When Snape discovers the letter rolled up inside Potter's essay on Befuddlement Draught at the end of his sixth year NEWT class the following afternoon, it is all he can do to keep from groaning aloud.
He had observed Potter closely all during class, especially during the hour he spent working over his cauldron with Ron Weasley, and had been pleased to note that, apart from a slight stiffness on the left side of his body, the boy gave every indication of being well-mended. Snape had chosen not to examine his relief at this discovery in any depth. It is entirely too early in the day for soul-searching and disquieting revelations.
He had intentionally refrained from acknowledging Potter in any way during the lesson. He hadn't so much as looked at the boy when he turned in his vial of Hiccoughing Solution. He cannot be seen speaking gently, or even neutrally to him, and he had not had the nerve to berate him a mere twenty-four hours after yesterday's breakdown. Potter, for his part, seemed to understand this; he had not attempted to catch Snape's eye or give any other indication of what has passed between them. At least not where Draco Malfoy could see.
But then, at the end of class, he had lingered after most of the other students to hand in his essay, and for the tiniest instant Snape's eyes had flickered up to meet his. Potter had extended the roll of parchment across the desk towards him, then dropped his gaze to look at it for a second, then looked back up at Snape with a meaningful waggle of the eyebrows. He'd left without actually saying a word. And Snape had discovered the note tucked into the scroll five minutes later.
Now Snape finds that he can't bring himself to pretend to have misunderstood He pinches the square of notepaper between thumb and forefinger, and, tensing in anticipation of another long, emotional screed, he holds it up to the light.
He is relieved to find that Potter's oversized scrawl fills less than half the page.
Don't feel bad about me passing out, I reckon if I hadn't been distracting you with a lot of pointless questions both of us would have remembered I was meant to drink that potion.
And if you'll excuse me saying so, sir, I think we both know that common decency isn't quite as common as it ought to be. Lots of people put up with worse than what the Dursleys ever did to me, and if other people didn't assume otherwise maybe they'd be quicker to notice when people around them are being badly treated. I don't want to offend you by acting surprised you would be kind to me, but I also don't want to take kindness for granted—so I am grateful to you, whether you want me to be or not.
And maybe you're right that I should be angry with the Durlseys. It's just that I can't help seeing it from their point of view a little. Even when I was a kid I had a power they couldn't understand. Most people who have power misuse it. How were they to know I'd be any different?
I can't believe you found my soldier, or that Uncle Vernon would actually show you my cupboard.
P.S. Don't laxitude and laxity have the same number of syllables, even if laxitude's not really a word?
Snape blinks down at the letter in his hand. It is...not what he had expected.
He hasn't got the time to ponder the contents, however, before he hears a rap at his office door. Snape looks up to find Dumbledore entering; before Snape can so much as greet him, he has turned and cast a silencing spell over the room.
"Headmaster." Snape nods to him, then makes a show of busily organizing papers on his desk. He doesn't know why he bothers—it's not as though the man ever considers Snape's schedule when he wants something out of him.
"I trust you are quite recovered from the events of yesterday, Severus," Dumbledore says without preamble, striding into the center of the room.
"Recovered?" Snape drawls. "I? You seem to be forgetting which of your charity cases spent the night in the hospital wing, Albus."
"My memory is quite as sound as it ever was, thank you," Dumbledore returns. "For instance, while I recall asking you to answer a few of Harry's questions before dinner last night, I was a bit concerned when you never appeared at dinner at all. In fact, Madam Pomfrey informs me that you lingered in the infirmary until well after 8 o'clock."
"It was necessary," Snape informs him stiffly.
"I am glad you thought so," Dumbledore says, and Snape turns away to hide the gritting of his teeth. "Were you able to fully satisfy Harry's curiosity?"
"That feat is not in the scope of human accomplishment," Snape says immediately. "But I gave him the details he required."
"And were well-thanked for your trouble, I am sure." There is a hint of a smile about Dumbledore's mouth.
Snape looks up quickly, a suspicion seizing him. He stares at Dumbledore through narrowed eyes. "Was it your idea, then?"
"Was what my idea, Severus?"
Snape seizes Potter's note and rattles it in the Headmaster's face. "That Potter appropriate me for his...penpal!" he seethes.
Dumbledore's expression is carefully, pleasantly blank. "I do enjoy a good correspondence," he says. "Rather a lost art in this day and age."
Snape does not trust himself to reply. He shuffles and reshuffles the Ravenclaw second year essays on essence of murtlap rather more noisily than strictly necessary.
"Have a seat, please," says Dumbledore, perching himself atop the worktable opposite Snapes's desk. "I need to speak with you. I have...a proposition."
"Oh?" says Snape, stiffly. He does as the Headmaster tells him, seating himself upon the wooden stool behind his podium, waiting for Dumbledore to get on with it.
"It regards the request I made of you yesterday afternoon," Dumbledore replies. "Concerning Harry."
Who else? Snape does not quite dare say aloud.
"I have business with Harry this year," he continues. "I shall be...supplementing his education. The matters I have to lay before him are complex, and will require all the attention he can spare from the conduct of his day to day life. In the interests of assisting him in that endeavor, I wish to eliminate one of his distractions."
"Well, no doubt the Gryffindor Quidditch team will manage without him," Snape says easily, ignoring for a moment his surge of curiosity as to the subject of Potter's private tutelage. "The respite from continuous visits to the hospital wing alone should expand his leisure time considerably."
Dumbledore smiles broadly. "Excellent try, Severus," he says. "But I had something else in mind."
"Well, I am all attention."
"During Harry's Potions class on Friday, I would like you to stage an incident."
"An incident?" Snape's eyebrows soar to his hairline. "Of what kind?"
"Oh, the sort that usually occurs whenever you combine easily distracted teenagers with volatile potion ingredients. An exploding cauldron, perhaps? Or maybe something less incendiary. I'm sure you can arrange the details so as not to risk serious injury to any of your students."
"If it is a brewing mishap you require, I doubt I shall have to try very hard to produce it," Snape says. "The odds are excellent that one will occur with no intervention from me. But what purpose will it serve?"
"I am coming to that," Dumbledore says. "Now: whether or not it is plausible—indeed, the less plausible the better, perhaps—you will find a way to blame Harry for what has occurred. You will be quite vicious, even for you. Take as many points as you like, I will find a way of returning them later." Dumbledore's eyes grow distant, considering. "A few detentions may be in order as well. And a great deal of ranting. The ranting is quite the material point. Nobody observing you should be left in the slightest doubt of your feelings for Harry. You have free reign to be quite as unpleasant as you possibly can."
Snape blinks at him, feeling as though the world has shifted on its axis. "You do realize," he says, "that my birthday is not until January."
Dumbledore laughs. "Yes. Well, do take every opportunity of enjoying yourself." The Headmaster's eye grows a bit steely. "I intend it is the last such incident that will occur."
"You intend to tutor Potter in Potions?" Snape arches an eyebrow. "Safeguarding my classroom against future effects of his incompetence?"
"No," says Dumbledore. "I do, however, intend to tick you off publically first thing Monday morning for your unfortunate display of temper. I may hint at a sacking in your future, if you can't manage to leave Harry in peace. Of course, you will have to ensure that your behavior is offensive enough to warrant so severe a reprimand. I, ah," Dumbledore pushes his spectacles back up onto the bridge of his nose, "trust you will have no difficulty seeing to it."
"You flatter me." Snape's nostrils flare and his mouth tightens.
"As you will have perceived already," Dumbledore continues blandly, "the purpose of the exercise is to provide you with an ironclad excuse for ameliorating your treatment of Harry in future—one that even your closest observers will find plausible. You will comply with my instructions with much glaring and gnashing of teeth, but you will comply, and no one will think it odd."
A long moment of silence falls between them after Dumbledore finishes speaking. Snape studies his feet, and then his hands, and then the polished grain of the wood of his lectern.
"I suppose," he says finally, "that, in your eyes, the indignity I will suffer from a public dressing down is a small price to pay, if it insure Potter's comfort."
Dumbledore gives the impression of fighting a smile. "I was rather thinking you would find it a small price to pay for the chance to fully vent your spleen for once, with no restrictions whatever," he says. "As for indignity, I will do what I can to minimize it. I rather think a great deal of furious whispering followed by a choice outburst on your part will do the trick admirably."
Snape allows his thoughts to run forty-eight hours ahead of him, when Potter's class will meet again. Two days ago he would have had no difficulty whatever coming up with things to say to the boy—would have felt a delicious warmth, imagining the look on Potter's face as he said them. He finds that imagining Potter's expression is still quite easy, but the thought of seeing it no longer fills him with anticipation.
"Do you..." Snape considers his choice of words carefully. "Intend to warn Potter ahead of time?"
Dumbledore leans back and clasps his hands in his lap. "A good question, Severus. He is no thespian—and yet, one feels he has been quite distressed enough..." He spreads his hands. "What do you suggest?"
"We—Potter and I—have had several exchanges of a—personal nature, since yesterday afternoon." Snape wonders if Dumbledore finds it as remarkable as he does that the words do not stick in his throat as he speaks them "If he believes I have betrayed his trust after all that, he may react unpredictably, speak indiscriminately. What is more, now that I know—that is to say." Snape clears his throat. "I have sufficient regard for my own honor to find the idea of appearing to Potter in the character of his uncle...distasteful."
Rather to Snape's relief, Dumbledore does not react to this confession with a benevolent smile, or a kindly twinkle of the eye. He looks quite as grave and serious as Snape has ever seen him; still, he fancies that he sees the light of approval in Dumbledore's expression somewhere.
"In that case, I believe I can safely leave the matter to your own discretion," Dumbledore says. "You possess the singular knack, much to be desired in a spy, of sifting through competing priorities and choosing the least of all possible evils—I trust you to look after Harry's best interests."
Dumbledore rises to his feet and turns for the door; years of habit have Snape rising automatically with him.
"But then" says Dumbledore, as with a wave of his wand he releases the wards and the silencing spells at the door and reaches for the latch, "I always have."
Letter from Severus Snape to Harry Potter, dated 3 September 1996, delivered by owl to Gryffindor 6th year boys' dormitory, received by addressee at 10:27 p.m.
You are correct. I accept your thanks in the spirit they were offered.
Perhaps your relatives are not evil so much as profoundly stupid. Common sense should have inclined them to treat you kindly, if only so you were never tempted to take revenge upon them. They certainly had neither cause nor right to expect you would be so forgiving.
I required Vernon Dursley to satisfy my curiosity in the matter of the cupboard. He was understandably reluctant—are you by any chance claustrophobic?—but yielded to persuasion.
P.S. The incident which will occur during class on Friday does so at the Headmaster's directive, for reasons which will become plain at a later time. You are expected to act your part, as I shall act mine. Employ what little subtlety you possess, and do not mistake appearances for reality. -S.S.
Letter from Harry Potter to Severus Snape, dated 4 September 1996, delivered by Dobby, a free Elf, to High Table in the Great Hall, received by the addressee at 7:15 a.m.
Not really. I rather liked my cupboard. They left me alone when I was in it. Though I'd have liked it better if the locks had been on the inside.
And I'm not so forgiving as all that, really. I'd have liked to see how you "persuaded" Uncle Vernon.
P.S. I really don't understand your post script, Professor, but—I'll try? -HP
Letter from Severus Snape to Harry Potter, dated 4 September 1996, delivered by Tilly, a House Elf, to the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall, received by addressee at 1:09 p.m.
He squirmed like a toad in the early stages of vivisection.
P.S. Get Miss Granger to explain it to you. Or Miss Lovegood, perhaps—she is not a Ravenclaw for nothing.