Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter. The title "Elective Affinities" cites a Goethe novel of the same name. The name Adrian Kuhn is a nod to Adrian Leverkuhn, the Faustian protagonist of Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus. Much of the inspiration for this piece comes from Dius Corvus' extraordinary stories here on ff dot net, "Tread Softly" and "Ashes of Time."
Warnings: slash; disturbing self-experiments; descriptions of sexual activity; character death (neither SS nor HP, but a major death nonetheless); profanity. This story contains DH spoilers, but is not compatible with the epilogue.
Chapter One: A Most Unusual Sorting
The Hogwarts Sorting Ceremony has barely begun, has barely begun to work its suggestive magic on assembled students and faculty alike when Severus Snape decides that this day - this year - could not possibly be over soon enough. Huddling into himself with a scowl, inured to the long strings of oily black hair that flap in his face, Snape begins to viciously pick at a scab on his left hand.
Peeling back the crusty scab to reveal pale, unadulterated skin is a process both satisfying and frustrating to Snape, satisfying because it distracts him from thinking about earlier, disquieting events, frustrating because he finishes off the scab within a few seconds. He's thinking about her before he even knows it - her old grey dress, hopelessly frayed above the knees, weighing from her gaunt shoulders like a burial sack; the combined smell of cigarette smoke and hot skin and dandruff in her brittle, greying hair; the sloppy, badly aimed kiss she gave him before he boarded the Hogwarts Express for (presumably) the last time. The moment she'd lost sight of him in the train, his mother had begun to have one of her delusions, had begun whispering furiously to no-one the sane could see, her eyes narrowing with fear and loathing just as Snape had re-appeared at a window to give her a half-hearted wave . . .
"Alright there, Snape?"
Snape jerks, then looks up at the voice, noticing as he does so that he has dug his nails into his palms, that his palms have small cuts in them and are beginning to bleed. On the opposite side of the Slytherin table, Daniel Avery's eyebrows are raised in an almost mocking expression of concern.
Automatically, Snape glances to his left, but Avery's usual partner-in-crime, Cassius Mulciber, seems deeply engaged in a conversation about Quidditch strategy with Evan Rosier, a Chaser. As Snape turns his gaze back to Avery, he feels disgust (with himself) rising within him. Clenching his hands despite the sting, he glares into Avery's round pockmarked face and watery grey eyes, hoping that a sufficient display of contempt will dispel whatever theories the other Slytherin might be building. "Of course," Snape says, in his most dismissive voice.
Avery's eyes narrow, and it occurs to Snape that Avery may have had a genuine reason for inquiring after his well-being, after all: As he does every year, Avery probably wants to 'have a look' at Snape's summer Potions essay. The Potions essay, Snape is reminded, that he wrote in the stifling heat of his drab, windowless room with Silencing Charms on his door so he wouldn't have to hear his father's drunken squabbling with the telly, so he wouldn't have to face the sight of watching his mother converse with the empty air. For a moment, Snape can almost see them both: His mother, chain-smoking at the stairs, teeth chattering through her nervous whispers; his father, red-faced and heavy with drink, gesticulating aggressively over an empty wine bottle.
It's too painful too be borne. Snape intensifies his glare at Avery, feeling, for a moment, as though it were all his fault.
Eyebrows climbing even further up his brow, but clever enough to sense he isn't wanted, Avery turns his massive frame (he is a Beater, and correspondingly muscular) back on Snape to continue watching the Sorting Ceremony. Snape waits until it has fully reclaimed Avery's attention before surreptitiously casting Healing and Cleansing Charms on his hands.
". . . GRYFFINDOR!"
Rodolphus Lestrange is observing him, Snape notices suddenly. To anyone else, of course, it would look as if Lestrange's gaunt, shadowed face were merely gazing into space, lost in thought, but Snape knows better - Lestrange is a prefect and therefore predisposed to spying. Snape straightens, pulling himself together mentally as he does so. The last thing he wants is to look a fool to Lestrange for, ah, wearing his emotions on his sleeve.
His mother is a problem he will never be able to solve, Snape reminds himself, and therefore a distraction. His future lies here, in the present, with the associations he builds within Slytherin. Ultimately this is how he will find the means to protect and help her. If he wishes to (take her someplace far away from father, to wrap her in the circle of his arms until the emptiness leaves her eyes and she's well again) dwell on her beyond such considerations, then it will have to be in private.
Perhaps the only good thing to come of being a Seventh Year, he thinks, is that Lestrange has promised him a room of his own.
Lestrange, eyes still fixed on Snape, raises his slender eyebrows in an unspoken question. Snape decides that Lestrange is referring to the Sorting and arranges his face into a smirk. He doesn't even need to see Briony Parkinson to know what House the Hat will choose for her.
Next to Snape, Mulciber - every bit the Beater, if slimmer and less physically brutal than Avery - whoops and claps ferociously for Parkinson, the much younger sister of a recent graduate from the Slytherin Quidditch team. Narcissa Black, who would look as beautiful and smooth as a Greek statue but for her perpetual expression of contempt, also brings her slender hands together a few times. If she feels any discomfort at sitting sandwiched between Avery's bulk and her future brother-in-law, the rather long-legged Lestrange, she has too much emotional control to show it. Snape notes that she now wears a band of pure silver in her elegantly twisted, white-blonde hair. Presumably it is yet another gift from Lucius Malfoy, claiming her for all to see as his future (trophy) wife.
As the other Slytherins continue to welcome their newest member, Snape lets his eyes wander across the queue of remaining First-Years. He isn't quite sure what he's looking for, if he's looking for anything at all. As expected, most of them look as snot-nosed as the average eleven year old, but Snape fancies there might be one or two amongst them like himself, thirsting for knowledge and the chance to prove themselves . . .
Snape's gaze stops suddenly, towards the end of the queue. He narrows his eyes, unsure of what he is seeing. Is the thin, black-haired boy (hair neatly gelled down and combed back, glistening beneath the candlelight) who brings up the rear simply a very tall and mature eleven-year old, or is he rather - what Snape finds more likely - a fairly short boy of somewhere between seventeen and twenty? Snape has never read about an older student being Sorted, however, nor does he remember having ever heard of students transferring to Hogwarts.
As he always does when contemplating a puzzle, Snape lifts a finger and traces it across his lips.
The boy is certainly not from Hogwarts: His robes lack a House crest, for one, and there is something about his manner - something that Snape cannot quite place, but that reminds him a bit of stumbling across an anachronism in a novel - that does not speak of Hogwarts. Then again, the boy may well have visited the school before, for he shows, to Snape's mind, no interest in his surroundings. Unlike the First Years, whose eyes can't seem to take in enough new sights at once, this boy keeps his gaze steadily fixed on the Sorting Hat. A ghost could fly through him, turning his veins to ice, and he would still stare tranquilly ahead.
Snape glances over at the other Slytherins and notes with little surprise that Lestrange continues to observe him.
Their gazes meet; Snape occludes out of practice, not that Lestrange is much of a Legilmens, nor that there's anything to hide. Still, Lestrange has been gifted with strangely pale, nearly colourless eyes; they glint now with almost predatory interest as he leans forward across the table, just far enough to whisper to Snape without encroaching upon Narcissa's space. "Any idea who that might be, Severus?"
Snape shakes his head. "I thought you might know."
"Who do you mean?" Narcissa asks quietly, at the same time that Rosier, seated across from her, snorts through his pumpkin juice.
"Are you talking about the new Defence teacher?" Without waiting for an answer, as if he's been storing up this information for ages and is about to erupt from the pressure of holding it in any longer, Rosier hurries on, "I think it's going to be that woman, the fat one sitting next to Slughorn. Unless it's the other woman - next to Hagrid, the morbidly skinny one." Rosier's button nose wrinkles at some imagined stench as he continues, "She probably hasn't lived under a roof in years. . . "
Lestrange fixes Rosier with one of his frighteningly pale stares. "I think, Evan," he says, "you should consider listening before barging into conversations you don't understand."
Mulciber snickers. This display of disloyalty to a fellow member of the Quidditch team might have shocked an observer from another House, but Rosier is inured and doesn't notice. What he does notice, however, is that Lestrange - monied, soon to be allied by marriage with Bellatrix Black and therefore puissant in their circle - has just implied he is stupid.
"Sod off, Lestrange," Rosier says. "Just because you're a prefect don't mean you get to treat the rest of us like House Elves."
It is fascinating to watch - every inch of Rosier's body screams that he wants Lestrange to like and respect him, and yet he is incapable of preventing his voluble mouth from getting carried away. If Lestrange did not think Rosier lacked control before, then he certainly does now.
As does Narcissa, apparently; her pretty nose flares with anger, as if she feels an insult to Lestrange is one also directed at her personally. Snape decides he knows exactly how to appease her. He smirks and drawls, "I believe you just might be the only one of us to fall into that category, Rosier."
"What did you say, half-blood?"
Snape puts on his cruellest smile. "Nothing your insignificant brain has a hope of processing, I assure you."
Lestrange laughs, Narcissa looks distantly mollified, and Snape settles into himself, satisfied. He decides, not for the first time, that if he can only find a way to propitiate these two gods of blood purity, Lestrange and Narcissa Black, for the whole year, then his future will be rather well provided for.
The best way to measure his success, however, is by observing the way Mulciber and Avery react. Snape does so and notes that both are sending Rosier nasty grins. So, he has clearly won this round.
"You just watch yourself, Snape," Rosier snarls, face contorting with a combination of fury and jealousy - and is it not because, more than anyone else in their circle, Rosier feels he deserves acceptance from the Blacks and Lestranges? How it must rankle him, Snape thinks, to see a half-blood in better graces than himself.
Narcissa sniffs pointedly, and that is the last straw. With a final snarl, Rosier turns to his left, where Terance Wilkes doodles lewd figures onto his cloth napkin for the apparent benefit of his heavily-made up girlfriend Claudia Bramblethorn. Rosier instantly guffaws, as if his display of good humour will somehow make the others jealous, will somehow make them realise their mistake. Snape cannot help but smirk. Such lack of subtlety . . .
Lestrange catches his eye, and together they turn back to Narcissa, who now wears an expectant look on her face. Mulciber and Avery inch closer, their eyes also glistening with anticipation.
Snape decides to explain. "There is a boy queued up to be Sorted, and not even the prefects seem to know a thing about it."
Naturally, Mulciber and Avery begin craning their necks towards the Sorting queue.
"It so happens, Severus," Lestrange says smoothly, "that I do know a bit more about the person in question than you. His name, according to Dumbledore, is Adrian Kuhn, and he is a transfer student from Germany. Apparently, he has spent most of the summer here at Hogwarts." A brief look of frustration crosses Lestrange's face. "I have not, however, been able to ascertain why."
"Oh?" Snape is curious despite himself.
"As you know, we prefects arrive at Hogwarts two days before the other students. Naturally, once I had heard of Kuhn, I sought him out. To my dismay, he was already previously engaged." Lestrange pauses, mouth twisting on his next words as if they were somehow noxious. "With Hagrid."
"With that giant oaf?" Narcissa asks, clearly scandalized.
Lestrange smiles thinly. "Yes. Don't ask me what he was doing, I presume garden work or something else of the brainless, menial variety."
"Like soaking up manure," Mulciber sneers.
For a moment, Narcissa looks too nauseated to speak; then she recovers, and a determined glint appears in her eyes. "Kuhn," she says slowly, tasting the word. "Regrettably, I am . . . unfamiliar with the name."
(Avery and Mulciber, Snape knows, can only trace their ancestry back nine or ten generations, all to wizards and witches who live or once lived in Britain. Narcissa, however, has blood relatives scattered all across the Continent, and more - she knows all of their names.)
"He is certainly no relative of mine," Lestrange says coldly.
Snape works on keeping his expression blank. Although six years of living in Slytherin have repeatedly exposed him to such conversations, he has never quite grown used to them. The way Lestrange and Narcissa see Kuhn is, undoubtedly, how they still see Snape, how they will always see him and always speak of him when he is not in earshot. It is hard, very hard, not to hate them. Part of Snape, that part of him that knows he is more than the sum of his parents, does hate them. (For if he isn't more than his blood, what hope does he have?) He hates being reduced to something over which he has no control, and he hates that their words have such sway over him that he, too, has come to reducing others in the same way. To reducing her, in an unforgivable slip of tongue.
But even their bigotry is somehow superior, because it is backed by wealth and power. They are strong and Snape is weak. To survive, he must follow them, must assimilate, must use their horrible, objectifying words even if it rips apart his soul to do so. There is no alternative. She will never understand this. But then, she basks in the love of her family, in the power that their wealth and good standing in society have naturally accorded her. He, Snape, comes from the lowest scum. He is materially weak. It is because he is weak that, in some twisted way, Snape even hates that part of himself that hates them.
And they respect him, that must be said. They call him, fondly even, the Half-Blood Prince. True, they mocked him with the sobriquet at first, but then - thanks to Lucius Malfoy's intervention - the tables turned, and now it has become something like an expression of regard . . .
Mulciber elbows Snape out of his thoughts, and Snape belatedly realises that Headmaster Dumbledore (wearing the most ostentatious shade of purple Snape has ever seen) has stood and is about to speak.
Hands raised in an appeal for silence, the Headmaster favours the assembly with a benign smile. Is it Snape's imagination, or do Dumbledore's blue eyes briefly fixate on him, as if to ask for his attention in particular? "I fear you have tired of hearing it already, students both new and old, but - Welcome to Hogwarts! Before we begin our feast, I would ask that you grant me just a few more moments of your time. That is, once our last Sorting is complete." Ignoring the sudden volume of the students' whispers, Dumbledore peers down half-moon spectacles at the black-haired boy Snape had noticed earlier. To Snape's surprise, the boy is still staring fixedly at the Sorting Hat. "I am pleased to say that Mr Adrian Kuhn, of Germany, will also be joining us here at Hogwarts as a Seventh Year. I would ask all of you, the Seventh Years in particular, to treat Mr Kuhn as though he had always been here among us. Thank you. Now to the question of Mr Kuhn's House - Professor McGonagall, if you will?"
Snape let his gaze fall to McGonagall, who has assumed a brisk manner at Headmaster's words. The Sorting Hat grasped firmly in one hand, she beckons Kuhn up to a stool at the center of the Great Hall. As she places the Hat on his head, a wary expression briefly flits across her face, almost as though she fears the Hat might explode upon touching Kuhn's hair.
Snape decides that she must have had some contact with Kuhn over the summer, and that she has come to the conclusion he could exert a bad influence on the other students, or something equally ridiculous of that nature. This is intriguing; it also makes Snape think that Kuhn will probably end up in Slytherin.
That being said, now that he can finally see the whole of his face, Snape can't help but think that Kuhn looks a great deal like James Potter: They have the same thin face, the same mouth, the same eyebrows . . .
"Bet on what House he's in?" Avery whispers.
Snape casts a sidelong glance at the other Seventh Years. There's an eager gleam in Mulciber's eyes, and bets usually translate into money, money that Snape could most certainly put to good use.
"Hufflepuff, by the looks of him," Mulciber says, and to Snape's satisfaction pulls out two Galleons and sets them surreptitiously on the table. A sneer forms on Mulciber's lips as he adds, "He looks like he's about to wet his pants."
Rosier snickers into the sleeve of his robes, which, Snape notes with a pang, look new and custom-tailored, and tosses a few Galleons onto the table himself. "Mulciber's right," Rosier says between gasps. "Hufflepuff all the way."
Narcissa looks vaguely disgusted. Next to her, fingering a Galleon of his own, Lestrange's shadowed face grows cunning. "Given that Kuhn cannot possibly be a pure-blooded wizard, I'd put my word in for Gryffindor."
There is a moment of silence as the others digest this piece of information. Snape resumes his observation of Kuhn, who for some reason is gripping the edges of his stool as if holding on for dear life. This is not very Slytherin behaviour, Snape admits to himself. The thin mouth that reminds Snape so much of Potter is wordlessly moving up and down, as if Kuhn were speaking to the Hat. Interestingly, the Hat seems to be responding; it shifts on top of Kuhn's head like a set of oscillating scales, weighing possibilities.
Although Snape has seen the Hat deliberate before - it did so in his own case, when deciding between Ravenclaw and Slytherin - he has certainly never seen it take such a long time. Although loathe to place a bet, for he has honestly no idea what to make of Kuhn yet, Snape is fascinated by what he's seeing.
(The Hat mentioned Gryffindor, not Ravenclaw, but Snape is so mortified by this that he always says he was considered for Ravenclaw to anyone that asks. He almost believes it himself.)
Out of Snape's sight, but within his range of hearing, Wilkes speaks up confidently. "Well, I think he'll be a Ravenclaw."
"You think everyone's going to be a Ravenclaw," Mulciber jeers.
"Only because everyone is smarter than he is," says Rosier, grinning nastily.
Snape raises an eyebrow, but keeps his focus on the Sorting. Strangely, Kuhn is reminding him less and less of Potter now. The cheekbones are all wrong, as is the chin and the nose and especially the eyes. Kuhn had kept his eyes carefully shut when the Hat was first placed on his head, but they're open now. Even at this distance, Snape can see that the irises are green.
A strange feeling bubbles up in Snape. It is almost as if he has witnessed this scene before. Suddenly he realises he is thinking of her - of that fateful, unmentionably horrible day when she was Sorted into Gryffindor.
(Snape could have followed her, but then he had imagined the look on Grandmother Prince's face and begun pleading with the Hat. It was, in hindsight, quickly persuaded.)
Sucking in a breath, Snape decides he has seen enough, and looks back at the Slytherins. Lestrange is wearing a haughty expression, as though everyone but Narcissa at the table is beneath him.
"I tell you, he'll be a Gryffindor," Lestrange says to Wilkes.
"I'm not seeing that," Wilkes declares.
"You don't see, ah, that expression of inane determination he's wearing, Terence?"
"I'm with Lestrange," Avery says immediately.
Snape glances back at Kuhn and finds that he disagrees with Avery and Lestrange; although Kuhn indeed looks as though he is concentrating very hard, there is something new, almost cunning about his expression. Snape doesn't think he's imagining it; and even if he were, Kuhn must possess some modicum of cunning to keep the Hat preoccupied for this long.
"Determination . . . Anyone can be determined. Especially a Ravenclaw!"
"Keep your voice down," Narcissa commands.
Rosier thumps Wilkes loudly on the back. "Yeah - you don't want the Ravenclaws to actually hear you, mate. Might ruin our excellent reputation."
Snape shakes his head - Rosier is an imbecile - but keeps his eyes on Kuhn. The Sorting has now taken an inordinate amount of time, surely the Hat will come to a decision within the next few seconds.
"What about you, Snape?" Avery asks suddenly. "You haven't made a bet."
"What about me?" Snape muses, thinking of Kuhn's strange way of communicating with the Hat, of McGonagall's telling reaction. Suddenly he is hit by inspiration. He turns in his seat to look directly at Lestrange, thrillingly aware that six pairs of eyes are trained on him, awaiting his next move. It's enough to make him smile. "I happen to think he will be in Slytherin."
There is a collective, disbelieving pause.
"Only a half-blood would be that blind to what's right in front of his face," says Rosier, nearly knocking over the table with the wild gestures of his hands, meant to convey just how completely off the mark Snape is. "Everyone else here, and by that I mean everyone, can see that -"
And then, just as Snape predicted, the Hat makes a decision. "SLYTHERIN!" it shouts, to the dumbfoundment of apparently everyone in the Great Hall but himself and probably Albus Dumbledore. (Snape has not forgotten the brief moment before Kuhn's Sorting when their eyes seemed to lock.) Curious despite himself, Snape cranes his neck towards the Gryffindor table and catches glimpse of Potter in his Head Boy's robes looking absolutely gobsmacked. Black, of course, is wearing an outraged expression. It's clear the Gryffindors were also betting on Kuhn's Sorting.
For a moment, Snape thinks he also sees faint disappointment on her face, but if it was there, it is swiftly replaced by a look of complete indifference. Since Snape himself is completely indifferent to her emotions, however, he thinks no more of it, and simply turns back to the Slytherins.
"What is it, exactly, that everyone else can see, Rosier?" Snape asks, a smirk spreading across his face.
Kuhn makes his way to the Slytherin table accompanied by scattered Gryffindor boos (their source undoubtedly Black and Pettigrew) and loud cheers from the Slytherins (egged on by Mulciber). The other two Houses, perhaps unable to make up their minds, are silent.
"Well," Rosier splutters.
Lestrange has already recovered from his slight judgment lapse and is pushing the pile of Galleons towards Snape. "You ever continue to surprise me, Severus," he murmurs. Unsure how to respond, Snape silently gathers the Galleons into his pockets.
"Ah, it was just luck," Rosier says.
"No, that was more than luck," says Mulciber, clapping Snape on the back in a not entirely unfriendly manner. Snape tries, but does not entirely succeed in holding back a wince. "I reckon it takes talent to make guesses like that."
Avery, who has been faithfully watching Kuhn's approach, turns to them suddenly and hisses, "Quiet, he's coming."
As if on cue, Lestrange assumes a mild, friendly expression that fails to mask the coldness in his eyes. Narcissa automatically raises a hand to the back of her heavy coiffure, although every hair is still perfectly in place, and lifts her nose in a superior expression. Unconsciously, Mulciber also reaches up to his hair and begins to smoothen it - being on the Quidditch team has made him vain, Snape thinks with disdain. Rosier, on the other hand, sinks sullenly into himself. Wilkes alone does not seem to react to Avery's news. Claudia Bramblethorn's head resting securely on his shoulder, he continues scribbling randomly on his napkin.
Kuhn is mere feet away when Lestrange stands abruptly, hand extended and smile in place. "Welcome to Slytherin. Rodolphus Lestrange, at your service."
Kuhn looks at Lestrange in surprise before shaking the proffered hand. "Er . . . thanks. I guess you already know I'm Adrian Kuhn . . ."
His English is accent-free.
Introductions are made as Snape watches from his corner, the furthest end of the Slytherin table. Wilkes grunts a welcome, but does not cease scribbling; Rosier on the other hand, unable to leave his gregarious nature denied, rouses himself from his sulk and demands, "You any good at Quidditch?"
Kuhn blinks. "I'm nothing special," he says after a pause, and has the grace to look apologetic when Rosier huffs with disappointment. He's not like Potter at all, Snape decides.
"It doesn't matter," Mulciber injects, capturing Kuhn's thin hand in his iron grip. "That's what's so great about Slytherin; you don't have to be a Quidditch star to find respect. Look at old Snape, here," and Snape feels the heat rising to his cheeks, the last thing he wanted was to be singled out before the other introductions could be made, "He can't fly to save your life. Isn't that right, Snape?"
Snape is in the midst of preparing a scathing reply when Kuhn turns green eyes on him and smiles, a genuine smile that lights up the irises like the underbellies of leaves when the sun shines through them and you're gazing up breathlessly from beneath. Snape feels that his heart is caught in his throat, because he knows those eyes, because his world has revolved around those eyes since he was nine. . .
And then they shift, move on to someone else. Snape realises that he never answered Mulciber, and that it's too late - Kuhn must have catalogued his silence as an affront and has now moved on. He speaks to Narcissa now, those impossible eyes are on Narcissa now, and they smile at Narcissa as they once smiled at Snape. Snape is too flummoxed to think; as if in a fog, he registers that Kuhn has impressed Narcissa by calling her "Miss Black," that the ice princess of all people is actually smiling, if in a self-satisfied and completely unattractive way . . .
Impossible. And yet, there it is.
Suddenly Lestrange is taking Kuhn by the elbow and leading him to Avery, who shakes Kuhn's hand; then they are zeroing in past Avery onto the empty space in front of Snape, the free corner of the Slytherin table Snape has always kept reserved for his books. There is even one resting there now, which he has just enough presence of mind to scoop up before a plate for Kuhn can materialise on top of it.
A second later, and no more, a plate and a tottering, overfull goblet of pumpkin juice appear on the very same spot. Snape hugs his book tightly, horrified by the fate it almost suffered, before realising how strange he must look to anyone that can see him. He kicks himself mentally. Hogwarts is not his room at home, where he could at least let his mind wander in whatever direction it pleased. (Where he could rage and mope and dream of her without anyone ever noticing.) Hogwarts is the bastion of the enemy, where even the slightest slip on his part can land him in utter ruin. To survive, he must always remain on his guard. There's no getting around it. He is not alone, and it would be mistake of catastrophic proportions to forget that in such a friendless environment as this.
The first day back at Hogwarts is always the worst.
Snape concentrates until he can picture his mental defences: A redoubtable black wall, preceded by a moat of terrific proportions, so deep and wide it would seem impossible to ford. In front of the moat stands a dense, ramose labyrinth. To this date, no Legilmens has succeeded in getting past the labyrinth.
Kuhn and Lestrange are standing before him, he notes with little more than passing interest.
"As you have already gathered, this is Severus Snape," Lestrange is telling Kuhn, who smiles at Snape, if less genuinely this time. "He is, I might add, the only one of our number who guessed that you might end up with us here in Slytherin."
Kuhn seems astonished by this news. "You did?"
"It wasn't exactly a feat of intelligence," Snape says dismissively. His book suddenly feels heavy in his arms, and he scoots over to make room for it on the bench, then sets it down.
Kuhn also sits. Snape glances to his left and sees that Lestrange is back at his place and already squabbling with Rosier. Mulciber and Avery, on the other hand, are following Kuhn's conversation with interest.
As Snape turns back, Kuhn immediately launches into, "I'm still surprised that you guessed. I wasn't sure I would end up in Slytherin."
Snape narrows his eyes. Kuhn seems eager to take him into his confidence, which is strange. At the same time, Snape himself wouldn't be averse to hearing an explanation of the unconventional Sorting he just witnessed. His strategy, he decides, will be to feign complete indifference.
"Yeah. For some reason, the Hat was really intent on Gryffindor." Kuhn shakes his head, green eyes absurdly, almost childishly wide. "It took some convincing for it to see things my way."
"I noticed." Keeping his face devoid of expression, Snape asks, lazily, "Why did you want to be in Slytherin?"
"Yeah, mate," Mulciber says from Snape's left, as Avery moves closer to Kuhn in order to hear better. "What's your reason?"
Kuhn draws his shoulders down and crosses his arms on the table, then leans forward slightly, which gives him a conspiratorial air. The look on his face, however, is pensive, as though he is still thinking through what he wants to say.
"I suppose it was the result of a process of elimination more than anything," he says slowly. "I knew I wasn't cut out to be a Ravenclaw, or a Hufflepuff for that matter - I'm neither studious nor particularly hardworking. As for Gryffindor, all that stuff about 'courage and chivalry' seems to be just another way to describe really self-satisfied, priggish people."
"You can say that again," says Avery.
Kuhn glances at him in mild surprise, as though he had forgotten he was there, then smiles ruefully. "Yeah. I guess I learned that the hard way. You see, I came a few weeks early in order to get some extra tutoring before the year could start. Since my background is so different from yours, the Headmaster thought I could use the help." Kuhn shrugs, and Snape can't help but think that something about this story doesn't quite add up. Normally, the Headmaster could care less about divergences in the backgrounds of his students.
"Two days ago," Kuhn continues, "I had the distinct pleasure of running into the Head Boy. I have to say, I've never met a more conceited person in my life." Kuhn looks down at the table for a moment, adding quietly, "It was kind of disappointing, actually."
"Potter's a right arse," Mulciber says with feeling.
Snape can't help but find it odd that Kuhn is speaking of Potter when Snape has spent so much of the evening thinking about how much they look alike. For a moment, he is tempted to ask whether they are related. Something, however, tells him the question should wait. Not because such a question might injure Kuhn's feelings - Snape couldn't give a toss about Kuhn's emotional state, despite knowing first-hand just how emotionally devastating an encounter with the supercilious, swaggering Gryffindor can be. (Although he can't quite imagine Potter doing anything to Kuhn, not with his reputation as Head Boy at stake. Kuhn is also neither ugly, as Snape is, nor an obvious Slytherin. It doesn't quite make sense.) No, Snape decides to wait because he wants a proper answer out of Kuhn and senses that he wouldn't get one at present.
(A niggling part of him also wonders whether Kuhn met the Head Girl. Would she have changed his mind about Gryffindor?)
"In any case, meeting him made clear that Gryffindor was the last place I wanted to be. After that, all the pieces kind of fell into place. I spoke with Professor Slughorn about Slytherin, and he told me it was a good House for people who liked to think outside the box, for people interested in more . . . experimental forms of magic. That sounded good to me." Kuhn pauses, takes in a breath, then smiles with his eyes. "And that's what I told the Hat."
Mulciber and Avery look underwhelmed by this account, but they offer Kuhn insincere smiles.
"All good reasons, I suppose," Avery says, but his eyebrows are raised in a manner that suggests he thinks Kuhn incredibly naive.
Snape himself is less certain of what he thinks. If Kuhn's account was sincere, and Snape has some reason to believe so, then he is perhaps the only Slytherin in Snape's acquaintance who was Sorted for purely intellectual reasons. Most Slytherins come with to Hogwarts with a preinstalled set of biopolitical prejudices, but this doesn't seem to be the case with Kuhn. It is . . . refreshing, if suspicious. Could Kuhn really have no concept of the standards of blood purity upheld by his new House?
For a fleeting moment, Snape almost pities him. Fortunately, he is prevented from deepening that thought by the resounding voice of Albus Dumbledore, who has begun speaking to the assembly.
"And now, students, if I might test your patience once more, a few announcements . . ."
Kuhn straightens to attention, watching the Headmaster with every sign of willingness. Snape decides that observing Kuhn is more interesting than listening to one of Dumbledore's rambling monologues. The green eyes are wide and calm as they take in a monition about the Forbidden Forest, then the introduction of two new members to the faculty.
(Rosier, incidentally, was correct: The stolid woman sitting next to Slughorn at the staff table, a Professor Salvage, will indeed teach Defence this year. As for the other woman - Dumbledore calls her Professor Trelawney - the thin one beside Hagrid with unkempt hair and thick rings beneath her eyes, she will apparently be teaching Divination.)
"Too many women," Mulciber mutters under his breath.
If he hears Mulciber, Kuhn makes no sign of it; his eyes remain as unwaveringly fixed on Dumbledore as they had been on the Sorting Hat only a few minutes before. Snape wonders if this is some kind of coping mechanism. Perhaps Kuhn needs to simulate stability in his mind in order to adjust to what must seem to him a completely foreign environment. Despite his perfect English, Snape has come to the conclusion that Kuhn knows little else about the ways British boarding schools, Hogwarts in particular, work.
Well, Snape does not intend to show him the ropes. If Kuhn wants to survive Hogwarts, he will have to do so on his own.
Dumbledore's speech ends with the usual nonsense - "Cabbages and sealing wax!" - the cue for the feast to begin. As their plates instantly fill up with meats, sauces, salads and other heavenly foods Snape can't wait to try after a summer of privation at Spinner's End, Kuhn smiles.
"Guten Appetit," he says.
Snape stares, then decides two can play at this game. "Bon Appetit yourself," he says, before stabbing pointedly into his roast with his fork.
Snape has barely finished two bites when Kuhn speaks up again. "What are you reading?" he asks with real curiosity. Snape glares at the interruption, but notes that Kuhn has barely touched his own food. Given how thin he is, this is not exactly an encouraging sign. "I saw you had brought a book," Kuhn adds.
Thank you for stating the obvious, Snape thinks, making a point of cutting his roast for several seconds before answering. Kuhn is looking mildly disappointed, and ready to turn back to his own untouched plate, when Snape finally spits out the answer.
Much to Snape's astonishment, Kuhn immediately brightens. "The alchemist?"
"Yes," Snape says slowly. An idea hits him. "I presume you know of him because he is German?"
"Well, there's that, but I also read up a lot on him for what he says about antidotes." Kuhn makes a face. "Paracelsus is loads easier to understand than Golpalott, is all I can say."
Snape is having a little trouble believing that they are actually having this conversation, so he is almost grateful when Narcissa interrupts by calling Kuhn's name. "Adrian," she says sweetly, "Do tell us about your family."
For a moment, thoughts presumably still on potions-making, Kuhn doesn't seem to register what she has said. Then he straightens, expression grown careful. "My family? Er . . . both my parents were wizards, if that's what you mean."
"Oh?" says Lestrange. From the sudden look of alertness on his face, Snape thinks he must have also caught upon Kuhn's deliberate use of the past tense.
Narcissa gives what she probably thinks is an encouraging smile. "And?" she prompts.
"My father was a pure-blooded wizard. He descends from the Tonkuhn family, perhaps you've heard of them? The line includes Johannes Faust. As for my mother," does Snape imagine it, or do those green eyes flicker back to him? "She was a Muggleborn witch."
"I see," says Narcissa in a manner that implies she does not 'see' at all. "You are not a pure-blood, then."
"But still a lot better than Snape here," Rosier just cannot resist from saying.
"Why would that be?" Kuhn asks. Snape is surprised by the frost in his voice, and also a little alarmed; Kuhn, he thinks, is going about all this the wrong way.
But Rosier is too bent on revenge to notice he has hit an apparent sore spot. He grins evilly at Snape, then blusters on, "Snape has a Muggle for a father. An actual Muggle! His mother's a witch of course, but there's no denying the fact of his heritage . . . so unfortunate . . ."
"Thank you for that scintillating piece of information, Rosier," Snape says. "I am certain you have just ruined Kuhn's appetite for the next several years."
"Enough on that topic, I think," Lestrange says lightly, although Snape can easily see that the prefect intends to interrogate Kuhn down to the last detail about his family sometime in the near future. "Tell us more about your interests, Adrian. Do you like politics?"
"Sure," Kuhn says. If there had been light in his eyes before, Snape thinks, this question has completely snuffed it out.
"Perhaps you might, ah, elaborate?"
"I'm very interested in German politics," Kuhn says with a forced kind of smile. "And what I've heard about Britain is certainly fascinating. Very fascinating. But I'm not what you could call an expert on wizarding politics in Britain, if you know what I mean."
"Certainly," Lestrange says coolly. "But you would not be adverse, I take it, to learning more?"
For a moment, Kuhn looks almost sullen; then his face goes blank. "No," he says.
"Good," Lestrange says. There is a pause. Then Rosier begins to pontificate about Quidditch line-ups, engaging Mulciber and Avery in a loud argument, and the conversation is over.
Kuhn does not speak for the rest of the meal, and Snape makes no effort to engage him.
"Severus, a word."
Snape, who has been reading his book since finishing off his plate ten minutes earlier, narrows his eyes up at Lestrange. He shuts the book carefully and stands. Lestrange beckons him into a corner.
"What is it?"
For a moment, Lestrange's pale eyes flash at Snape's sullen tone. Then he smiles one of his horrible, leering smiles. "There are not enough rooms for you to have one of your own."
Snape freezes. A terrible premonition grips him. "But - you promised."
"I did not anticipate Kuhn's arrival."
Snape's mouth twists of its own accord and his hands bunch at his sides. "Why me?" he hisses.
"Mulciber and Avery are already sharing, as are Rosier and Wilkes. That leaves you and me. As a prefect, I am entitled to a room of my own. Therefore, I am sorry, but Kuhn must room with you."
"I suppose I don't get anything out of this," Snape says bitterly, brutal images of Lestrange impaled on a pike appearing in his mind.
"On the contrary." Lestrange continues to smile, but the leer has been replaced by something conciliatory. "I have a task for you, Severus. Kuhn, you must have noticed, is hiding something. That, combined with the facts of his heritage and all-too-liberal upbringing, makes me disinclined to trust him. I would like for you to watch over him. Teach him our ways, if you can, mould him as is appropriate, but above all - make certain that he doesn't try anything stupid. The last thing we need is a spy amongst our ranks."
"He's too naive to be a spy," Snape scoffs.
"Perhaps you are right," says Lestrange, smile still eerily in place, "but I am not so sure. In any case, Severus: Do this for me and you shall be appropriately rewarded, when the time comes."
Snape shivers slightly. There is no question as to what Lestrange refers. "I understand."
"Good. Now, if he is to ask why we were speaking at such length, you are to tell him only about our little argument concerning your rooming arrangements. Understood?"
"Naturally," Snape says, unable to hold back a sneer. Lestrange isn't nearly as clever as he thinks, not by half.
Lestrange only seems amused by Snape's reaction. "Excellent." His expression shifts suddenly to anger, presumably for Kuhn's benefit. Privately, Snape doubts that Kuhn has been watching them at all. "That is my final word on the matter, Snape."
"As you say," he mutters, turning back to the table. As he suspected, Kuhn's head is still hanging. Most of the food on his plate remains; he prods it listlessly with his fork. Suddenly he looks up, the blunt force of his miserable green gaze directed squarely at Snape.
I'm never going to be able to do this, Snape thinks.
He wishes this day had never begun.