Fic: Remedial Potions - for tripperfunster Title: Remedial Potions Author: Rita Skeeter. Duh. Giftee:tripperfunster Word Count: 15,199 Rating: NC-17 Pairing: All Snarry, all the time. Warnings: None that I can think of. Disclaimer: All Harry Potter characters herein are the property of J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury/Scholastic. No copyright infringement is intended. Summary: It turns out Harry probably shouldn't have spent his sixth year cheating, because now he needs Remedial Potions for real... Author's Notes: Sorry it's not art, Tripp! I just can't compete. This is based on your mention of potions-made-me-do-it, but I ended up applying a somewhat fluid interpretation. I really hope you like it. To my beta, you know who you are: THANK YOU, and my soul is in the post. Oh, and in case any North Americans are not aware, Where's Waldo=Where's Wally in the UK.
The autumn sun was shining on Hogwarts. Still morning-cold, it gleamed against the ancient bricks, weak but promising sun-baked stone and perfect blue skies by the afternoon.
Harry had his back to it. He really did not want to see it was going to be a beautiful day.
He felt like a child again the moment he stepped through the doors. The entrance hall was grey and still at this time in the morning, and he couldn't help thinking of sneaking around in the early hours, Map and Cloak to guide him, solving mysteries and defeating evil and getting into trouble. It was not an entirely unwelcome feeling.
But Harry wasn't avoiding capture today. Today, he was walking right into the arms of the enemy.
He sighed and shut the great oak door behind him. Should he see the Headmistress first? No, his 'appointment' was in fifteen minutes. He'd get into trouble.
The path down to the dungeons was quiet. The cool crept into his bones. It felt a little like going back in time, the high hallways making him feel as tiny as a first year. He stuck his hands in his pockets, only coincidentally feeling the warm flare of his wand under his fingertips.
He wasn't anxious. He was an adult now, and Snape, all reports claimed, was a changed man. Possibly, Minerva had confided, a broken one. And when his Poisons and Antidotes tutor told him to get better or get kicked out, Snape had agreed to help him. Not that he'd yet addressed Harry directly, but an agreement was more than he'd expected.
Harry peered down a particularly narrow corridor and looked at his directions. A little red arrow egged him on. Harry obeyed, hunkering down into his shirt and wondering idly what life would be like for a claustrophobic Slytherin. The corridors twisted and bent, throwing his sense of direction off completely, until his path emerged into a low-ceilinged hall. There was a single door in front of him, marked with the word One singed into the wood. He knocked. The door opened under his knuckles.
The room beyond was icy cold, and much smaller than the usual dungeons. There were only three long desks from the front to the back, and a pock-marked potions counter in place of the teacher's desk. On it, a magical fire was lit, and above that bubbled a translucent, faintly rosy potion.
Stood behind that was Professor Snape.
Harry looked at him, and realised how much an imperfect memory had softened him. Snape seemed all angles and bones in the poor light, all oily blacks and ghostly whites, a hunched caricature drawn with a broad brush. Solid, real, and somehow smaller than Harry remembered. But utterly, uncomfortably familiar.
He did not look up.
"Set up, Potter," he said, with a voice like cracking stone. His black eyes flicked over the root he was chopping, quick smooth motions with a broad blade; he didn't bother to give Harry a glance. Harry stared, and everything he'd intended to say deserted him.
The magical fire flickered.
"Shut the door," snapped Snape, eyes still on his slimy roots. Harry swallowed, looked at the thick, ancient wood, and glanced out into the corridor behind. Auror, he thought. You're going to be an Auror.
Harry closed it, and turned around. Set up. Right.
Snape lifted his knife and used it to scoop up the diced remains, then slid them into the cauldron with a long finger. He gestured with the blade as the liquid hissed and roiled, turning the colour of dirty bronze.
Harry followed the point to a cupboard in the far corner of the room. He dragged out a cauldron, scales and knives in silence. He set them up on the desk in front of Snape's.
He paused. He wondered whether Snape was actually going to look up at him at all this class. Well, Harry could deal with that. Maybe that was the only kind of truce Snape could do.
Then Snape set his stirring rod down, and looked up at Harry.
Harry's skin prickled like a sharp slap, so strong and shocking was the expression on Snape's face. It was disgust, twisted and ugly, hatred as only Snape knew how to feel.
Harry stared back, caught off-guard. He realised that, almost automatically, he had moved into a familiar stance: defensive, resentful, his jaw clamping shut. He didn't like it. This was not how it was meant to go.
Harry took a deep breath in. Snape couldn't really hate him, not now. It had to be faked, Snape's last defence because they both knew far too much about each other and Snape hated to think his secrets weren't his own. So did Harry, come to mention it, but he didn't want it to matter so much any more. He was out of school and into the real world, and Snape had no real power over him there.
A roll of his shoulders threw off the ghost of his teenage self. He knew himself better now.
"So," said Snape, the hard line of his mouth curling up like a wire in flame. "Remedial potions."
Harry felt the blood rush to his face, but he ignored it and tilted his head to the side.
"It was always my favourite class," he said dryly. Snape didn't even offer a sneer – just those dark eyes full of loathing.
Harry stared at him for a moment. He cast around for something else to say.
"What are you brewing?" he said. Laughably politely, considering the look he was getting.
Snape showed his teeth.
"By the end of this course, Potter," he said, "You will know."
Harry turned his scowl into a polite frown. It was exhausting already. Maybe they ought to get the yelling over and done with –
This wasn't how this was supposed to go. Reconciliation, grudging understanding, shared pain, and then life would be better for both of them; happier in the ever-after. There was potential here, and Harry didn't want to yell. He sighed.
"I can't wait."
Snape wrote up a recipe on the board behind him. Harry thought he recognised it, Vertigo or maybe Nausea Draught, but the measures were unfamiliar; perhaps it was one of Snape's modifications. Snape returned to his own potion without a word, and Harry didn't bother to ask what he was meant to do. He followed Snape's games by now. Snape liked to withhold information.
Well, that was fine.
He began to brew the potion. It was difficult to concentrate. The fumes from Snape's cauldron were heavy and oppressive, and the presence of Snape himself needled under his skin: that prickling awareness, familiar from classes, when you could never be sure if Snape would sneak up behind you just as you measured out the most difficult ingredient. The fumes of his own potion began to make him feel dizzy and hot, and he suspected Snape knew they would. Harry wondered if Snape would actually teach him anything.
Snape didn't seem affected by any of it. Harry's eyes were drawn to him, wrenched up from his ingredients whenever his concentration lapsed. Snape looked hollow, he realised. His eyes were dark-ringed, and his hair was longer and lank. Harry didn't think Snape could look any more unkempt than he had as a teacher, but he looked more like his spidery, scruffy, teenaged self than Harry had ever seen.
It made Harry intensely uncomfortable. Part of him ached to respond to Snape's irrational hatred; another part just wanted to reach out and... God, he didn't know what. Brush the hair out of Snape's eyes? Tell him to eat a few good meals? Just thinking the thought made Harry's skin prickle.
After an hour's silent, sickly brewing, Harry was done. Or at least, as done as he was likely to be; the cooling brown sludge at the bottom of his cauldron didn't look like any working potion he'd seen. Snape seemed to know Harry was done, and looked up at him with cold contempt.
"Well done, Potter," he said, and it was pretty obvious he meant quite the opposite. "Next week, you can tell me what went wrong."
Harry stared at him.
"That's it?" he said. Snape looked at him, passively. "Aren't you going to... y'know... teach me anything?"
Some flicker of dark triumph lit Snape's eyes, as though Harry was fulfilling his every expectation, but he said nothing. Harry clenched his fists, wondering why he'd expected anything else.
He vanished his potion and sent the cauldron it clattering back into its cupboard. He was ready to leave, but Snape seemed to be waiting for something; suddenly, Harry realised that he'd never figure out what he'd done wrong if he didn't write down the recipe.
Harry Summoned some parchment; Snape huffed in irritation, which was approval enough for Harry. Notes taken, Harry stuffed both quill and parchment back into his shoulder bag and made for the door.
He stopped with his hand on the frame, unsure if this was really it. All the War between them, all that hate and history, and they weren't going to talk about it?
Harry opened his mouth to speak, remembered that hateful look, and shut it again. He was careful not to slam the door on his way out.
Stepping out of the dungeons felt like coming out of a thick fog; his meeting with McGonagall was practically euphoric in comparison. She told him to call her Minerva, and they drank tea and spoke of current affairs and the health of the school. It cleared his head – cleared it enough to make him think about his task.
What had he done wrong?
He spent the rest of the afternoon in the Hogwarts library.
Auror training kept him so busy, constantly active or revising or both, that the week passed almost without him noticing. Standing on the steps of Hogwarts again, it felt as though he'd been there yesterday.
Even the weather was the same, that bright sunshine meant to taunt him as he walked into the dark and cold.
It didn't feel so bad, this time, though. The lines had been drawn, the shocks were over. And Harry was feeling confident; he knew what his potion was meant to be, and exactly what was wrong with it.
"You cheated," he said, before Snape got a chance to speak. Snape looked up through the fog of his potion, sneer already in place.
"There were no rules," Snape observed. His voice was hoarse.
"Most people have unwritten ones," said Harry, setting down his bag. "Things they do in the spirit of fairness. But I get it, very clever, it was Vertigo, but you wrote it up wrong on purpose. Are you going to do it every week? Because if you are, I think I'll just find someone else to teach me, because I'm not good enough to know what's the right one and what's wrong. That's kind of why I'm here, you know?"
Snape threw something on his potion. It turned pearly-pink.
There was an uneasy pause.
"Rehearse that, did you, Potter?" purred Snape. "A shame it's an empty threat. Shut the door."
"I mean it," said Harry, obeying. Then he felt suddenly foolish. If he'd meant it, if he really was strong enough to face down Snape, he wouldn't have said that, not like a petulant child. Not that he wasn't strong enough. Snape was not the only Potions tutor. It was just a slip of the tongue. Except you couldn't slip in front of Snape. He swallowed, all confidence evaporating.
"You don't mean it, Potter," murmured Snape, chopping daisy root again, "Because you don't have anyone else to turn to. You wouldn't tell anyone else just how little you know."
Harry bit his tongue. Snape didn't even bother to smirk. It would have been easier if he had. It would have been something to hate. God, the fumes were confusing him.
Snape just kept chopping roots, pausing only to flick his wand lazily at the blackboard. Harry swallowed down a panicked, nauseous feeling, a little like drowning, and fetched his cauldron.
Then, once set up, he pulled out his reference books and hunted for the recipe.
He hadn't noticed Snape so much as look up, but there he was in an instant, at Harry's side. Harry held himself stiffly in place. Snape couldn't loom so much nowadays, not with Harry being only a few inches shorter and much more solid – it would be virtually impossible for him to loom, so that feeling of smallness was all in Harry's imagination.
"Cheating, are we?" hissed Snape, close to his ear. Harry could hear all the places where his voice cracked, dragged over scar tissue.
"I thought there weren't any rules," murmured Harry.
Snape picked up the book and flicked to the front page. It was from the Hogwarts library; Pince had lent it to him.
"Borrowing knowledge from stolen books. How unsurprising."
"Well I don't know what the potion is and I'm not going to pick the knowledge up by osmosis, so I'll have that back, thanks," he snapped.
Snape handed him the book. Harry thought it was a triumph, until he looked at Snape's face and realised that Snape had never intended to take it off him.
Harry really had no idea what Snape was playing at. At least in Potions class he'd known for sure that Snape's only agenda was to make him miserable. Of course, he was making him miserable far more effectively now. Perhaps Snape had just perfected his technique.
Harry finally found the potion he was looking for in the book, with six measures less hellebore. Harry wondered what Snape's version would have done; exploded, probably. Or maybe... maybe it would make it better. Maybe, actually, he'd picked up the book – and invoked the memory of the other book, the one Harry didn't much want to think about – because he was hinting. And it didn't seem very Snape to use the same trick twice.
Then again, it didn't seem very Snape to hint, either. And Harry had the feeling he would descend into paranoia if he carried on like this.
Constant vigilance, he thought, with dark amusement.
He started work, to the book's recipe, but it was hard going, with his nerves jangling as they were. Snape's mere presence seemed to tap something primal, something uncomfortable and angry, something that started at the base of his spine and clawed its way up without consultation from his brain. He didn't know if it was just the chill, or the poor ventilation of the dungeons making him dizzy, or just the fact that they hadn't talked about any of the things that hung between them –
Harry caught himself just before he stirred one time too many. At least, this time, the potion was the colour it was supposed to be. It was fiddly, though. And, after forty-five minutes, mind-numbingly boring.
He left the potion to simmer for the final ten minutes, and watched Snape instead. He didn't look bored, working on his mysterious potion. He looked... different. Almost peaceful, except for his eyes, which were narrowed, focused. Harry remembered the boy in Snape's memories, so intense and serious about everything, and so good at all this... he made Potions look easy, as though you could store all the recipes in the world in your head and just let them pour out, naturally, when the need arose.
He made it look like magic.
Harry didn't like thinking about the boy Snape had been, especially now he'd thought about his old Advanced Potions book. The memories weighed on him too much already, all the more so now that Snape had made it clear that they weren't going to be friends. Harry didn't like to think that he would never get a chance to clear the air before Snape muddied it again; he wished he could remember all the subtle, casual ways he'd imagined he would bring... things... up. But nothing was casual with Snape.
He distracted himself with trying to figure out what Snape was brewing. By the end of this course, Potter, you'll know. What did that mean? Was Snape going to poison him with it? It was either that or he was suggesting that Harry would learn enough to identify it, which he found unlikely considering Snape's "teaching" so far.
Snapping out of his reverie, he added the nettle leaves just in time. The potion flared, throwing up yet more dizzying fumes, but then it settled down into looking and smelling remarkably like the milky medicine his Aunt Petunia used to force-feed Dudley. It seemed hard to believe it was actually poison.
Poison which Harry had made, completely successfully. He looked up at Snape, and obviously there was something expectant in his face because Snape's lip curled.
"My, how you've progressed," he said. "You can finally follow a recipe."
Harry met his eyes and his temper flared. He'd done all he could! He'd used the resources he had to solve Snape's awkward puzzles, and he'd made a bloody good potion too. What more did Snape want?
"Tell me why," Snape continued.
"What?" said Harry.
"Why. Why does a measure of hellebore work, as opposed to seven measures or ten measures or indeed, no measures?"
Harry's sense of achievement dropped down to his stomach with an iron thunk.
"I have no idea, sir," he said, through gritted teeth. Of course – this was all about getting Harry to admit ignorance. Snape really was only doing this to make Harry suffer. And he was good at it.
"I know," said Snape. For a moment, Harry couldn't bring himself to break eye-contact.
Snape looked away first. Harry packed his things and left in a black rage.
It was only after the third hour of his attempts to memorise the properties of Hellebore, taut with anticipation at the thought of shoving them down Snape's throat, that he realised.
The bastard was actually trying to teach him something. Or at least, get him to learn.
Harry came back with a pile of notes on Hellebore and four more reference books. Snape didn't say a word. Another potion appeared on the board, another challenge set.
Harry sat on the desk behind him, and began to look through his books. He'd brought a jumper this time. He felt good.
"Potter," said Snape, and it was an ugly noise. "Get off the desk."
"Or what?" said Harry, almost without thinking.
"Or you'll write lines."
Harry laughed, his breath coming out in visible little puffs. Snape didn't look like he was joking.
"Detention? Seriously? What would make me do that?"
"You'd do it, or I'd kick you out," said Snape. "And then the Aurors would kick you out."
Harry got off the desk.
"I'm not going to accept detention," he said coldly, but he knew that sounded pretty hollow, now. Snape didn't say a word. Just stared over his cauldron, wreathed in smoke, like a pantomime villain. A villain who hated Harry all-consumingly.
He couldn't be sure, but it seemed to Harry that Snape visibly hated him even more than Voldemort ever had.
Then again, perhaps it wasn't surprising. Snape loved more than Voldemort ever could. And Hermione liked to say they weren't that far apart, love and hate.
He shivered, and carefully put the thought aside.
He pulled another book closer. After half an hour of tedious searching, trying not to be distracted by the movement of Snape's elegant fingers over the hands of his cauldron, he found what he was looking for. It was an antidote, and it had too little aconite.
"Ha!" he said, and then glanced guiltily at Snape. Snape didn't look up from his brewing.
Harry followed the recipe, reflecting that it was getting easier to get everything right. The aconite went in. Nothing exploded, and Harry grinned.
The final ingredient turned the perfect, bubbling potion into foul-smelling cement.
Harry stared at it, and then up at Snape, and Harry couldn't quite tell through the fumes but it looked a lot like Snape was smirking to himself.
When he looked up, however, his expression was as unpleasant as usual. He swept up to Harry with the flair that had earned him his bat-like nicknames. An echo of his former teenage hatred flared, hot and heady and familiar.
"Don't tell me," Harry growled, "You want to know why."
Snape smirked, a taut little twitch with no humour in it. He picked up the book Harry had been reading, perused it idly.
"Next lesson," he agreed. "In essay form. With reference to why, specifically, your... potion... is a solid grey mass. As opposed to, say, green sludge. Or purple gas. Or an explosion."
Harry didn't bother to argue. He just packed up his things, and went to firecall Hermione.
When Harry Apparated to the Burrow, Hermione was sat outside, on a sun lounger the exact colour of a wellington boot. She looked very pretty in a long sundress, with a cocktail at one elbow and a very large pile of books at the other. There was another empty lounger next to her.
Just as the dank chill of Snape's dungeons depressed him, her face framed against the familiar house suffused him with a feeling of contentment. It was a little like waking up, like the sunshine pushing the sleep from his bones.
"Harry!" she said, and her smile was wide and warm. "You look... actually, you look rubbish. Are you sleeping properly?"
Harry flopped down on the lounger.
"Sleep? Are you kidding? Aurors don't sleep. Constant vigilance!"
Hermione smiled with kind eyes, and ruffled his hair.
"Yeah, Ron's upstairs having a lie-in. He's exhausted too, and he's not spending his Saturday mornings with Snape. Are you sure you should be doing this Auror business? Now, I mean. Not like you don't deserve a year off. We all do."
She sipped her cocktail pointedly.
"A year off?" said Harry. "Come off it, Hermione, you spend your entire life at your place of work!"
"It's a library. You can't tell me you're surprised."
"Yeah, but you've only got part-time hours."
"They offered more," said Hermione seriously, "But I didn't want to over-work myself. It's not good for you. You look like you could sleep for a year."
Harry snorted and picked up a book.
"I blame potion fumes and not enough sun," he said, rubbing his eyes. "Now tell me what the hell I did wrong this morning."
Hermione pulled a heavy book onto her lap and turned it to a page with the antidote he'd been trying to make. She frowned.
"I'm not sure I can see what you did," she said. "I mean, none of the most common mistakes would turn a perfect potion into what you described. Are you sure you were using the right kind of beetle eyes?"
She went through every step, slowly. Harry's memory was fuzzy, but he'd been pretty sure about them all. Then, at the next to last step, she shut the book.
"I dunno Harry, I guess he must have sabotaged it," said Hermione. "I'd have hoped he'd be above that sort of thing now, but, well, it is Snape..."
"Wait," said Harry, "You missed a step. You missed the yarrow."
Hermione stared at him.
"Snape told you to put yarrow in it?"
"No," said Harry. "Or at least, I didn't see if his board instructions did. But the book did."
Hermione began to smile.
"Harry, this didn't happen to be a book by Diogenes Bittersmith, did it?"
"Er..." said Harry, and pulled it out of his bag. "Yep, that's what it says."
"Oh," she said, taking the book off him. She looked as though she might be about to laugh.
"What is it?" said Harry, getting irritated now.
"Oh," she said, "It's just... well, awfully bad luck for you, Harry. You'd have no reason to recognise the name, but Diogenes Bittersmith is quite an infamous character in the Potions world. He hated people, and he didn't want anyone to publish his potions journals because he believed that no-one would actually read them except to borrow the recipes. His publishers were so keen that he eventually gave in and let them sell his books, but he included a single error in every one, to catch out the people who were just following instructions. It became very popular for a while among potion-makers to buy them just to spot the mistakes."
"Like Where's Wally for people with no life," said Harry bitterly. Hermione patted him sympathetically on the arm.
Harry slumped back in his lounger and threw the book back into his bag. Well, at least that would make for a short essay. My potion turned to cement because Diogenes Bittersmith was a git.
Except it wouldn't, would it? Because Snape knew why the potion failed. He would have recognised the book. And he'd been curiously specific about the essay content. He had to figure out why yarrow made an antidote to Diarrhoea Draught into an attractive cauldron-shaped ornament.
"It's odd though..." mused Hermione, "That Snape should set you this particular potion. It's not hard. We've even made it before, not from Diogenes's book obviously, but..."
"Maybe he thinks I can't..." started Harry, and suddenly had the unusual pleasure of realising something a moment before Hermione did.
"He bloody knew I had that book," said Harry. "I took it out at Hogwarts, Pince was positively glowing when I asked if I could. He must have found out what I'd taken, nosy bastard. Oh, I bet he absolutely loved having the chance to make me feel like an idiot. And making me write an essay on it! Slimy, horrible, conniving –"
Hermione made a dramatic show of clutching the sun lounger and looking down at herself, then around at the clear blue sky.
"Oh, thank goodness," she said. "For a moment, I thought we'd gone back in time!"
Harry swatted her.
"It's not my fault," he said. "Turns out none of Snape's personality was a cover. He really is that hateful."
"Are you sure?" said Hermione, mouth quirking slightly. Harry sighed. Out here in the unseasonal sunshine, it was hard to imagine that anyone could be as bitter and hate-filled as Snape. But Harry knew better.
"Come on," she said. "I can help you write this essay. The interactions aren't too complicated. I'll talk you through it, you can take notes and write it up."
Hermione started upon a long explanation of why, exactly, his potion failed, brandishing the books at him to illustrate points, and Harry listened carefully and wrote it all down.
Then Hermione paused, snatched his parchment away, and asked:
"Repeat what I just said, Harry."
"Er... the magical core of..." He sighed. "Um... something about murtlap?"
Hermione smiled sadly, and handed his parchment back.
"Sorry, Harry," she said. "I'm actually not sure I'm helping."
Harry sighed again. He knew she was right, of course, but he was so tired. Hermione made everything so much easier.
"I see your point," said Harry. "Sorry, 'Mione, it's not you, it's me. I'm really rubbish at this."
Hermione hit him unexpectedly with a book.
"Don't you ever say that, Harry James Potter, you're perfectly capable," she said. "And I know you are, but when I see you and Ron getting so worked up, I can't help myself..." She looked distressed, fingers worrying through her hair and her eyes far away. "I'm the one who should be sorry. I feel like it's my fault. Maybe I shouldn't have stepped in and let you think you were just too stupid all those times... I know how important this is to you..."
Harry took the book off her and hit her back.
"I could have said 'go away'," said Harry. "I should have taken responsibility for my own school stuff. I mean, I think I had a few bloody impressive excuses, but so did you and you managed. But you're right about me needing to learn it myself, so I'm going to take my books home and figure out what the hell was going on. Thanks for everything, Hermione. Really, everything, I can't think of anyone I'd rather have in a crisis."
Hermione smiled, eyes a little glittery all of a sudden.
"Here, take my books too, they'll help loads," she said, handing them over. Harry shoved them in his bag and stood up.
"Thanks, great," he said, genuinely, but not terribly enthusiastically. "Well, I really ought to start if I ever want to have a social life again. Sorry, I haven't asked how you are, have I?"
Hermione smiled more cheerfully this time.
"I'm fine," she said. "Think I might be nearly there with Mum and Dad. They're out in the garden at the moment, enjoying the sun. They keep saying they hate how cold it is here, I've tried but that's one thing I can't seem to get them to shake off."
"Maybe they mean it," said Harry gently, making a quickly-aborted attempt at patting her on the shoulder. "I'm glad they're okay. It's weird, this weather, isn't it?"
Hermione gave him a very strange smile this time.
"Oh, Harry," she said. "Can't you see why?"
Harry looked at her blankly.
"It's been unusually sunny since May," she said. "And the last time we had weather this good was when you were a baby. I looked it up."
Harry stared at her, mystified. She beamed.
"This is what happens when every single witch and wizard in the whole of the British Isles is happy."
Harry stared up at the sky, and smiled too.
He didn't jeer like he used to, and there was no-one else around to embarrass Harry in front of, but Snape still wouldn't give an inch. He ignored Harry's successes and sneered at his failures, and the rest of the time he was quiet and eerily still, as stony as the cold, damp walls. He just made that wretched potion every single week with barely a word to Harry.
Harry couldn't take it as a good sign, not when Snape looked at him like he did, not when Snape had perfected that way of watching him without appearing to, so that Harry started feeling the ghost of his stare even when he wasn't around. As though he never quite left that oppressive little dungeon.
Still, he began to notice things. Things like the fact that Snape didn't look any better, ever, even though it had been several months since his near-death. And Snape never actually levelled an unjustified insult at him. And Snape was wound tighter than a spring in Harry's presence. And Harry was beginning to think that talking hurt him.
On the eighth lesson, when the weather was finally succumbing to the season and no amount of warming charms could keep Harry comfortable, he realised that Snape looked worse than usual. Not that he could have not noticed; Snape's presence filled bigger rooms than this, at least to Harry.
But Snape just made his potion, motions a little tighter than usual, but still silent, still steadfastly pretending to ignore Harry. The silence got to him. What had happened to the Snape who threw jars at Harry's head? Harry couldn't believe that he could miss Snape.
Half-way through a modified Fever Philtre, with the dark walls pressing down on him, he looked up sharply and finally caught Snape watching him.
Something caught in the back of his throat.
"Doesn't it bother you?" he said, suddenly angry. Snape didn't answer, just looked at him, knife hovering above his pickled slugs.
"That we've not –" continued Harry, waving his knife, "That there's all this... oh, come on, Snape, you know what I'm talking about."
"I don't much care," growled Snape eventually. "Make the potion."
Harry let his eyes fall back to his desk. He chopped his snake skins with sharp, angry movements.
"You know, we could talk about it," said Harry, unable to stop now he'd started. "Do you really hate me that much?"
"I can't imagine what you want to talk about, Potter," said Snape. "Nothing has changed."
Harry laid down his knife and laughed.
"Don't be stupid," said Harry. "I know things now... I know – you. I think. At least a bit. I get it."
"I know nothing new about you," said Snape, staring at him with dark eyes that pierced through wreaths of smoke. "Why would I change?"
Harry stared at him. He felt something that stubbornly wouldn't become hurt, something far too familiar.
Of course it was familiar, he thought, anger tightening his throat. Snape was rejecting him, just as he had the first day they'd met, and every chance since, just as the Dursleys had, with a similar lack of justifiable reason. Love might not be alien to Harry, but neither was the lack of it, and it stung more than it ever ought to, considering how little he actually thought of Snape.
Except... how little did he really think? Even now, he still had a strange, urgent need in him, that desperate wish to reconcile, to have it like he had imagined. Of course they wouldn't be best friends, no, nothing like that – but they'd be polite, and share silently, and talk about ugly things that Harry couldn't tell Ron or Hermione or Ginny –
Harry didn't know why he had such a fantasy built around Snape. It was absurd.
It took restraint not to throw the snakeskin into the cauldron with unnecessary force. It was not going to be a very good attempt today. But he could cope with that, he'd done so bloody well so far... couldn't Snape see that had changed, at least?
He pulled the pestle and mortar to him and filled it with beetle eyes. He remembered, through the haze of history, the ugly days when he'd imagined they were Snape's face. He didn't want that, didn't want to be a child again, but Snape did such a good job of bringing him down, pulling Harry to his level so that he'd rage and scream and spit and show himself to be just like Snape.
Snape was decanting his potion. Usually, this meant he'd be moving to lurk soon, sneer ready, an inch too much into Harry's personal space. Harry felt sick with it, sick with fighting over things that hardly even mattered any more. Why was Snape even helping him, if he wanted nothing to change? What could possibly motivate him?
Snape set his vials down and glided silently to the front of Harry's table. Harry looked up expectantly.
"I've not done a single thing wrong for weeks," he said. "And you're not marking my performance. So I can only guess you're standing there to annoy me."
"Call it curiosity," he said. Harry scowled.
"You won't make me make a mistake, you know."
Snape folded his arms.
"How arrogant you are, Potter," he said. "You think you know me so well."
"Maybe not, but I've picked up a few things," he said coldly. He Summoned the next ingredient in front of him and began to chop, head down, leaving deep dents on his chopping board. Snape's eyes burned into the back of his neck.
"Oh, of course," said Snape. "You're well-known for your powers of observation. How could I forget."
"What's wrong with you?" said Harry, looking up again with the knife still moving over his fireflies. "Why can't you just be reasonable?"
Snape leaned closer, close enough for Harry to feel that the force of Snape's hate didn't seem to warm his skin.
"I am being perfectly reasonable," said Snape. "I am being more than reasonable, considering I'm sacrificing my time and effort to teach a bratty, hateful little boy with a thick skull and delusions of maturity. You, Potter, are the one who fails to be reasonable, although considering your genetics I can hardly be surprised."
"Don't give me that," snarled Harry, snatching up the crushed fireflies. "Don't play the bloody noble martyr, not when you've not even tried to help me, you just left me to struggle when you could have just been nice –"
"What you seem to be conveniently forgetting," snarled Snape, and it sounded like it hurt, "Is that I am a martyr!"
"You're not dead!" said Harry, and threw his fireflies into the cauldron.
Snape's eyes widened, and Harry realised what he'd done a moment before the mixture exploded.
Harry was thrown backwards, and he couldn't see or hear or think or breathe. A tingling pain was spreading out from his mouth and down into his chest, and he was on the floor. He touched his fingers to his lips in blind, hopeless panic. They came back sticky with blood and glossy with poison.
"Evanesco," said a voice, trembling and hoarse, and Harry opened his eyes to see the sticky, toxic mess vanish from the room. Harry was on his side against the far wall, and Snape was standing up against the blackboard with a hand against his side. His eyes were wide.
"Potter," he said, urgent.
"Fuck," said Harry. There was more pain now, radiating through his limbs like spirals of fire, agony almost eclipsing the chest-constricting panic. He couldn't move. His eyes wouldn't stay open, rolling back into his head as the fire started.
"Fuck," muttered Snape, and pulled himself away from the board with a hand still tight on his ribcage. He left behind a smear of something sticky and dark.
He didn't cross to Harry. He crossed to his cauldron. Harry's panic stabbed at him in an uneven rhythm. The edges of the room blurred.
His ears roared. His nerve-endings screamed. He could see Snape, throwing things into the cauldron with none of his usual grace. He was shaking. Or was it Harry?
Harry closed his eyes and begged for unconsciousness.
Something cool touched his lips, a startling anchor against the agony of his skin. He opened his mouth, desperate, afraid; ice-cold potion poured into it, and Harry's throat locked up. Potion poured out of his mouth and a shaking hand came to rub his throat. He choked.
"Drink, Harry, drink," said a hoarse, panicked whisper, and Harry couldn't believe it was Snape. He swallowed, pain like a pulse in the back of his throat, and Snape kept pouring more and more until it was escaping from his mouth, rivers of ice over his chin. Snape stopped pouring, mumbling something that might have been encouraging, and long fingers scooped up the escaping antidote and scooped it into his mouth.
Blissful, peaceful cool was spreading through Harry, and Harry had never wanted anything more in his life. Eyes closed, he fought to catch the last drops of blessed relief, catching Snape's index finger with his tongue, sucking every last speck of potion from the warm skin in a delirium of relief.
Like the bloom of a blush, warmth returned to him, real, natural warmth, and his muscles relaxed with a pleasure that was almost obscene. He opened his eyes.
Snape's fingers were still against his lips. Harry's tongue was curled around one finger, and Snape was staring at him with a wide-eyed expression that brought back Harry's panic in a sudden rush.
Snape stood up, not at all steadily, and threw back a vial of something ice-blue. He fell back against the desk, mouth open, eyes closed, trembling slightly as the antidote took effect.
Then he opened his eyes, and collapsed.
Harry, finally able to think, leapt up in a panic and stumbled over to Snape. That dark smudge on the blackboard was oozing over Snape's robes, and Harry put his fingers to it, panicked beyond reason when they came back red-tipped. He pulled apart the tear in the cloth.
A dark, twisted piece of pewter was embedded in Snape's ribs. Harry swallowed. He'd been rehearsing for this, every time the Aurors practiced healing, though he'd never imagined that the spectre of his failure would ever be his actual first patient.
He pulled the shrapnel out. He cast the spells. He cleaned up the blood, and he eased Snape into a more comfortable position. Snape's skin was very cold.
He looked at the cauldron of congealing antidote, and the two empty vials. He swallowed, throat strangely tight.
"You are a bloody martyr, aren't you?"
Snape grunted. Harry jumped. Snape sat up, a vampire rising from the grave, and gave Harry a cold glare.
Harry offered a hand. Snape took it. The cool feel of Snape's fingers made Harry clamp down on his tingling lip.
"You're the most brainless brat I have ever been obliged to teach," he said, and his voice was quivering. Harry wasn't sure if it was anger, illness or something else.
"You were actually worried about me," said Harry, half-disbelieving. He paused. "And you're not obliged."
Snape didn't refute it. Harry stared at him, waiting for him to say something to reset the status quo.
"Are you –"
"You can tell me why next week, Potter."
Harry, on surer ground, smiled.
"I can tell you why now. I forgot the stabilising agent. Fireflies and Cayenne means boom."
Snape raised an eyebrow.
"Congratulations. Now get out."
Harry packed up his things with shaking hands. At the door, he glanced back.
Snape was throwing back his strange, dirty-bronze potion.