Here you are: I think this is my best fic (up to this point, at least). I hope you'll like it.
Betas: Barbara and LydiaCarol
Written for the HPSSGenFest challenge 1, 5 and 21: Harry has to serve detention in the dungeons with Snape. Must include the line, "You know Professor, I think you are the best friend I have ever had."; Harry gets O on his Potions OWL. Snape doesn't want him in his class nevertheless. Harry shrugs and decides not to fight. Snape becomes suspicious…
The night was freezing cold, because it was already autumn; they were deep in October, almost in November. Moreover, there were no clouds in the sky and a fierce wind was blowing from the North, so that it chilled the body of the sixteen-year-old boy sitting on the stone floor of the Astronomy Tower. But the boy, Harry Potter, didn't seem to mind it. Quite the contrary: he sat there in a t-shirt and simple, thin trousers, without trembling as he stared at the sky.
Harry thought that somehow, the biting coldness would give him a certain feeling of living: a feeling he had scarcely had in the last months since Sirius had died. He normally felt light-headed, as if he was floating; the months had passed in a blur and he'd just let them carry him without real concern. He hadn't lived, he'd just existed. Existed and survived: he had survived the long, boring summer with uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and Dudley. They had left him alone until September, when he had finally returned to Hogwarts – but he couldn't think of the school as his home anymore… Everything seemed empty and meaningless. Here, he could really feel that his life had been lost somewhere along the way.
He couldn't even feel guilty or sad about the happenings of the last year. He was simply empty. A mere shell, without a soul, as if a Dementor had sucked it out of him. It had, at least, one advantage: he didn't have to make a big effort to empty his mind before sleeping, an exercise he had decided to do every day before going to bed. His mind always felt blank, even during his now advanced lessons. His marks were terrible, and Hermione was always harassing him about them, but he couldn't help it. He wouldn't live long enough to get a good job after school anyway. Voldemort would kill him in the end, so he had given up struggling for better marks.
His eyes wandered over the bright constellations until they stopped at Canis Major, the Dog Constellation. Sirius, the brightest star, was winking at him merrily… Harry's breath hitched, but he didn't cry. He didn't cry, because he basically couldn't cry, not anymore. Crying was a part of living, and he wasn't alive. He couldn't even remember when he had cried last.
His eyes wandered from the sky to the angrily glowing red end of his cigarette, and he took another draw. The glowing red turned to crimson for a long minute, then faded again.
The surrounding coldness slowly entered his body and he shuddered.
"Mr Potter," a cold voice broke the icy silence.
Harry rolled his eyes and put his cigarette out on the stone floor.
"Yes, Professor?" He looked up at his Head of House with a tired expression on his face.
"It's after curfew," the stern woman said sharply. "Again."
"Yeah, I know," Harry muttered, preparing himself for the usual conversation. His professor's next question would be about his well-being, he would answer that he felt absolutely excellent, and then the Transfiguration professor would chide him about his rule-breaking and irresponsible behaviour and accompany him back to the Gryffindor common room. She would try to elicit a real reaction from Harry and give him some warnings about the possible negative consequences of smoking and lurking outside after curfew. Harry would dismiss her worries and, in the end, they would bid goodnight to each other.
Oh, and there would be another restless and sleepless night, but that wasn't part of their conversation, it was just another usual pattern these days.
He stood up and looked at the professor, showing that he was ready to return to the Gryffindor Tower. But McGonagall didn't move.
"I've already warned you not to behave this way, Mr Potter," she said with a bit of impatience in her voice. "Your repeated misbehaviour has earned ten points from Gryffindor and a week of detention."
Harry sighed and shrugged, lifting his shoulders almost invisibly, but McGonagall caught it. Her voice suddenly snapped even sharper.
"And you will serve your detention with Professor Snape."
Harry's face darkened and he clenched his hands into fists in anger.
"You can't do that, ma'am," he whispered hoarsely.
The professor lifted her eyebrows, annoyed.
"I assure you, Mr Potter, I can and I will," she said and she pressed her lips together so strongly that they became a narrow, angry line on her face.
Harry leaned against the wall and looked at his teacher.
"I hate Snape and he hates me, you know that. I don't want him breathing down my neck for a whole week, ma'am."
"That's Professor Snape to you, and if you don't want to lose more points from your House, don't ever use that tone when you talk about your elders, Mr Potter. Whatever you feel towards Professor Snape, he is a professor of this school, and you will serve your detention with him anyway."
Harry clenched his fists so hard that his nails dug into his palms. He didn't want to see the git!
"Professor I don't think it would do any good to me to be with Professor Snape for a whole week. You know, he and Sirius…" he tried a whining tone that had always been successful.
"That's not relevant now, Mr Potter," McGonagall's tone turned even chillier. "Apparently, treating you in a forgiving manner didn't do you any good either. You have to regain yourself."
Harry pushed himself angrily away from the wall.
"You know, Professor, I think you are the best friend I have ever had," he said sarcastically, unable to hide an ugly smirk from his face.
"That's another ten points from Gryffindor, Mr Potter."
Harry shrugged again.
"I don't care."
"I can arrange another week," the Transfiguration professor growled menacingly.
Harry lowered his head, but in his chest, the anger was at its boiling point.
Deep inside he was ashamed about his own behaviour, but the anger he felt whenever Snape's name was mentioned suppressed any feeling of guilt or remorse. He hated the disgusting git more than anybody else in his life, more than he hated Voldemort or Umbridge. Voldemort was above his hatred or love and Umbridge was just a stupid and cruel Ministry pawn, but Snape… Snape was another thing: a man Dumbledore trusted, and a man who was allowed to hate Sirius and Harry. Dumbledore had always defended Snape, even while the old man had had the nerve to blame Sirius for his behaviour towards Kreacher, the blasted house-elf, and for Sirius' own death … And he had never had a bad word about Snape – Snivellus, the filthy piece of shit, who was a bigger bully than James Potter had ever been, and was always forgiven and no one had never defended Harry's or the other non-Slytherin students' case against him or had reprimanded the git for his unjust and cruel behaviour!
Harry smiled bitterly. He remembered the day when he had received the results of his O.W.L.s. He had received four O's: two for his Defence exams, one for his Divination (it had turned out that Professor Marchbanks had really met a round, dark, soggy stranger who had informed her that the tea she had missed drinking on a certain Tuesday had been indeed poisoned, so she really ought to have died on that Tuesday – which had been precisely the Tuesday Harry had mentioned to her in his exam), and one for his written Potions exam. The potion he had brewed had earned an E, like his Transfiguration, Charms, Care of Magical Creatures and Herbology practicals… his final Potions mark had been an O, as McGonagall had informed him in that letter, yet Snape had refused to take him into his class because of his "failure" in the practical.
Harry hadn't fought though. He had written back that he wouldn't attend Potions anyway, to McGonagall's utter desperation, but he hadn't cared. He had been, and still was, relieved he didn't have to attend the class, where he would have been ridiculed and humiliated on a daily basis. He didn't miss that, thank you very much.
As he followed his Head of House back to his dormitory, Harry was thinking about the events of the new school year. His Quidditch ban still hadn't been lifted – but he wasn't surprised. He suspected that Dumbledore didn't want him to play: it was all too dangerous, but he didn't care. Quidditch had somehow lost its attractiveness to him when he thought of himself carrying the Snitch, his hair tousled… Even if he hated Snape, he couldn't help but be repulsed by the sickening way his father had behaved, worse even than Malfoy to Harry's way of thinking. A bullying git, the Marvellous Chaser… No, no more Quidditch, he had decided.
He remembered, though, when Dumbledore had informed him about the ban: he, Harry had been standing as close to the door as it had been possible to be, his eyes fixed to the floor, deliberately not wanting to look at the Headmaster – not because of Voldemort, but because he had known that Dumbledore was a good enough Legilimens to discover Harry's feelings towards him: anger and hatred. He had nodded at the mention of the ban and hurriedly refused Dumbledore's offer to teach him Occlumency. He hadn't needed any more people to read his mind: Snape and Voldemort had been enough. The Headmaster had tried to convince him about Occlumency's necessity, but Harry just hadn't cared. He had muttered something about "some wounds, which run too deep for the healing" in a mocking and acid tone, and when his sarcastic remark had hushed the old man, he had bolted out of the room without looking up once. Since that day, they hadn't talked.
The only adult who seemed to care about him (other than Hagrid, of course, but he didn't really count in Harry's opinion) had been McGonagall until this evening. But now her latest decision to hand him over to Snape was too foul a blow to forget.
They bid goodbye to each other as icily as the North Pole at the Fat Lady's portrait, and Harry had to do his best not to murmur some scathing remark after her, losing a hundred points from Gryffindor.
Ron and Hermione were waiting for him to return, as with every evening like this, but Harry just nodded shortly at them and fled to the dormitory. He didn't want to talk, even though he knew that his friends were quite worried about him. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, he would sit with them and they would have breakfast together. Everything would be all right between them.
"I think one week will be enough to clean the classroom without using magic, Mr Potter," Snape smirked disdainfully at him, and Harry felt his blood boiling in his veins. But he didn't look up and didn't let Snape look into his eyes, as he had done with the Headmaster. Blasted Legilimenses, the two hooked-nosed gits!
"Yes, sir," he replied frostily, but with perfect politeness.
"I want the desks being scrubbed, the cupboards cleaned and ordered, the ingredients arranged, the cauldrons cleansed and the floor spotless. You can't leave before nine: the door will be locked. If you can't finish cleaning the classroom by the end of the weekend, you will serve another week of detention…"
"But," Harry jerked his head up and looked at Snape with full loathing, "McGonagall only ordered one week!"
Snape's smirk widened.
"Oh, she agreed when I mentioned this part to her."
Harry had to fight the urge to spit at his teacher, so he turned around.
"Right then," the words sounded like spitting though.
"Five points from Gryffindor for that impolite tone to a teacher…"
"You are not a teacher," Harry couldn't help but swirl towards Snape again. "You are a bully," he hissed.
"That's another ten points…"
"… not better than James Potter…"
"ENOUGH!" Snape stepped toward Harry and grabbed his shoulder so strongly that the boy hissed again, but this time in pain. "Shut up, Potter, and don't say things you know nothing about!" he yelled and spit splashed from his mouth. He tossed Harry away from him so that he fell on a desk. "And that's another twenty points." And with this, he stormed out of the dark classroom, his robes billowing after him as he went.
Harry didn't dare to move until the door clicked closed after his retreating form. Only when he was finally alone did he grab his aching elbow, massage it slowly, and straighten up.
"Snivelly," he murmured hatefully. "Itzy-bitzy Snivelly. Truth is painful, isn't it?"
He slowly approached the cupboard where the cleaning utensils were kept, and after some minutes of preparation he began to work. He started the whole cleaning stuff with the desks, scrubbing and scratching the old filth with a blunt knife, and soon he was so deep in work that at nine, the door slamming open made him jump in surprise. But by that time, almost the half of the desks were clean, and Harry put the utensils away with a somehow proud feeling. The desks he had already finished looked like new. Gone was the old strata of dirt, and even the stench of the room had lessened considerably.
That night, he didn't feel it necessary to visit the Astronomy Tower; after finishing his homework with Hermione (who was very pleased with him that evening) and Ron (who couldn't stop pitying him about his misfortune with the two teachers) he went to bed straight away and after a short meditation and clearing his mind, he fell asleep.
The next day he didn't even meet Snape: the room was empty when he arrived, and the door locked behind him right after he had entered. For a moment he considered shouting in frustration, but as he thought of himself, standing in an empty room yelling alone, he refused the idea and shrugged. He went to the cleaning cupboard instead, and set to work again.
First, he wiped the filth away from the already scrubbed desks, and immediately after that, he went on scrubbing. The door opened up at nine precisely, but Harry didn't leave the room until he finished with the last desk. It was almost ten, but every desk was clean like never before.
This time, Hermione seemed a little worried that he hadn't shown up on time, but she helped him with the homework nevertheless. After they finished and Ron went to bed, Harry confessed to Hermione that he kind of liked these detentions. Snape was nowhere to be seen the whole time, and the work wasn't too exciting – but, at least, it made Harry physically exhausted so that he could sleep afterwards.
The third day, during the re-organising of the store cupboards where the brewing utensils were located, Harry was even playing with the idea of earning another week of detention. In the Potions classroom, nobody harassed him with questions, cast questioning glances at him, wanted him to tell them about Voldemort or asked him about his well-being and Sirius. It was almost relaxing. Harry scrubbed and wiped and cleaned and washed and arranged while humming some silly Christmas songs (why Christmas, he didn't know, but they were quite good to hum) to himself. He was so relaxed when he returned later to Gryffindor Tower that he could do his homework faster than ever before, so that he managed to do some additional reading too. Hermione was absolutely satisfied with Harry's performance.
"If I had known that cleaning up rooms would do you so much good, I would have gone to Professor McGonagall to suggest that she make you work much sooner. Oh, and Harry," she smiled at him, "today, when I went to Potions class, I could barely recognise the classroom. You are doing a wonderful job on it."
Harry lifted his brows in surprise.
"Do you think so?" but he couldn't restrain the satisfaction from his voice.
Hermione's praise reinforced his own feelings: finally he had performed work which had visible results, and that pleased him, even if Malfoy and his cronies laughed at him and congratulated him for finding another use for the broom. The whole mocking was so childish that Harry didn't even get angry. Malfoy didn't belong to his world enough to be worthy of even hearing his voice.
The next day he finished ordering the store cupboards and began to clean the cauldrons and the other utensils, which continued even into the fifth day. By that time, Harry could see that he was too behind and he hadn't even begun to arrange the ingredients in the other set of store cupboards. The next day, fortunately, was Saturday, so he asked Hermione for some Potions books, and getting the right ones, he went to the Potions classroom right after lunch and began to sort the different raw materials. It took several hours, and it was already eleven when he finished. Pleased, he looked over the cupboards and the room. It was almost unbelievably clean and just a small hint of the usual displeasing smell lingered around: the much better smell of the cleaning agents suppressed the almost-rotten scent of mis-brewed potions and slimy ingredients.
Just the floor and the cleaning cupboard were left for the next day.
On Sunday, he went to the dungeons again right after lunch. He wanted to finish the work before dinner so that he would have enough time to complete his Transfiguration essay and to practice for the Defence class – their newest lecturer, Shacklebolt, was very stern as a teacher, and Harry didn't want to confront him.
He had no problems with the floor, although it was much worse than the desks – had anybody ever cleaned the room before him? He was fuming to himself – but the small cupboard, where the cleaning utensils were… was unbelievable. Harry had to use the knife again when he tried to remove the almost-fossilized filth.
It was a small cupboard, and Harry had grown quite tall during the summer, so he had to crouch down and to be very careful if he didn't want to hit his head on the frame or the top of the cupboard. But even if he were as small as he had been in his first year, he would have had problems finding enough room to move, let alone to clean it, he thought to himself.
He put the rag he used for the cleaning into the water and wet it. The very last part of his detention was left: the cupboard door, which was not only filthy, but was smeared with some disgusting material. He decided to loosen it with water, and after some minutes he would use the knife again.
Soon, he spotted something under the filth.
Letters! There were letters!
He became curious, but he didn't want to rush and damage the writing, so he used even more water until the writing was readable.
Certificate – the first line read.
Harry almost lost his interest thinking that the Certificate surely was about the furniture, but then, he suddenly spotted the words "Sirius" and "Snape" some lines later. Frantically, he began to rub the door as forcefully as he dared without damaging the inscription.
The disgusting, sluggish material didn't disappear, but it was transparent, so the letters were clearly readable under it.
The room was quite dim, and Harry had to light his wand.
"Lumos," he whispered and leaned closer.
The text was written with big, childish capitals and the lines were jagged instead of being straight. It was obvious the text was written by a first or second year. It read:
Hereby we, James Potter and Sirius Black, testify that Severus Snape, after spending two days in this cupboard, was not only begging for his filthy life, but was crying and wetted himself like a baby, so that he officially earned the name "Snivellus", which he has to answer to from now on.
In the name of the board of examination: James Potter and Sirius Black,
With another type of letters was added:
He was really crying - Remus Lupin (witness)
And another line:
He begged and cried and was absolutely wet - Peter Pettigrew (witness)
The 21st of November, 1971
The wand trembled in Harry's hand and fell into the small pool of water which had gathered under the door. The room suddenly turned dark and the thoughts in his head began to dance, swirling and spinning so hard that Harry felt dizzy and had to sit back on his ankles.
The silence of the room was roaring in his ears.
Harry felt his heart turning to ice and thumping as if he had run the marathon, and his stomach churned painfully. The emptiness of the last months seemed to break somehow, and the illusion of neutrality and indifference shattered into tiny pieces.
These words, these cruel and ruthless words were written by his father and Sirius and their two friends. These words witnessed such an act he had never believed anybody able to do. Other than Dudley, of course.
Four kids, four scumbags against one… And they hadn't locked that single one in for several hours, but for two days until… until he had been so entirely humiliated and perhaps not only a bit desperate and frightened that… that…
Four against one – just because it had seemed such a good joke. Oh yes, Harry knew perfectly well these kinds of jokes; he had been in the bad side of them too many times to forget. He knew what it meant to sit in the dark without the hope of being released soon, and with urgent needs not knowing the time when somebody would let him out to go to the loo… He knew the burning shame of wetting himself, the taunting laughter and the cruel comments, the dread, and the humiliation.
But he, at least, had been in a cupboard which was big enough to move in, to stretch himself and he could listen to the telly through the door to let time pass – but here… here was just nothing, and those two days had had to be a weekend, a weekend in an empty room, not being able to count the passing hours when every second seemed half an hour… knowing full well that his saviours would be his tormentors…
And they had done it: his father, the man Harry had always wanted to be proud of, Sirius, the godfather he had considered a father figure for years, and even Remus Lupin, a man he had always thought to be decent and righteous ...
Sirius and James Potter: two men he had felt the closest to. And even though both had been dead for a while, for the first time, Harry felt really alone.
And he wasn't sure he wanted them to be back again.
Their memory couldn't carry any more joy, happiness or hope: it became nothing better than his memories of Dudley and his gang.
In that moment, they did really die in Harry, once and for all.
Harry didn't know when he began to cry, but the terrible loss he felt in that moment almost killed him with its weight. Lost was the image of the loving father, and lost was the image of the caring godfather. The only thing Harry could think of was the picture of two sadistic boys standing next to the lake and tormenting a third one with cruel glee on their faces, and two others sitting nearby without a protest… out of sheer boredom.
In that moment he felt that he had lost them more than one could lose his beloveds to death: no love and care remained in his heart, just pain, suffocating, biting, acid pain and coldness and such an immense loneliness as he had never felt before.
His glasses fell on the floor and he could hear them break, but he couldn't fumble for them. His hands were trembling so badly that it made every attempt useless.
Through his tears, with his myopic eyes, he couldn't help but read the cruel words again and again. Had it been true? Had they really done that to another human being, had they been no better than his cousin, or even worse? And on the top of all: how could they just write that down?
WHY? Why him? Why always him? Why couldn't he have a loving family even in his heart? Why was everything ripped from him, stolen from him? Why did fate always pick him to torment him, to taunt him even more?
"Mum," he whined, "Mum, Mum…" The grief was tearing him apart: he was burying them, the two bullies, James and Sirius, who had been much worse than Malfoy or the Dursleys had ever been, and he found that the only person he could turn to was his long-dead mother; the only memory he could receive comfort from in those minutes was hers, and hers only.
He didn't know that he was kneeling in the muddy water and the robe pressed to his face was the piece of rag he had used for cleaning: the grief, the pain numbed him, the sobs deafened him, the tears blinded him.
"Mum, where are you?" he sobbed and complained, leaning against the cupboard's door. "Where were you?" he added and couldn't help but think of the small, crying boy he had seen in Snape's memories huddled in the corner – now, in his head that small boy was crying in the filthy cupboard for days, and he remembered all those years in his own cupboard, and knew, he knew precisely that if he had gone to school with James Potter and Sirius Black, the big-headed Gryffindors would have picked him to ridicule and torment: the small, Muggle-like boy in his cousin's rags and without proper knowledge of the wizarding world. He was just another oddball too, as Sirius had explained Snape to him; an oddball whose biggest sin had been that he had merely existed… How many times had the Dursleys thrown that in his face?
Was it some cruel righteousness of fate that he had had to suffer the same from his relatives that Snape had suffered from his father? Had he had to pay for his father's sins?
The dirty water was running down his cheeks, but he didn't care. He had lost his father and godfather, for the second time in his life; but this time, he realised, his loss was absolutely final and irreversible. He didn't want them to remain with him anymore, not even in his memories. He didn't need them. But he couldn't help feeling something had been stolen anyway.
"Mum," he groaned again, and the name was so soft, so good to utter, to cry for, that he repeated it over and over.
He had never felt so miserable before in his life.
Somebody had told him long ago that only when one lost his parents did one become a real adult, and Harry was sure that moment had now arrived in his life; he was utterly alone, and everything he had done in the last months, years pressed on his shoulders, crushing him. He had done so many stupidities, he had nurtured so many hatreds and prejudices. He was stupid and had behaved like a spoiled little brat, thinking that the whole world had to whirl around him… He had never tried to look beyond the surface. He had hated Snape because that had been the simplest way to react to the man's hatred; he had blamed Dumbledore because that had been much easier than taking him seriously and trusting that he'd known what he had been doing… He had never listened to Hermione, who had pointed out some very important issues in Sirius' and his, Harry's, behaviour with regards to house-elves and Occlumency… He had really behaved like a child, recklessly and irresponsibly…
But it was just so easy to be insightful now – and it had been so hard then.
He could barely sense as somebody took the rag out of his grasp and pulled him to his feet.
"Potter," a cold voice said, but he couldn't react. His knees were buckling, and he was still whimpering like a puppy ripped from its mother. "Potter," the voice repeated again, but this time the coldness wasn't so apparent. "What happened?"
He coughed and cleared his throat, but no speech-like sound left his mouth, just sobs and whines and tears. He felt as he was dragged and seated, and a cool vial was pressed to his lips. He opened his mouth and drank its contents obediently.
The potion was cool and sweet and almost caressed his throat, which was raw and aching after those long minutes of sobbing. He felt his knotted muscles relaxing and the sobs didn't threaten him with suffocation any longer. Slowly, he calmed down, and blew his nose into an offered handkerchief.
"Thanks," he muttered, still dazed.
"Not at all," the reply came, and this time, Harry could recognise the voice. It was Snape's.
He lowered the handkerchief and looked up. To his embarrassment, he couldn't see the man, just some darker and lighter blurs in the vague shape of a person in front of his eyes.
"My glasses…" he mumbled uncertainly. "I dropped them…"
The man-shaped blur disappeared from his sight, and some moments later Harry heard a quiet "Reparo" spell. As the cool glasses slipped onto his nose again, things around him regained their normal forms, Snape included.
"Thank you, sir," he said as clearly as he could. Snape, this time, didn't reply, just nodded. "I'm sorry," Harry added trying to begin with the most important issue: the long-needed apology.
"I put an alarm spell on this room. It signalled that something happened," Snape looked at him expectantly. Harry looked back without fear, hatred or resentment.
"I…" Harry didn't know what to say. "I was cleaning the cupboard," he gulped. It was so hard to speak, but yet, he wanted to tell Snape everything, he wanted him to know that he, Harry, knew, that he understood…
Snape, he saw, cast a side-glance towards the cupboard's general direction.
"And?" the Professor asked again, his tone guarded, but full of hatred.
"I found a… Certificate," Harry somehow forced out and felt as shame coloured his face. "Of my… James Potter and Sirius Black." The urge to avert his head was strong, but he resisted. "I'm so..."
Somehow, he saw in front of his eyes the trail, which had started at that cupboard and led to their conversations and animosity when Snape scowled and his face turned an ugly brick-red colour in fury.
"Was it interesting reading, Potter?" he growled menacingly. Harry shook his head frantically.
"More beautiful proof of your father's outstanding humanity, isn't it?"
"No, no, professor…"
Snape leaned so close that his nose almost touched Harry's.
"Or did you find more proof that your teacher is just a filthy piece of shit, who deserved everything he got?"
"NO!" Harry yelled at the top of his lungs. "No!" he repeated, slightly quieter. "You are not, sir and I… and I…" Harry couldn't find the words to express himself.
"You what?" fingers dug into the muscles of his arms as Snape grabbed them.
Harry refused to flinch, or to look away. He thought for a short moment, and then using every Occlumency skill he had ever had, looked straight into those cold, black pools full of loathing and despising and concentrated hard on his own childhood memories, his life's most hated, most humiliating and embarrassing memories, his cupboard, his being locked in, his desperation, his dread, his wetting himself, his pitiful attempts to flee from Dudley and his gang bullying him, the rags he had worn, the freak-comments – and finally his present feelings of grief and regret and understanding. The sympathy which he had once been sure he would never feel towards the dungeons' git.
"I hate what they did to you, sir," he said trembling, his voice hoarse. "I felt as if… as if they had done that to me, and now they are dead… They both are dead, but this time… they died inside of me." He lowered his head and muttered to the floor, "I think they would have done the same to me…"
The clasping hands fell.
Harry heard as Snape motioned a chair closer to him and sat down. It sounded too sharp in the room's silence.
He looked at Snape, but the professor's face was impassive. For a moment, Harry wanted to jump to his feet, to shake Snape and shout into his ears that he was REALLY sorry, that everything his father and Sirius had done disgusted him, but, most of all, that he wasn't his father, and he had never been. But the strength left him and he slumped into the chair even more.
It was absolutely useless. Snape hated his father with good reason, and he would hate him forever. Tthe professor would never be able to see through James Potter's face that Harry would wear forever, he would never be able to see through that hatred, and Harry would never be able to convince him that he was different. Different from James Potter and much more like Severus Snape… And strangely, in that moment the thought that Snape didn't believe him just hurt too much.
The professor cleared his throat, and Harry turned his face away again.
"You cleaned the room up quite nicely," Snape's words echoed strangely in the silence.
The sentence took Harry completely off guard. He was on the verge of another nervous breakdown and he couldn't even distinguish or understand the mixed feelings and emotions that swirled in his mind. But Snape's words somehow cleared the air around them, and Harry turned his head back to the man and smiled uncertainly.
"Really?" it was just a surprised, choked reply, but he couldn't utter anything better.
"Even the ingredients were arranged correctly."
"Oh," Harry was speechless. The moment he had given up on making Snape ever understand him, Snape wasn't only offering him some civil words, but was praising him as well! Something akin to hope rose in him. Perhaps, their war would end at long last.
They sat in silence, then Snape spoke up tentatively, "I think I can reconsider my decision about allowing you into the Advanced Potions class…"
Harry was so taken aback that he cried out.
"No, sir!" When Snape lifted his head angrily, he hurriedly added, "I mean I'm not very good at Potions. It was just a matter of chance that I wrote that exam that good…"
Snape stared at him, sneering, but Harry sensed something strange in his expression.
"Excuse me, Mr Potter, but I think it's my task to decide who can and cannot be allowed into that class." Oh. Snape was… joking… sort of.
"I missed two months…" Harry tried another excuse. "And you know that I've never been really good. I don't remember ever brewing a potion properly…"
"You can have some Remedial Potions," Snape replied in thought. But when Harry didn't react, he hastily added, "although I can accept if you don't want to attend another class with me…"
Harry sighed and felt not only a little mortified.
"It's not that, sir," he muttered and looked at the dark man in front of him. "I…" To his embarrassment, he felt another wave of tears prickling his eyes, and he didn't even know why.
"I promise I won't treat you like… like I did," Snape's words were barely above a whisper, but Harry caught them.
"No, it's not that…" he repeated. Damn those tears that couldn't remain in their normal place!
"Potter?" Snape's voice sounded concerned as Harry's tears began to fall in earnest again. "What's the matter…?"
Harry shook his head, unable to speak again. He inhaled deeply, trying to calm himself down, but it was absolutely useless. The previous pain returned full strength and he found himself sobbing again – the only difference was, that this time he felt more than a little embarrassed because of Snape's presence.
"I… look, I'm… I'm sorry, Potter," Snape stuttered and Harry shook his head desperately.
"It's… not… you…" somehow he choked out. "But I don't want things just because… I didn't apologise just because…"
Another handkerchief and another vial.
"I'm sorry, but these Calming Draughts don't last that long…" Snape muttered, interrupting him, "and I know you didn't apologise just to… to be accepted… and so…"
Harry took some deep breaths, but he was still hiccupping too hard to trust himself to speak, so he sat burying his face in the handkerchief.
"I'm not requiring you accept the offer…" Snape suddenly went on, "but Minerva told me you wanted to become an Auror... and I thought we could give it another go."
"I don't know," Harry whispered. "I don't know what I want any more…"
"Dunno," he muttered. "Since Sirius died…" he interrupted himself. "Sorry," he muttered.
"No," Snape waved dismissively. "Just go on… Since Black died…?"
"Everything has become so empty. And now when I saw that cupboard…" he closed his mouth in embarrassment, and Snape coughed.
"On Monday," the man suddenly spoke up, "you told me…" Snape couldn't finish his sentence. Harry looked at him questioningly. "You told me that I'm like your… James Potter…"
Harry gripped his handkerchief so tightly that his knuckles turned white.
"No," he said firmly. "I wasn't right, sir."
Snape shifted and looked away.
"The Headmaster warned me that you are not your father. I should have listened to him." The words were muttered in such a low voice that Harry only suspected hearing them rather than hearing them in fact.
"He told me when we last talked," Harry said in a thoughtful tone "that you have wounds that run too deep for healing. I didn't believe him, although I had seen that memory in your Pensieve. I think I just didn't want to believe him…"
"That wasn't entirely your fault," Harry saw Snape staring at his potion-stained fingers, which were quivering lightly. "I didn't do anything to ease your situation."
"But even that scene… was too cruel, and you had… you never humiliated me the way they did to you…" Harry felt his neck and ears burning in shame. "And this cupboard…" he couldn't go on.
"It wasn't your fault…" Snape looked at him again and asked, "so, what about trying Advanced Potions, then?"
Harry put the handkerchief in his pocket.
"I really don't know," he answered sincerely. "I really don't think I'm good enough for those advanced lessons… Perhaps you should give me some Remedial Potions so you can decide whether to accept me into that class or not."
"That's a deal, Mr Potter." A few moments later, he added. "I was worried in the summer, when you just… didn't fight to attend this class. It was so highly unlike you…"
Harry shifted uneasily, but snuck a glance at his professor nevertheless.
"It was a good excuse that you refused to take me…" Harry murmured and gulped. "I blamed you for… for Sirius's death…"
Snape's cheeks reddened, but he didn't erupt.
"I see," he croaked instead.
"I don't blame you now." Harry stared at his lap, grateful to Snape for not yelling at him. "In reality, I knew it was my fault, and Sirius's fault too… but mostly mine. I didn't take our lessons as seriously as I should have to…"
"Damn true!" Snape cried out and Harry jerked.
"I'm sorry," Harry felt the effects of the Calming Draught lessening again and his voice trembled. "It was my fault…"
But then, a strong hand grabbed his shoulder and shook him forcefully.
"Potter, look at me!" Snape ordered in an authoritative manner and Harry complied. "It's true that you didn't take our lessons as seriously as you needed to. But the other things weren't solely your fault. Dumbledore made his mistakes as much as I did mine. Black's death is our fault too, and even Black's fault, because he, as an adult, should have been more insightful and mature, but he was always…" Snape suddenly caught himself and didn't finish the sentence. "You can't be blamed for an adult's deeds. You have your own responsibilities, which you should take more seriously – even now. You quit Potions. But you quit Occlumency too, although even with Black's death the problem with the Dark Lord being in your mind wasn't solved. And your grades… and that lurking in the Astronomy Tower…" he sneered again. "Dumbledore worried sick about you and you behaved even more like a drama queen with that indignant… Sorry," he interrupted himself again.
"No, sir, you're right…" Harry said and his breath hitched painfully.
Snape's face darkened in annoyance.
"You shouldn't have been left alone during the whole summer to grieve and stomach those things in your own." He stood up and began to pace. "I see what Albus's point was with leaving you with your family, mostly now that the war has officially begun, but then again, it's obvious you didn't handle last year's happenings well…"
Harry felt as if he were a little child and annoyance swirled in him, but he swallowed it back hard. He didn't want another confrontation or to risk their brand new civility just because he thought he was more mature than Snape gave him credit for. And basically, the professor was right: he hadn't digested Sirius's death on the top of all that had happened to him last year, and this year's misfortune and emptiness were the direct consequences of them.
So, he just sat in silence listening to Snape's grumbling.
"Well," the man seemed to finish his half-reprimanding speech and stopped in front of Harry. "I think we should give those Remedial Potions another go."
"Do you mean Potions or Occlumency, sir?" Harry asked confused.
"Potions, of course. I don't think I'm the most appropriate person to teach you Occlumency, Potter," Snape's eyes glittered coldly. "I told Dumbledore the same last year. Some level of trust is needed for those lessons to be effective on your behalf. That was one of the many reasons for last year's absolute ineffectiveness: we both distrusted each other. I think you should go and ask the Headmaster for those Occlumency lessons."
Harry shrugged slightly and sighed. He didn't want to go to Dumbledore. He didn't want to feel the stirring of the snake inside every time he looked at the old man, and, on the other hand, he didn't want the Headmaster to know even more things about him than he already knew. But telling Snape all these thoughts could cause another, entirely unnecessary argument.
"When do you want me to come for those lessons, then?" he asked instead.
Snape tapped his chin in thought.
"Generally, on Monday I brew potions for the Infirmary, so you can come and help with them. The majority of those potions are quite simple, so I don't think you will have difficulties," he smiled slyly, but Harry dismissed his annoyance with a slight snort. "And Thursday, after dinner would be an excellent time for actual studies…"
"Twice a week?" Harry asked uncertainly. It was true that they had, apparently, made a truce, but it didn't immediately mean that he wanted to spend all his spare time with his Potions instructor.
"Just until you catch up with the advanced curriculum class, Mr Potter. I hope it will be done by Christmas break, which is seven weeks from now…"
"And what if I'm not talented enough to catch up with them?" Harry smirked.
"Oh, be assured, Mr Potter," Snape's sly smile widened so that the yellowish teeth became visible. "If I'd wanted, even Longbottom could have been able to pass his O.W.L.s."
For a short moment, anger swirled in Harry, but it passed as quickly as it had come, and Harry snorted again in amusement.
"Why would you make me a Potions student, sir?" he asked, and let some cheekiness filter into his tone.
"You don't know Minerva McGonagall, Mr Potter." This time a real smile curved Snape's lips upwards. "If she once gets something into that thick head of hers, nobody can make her change her mind, ever. And last year, she decided to make an Auror of you, so…"
Harry couldn't bite back a short laugh.
"So, practically, it was she who arranged all this…?" He didn't elaborate the "this" part, but Snape seemed to understand and shook his head.
"No, Mr Potter. Practically, it was you," the smile disappeared from his face and his expression turned serious once again. "Although I have to confess, we both were worried about you."
"Both?" Harry looked up in disbelief.
"Come on, Mr Potter. I might be the monster of the dungeons, but I'm still a teacher and it's my job to see if something is amiss with the children under my care. It's not as though your behaviour wasn't transparent enough…"
"Oh," Harry blushed. "So you were worried..."
"Just professionally," Snape added flatly and stepped away from Harry's chair. "Now you can go, Mr Potter, and see you tomorrow."
"Oh," Harry stood up and strode across to the door. But when his hand was already on the latch, he cast a glance to Snape, who was still standing in the same spot. "Thank you, professor," he half-spoke, half-whispered into the dim room.
Snape didn't react, but as Harry stepped out of the door, he suddenly heard him speaking up, "Twenty points to Gryffindor for a job well done."
That evening, Harry found everything much easier. It began at dinner, when he saw the Gryffindor hourglass with the added points (nobody could imagine how Gryffindor had received twenty points on a Sunday, but Harry didn't say a word, just sat and ate in silence) and it lasted all evening, to Hermione's amazement and Ron's relief. When finally they were alone in a corner of the common room, Harry surprised them.
"It was Snape who gave those twenty points."
Ron nodded absentmindedly as he tried to understand his Transfiguration text, but Hermione's eyes grew wide.
Harry shrugged and smirked widely.
"For cleaning the Potions classroom."
"But…," Hermione furrowed her brows, "it was a detention! And Snape has never given Gryffindor points before! It's unheard of!"
"And he offered to accept me into his Advanced Potions class," he said simply.
Hermione's jaw fell, and Ron's Transfiguration book clapped aloud on the floor.
"WHAT?" the red-headed boy jumped to his feet. "What? Did you mention points? And being accepted into that blasted Advanced Potions class?"
"My cleaning skills must have enchanted him…" Harry tapped his chin as if in thought and smirked.
"No," Hermione shook her head.
"Yes," Harry replied.
"What did you make him drink?" Ron asked suspiciously.
Hermione didn't find their conversation amusing.
"What happened, then?" she asked sternly.
Harry finished the joking and sighed.
"We had a talk. We apologised to each other. That's all."
Ron shook his head as if there was water in his ears.
"But why did you have to apologise? You didn't do anything to him! It was always him who treated you like shit!" By the end of the sentence, his voice was pitched in indignation.
Harry leaned down, picked Ron's book up from the floor and put it on their desk, glaring around. Only after everybody returned their own business did he explain, "But I did, Ron. Last year, he ended our Occlumency lessons, because I looked into his Pensieve."
"And what did you see?" Ron looked intrigued, but Hermione glared at him disapprovingly.
"Ron!" she turned to Harry and her expression was beyond reprimanding. "That was very, very rude of you, Harry!
"I know. That was the reason he kicked me out of those Occlumency lessons."
Hermione's face darkened, but she didn't utter a word. Ron, on the contrary, was really curious.
"Hey, mate! You should tell me what you've seen!"
Harry shook his head firmly.
"I can't. I promised him not to tell anybody. It was something really personal."
"Death Eaters? You-Know-Who?" Ron guessed.
"RON!" Hermione and Harry yelled in unison. Ron rolled his eyes.
"It's none of your business, Ron," Harry flung his arms up. "I can't tell you."
Ron frowned, but didn't press the topic. Hermione, on the other hand, leaned forward.
"And why did he want to talk to you all of a sudden?"
"I broke down," Harry answered simply. "I thought I was alone. I was, really, but he had some warning spell on the classroom and it alerted him that something had happened."
"Warning spell?" Hermione seemed suspicious.
"I think he and Professor McGonagall were waiting for me to break down," Harry explained, smiling slightly.
"And he didn't mock you for crying?" Ron scratched his neck and his disbelieving expression deepened. "Strange. He must have some human feelings after all…"
This time, Hermione didn't disapprove, which meant that she agreed with Ron.
"Well, not only they were waiting for this," she said deep in thought.
"For what?" Harry didn't understand.
"For you to break down," she answered matter-of-factly. "You were under such huge internal pressure…"
"Was it that apparent?" Harry was taken aback. Both Ron and Hermione nodded.
"Will you accept his offer?" Hermione asked suddenly.
"I don't know yet," Harry sighed. "I will have some real Remedial Potions and he can decide if he wants me in his class or not." He smiled. "Anyway, he promised to treat me civilly."
"I have to see that room," Ron smirked. "You must be quite a skilled cleaner, if he even offered civil terms!"
The next day, when Harry went to his private lesson with Snape, he felt the old dread approaching him again, the dread he had felt only before Potions lessons, and for awhile he was considering turning back. But in the end, common sense won and Harry knocked on the door of Snape's office.
"Come in," the usual cold voice barked and Harry suddenly regretted his previous decision. He wasn't in the mood to bear Snape's cold and hurting remarks about his incompetence. "Come in!" the voice repeated louder, so Harry took a deep breath and entered.
"Oh, it's you," Snape looked up from a simmering cauldron. "Close the door."
Harry complied and stepped ahead tentatively.
"Come here," Snape said irritatedly. "I promise I won't bite."
Harry forced a smile and almost tiptoed closer to the working desk. Snape showed him a thick, open book and with a slight nod he motioned Harry next to him, where a knife and six piles of ingredients were waiting for him to begin.
With a sudden decision, Harry took off his outer robes, and with a sigh, he prepared to work. Soon, he was standing next to Snape chopping and piling, slicing and smashing ingredients in the order he was told or he read in the book, while, from time to time, Snape gave him short explanations about the difference between brewing methods and characteristics of different ingredients. Harry felt absolutely useless as he tried to follow Snape's advice and orders; his powdered dragon teeth seemed more smashed than powdered and he even managed to chip the knife. His hands trembled in nervousness as he handed the prepared ingredients over, but Snape didn't utter a word, although the potion in the end turned pink instead of lilac.
"That's enough for today," the Potions Master said, and when Harry wanted to apologise for his clumsiness, the man simply smirked. "For the first try, it was almost acceptable…"
"Almost?" Harry asked uncertainly. Snape's smirk widened.
"Well, not an A, but not a D either. A fair P, I'd say."
"I told you… sir."
Snape raised an eyebrow.
"It was just the first lesson. Don't worry, Mr Potter, it will be much better – if you pay any attention, that is."
Before leaving, Snape gave him some books, with precise instructions on what to read in them before Thursday.
It took several sessions for Harry to get used to working with Snape, but by the end of November, he found their time together almost comforting. Their conversations somehow always eased the burden on his soul. Generally, they talked about Potions, but after the first week, other topics appeared during their common sessions: Quidditch, history, the wizarding community or other students and teachers.
From time to time Snape mixed some personal references into their talks, but the first time he concretely referred to Harry's problems happened in the second week of November, on a Monday 'Infirmary Session' as Harry called it.
"Professor McGonagall told me she hasn't seen you in the Astronomy Tower in the last few weeks," Snape told him in that strange, chatting tone they generally used, while they were brewing a mild strengthening potion. Harry didn't react, just muttered something unintelligible under his breath. "What?" Snape insisted.
"I have no time to go there," Harry repeated in embarrassment. "I've got my homework and essays and even this Potions stuff…"
"Oh," Snape lifted an eyebrow. "If you think it hinders you in more important issues, we can stop this…"
Harry looked up surprised.
"No," he said, but then something came to mind. "But if you don't want it, sir…"
"Oh, no, not at all. Having free help is always handy…"
"Free?" Harry's eyes widened. "All those ingredients I wasted…"
"Never mind. It wasn't my money, and on the other hand you would have wasted the same amount of raw materials in classes, or even more. So why did you give up going to the Astronomy Tower then?"
Harry stirred the potion several times before answering.
"After that… cupboard accident, I couldn't grieve for Sirius any more," he said softly. "The way they, he treated you somehow… killed something in me," his words were quiet, but clear. "I just… couldn't love him any more the way I did him before. What they did was unforgivable… even if they were kids. The thing I saw in your Pensieve," he cast an apologising glance towards his professor, but the man nodded, inviting him to continue "was humiliating and everything, but… locking you in that cupboard… was unforgivable."
"That didn't happen only once," Snape's voice was hoarse and he didn't lift his eyes from the monkshood he was chopping. "They stopped just after the fourth or fifth occasion when I cursed your father so hard that he almost died." His mouth curled into a sly smile, but it soon disappeared and was replaced by a bitter expression. "I earned a month of detention and one hundred points were taken from Slytherin and nobody listened to me when I said I was just protecting myself… After that, everybody in my own house hated me too…"
Harry didn't say a word, just prepared the next ingredient in silence, and apparently Snape felt the same way, because that day neither of them talked anymore.
The disturbed awkwardness disappeared by their next meeting, for which Harry was very grateful. They continued to talk about the usual matters, but this time, Snape arrived at the non-neutral topics faster than the previous occasion.
"How are your Occlumency lessons going?" he asked in the middle of brewing the quite complicated Invisibility Potion, which was a part of the fifth-year curriculum.
Harry pretended he didn't hear the question, but his tactic failed, because the silence told Snape everything he wanted to hide.
"It's highly irresponsible behaviour, Mr Potter," he looked down his nose at Harry with his brows furrowed angrily. "You know the possible consequences…"
"I practice clearing my mind every night!" Harry snapped and turned his head away.
"That's not enough!" Snape lifted his voice and his irritation was perfectly obvious to Harry. "That's an important part of it, but not even close to being enough!"
Harry dropped the knife on the desk and folded his arms over his chest.
"I don't want to study Occlumency with Dumbledore and I won't!" he cried, annoyed.
"NO!" Harry bellowed and stepped back from Snape, who now was infuriated.
"Even if you deduct every point from Gryffindor, I don't mind!" Harry trembled in anger and desperation. "I can't go to Dumbledore! I can't open my mind to him! I don't want his help, his advice, his orders, I don't want to live a carefully regimented life, I don't want to fight with Voldemort and I don't want to die! You weren't there last year!" he unfolded his arms and hit the desk with his fist. "You don't know how he treated me, ordered me around without one sincere word! He didn't even talk to me after Sirius's death!" he almost shrieked the last words, but now, at the mention of Sirius's name, he suddenly regained his composure. He collapsed to a chair and looked at Snape apologising. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't want to…"
"It's okay," Snape sighed and after putting out the fire, sat next to him. The potion was spoiled anyway. "But… Potter, you have to forgive him and start Occlumency again. It's very, very important. And the Headmaster is a very skilled and patient teacher…." he didn't add, but Harry seemed to hear, the second half of the sentence, 'unlike me'.
"I'd rather learn Occlumency from you," he muttered, embarrassed.
"What?" Snape looked at him as if he had grown another limb.
"I'd rather learn Occlumency from you," Harry repeated, this time a little louder.
The man looked at him in total disbelief.
"Have you gone mad, Potter? I've already told you that for successful Occlumency studies there has to be a trusting relationship between teacher and pupil," he said as if he were talking to a mentally disabled child.
"I know, I'm not that daft not to remember." He couldn't help rolling his eyes. "But… but I trust you more than the headmaster."
Harry's simple sentence silenced Snape. The Potions Master stared at Harry for a long time, then jumped to his feet.
"You think it's a good joke, isn't it, Potter?" he snapped.
"No," Harry replied as quickly as he could. "Not a joke. It's the truth."
Snape released a short, bitter laugh.
"Do you really think I will believe this crap? I'm not that daft either, Mr Potter!"
"But it's true!" Harry stood up and tapped his foot angrily.
"Why should you?"
"Why shouldn't I?" Harry asked back forcing himself to remain calm. "You were worried about me even if you don't like me. You helped me after that with these lessons and talking…" his ears turned red in embarrassment. "I don't know, but since we began… began to work together, I simply feel better." Snape eyed him warily. Harry sighed. "If you don't believe me, you can cast Legilimens on me," he said. "Or make me drink Veritaserum. I know you've always wanted that."
The disbelieving expression on Snape's face slowly was replaced with an amused andsurprised one.
"It's a pity your father or godfather couldn't hear that statement," he smirked.
Harry bit his lips together not to snap angrily. "I'm not them," he muttered darkly.
Snape snorted, but didn't comment.
"You have to master Occlumency, Potter," he said quietly later.
"Can you… can you teach me again, sir?" he asked, but his throat was so narrow with nervousness that he could barely speak.
"Are you sure you can trust me?" Snape's voice was soft, but steady.
"Yes," Harry answered firmly. "And you…?"
Snape shifted and cleared his throat.
"If you promise you won't spy on my Pensieve any more, Mr Potter, I'm in."
Harry forced himself to look up straight into Snape's cold, black eyes.
"I promise. And I'm really sorry I did."
For a very long moment, Snape stared back unwavering. "Very well, then. But what will your friends say when they learn you spend three evenings with the mean, Slytherin monster?"
"Ron will think I went even more mad than I was before. Hermione will be happy I am continuing Occlumency. Last year, she always harassed me about it." He leaned backward. "But, seriously, I think they are grateful to you."
"Grateful," Snape repeated sarcastically. "What for?"
"For helping me," Harry said. Snape snorted but didn't make another comment.
By the beginning of Christmas holidays, Harry felt utterly exhausted and not only a little bit behind in his studies. Fortunately, Hermione constructed a study plan for Harry for the holidays and both she and Ron decided to stay and study, so Harry had the hope of catching up with all those things he had neglected in the first two months of school.
Hermione let them have free evenings, so Harry could enjoy some tea with Hagrid and once even with McGonagall, who was absolutely pleased with the improvement in Harry's grades and behaviour.
Although Snape declared their Remedial Potions finished, Harry didn't give up going to the Occlumency lessons, and to their 'Infirmary sessions' to brew potions for Madam Pomfrey. When Harry, after Snape's dismissal of him from Remedial Potions, had first returned the next Monday, the Potions Master had seemed bewildered.
"What are you doing here, Potter?" he barked nervously.
"You said free help is always handy," Harry answered cheekily and slipped into the room next to the frozen Snape.
"So, you decided not to have mercy on Madam Pomfrey and waste even more of the school's potions ingredients," he said in a voice which was intended to sound cold, but Harry just grinned.
Harry's reaction jolted Snape even more.
"I've never thought I would agree with a Weasley in my life, but you really have gone mad, Potter," he whispered wide-eyed, but he didn't protest again.
That had been the occasion when Harry realised how easy and somehow warm their relationship had become. Even his Occlumency studies had progressed tremendously. When he asked Snape about the reasons for this fast improvement, he answered Harry in his usual manner.
"Honestly, Potter, I don't have to explain you about trust!" he snapped.
"My trust or yours?" Harry asked back.
"Both, you stupid kid."
The answer surprised Harry enough to dare ask the question he had been long curious about, "Sir, why didn't you destroy that… cupboard door?"
"Because I couldn't," Snape hissed back, but Harry couldn't detect venom his tone, just embarrassment.
"They cast some protecting Charm on it, I guess," he said irritated. "I tried to break it many times, you can imagine… I think it was Black who found that Charm in his home library… I can't break it until I know precisely what the spell is," he waved dismissively. "Off you go now, Potter, those Gryffindor friends of yours will be nervous if you spend too much of your time here… They will think the Slytherin monster consumed you for dinner…"
Leaving, Harry was thinking about Snape's unsuccessful attempts. Those prats! How did they dare…! But even if Snape couldn't break that Charm, he would. He had an advantage Snape didn't have, after all: he knew one of the people who had cast it. And Christmas was quite near anyway…
The real breakthrough in their relationship happened on Christmas Eve, a very adequate date to make peace and such things in your life.
They were having Christmas dinner in the Great Hall, the eleven of them: just the three Gryffindors and a Hufflepuff second year (she had to move into Gryffindor tower though) remained in the school this year out of the student population, and seven adults: Dumbledore, McGonagall, Snape, Trelawney, Hagrid, Flitwick and Filch. Snape, after having a few spoonfuls of the traditional vegetable soup, suddenly stood up and left the hall in an obvious hurry.
Dumbledore's eyes flickered after him worriedly, Harry flinched and his appetite disappeared. He could imagine only one reason for Snape's behaviour, and Dumbledore's reaction just confirmed his anxiousness: his ex-master had summoned the Potions Master. Deliberately, he looked at the Headmaster questioningly, without worrying about waking the snake inside, and he was greeted by two unblinking blue eyes, which didn't turn away from him. After a short moment, Dumbledore smiled and lifted his thumb up almost invisibly. "Professor Snape will be all right," his message was clear.
But Harry just couldn't stop worrying. Soon he excused himself, went back to the now-silent Gryffindor common room and collapsed into a chair in front of the fireplace. An ominous foreboding lingered in his mind, and after some minutes of thinking he even guessed its origin: somewhere deep in his mind, in that part which he fought to close from Voldemort, he felt a sickeningly terrible feeling, a triumphant glee and the expectation of revenge. Harry was frightened. Snape was in mortal danger, he was sure. As he concentrated more on that part of his mind, suddenly his scar flared painfully, and his worry grew tenfold.
Harry clenched his teeth in pain and pulled out his own wand, grabbing it forcefully and concentrating hard on throwing Voldemort out of his mind… but Voldemort wasn't in his mind, not this time, just those feelings, and with a sudden decision Harry reached out for them more… and even more…
And the next moment he found himself in a dimly lit room, with a wand raised in his hand. His Death Eaters were standing in a semi-circle while a man was whimpering on the floor, in pain of his Cruciatus… Snape. The traitor.
Harry felt hatred burning in his chest and flicked his wand even more. Snape shrieked in pain. Harry smiled, satisfied, and stepped forward toward the trembling figure. When he lowered his wand, the lying figure went silent.
"Let's try now, Severus," he stepped closer and kicked the man in his ribs. "Legilimens!"
Pictures and images of his own appeared in Harry's mind. Him, chopping bat wings, him, stirring a bubbling draught, him, lifting his wand in order to protect himself from Snape's Legilimens spell – things, he could feel, Snape fought not to show, but all those tormenting curses had weakened him too much.
"You will die, Severus," he said as the spell finished and leaned closer to the pale-faced man. Panic flooded Snape's eyes before he could catch himself, panic and dread. "My dear young Malfoy did a wonderful job of revealing you," he lifted his wand and pressed it to Snape's heart.
In that moment, Harry's mind almost blew up as he struggled to break through his mortal enemy's mind. He didn't know what to do, or how to do it precisely, but he had to do something, or Snape would be dead in one moment…
And then he caught himself standing next to his professor, he, not Voldemort but he, Harry, with his own feelings and fears, and with a quick decision he pushed the wand in his hand into Snape's and muttered to the surprised man.
"Disapparate, Professor! Now!" he added, as he felt another presence forcing him out of the possessed body. "Now!" he growled again, and with the last shreds of his will he made Voldemort's body jump back with full force and lost consciousness.
"ALBUS, YOUR GOLDEN BOY IS AN IDIOT!"
Snape's yell was so earth-shattering that Harry woke with a start; he jumped and fell off the bed he was lying on. The next moment, he felt arms pulling him to his feet and back to the bed, while another voice answered in an amused tone, "Severus, you shouldn't be so angry. He saved your life after all."
"Just another Potter I owe a life debt," a voice muttered from above and Harry opened his eyes. "Wonderful," Snape continued, but Harry couldn't see him, just the usual blurs. But his teacher, apparently, had no similar problems. "So you decided to join us, Mr Potter," he snapped.
"As if I could sleep with you bellowing over me," Harry muttered, while Snape made him sit on the bed and slipped his glasses onto his nose.
"Don't be insolent, Potter. Saving me doesn't mean you are allowed to be your usual cheeky self towards me," the words were just so comfortably Snape's that Harry smiled.
"I'm happy you are well too, Professor."
Snape, he saw, rolled his eyes, but a smile was hiding around his thin lips.
"That show of yours was an act of stupidity, Mr Potter, and absolutely unnecessary," the man said dryly. "You shouldn't have done anything…"
"Severus…" Dumbledore shook his head.
Snape shut his mouth and looked at Harry. The boy just shrugged.
"I still don't know how to brew an Invisibility Potion properly, sir," he stretched himself and yawned. "And I need a teacher to master Occlumency too…"
Snape sighed and sat down on the next bed and turned to Harry seriously. From the corner of his eye, Harry saw Dumbledore leaving the room.
"It was a mistake to show him you are strong enough to overcome him," Snape spoke up.
"He wanted to kill you," Harry's reply was calm and guarded. "I… I don't want you to die, sir."
"That's not important, Potter…"
"That's more important than anything else, sir." Harry shifted, but he didn't look away. "I didn't want anybody else to die because of me…"
"It wasn't because of you…"
"Then what else could Malfoy report to him? He probably reported how many times I visited you. At the same time, I became better in Occlumency. I don't think it took him too long to put these facts together." Snape didn't answer. Harry added, his voice even softer, "and you don't owe another life debt, professor. It was me who owed this to you," Harry didn't let Snape interrupt him. "It was just recompense for your protection and the time you wasted on me even though you er… don't like me…"
"I never waste my time, Mr Potter," Snape snapped. "And you didn't owe me anything. What I gave you I gave freely without any thought of recompense or such nonsense…"
"And on the other hand I wanted to give you my Christmas present too."
"That's beautiful. Don't tell me, Potter, you bought me some childish stupidity in the hope I will be touched over your magnanimous gesture!"
Another Snapish reaction. Harry grinned.
"Oh, no, professor. Nothing childish," he crossed his arms over his chest. Snape raised an eyebrow at him, and Harry knew this sign. It stood for a "what". "There are no more Certificates in certain cleaning cupboards…"
Snape's reaction was sudden and unexpected. He jumped to his feet and left the hospital wing without any further word. Harry let out a sigh of frustration and pain as the door closed. Snape still didn't trust him. Perhaps the man still hated him too. And here, he thought they could be friends…
But later that evening, when Madam Pomfrey finally released him and he could return to the Gryffindor Tower, Ron and Hermione almost attacked him in excitement.
"Snape was here!" Ron said grinning. "He was so… unlike him…"
"He brought a big box and asked us to give it to you," Hermione added and pointed to a wrapped box on their usual desk. "And wished us happy Christmas!"
"And gave us twenty points for remaining here for the holidays," Ron finished grinning. "I think you DID something to him, didn't you?"
Harry stepped closer to the box curiously.
"I don't know," he croaked hoarsely. His hands were trembling as he touched the box.
A letter, the first thing he saw was a letter pinned to the wrapped object. Harry looked at his friends first, then opened the letter.
Happy Christmas. And don't forget to come on Monday.
Harry blinked. Snape had just sent him a Christmas gift. Even if the letter was short and almost entirely neutral… it had to mean something. His eyes moistened as slowly he opened the box.
His breath hitched. It was a Pensieve. The same one he had looked into twice already.
Ron and Hermione nodded at him reassuringly.
Harry leaned forward.
As his nose almost touched the silvery surface he felt the familiar sucking feeling and he was pulled into somebody's memories again – but for the first time in his life, he wasn't preying on their secrets and thoughts, it was an absolutely legal and willing act…
He couldn't go on with thinking.
He was standing face-to-face with his mother. She was just like in those photos: beautiful. In surprise, Harry backed away., He could see Dumbledore standing close to her, leaning slightly forward, and they both were staring at the small bundle in her arms. A baby. Harry's chest tightened. It was he and his mother together – and this time it wasn't just a photo or a description: it was as if he were a participant in the event.
They were in the hospital wing, Harry recognised it immediately, but it was only the two of them. His father, James, was nowhere to be seen.
"So, what do you want to call him?" Dumbledore's sudden question made Harry jump and step back even more, so he could see the third person in the room: Severus Snape standing in the doorway, a fact both of the others were oblivious to. This Severus Snape was a little different from the man Harry had known from classes: he was thin, much thinner than now, so that his cheekbones stood out prominently in his face. His hair was longer, but still greasy, his nose hooked, but not crooked and his skin didn't have that unhealthy yellowish shade it would have later. Still, he didn't look much better than in that other memory Harry had had the misfortune to see, although age had improved his appearance slightly.
"Harold, like my father. And I think James would want him to bear his name as well," the young woman replied uncertainly and smiled down at the baby in her arms. Harry's heart warmed up.
"That will be fine," the Headmaster smiled and leaned closer to the small, sleeping form. Next to Harry, Severus Snape made a tentative step forward with a distant expression on his face. What was that? Longing? Jealousy? Harry couldn't decide.
"I think he is beautiful," she beamed merrily to Dumbledore.
"He is like his father," the Headmaster said.
"Yes, but he has my eyes. And," she sighed, "I hope he will be more like me than his reckless daddy…" she caressed the baby's head softly.
In this moment, Snape decided to speak up.
"Headmaster," he said in a businesslike tone. "If you'll excuse me…"
Dumbledore tore his eyes off Harry.
"Severus," he smiled at the awkwardly thin young man. "Come nearer," he waved at him, but Snape appeared reluctant to move.
"I'd rather not, Headmaster," he said stiffly and averted his gaze from Harry's mother and the child. "I came because of an important matter," he added.
Harry couldn't help but feel sorry for him.
"Severus…" Dumbledore began again, but this time Lily Potter interrupted him.
"No, Albus. This is James's kid. I understand Severus doesn't want to see him," she turned to Snape and they exchanged a somehow understanding glance.
Dumbledore stood up.
"Let's go then, Severus…"
And with this, the short scene ended. But before Harry could meditate on what he had seen, another memory swirled into focus.
"Evans, at least listen to me, because that git of your husband will not!" The same young Severus Snape was looming over Harry's mother, while a toddler Harry looked up at the menacing figure with curled-down lips. Harry smiled to himself. Apparently, Snape had managed to depress him long before he had come to Hogwarts… "The Dark Lord is after you. You have to try something… the best would be if you go under a Fidelius. He wants the boy," he nodded at Harry, who in that moment began to cry silently. "If you want to protect him, listen to me."
His mother seemed scared, but nodded and pressed Harry to herself tightly. The little boy cuddled to her chest and buried his face in her robes.
"Thanks, but… Severus… why are you helping us?" She cracked a genuine smile at the long figure.
"That's none of your business, Evans," he shrugged and straightened himself. "But only one thing in exchange: don't turn your precious son into another bully, if I can ask you…"
A pained expression flickered over his mother's face.
"Severus, I promise, as long as I live I will do everything to make grow Harry up into a better kid than James," a thought later she added. "And don't forget: Harry is not only James's son. He is my son too…"
"We'll see," The future Potions Master sneered and stalked out of the room.
Harry found himself in the Gryffindor common room again. With a quick decision, he pushed himself to his feet and after a few short, reassuring words to his friends, he climbed out of the Fat Lady's portrait and ran as fast as he could to the dungeons.
For a moment, he felt lost. There was no light under the door of Snape's office, and he didn't really know where the professor's personal quarters were. But soon, he discovered another door, quite close to the office, so Harry took a deep breath and knocked.
He didn't have to wait for too long. It came out that they were indeed Snape's quarters, because it was the Potions Master himself who opened the door.
"Potter?" he looked at Harry, but before he could say another word, Harry stepped up to him and hugged him tightly for a long moment.
"Thank you, Professor. This was the best present I've ever had. And happy Christmas too," he whispered to the absolutely shocked man.
When he released Snape and tried to flee, a heavy hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"Harry, wait." Snape's voice was hoarse with emotions and a little trembling. Harry turned around, astounded at the usage of his first name.
"I just wanted to say that your mother was right. You are not your father. I should have seen it long ago…" Snape sighed and Harry gulped. "And… I'm sorry…"
The long-needed apology shocked Harry more than his affectionate display had shocked Snape.
"That…that's all right, sir," he stuttered and cracked a timid smile.
Snape smiled back.
"See you on Monday, then. Now go and enjoy the holidays! I'm sure those friends of yours are already waiting for you. Happy Christmas."
"Yes," Harry's smile widened. "On Monday, sir. And once again, Happy Christmas."
After the door clicked shut Harry headed back to the Gryffindor Tower.
"What happened, mate?" Ron greeted him first, seeing Harry's absentminded expression.
"The impossible," Harry answered grinning. "I hugged Snape and he called me Harry."
"You – what?" Ron gaped at him, but Hermione laughed, freshly, freely, merrily.
"I think he has became somehow fond of you, Harry. I don't know how you did it…"
Harry's face fell.
"He is not fond of me, Hermione. He is just tolerating me…"
Hermione jumped toward him and hit his chest playfully with her fist.
"Tolerating… Come on, Harry, try again! He gives you extra lessons freely, of his own will, he gives you his memories, he calls you by your first name…"
"Do you really think so?" he asked in a thin voice and something like hope burgeoned in his chest.
"I don't know why it is so important to you, mate, but I think Hermione is right," Ron's low voice sounded amused.
Harry lifted his eyes to his friends. They both were smiling at him reassuringly. In that moment, as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders, suddenly, he felt good – simply good without any sorrow and uneasiness, for the first time since Sirius's death. The emptiness disappeared together with the feeling of meaninglessness, just a fine, glowing warmth remaining in their places.
Harry finally smiled again.
It felt like his best Christmas ever.