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



by imc130d


Part Two - Severus Snape


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. And I should point out that this story is the flip side of "Controlling the Center", which is part of a series. I recommend reading that story prior to reading this one.




"The animosity between you and Harry Potter has proven more costly than it should, and it is impairing both his development as a wizard and your own. If you wish your efforts over the last fifteen years to have been worth anything at all, you must set this enmity aside."




Hogwarts in July. Severus Snape's quill scratched across the parchment, recording revisions to his lesson plans that would better protect his students -- those few who actually took the trouble to learn those lessons, at least -- in the war that was expanding all around them. He was ahead of schedule, but he had been sufficiently distracted of late that he had been unable to enjoy doing anything actually leisurely during his free time.


He had listened stoically to Headmaster Dumbledore's admonishments about his relationship with Potter. Though his face had betrayed no expression as usual, his mind had been unsettled. He valued the headmaster's opinion, as he owed his life -- and his soul, such as it was -- to the man. More: his personal plans for the future depended on Dumbledore's goodwill. Heavy as his hatred for Potter was, it did not outweigh his ambition. So he had consulted someone who, unlikely as it would seem to the students of Hogwarts, he considered a good friend, and valued counsel.




"He's not James, you know," Minerva McGonagall said to him, barely smiling. She moved a bishop.


Severus glared at her. "He acts like James." He considered the board. When he looked back up, she was glaring at him in precisely the way he had glared at her, except that her smile had widened.


"That's because you treat him like James. He is his mother's son as much as his father's; try treating him like Lily."


He grimaced. "Lily and I didn't get on well either." He moved a pawn.


"No, but you might have eventually. Whereas with James..." She sighed. "Probably not, I suppose. I found him almost as impossible as you did." She reached for a knight. "You don't have to do it all at once."


"I would prefer not to have to do it at all. And I'm sure he would prefer that as well." He considered moving his pawn again, then saw an opening on the other side of the board. "And treating him civilly in front of Draco Malfoy is likely to raise suspicion."


"Who said you had to do it in front of Malfoy?"


Severus's eyes widened briefly. Then he favored his opponent with a very rare, genuine smile.




Severus waved his wand slightly, and the quill fell to the desk. Distracted or not, he was tired of working on lesson plans, and he thought he might actually be able to lose himself in a good book for once this summer. Naturally, just as he made up his mind about this, there was a knock at the door.


Suppressing a sigh, he called out. "Enter."


He looked up to see Harry Potter enter his office, alone. Did Albus say Potter was coming here? He was on his feet, wand out, before he had thought about what he was doing. "What are you doing here, Potter?"


Instead of his normal defensive insolence, however, Potter seemed impressed by something. "Wow! That... that's the fastest... can you teach us that?"


Ho, yes. The great Gryffindor love affair with wands strikes again. "Considering the results of my attempt to teach you Occlumency, I think it unlikely. Again. What are you doing here, Potter?"


Potter seemed a bit out of sorts, and Severus considered what he had said. Concentrate, Severus. Lily, not James.


Finally, Potter replied. "Oh...right. I came to apologize, sir."


He fought to keep his face blank. What the hell is he on about? "Apologize? You?


"Er...yes. For intruding where I shouldn't have. With I shouldn't have done that, and I'm sorry."


Had Severus been standing, he might have fallen over. The idea that a Potter would ever apologize to him was completely outside his experience. Instinct took over, and as he quietly said, "Are you now," he started to use Legilimency to read Potter's thoughts, to see whether he was up to something.


The first thing he saw was exactly what Harry thought at the moment of entry: I didn't know you could do that without saying Legilimens. Then he was taken back almost five years, to the day he had first met Harry Potter. "Harry Potter. Our new - celebrity", he saw himself say, but from Potter's perspective, not his own. He was momentarily pleased at how intimidating he appeared to the young Potter. Then he realized that Harry was using Telemency to block him, and quite effectively. Annoyed, he left Harry's mind. He often disagreed with Albus and Minerva about the amount of coddling they seemed to feel was appropriate for the students of Hogwarts, but he had to admit that if the headmaster had taught Potter so much so quickly, there might be method to the old man's madness.


"You know, Potter, if you want that technique to work, you're going to have to learn to pick relevant thoughts to project," he said casually. He thought that was fair; Potter's technique itself needed no criticism, it was just too obvious when he was using it. Where were we again? Ah.


"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."


Minerva didn't provide him with the alternative she mentioned to me. Interesting. Severus decided to play along. "Of what sort?"


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


Five points to Gryffindor for bravery, then, but five off for being a glutton for punishment. "I see." He paused to think for a moment, steepling his fingers. "Request denied. You may go."


As he expected, Potter didn't want to take no for an answer. "But..."


He stood up, feeling rather pleased. This was going to be easier than he'd thought. "But what?"


"I...nothing. Nothing, sir."


For a moment, Severus wondered if Potter was playing some very deep game. For five years he had been trying to get the boy to shut up long enough to learn something, and now that he wanted Potter to talk, he wouldn't. Irritated, he snapped, "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?"


"I don't know."


You know, Potter, I like you better when you fight back. "You don't know. Is this where you tell me to ask Miss Granger, because she so clearly knows?" He thought the reminder that Potter was hardly an innocent party in their relationship might provoke him. If their first meeting so bothered the boy that he would remember it clearly, a reminder of his own insolence might throw him off balance enough that he would let something slip.


And he was right; finally, Potter snapped. "No, this is where I ask you to tell me, because if anyone knows, it's almost certainly you. 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." Potter paused briefly, almost stumbling over his words. "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."


Severus sat very still for a moment, letting Potter stew about what he had just said. Having been annoyed by the boy's initial reluctance to fight back, he was enjoying this. He started to glare, intending to worry Potter even more.


It seemed to work; after a bit, Potter tried to apologize again. "I'm sorry to have-"


"SILENCE!" Severus thundered. Now that he was in control of the conversation, he intended to keep it. Under his robes, he touched his wand long enough to conjure a chair. "Sit down," he said, and was pleased to watch Potter do exactly that.


"You Gryffindors really are thick about some things," he said. He adopted a mocking tone. "I've never liked you or your teaching methods. IDIOT! You're not supposed to LIKE my teaching methods. You're supposed to LEARN from them!"


This was supposed to make Potter cower even more, so that Severus could then dictate terms from a position of control. Instead it angered him again. "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."


Inwardly, Severus sighed. Treat him like James, et cetera. I see, already. He decided to try a more reasonable tack. "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," he pointed out, as gently as he dared. "Or in Occlumency, for that matter."


But for some reason Potter was still on about teaching. "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!"


Severus was already beginning to lose his patience with Potter yet again, and the mention of his long-time nemesis pushed him just enough. "Is that what this is all about, Potter? Feeling guilty about losing your puppy?"


The moment the words were out of his mouth, he knew he had made a mistake, and he put his hand on his wand again in case Potter tried something truly rash. But that weird reticence had surfaced again. Instead of pulling his wand and snarling, the boy's face simply closed up, and he got up to leave.


Albus will blow my cover if this conversation ends here. And I'll deserve it. Annoyed with himself, Severus used his wand to close the door, and then to put Harry back into his seat. "Oh, no. Not until you sit there and actually learn something today, you self-centered Gryffindor twit." Oh yes, keep insulting him, Snape, that will definitely help the two of you get along better in the long run.


He fumbled for what to say next, and eventually settled on honesty. "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."


The next thing he knew, Potter's wand was at his throat. He hadn't seen the boy reach for it, and he wasn't sure anyone would have. And to think he wanted me to teach him how to draw, Severus thought, amused.


Meanwhile, Potter was snarling, "Take that back!" He looked capable of murder.


But Severus suddenly realized that he was in control of the conversation again. The boy wasn't his father; he did not hex without reason. "No." He stared down the business end of Potter's wand, refusing to draw his own. It took a while, but eventually the wand lowered.


He paused for a moment. Damn Gryffindors. How can I put this so that he'll understand me for once? "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 best 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."


Severus half expected Potter to raise his wand again. But instead he put it away, and asked, "Is that all, Professor?" He looked like he was actually thinking about what he had just heard for once. So Severus decided to press his advantage.


"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!" He found himself raising his voice twice. Even when he isn't acting like James he gets under my skin. How the hell does Minerva put up with him?


The reminder of his occasional chess opponent gave Severus an idea. "You are familiar with chess, Potter?" Potter nodded, although he looked somewhat mystified. "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?"


Potter thought for a moment, then, "That would depend where they went and what they did."


Five points for delivering exactly the answer I expected. "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, Potter, in that case why do your pieces need you at all?"


Potter opened his mouth to answer, but didn't say anything. Eventually, he closed his mouth again.


"Indeed," Severus said, as mildly as he could. How would Minerva do this? "Try to remember this moment, Potter, as vividly as you do that other."


Potter looked at him, obviously confused. By reflex, Severus made his face as blank as possible. He wasn't sure what the boy would see otherwise. Eventually, Potter asked "Are we done, sir?"


He almost said yes, but his curiosity got the better of him. "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?"


This clearly irritated Potter. "What else could I do? You acted like you had no idea what I was talking about."


Severus's fists clenched, involuntarily. Does the boy have NO inkling of the fragile nature of my position? "What were you expecting with Umbridge and Draco Malfoy within earshot, Potter?"


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


Again, Severus spoke without considering the effect his words might have. "Such as kindness to Neville Longbottom and a veiled insult towards Vincent Crabbe, perhaps?"


For a long moment, Potter just stared back blankly. Then his face crumpled, and he swayed in his chair. "Was that what... oh God..."


Too late, Severus realized what damage he had done. He's not just upset about losing Black. He feels responsible for all of it. Even after what Albus told him -- even after what I told him -- he still feels responsible. And he thinks I've just confirmed it. Albus won't hand me over to the Dark Lord; he'll kill me himself. Wanting to deflect Potter's guilt but not knowing how, Severus fell back on the only thing he knew he could do well - getting under the boy's skin. "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."


It appeared to work; Potter was distracted enough to glare at Severus again. "Really."


Relieved, he almost sighed. "Yes, Potter, really. We're finished. Don't hesitate to leave." He was going to need a shot of the single malt Scotch he brewed for the staff.


Potter got up to go, and Severus suddenly remembered that he still had unfinished business concerning NEWT Potions. He almost stopped the boy, but then he realized, I can ask Minerva to say that she thought of a compromise. But Potter stopped before he reached the door.




"What now, Potter?" Am I going to have to start all over?


And then, Potter gave him a gift. "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?"


After all that, he gives me this? What is...oh. Dear God. He's trying as hard to keep the peace as I am. Instinctively, Severus suppressed the impulse to compose his face; for once, he just let the shock show through. And Potter seemed to respond to it well; his posture straightened slightly, and a glint the Potions master had come to despise over the years reappeared for the first time since before that little mishap with the Pensieve. Ah. This should be interesting.


"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..."


Severus paused for effect. He'd known what his terms would be almost immediately after talking to Minerva, but it wouldn't do to let the boy know that.


"'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?"


He really is trying to make this easy for me. "Quidditch."


"What?" Finally, Potter seemed to realize what he had set himself up for.


"You disapprove? I thought you were determined." Damn. I sound like Black used to. I may have to play another game or two with Minerva soon.


"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..." Snape paused to think. Let's see how much he learned today. "...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."


Potter was clearly unhappy about how his last request had been answered, but didn't seem inclined to press the matter. "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." And wonder of wonders, the boy actually did just that. Severus watched him leave carefully, then listened to his footsteps fade, then pause, then fade out entirely. Only then did he let out a heavy sigh. Even with them both working to avoid their usual pattern, it was going to be a long year. At least it's a start, he thought. Five years late, perhaps, but a start, nonetheless.

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