Wrapped up in his Invisibility Cloak, Harry padded along the stone hallways, dim, flickering torches lighting his way as he headed to the Great Hall; there was no particular reason he was up and about so near to midnight on Christmas Eve, except that he couldn't sleep, and the empty Gryffindor dorm room was oppressive in its silence.
All his room-mates had gone elsewhere for Christmas this year, even Ron. For the first time during his five years at Hogwarts, he was spending Christmas without even one of his friends around; only a handful of other students were here, and most of them were in other Houses, so he didn't see them until breakfast. After dinner, when everyone returned to their respective Houses, he was alone, except for a few second and third year Gryffindors, and one seventh year, none of whom he knew well enough to feel comfortable hanging out with. As a result, he'd done a lot of studying, and for once, Hermione wouldn't have any grounds for badgering him about his grades when classes resumed.
The loneliness had been bad enough after the hols began, but tonight it was worse, and Harry felt far too restless to sleep. The silence of the bedroom had pressed on him like a weight. He never thought he would say he missed Neville's snoring, but he would have given anything to hear it that night.
The Great Hall would be as barren as his room -- he knew that -- but at least he could sit for a while and enjoy the decorations. Perhaps the festive sight would relax and soothe him enough that he could sleep.
The massive doors creaked when he pushed them open, and he winced at the sound echoing down the corridors; hastily glancing around, he breathed a sigh of relief when neither Filch nor Mrs. Norris appeared to investigate. Although the floating candles had disappeared, the countless torches lining the walls -- along with huge wreaths, each one with a fat red bow -- were still lit as he stole into the Hall, letting the cloak slip from his shoulders. The Christmas tree was also still lit, the magic lights giving off a soft golden glow; the air smelled of evergreen, and Harry breathed it in deeply, letting the scent evoke memories of recent Christmases, the pleasant ones spent with Ron, Hermione, and the rest of his friends, especially last year's, when no one went home because of the Triwizard Tournament and the Yule Ball.
Gold and silver ornaments glittered, seeming to vye for his attention as they sparkled amid the lights, and numerous presents spilled from beneath the tree; Harry knew they had been sent by friends and relatives of the students and staff who had remained, and they would be delivered to the recipient's room by the House Elves before morning. Some of them might even be for him, he thought. At the very least, he knew he could count on a sweater and some delicious goodies from Mrs. Weasley. Some of them were from him as well, gifts for the Headmaster and Hagrid; the rest he had sent off via owl earlier in the week.
Draping his cloak over one of the long benches, Harry sat down, facing the tree. As he expected, the Hall was quiet, but the silence here didn't seem so oppressive. Leaning back on his elbows on the table, he stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankle, a slight smile playing at the corners of his mouth as he watched the lazy spin of a pair of glass dancers suspended from a limb of the massive tree. With a deep sigh, he began to relax, lulled by the dim golden glow of light, the scent of pine, and the warm good cheer of the decorations all around him.
"You're out of your dormitory after curfew, Mr. Potter."
Harry froze, his eyes widening at the unexpected intrusion of a human voice. An unmistakable voice at that: a low, silken baritone that could belong to only one man.
Harry turned to look at Snape, who was standing in the doorway, his arms crossed and his expression as forbidding as usual. "Yes, sir," he said, offering nothing more. Explanations were wasted on Snape, and generally ended up getting him more points for his pains.
Despite he was dressed in a long, dark green dressing gown instead of his usual flowing black robes, Snape still managed to glide into the room menacingly, coming to a stop near Harry, who gazed up at him warily, trying to decide if that were a trick question. Did Snape really want to know why he was up, or would the reason simply be twisted around and used against him somehow?
In the end, he couldn't think of a believable lie, and so he reluctantly settled on the truth.
"I was lonely and couldn't sleep," he admitted, letting his gaze slide away from Snape's as he waited for the snide remarks to begin.
To his surprise, Snape said nothing more.
To his shock, Snape sat down a short distance away from him, still not speaking, and appearing to be regarding the Christmas tree just as Harry had been before his arrival. Harry watched him surriptitiously out of the corner of his eye, waiting for sarcasm, waiting for points to be taken from Gryffindor, in short, waiting for Snape to behave like Snape... and it kept not happening. Curiosity welled up until he couldn't contain it any longer.
"So what are you doing here?" he blurted, shifting on the bench to face Snape. "At Hogwarts, I mean. Why aren't you having Christmas with family?"
"My family are dead," Snape replied in the sort of neutral conversational tone he might use to comment on the weather, not looking at Harry. "I could return to the family estate, but there would be no one, save the House Elves."
"Can't see how that would be much different for you, since you keep so much to yourself anyway."
Harry stared at him, digesting that response, his expression turning thoughtful. So Snape wasn't a complete misanthrope? That was a bit of a surprise. In his mind appeared an image of Snape alone an extensive house, wandering from room to room, each new door opening to yet another empty room. He would probably feel... well, like Harry had tonight. The thought cause an unexpected rush of sympathy for Snape to wash over him, an entirely new and strange experience.
"Why are you here?" he asked quietly, and Snape didn't pretend not to understand the question.
"I couldn't sleep either."
Snape had left off the admission of loneliness, but Harry heard it nonetheless.
"Christmas is better here, anyway," Harry said, turning his attention back to the tree. "I never liked Christmas until I came here. It was always great for my cousin. He got loads of presents, but Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia never included me. I'm nothing to them."
Harry stared down at his hands, old resentment flaring once more as he remembered all the years he spent watching from the stairs as Dudley ripped open a tower of gifts while his aunt and uncle fawned and cooed. Aunt Petunia offered endless plates of cookies, and Uncle Vernon boasted about how Dudley was a chip off the old block. Harry had considered himself lucky if they had given him some of Dudley's hand-me-down clothes for his Christmas gift.
For ten years, they had tried to squash him, and then he had come here, and a whole new world had opened up -- literally -- and there had been little to mar his new-found happiness. Except...
He slanted a glare at Snape, the fledging rapport he had felt dissipating as he remembered all the times Snape had belittled him.
"You'd get on quite well with them, I expect," he said nastily.
He expected a sneering agreement, or some sort of snide insult in response.
What he got was quite different.
Snape rose to his feet in one fluid motion, his expression alone seeming to make the temperature of the room drop well below freezing.
"Thank you for that assessment of my feelings and my nature, coming as it does from your oh-so knowledgable perspective," Snape said, his voice one solid, pointed icicle.
"I do not think you are nothing," he continued, and Harry noticed his hands were clenched by his sides; Harry didn't think Snape would actually strike him, but he was alarmed at how angry the Potions Master seemed to be. "I know what you're capable of being. I've always known, and for the last five years, I've tried to push you and goad you into doing more than squandering your time and energy on Quidditch and trips to Hogsmeade. I tried to prepare you for the trials I knew you would face, by virtue of being one of Voldemort's main targets, I've risked my life time after time to keep you and this school safe, and what thanks do I get? Comparison to your ignorant, narrow-minded relatives."
"What was I supposed to think?" Harry shot back, jumping up to confront the older man. "You treat me like shite, and you know it. You've done nothing from the first day I set foot in your classroom but try to make me feel inadequate. If you really wanted me to work harder, you could've been nicer about it."
"And where would being nice have gotten either of us?" Snape retorted, looming over Harry. "You've had enough pandering, simply because you're Harry Potter, the boy who lived. Bugger that," he snarled, leaning in closer, and Harry was startled not only by the sudden proximity but also the vehemence behind Snape's words. "I want you to be Harry Potter, the man who is alive, and the only way for that to happen is for you to learn and practice your skills, to use the talent you were born with! I know you. I know what you need. You're never more determined to succeed than when someone offers you a challenge. You need to be challenged. You thrive on it, even moreso when you're angry."
Harry took a step back, his eyes growing wide. "How... how do you know all that about me?"
"It takes one to know one, dear boy." Snape drew himself up, seeming to restore his composure.
Harry gaped at him, feeling as if his brain was on the verge of exploding. The last person he ever expected to find something in common with was Severus Snape, but it appeared they were far more alike than Harry dreamed possible. Numb, he sat down again, hard. Draping the folds of his dressing gown around himself, Snape took his place again as well, directing his gaze toward the tree again, resting his hands on his thighs instead of folding his arms to close himself off. Silence fell once more, but it was oddly comfortable.
Snape... wanted him to live? Wanted him to become a great wizard? Wanted to help him? It was almost too much to comprehend. Of all the motivations behind Snape's awful behavior, that was the last one Harry had suspected. Did that mean his assumptions that Snape hated him were wrong too? And if that were the case, what about his own dislike...?
He glanced over at Snape, looking at him -- really looking at him -- for the first time, banishing the "Evil Bastard" image he had painted over Snape for five years. With the childish illusions gone, he saw plainly for the first time, and what he saw was just a man. One reserved, snarky, impatient, brilliant man who fought to protect his young charges with an unexpected ferocity, who tried to teach them to protect themselves in the only way he knew how, who had an almost frightening insight into Harry.
A man who looked weary and, yes, a little lonely.
Scooting along the bench, Harry closed the distance between them, moving closer until his shoulder brushed against Snape's. After a moment's hesitation, he reached out and lightly covered Snape's hand with his own.
"Happy Christmas, Professor Snape."
"Happy Christmas, Mr. Potter."