Phoenix Song, Chapter Ten : Occlumency
DISCLAIMER : The characters and many of the situations described in this story are the property of the incomparable J.K. Rowling. I make no money from this story, which exists as a work of tribute.
I'd like to thank both my betas: LAxo, for caring enough to be cutting, and WriterMerrin, who corrected more commas than one would have thought possible. As always, the mistakes that remain are my own.
Severus suppressed a sigh of frustration. Hermione Granger's first Occlumency lesson wasn't going as well as he had anticipated. She had just picked herself up off the ground for the fourth time running and hadn't yet managed to repel any of his attacks. Even Severus himself was feeling battered by the stream of Granger's memories. Her childhood had not been as miserable as Potter's had seemed, yet Hermione had been a solitary and lonely child until her arrival at Hogwarts, ostracised with the cruelty of children towards the effortlessly bright. And based on the memories he'd just witnessed, one could be excused for thinking that her life since had unfurled as a series of violent or terrifying experiences: he'd watched her threatened by a troll, petrified by a basilisk and turned into a cat; he'd seen her watch in horror as Minerva's giant chess set beat Ronald Weasley senseless, and they'd several times re-lived the battle at the Department of Mysteries. Now, her hair was slipping out from the control of numerous hairpins and her face was streaked with exhaustion. She moved gingerly under the cumulative impact of her repeated falls and the pinched look around her mouth told him that she felt as frustrated as he did.
On her feet once more, Hermione rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands. "What am I doing wrong?" she asked.
Severus gestured for her to sit down. She did so with a sigh.
"Where do you do your homework?" he asked.
"I beg your pardon?" The seemingly abrupt change of subject threw her.
"Just answer the question, Miss Granger." Severus took his own seat behind his desk.
"Oh, well . . . it depends. Sometimes in the library, sometimes the common room. Occasionally in my bed . . ." She flushed slightly at the mention of her bed.
"Isn't the common room rather noisy?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Always," she confirmed.
"How do you concentrate with all that noise?"
"I just block it out,"—he raised one eyebrow—"Oh."
Severus turned in his chair and considered the bookcase behind him. After a moment's thought, he reached out and selected a thin volume with a long title—The Polyjuice Menagerie: Theoretical Approaches to Potion-Based Inter-species Transfiguration—passing it to Hermione with a smirk.
She pulled a wry face. "I didn't realise it was a cat hair! It's not like I wanted to turn into a cat!"
Snape looked at her with narrowed eyes. "Really? Whose hair did you think it was?"
Hermione gave him a wary glance. "No house points, remember?"
She shifted a little uncomfortably on her seat. "Millicent Bulstrode's." She paused, then added defensively, "I made the potion just fine, you know. Harry and Ron transformed perfectly."
"Indeed." Severus was fired with curiosity, though no sign of it showed on his face. "And, pray, which of my Slytherins did they become?"
"Crabbe and Goyle." Her arms were tightly crossed over her chest, and she looked simultaneously apprehensive and a little proud of her achievement. At his raised eyebrow she sighed and offered up the desired explanation, "They snuck into the Slytherin common room and interrogated Malfoy about the Chamber of Secrets, all right? It was my idea."
It was, Severus had to admit, an audacious plan. And while he had known of the Polyjuice attempt—her presence in the hospital ward complete with whiskers and a tail was a fairly unsubtle clue—he hadn't realised that she had successfully brewed the potion.
"Who stole the Boomslang skin?"
Hermione winced. "I did." She visibly braced herself, clearly expecting a tirade.
Severus kept his tone deliberately light. "Curious. I assumed it was Mr Potter."
"Well," Hermione relaxed slightly but still looked wary, "he'd been in so much trouble already I thought it had better be me."
Smart. "Read the book, now," he instructed, changing the topic abruptly once again. Keeping her off kilter is fun, he noted as she obediently opened the book, confusion writ large upon her face. Snape pointed his wand at the wall separating his office from the Slytherin common room. Softly at first, but getting quickly louder, the sound began to filter through.
Hermione looked up from the book with interest. "An eavesdropping charm? How did you do that?"
"There's a reason the charm is nonverbal, Miss Granger." His voice was curt. "Read the book."
She grinned sheepishly and ducked her head back to the book. For several minutes, he watched her read. One hand played absent-mindedly with a stray curl, and she bit down on her lower lip. Her eyes moved rapidly, and her brow creased intermittently as she processed information. Only when he was convinced that she was completely engaged in the task did he speak.
"Miss Granger,"—she looked up at him, her eyes slightly unfocussed—"Legilimens."
For a brief second, he felt the edges of her Occlumentic shields before they collapsed. He saw her eyes widen fractionally as she felt it too. Before he could press forward into her mind, however, she broke the connection entirely, wrenching her gaze away from his.
"Wait!" she called, scrunching her eyes closed and pressing her hands to her temples. The book slid unheeded to the floor. A few moments later, her eyes flew open once more. "Try again," she commanded, her hands still pressed to the sides of her head.
This time, Severus felt her conscious engagement with the shields. As he pushed against them, she kept them intact. Finally. He blinked and severed the contact.
"I did it!" Granger had fisted both hands in triumph and grinned with delight.
Fighting an urge to smile back, Severus snapped at her instead. "If you wouldn't mind restraining your enthusiasm long enough to pick my book up from the floor?"
Hurriedly, Hermione bent and retrieved the book, smoothing a hand over the cover solicitously before placing it on the desk. Her smile slipped several notches. "Shall we try again, sir?" she asked.
"No." Severus took a small phial of potion from his desk drawer and handed it to her. "Drink this," he ordered, cancelling the eavesdropping charm with a wave of his wand.
"What is it?" she asked, as she uncorked the bottle.
"Miss Granger!"—she froze with the potion halfway to her lips—"Only a fool takes a potion without knowing what it is!"
"But, Professor," she protested, lowering the phial, "You just told me to drink it!"
He rolled his eyes with frustration. "Are you this trusting of everyone?"
He raised one eyebrow.
"Well, I'm not. If you wanted to poison me, sir, you would have done so long ago."
"Miss Granger, just tell me what the potion is."
Hermione sighed with exasperation. She held the vial up to the light, swirled it, then sniffed at it. "It's a muscle relaxant," she concluded. "Like the ones we brewed in third year." Suddenly, she smiled at him. "Thank you," she added.
"Your comfort is not my primary concern," he replied dismissively. "These meetings would not stay secret long, however, were you too stiff and sore to walk tomorrow. Now, take your medicine and go."
For a second he thought she was about to argue with him, but she drank the potion instead—closing her eyes and tilting back her head to reveal the line of her throat. Severus stood up abruptly and turned to replace the book on the shelf behind his desk.
"What?" he replied, without turning around.
"Should I come back on Thursday?" She sounded hopeful.
Slowly, he turned back towards her. She looked hopeful. "Very well," he conceded. "Don't be late."
Hermione smiled delightedly and walked to the door. "Good night, Professor," she called as the door shut behind her.
Severus sank into his chair and ran one hand down his face. You have to watch yourself, Snape, he berated himself. For a moment he'd . . . No. House points or no house points, Hermione Granger was a student, and he would comport himself accordingly.
Thursday's lesson was more straightforward. Granger had got the hang of consciously conjuring her shields, and they no longer collapsed under the slightest Legilimentic pressure. For about an hour, she worked at withstanding various levels of attack and controlling the amount of energy she utilised to Occlude. At a certain point, Severus called a halt. Granger hadn't yet fallen over; however, he had no desire to push her to the point of magical exhaustion.
"Sit down," he ordered.
Hermione sat. From the way she bit down on her bottom lip, he could tell that a question was imminent. Within seconds, he was proved right.
"Professor," she inquired, "may I ask a question?"
"Was that it?" was his dry response.
"I—er, no." She smothered a giggle. "That was not the question I meant."
"Say what you mean, Granger"—her eyes widened slightly at his omission of the honorific, but she didn't seem displeased—"that way you won't waste my time."
"Well, I guess what I meant was: if I ask a question that is only tangentially related to the practice of Occlumency, will you answer it?"
Severus ran one finger along his lip as he considered the request. "It depends. Ask your question, then I'll decide."
"Well," Hermione hesitated a second. "I understand that you had to learn Occlumency because Volde—what?" His snarl of anger interrupted her. "Okay, fine. I won't say it, but there's no way I'm calling him 'the Dark Lord', either. That's a Slytherin prerogative." She crossed her arms and scowled back at him, exhaling through her nose before continuing. "As I was saying, if You-Know-Who is such a strong Legilimens, how come he doesn't suspect something when he can't access any of your memories?"
"If I blocked all my memories," replied Severus, "he would suspect something immediately. Occlumency, in its purest form, is designed to defend the mind against attack, not to deceive the attacker."
She paused for a second, drawing her lower lip into her mouth. "You show him some of your memories."
"Correct." She really was clever. Liberated from the burden of dragging her classmates along beside her, her mind sprung ahead in huge leaps. "The Dark Lord hasn't realised that I'm hiding anything from him. If he had, I wouldn't have survived."
"But surely it must be inordinately difficult to siphon off the incriminating memories from the innocuous ones?"
"Not really," he demurred. "The vast majority of my time is spent in the classroom or on Hogwarts business, and when the need arises I have plenty of material involving suspicious order members and antagonistic interactions with Mr Potter."
Hermione was staring at him wide eyed, her mouth hanging slightly open. "But, . . . hmm."
Severus quirked an eyebrow at her and smirked. "Surely Miss Granger hasn't yet run out of questions?" he mocked.
"Yes," she replied, shutting her mouth into an uncharacteristically grim line. "For the moment, I have."
"Well, then," he countered, slightly taken aback. "This concludes your lesson. When is Quidditch practice next week?"
"Tuesday and Thursday again, but"—she grimaced—"Professor Slughorn has scheduled one of his get-togethers for Tuesday." Her face brightened slightly. "I could always decline and come here instead!"
Curious, that she doesn't seem so keen on Slughorn, either, noted Severus. "And broadcast your presence here to the school at large? Don't be an idiot. Besides, if you think that I have the time or the inclination to do this more than once a week, you're sadly mistaken. Thursday will be soon enough."
Hermione underwent a valiant attempt to keep the disappointment off her face, but to little avail. "Thank you, sir," she ventured. "Good night."
As she closed the door behind her, Severus let out a long breath.
Although, technically, the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom was less convenient to his office than the Potions classroom had been, Severus relished the walks that the change entailed. Transiting through the corridors gave him a feel for the school mood—and gave him unparalleled opportunities to deduct house points. It was with this—less altruistic—purpose in mind that he detoured down an infrequently used corridor on Friday afternoon. He could hear voices tinged with the unmistakable cadence of cruelty, though the words themselves only became clear as he drew closer.
"Go on then, do some magic!"
"She can't! She's a squib, that's why."
"Hey, squib! You don't deserve to be here."
A group of four third-year Ravenclaw students had someone backed up against the wall. "My, my," he drawled. "What a pleasant surprise." Only as the aggressors leapt back guiltily, did he see the target of their jibes: Jocelyn Smith stood frozen, her body rigid. Her wand was held tightly in one hand, and her eyes were wide with fear. Severus felt anger rip through his body. He drew his own wand and turned on the Ravenclaw students. At the sight of his face, they pulled back in terror, stumbling in a desperate effort to put something between them and him—even the body of a friend would do. With an extraordinary measure of self-control, Severus restrained himself, pulling himself up to his full height and looming over the recalcitrant students rather than hexing them.
"Fifty points from Ravenclaw, apiece," he snarled. "And detention, Saturday. Now get out of my sight!"
They didn't need further encouragement. One of the boys was sobbing with fear, and the one girl was hyperventilating.
Alone with Smith, Severus opened the nearest door and gestured into the empty classroom. "In here," he ordered. She peeled herself off the wall and stepped through the doorway. He followed her in and shut the door.
"Are you hurt?"
She shook her head.
"What was that about?"
She shrugged, and glanced away.
"Miss Smith—Jocelyn, look at me. That's better. When I ask a question, I expect you to answer it. What was that about?"
Almost imperceptibly, her lower lip trembled. "I can't do magic," she whispered.
In Defence classes the first years were working though a preparatory program of balancing and strengthening exercises while they studied the identifying features of a number of dark creatures—Inferi, werewolves, etc. The only practical session they'd had was during the first week, when Severus had introduced Expelliarmus. True, Jocelyn hadn't mastered the spell, but neither had half the class. Besides, it wasn't unusual for Muggle-born students to take a few weeks to get the hang of voluntary magic. He hadn't thought anything of it. Now, however, he was having second thoughts.
"What magic have you done since you got your wand?" he asked.
"None," she replied, mortified. "I don't deserve to be here."
"Nonsense." Squibs can't Occlude, for one thing. "Come with me."
He swept out of the room and strode off towards the Hospital Wing, slowing his stride only when he glanced down and noticed Jocelyn jogging to keep up.
"Poppy!" he called, as they stepped inside.
"Coming!" was the reply, and within moments Poppy had emerged from her office.
"Poppy, this is Jocelyn Smith, of Slytherin house. Jocelyn, this is Madam Pomfrey, the school nurse and eminently trustworthy." He turned towards Poppy. "Miss Smith is in need of a full check-up."
Poppy smiled kindly at the apprehensive young girl. She bustled her patient off behind a curtain, leaving Severus to pace the length of the ward. "Well?" he demanded when Poppy emerged a full fifteen minutes later.
Poppy's face was grim, and she cast a privacy charm before she answered.
"Severus, why wasn't that child brought to me at the beginning of term?"
"Just give me the details, Poppy; save the lecture for later."
She sighed and rubbed the nape of her neck with one hand. "Fine. She's blocking."
"That much is obvious, Poppy. What else?"
"What else? You're impossible." Poppy crossed her arms and glared at him. "She's malnourished and she's been beaten regularly. The bruises from the most recent thrashing haven't yet faded, and we're three weeks into term."
"How long will it take to treat her physical injuries?"
"Severus, you're not listening. She's blocking! She's a danger to herself and to others. We have to send her to St. Mungo's."
"No, Poppy, you listen," he stepped close to her and took hold of her shoulders, shaking her slightly. He looked slightly manic. "There's a new method that has been developed in the States. It's experimental, but I've read the literature. They haven't introduced it yet at St. Mungo's. If you send her there, they'll lock her up."
Poppy looked up into his face with a dubious expression. "How long?" she asked.
He shrugged without letting go of her shoulders. "I don't know. A couple of weeks? Please, Poppy."
She pursed her lips, weighing the options. "Alright, you've got two weeks."
"Don't tell Albus."
"Two weeks and not a moment longer."
Severus slumped forward with relief, momentarily resting his forehead on the crown of her head. "Thank you," he breathed.
"Oh, Severus," she sighed, "the things I do for you." She pushed him away with an exasperated noise, but the look on her face was entirely gentle. "Listen, she's going to need more multivitamin syrup than I have in stock—and if you really want to do something useful, you could modify some Skele-Gro so that she can take it as a calcium replacement."
"Since I wouldn't trust the current Potions professor to do the work adequately," he replied, regaining something of his usual demeanour, "I will be happy to oblige." Before leaving the Hospital Wing, he stepped through the curtains to stand by Jocelyn's bed.
"You will stay here tonight," he instructed. "Madam Pomfrey will give you several potions and monitor the results. After breakfast, you are to come and see me. I will expect you in my office at 9:30; do not be late."
"Professor Snape?" The clear sound of her voice stopped him as he turned away. "What's wrong with me?"
"Nothing we can't fix," he replied. "Tomorrow, I'll explain as much as I can."
As he walked away he heard Poppy in fully-fledged bedside mode: "Come on, my dear, swallow this down. Professor Snape made it, you know . . ."
Fortunately, Severus was used to surviving on very little sleep. He had spent several hours brewing—modifying Skele-Gro was a fiddly process, though quick, while the multivitamin syrup was a simple potion that simmered over several days—and much of the rest of the night reviewing the literature on Jocelyn's condition. The girl, he acknowledged when she arrived promptly at half-past nine, looked better for her night in the infirmary. While still pale, her colour had improved, and Poppy had trimmed the ragged ends of her hair. She sat across the desk from him now, her hands clasped tightly in her lap.
"The genealogy of magical ability is imprecisely understood," he began, effortlessly slipping into lecture mode. "As a consequence, when a child is born to magical parents, they watch closely for the first signs of magical ability, celebrating them and encouraging the child. When a magical child is born to non-magical parents, however, the situation is quite different. Manifestations of natural magic can surprise and, in some cases, frighten the parents. Faced with circumstances they are ill-equipped to understand, some Muggle parents make the grave mistake of punishing the child."
As he spoke, Jocelyn sat very still, her large eyes fixed on his face.
"In the short term, such punishment can compound the problem: the body has several self-defensive mechanisms, the first of which works to remove the child from harm or impede someone who attempts to harm them. Imagine, if you will, a hypothetical scenario in which a young witch is smacked or beaten for a magical phenomenon over which she had little control. In self-defence the child's magic is likely to Apparate her to a position of safety, somewhere that the aggressor cannot reach, or, to throw the aggressor bodily across the room, away from the child."
Severus scanned Jocelyn's face for any indication that the scenario was familiar to her, but her face was inscrutable.
"In instances where such punishment is either disproportionately harsh or frequently meted out, the body resorts to a more extreme defensive mechanism, commonly referred to as 'blocking.' The brain constructs a protective shield between itself and the outside world. Nobody can get in, and no magic can get out. The shield works to prevent the outbursts of magic for which the child was originally punished, but it also prevents the child from performing magic at will." A beat later he continued. "In addition, if the shield remains in place over extended periods of time, it can prove dangerous for the child. Eventually, the magical force within them builds to the point of explosion, potentially harming the child or those around them."
Uncharacteristically, Severus wasn't sure what to say next, and he felt unaccountably relieved when Jocelyn broke the silence. Her small chin was lifted slightly, and the tension with which she held her body was palpable.
"Professor, you said we can fix it." The utterance was halfway between statement and question.
"Yes," he concurred.
"I will teach you to control the shields that are blocking your mind."
"You will?" Jocelyn asked, the emphasis on the first word.
"Yes."—Just barely, the muscles around her eyes relaxed—"It won't be easy," he warned. "You will have to remember everything, and you will need to let me inside your mind. Do you think you can do that?"
She nodded decisively. "When do we start?" she asked.
"Monday, after classes. Before then, however, I want you to do some preparatory exercises . . ."
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