Harry let his breath come out in a little huff once the healer left. Normally, he wouldn't be at all glad to be alone in Snape's presence, but things had become heated so quickly when the healer came that Harry was just glad for the man to be gone. Snape was leaning back in his chair and Harry watched him warily. What now?
"I do believe," Snape said slowly, "That I said I had a bit of a surprise for you if you managed to work diligently on your homework this afternoon."
Harry swallowed. He had forgotten about that. Well, not forgotten exactly. He just hadn't expected Snape to follow through on the promise. He thought it more likely, even now, that Snape was mentioning it just so that he could sneer at Harry for ever believing that he might be worthy of any sort of surprise. Harry shifted, reaching his shaking left hand across his chest and scratching wordlessly at his arm.
Snape sighed. "Let's see what you managed to accomplish today, then." He held his hand out expectantly.
Harry rolled onto his stomach and dragged out the parchment that he had stuffed beneath his bed, pressing it carefully into Snape's hand. Harry hugged his arms about his knees and watched Snape's eyes rove across the parchment. It was a long moment later that Snape's eyes flicked up to Harry's.
"Better than any previous efforts I've had from you," Snape said quietly, "which goes to show that you are quite capable when you're free of distractions. We'll work on your study habits a bit this summer."
Harry nodded slowly. He felt as though he'd been dunked in a tub of ice water. Snape thought his essay was alright. He hadn't said it was good, sure, but he'd said that Harry was capable. Quite capable. Snape thought that Harry was quite capable. Suddenly, he didn't care if the so-called surprise Snape kept mentioning turned out to be a farce. He couldn't imagine Snape ever surprising him more than he just had.
"So, your surprise," Snape said carefully. Harry swallowed again, waiting for the sneer, the scorn, the disappointment. It didn't come. Instead, Snape ran a tongue across his lower lip and then stood up with a certain level of determination. "I'll go get it for you."
He left the room without another word. Harry closed his eyes nervously. What kind of horrible surprise could Snape have cooked up for him? The last surprise Vernon had ever given him was a belt last Christmas. Harry thought that Snape might have a bit more decorum than that, especially considering the fact that they were currently in an infirmary, but that didn't mean that the surprise wouldn't have some sort of negative meaning to Harry. Something that the healers wouldn't pick up on. He squirmed as he tried to think what it could possibly be.
He looked up. Dudley was standing hesitantly in the doorway. "May I come in?"
Harry bit the insides of his cheeks. He didn't want Dudley to see Snape embarrassing him, but he couldn't very well send his cousin away, not when he was looking so uncertain. Almost vulnerable. Harry nodded slowly. It wasn't like Dudley wouldn't see him getting shredded by Snape eventually, anyway, and the last thing that Harry wanted was to further the chasm between himself and his cousin. He would need an ally in Snape's abode, he was sure, and Dudley was the only chance he had.
"Have you eaten yet?" Harry asked.
Dudley nodded. "Your teacher said I had to before I came to see you. He was afraid that you wouldn't eat your food unless I'd eaten mine."
"He could have just told you to lie."
"Nah. My stomach would have growled."
Harry smiled. It was true that Dudley's stomach was better than the best truth serum. He wondered again how Dudley had managed to feed Harry for an entire summer without his parents noticing. And then the infirmary door snapped open again and Harry didn't have a chance to wonder about anything because he was being suffocated by an assembly of arms.
"Harry! Oh my God, Harry, we've been so worried!"
"Blimey, mate, you look a right wreck!"
"You look even worse—"
"Than when you left the Chamber of secrets last year."
"Or when you got chased by that Bludger."
"Or when you came out of the third floor corridor two years ago."
"Or when you—"
"That's quite enough!" Snape had entered the room again, and at the sound of his voice, Fred, George, Ron, and Hermione all jumped a step back from Harry's bed. "I let the four of you in here on the condition that you cheer Harry up." The words looked like they were painful coming from Snape's mouth. "I hardly think that reminding him of every difficult situation he's been in during the past two years will accomplish that goal."
"Sorry, sir," Fred muttered, looking down.
"Yeah, sorry," George added.
Ron and Hermione didn't apologize, perhaps because they hadn't been the ones harping on about Harry's past grievances, but they did look down in a rather sheepish manner. Harry, on the other hand, was staring at Snape with a mixture of awe and happiness. Sheer happiness.
"Thank you, sir," Harry whispered.
Snape looked right uncomfortable. "You should have shut them up yourself, Potter."
"No, I meant, thank you for—"
Snape waved his hand. "Once the headmaster told them what had happened, they were hardly going to be held at bay for long. I merely limited the number of Weasleys I allowed to see you at a time."
Harry found that he was thankful for that as well, although he knew better than to say it again. Snape was looking uncomfortable enough as it was. Still, he found that the idea of the entire Weasley clan crowding around him at once, as well-intentioned as they might be, was a tad off-putting. Overwhelming, even.
"Very well," Snape said. "You have two hours before visiting hours are over. I caution you to stay in bed and not over-exert yourself. If I find that you have done otherwise, I will think very carefully before letting your friends visit you again."
But Harry heard what Snape had not said. "You mean you might let them come again? If I'm good, I mean, and I stay in bed?"
Snape looked like he'd swallowed a bludger, but he nodded tightly. "Provided that they do not prohibit your recovery, I see no reason to forbid your friends from checking in on you. However, I will reconsider the arrangement if you exhibit any more of the infantile behavior you showed the healer earlier today."
"Very well, then." Snape turned back towards the hallway. He was halfway out the door when he added over his shoulder, "Two hours."
Harry grinned broadly at his professor's retreating back. He'd never thought that Snape, of all people, would arrange for his friends to come visit him. Of course, he had mentioned Dumbledore's influence, but it wasn't lost on Harry that he'd yet to hear from the headmaster himself. He doubted that Dumbledore was going to great lengths to help him out if he couldn't even bother to visit.
"Uh, maybe I should go, too," a voice near Harry's elbow muttered. He turned to see Dudley hovering uncertainly at Harry's elbow, his eyes fixed on Harry's friends. He was surprised that he didn't see disdain or even fear in Dudley's eyes. Instead, there was something akin to yearning there. Of course. Dudley had never had friends like this, at least not that Harry knew of. His friends had mostly been kids like Piers, kids who liked to play Dudley's video games and torment Dudley's cousin. And it wasn't lost on Harry that those same friends hadn't really been around over this past summer.
"No, Dud, that's okay," Harry heard himself saying. "Guys, this is my cousin, Dudley. He, er… He's helped me out a bunch this summer. Dudley, these are my friends, Hermione, Ron, Fred, and George."
"Your cousin helped you this summer?" Ron asked uncertainly.
Dudley blushed furiously, and Harry felt like socking Ron in the shoulder. To his surprise, George came to his defense.
"Of course he did, Ronniekins," George laughed. "Snape's a right git, but he hardly would have brought a muggle along otherwise. He warned us about not heckling Harry, and we're his friends, and wizards to boot."
"Honestly!" Hermione growled. "What does us being wizards have to do with it."
"George didn't mean it mattered to us, Hermione. Obviously," Fred said. "But of course it matters to Snape. If it didn't, he wouldn't have followed—"
"Fred!" Harry hissed. His cousin was looking a fair shade of grey by now, and the last thing that he needed was for Dudley to start feeling like a pig for the slaughter. "I hardly think this is a conversation Professor Snape would approve of, considering, and it doesn't matter anyway. Dudley's getting along with him as well as any non-Slytherincan get along with Snape."
"What's a Slytherin?" Dudley asked carefully. "Is that another name for wizards?"
Ron's eyes went wide. He coughed and spluttered, although Harry was hard pressed to figure out what his friend was choking on, unless it was possible to choke on one's own saliva. He grimaced at the very thought.
"No," Harry said in answer to his cousin's question, still rolling his eyes at Ron. "It… Didn't you read Hogwarts, a History earlier?"
"I read parts of it," Dudley said, nodding his head. "Professor Snape marked certain sections. Bits about moving staircases and enchanted ceilings and I dunno what else. He said that some of the other sections might interest me, but he was concerned about me knowing how to get around and not being scared and stuff first."
Harry nodded. That made a bit of sense. Unfortunately, it was pretty unhelpful. Having not read the book himself, he had no idea what his cousin would and wouldn't know at this point. The book itself had been referred to by Hermione so many times that he was sure it contained every bit of useful information there was to know about Hogwarts, but that hardly mattered if Dudley hadn't read the whole thing.
"When students go to Hogwarts, they get sorted into houses," Harry said instead. "There's four of them: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff. Professor Snape's head of Slytherin, so he's naturally partial to kids from that house."
"Oh." Dudley thought about that for a minute. "Are any of you from Slytherin?"
Harry shook his head even as Ron spluttered for another minute. "No. We're all Gryffindors. Um, Gryffindors and Slytherins are rivals. That's why Ron's impersonating the puffskein Fred and George used for beater practice."
"I am not!" Ron growled.
"What's a puffskein?"
Harry laughed. "Honestly? I have no idea."
"Oh," Dudley frowned for a moment. "Well, what's beater practice, then."
All at once, the Weasley's and Harry launched simultaneously into an explanation of the greatest sport of all times. Hermione shook her head in a bemused sort of way and rested her rump lightly on the bed near Harry's head, seeming content to allow the boys to educate Dudley.
Snape paused outside of the infirmary ward. It was just about time for Harry's friends to head back to their house, but he couldn't resist the urge to eavesdrop for a moment. He didn't feel the least bit guilty about it, either—after all, it could only help him get along with his ward from now on if he knew what the boy talked about when he was at ease.
"Of course," he heard the youngest Weasley boy say, "Hermione thought that it was Snape who was cursing Harry's broomstick. She ran over and lit a fire on his robes! Caused a real ruckus, and Harry's broom slowed down enough for him to get back on it. He even caught the snitch! And we still thought that Snape was the one who had cursed him. We didn't even realize that she'd knocked Quirrel over in the process."
He heard a great deal of laughter, although he himself couldn't find a bit of humor in the situation. Enlightenment, yes—he'd always wondered how his robes came to light on fire—but no humor. It had been a reckless stunt, and Granger was rather lucky that she'd knocked Quirrel over or her friend would have come out the worse for the event.
"Oh, don't forget the time that Harry got chased by a rogue bludger," one of the twins was saying.
"Oh, aye! I musta hit that damn thing a 'undred times alone an' it still kept goin' back to Harry. Right annoying, that."
Harry laughed. "Mate, you might lay off the rum balls. You're starting to sound like Hagrid."
Rum balls? RUM balls? Snape growled, throwing open the infirmary door, only to see… nothing. Nor did anyone seem surprised to see him. Indeed, that Granger girl seemed to be repressing a giggle.
"Wondered when you'd come in, Professor," one of the twins said. "The anti-eavesdropping charm told us you'd been there for ages."
Snape refused to allow his irritation at being tricked by a couple of pre-pubescent whelps to show. Instead, he worked his face into an expression of careful neutrality. "And why, pray tell, would you need an anti-eavesdropping charm in the first place?"
"Well, it's not like we were about to let the Head of Slytherin listening to us discussing Quidditch tactics, was it?" the other twin asked sensibly.
Hah. More likely, they didn't want him to hear them calling him a greasy git—as if he didn't already know what the majority of the student body thought of him. "In the future, I would appreciate it if you did not attempt to try my patience. Merlin knows I have little enough of it to begin with."
Dursley was the only one stupid enough to laugh at that, as thought he couldn't figure out that Snape was being perfectly serious. Unfortunately, he probably couldn't. Snape sent him a glare that shut him up right quick.
"In any case, your two hours are over and it's high time Mr. Potter got some sleep. You may return tomorrow, if you wish. Tell your parents that they are perfectly welcome to pay Mr. Potter a visit, as well."
Hah. That ought to make them mind their manners! Unfortunately, none of them seemed the least bit perturbed by the threat. The Weasley's merely nodded at him, clapped Harry on the back, waved to Dursley, and left the room. Granger, mother-hen that she was, brushed Harry's bangs out of his eyes and kissed him right on the scar. Snape was pleased to note that Harry looked a bit uncomfortable with the process. Serve him right for making Snape think that there were rum balls in the infirmary!
"Do try to stay out of trouble, Harry," she whispered. "Nice meeting you, Dudley." She turned to Snape, her smile tight. "Nice to see you again, Professor."