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A Matter of Understanding

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He is innocent, and they believe him. It is Potter's words, his vehemence, that carry them through. He should feel grateful, he thinks, but instead he wants to slip away forever. He wants to be free. Free of Hogwarts, of exploding potions by first-year students, of crying and sniveling children, of Protecting Harry Potter, of Dumbledore's empty office, of the Dark Mark, of his past, and everything else. He stays, anyway. He doesn't think he'll really be able to run. He never has been.

He is given the Defense Against the Dark Arts post. The Headmistress tells him that he deserves it and that Dumbledore agrees, but Severus Snape has no interest in speaking with the man ('s portrait) at this present juncture in time. He just needs some time for himself. Minerva McGonagall tells him that she's there for him, that Dumbledore is there for him. Hell, even Potter is concerned. He wants to be alone, he snaps. He certainly has no need for their concern. He shuts himself in the dungeons with bubbling cauldrons and plants the fiercest scowl he can possibly muster on his face. Never mind that his emotions feel more rampant than they have in years. It is not Minerva's concern and Dumbledore is dead. Snape would know. As for Potter, he has better things to do then spill his precious feelings to the Brat-Who-Lived.

Even so, he highly doubts that he'll actually get to be left alone, for he is cursed by his own past. He can make some attempt at normalcy, however. Regardless, there are many things he is avoiding right now, and that includes many people and the memories that they are encumbered with. The essence of the problems lies wherein Snape was supposed to die, yet here he is. He isn't supposed to have to think about these things.

Truthfully, he wants to see Potter even less than Albus Dumbledore. But the boy is still at Hogwarts, emerald eyes following him curiously in class and down hallways. He, like so many others, is repeating his seventh year after the disastrous previous year.

"It'll be the first normal year." He hears Potter dryly tell his Gryffindor friends in the corridor one day. Snape snorts. Yeah, right. With Potter, nothing is normal.

 

 

One would think that the Seventh Year DADA students would have some idea of wandless spells after the war they had witnessed. Yet they apparently still find it acceptable to turn in the absolute rubbish that these essays are. Only a few are well-done, one of which, unfortunately, is Potter's. Snape is irritated, but snaps an "Acceptable." at Potter as he drops the boy's essay on his desk. Potter hastily turns the essay over. Snape waits for the offended ire and temper to rise in Potter's green eyes, for the red spots of color to spot the boy's cheek at his Professor's dismissal. While Snape has said much, much worse, provocation was never difficult. Nowadays, it is increasingly difficult to obtain a rise from the boy. Even so, Potter's expression is far from complacent.

Potter's eyes and mouth are tight, and Merlin, that boy is still an open book. He is no occlumens, that is for sure. Whatever he is going to say has been planned, laid out in advance like a carefully plotted trap. "That 'acceptable' must have killed you, sir." His voice is sarcastic and airy, and just slightly pompous. What he is playing out?, Snape mentally growls. It is not that Snape doesn't expect Potter's disrespect, but there is a blatant ploy in the boy's demeanor.

Snape's eyes narrow, and green eyes flash with regret. Wait, what?

Pissed, Snape turns fully to the boy. Potter's hand slips from his robes and then comes, palm down on his desk. He rolls his hand back slightly, while maintaining eye-contact with his professor. His eyes plead with Snape to understand. Snape sees the vial, recognizes it. Something rises unbidden in his chest - some the remaining unchecked emotion from the war, perhaps, but he stamps it down with his typical disdain.

Sneering, he places both hands on Potter's desk, one of them covering the vial. "Ten points for your cheek," He snarls. A small grin tugs at the corner of Potter's mouth, and he drops his head to hide his expression.

The boy doesn't seem to care about the points. Snape could be surprised at the return of his memories, but he will not let the emotion show. He merely snatches the bottle, and decides that he most certainly has no interest in interacting with the boy about this after class. He therefore does not assign a detention.

Later, he mules over the event while holding his memories in his open palm. He stashes them away in his desk, not yet ready to revisit the terrible things that the war had inflicted upon them. So he thinks of the way Potter had managed to return the vial. Brat, he thinks, but without his usual vengeance.

But still. The sly, if irritating, trick had been so very Slytherin of the Gryffindor.

 

 

The castle is quiet, moonlight illuminating the stone floor through windows. It's not the first time that he's seen the one such beam of light obscured by a shadow of a boy (man) seated in one such windowsill. Harry Potter has taken to slipping out of bed and heading to the Astronomy tower more often than not. Snape's silent, ignoring the black-haired boy and retreating as though he hadn't seen him. The child does not notice. It has been nearly a month since Hogwarts resumed session, and Snape has noted the boy's presence every time he has patrolled. He has yet to speak to him and reprimand him, and it not because he has softened towards the Potter. He is simply tired.

Severus Snape has decided that he is done with all that Harry Potter is; the boy needs no more protection from him, for his duty was to protect the Boy-Who-Lived from Voldemort. With Voldemort's recent death, the boy hardly needs protection any longer. Snape is free from the obligations assigned to him, though he feels no less guilt-trodden or endowed by Lily's death than he ever had. He will probably always be a slave to his past. It is what it is.

He admits to himself that Potter's energy during daylight hours is relentless; he flies during Quidditch as well as ever, interacts with the first-years, attempts to mend what broken bridges he can between the Houses. He manages to soothe his temper towards other students, though Severus acknowledges that there is some redirect of the boy's previous ire. He is becoming a man, but his face is still an open book. He pours himself into everything with a fierce single-minded purpose that would make Snape's lips curl in disgust. The boy still has to play hero, he sneers to himself. He still has to be in the center of the universe. Will the boy ever tire of his own arrogant nature? It seems unlikely.

The next evening, he tells himself that he isn't looking for Potter, but he still finds himself regarding the boy in the window silently. The boy's hands are folded and his facial expression soft. Both are quiet, and Severus believes that the Potter is none the wiser of his presence until the boy says, "I know you've been watching me."

A familiar scowl forms on the newly branded Defense Against the Dark Arts professor's lips. "Do you, Mr. Potter?" His voice is flat, dry, unamused. "Pray tell, what gives the allusion that I would enjoy watching you?" Sardonic, disdainful, and perhaps a touch cruel. It seems to roll off of Potter's shoulders as though Snape has exchanged mere pleasantries. Perhaps in Potter's eyes, Snape had.

The boy shrugs, a nasty lingering habit that Snape fears he will never be broken of. Their last interaction had been nearly a week ago, when the boy had managed to slip a vial - his memories - onto the desk that he sat at while Snape had criticized him for his cheek. The professor had snatched the vial and ignored the boy since.

"I didn't say you enjoyed it." Potter returns, but his voice lacks it's usual righteous ire. "But I have noticed."

"I should send you back to your dormitory and dock points." Snape says mildly, "It is well past curfew."

Harry nodded serenely, refocusing his attention the grounds. "You should." He said softly. "Rules, you know." His shoulders curve inwards as though he is huddling in on himself. He takes a long breath, and expels it before straightening. His green eyes meet Severus' briefly, and then he murmurs, "G'night, Sir." His footsteps echo down the empty castle.

What had just transpired?

 

 

The next time Snape finds the boy is early the following week. He has noticed the darkening shadows under Potter's eyes, the sallow color of skin. The pallor makes Potter look sickly, but Severus believes that is merely a lack of sleep. Potter does not slow down, at any rate, only seems to resume his pace at breakneck speed. Snape is beginning to think that it he is not acting out of glory. Potter had snapped at Headmistress McGonagall earlier that he didn't care for any attention, he just wanted to fix things. He didn't want to be coddled, or praised, or otherwise recognized. The war had left many things wrong, and he wanted them right. It seems odd, at any rate, and Snape is used to his own perceptions that he has molded for Potter. His perceptions have not wavered for years.

It's not that Severus suddenly cares about Potter, simply due the boy's loud sentiments, but he decides to approach the boy in the windowsill.

"Sir." Potter greets him first, his emerald eyes latching onto Severus'. He makes no effort to stand and retreat, and Severus continues to stand over him, arms folded. Potter does not seem to find his professor's presence intimidating.

"Out of bed again." He notes, lip curling.

Potter shrugs, his attention ensnared by whatever is out on the Hogwart's grounds. "Yeah." There is a long pause. Sorrow flickers across the boy's facial features, and Snape wants to sneer about Petty Potter's problems, but, after everything, perhaps it would be a touch too cruel. Even for him.

"Go to bed, Potter." The former Potions Master says, his tone booking no room for argument. Nonetheless, he awaits the ensuing protests. Harry simply inclines his head and stands, footfalls echoing down the empty corridor.

 

 

"Potter!" Snape's voice is loud, sharp. Potter jumps in his seat and fixes his professor with guilty eyes. "Sorry, sir." It is not as remorseful as Snape would like, and there is nothing that Snape likes less than meaningless blathering apologies from his students' mouths.

"Perhaps," Snape says coldly, "You might consider devoting less time to extracurricular activities and more time to in-classroom study?"

Potter frowns and mutters, "I can handle it."

"I think not!" Snape hisses, "Ten points, and it will be twenty if you cannot refrain from speaking out of turn again." Potter does not glare like would have before, but his arms cross as though he feels the dismissal was childish.

To be fair, Potter had been nodding off rather than sleeping. Snape wants to launch into a mental tirade on responsibility, but what can he say that has not been said? Voldemort is dead.

Responsible. How much is Potter responsible for? How much has he been responsible for?

 

 

Again, Severus finds him. Harry had been nearly asleep in DADA earlier in the day, and now his legs are curled to his chest with his chin upon his knees. Surely the foolish child would realize the need for sleep, Snape hisses mentally. Surely he would recognize that the speed at which he tackled everything will begin to splinter and shatter. Anger and disdain are the normal emotions that find Snape when he is upset, or concerned, or contemplative, or perhaps not hating the Boy-Who-Lived. Oh, but that is dangerous territory.

"Hello." Potter greets him, voice sounding hollowed out and numb. Severus slips out of the shadows. Potter nods to the other half of the sill and Severus hesitates. He will not sit next to him, he decides. Harry may be a celebrity, he may be Lily's son, but he is still a student and one that he detests (does he?).

"It's okay," Potter shakes his head, "I didn't think you would, you know." His words slide together in jumbled mess, but the stuttering and lack of eloquence that the boy could garner in Snape's presence was nowhere to be found. He lets his head fall onto the glass of the window pane and he peers up at Snape through his fringe with bleary eyes. He reaches up and rubs them absently.

"You are going to get caught here." Mild irritation seeps into the professor's voice.

"I already have," Potter points out nimbly, shaking his head.

"Do you think," Snape drawls, "that you are above sleep, Potter?" This cannot go on, Snape must admit. It is unhealthy, and for once, Potter must learn to take care of himself. He has never had much practice in that regard, what with the war, but he cannot play hero forever.

"I think that sleep is above me." The younger man retorts with a quick shake of his head, "If I could sleep, I would.

Snape draws in a breath, lets it out. He wants to retreat, but he remains. Potter simply sits for a moment, his body lax and exhausted. "It's easier during the day," He says quietly, "Because there are things to do, things I need to do. Things that I messed up, and things that should be made right. It's not fair that everyone else is...is..." He pauses, sucking in a deep breathe and holding it for a count. "I was supposed to die." He exhales, "But I didn't. And...no one...I can't fix it. But I can try to make it less broken." He stops, he eyes screwing shut, "At night, I think about that. In the day, I-I can run."

"Insomnia." Snape says, no emotion coloring his tone. The professor and student aren't the same, but Snape feels a jolt of understanding at Potter's guilt-laden confession. I was supposed to die...I am responsible for their deaths.

"Yes." Potter replies, "Well, and the nightmares, but I've always had those." There is something hopeless and apathetic in the boy's eyes at that statement, but Snape knows that Potter isn't truly lost. Depressed, most certainly.

He isn't good at this, yet for some reason, Potter's eyes also flicker with trust.

"Potter." Snape says, staring at the boy. Green eyes meet onyx. "It's not your fault. It would be foolish to believe so."

Potter swallows and closes his eyes, takes a shuttering breath. "Yet I could be foolish at times...I should've..."

"Potter, you are a boy. Not just the Boy-Who-Lived, but a boy."

"Is this you telling me that everyone makes mistakes?" A ghost of a smirk pulls at Potter's lips, and Snape finds himself glaring in response. He is terribly adverse to providing comfort. "I just with my mistakes didn't mean d-death - I mean, everyone else getting killed." Potter admits, "I've endangered everyone, and I have to fix it."

Snape looks at the boy, who looks like death warmed over. His eyelids are dropping and Snape wonders if Potter is completely aware as to whom he is confiding in. "It was war. Casualties happen."

"Well. When you put it that way. Sounds so crude." Potter grins a bit maniacally at that.

Snape sighs. This has to stop. "You are safe. You do have to sleep. Go to bed."

Harry stands up, stretches, and begins to walk away, then pauses, fisting his hands in his robes, "You should, too, sir. Sleep, I mean." Before Snape can reply, the boy is gone.

 

 

Snape's boots click down the hallway towards the Astronomy Tower. It isn't that he actively seeking out Potter's offending presence, he reminds himself. Curfew is still a rule that Potter is supposed to follow, though he never had abode by it before. Why should he now? When Snape arrives at Potter's windowsill, he stops short when he finds empty. Concern quickly melts into annoyance, and he turns away. Pathetic, anyway. What is he doing seeking out the Brat-Who-Lived?

His ire is so complete that nearly walks by the staggering form in the corridor. Potter's invisibility cloak is only draped about the boy's shoulders rather than his entire form. The boy sags against a wall as Snape brushes by him, and the DADA professor sees the motion. He turns, "What in Merlin's name are you doing, Potter?" He snarls. Could the boy never stay out of trouble.

Tired eyes lift to meet his, and Potter smiles - smiles, of all things - "Hi, Professor." He greets around a yawn, "'M going to bed." He mumbles, his eyelashes fluttering against pale cheeks.

"This is not my responsibility anymore," Snape half-snaps, half-groans as he pulls Potter from the wall and drapes one of the boy's arms around his shoulders. "Come on."

"I can walk." Potter protests weakly, "Don' worry 'bout me."

Snape rolls his eyes as though disgusted, and remarks, "I don't have the patience for your stubbornness tonight, Mr. Potter, so it would be wise to resist complaining."

"'Kay. If you insist." The boy mumbles.

"Do you not realize that you are still blatantly disregarding rules set forth by Headmasters well before your time?" Snape sneers. "Gryffindor fool." He is practically carrying and half-dgragging the man back to the Gryffindor common rooms, and Harry is stumbling along as though in a drunken stupor.

"Can't sleep." He mumbles instead, nearly incoherent. "Dreams. They're eating me alive." Snape understands that, at least. He avoids it, but it is the true reason that he himself does not go to bed.

"I have a vial of Dreamless Sleep." The former Potions Master allows. He would never admit it, but he was planning on providing it to Potter in the Astronomy Tower.

"No, no." Harry murmurs nearly senselessly, "Can't...depend on that. Would rely...too much."

Snape manages to get the boy to the portrait and snidely asks if Potter can make it to his room. The man nods solemnly, green eyes blinking owlishly. He starts to stumble to the portrait, and Snape expects him to give the password. Instead, Potter says, "You know, there are more than four traits."

"What?" Snape is confused, but saturates his tone in impatience.

"You called me a Gryffindor fool. But...I just...the Houses." Potter trails off, and scrubs his eyes in frustration. "Oh, never mind." He gives the Fat Lady the password and retreats.

Snape remembers that Potter is trying to alleviate some of the tension between the houses, and sighs. It is what Lily would have done.

 

 

Snape dismisses class with a reminder about the four-foot essay that is due on Friday, and he is met with a chorus of groans. Nevertheless, most student rush to pack up and leave, except for one. The one with the green eyes and mussy black hair and distinctive lightning-bolt scar. The one that Snape seems to both actively avoid and seek out. Snape slips behind his desk and waits. He will let Potter break the silence first.

"Thank you." Potter says quietly. "You should give me a detention." Potter remains at his desk and Snape seats himself at the front of the room.

The professor raises a sardonic eyebrow in response, "Are you telling me you want a detention?" He drawls, his tone mild.

The boy shakes his head quickly and tells him, "The rules are still the rules." He grins if a bit sheepishly. His green eyes dance with notable mischief, but there is something lurking in the depths of his emerald gaze. Snape doesn't need Legimens to know Potter is here for a greater purpose than 'asking for a detention' - what a backup story. Notable, really - and he can see apprehension hitching in Potter's shoulders.

Then he puts his palms on his knees and leans forward toward the Professor. His emerald eyes are intense and serious and far too old for a boy of eighteen years, and Snape feels nearly uncomfortable under Potter's scrutiny. If this is what his students feel like...suddenly, Snape is all too aware as to why he is avoiding Potter.

"I know you can't sleep either." There is a long pause, the two men searching each other across the room. Snape's discomfort grows, and he reacts in the only way he knows how.

Snape's mouth tightens, "Out." His voice is filled with icy hostility.

Potter shakes his head, "I'm sorry. I really am, but well...taking with you makes me feel a little less alone sometimes. I just hope that you know you aren't alone." His green eyes are earnest and all Snape can feel is Lily Lily Lily oh Merlin Lily this boy is like Lily. He remembers the way he chased her away, and knows he can't do this again.

"I don't need your pity." Snape's voice pitfalls into a snarl.

Potter actually looks surprised, if a little miffed, at that. "Sir, you've been keeping me alive for seven years. You've seen my nightmares. How could you think that this is pity? I just want you to know that people care about you, whether you can accept that or not." Potter pauses, "And even if you can't accept it, it's not going to stop me from caring." He declares. He means it.

Snape manages to school his features into an expressionless mask, but the corners of eyes prickle precariously. He has not truly cried in years, and it nearly seems ironic that his tears nearly always seem to be related to the Potters. He doesn't trust his voice quite yet.

Potter stands up, "Well...you know where to find me."

That night, Snape does cry. Truly. And while he still feels cursed, he feels like a weight has been released from his shoulders.

 

 

Again, he finds Potter on the windowsill, but the man is finally asleep. He is curled tightly around himself, restless mutterings falling from his lips. Dumbledore, Uncle Vernon, Snape, Umbridge, Sirius. George, Lupin, Cedric, Dobby, Hedwig. Tears slip unbidden down pasty cheeks. Snape watches for awhile, then steps forward. Pale fingers curl gently around the thin shoulder, and the boy stumbles from sleep with a start and a muffled curse from his lips.

"Language, Potter." Snape reprimands. Potter breathes heavily, bringing a shaking fist to his eyes and swiping away tears that Snape had the mercy not to speak of. Snape stares into green eyes, filtering the emotions flickering across them. He doesn't feel pity, and perhaps he understands what Potter meant the other day when he said that Potter cared, whether Snape accepted it or not. Compassion. It was something Lily showed him, something that Harry is showing him. Snape is not a compassionate or emotional man and never will be, but perhaps...perhaps he has some empathy for this boy. Harry drops his gaze, mistaking Snape's hesitation for rebuke.

With a shuttering breath, the boy murmurs, "Y-you can go. You know. T-this isn't your problem." It's a soft admission, a don't-worry-about-me. Snape wants to chalk it up to Gryffindor foolery again, but Potter's eyes tell him everything. He looks, really looks, and he sees not Lilly or James, but Harry. Snape doesn't need to watch out for Potter anymore. Doesn't have to. And Potter knows and respects that.

"I can go." Snape agrees smoothly, finding himself surprised as he seats himself next the boy on the other side of the windowsill, "But I don't believe I will."