"What did you tell Pendragon?"
Green eyes glared over the book. "Ever hear of knocking?" Though Potter didn't appear to move, his wand was at the ready in his right hand.
Snape closed the door much too loudly, then strode across the room and snatched the book from Potter's hand, slamming onto the nearest flat surface. Potter watched this impassively with one brow raised. Snape knew the wand was trained on him, but did not look at it; his eyes were fixed on Potter's. "You and I are due for a conversation."
The lower brow joined the first. Potter gestured to the chair on the other side of the hearth. "And it's off to an excellent start," he observed, but set down his wand and laced his fingers over his waist. "I don't care how angry you are; in the future, do not barge into my chambers."
Snape acknowledged him with an irritable wave, as though batting away a pesky wasp. "What did you tell her, Potter?"
Potter studied him a moment before replying. "I always tell her the truth," he said matter-of-factly, drumming the tips of his thumbs together.
"I am in no mood for games."
The younger wizard spread his hands, palms toward the heavens. "Then maybe you should tell me what you're going on about, as I have no earthly idea."
Delicacy was never Snape's strongest suit, but in this case even he could see that it was necessary. He stared coldly at Potter, grinding his teeth quietly and searching for the proper phrase. "Pendragon is of the impression that I require her to perform for me... sexually... as reparation for these potions."
Potter shrugged with a look of contempt. "Your point?"
So many times Snape had wanted to wring Potter's neck, but they all paled in comparison to this moment. "My point, Potter, is that you have made assumptions, as you have always made, all your life... and as usual, they are incorrect."
Potter shook his head slowly, smiling humorlessly. "Don't try to wriggle your way out of this, Snape. You were crystal clear with me last week--"
"You incredible idiot! How in seven hells can you be immersed in the culture of Slytherin House, yet remain ignorant of such a simple process as taking the piss out of someone?"
Potter barked in incredulous laughter. "Pissing? Pissing? Barging into my office without knocking is pissing. House points and detentions were pissing." He leapt to his feet, but his voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "Ordering a man to kneel and have one off on behalf of the woman he loves is not pissing, Snape. I don't care what House you're from."
Snape closed his eyes and tilted his head back, forcing himself to stretch out his neck and shoulders, relinquishing the tension of his fury. He unclenched his fists for the first time and took hold of the arms of his chair. Potter was still standing when he opened his eyes again. "That may have been a bit extreme," Snape admitted grudgingly. Potter shook his head and returned to his seat, but said nothing. "You noticed I didn't actually make you do it?" he added defensively.
"Yeah, I definitely caught that part," Potter snarled. "It didn't exactly erase your intention, at least in my mind."
"You know damn well that, had it truly been my intent, it would have happened on the spot. You of all people should comprehend that my deeds carry more weight than my words."
Potter exhaled slowly, folding his arms over his chest. "You'll have to pardon me for taking your words at face value. I'd assumed you and I had passed the need for games and pissing matches."
For the second time that evening, that cold, bleak sensation cut through his chest. For a moment, Snape wanted nothing more than to stalk out of the room, but he kept his grip on the carved wooden handrests until he was certain he could speak without a break in his voice. Nonetheless, it came out in a mumble until he gained some momentum.
"I have spent a long time away from polite or civilized conversation, Professor Potter. I... apologize."
Potter averted his eyes uncomfortably, and his expression softened. "Accepted." He stood up and took a black kettle from the hearth, tapped it lightly with his wand to fill it, and hung it upon a hook in the fireplace. He then busied himself fetching two cups and saucers from a hutch in the back of the parlor and setting them on a plain silver tray, along with a ceramic teapot of Asian design with a bamboo handle. He poured what looked like pebbles into each cup, then set the tray on the hearth to await the hot water.
Snape looked at him quizzically. "Jasmine pearls," said Potter. "Green. Good tea for this time of night." He flopped comfortably into the leather chair, as if he were simply returning to his book. Snape glanced involuntarily at its spine where it lay on the end table.
"Kafka," he remarked in surprise. "You have changed, haven't you?"
Potter smiled grimly. "Most people do." He started to slump even more cozily into the chair, then apparently remembered the kettle and propped himself on the armrest. "Pen's been improving. I've seen a little more every day. It's amazing. She smiles sometimes. I've wanted to Floo Ron and Hermione, but I'm not sure what to tell them--I don't know what to even hope for, and I don't want to build their expectations too much."
"I cannot say. I'm still learning how the dragon matter augments the other ingredients in the Calming Draught. I suspect it will produce different reactions in each type of potion. Some may not even brew true with that addition, though I believe many will; dragon eggshells and their magic are not nearly as mercurial in their properties as, say, heartstring or blood."
The kettle began to whistle, and he paused while Potter filled the Asian teapot and brought the tray to the end table. "It needs to cool a few minutes," Potter explained when he did not fill the cups. "Don't want to scorch the tea."
Snape nodded. "She responds very well to the Calming Draught. I would say that already this has been a success, even if that is the only positive result we ever see. Assuming that she does not develop any resistance to its effects over time, we may be able to count on at least a few hours of lucidity every day. I, too, have noticed a few improvements outside of the time she's fully under the influence, though whether these will continue, peak out, or fade away, remains to be seen."
Potter filled the teacups. The tea smelled lush and floral, and the little balls unfurled into clusters of leaves in the hot water. "Don't even joke about reading my future," said Potter as he slumped contentedly in his chair. Snape snorted, thankful that he didn't have a mouthful of hot tea prior to the allusion to Sibyl Trelawney.
When they had settled again, Snape looked at Potter shrewdly, but spoke softly. "What did you tell her?"
"I went to her room after you left my office," he began softly. "I reckoned I'd find you back there too, but she was alone. She... the potion was still working. She called me Harry again." Potter's eyes were suddenly misty; he took off his glasses as if they were at fault and rubbed his eyes.
"I could see she wasn't upset, so I just sat while she played the piano. She finished the song and then started talking to me. She asked where you and I had gone. I told her we had a talk, and she asked, 'About what?' I... I've always been honest with her, even before. She has this sixth sense of knowing when people are lying--I think she gets it from Hermione.
"Anyway, I told her what had happened back in my office. I tried to put everything very gently; I wanted her to stay... herself as long as possible. It didn't seem to upset her. In fact, I thought at one point that she was going to laugh, but she didn't."
"Did you speak of my parting comment?" Snape asked pointedly.
Potter bowed his head. "No. But I've given it a lot of thought this past week."
"Taxing, I'm sure."
Potter scowled. "Oh, give it a rest. It didn't add up, you know. You implied the worst, and refused to tell me what you really intended to ask of her. I mean, if it was benign, why keep it from me? I didn't know what you were up to, and I..." He paused to clear his throat. "I don't want her hurt any more, as you've noticed."
Potter's gaze was questioning, almost pleading, but Snape's face remained impassive. When he finally spoke, his voice was slick and cool, a verbal scalpel cutting away a retributive pound of flesh. "Tell me, Potter: How long did the two of you have together, before she was cut down by the Lightning curse?"
Potter smiled bitterly. "None. There was no 'two of us.' She wouldn't have me."
Disbelief showed in Snape's face before he could mask it.
"It's true. I was Good Old Uncle Harry in her mind, and nothing was going to change that. She loved me, but not the way I love her." Potter stared into his teacup, finding no answers in the unfurled leaves. Snape said nothing at all.
With a heavy sigh, Potter finally spoke again. "So I do my best to make sure she's taken care of. I try to help her control the scars. I listen to her play the piano. I persuaded Minerva to let her teach here. She likes the students, even though she can't really show it, and she needs to be around people. She's got to keep connected to human society or she'll just collapse into her own little world.
"I know she hates being touched. She's shown no interest in any... physical companionship--not with anyone, not even a pet--since the curse. So I go with her when she leaves the castle, just to make sure no one jostles her, or worse. When you implied..." Potter stopped himself and glared angrily at Snape, still uncertain about his intentions.
"When you inferred that I would demand her body in compensation for my efforts," Snape drawled, "you naturally sought to protect her from what would surely be unbearable. A noble gesture, Potter, had that been my intent."
Potter bolted upright in his chair, setting his teacup on the table nearly hard enough to break it. "Damn it, Snape, what was your intent, then? What were you going to ask of her?"
Snape quirked his eyebrow, but refrained from sneering. "I found some Muggle piano music written for left hand alone. I will insist that she learn to play it."