Severus Snape takes a seat at high table, neither looking at nor speaking to anyone until he has pointed his wand at his goblet, watched as it fills with claret, and drained it at a single go.
Snape is not a heavy drinker, but he has always made a special exception for the night of the Welcoming Feast, having learned long ago that extra fortification will be necessary if he intends to survive the evening with his nerves intact. In a few days he will again have adjusted to the presence of the students, shattering the fragile peace that reigns in the corridors during the summer months, but until then the sound of hundreds of chattering adolescent voices will haunt him in his sleep, like crickets outside the window of a town-bred man on holiday in the country.
At least, he thinks, he isn't the only the only member of staff who requires a bit of bracing up at the start of term. The golden-brown liquid in McGonagall's teacup may be look like tea, but it certainly doesn't smell like Darjeeling.
The feast begins, then. Snape sits scowling at his empty plate through the Sorting, glancing up through his hair only when new members of his own House are announced. When Dumbledore at last begins his welcoming speech, Snape allows his eyes to travel over the assembled mass of students ranged in the Great Hall before him, finding everything just as expected. There is Draco, holding court among the elder Slytherins; there are the huddled knot of new Slytherin first years, whispering nervously and shooting him quick looks over their shoulders; there is the new Head Boy (Hufflepuff) and Girl (Ravenclaw), looking proud and polished and perfectly pompous; and there is—ah.
Looking as rangy, underfed, and bright of eye as he always does at the start of term.
Snape rakes the boy with his gaze and finds himself suddenly...perplexed.
There's something different about Potter tonight.
He can't quite pin down what, precisely, has changed, but he spends most of the rest of the feast trying to do so. There is nothing obviously unusual in his appearance, no alteration to the badly mended glasses, overlarge clothing, or untidy black hair he always sports. Just a lingering sense of wrongness, invisible perhaps to anyone who does not know the brat as Snape does.
He is, after all, the only member of staff who has ever been able to see Potter clearly—to look past the innocent facade and bright, soulful eyes, and know when the boy is up to something.
The boy is always up to something.
And if there is, in fact, some kind of spell at work (a glamor, perhaps?) altering the boy's appearance, then it is unlikely to be there for no good reason.
And now Snape knows, providing him with all the reason he needs to make the first week of Potter's return to school as unpleasant as scholastically possible. It is enough to turn his usual start of term ill-temper into good cheer.
Just then a voice speaks to the right of him, startling him from his daydreams of assigning Potter a two-year long detention, and nearly causing him to upset his wine into his parsnip.
"Jinxes need eye contact, Professor Snape," it says, sounding rather amused.
He turns to look at Minerva McGonagall, who is not quite smiling as she begins to carve up her meat.
"I beg your pardon?" he inquires stiffly, dabbing a spot of wine from the back of his hand.
"There's no hex or curse I know of that can be cast by boring one's gaze through the back of a person's head," she continues calmly. "Or I would have used it myself by now."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," he says, addressing himself to his own dinner with a will.
"Of course not," she says calmly, but the smile does not leave her face.
Snape keeps his eyes on his own plate for the rest of the meal.
The boy's head jerks up from over his cauldron, and his eyes meet Snape's, wary and a little fearful.
Despite the fact that the first sixth year Potions class of the term is nearly over and no one in it has provided Snape a single excuse to take points from Gryffindor, the boy's look is enough to fill him with a warm, satisfied glow.
"Remain after class," he tells him.
Potter does not reply, but a bright spark of frustration ignites in his eyes. He jerks his head in a nod and returns to his work, which, much to Snape's disappointment, fails to explode in his face before the end of class.
Granger and Weasley throw sympathetic looks at Potter as they file past his desk on the way out the door, which merely confirms Snape's suspicions. Of course they would be in on whatever scheme the boy is planning. Probably they are as fearful for their own skins as his.
When the classroom is empty, Potter stands before his desk with a strangely unreadable look on his magic-distorted features. Snape has gathered his wand, but has not yet managed to raise it or speak the incantation he means to before the boy starts to speak in a high, strained voice.
"Sir," he blurts out. "I'd like to say something, please."
Snape blinks. Confession, perhaps? Unlikely, from someone as arrogant as Potter, but he is curious despite himself.
"What might that be, Potter?" he says, arching an eyebrow.
"I want to apologize, sir. For looking into that Pensieve last term."
At Snape's look, he begins to speak in a rush, as though afraid Snape might jinx him before he has managed to get it all out. "And I want to apologize for my father, too."
Then he waits, not quite managing to look at Snape.
It is, Snape tells himself, even as his gut twists unpleasantly with a mixture of foreboding and anger, undoubtedly a scheme of some kind—the boy, perhaps, has figured out that Snape suspects him, and hopes to derail the coming inquiry with this display of remorse. But Snape will not be derailed, and now he finds that he wants to know what the boy will say, how far he will take the charade.
So he looks at the boy, an expression of mockingly polite attention on his face, and eventually Potter sucks down a breath and continues.
"I know you think I'm just like him," he says, staring down at the desk. "I used to think—used to hope that I was. Everyone said so, and I never heard anything but good things about him, and—I thought I knew what he was like. So I never believed—the things you said about him. But then I saw that memory, and—well, he was wrong to do that to you." His voice changes, growing pained, a little wistful. "And I don't think I can be much like him. I think—if I'd been at school with him, he'd have picked on me too. I'm not—good at stuff, like he was. I'm not popular."
He looks up, but not at Snape. His gaze is trained somewhere in the distance, and there is a faint flush rising from inside his collar. "Still, he was my father. And I hate feeling ashamed of him, it's like losing him again. So I figure if you can hate me because of how he was, I can apologize to you for what he did. Since he can't do it himself, and I want to think that he would, if he could. And I know you won't believe this," Potter darts a glance up at Snape, then looks away again, "but I swear I wasn't trying to—invade your privacy or anything when I looked into that thing. I didn't know the stuff in it would be personal. I thought it would be something about the visions I was having—and no one would tell me anything about that, so..."
Potter trails off, and after a moment, shrugs. "Anyway, I'm sorry. That's all."
Snape stares at him for a long moment.
He has to give the boy credit. He has done the thing very well. A lesser man may well have been taken in. The gestures, the slight, shuffling hesitation, the way he can't seem to quite meet his eyes—all of it might read as sincerity, to anyone who did not know Potter as well as he.
It is a long moment before Snape speaks again. When he manages it, he finds his throat rough, and a little dry.
"Look at me, Potter."
The boy lifts his head. He looks strangely—hopeful. A consummate actor indeed.
"Apology accepted," says Snape coolly, then raises his wand. "Finite Incantantem."