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"When was the first time you can remember the Dursleys abusing you?"
Harry flinches from the word, but although he keeps his head lowered and glares at Severus from under his fringe, at least he's looking. "I can't remember the start. My first memories of them are sleeping in the cupboard and them calling me a freak."
Severus controls the surge of vicious response that wants to rise up in him. Now is not the right time for it. "And when did you first realize that what they did to you, what they called you, was wrong?"
"I suppose when I went to primary school?" Harry sounds a little more uncertain about this answer. Severus feels his chest clench, and the surge of viciousness nearly gets out of control at the thought that Harry might not think, on some level, that what the Dursleys did was wrong. "Then I realized that other kids talked about their bedrooms. And sometimes I heard other parents call their kids something like brat, but it was always—nice. Like they loved them and were just exasperated with them. That's when I knew."
His last words are firmer, and Severus gratefully lets go of his suspicion. "What did the Dursleys do when you tried to change their behavior?"
"Change?" Harry stares at him. "There was nothing I could do to change it. I knew that. Sometimes I would be sitting in the middle of the cupboard doing nothing, and they would rip open the door and scream at me for being a freak. I didn't know about magic then, but I knew they hated me just for existing. And Dudley and his gang hunted me, and no one ever stopped them. So I knew there was nothing I could do."
"What did you do?"
"Lived through it."
The way he did through the Killing Curse. Severus half-closes his eyes. He never realized how descriptive that title of Boy-Who-Lived would be for Harry, and how saddening.
"Now what? What can I do to change the way they felt about me? They're dead. And I'm not going to live with Dudley no matter what Dumbledore says, so why should I worry about changing their hatred?"
Severus shakes his head. "No. I mean now, do you still feel that you can do nothing to change how someone treats you? Is that why you never complained to me about the Slytherins sabotaging your potions when you were in Gryffindor? Or about the Headmaster pushing you into danger?"
"He didn't push me into danger. I went there myself. And—I didn't complain to you because I was sure you wouldn't do anything about it. You would just see the poor innocent Slytherins and the terrible Gryffindor." Harry's head ducks a little more, and he breaks eye contact with Severus for the first time since this part of the conversation started. "Now I know more about why you hated my father. So. Um. Sorry, sir."
I think you have a reason to hate me, so I'm not going to do anything about it, Severus translates. He shakes his head and reaches out to grip Harry's shoulder, ignoring his wince of surprise. "Listen, Harry. I want you to tell me if someone treats you unfairly or if people from your current House or your former one hurt you. The way I wanted to know right away when it turned out that someone put the Drake's Breath potion in your food." And he has to work out a way to punish those two idiots, as well.
"But only because I'm a Slytherin. You wouldn't care if I was still in Gryffindor."
Severus draws his hand back slowly. Harry doesn't seem to want him to keep it there right now. "I do not have authority over Gryffindor students."
Harry stares at him. Then he says, "But you're a professor."
Yes, perhaps it is hardly fair to disclaim my authority. Severus grimaces in acknowledgment of his own thoughts more than Harry's wide-eyed gaze, and says, "Yes. I could have protected you better. I could have been—more just. I can do more now that you are in Slytherin, however."
"And you can do other things, too. You can stop going after Neville. You can stop ignoring things that Slytherins do that are worth detentions when you give them to Gryffindors."
Severus tenses. "There is a limit to what I can do."
"Because if the Dark Lord returns, as Albus is convinced he will, and as I believe myself, I will be needed as a spy."
Harry looks quickly at his left arm, then up at his face. "I don't see why that changes the way you treat Gryffindors."
"I must convince Slytherins with Death Eater parents that I have not changed. That I still despise Gryffindors and people like the Weasleys who have all their children in that House." Severus shakes his head when Harry opens his mouth. "I can—moderate my behavior. I will do that, to please you. But I cannot change completely. That would be as suspicious as making no change at all."
"You shouldn't do it to please me." Harry makes it sound as if that's the worst possible motivation someone could ever have. "You should do it because it's the right thing to do."
Severus struggles with words for a moment. For one thing, he wants to direct the focus back to Harry, to remind him that they are supposed to be talking about Harry's problems.
But in that respect, he will be no better than Black or Albus, refusing to respect the boy's wishes. He finally manages to say, "Perhaps I can work on that. But for the moment, the motive is pleasing you. And if you insist on a universal standard of ethics rather than situational ones, there are other behaviors that you will want to encourage in this school."
"Encouraging other professors to be fairer to the Slytherin students. Making sure, in particular, that the Headmaster's favoritism is curbed. I believe you saw one example of that at the end of your first year, when he snatched the Slytherin victory away from us at the last moment. He could have done that any time in the days between your confrontation with the Dark Lord and the Leaving Feast. But he waited until the end of the year. The last moment. When it would hurt the most."
"I thought—I thought he was just being dramatic."
"Perhaps he was. And perhaps causing pain was not his primary motivation. But that is what happened." Severus knows that his first-years of that year, in particular, were affected, and it is one reason that Draco's animosity against Gryffindor was so great last year.
"All right," Harry says, and thinks about it before he nods. "Thank you, sir."
"And in the meantime," Severus says, in a soft tone that makes Harry snap back to alertness on his chair, "we can discuss why you struggled so hard to keep your abuse secret. Why you still do so. I know that you did not tell Albus many details until you showed him the scar."
Harry twists his lip and looks off into the distance. "It's disgusting."
"If you mean that you think it makes you disgusting—"
"No, I don't! Stop twisting my words. Sir."
Severus relaxes with a small lift of his shoulders. While he isn't entirely sure that he believes Harry's words, at least the fact of the denial means that he isn't as bad off, mentally, as he could be.
"Then what do you mean?"
"It's disgusting to talk about. I don't think most people want to hear about it. And I did try to talk about it to Muggles a few times, you know, when they saw something and I couldn't just explain it away. The Dursleys always could, though. Their pity would turn to disgust, because they would think that I was always starting fights."
Or playing pranks. The similarity of those Muggles' thoughts to his own past ones about Harry enrages Severus, but it will do no good to burst out yelling now. He nods. "You are aware that not all adults are the same? And that some would have believed you?"
"I haven't met one that would yet."
"But that's different. You already had some outside confirmation. It's not like you saw a bruise and had the Dursleys explain to you what nice people they were and how they just couldn't discipline a nephew who would scream and kick and howl like a three-year-old no matter what they told him to do."
Severus breathes through his own sickness, which feels as though it's welling up behind his nostrils, and says, "Let me understand this. They claimed that the bruises you had were from them defending themselves?"
Harry nods, still staring off into the distance. It's probably just as well that he's not looking at Severus right now, or he would see through the polite mask that Severus maintains when he's teaching, to the Death Eater beneath. It's only with extreme strength that Severus manages to wrestle the Death Eater back under control.
They're already dead. And you're not experienced enough in necromancy to bring their spirits back to punish them.
Severus does succeed in the battle for control, and tells Harry in a gentle voice, "We'll work on meditation techniques together that will help you come to terms with the memories. In the meantime, I'd like you to tell me about a few of those times you just mentioned, in detail."
Harry snaps his head around. He was in the middle of a memory where a tearful Petunia was telling one of his primary school teachers that they tried and tried and tried, but they just couldn't keep Harry from beating up Dudley. To be awakened from it by Snape saying that to him…
"I already told you about them," he says, his muscles coiling. He keeps telling Snape things that he's never revealed to anyone else. Why does Snape always want more?
"Not in detail. I will not make you relive every one—although, in time, I hope that you will be comfortable telling me about those," Snape says, his eyes tracking easily over Harry as if he's memorizing details that will help him defeat Harry, or cook him. "I would like you to tell me about one of the times that you tried to request help and the Muggle disbelieved you."
"Why not? You need not protect yourself from the Dursleys anymore by keeping the secret—"
"I hate that memory! I'll feel poisoned for hours if I tell you about it! Why should I?"
Snape watches him with that intent look Harry never once thought to see on his face, and then shakes his head and says quietly, "I would have suggested that, rather, you would feel as if you were letting the poison out."
Harry turns away. "That just shows how much you know," he mutters, not really caring if Snape hears him and puts him in detention again. Because it does. He hates talking about things like this. Sometimes he did it with Snape over the summer, and that was horrible. And it was horrible every time it happened, or almost happened, in front of a Muggle. He won't do it now.
And the problem is, he could cope if Snape was going to put him in a detention, or yell at him for being disrespectful, or get distracted by telling him what a brat he is. But not when he sits here and stares at him with cool eyes, and waits.
"I hate talking about it."
"I would like to hear one story. That is all. One time."
Harry swallows. "Fine. I was seven and one of my teachers noticed that Dudley was yelling at me on the playground. She called Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon in to talk to them, and they told her that I always yelled at Dudley at home and I was a horrible little boy. After that, she never smiled at me again. She was nice, too."
"That might be a reason for your distrust of teachers."
And adults. Harry shakes his head, though. Because it's not like he's going to pour his heart out to Snape. Just some memories. "That's one reason I'm glad they're dead," he finds himself saying, in an effort to distract himself that doesn't work too well. "Because they can't go around telling stories to people here and getting them to believe them."
Snape straightens up as if Harry has insulted his potion-making abilities. "You think I would have believed them?"
"No offense, sir, but you decided based on nothing at all that I was exactly like my father and you hated me."
Snape is still for long enough that Harry wonders if he's crossed another one of those lines he shouldn't cross and insulted him too much. But he tightens his muscles. He won't let this lie. Snape is still only treating him better because he's in Slytherin. Harry isn't going to rest until he treats Gryffindors better, too.
"I would have been able to use Legilimency to sense the truth if Petunia had come spinning her tales to me," Snape says, but his voice is soft. Then he sighs. "And that is what I should have done if I had doubts about your demeanor in class. I—apologize, Harry."
Harry stares at him with his mouth falling open, despite the way Snape arches an eyebrow at him. He apologizes? Harry knows that he said something similar to Sirius, but that was only a ploy to be able to Stun him. Harry never once thought he would get an apology of his own.
"I cannot change the past," Snape finally says, when he seems to realize that Harry isn't going to say anything no matter what the provocation. "I should be glad to do so if I could, but—there is no way." He tilts his head down so that his dark hair falls around his face, watching Harry covertly. "Please let me change the future."
If anything, his using the word "please" shocks Harry even more than the apology. He simply gapes, and then shakes his head and sits up and says, "You can quit asking me questions, if you want to change the future and make me like you better."
"I want to help you heal," Severus says, and he keeps his eyes focused, because if he looks away right now he will lose—at least Harry's respect, probably, and any attempt to press this issue in the future, for a certainty. "I want to avoid causing you pain the way I did in the past."
"Then stop talking to me about this."
Harry's accidental magic rattles jars on the shelves. Severus only regards him in silence. Harry calms down after a second and takes a deep breath.
"It's done. It's over with. I don't have to worry about them anymore."
"So you feel nothing about them?"
"Then what emotion was it you used to show the scar on your arm to Dumbledore?"
Harry bows his head and closes his eyes. His breathing comes soft and strained. Severus wants to go to him, but holds himself back. He watches, and finally Harry raises his head, his face set in a grimace. He nods to Severus and says, "Fine. But I only need to talk about them when I'm facing Dumbledore and trying to make him sorry for what he did."
While Severus has to smile at this display of Slytherin tactics, he cannot let it go unquestioned. "No. What will happen when Dumbledore brings them up and brings up the idea of you living with your cousin?" Harry tenses, and his magic causes a low rumbling sound to travel through the floor. Severus points down at it and arches his eyebrows. "You see? It would cause…problems. You need to master your own anger and pain enough for Albus's words to slide off you like water."
"Why do you want to hear about it so badly?"
"I truly believe this is the path to healing."
"Then you did it?"
"Not while the person I wanted to hear my confessions was alive," Severus says softly, remembering those bitter, lonely nights over Lily's grave, when he talked about all the things he should have told her while she still wanted to hear them. "But I believe I am better off for even confessions to the dead. So, Harry. Will you let me prevent you from making some of my mistakes, and speak to me now?"
Harry nibbles his lip. Then he says, "But not all at once. Just a little at a time. And I already told you the story about my primary school teacher. That counts for this evening."
Ordinarily, Severus would balk at a child setting the terms of detention and punishments, but for one thing, he cannot treat these like punishments or he will lose Harry forever. And for another, Harry is not ordinary. Severus nods. "Very well. You will return for half an hour tomorrow evening, perhaps around seven. We will set a more regular time in the future."
Harry nods and stands up. He hesitates, then says in a rush, "I know you think you're helping me, sir. I don't think you are yet, except with Dumbledore, but—thank you for trying, anyway." And he slips out of the room.
Severus sighs, long and deep. He will see if he can actually atone for what he's done. If it's enough.
But in the meantime, he will accept, and be content with, what has already happened.
Even Lily's eyes in his memory do not seem to blaze at him with such disappointment, tonight.