I'll keep this simple, as I doubt you have seriously studied the game.  What good would your pieces be to you if they kept leaving the squares you had assigned them to?"


"That would depend where they went and what they did."


"Ah.  And you think your pieces would be intelligent enough to discern your objectives from the current state of the board and act accordingly, even correcting your strategic errors?  Tell me, in that case why do your pieces need you at all?"


Harry opened his mouth to answer, and then realized that he didn't know what to say.  Feeling foolish, he closed his mouth again.


"Indeed," Snape said softly.  "Try to remember this moment, Potter, as vividly as you do that other."


Harry looked at Snape carefully.  That odd blankness was there again.  What the hell was going on here?  "Are we done, sir?"


"Almost.  After you informed me of your erroneous belief that Black had been captured by Death Eaters, why did you then decide to play the hero anyway?"


Harry bristled.  "What else could I do?  You acted like you had no idea what I was talking about."


The sneer returned.  "What were you expecting with Umbridge and Draco Malfoy within earshot, Potter?"


"I don't know.  Something.  Anything.  Use of the word 'marauder' or 'map' or even 'order'.  ANYTHING!"


"Such as kindness to Neville Longbottom and a veiled insult towards Vincent Crabbe, perhaps?"


Harry frowned blankly for a moment, thinking back on that day yet again.  That had been odd behavior for the Potions master, and it had directly followed Harry's outburst about Padfoot...  Harry stared at Professor Snape, who suddenly seemed very far away.  There was a great roaring in his ears. "Was that what...oh God..."  He gripped the edges of his chair tightly.


Snape leaned forward and hissed, "No, Potter.  You were supposed to realize that I would understand you regardless of what I actually said.  Even Gryffindors should understand subtlety by the end of fifth year.  Learn to pay attention to what is left unsaid, Potter.  Look for the gaps.  It may actually save someone's life someday."


Harry could feel his anger rising again. "Really."


Snape just glared back at him.  "Yes, Potter, really.  We're finished.  Don't hesitate to leave."


Feeling somewhat nettled, Harry stood up to go.  Halfway to the door, a stray thought from nowhere passed across his mind, and he stopped.




Snape looked up.  "What now, Potter?"


"What course of action would you recommend for a student who didn't receive an O on his Potions OWL, but was determined to sit for the Potions NEWT anyway?"


Snape's eyes widened slightly, in genuine surprise.  I'm going to pay for that later, Harry thought, and was surprised to find that the prospect didn't bother him in the slightest.


At his desk, Snape quickly regained his composure.  "For the written section, you should follow the reading and assignment schedule used in the NEWT Potions class.  You may obtain those from one of your little friends.  For the practical section, you will have to put in a request for lab time.  Since those requests are approved or denied by me..."


Or, maybe I'm going to pay for it now,  Harry thought.


"'re going to have to convince me that you are, in fact, determined to sit for the Potions NEWT at the end of your seventh year."


"Of course.  How do you propose I do that, sir?"


Snape smiled lazily at Harry.  "Quidditch."




"You disapprove?  I thought you were determined."


Harry forced himself to remain calm.  "I am, sir.  I'm just...not sure I understand what you're proposing."


"It's quite simple.  If you expect me to approve your request for lab time, you will have to add a written statement to that request that states that you agree not to play for the Gryffindor Quidditch team this year.  Or... any other team, for that matter.  If you fail to adhere to that statement, I will immediately withdraw my approval."




"Because I said so, Potter.  And as a reminder that mistakes have consequences."


"All right, sir.  Will the first day of classes be early enough for me to turn in the lab request?"


"Yes.  I don't really care to see you before then.  Run along, Potter."


Managing not to grit his teeth, Harry said, "Thank you, sir," and left Snape's office.  He was halfway back to where he'd left Tonks when he figured it out.


Look for the gaps... He didn't say I couldn't practice with the Gryffindor team.


The thought momentarily stopped him in his tracks.  The next one almost caused him to stumble.  That wasn't an accident.  He left me the option of practicing with the Gryffindor team deliberately.  He wants to see what I'll do.


So what are you going to do, Potter?  He could almost hear Snape asking the question.


Harry pondered this for a moment, and remembered his conversation with Dumbledore.  "Too much is at stake for you to allow your focus to be divided any longer."  If I go to all the practices, I'll never keep up with Potions.  But if I don't play at all, I'll go mad by Christmas... Maybe I'll just offer to work with Ginny every now and then, to help her polish her skills as a Seeker.  That might keep everyone from getting too annoyed that I won't be playing for Gryffindor this year.  It won't be the same as actually playing, but it might be enough.  And it seems like Snape may not be as bad this year.  This could work.


Suddenly feeling much more cheerful, Harry jogged the rest of the way back to the passage.




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