Snape welcomes the chill of the dungeons at this time of year, when the air outside is still thick with summer heat. Compared to the close, over-heated atmosphere of the infirmary, his quarters are downright comfortable. No doubt this is why he feels such relief at returning to them and escaping the hospital wing at last. It has nothing to do with not wanting to face Potter when he woke up, or the shame and anxiety he endured while sitting nearly two hours by the boy's bed, waiting for his return to consciousness. Snape's ears are still ringing with Poppy's lecture on the interactions between the valerian in painless sleep draught and the belladonna extract in Skele-Gro. He had known perfectly well what would happen if the boy didn't drink the mugwort elixir in time to neutralize the excess soporific, a knowledge that rendered Poppy's harangue even less palatable than it would otherwise have been. The boy had been in his charge—Snape had allowed himself to be distracted, and Potter had paid for it, after an already trying day.
Not that Snape's day has been much better.
It is almost a pleasure to sink into his usual post-dinner routine of marking papers. A little harmless venting in the margins of the Hufflepuff first year essays on hellebore is just the thing to take his mind off the events of the afternoon. Snape loses himself in the work for a few hours; it is nearly time for him to finish up and prepare for his nightly patrol of the corridors, when he hears the sharp crack of Apparition that usually denotes the arrival of a house-elf. He looks up from his desk, but no one, elf or otherwise, is in the room with him.
Then his eyes fall on a roll of parchment, now lying atop a stack of books on the low table before his hearth. He is quite certain it had not been there a moment ago.
Standing, Snape steps around his desk towards the table and snatches the parchment up. He breaks the brittle wax seal with a deft gesture and unrolls the parchment with a snap of his wrist.
He recognizes the handwriting immediately, though he has never seen it in a non-academic context before. But why has Potter written to him? There had been nothing in his own letter that had called for a response—unless the boy truly is as dim as he had intimated and Granger had not been available to interpret the information the letter contained.
Intrigued despite himself, Snape starts to read.
Dear Professor Snape, it begins.
Thank you very much for the missive you conveyed to me earlier this afternoon. I was most appreciative of the information you were gracious enough to bestow on me. I apologize for my laxitude in not soliciting the pertinent details of your interview with my uncle when we spoke previously. It is borne in upon me that you must have had other tasks of higher priority which you set aside for my convenience and I would be remiss if I did not extend my gratitude for your solicitousness.
Snape stares down at the parchment in his hands, feeling his lips twitch in burgeoning amusement. Missive? Laxitude?
A whim seizes him; he scans the lines again, counting, and comes up with five words of four syllables or more. This time a snort of laughter escapes before he can contain it. Clearly, his jab at Potter's vocabulary has been interpreted in the light of a challenge. How...entertaining.
Snape sinks into the armchair behind him, smirking, and leans back to enjoy the rest of Potter's awkward adolescent ire in leisure.
The letter continues:
I also wish to thank you for your consideration with regards to the matter we discussed after class today. My own behavior cannot have failed to communicate my initial reluctance to relate the particulars of the situation, but if I had known how you would react I think I would have been less reluctant. It was very kind of you to heal me; I had almost forgotten what it was like not to be in pain. I know that you would rather have sent me to Madam Pomfrey directly, but your ministrations enabled me not to be embarrassed when I did see her. I know that I reacted badly at the time, but I really am very grateful for everything you did for me today. All those things I said about Professor Dumbledore were really stupid and you were right to make me talk to him. So thanks for that too.
By the time he pauses again, the smirk has slipped from his lips. That paragraph, Snape reflects, was rather less amusing. Disturbing is a better word for it—how the stiff, badly rendered formality gradually gives way to language that is more natural, more sincere sounding, at the same time that the sentiments expressed convert from mere perfunctory courtesy to something more revealing. He has no doubt that the gratitude the boy expresses is genuine, pathetically so—as though he is truly surprised that Snape (or anyone) would take the trouble to relieve any part of his suffering. But then, it is all in accord with the boy's behavior from the moment his injuries were revealed. Clearly, he has learned to accept cruelty as a matter of course; common decency, much less kindness, has been the exception in his life.
Snape stares reluctantly at the remainder of the page. The prospect of delving even further into the miasma of Potter's damaged psyche does not fill him with enthusiasm, but he feels a sense of obligation he cannot ignore. He continues reading.
Please know that I have disposed of your communication in accordance with your instructions, and that the other item you included will similarly be treated with the greatest of care and used only as you have directed. It means a lot to me that you would give it to me. I hope I won't need it, but knowing me I probably will. I feel safer having it and knowing you are looking out for me despite how little I've done to deserve it. I know what you're probably thinking, but I won't use it as an excuse to be reckless. It would be very ungrateful of me to put you in danger by pulling a stupid stunt and getting in over my head—so I won't.
One last thing—I know you said it was stupid, but I really do want to apologize for my uncle being rude to you, since you never would have had to see him if not for me. Thank you again for everything.
Well, Snape thinks, after a moment of rather stunned thoughtlessness. What am I to do with this?
It is his own fault, he realizes, once he has sorted through the conflicting emotions inspired by Potter's artless confessions. He should never have written to the boy. Doing so cemented an attachment that would otherwise have flickered and died, had he merely walked out of the hospital wing that afternoon and treated the boy the same as ever in his next Potions class. Had he stopped to consider his actions, he would have been able to anticipate the effect they would have—after all, he knows too well the vulnerability that arises when secrets so deeply kept are forced into the light. Potter would have bonded with a watering-can, had one been Charmed to speak to him with a modicum of compassion after his ordeal of the afternoon. But Snape had not stopped to think. He had seen nothing beyond the boy's need, and his own foundering helplessness in the face of it.
Fifteen years ago Snape made a vow to Dumbledore, and to the memory of Lily Evans, to protect her child. Over and over again, he has failed to do so. All his vigilance had not been enough to prevent Quirrell, Crouch, Pettigrew, and the Dark Lord himself from laying hands on the boy. And yet, Snape has always told himself, Potter is alive, relatively happy, and well-adjusted, so what does it matter? For a time, it had been a kind of comfort.
But the bitterness had grown all the while—as his failures added up, as one chance at redemption after another had eluded him. He had taken it out on the boy, indulged his frustration every time Potter crossed his path, placating his conscience with the knowledge that his cover was perfect, no enemy striking at Potter would expect Snape to be watching over him. If it was more than a cover, that was no one's business but his own. He is entitled to his anger.
And somewhere along the way, while looking out for Potter, he had ceased to look at him. The most he could see through eyes perpetually narrowed in dislike was that the boy's resemblance to his father had only increased over the years. He never looked Potter in the eyes if he could possibly help it.
Perhaps that was his real mistake.
He ought to have known. He should have stopped for a moment and wondered why the boy returned to school every year thinner than when he had left, or where he had come by all those odd flinch reflexes, or what was fueling the almost desperate self-reliance that made him think he had to slay basilisks singlehandedly.
But he hadn't done any of those things. He had reclined in his ignorance and allowed Lily's child to return each summer to Petunia Durlsey's house without a second thought. And now that he knows what he has done—now he understands the true shape of the dangers that threaten the boy—he cannot turn away.
Lily's eyes in Potter's face have haunted him since the day the boy first set foot in Hogwarts, but he had never again thought to seem them look upon him with trust.
As damnation goes, it is not unpoetic.
Sighing, Snape lifts his hand, summoning a self-inking quill and a roll of parchment towards him—and begins to write.
Much to Harry's relief, he is out of the infirmary in time to catch the last few minutes of breakfast that morning. He looks like a completely new person; all his bruises are gone, and though he still feels tender and sore about the ribcage, Madam Pomfrey has assured him that his bones are completely healed. He makes his way for the Great Hall, feeling quite cheerful. He can move without pain for the first time in over a month, and the Dursleys are never going to pick on him again. The sunlight streaming through the windows along the corridors seems brighter than usual, somehow.
Ron and Hermione are nowhere to be seen; doubtless they have already come and gone. Just as well—Harry hasn't got enough time to both chew and talk. He takes a seat near his usual spot at the end of the table—when suddenly there is a 'pop' somewhere in the vicinity of his left elbow.
"Dobby?" he says automatically, and glances around him. But the house-elf is nowhere to be seen.
There is, however, a tightly furled scroll of parchment lying on the table next to his plate, where nothing but the fork had been before.
Bemused, reaches down to unroll it. Dense, familiar black script meets his eyes.
Dear Mr Potter, it begins.
Your apology for your inattention is noted and accepted.
Your apology for the comments regarding the Headmaster is likewise noted, but unnecessary. Ridiculous as your apprehensions were, you had some reason for them. If you know yourself to have been mistaken, that is enough.
Your apology for your uncle is disregarded as I need no further evidence of your thickheadedness than I already possess.
I accept your gratitude for the expenditure of my time, but I refuse to be thanked for treating your injuries. I dislike repeating myself, but as you were suffering the effects of an overdose of sedative during our last conversation, I will remind you that you are perfectly entitled to common human decency. Your gratitude would be offensive did I not know you are entirely too accustomed to your most basic needs going unmet. If I may tender a bit of advice, Potter—look inside yourself and find the outrage you have buried. Only when you know in your heart what you truly deserve will you act to acquire it.
Likewise, I refuse to accept your gratitude for the item I conveyed to you. I was merely restoring to you what was already rightfully yours.
For your assurances that you will hereafter temper your daring with caution, I expression my own thanks, as I have no desire that either of our lives should be risked needlessly.
And for your unfortunate bout of unconsciousness this afternoon, I offer my own apologies. Madam Pomfrey entrusted you to my care, and if I had been properly watchful it would not have occurred.
P.S. I do not know what outdated dictionary of Muggle slang you have been consulting, but "laxitude" is most certainly not a real word. "Laxity" is the appropriate nominative form of "lax". It has not the same polysyllabic cachet, but in these cases it is more impressive to be correct.
Well, thinks Harry. That was just...weird. An entire page of writing, and only one blatant insult—and if you read between the lines, it isn't really much of an insult at all.
Ron is never going to believe this.
Harry scans the letter again quickly, looking for instructions as to how he ought to dispose of it, but he finds none. There isn't really anything incriminating in the note, he supposes, unless you counted the fact that Snape was being kind to him. In the wrong hands, that sort of information could be dangerous enough; the last thing he needs is for Malfoy to go running to his father with tales of how Snape the supposed Death Eater is cozying up to his master's mortal enemy. But Harry finds himself strangely reluctant to destroy the letter. The idea that Snape might regard him with something other than loathing is still so unbelievable that if he incinerates the evidence, he might end up doubting his own memories.
I'll hide it, Harry decides. I'll stuff it down at the bottom of my trunk. There's no way Malfoy can get into Gryffindor Tower without people noticing, it'll be safe there.
"Hello, Harry," says a voice from behind him, startling him out of his reverie. He turns and finds Luna, smiling at him. Her long blonde hair is loosely secured in a messy knot at the back of her head, exposing her long slender neck and making her eyes appear even larger than usual. There is a hint of shadow under the lower lids, giving her a strange air of fragility that is promptly belied when she plops down onto the bench next to him and reaches for a piece of toast.
"Hi," he says, returning her grin.
"You look much better," she says. "How do you feel?"
"Loads better," Harry assures her. "Good as new, really."
"I'm glad," she says, and takes a bite of the buttered bread. "You looked so unwell yesterday. I was so worried I couldn't sleep."
Harry stares at her, hardly knowing what to say to this. He ought to be used to it by now—she's always saying things that leave him speechless and struggling with intense feelings he doesn't know how to express. It must have something to do with the odd knack she has of revealing her vulnerability without betraying the faintest hint of self-pity. Harry always seems to find himself torn between admiration and the desire to protect her. Bit silly, really—he knows better than anyone that Luna is quite good at looking after herself.
Suddenly, it occurs to him that of all his friends Luna is the one person he could talk to about this strange new development with Snape without being disbelieved or forced into a defensiveness he's still not comfortable with. He sits up straight and picks up the letter.
"Listen," he says, moving a bit closer to her so there's less chance of being overheard. "You know what you were saying about Snape yesterday? Well, I reckon you were on to something, have a look at this." He hands her the letter. She receives it with an expression of deepest interest and begins to read.
"Well," she says, handing the letter back to him when she has finished looking it over. "That was quite sweet of him, wasn't it?"
"Sweet" is definitely not a word Harry is prepared to use with regards to Snape just yet—or ever. "It's definitely weird," he says, folding the letter carefully and sliding it into an inner pocket of his robes.
"Oh, I don't know," says Luna, pouring a cup of tea from a nearby pot. "He's always been very kind to me."
"Seriously?" says Harry before he can stop himself. He's never thought about Snape and Luna together in any way, but if he'd been asked to guess, he probably would have thought that Luna's wilder flights of fancy would elicit some of Snape's cruelest mockery. Judging from the slightly starry look in Luna's eyes, however, that is not the case.
"Well, there's a difference between nice and kind, isn't there?" she says vaguely. "I don't think Professor Snape is a very nice person. But last year he stopped some seventh year boys who were hurting me, he was quite fierce with them. And afterwards he took me to the hospital wing. I'd twisted my ankle and he let me lean against him." She takes a thoughtful sip of tea, and adds, "I think he dislikes bullying rather a lot."
This extraordinary piece of information produces a bewildering tide of mixed emotions in Harry. Snape, Defender of the Downtrodden, is not a concept he is prepared to confront quite this early in the morning, so he puts it from his mind in favor of frowning at Luna. "Who was it?" he demands. "What did they do to you?"
"Oh, some boys from Slytherin, I didn't know their names. One of them threw me against a wall rather hard. Professor Snape expelled him." Looking quite unconcerned, Luna rises from the bench. "We'd better get going, or we'll be late."
"Oh," says Harry, who hasn't quite recovered from the conversation. "Right."
They gather their bags and exit the Great Hall together. Harry finds himself noticing the way people look at Luna as they walk side by side down the corridors towards the wing of the castle where Harry has first period Transfiguration and Luna has Charms. Most people, he discovers, look past Luna as though she isn't there, but a few of those who do seem to see her smirk quite unpleasantly as she walks by, as though she were wearing all her clothes backwards, or smelled badly.
She doesn't, of course. She smells quite pleasantly of laundry soap and...Harry sniffs the air surreptitiously. Sea salt, of all things.
"Are you going to write back?" she asks him, as they near the corner where their paths diverge.
"What? Oh. Um. I hadn't thought about it," Harry confesses. "But...yeah, actually. I think I might."
"I think he'll like that," she says, smiling, then disappears down the facing corridor without another word.
Harry watches her go for a moment, then ducks into the door of the Transfigurations classroom, wondering vaguely how many points he's going to lose for Gryffindor when Snape reads what he has to say.