Chapter 6 : Walking on Eggshells
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Harry groaned, clutching his head, eyes closed. What little patience Snape possessed had long evaporated as Harry showed negligible improvement, and the man's current temper didn't make it any easier. “I don't know!” he ground out.
“I had assumed you were studying those books of yours, Potter!”
“I am! I got the eggshells part, I just can't get it to work!” His eyes snapped open, shining with frustration. “I don't even know what it's supposed to look like! It's not like the books came with pictures!”
“Have you no imagination?”
“Yeah, but it's not like I'm a natural at this! You just assume that I should get it like you do!”
“Occlumency requires effort as well as skill, Mr. Potter.”
Harry's hands flew from his temples as they balled themselves into fists. He shoved them in his pockets as he drew himself up, his frustration suddenly turning into outrage. “You think I'm not trying?” he all but shouted, “You really think I'm not trying, after what I did to Sirius last term? I'm trying a hell of a lot harder than you'd ever know – it's just, you're not teaching me!”
“How predictable,” Snape sneered. “When in doubt, blame the teacher, is that it? The fault is always mine, never yours, then?”
“I never said it was! It's just, I have no idea how it's actually done! And you're just poking around in my head and not actually bloody showing me!”
“Language, Potter,” Snape snapped, though there was something almost mechanical about the reprimand. He pinched the bridge of his nose, his hair swinging forward about his face, and when he dropped his hand, Harry saw for the first time that his scowl was not so much cruel as drawn and lined with strain. He looks like Voldemort's been at him, Harry suddenly thought, and then, as if in Dumbledore's voice, It isn't easy for him, either. Harry felt his indignant anger drain away against his will, leaving behind only the echoes of his previous frustration. “I'm sorry,” he said softly.
Snape glanced up, genuine surprise in his eyes. “Excuse me?”
“I said, I'm sorry. I know it's frustrating for you too,” said Harry earnestly. “We're both tired, and shouting at each other isn't going to help. I'm sorry. You're a natural, so you probably think I'm stupid or something. Look, Professor, I'm trying, I really am, but I guess I'm just really awful at this. I can't help it.”
Snape turned away abruptly, closing his eyes, his robes swirling around him. Harry warily regarded the professor's back; just as he was beginning to think he had gone too far, Snape spun around to face him. His expression bore no trace of its usual rancor; the infinite weariness that replaced it was perhaps more disquieting, if only for lack of familiarity.
“I suppose I owe you an apology as well, Mr. Potter,” said Snape. How he managed to sound simultaneously calm and as though every word was dragged forcibly from his lips, Harry would never know. “Occlumency is a difficult subject under any circumstance. Just as you have not made it easier for me to teach, I have not made it easier for you to learn. Your frustration is... understandable.”
Harry eyed him cautiously; he wasn't sure what he'd done to merit such an admission from the man, and regardless, Slytherins always had ulterior motives. Right? Snape would never apologize for anything, not to me, he thought. But that was no reason not to make the best of it. “Is there maybe... a different way to do this?” he asked. Harry had read about the strategies some famous Occlumens used to teach the art, but those required better rapport than he and Snape would ever have.
“There are numerous methods, but none that would be particularly effective in this situation.”
“Figures,” said Harry, shoulders slumping a bit. “Guess I just have to keep at it. Feels like trying to kick a hole in a brick wall.”
“If you find it too difficult, you might ask the headmaster to reconsider.”
“No!” Harry all but shouted. More calmly, he added, “I can't. I have to do this, or he'll see everything Professor Dumbledore's been teaching me. I... I know what's at stake this time. I can't just give up like that.”
This seemed to give Snape pause. His demeanor was pensive and grave as he examined Harry. “This, however, cannot continue. Perhaps... perhaps there is another way. It is dangerous, for both of us.”
Harry swallowed – something about Snape's tone raised the hairs at the nape of his neck. “What is it?” he asked quietly.
Snape looked him in the eye, as if searching for something in his very soul. Harry could not fathom what it was, but Snape nodded in what might have been satisfaction, and appeared to have found what he was looking for. He said, “I could show you mine.”
“My shields,” he said, with a touch of his usual impatience, “so you can see how they should work.”
Harry gaped at him, rendered momentarily speechless as the full import of his words sank in. “But... You – you mean it?” he sputtered when he regained his voice, “Why?”
“Because you have made too little progress, and time is of the essence. Because the Dark Lord must not be allowed in your mind again. Because it is necessary.” Snape stepped towards Harry, so they stood barely a foot apart. Harry looked up at the man, finding it difficult to meet his eyes and yet impossible to look away. Snape's eyes were like two bottomless pits in a face devoid of expression. The man's voice was low – though he might well have been shouting, so complete was the silence around them – as he said, “You will not repeat to anyone what you see in my mind. I would have you swear an Unbreakable Vow, but the Headmaster would forbid any such thing. As such, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to... trust you.” He spat the last words as though they were poison on his tongue, and they sounded like a challenge.
“I won't tell. I promise. You probably don't think my promises are worth much, but I really mean it, sir. Gryffindor honor, I swear.” Harry winced a bit as the last bit slipped out; it likely made Snape less rather than more inclined to believe him. But Snape did not remark upon it.
“I cannot impress upon you enough the gravity of the situation, Mr. Potter. One mistake on your part costs me my life and the Order its spy. I can only hope that the dire peril of the Wizarding world is sufficient to mitigate any outstanding grievance you may bear.”
It took Harry a moment to understand what he was saying. “I wouldn't!” he said. “Even if the Order didn't need you, I would never – how could you think that?” Harry asked, more stung than he thought he ought be.
“Ah,” said Snape, “How easily I forget – the constraints of Gryffindor honor.” His voice had dropped to a fierce whisper, dripping with bitterness.
Harry sighed, shoulders slumping, and took a step back. “I'm not my father,” he said, looking Snape square in the eye. “He's dead, if you don't remember.” Just like everyone else, he thought, but shoved that away before he could examine it more closely.
It was Snape who looked away, this time. “However much you may resemble him,” Snape said a moment later, vitriol fading again into weariness.
Something's definitely off, Harry thought, ignoring a twinge of – was it satisfaction? – at Snape's words, as he regarded the man before him. He might just be tired, but he usually hides it better. “Are you all right, sir?” he asked before he could stop himself.
Snape glanced at him in what Harry took as suspicion. “Yes,” he said, though something in his tone gave Harry pause. But as Harry opened his mouth to speak, Snape added, in an attempt at indifference, “You need not concern yourself; I have done far worse in service to the Order.” Harry did not doubt that at all – though he realized too that it must have cost the man more than he would willingly admit.
“That's not what I meant. You just... well, you look absolutely knackered, sir.”
“Would you not be?” he demanded, gesturing sharply about them, irritation creeping into his voice.
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Harry, though he was convinced there was something more. It was best not to push him further, Harry decided. “I'm sorry you have to do this.” He himself was not certain what exactly he was apologizing for, which was, come to think of it, rather the point.
“I do not have to do anything, Potter. This is my choice,” Snape said icily, and Harry thought that it was as much for his own benefit as it was for Harry's.
“Yes, sir,” replied Harry, perhaps out of habit. “Thank you.”
“Now go,” said Snape, turning away from him. “We are finished here tonight.” Harry went, and shut the door softly behind him.
Harry dreamed of Voldemort that night. That in itself wasn't unusual; he had gone to Dumbledore about his dreams – visions, really – and the man assured him that Voldemort remained blissfully unaware that the connection had reopened – for now. He was under the impression that the link was broken in the Department of Mysteries, and Snape, said Dumbledore, made sure he continued to think that. If Voldemort found it again, which was not improbable, it would be under his own power.
What was unusual about this dream was that Snape was there, too. He often was, to be sure, but only ever as a faceless figure amidst a horde of Death Eaters. This time, he wore the robes but not the mask, which he held in the crook of his arm. Harry got a good look at him – stoic and aloof as ever, despite the dark smudges under his eyes – as Voldemort turned to him. “Walk with me, Severus,” he said. Snape dipped his head in acknowledgement and followed him – Voldemort – from the room.
“You look ill, Severus,” said Voldemort as they stood together on the balcony overlooking Little Hangleton. “Are you well?”
“Yes, my lord. It is only fatigue, nothing more.” Inclining his head, Snape added, “I thank you for your concern.”
“Has something unexpected come up?” asked Voldemort, glancing keenly at Snape. Snape, however, was looking out at the town, pale fingers resting upon the wrought-iron railing.
“Nothing... unexpected, my lord.”
“Ah. Does it involve Harry Potter, then?”
“Yes, my lord,” answered Snape without hesitation. Harry's breath caught in his throat; he was fairly certain it was his own throat, back at Hogwarts, but he quickly calmed himself nonetheless, lest Voldemort caught wind of his presence. Snape continued, “It is merely – Dumbledore has asked me to tutor him. The boy wishes to become an Auror, and his performance is... less than adequate, as you can imagine, in the essential subject of Potions.”
“But of course,” said Voldemort softly, his lip curling in what Harry imagined to be a smirk. “It is a pity that you must now pay for your fun, Severus.”
“It is, my lord. I meant to ask your advice on that score.” He waited until Voldemort prompted him with a nod, then added, “I cannot decide whether it would be advantageous for Potter to succeed in this particular ambition. Should he become an Auror, Dumbledore would not be able to coddle and protect him as he does now. Knowing the boy, he would likely insist upon being placed on the front lines – how well his Gryffindor antics serve us! But then... I am not certain we would want him to be an Auror – we do not want him learning all of Moody's or Shacklebolt's tricks, especially given that he shows, unfortunately, an aptitude for Defense against the Dark Arts. Not to mention that it would require more effort on my part.” The hint of a grimace flickered across his face, speaking volumes of Snape's distaste for the task.
Voldemort considered it a while, eyes narrowed. Snape faced him directly, and Harry knew he must be Occluding. Voldemort – or rather Voldemort's facial muscles – gave no indication of whether he noticed, or if he did, what he made of it. When he responded, his tone was as it had ever been – cold and condescending.
“Ah, Severus, how you underestimate me! Am I not more powerful than any Auror? Why should I fear any trick they might teach him? Once Dumbledore is eliminated, we need only to lure him from hiding, and he will be mine for the taking.”
“You are powerful, my lord, more powerful than any mortal wizard. I do not doubt you; I merely thought of the other Death Eaters. They might find him more difficult to capture, should he become an Auror.”
“Where has your brilliant mind gone today, I wonder? You brought me the prophecy; do you not remember its contents? I must kill him, myself and none other. You, my loyal Death Eaters, will not have to face him, not when he will be out in the open, with no need of capture.”
“Of course, my lord. How remiss of me.”
“I begin to think that you are merely reluctant to perform this odious task, Severus.” Voldemort darted a glance at the man, who had gone back to studying the town below.
“Never, my lord. I live to serve.”
“See that you remember it. You have done me a disservice in pursuing your personal animosity against Harry Potter.”
“I did not know it then, my lord. I did not believe his aspirations to the Auror service to be anything more than adolescent posturing. He has not the work ethic, I would think.”
“It matters little whether Potter achieves it on his own merit, or whether Dumbledore manages to pull enough strings to weasel his favorite student into the department. You will see to it that he perform adequately in Potions. You will not allow your personal grudges stand to in the way of my goals.”
“As my lord commands.”
Voldemort nodded once. “Your resentment is understandable, Severus, but not what I would expect of a seasoned Death Eater of twenty years. You set aside your own desires when you came into my service, as you should recall. See that you do not disappoint me.”
“Never, my lord. I will do better, in future.”
“Good. Now, Severus, tell me about the Order...”
Their conversation disappeared as Harry woke abruptly. Hedwig was tapping at the window, he saw as he put on his glasses. He wondered who would write him in the middle of the night, with so urgent a message that it could not wait until breakfast. Sirius used to write him at odd hours, he recalled with a pang, so the letter would not fall into the wrong hands in the chaos of morning post. But he's dead, Harry thought mournfully as he unlatched the window.
The neat script on the envelope was unmistakable. “Remus,” he breathed. Remus hadn't written Harry for a while now; they had corresponded over the summer, briefly, after the battle at the Department of Mysteries, but then Dumbledore had sent him on an Order mission somewhere, and the letters stopped coming. Though Harry usually loved letters, lonely as he was at the Dursleys', he had been almost relieved when Remus stopped writing. For all his tactful kindness, the man inevitably brought to mind his godfather. Remus could not replace Sirius, however much he might try – and he did try, perhaps because he considered it his duty as the last true Marauder. Harry wouldn't let him, though; he couldn't afford to lose anyone else.
Harry slit open the envelope with the tip of his wand and pulled out the letter. “Lumos,” he whispered, and began to read.
I am sorry it has been so long since I last wrote. We suspect that my post may have been watched. (I can't tell you the specifics; the Headmaster's orders.) I'm at Grimmauld Place now, and will be here for another week or two.
I've heard that you are resuming Remedial Potions lessons with Snape. I can imagine they are no easier, and Snape really isn't the ideal person to teach you. If you have any questions, feel free to firecall. I'm passably acquainted with the subject at hand (by no means proficient enough to teach, though), with an excellent, unrestricted library and plenty of time at my disposal.
Tell me about Hogwarts, Harry. I'd love to hear about classes, Quidditch, Ron and Hermione, whatever's happening. I enjoyed being a professor more than I realized, I think. Ah, well – it was all for the best, I suppose.
All the best,
Harry tucked the letter under his pillow – he would reply in the morning – and crawled back under the covers. Why did everything have to revolve around Occlumency – around Snape? He recalled his vision; unless Snape and Voldemort had been speaking in code – and they had no reason to be – Snape was indeed working for the Order, that much was clear. Harry recalled his earlier suspicions with a twinge of guilt, and realized that he hadn't truly thought Snape was Voldemort's spy for quite some time. Something had changed between them, though Harry couldn't quite put his finger on it, which made him a tad uneasy. His last thought, as he drifted off to sleep, was that Snape would not be pleased to know he had seen that particular meeting.
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