A/N: At the end of the first book, Harry finds out that Snape had been trying to protect him and the Philosopher's Stone. What if... Harry had gone to Snape, before he left Hogwarts for the summer, to say a few simple words?
"Please, Madam Pomfrey, I need to see Professor Snape!" Harry begged.
"You'll see him at the end of term feast tonight! Isn't that soon enough?" she replied.
"No, I need to talk to him – alone! I have to... thank him. For saving my life."
She looked up sharply at Harry.
"He did, did he?"
Harry nodded slowly, still in shock from the many new pieces of information that had been thrown at him in the past few days. His head was also threatening to hurt again.
"Yes. He... during that Quidditch match, when I almost fell off my broom... Quirrell was putting a curse on my broom but Snape – Professor Snape," he corrected himself, "was saying the countercurse. If he hadn't, I... I might have fallen. I could have died!"
Madam Pomfrey pursed her lips. She took any threat to a student as a personal affront.
"Well... I suppose..."
"Please, Madam Pomfrey!"
She nodded curtly.
"All right, then. But you must not exert yourself. Do you promise?"
Harry nodded again, somewhat more vigorously. "I promise!"
Madam Pomfrey went to her office and brought back Harry's clothes.
"I'm glad to hear that Professor Snape has finally gotten over the bad blood between him and your father. It was childish, really, but he is a teacher at Hogwarts now, after all..."
Harry stopped unbuttoning his pyjamas as her muttered words sank into his brain.
"You... You knew... my dad?"
"Of course!" Her eyebrows arched in exasperation. "James Potter was in here more times than I care to recount with Quidditch injuries or some such. And Severus, too, with hare-brained hexes inflicted by your father or one of his friends!"
Harry gaped at her in shock and disbelief.
"My dad... put hexes on Snape?"
She nodded grimly.
"Yes, and I hope you are not about to follow in his footsteps. Just for being in different houses they were constantly at each other, hexing and jinxing! Personally, I thought it rather un-Gryffindor-like for your father and his cronies to all go after Severus, who was usually alone – though not defenseless! Oh, yes, he knew some nasty jinxes – curses, more like – and would use them if they so much as threatened him..."
Harry felt sick to his stomach and did not hear much more of Madam Pomfrey's ramblings. Dumbledore had said that his father and Snape's relationship was much like that of himself and Draco Malfoy, but to think that his father had actually attacked Snape was horrible – he felt as though a black serpent were coiling around his heart, squeezing it. He had already been feeling guilty about wrongfully suspecting Snape of attempting to steal the Philosopher's Stone, but now, to know that his father had been Snape's enemy and that he had saved Harry's life in spite of it, made his own assumptions seem even more petty and small-minded.
"But he has been really nasty to me in class," he thought to himself, trying to justify his prejudice against the Head of Slytherin House.
"Why wouldn't he?" his own mind countered. "If my dad was always hexing him when they were at school, and I look just like my dad...! I wouldn't feel like being nice to Malfoy's kid, either, if I were in his shoes..."
Miserably, Harry dressed in his mended clothes and gathered up his pyjamas, the remaining boxes of candy, and – most precious to him – the photo album of his parents from Hagrid. He looked at the first picture, the one of his parents holding him as a baby between them, and tried to imagine the kind-eyed man that was his father casting a hex on Snape. He suddenly didn't want to look at the pictures anymore, but he knew that there was even more reason to see Snape now than when he'd first asked Madam Pomfrey to release him early from the hospital ward.
Harry stood with great trepidation in front of the door to Snape's office. He knew what he had to say, but he wasn't sure he had the courage to say it.
"But I'm supposed to be a Gryffindor! I have to be brave!" he told himself. "Besides, after facing Voldemort face-to-face... maybe Snape – Professor Snape – won't be so bad..."
He realised that he was deluding no one, least of all himself, with that last statement. He sighed, then took a deep breath and knocked on the door before he could stop himself.
"Enter," came the familiar voice from within. Harry pushed the door open, slipping in to stand just inside it.
Apparently Snape was packing for the summer holidays, for he had several books in his hands and a small carpet bag on his desk, which he was peering into at the moment Harry walked in. When he looked up and saw who his visitor was, however, he froze as though Petrified.
"Potter," he said, so surprised that he forgot to pronounce it with the usual sneer.
"Professor Snape," Harry began, feeling his mouth go dry. He swallowed hard and continued, "I–I've come to–to thank you, for s–saving my life, and... and to... apologize."
The jet-black eyes were staring so intently at him that he couldn't think of anything more to say. After a moment in which time seemed to stand still, the older man's lips moved.
"What... did you say?" he asked, in no more than a whisper.
Harry tried to take a deep breath and found that his heart had moved up into his throat, preventing much air from getting in.
"I... I wanted t–to thank you," he managed. The words started to flow quickly once he began. "You... You were saying the countercurse! Quirrell said... he was trying to curse me, and we thought it was you, so Hermione set your robe on fire – I'm sorry about your robe – but you were trying to save me all along! I'm sorry, we just assumed... you were so horrid to me in class, we thought you were trying to hurt me and steal the Philosopher's Stone, too, even though you were trying to protect it. Quirrell said that's how you got bit by Fluffy, on the leg. I'm sorry, I just thought you'd tried to steal it when the troll got in, but Quirrell said he'd let the troll in as a diversion, not you..."
Harry realised that he was rambling and stopped as suddenly as he'd begun.
Snape, who had been listening with his hands stopped in mid-air, slowly set the books down on the desk, taking his time as though gathering his thoughts.
"Well," he said, straightening himself to his full height, "you have certainly made some... erroneous assumptions."
Harry almost expected him to mete out a detention or two, but the Potions Master quietly continued his assessment.
"You took what little evidence you had and came up with an entirely... inaccurate theory. I'm surprised that you were able to get to the Stone at all!" he said with a shade of his usual rancor. "However," he continued, "perhaps... I might have contributed to your... false impressions. You think that I was... unfair to you, in class?"
He arched one eyebrow as he asked this, forcing Harry to remember the words he had spoken in haste and to wish there were some magic that could un-say them.
"Well, I–I..." he stammered. Snape cut him off.
"In that alone you may have been right," he snapped. "I have no tolerance for those who do not respect the art – and it is an exact and precise art – of potion-making. And you, by your own admission, are not... accurate."
Harry nodded, feeling a sense of impending doom. The professor's dark eyes continued to bore into his green ones, and it was not for the first time that Harry wondered if the older wizard could read minds.
"Next term," Snape announced in his usual classroom tone, "I will expect you to do much better at paying attention in class and following the directions precisely!" He took a breath and, for the first time, averted his eyes. "Perhaps, if I can detect a significant improvement... or, shall we say, at least an effort, on your part, to improve... I daresay, my attitude towards you – and your fellow Gryffindors – may... perhaps... become more... lenient."
He returned his gaze on Harry, as though in challenge, but found to his surprise that Harry merely looked relieved.
"I–I'll try, Sir!" he promised. "I can't honestly say that I like Potions but... I'll do my best! And maybe, if Hermione will help me more with my homework, I can get better," he added. "I do want to do well, really, it's just... well..."
He looked up hesitantly at Snape, who was gazing at him with an unfathomable expression. It was not his usual one of loathing, though, which gave Harry the courage to say what he truly wanted to.
"It's just that, you can be... a–a little intimidating sometimes... Sir. And I think – actually I'm sure – that both Neville and I would do much better in class if you didn't... well, if you didn't scowl at us so often. I don't think anybody can do their best when they're... nervous."
He substituted that word for "frightened" at the last moment, not wanting to sound weak, but was surprised when Snape did not scowl at him immediately.
"I see..." Snape replied, his voice betraying no emotion. "But what if it becomes necessary to... 'do your best,' as you say, when you are... extremely nervous?" he countered. "What about, say, in the presence of the Dark Lord?"
Harry started in shock that Snape would bring up such a topic. His thoughts flew to the image, fresh in his mind, of the horrible face that had leered at him from the back of Quirrell's head, and he shuddered. He looked up to see that Snape had come around his desk to stand towering before him.
"You have looked upon the face of the Dark Lord," Snape stated. "And he is only a shadow of his former self. What, then, if he returns to his full powers? Will you plead that you cannot fight him, for the mere reason that you are nervous? What if he... scowls at you?"
There was some contempt in his tone again, but Harry realised the truth in his words.
"You're right," he admitted soberly. "If I fight Voldemort again, I'll have to be able to think clearly and use my magic, even if I'm scared to death – or he'll kill me."
Harry looked up at Snape, who had been observing his response with care.
"Sir... Professor Dumbledore wouldn't tell me why Voldemort tried to kill me, when he killed my mum and dad..."
Snape, who had not flinched at the forbidden name, did flinch at the mention of Harry's parents.
"If the Headmaster does not see fit to inform you of the Dark Lord's reasons, then neither do I," he replied.
"Yes, but..." Harry struggled to explain what he wanted to know. "If Voldemort tried to kill me then, he'll try to kill me again, won't he? I mean, whatever his reasons were, they can't have changed that easily, right? And I think he was trying to kill me again, with Quirrell. He must hate me even more, now that I kept him from getting the Philosopher's Stone! So..."
He swallowed, then looked Snape directly in the eyes.
"So... I'll have to fight him again, won't I?"
Snape gazed at him a moment before answering, abruptly, "Yes."
Harry nodded, feeling more weary than a child his age ought to feel.
"I... I thought so. Thank you... for being honest with me. And... I guess... if I'm going to be a real Gryffindor, I should get over any... nervousness. I need to learn how to... overcome it."
The last sentence had been spoken softly, almost to himself, but Snape did not miss it.
"I have seen the Dark Lord at the height of his power," he informed Harry. "Compared to that, I cannot imagine why anybody – even Longbottom – should consider me... intimidating."
Harry looked up at him thoughtfully. "Yes, but... I wouldn't recommend sending Neville to meet Voldemort. Not yet, anyway..."
Snape snorted, as though he found that thought amusing, and Harry suddenly grinned. As much as he liked his fellow Gryffindor, the picture of Neville standing before Voldemort – even in his emaciated form – was absurd to the point of being comical.
"Maybe he could throw a melting cauldron at Voldemort!" he joked. He was shocked when a barking sound, suspiciously like a laugh, erupted from Snape's mouth.
"He's created enough of those, and to spare!" he gasped. "I have never seen a child so inept at potions in all my years of teaching! And that is saying something."
After so much tension, laughter was a welcome release, and Harry laughed long. When he finally settled down, he saw that Snape had not laughed with him but had been watching him with that same, unfathomable expression, only it was now mixed with something akin to... hunger?
"Well then, Potter," he said, going back to the other side of the desk and picking up the books he had set down. "Was that all?"
The last bit of laughter caught in Harry's throat.
"No," he said, wondering if Snape's good humour had been something of a hallucination. "I... I was talking to Madam Pomfrey... She said that... my dad... when you were kids... used to hex you."
He almost hoped that Snape would deny it but knew, before the man opened his mouth, that he would not.
"What of it?" he retorted, his tone sharp as he shoved his books into the carpet bag.
"I... I just wanted to say... I'm sorry for that... Sir." Harry swallowed. "It makes it that much more... generous... that you saved my life. And... And I want you to know... how much I appreciate that."
Snape's hands stopped in mid-air again. However, he did not look at Harry when he commented, "Duly noted. Is that all?"
"Sir," Harry began, desperation possessing him. "Professor Dumbledore said that you wanted to... to settle a score, make things even, for my dad once saving your life, by saving mine. Is that true? What happened? He said you... you didn't like each other, but I... I want to know what my dad was like, even the bad stuff!"
He leaned into the desk, trying to catch Snape's eye.
"I–I never even met him!"
The plea came out more plaintive than Harry would have liked, but it succeeded in grabbing Snape's attention. His head snapped up and his dark gaze became fixed upon Harry again.
"Potter, if you're hoping that I would tell you that your father was a saint, or a hero, or some such nonsense, you are gravely mistaken."
The Potions Master's voice was as cold as ice. Harry dropped his eyes to the desk, dejected.
"However," the voice continued over him in a somewhat less frigid tone, "I can tell you this: that your father was as gifted a wizard as has ever walked these halls. How he chose to use his gifts, sadly, is not something I would have you emulate. But lest you should think that you have inherited your dislike of Potions from either of your parents, I must inform you that they both excelled in the subject – your mother most of all."
"My mum?" slipped from Harry's lips, quicker than thought. "You knew my mum?"
"Of course," Snape replied in an odd tone. He coughed. "We were all in the same year here at Hogwarts."
"Oh!" was all that Harry said, but his mind was filled with so many questions that he simply couldn't decide which he should ask first. After a breathless pause, he chose on the most comprehensive: "Please, what was she like?"
Snape turned to look out of his window, leaving Harry with only a view of his back.
"She was... one of the most powerful witches I have ever known," he said. He had intended to say it in a detached manner, but his voice – even his features – had perceptibly softened as he spoke of her. Harry leaned forward eagerly, anxious not to miss a single word.
"She was exceptionally talented at Potions, as I said... We often collaborated on our homework and were successful in creating several new potions, I might add... And she was... well, compared to your father, she was a saint!"
Harry's eyes had never grown so large in his life – not even when Hagrid had told him that he was a wizard.
"You... You actually liked her?" he asked in disbelief.
"Everybody liked Lily Evans," Snape retorted, as though Harry was a dunderhead who had just given him the wrong answer in class. "She was... the embodiment of all that is amiable, noble, and good."
If Harry had been shocked before, his astonishment now knew no bounds. His jaw dropped open as he gaped at Snape, dumbfounded. Snape, however, did not notice; he was wandering through his memories.
"She was Muggle-born, you realize, but once she discovered her powers, she showed great skill in mastering them. Sorted into Gryffindor, like your father," he paused. "And for courage, none was more qualified. But you should have inferred this from the fact that she sacrificed herself – fighting the Dark Lord, no less! – in an attempt to save you. Her power, transferred to your person, is the only thing in all of wizarding history that has ever repelled the Killing Curse. That alone, Potter, should tell you volumes about your mother!"
He turned to face the boy and saw him staring at him, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.
"With so much talent in your blood, I refuse to accept the work you have submitted this year as the best you can do!" Snape thundered with sudden fury. "You owe it to her, Potter, to excel in all of your subjects, regardless of your likes and dislikes! Quidditch, of course, comes naturally to you – that is your father's heritage. He was also, I'll admit, an excellent student in Transfiguration; Professor McGonagall can tell you as much. Lily passed Transfiguration with honors and was always the top of our year in Herbology as well as Care of Magical Creatures. Charms we all shared top marks – your father, his friends, and Lily and I. Arithmancy came easily to her; she could translate Ancient Runes as quickly as the teacher. She did not elect to study Divination, but if she had chosen to, I've no doubt that she would have excelled in that as well!"
Snape took a moment to catch his breath.
"So you see, Potter, there is really no excuse for you to not excel at any subject!"
Harry nodded, amazed and speechless.
"I would have you realize," Snape said, quietly but distinctly, "that your studies here are not a matter of convenience – not for you! Do you understand? If you are to face the Dark Lord again – and I've no doubt that you will – you must apply yourself to learn all you can of magic. You must become more powerful than... than Voldemort himself, if you are to defeat him – in order for you to live."
Harry nodded again, his eyes luminous with the fierce pride stirred within him for his parents' achievements and the grim knowledge that his fate rested in how well he mastered the skills taught at Hogwarts. There was determination in his face, too, and – Snape noted – gratitude.
"I see that now," he told his teacher. "And I will try – I have to! I... I have to live... for my parents. For what they did for me."
Satisfied, Snape nodded. When the clock on his shelf chimed, he looked up with a start.
"We must go to the feast," he announced. Harry turned to leave, still mulling over what the Potions Master had just told him, but then Snape called, "Potter," so he stopped and turned around.
"You asked me... what had happened... when your father 'saved my life,'" he said, not hiding his distaste. "I cannot tell you of that due to... well, Dumbledore has sworn me to secrecy on that matter, for various reasons. However, I will say this: I do not consider your father's act worthy of repayment, since he only saved me to save his own neck. The reason that I saved your life, and will continue to do so, is the memory of your mother. She was a... a dear friend. And I can do no less than honour her dying wish: for you to live."
As if drawn by some magical force, Harry found himself pulled irresistibly back to Snape's desk.
"Sir," he croaked, his throat quite dry, "would you... do you think..." He gulped. "Would you mind... if I asked you, about my mum... when I come back, next year?"
Snape's expression was inscrutable again as he answered, "Perhaps. If you improve your performance in your schoolwork, I would be... more inclined to do so." He paused, then added in a milder tone, "Let that be your motivation as well."
Harry nodded, his eyes still wide at what seemed his unbelievably good luck. Just as he reached the door, he turned to look back at the older wizard, who was following him out.
"Thank you, Sir," Harry said, the sincerity evident in his face.
"Very well, then," Snape replied. "We should not be late for the feast."