"So let me get this straight, mate," Ron said through a mouthful of pumpkin pasties. He was chewing obnoxiously loud, making no effort to hide the fact that he'd stuffed two pasties in his mouth at once, and Harry could see Hermione's face becoming stormier and stormier with every passing moment. Oblivious, Ron swallowed with a great effort and sighed in satisfaction. "Let me get this straight. Snape told you your…friendship…was over."
"That's right," Harry said blithely, tearing open a packet of Every Flavor Beans.
"And you think…he was joking."
"Joking. Snape. Harry, you did stay with him, right, and not Lupin?"
"Snape jokes sometimes," Harry said, chewing on a chocolate flavored bean. "They're not nice jokes, but he does do it."
"Harry, you know we're your friends," Hermione said in a rush, "and you know we wouldn't lie to you about something like this, but I think Professor Snape of all people would have been quite serious about ending…your friendship…and, well…"
"You've gone barmy," Ron finished, nodding. He stuffed another pastie into his mouth and set to chewing. This time Hermione didn't even look his way. The power of being agreeable, Harry thought, studying a innocuous blue bean.
They were tucked in the bedroom upstairs, all tousled with spare socks and bits of parchment and unmade beds, to take a moment to themselves. It had been days since they'd all three had a few minutes to talk alone and catch up, what with how hard Mrs. Weasley had been working them around the house, and Harry hadn't had a chance to think let alone share secrets. Tonight, however, the twins had been given the task of after-supper cleanup, and Harry and his friends were able to slip out of the kitchen before Mrs. Weasley could assign them chores. They would just have to make it up to the others later; especially Ginny, who'd given him a burning, envious look as they snuck up the stairs. But that would come later. Right now, they had catching up to do.
And by catching up, Harry meant an intervention.
"We go back tomorrow," Hermione said, tucking her leg underneath her as she shifted positions on his bed. "And Harry, I don't want you doing anything reckless, or insane, or-Harry, are you listening?"
He'd picked a soap bean. Coughing into his hand, Harry looked at her with watering eyes and nodded. "Course."
"He's a spy, isn't he?" Ron said, lying back against the baseboard of his own bed. His shoes were still on, but he didn't seem to care. "Dumbledore wouldn't want him treating you nicely in front of Malfoy. The little ferret would just tell his dad."
"Exactly," Hermione cut in, leaning forward. "He can't expose himself, and I think if he doesn't treat you nicely, well, maybe you'll take it badly and then you'll do something…"
"Guys," Harry interrupted. He kicked Ron's leg and bumped shoulders with Hermione, grinning. "It's all right. Just…calm down. I know what I'm doing, you'll see. Everything will be just fine."
the pauper prince
On the evening of Harry Potter's return to Hogwarts, Severus Snape was met with a bad omen that came in the form of Wilhelmina Grubby-Plank.
The day had dawned bright and cool, with a sky so overcast it could only mean there would be rain in the coming days, and a castle so peaceful he could almost fool himself it would last. The House-Elves had been swept up in a frenzy of cleaning and cooking, and the resulting heat resonating from the kitchens below had made the Great Hall of the castle unbearably hot. Severus was already sweating in his robes by the time the carriages arrived and the little dunderheads began filing in.
Hagrid was nowhere to be seen. His seat at the staff table was empty, no one seemed to know where he had gone, and Albus seemed no more inclined to reveal his whereabouts than his grand plans for the war. And considering Hagrid was one of the few on the faculty whose company Severus genuinely enjoyed, he was in a foul mood. He'd spent the day cooped up in last second faculty meetings; and after that, in his chambers to half-heartedly clear the dust that had accumulated there, because he'd forbidden the elves from cleaning there years ago. His favorite armchair in the staff room had disappeared. The coffee he kept stored in his rooms had gone off. And then came the new posting to the Defense Against the Dark Arts position, and his foul mood became fouler still.
She was from the Ministry, and Severus knew her somehow, but couldn't place the face or the name. The toad wore all pink, short and squat with coiffed brown hair and a bow that rather resembled a fly, and her voice was so girlish and honeyed it pierced his ears and made his head throb with the promise of a ten-month-long headache. Her eyes bulged so grotesquely Severus was quite certain that if he applied pressure to her neck, he might be able to pop them out of the socket with minimal effort.
This fantasy swam in his head all throughout the Sorting. It remained glued to his retinas all throughout dinner. And when Dolores Umbridge stood to interrupt Albus's speech to spill her own tired tripe, Severus could practically taste her blood in his mouth-and there was certainly blood, because he'd bitten through his tongue in order to stifle a half-hysterical laugh.
The hall was silent, but not in a way that meant they'd been called to attention; instead, the students were smirking at one another, nudging their fellows with their elbows with evil glints to their eyes…and Severus knew it would be a very long year.
"Thank you, Headmaster," Umbridge simpered, "for those kind words of welcome."
For the first time that evening, Severus allowed his gaze to rake over Gryffindor table. He came to rest on the boy in seconds. But to his surprise, Potter wasn't looking his way at all; instead, he was glaring intently at Umbridge, hatred plain on his face.
"Well, it is lovely to be back at Hogwarts, I must say!" Her teeth were very pointed, like that of some dangerous creature. It wasn't an unfair assessment. "And to see such happy little faces looking back at me!"
From down the table, Minerva caught his eye. Her lips were pursed so tightly he thought they might vanish if she wasn't careful. Severus couldn't resist the twitch at the corner of his mouth, but he quashed the urge to fully smile as he turned back to the students, all humor fleeing at the very sight of them.
"-unique to the Wizarding community must be passed down through the generations lest we lose them forever. The treasure trove of magical knowledge amassed by our ancestors must be guarded, replenished, and polished by those who have been called to the noble profession of teaching."
Once, some years ago, Severus had been forced to assist Pomfrey in a case where a sixth-year student had shoved a stirring rod up their arse, only to be burned by the residue of an unidentified potion. There was nothing noble about any of the shit Severus had to deal with on a regular basis. The only thing he had ever seen polished was the little pustules's abilities to get themselves in trouble.
"-stagnation and decay. There again, progress for progress's sake must be discouraged, for our tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence of change, between tradition and innovation…"
Much of the children had long since ceased to pay attention. Some, like Macmillan, sat with a heavy glaze over their faces, blank-eyed and drowsy. Others had magazines and copies of the Prophet held high to shield their eyes from Umbridge's visage. And yet others still were unashamedly holding court with their friends, chatting amongst themselves as though they weren't being told crucial details of their near future. Even Potter had contented himself to study the faces in the crowd, pale-faced and drowsy.
I will break him of that, Severus promised himself, already dreaming of the lessons on paying attention to enemies-and then stopped himself short, because summer was over, and he and Potter hated each other anyway. Whatever tentative alliance they'd built was gone. It was over.
"…because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in fullness of time, to be recognized as errors of judgement. Meanwhile, some old habits will be retrained, and rightly so, whereas others, outmoded and outworn, must be abandoned. Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness, and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited."
Severus clapped only twice before returning to the cup of coffee he'd managed to keep from the elves, wrapping his fingers round the remaining dregs of warmth. There was an aborted attempt at applause scattered throughout the hall, but it was short-lived, because Albus was already standing and the focus of the students snapped back once more.
"Thank you very much, Professor Umbridge," Albus said with a bow. There was a genial smile on his face, but it didn't reach his eyes, nor did it last any longer than the instant that he turned back to the hall. "Now-as I was saying…"
Illuminating. That was one word for the propaganda they'd been gifted. Illuminating.
The hall roared with a clatter of noise as the students were dismissed, and as they filed out bit by bit, Severus didn't miss the odd look Potter gave him before he slipped out of sight.
"Look at today!" Ron groaned as he pored over the day's schedule. "History of Magic, double Potions, Divinations, double Defense Against the Dark Arts…blimey. Binns, Snape, Trelawney, and that Umbridge woman all in one day. I wish Fred and George'd hurry up and get those Skiving Snackboxes sorted…"
As if they were a pair of djinn to be summoned by name, the twins appeared. George threw an arm over Harry's shoulders as Fred squeezed his way onto the bench, pushing aside a second year. George eased his way in after. "Do mine ears deceive me?" Fred said, stealing one of Hermione's slices of toast. "Hogwarts prefects surely don't wish to skive off lessons?"
"Not me," Hermione said primly, reaching for another slice to replenish what she'd lost.
"Look what we've got today," Ron sighed, waving his schedule. "That's the worst Monday I've ever seen."
Fred and George exchanged looks at the sight of it. "Fair point, little bro," Fred said through a mouthful of toast. "Well, you can have a bit of Nosebleed Nougat cheap if you like."
"Why's it cheap?"
"Because you'll keep bleeding till you shrivel up, and we haven't got an antidote yet," George replied, joining Fred in taking one of Hermione's kippers. Harry couldn't help but wonder how many blood replenishing potions they'd downed since the Nougat's creation, but before he could ask, Hermione launched into a lecture about hiring first years as test subjects, and the matter was dropped before it could ever fully form. And finally, unable to help himself any longer, Harry turned to gaze up at the staff table.
Snape had arrived, though he didn't look happy for it. He sat glowering at the world, with shadows under his eyes like caverns and hair as lank as ever, and was drinking what Harry suspected might be coffee. He'd been seated next to Umbridge, he realized with a pang of sympathy. Umbridge had set into her breakfast with a nauseating sort of gusto and appeared to be oblivious to all around her. What did Snape think of her? What had he thought about her speech last night? No doubt he'd come to the same conclusion as Hermione, but-
"We seriously debated whether we were going to bother coming back for our seventh year," George said casually, "now that we've got—"
Harry jolted back to attention just in time to give George a warning look.
"—now that we've got our O.W.L.s," he corrected hastily, "because, I mean, do we really need N.E.W.T.s?"
Ron and Hermione stared but said nothing. Harry, feeling rather red in the face, dropped his knife and bent to retrieve it. When he emerged, the moment had passed and everything was fine again. He sighed and tried not to look suspicious.
History of Magic trooped by slowly, with Hermione fuming, Harry and Ron playing hangman, and Binns droning on without inflection.
"How would it be," Hermione said coldly when they'd stepped outside to wait for the bell, "if I refused to lend you my notes this year?"
While Ron soothed Hermione's temper, Harry stood lost in thought, imagining himself as an Auror with Ron-and then, if he chose that path, what Snape would think. He'd be furious, probably.
"What do you think he'll set for us?" Ron asked, elbowing him in the side.
"What?" Harry asked, looking up. They'd turned the collars of their robes up to ward off the chill and the damp, huddling under a balcony in the courtyard away from the others. "Sorry."
"Snape, for the first lesson. What do you think he'll set us up with?"
"Well," he said slowly, "we had that essay on Moonstones, didn't we?"
"Harry, I forgot to tell you how pleased I was to know you'd finished yours so early," Hermione said in a rush, eyes shining.
Harry met Ron's eye and smiled. "Right. Well, I suppose it would be something to do with that. Probably something hard, to surprise us."
Hermione was already muttering to herself about potential potions they'd be making, reaching to her bag like she was about to open up her new books and search for the answer. Before Ron or Harry could even attempt to dissuade her, Cho Chang rounded the corner, and all thoughts of Snape left Harry's head in an instant.
She was on her own for the second time in a matter of days. Normally, she was with a group of friends. Until yesterday, Harry had never seen her without them.
"Oh, hi," he said, and then remembered with horrible clarity the way she'd found him on the train the day before; covered in Stinksap and sitting with Neville and Luna Lovegood. "Er-"
Cho smiled and gestured towards him, a little stiffly, like she knew what he'd been thinking about. Harry tried and failed to smile back. "You got that stuff off, then?"
"Yeah," he said, and then for lack of anything better to say, "So did you…er…have a good summer?"
He wished he'd thought of something better, because at the mention of summer, Cho's smile faded completely. Her eyes looked tight at the corners. "Oh," she said casually, though her arms had drawn close to her sides, "it was all right. You know…"
"Is that a Tornados badge you're wearing?" Ron said suddenly, pointing an accusing finger Cho's way. "You don't support them, do you?"
Ron, not now, Harry thought desperately, but the damage was done, and Cho was no longer interested in anything any of them had to say.
As she walked away, Hermione turned to Ron and hissed, "You are so tactless!" and their arguing began anew. And then the bell rang, and already Harry was wishing he could just go back to bed.
"Settle down," Severus said as he entered the classroom, shutting the door behind him.
The room fell to silence at once, and he was grateful for it. He'd risen from a sleepless night with a pounding headache that had been only exacerbated by his ever-looming lessons for the day.
"Before we begin today's lesson," he said, sweeping his way to his desk and turning round to glare at them all, "I think it appropriate to remind you that next June you'll be sitting an important examination, during which you will prove how much you have learned about the composition and use of magical potions…or your lack thereof. Moronic thought some of this class undoubtedly are, I expect you to scrape an 'Acceptable' in your O.W.L., or suffer my…displeasure."
As thought drawn by a magnetic force, Severus's aching eyes landed on Longbottom, who blanched.
Good, he thought, clenching his jaw. Let that sink in.
"After this year, of course," he went on, "many of you will cease studying with me. I take only the best into my N.E.W.T. Potions class, which means that some of us will certainly be saying goodbye."
He resisted the urge to look at the boy, though he could feel Potter's eyes burning through him.
"But we have another year to go before that happy moment of farewell," he finished, "so whether you are intending to attempt N.E.W.T. or not, I advise all of you to concentrate your efforts upon maintaining the high-pass level I have come to expect from my O.W.L. students."
On that note, he took a deep breath and flicked his wand towards the blackboard, conjuring up the day's lesson. As he issued his warnings for the Draught of Peace, he waved his wand towards the store cupboard, which opened with a squeal of hinges, and then set them to begin brewing.
It took only an hour of their allotted time for Longbottom to fuck something up, and as Severus swept over to him to ensure the little idiot wasn't about to blow them all up, he couldn't help but to glance at Potter, who was deep in concentration and sweating profusely. His potion, Severus noted next, was already ruined.
Later, he told himself darkly.
"Longbottom," he said, coming to a stop over the smoking cauldron of his least favorite student, "I have not prayed in many years, but your never-ending failures in my classroom are rapidly driving me to do so."
He lifted the half-dissolved stirring rod and watched as grey sludge oozed down the side. It was fortunate the brew hadn't exploded; Longbottom had obviously forgotten the syrup of hellebore, and he'd added something else…an extra handful of powdered porcupine quills?
"Tell me," he said softly, letting the rod clatter back into the cauldron with a dispassionate sneer. "How long do you add porcupine quills for? Until it turns red? Or, perhaps, as you seem to believe-until it turns grey?"
Longbottom didn't speak. His face was pale and lips were pressed so tightly together they'd almost disappeared. He wrung his hands together and dared a peek at his cauldron, which issued a great belch before falling silent. Severus felt his temper rise steadily higher.
"And how long," he said, more quietly, "did you add them for? Until it turned grey? As it says on the board, you are to add them until the potion turns red. Are you blind, Longbottom? Did your family allow you to drink dittany one too many times as a child? Or do you simply revel in causing as much destruction as you can, wherever you go?"
"Then tell me, boy, why you cannot seem to grasp even the most simple instructions," he said coldly. He planted his hands on the table and leaned forward, so that their faces were a mere foot away. "I realize you may not be capable of understanding this, but on the board are the only instructions you should be following. If you insist on following the book, you will fail, and I shan't pity you for it."
He left Longbottom there without a backwards glance, but Severus didn't feel any better. If anything, he felt worse. His headache was throbbing behind his eyes like someone was smashing an anvil into his brain. He needed a cigarette.
"A light silver vapor should now be rising from your potion," he called as they reached the final stretch.
His words seemed to send some of the children into a frenzy, because the classroom was suddenly full of muttering and half-heard threats aimed towards unruly potions. Only some of them remained unfazed. Draco Malfoy was among them; he was breathing hard over his cauldron but seemed otherwise unaffected by their dwindling time. His potion was silvery and unsullied. Severus nodded approvingly but didn't speak, focusing instead on the dark grey clouds billowing from the back of the room, where Potter had set up camp with Granger and Weasley.
"Potter," he said as he loomed over the boy, "what is this supposed to be?"
He didn't have to turn in order to know his Slytherins had looked up to watch the show. They'd always reveled in these sorts of things, even back when he was a student. The year may have changed, but the attitude had not.
"The Draught of Peace," Harry said shortly, not meeting his eyes.
"Tell me, Potter," he said softly, "can you read?"
Draco laughed behind him but the rest of the room was quiet.
"Yes, I can," Potter ground out.
"Read the third line of the instructions for me, then."
For a moment, it seemed as though the boy might not obey, but then he finally looked up to squint through the steam. "'Add powdered moonstone, stir three times counterclockwise, allow to simmer for seven minutes…" He seemed to take a deep breath. "And then add two drops of syrup of hellebore.'"
We discussed this, Severus wanted to bite out, but refrained. It was in your essay.
"Did you do everything on the third line?" he said instead, feeling the rush of blood in his veins, racing with caffeine-fueled anger.
Potter said something under his breath, but it was too quiet to make out. Severus closed his eyes for a moment and said, "I beg your pardon?"
"I said no. I forgot the hellebore…"
"I know you did, Potter, which means that this mess is utterly worthless. Evan-" He trailed off before he could finish the spell, because for the first time Potter had looked at him, and on his face was an expression of undeniable hurt. Blindsided, Severus stood with his wand half-raised and his mouth partly open, before he snapped it shut and said coldly, "Yes? What is it?"
"Nothing," Potter said bitterly, staring at his potion again. "Sir."
Shame rose in Severus quite suddenly, piercing and sick, though he quelled it ruthlessly and barked, "Fill one flagon with a sample of your potion, label it clearly with your name, and bring it to my desk for testing."
He'd set them their homework and had turned to go to his desk when his foot snagged on a bag in the aisle and he stumbled forward, catching himself on Potter's table. The boy's book and leftover ingredients smashed on the floor and the cauldron would have tipped if Severus hadn't the forethought to grab the rim. The heat of it burned his fingers, searing into his skin like he'd held it over an open flame, but he didn't let go until the danger had passed. Giggles erupted through the room as he righted himself, but when he turned to glare at them all, the laughter died like it had never happened. Potter was staring at him, wide-eyed, with his mouth slightly open. And suddenly, every bit of emotion Severus had been suppressing for the last week came bubbling to the surface, like water boiling over a pan.
"Er—sir," Potter began, but Severus cut him off.
"Detention!" he snarled, slamming his burnt hand onto the boy's table. Potter jumped. "Ten points from Gryffindor!"
"What?" the boy burst out, jumping to his feet and knocking his chair back. "What for? I didn't do anything!"
"Five more points for insolence!" he snapped back. Potter seemed to restrain himself with a great effort, but as he crouched to retrieve the ingredients for his slowly congealing potion, Severus would have been hard-pressed to miss his muttered, "fucking prat."
He forced himself to turn away before he could say something to the little bastard that he would come to regret, likely when Albus summoned him to his office and scolded him for his temper.
Well, perhaps if you hadn't been such a cunt, he thought darkly, before the bell rang at last and he was, blessedly, alone.
For the rest of the evening, Harry couldn't quite bring himself to find interest in anything around him, but Ron and Hermione didn't press him. They'd been exchanging worried glances all throughout dinner, and now, as they settled themselves in the common room with their essay assignments and a game of Exploding Snap, Hermione finally broached the subject.
"You know, Harry," she said quietly, "maybe he wasn't serious."
"He seemed pretty serious to me," Ron muttered, and Harry shrugged.
"Enough, Ron," Hermione snapped. "Haven't you done enough today?"
Ron had already begun to open his mouth and retaliate, but at Harry's sigh, he stopped and slumped in his seat. "Sorry," he said to Harry, who only shrugged again. "She's right, you know. He can't act like your, er, friend while everyone else is around, can he? He has to keep his act up. Dumbledore would probably murder him if he messed things up now, with You-Know-Who back and all."
"Yeah," Harry said, staring at the fire roaring in the hearth.
"Give it time," Hermione said with an imploring look. "Harry, it's only our first day back, and neither of you have had any time to adjust, or prepare yourselves. I'm sure he felt bad about it."
Harry couldn't take sitting here any longer. Getting to his feet, he began to gather up his books. "I'm going to go to bed," he said to the others. "Think I'm going to turn in early."
Ron didn't appear in their dorm until after Harry had already climbed into bed and settled back against his pillows with Snow Crash in his hands. Undressing in silence, Ron sat down on his bed and said, "It'll be all right."
Frowning at his book but not responding, Harry opened it to a random page and began to skim. Ron was quiet for a time.
"You know," he said at last, pulling his legs up to his chest and watching Harry page through Snow Crash, "with the way you were talking, I thought maybe things had changed. You know…between the two of you."
Harry closed the book and shoved it under his pillow. It hurt to look at it, all of a sudden. "Yeah," he said, and then rolled over to stare at his drapes. "Yeah, Ron, I thought so, too."