Professor Snape looked with satisfaction on the small dark head bent industriously over the parchment, scribbling busily. There was always such pleasure in awarding the first Gryffindor detention of the school year, but this year, being able to award it to the Brat-Who-Lived was especially sweet. Knowing he was responsible for the little monster's very first punishment at Hogwarts would keep him happy for days.
McGonagall had, predictably, protested that awarding detention in the first class of the first year was harsh, especially when she had heard from the tattling little lions that Harry hadn't actually done anything, but Dumbledore, with an unreadable look at Severus, had gently said, "I'm sure Severus would never abuse the awarding of detentions." Minerva had shut up at that point, though Severus had correctly interpreted the vague words as the warning they had been.
It was typical of the old coot. Favoring the Potter brat. Taking his side over Severus'. It was going to be a long seven years with the Headmaster obviously out to favor the boy – even when it meant blatantly taking the side of a student over a professor. Of course, Snape gritted his teeth, there was nothing new in Dumbledore's siding with a Potter over a Snape. Severus supposed he was lucky this Potter had yet to try to kill him. Well, maybe if he terrified the little brat right from the start, Potter would give him a wide berth from here on out. Just because Severus was sworn to protect the little creep didn't mean he had to be nice to him or – perish the thought! – like him.
Snape turned his attention to the pile of homework in front of him. Let's see how the boy did. With any luck he might have inherited his scholastic ability from his mother.
Harry shifted uncomfortably on the hard wooden chair and stifled a sigh. Could the professor have put a charm on these stools to make them particularly uncomfortable? No, to be fair, Harry had been unable to sit comfortably ever since Uncle Vernon's "going away" thrashing. Interwoven with plenty of threats about what happened to freaks who were ungrateful to their families, the whipping had left his backside raw, and this detention was taking place at the end of a long day, during most of which Harry had been forced to sit on his increasingly painful bum.
At least some of the classes – like Potions – had the students out of their seats for part of the time, as the teachers had them gather round to watch a demonstration or try some practical magic themselves. But for this detention, Professor Snape had simply pointed to a desk with waiting parchment and quill and coldly ordered him to start copying the lines on the blackboard. If Harry didn't get to 400 before the end of the detention, he would have another one, Snape threatened, so Harry had hastily seated himself – ouch! – and got started. Now, about two hours into the punishment, the pain in his bottom was getting hard to ignore. Harry shifted his weight from one cheek to the other and tried not to wince.
He still wasn't quite sure why Ron had been so incensed on his behalf. After all, Snape hadn't done anything that unusual. Harry was accustomed to being picked on in school – after Aunt Petunia had her parent-teacher conference and informed the teachers about Harry's troublemaking tendencies, his slyness, and his deceit, the teachers were universally wary of him. Add in Dudley's delight in framing him for all manner of crimes, and by the second month of school, Harry was always the teacher's least favorite student, catching all manner of unfair criticism and undeserved punishments. By this time, he was quite used to it and barely noticed. He had actually been rather surprised that Snape was the only teacher – so far – who was acting normally.
Snape slammed down the homework with a silent curse. A house elf could have done a better job on the assignment than the Potter whelp had, and Weasley's deformed rat would have better handwriting. No one was this inept – clearly the brat was deliberately handing in appalling work just to demonstrate his contempt for the class… and his teacher.
Snape forced himself to calm down. Just because the brat looked like James Potter and acted like James Potter didn't mean… oh, the hell with it. Of course it did. The boy was a clone of his father and would do everything in his power to torment Snape. The only difference was that Snape was now – at last – well able to protect himself. He was no longer a friendless loner who could be easily picked on and bullied. This generation of Potter would find out just how sweet vengeance could be for a patient Slytherin. There was a limit as to how much Dumbledore could protect the boy, especially if he wanted Snape to keep playing the spy. After all, he was supposed to loathe The Boy Who Lived, wasn't he? If Dumbledore protested, Snape could always plead that he was merely playing his role a little too well.
Snape glared at the boy and wondered what he was thinking. His father or godfather would have been plotting dark revenge by this point. As he watched, the boy fidgeted for the millionth time and his expression twisted slightly. Aha. Potter was obviously planning some mischief instead of being focused on the lines in front of him. Considering that he was being punished for talking during lecture and not paying attention – he'd squirmed and fidgeted his way through class as well – he was obviously a stubborn little monster who refused to learn from his mistakes.
Harry paused to count the lines he'd completed. Barely 150. It was the quill – even with Ron's clumsy coaching, he couldn't figure out how to use it. If only he could have a pencil or a ballpoint, or even a fountain pen! But no, it was quills and parchment here, and Muggleborns (or Muggle-raiseds) just had to cope. Harry sighed again and tried to support himself on his outstretched forearms, lifting the weight off his backside. If he could just stand up – maybe, if he asked, the professor would let him finish the work standing at the desk? But then he'd want to know why, and that was a question Harry wasn't about to answer. So he waited another moment, holding himself off the chair to give his welts a chance to stop stinging quite so badly.
"Why aren't you writing?" a furious voice snapped in his ear, and with a yelp of utter surprise, Harry flinched. His seat dropped back to the chair and he barely bit back another yelp, this one of pain.
Snape loomed over the boy, delighted at his success in sneaking up behind him. He had thought the boy was off in dreamland, but he'd never expected to be able to startle him so much. Huge green eyes stared fearfully into his own for a moment, then dropped.
Just as well. The last thing Snape wanted was a reminder that this boy was Lily's as well. Much better that he kept up his annoying, disrespectful habit of staring at the floor as if he had no interest in anyone else – that way he looked almost exactly like James and was much easier to despise.
"What do you call this?" Snape demanded icily, extending the boy's homework between two fingers, as if disdaining to touch such a contaminated item.
"It – it's my homework, sir," Harry managed to keep his voice steady. It made him very nervous when people snuck up behind him. Uncle Vernon wasn't able to do that very often, thanks to his size, but Dudley, despite his heft, was surprisingly stealthy. He tried not to tremble as the professor reached over his shoulder and dangled his parchment in front of him. It was liberally covered with scrawls of red ink.
"Do you imagine that I can actually read this atrocious handwriting?" Snape sneered.
"You made comments," Harry pointed out uncertainly, then jumped when Snape slammed the parchment down on the desktop.
"I will not tolerate insolence, Potter!" Snape's voice was a menacing hiss and Harry cowered back. When Uncle Vernon got quiet like that, it invariably meant something very bad and very painful was about to happen.
Snape forced himself to take a deep breath. He had dreaded this day for years, knowing that eventually he would have James Potter's son in his class. Knowing that he would have to teach the little monster. Knowing that the boy would be every inch his father's son. And here he was, proving every one of Snape's predictions true.
No apologies for his behavior. No regret for his illegible scrawl. Just impertinent backtalk and a fastidious withdrawal lest the nasty Slytherin get too close. Snape felt the last threads of his self-control start to unravel and he distracted himself by looking at the boy's punishment.
That was nearly enough to make him strangle the brat then and there.
He had clearly written "I shall behave myself in the classroom setting." on the blackboard for Potter to copy. The insufferable horror had written, "I should be more careful in class when sitting." Not once, which might have been overlooked, but 150 times. He had deliberately and defiantly refused to do the assignment.
Never before in his teaching career had Snape been treated with such overt disobedience. Potter wasn't even trying to hide his contempt. What's more, the lines were every bit as splotched and splattered as the homework assignment. The brat was liberally splashed with ink as well – was this his idea of humor? No one could get this bespattered by accident, though Snape was certain that if he called the boy on it, Potter would innocently protest that it was simply the fault of an inferior quill.
At least he could prevent that claim. Snape spun on his heel and stalked to the front of the room. Somewhere in the storage area under the demonstration desk he had a leak-proof quill that a Muggleborn had left behind some time ago. Now, where was it…?
Harry watched the professor stride away, his heart pounding. Why had Snape suddenly left? What had he forgotten? What was he going to get? He was obviously displeased with both Harry's homework assignment and his punishment lines, but he wasn't sure what he could or should do about either.
He had done the best he could. From this seat at the back of the room, the chalkboard was little more than a blur; the spectacles that Aunt Petunia had gotten for him at the charity bin were better than nothing, but they weren't strong enough for him to see the front of the room. Could he have miscopied the assigned sentence? Normally in class, Ron would be sure to whisper any corrections to him, but here in detention, Harry hadn't thought it was appropriate to ask. Snape certainly hadn't seemed in a chatty mood, and Harry had thought it better to get straight to work rather than risk further invective by asking permission to sit closer to the front.
Harry wished he had thought to ask Ron if teachers were allowed to hit the students at Hogwarts. Ron would know, with all his older brothers having gone here before him. The teachers back home didn't hit, but maybe that was just because they knew that as soon as they sent home a note or complaint of any kind, the Dursleys would make sure Harry was too sore to repeat the offense. In actual fact, most of the time the real culprit was Dudley, but at least his fat cousin wasn't here at Hogwarts. Of course, that made little difference in this case: Harry had managed to get into trouble all on his own, though he still wasn't sure why the Potions Master seemed to despise him so much. It was true that he couldn't answer the man's questions, but no one else – except Hermione – could either.
A clatter from the front of the room caught his attention and he squinted to see what Snape was doing. There he was, taking something out from his desk – Harry's breath caught in his throat.
It was a cane.
Harry's heart plummeted. Oh no, he was getting the cane! But what had he done? If they caned you for poor handwriting here, what did they do for real misbehavior?
Abruptly Harry found himself on his feet, backing away from his desk, little whimpers escaping his lips. He couldn't take a thrashing, not with a cane, not so soon after Uncle Vernon's belt. There was no way he would be able to keep from yelling, and yelling was almost as bad as back talk or sniveling. No sniveling, that was the rule, along with holding still and saying thank you afterwards and… Disobey the rules, and the punishment got worse, but Harry knew that he would never be able to keep still, no matter how hard he tried.
"Please, please…" he whispered, barely aware that he was speaking. He was so consumed with terror that he was actually at the door, tugging on it, before his mind realized what he was doing.
Snape looked up at the noise from the brat. So far all he had found was his charmed cauldron stirrer. The polished wood was attractive, but really, pewter was a much more utilitarian choice. No wonder he had tucked the cedar stirrer down here for safekeeping, lest he inadvertently use it in a corrosive potion and ruin it forever. He would have sworn that the quill was in here too, but obviously the Gryffintwit wasn't going to give him the time to look. What was the little fiend up to now?
Aha. Trying to sneak out of detention early, by the looks of it. He had abandoned his lines and was frantically tugging at the door. Stupid child, did he really imagine Snape didn't lock and ward his classroom during detentions? Obviously Potter was as bad as those Weasley twins – well, if it took a sticking charm to get him to stay put in his chair and stop squirming, then the professor was all too happy to oblige.
"No, no, please, please don't. Please, no," Harry whimpered, panic rising as the saturnine professor loomed closer. "Please, I'll be good. Please…" he broke off as the man's hand fell roughly on his shoulder and squeezed.
The pain actually helped snap him out of it. It gave him a focus and the mindless terror receded somewhat. The waiting was always the worst; once the hitting began, Harry knew what to expect.
Snape smirked down at him. Obviously Potter had ignored or forgotten the rules as laid down by Dumbledore and his own Head of House. Students only left detention when they were dismissed. Disobedience earned another detention. "Forgot the rules, boy?" he sneered.
Harry flinched. Uncle Vernon liked to have the rules recited back to him too. And Harry had just given a terrific demonstration of what not to do. Could he have whined any more pitifully? Sniveling only made them angrier, like crying. It suggested that you didn't think you deserved your punishment, and usually guaranteed additional whacks or at least another day without food. Harry was pretty sure he knew what was coming, but he also knew there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it, so he took a deep breath and started his recitation. "No snivel-" WHACK!
"Forgot the rules, boy?" Snape looked down at the boy in disgust. Potter had abandoned his futile attempts to leave and was simply standing there, staring at his toes, obviously pondering his next act of disrespect. Snape moved to drag him back to his desk and stick him in place, when the brat's defiant streak reasserted itself. "No, Snivell-"
The sound of the hated nickname, devised by the little fiend's father, had the instant effect of overwhelming Snape's reason in a red haze of rage. How dare he! How dare the arrogant brat, this egotistical, spoiled monster, think he could employ the same jeering taunt that his father had used to make Snape's school years a misery? The word hadn't even made it past the boy's lips when Snape's hand, acting entirely of its own volition, lashed out.
It struck the small boy square on the cheek with enough force to lift him off his feet. He bounced, head first, off the stone wall and fell to his knees, dazed. The frame of his glasses had been caught between the boy's skull and the unyielding wall, and the broken remains now hung crazily from one ear, while a cut over the child's temple began to pour blood.
Dead. He was dead. To hell with Voldemort. Suddenly the threat of the Dark Lord paled by comparison to what Dumbledore was going to do to him. The ugly spy had just struck the Golden Gryffindor. Dumbledore would kill him.
No, he corrected himself numbly. Dumbledore would fire him and – quite possibly – kick him out of the Order. Minerva would kill him.
All his fury had fled the instant Potter's head connected with the wall. No, to be fair, it was gone as soon as his hand had connected with a loud crack against the boy's jaw and Snape caught sight of the wide, shocked eyes – Lily's eyes – staring at him.
Pow! Harry saw stars. It was a few moments before his vision cleared enough for him to clamber painfully back to his feet. He dropped the remains of his glasses on the nearest desk and dabbed at the blood streaming down his chin. His cheek and jaw throbbed where Snape had hit him, and he tasted blood from where the inside of his cheek had been cut against his teeth. He could feel a goose egg already rising on the other side of his head, where he had collided with the wall.
He blinked hard, holding back tears. No crying. That was another rule.
He shouldn't have been caught by surprise like that. Just because Uncle Vernon let you finish speaking didn't mean everyone did. Aunt Petunia would sometimes do the same thing – ask you a question then let fly just as you were trying to answer. He should have seen the blow coming. Even though he couldn't have dodged it – that would have led to TRULY dire consequences – he could have braced himself solidly enough to avoid going airborne. At least this time he didn't think he had a concussion, just a goose egg.
Snape had moved back to the front of the room, presumably to retrieve the cane. Harry followed him, a trifle unsteadily. Between the blow to his head and his stiff gait, it was surprisingly hard to walk a straight line, but somehow he managed. He halted at the first row of desks and started to take off his robe. Maybe, just maybe, if he got into position quickly and showed how good he could be, Snape wouldn't be too hard on him.
Snape practically staggered back to his desk at the front of the room. How could he have done that? In a single rash, unthinking move, he had just destroyed what little life he had managed to reclaim for himself. There was no exculpation that he could offer Albus.
Snape was the icy Potions master, the man who never lost control. For years he had been able to hold his temper with students, even the Weasley twins, despite formidable provocation; no one would believe that Potter had, in his very first detention ever, done anything to excuse, let alone merit, a physical assault of this nature. It would be obvious even to a Hufflepuff that Snape had simply chosen to batter the boy. In other words, he had acted exactly like the Potter-hating Death Eater everyone suspected he still was, and given his choice of victim, he could be quite certain that Albus Dumbledore's lengthy protection of him was about to come to an abrupt end.
Maybe, just maybe, if he had only given the boy a swat on the rear, he might have talked his way out of it. But to leave a livid handprint on Potter's face, to say nothing of slamming his head against the dungeon wall, was something Dumbledore would never excuse. Frankly, neither could Snape.
However much he might have loathed, despised, hated, and abhorred James Potter, the two of them were contemporaries. They had insulted, attacked, cursed, and hexed one another for years, but they were always more or less evenly matched. Potter hadn't even enlisted the other Marauders very often; he preferred to fight one on one. But when Snape had slapped Harry Potter, the disparity in their size was incontrovertible. In that instant, it had been indelibly brought home to Snape: Harry was not his father – he was a little boy who had just been unforgivably assaulted by an adult twice his size.
It didn't matter what the little brat had said – he was the adult. He was the one who was supposed to remain in control despite the tantrums exploding around his ears. Yet all it had taken was a single word from the boy and Snape had completely and irretrievably lost control of himself.
Where had Potter even learned the insult? Still reeling from the cataclysmic events of the past few minutes, Snape's brain wasn't really working very well, but it finally identified the problem: surely everyone who might have shared the story of the Marauder/Snape rivalry was dead or imprisoned long before the boy was old enough to retain any details of the tale? Well, he would at least get the answer to that question before releasing the brat to run screaming to Dumbledore. He turned to confront the boy and stumbled backwards, his surprise at the sight before him literally taking him aback.
Potter had removed his robes and was now bent over a chair, in perfect position for a thrashing.
"What? What?" Snape quacked, his heart nearly leaping from his chest. If Voldemort had popped out of the nearest cauldron and started singing love songs, he couldn't have been more astonished. What on earth was Potter doing? How did the Boy Who Lived, the Golden Child, even know such a position, let alone assume it with the ease of long practice?
The child was muttering something to himself. Snape tentatively stepped closer. "What is it, Potter?" he asked with unaccustomed hesitancy.
"The rules," Harry answered obediently, hoping – sort of – that the professor would finally be willing to get the punishment over with. He stayed in position, wondering if the first blow would fall while he was still speaking. "No sniveling, no crying, no running, no yelling, no flinching." He paused. No wallops so far. Was that a good sign? Maybe he could sneak in a quick apology in case it helped? "I'm very sorry. I won't do it again. I don't know why I tried to get away. I just wasn't expecting the cane. I'm sorry. I'll be good. I promise."
Harry waited again, surprised that Snape hadn't yet started the beating. What had he done wrong now?
Snape stared around in confusion. What cane? What was the boy blithering about? Where – oh. The stirrer. Yes, it resembled a school cane, vaguely. But that still didn't explain why the boy would actually think such an object would be used. Let alone used on him, of all people.
The professor also realized, with a rush of shame, that he had put words in the boy's mouth. Harry hadn't been using his hated nickname, he was trying to recite some appalling rules. And where did they come from, anyway?
"Who taught you these rules?" he demanded, an awful suspicion as well as a great deal of guilt making his voice even angrier than usual.
"My uncle, sir," Harry answered, too frightened now to lie. Had he said them wrong? Did the people at Hogwarts have different rules? Oh no, that must be it. Everything else was different; why had he been so stupid as to assume that the rules around punishment would be the same as they were back home. "I'm sorry, sir," he gulped quickly. "I didn't know there were different rules here. If you teach me, I won't forget them, honest." He twisted to face Snape, hoping his sincerity would show in his expression, but he had to break off with a hiss of pain as his back protested the movement.
"Potter," Snape said in a slow, almost strangled tone, "lift the back of your shirt and drop your trousers."
Harry squeezed his eyes shut. He'd been hoping and hoping – but no. He should have known. If you try to run, you get twice the punishment. So, it would be the cane on the bare. He'd had it before, but not often, and never on top of a punishment like the one he'd gotten just before leaving Privet Drive. But there was no choice in the matter, and the longer he delayed, the more he'd get. So without further fuss or any pleading looks over his shoulder at the professor, he unfastened his trousers and let them fall. He briefly toyed with the idea of waiting for the order to lower his underwear, but he decided that anything but absolute compliance would just result in more whacks. He pulled down his underwear, wincing as the waistband dragged over the tender skin, then hiked up his shirttail and waited for the cane to fall.
Snape stared at the bruised and welted backside and felt another wave of homicidal fury overtake him. That, and an even more unbelievable surge of protectiveness for the small boy standing so forlorn and alone before him. It was obvious that the boy was not only the recent recipient of a brutal thrashing, but also all-too-familiar with such treatment. He hadn't even hesitated when told to bare his bottom, and it was now clear why he had assumed that a cane was going to be employed during his detention. The only thing that surprised Snape was that the boy had been able to sit down at all. Suddenly he saw the incessant fidgeting in a new light.
A flick of the wand, and Potter was again clothed. He started, obviously surprised, but he didn't get up. "Stand up, Potter!" Snape snarled. What was he supposed to do now? This revelation would blow the lid off the wizarding world.
Harry slowly rose, wondering what was happening. The cut on his head was no longer bleeding, or at least no more than a slow ooze, and he bit his lip, worrying that the professor had decided to cuff him about the head a few more times before moving on to the cane.
He waited, shoulders bowed, as he could feel the tall man's angry gaze rake him.
"Sit down, Potter!" Snape ordered, then as the boy almost imperceptibly winced, he hastily countermanded his order. "No, wait. Just stand there. Look at me. In the eye!"
Harry wasn't sure he had heard right. Make eye contact? During a punishment? But Snape had sounded mad enough already. Harry slowly let his eyes rise to meet the angry obsidian glare.
Snape thought briefly about reading the boy's mind, but Dumbledore would really have a stroke at that idea. Besides, it wasn't as if the child had lied yet. Maybe it wasn't even necessary. "I see your uncle and aunt are… strict… with you, Potter."
Harry wasn't sure how to answer. He knew that normally he wasn't supposed to talk about being punished, but on the other hand, Snape was behaving an awful lot like Uncle Vernon, so maybe it was okay? "Yes, sir," he finally said cautiously. "They want to be sure that I don't take things for granted."
"Like – like their taking me in after my parents were killed. Like their giving me a home so I didn't have to go to an orphanage. That kind of stuff. So when I don't behave – " or when freaky things happen " – they make sure I know I've done wrong."
"What did you do to earn the marks you currently bear?" Snape asked coldly.
Harry shuffled uncomfortably. "I talked about looking forward to coming to Hogwarts. It was pretty ungrateful of me. Uncle Vernon said this way I'd be sure to remember them and not get all caught up in new school stuff."
Bastards! Snape nearly apparated straight to Privet Drive to kill the sadistic Muggles then and there. Only the knowledge of Hogwarts' wards and the need to see to the child before him held him back.
"And your egregious scrawl? Is your wrist fractured as well?" Almost before the sarcastic question was out, he wished he could bite it back. He should have done a diagnostic spell – what if the boy really did have an injury?
"I don't think so, sir," Harry responded seriously. He wondered when the interrogation would end and the punishment resume, but he figured that in the meantime, he'd better answer as honestly as he could. He was completely confused now and had no idea what the right answers were, so he decided just to be truthful and see what happened. "I just don't really know how to write with a quill. I never have before coming here."
"And your House has not been tutoring you?" Snape frowned. He would have verbally eviscerated his Slytherin prefects if they hadn't provided basic tutoring of this sort to the new first years. Not that Slytherin attracted many Muggleborns or Muggle-raiseds these days, but there were always a few…
Harry just looked confused. Snape rolled his eyes – ah yes, typical Gryffindor. All courage and nobility but the brains of a trout. Not even ensuring that the new students had the study skills and habits they needed to succeed. "And your lines? Explain if you will what happened there?"
"Um, did I do something wrong?" Harry asked uncertainly then bit his lip. Stupid! Of course he had done something wrong – that's why Professor Snape was asking the question. "Um, I'm sorry… I can't really see the board from back there and so…"
"What is wrong with your glasses?" Snape flushed as he realized the absurdity of that question and with a muttered Reparo he retrieved the now mended spectacles and handed them back to the boy.
Potter shoved them back on his nose and squinted at the board, then paled. "Oh! I – I didn't know, sir. I'm sorry. I'll do them all over. I'll –" Snape waved an impatient hand, cutting off the rest of the apologies.
"Why are you still making those ridiculous faces? Are you telling me that even with your glasses you have difficulty seeing the blackboard from this distance?"
Harry nodded, shamefaced. "My eyes are really bad."
Good grief. At this rate they'd have to hope that Voldemort walked up to Potter and tapped him on the shoulder. If he stood even ten feet away, Potter would never be able to see him, let alone fight him. "When was the last time your prescription was updated?"
"Prescription? I'm not sick, sir."
"Idiot. Your eyeglasses. When was the last time you had your prescription checked."
Harry shrugged. Was this some kind of wizard thing? "I don't think that's ever happened, sir. Maybe Muggles don't."
Snape scowled. If he hadn't known better, he would have assumed the boy was deliberately mocking him. "Don't be ridiculous. When did you get this pair?"
"About two years ago. My old pair didn't really fit anymore, and the school complained, so Aunt Petunia came home with these."
Snape's glower worsened, and Harry's dread deepened. Everything he did just seemed to make the man angrier. Maybe he would send Harry back to his family and not have to deal with him any longer? But no, surely only the Headmaster could expel students.
As if he could read Harry's mind, Snape abruptly turned around. "Come with me, Potter. We're going to see the Headmaster."
Harry gasped. "But sir – please, I'll be good. Please don't – " Snape only muttered something furious and reached back, grabbing Harry's arm and yanking him along.
"Please, sir, don't make me go back to the Dursleys. I want to stay here. Please, please, let me stay. Don't expel me," Harry begged the entire way up to the Headmaster's office, but Snape didn't so much as look at him. He merely marched on, dragging Harry with him and pausing only long enough to give the gargoyle the correct password. Harry fell silent as they neared Dumbledore's door; obviously his pleading had been in vain.
Snape fought down his own fear. The upcoming interview would likely prove exceedingly unpleasant, but – as usual – he had to ignore his own welfare and focus on the greater good. Or in this case, Harry.
He spared a glance for the young boy at his side. Now that he saw Harry, and not a mini-James, he wondered how he could have mistaken the hesitancy for arrogance and overlooked the signs of pain and fatigue. "Albus," he said, storming into the office and not giving the old man the chance to offer anyone a lemon drop, "I must insist that you contact Poppy and Minerva immediately."
Dumbledore's eyebrows rose, but he obligingly went to his floo and summoned both women. It was only then that he properly caught sight of Harry – and the large scarlet hand imprinted on his cheek – and the twinkle was abruptly gone from his eye. "Harry," he said very, very gently, "what happened to you?"
Oops. It might have been a good idea to clean the boy up a bit before dragging him here. Snape had been so outraged at Dursley's treatment of Potter that he had nearly forgotten about his own misdemeanors in that regard. He knew Albus would eventually get the whole story out of him, but it would have been smarter – a lot smarter – to have washed the blood off the boy first.
Harry flicked an uncertain gaze at Snape, and Dumbledore's eyebrows drew together. Snape caught his breath in panic at the old wizard's expression. It was easy to forget about the man's true nature in the face of his "doddering grandpa" act, but abruptly that mask was dropped and a furious and immensely powerful wizard was glaring at him.
Before the Headmaster could say anything, Pomfrey and McGonagall arrived through the floo. "What is it, Albus?" Minerva asked, then glimpsed Harry. "Mr Potter, it is nearly curfew, what – WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?"
Poppy was already pulling out her wand when Snape stepped between them and the boy. "Just a minute," he ordered, knowing he was only going to get one chance at this. If he didn't tell it right, he'd be lucky to end up in Azkaban, the way the three of them were glaring at him.
"Go ahead, Severus," Dumbledore said quietly, but for once there was no hint of geniality in his eyes. Harry had nearly stopped breathing in his attempts to be inconspicuous.
"Mr Potter had detention with me tonight. During the course of the evening, I discovered certain – things – that I need to bring to your attention."
"Including how he received those injuries?" Albus asked in a purr that would have done Snape proud. Minerva and Poppy had their wands clenched in their fists as they glared at him.
Snape swallowed hard. "I am responsible for the visible injuries," he acknowledged, and hastily stepped back a pace as Minerva started for him. "I make no excuses for myself," he blurted as Albus gestured the animagus back. "However, they are the least of his problems."
"You will need to explain that," Dumbledore stated flatly.
Snape turned to the boy and abruptly realized that what he was about to do was unlikely to be well received. He might not be the most sensitive man, but he had had enough abused children in his House over the years to know how deep the scars went. Well, he wasn't a Slytherin for nothing. "Potter," he said quietly, forcing the frightened boy to look at him, "you know what you were asking me as we came up here?" Harry nodded, not daring to hope. "If you do as I say, and answer everyone's questions honestly and fully, then I promise I will grant your wish." The boy's eyes – Lily's eyes, dammit – grew huge. "And I will waive the rest of your detention."
Harry couldn't help it when a grin broke out across his face. Even though he knew it might be a trick, he couldn't stop beaming. Suddenly, for all his snarkiness and yelling, Snape was his favorite professor. "You promise?" he whispered back.
"I give you my Wizard's Oath," Snape said gravely. Even the other adults were silent, recognizing the solemn nature of Snape's offer.
"Then okay," Harry said, nodding. He still wasn't sure what was going on, but if it meant he'd avoid expulsion and a caning, not to mention the rest of the lines, then he was willing.
"Done." Snape waved his wand and abruptly Harry found himself clothed in a hospital gown. "Turn around." With the professor's strong hand on his shoulder, Harry had little choice in the matter, and he found himself turning his back on the adults in the room.
It wasn't until he heard the gasps behind him that he realized that he was clothed in nothing but the hospital gown and it, like most of its species, didn't close in the back. He squawked and tried to grab at the edges of the gown, but Snape swatted his hands away, forcing him to continue to moon the Headmaster, his Head of House, and the school's medi-witch. For once fury overwhelmed fear, and he glared up at Professor Snape. "Stop it! Give me my clothes back!"
Snape looked down at him, a hint of amusement in his eye, but after a moment he relented and a second gown appeared, tied front to back and covering Harry's exposed backside. "I am about to speak of you quite bluntly," Snape informed him. "Would you rather wait outside?"
Harry frowned back at him. If he was going to be talked about, then why should he leave? He was tired of people talking about him behind his back. He was getting pretty damn tired of a lot of things actually. "I'll stay," he replied pugnaciously.
Snape raised an eyebrow. "As you wish." He turned to the others. "The boy is obviously the victim of repeated abuse and neglect. He was whipped by his uncle for expressing enthusiasm about attending Hogwarts. I am quite certain from his behavior in my classroom after my own – " he stumbled slightly over the words "- inappropriate actions, that Potter has been frequently and undeservedly beaten by his relatives. His eyesight is appalling, in part because he has never had an eye examination. His aunt apparently obtains whatever cheap spectacles can be had and brings them back for him. The boy cannot see the blackboard from the third row. Given his scrawniness, I would not be surprised if he was also denied food and other basic comforts by the deranged Muggles with whom you saw fit to place him, Albus. I assure you that, blood wards or no, he will not be returning there again."
The other adults simply gaped at him for long moments. Then: "Harry, is this true?" Dumbledore asked quietly.
Harry didn't reply at once, his head whirling. How did Snape know? Why had he said these things? Didn't he know how much trouble Harry would be in when Uncle Vernon found out? But then Snape had said that he wouldn't let Harry go back to his relatives, so was that okay then? But wasn't Snape just as likely to thrash him as Uncle Vernon was? Was he any better off here, if Snape was just going to take up where his uncle left off? But then there was a lot of food here, and he had friends for the first time ever, and his bed in Gryffindor Tower was a lot better than the cupboard under the stairs, and…
"Potter!" Snape snarled, making Harry jump. "Answer the Headmaster!"
"What? Oh, yes, sir. It's true."
"Harry, what exactly did Professor Snape do to you during detention?" Professor McGonagall intervened, giving Snape a most unfriendly look.
Harry blinked, not sure what his Head of House was asking about. The lines? The slap? The near-caning?
Before he could reply, Snape did. "I – I misinterpreted something Potter said and confused him with his father. I lost my temper and struck him. Hard enough to send him into the wall. He hit his head, broke his glasses, and suffered a cut. There is no excuse for my actions, and I would gladly submit to a Cruciatus if I could undo it."
Harry looked at him curiously. He had no idea what a Crucio-thingy was, but the other teachers now appeared a lot less angry than they had just a few moments ago. The twinkle in Dumbledore's eye had made a comeback, and if anything that made Snape look even more sour than usual. "Headmaster, if you say 'I told you so' –"
"Severus, my dear boy, would I ever say such a thing?"
Madame Pomfrey bustled forward. "Don't think that you have heard the last from me, Severus," she said darkly as she enfolded Harry in her arms. "Come along, Mr Potter, let's get all those bruises healed."
Harry looked over his shoulder as he was hustled out by the medi-witch. Snape was watching him, and Harry gave him a little smile and wave as the witch pulled him away. Snape just frowned back at him, but Harry was beginning to understand that that was the professor's equivalent to a smile and nod.
"Severus, how you could strike a child like that – " McGonagall began angrily.
"I agree, Minerva. It is completely inexcusable. Much like a Head of House missing signs of abuse and not being aware that one of her charges is completely incapable of holding a quill properly and is too blind to see a blackboard," Snape said evenly.
McGonagall closed her mouth, opened it, closed it again, then finally threw her hands up with a wordless exclamation. "Severus Snape, you are utterly impossible!" She marched up to him, and Snape tensed, waiting for the hex or slap that was sure to come.
It was only fair. If another professor had slapped around one of his little snakes the way he had belted Potter, he would have been a lot quicker about exacting revenge. Minerva was just as protective of her House as he was of his or as Dumbledore was about the entire school. Severus had already decided that whatever she did, he was just going to take it. He had been serious about the Crucio, and although he couldn't undo the injury to Potter – and the concomitant blow to whatever sense of security Harry had been beginning to develop about Hogwarts – he could at least endure his own punishment with as much fortitude as the boy had shown. Voldemort had given him plenty of practice in that regard.
To his everlasting astonishment, Minerva kissed him softly on the cheek and whispered, "Harry is lucky to have found a protector like you, Severus," before heading to the infirmary in pursuit of Poppy and Harry.
Snape was so thunderstruck, it wasn't until well after Minerva had left that he gathered his few remaining wits and protested, "I am not that brat's protector!"
A chuckle from the side made him turn to face Albus, and Snape suddenly felt as young and as vulnerable as Harry. He eyed the Headmaster warily, certain that he would not be as forgiving as his Deputy. After all, Snape – the evil bat of the dungeons, the horrible Death Eating Slytherin – had attacked a student, and not just any student, but Harry Potter. Surely, at the very least, he was going to receive the tongue-lashing of the decade and be assigned penance that would make even Voldemort whimper. Acting as Gryffindor's quidditch coach, perhaps? Or assisting the house elves in preparing and serving meals in the Great Hall? The Dark Lord only used Unforgivables; Dumbledore was a lot more inventive when it came to torturing people.
"I assume you will come up with an alternate plan for Mr Potter's care, now that you are no longer willing to entrust him to his relatives and the safety of the blood wards?" Dumbledore asked politely.
Snape fidgeted. "I can see that such a responsibility would not be inappropriate," he agreed stiffly.
"And you will visit the Dursleys to explain the situation to them?"
Now that was a task Severus was going to enjoy. "Yes!" he agreed instantly, a wolfish grin lighting up his dour features.
"And you will continue to do your best to repair your relationship with Harry."
"I don't have a relationship with Potter!" The retort flew out automatically, before he could stop it, and he quailed at the look on Dumbledore's face. "Yes, all right, I will," he agreed, the words falling over each other in his haste to get them out. And in his heart, he knew it was the right thing to do. He had, like it or not, reached out to the boy. Well, actually he had lashed out at the boy first, and only afterwards reached out, but he needed to make amends for the first and to be honest, he was finding the second not nearly as hard to do as he had expected.
"Excellent, my boy. Then I suggest you return to your quarters and get some rest. I'm sure you will want to visit Harry in the infirmary early tomorrow morning to make your apologies."
Snape hesitated at the door. Was that really all? Dumbledore was showing amazing restraint. Even for a wizard of the Light, his response was astonishingly lenient. Snape wouldn't have been surprised to find himself stretched over a chair while a charmed cane acted out Harry's worst imaginings. But Albus had turned away and was idly stroking Fawkes. With a bewildered shrug, Snape turned to go.
"Oh, Severus," Albus called just as he was about to close the door, "you do understand that if you ever, ever again strike a student in so brutal a fashion, you will not survive the night, correct?" The magical aura that accompanied the words was strong enough to make Snape's robes billow about his legs and blow his hair off his forehead.
Snape swallowed hard. "Yes, Headmaster."
"Then good night, dear boy." Albus smiled benignly as the door closed behind him.
Severus Snape let out a long, slow breath as he made his way down the stairs to his dungeon. He had been right – with Potter around, his life would never be the same, but somehow he found he didn't really mind.