A/N: First of all, my sincere apologies for the delay. I took on a job as a research assistant and have been travelling a great deal between conferences as a result, which has taken away more time from writing than I initially expected. I fear that my chapter production will be slowed due to these circumstances, and would like to apologise for the inconvenience.
This chapter was also somehow very difficult to write. If I am honest with myself, I would prefer to continue working on this - the fourth draft - for at least another week. It seems unconscionable to make you wait any further, however, so I have decided to simply release the chapter as it currently stands. Your comments and criticism are deeply appreciated.
A further apology is due to those wonderful people who left reviews. I WILL pen replies to all of you within the next day or so. My thought was that it would be better to get the chapter out as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience - your words of encouragement, your thoughtful points of criticism, have been incredibly sustaining over the past month.
Chapter Nine: The Shifter
Neither of them speaks after that.
Snape keeps his aspect bowed. Ahead of him, Kuhn broods. Snape cannot see his face, but he imagines it looks pinched and grey. Snape's own body moves forward merely out of habit. His eyes search the ground neither for footsteps nor feverfew, rather a certain image stowed away in the recesses of his mind. As it is, his eyes do not see. Their view is unfocused and spotty, as though someone had laid strips of dirty film over them.
And so Snape trails behind Kuhn; and his eyes do not see. Turned inward, they seek out her image, the wisps of red hair, the leaves of her eyes . . . But, swift Daphne that she is, she hides. Runs from him, alarmed as a doe. The hasty trail left in her wake is too violently fragmented to read. Snape knows she resides here, deep in his mind, despite her stubborn refusal to show herself. He does not give up searching. But he is beginning to lose his will to do so.
Never has she eluded him like this. He hadn't known that memories, that fantasies could do that. Even after he had wronged the real Lily, after she had scorned him, he had always been able to summon her image. It had comforted him to know that he still had some connection to her, even if only in his mind.
Why has that changed? For having exchanged a few heated words with her real self, is her luminous vision now to be snuffed? Is he to be left alone with shadows, blackened wicks – an outline burnt into the retina of his eye?
Is this – absence – all he is to have of her now?
Unexpectedly, the film before his eyes breaks, becoming waves that crash at the corners of his eyes and spill over the harsh landscape of his cheeks.
Occlumens . . .
(excerpted from The Pathology of Mind: Lectures on Wizarding Mental Disease, property of Hogwarts Library, currently checked out to Adrian Kuhn)
Chapter Five: Regarding the Uses and Abuses of Occlumency
In summation, Occlumency is powerful magic. The only true means of defence against Legilmency, it also presents a useful technique for ordering the mind, insofar as it enables a wizard to take control over his emotions by subjecting them to rational categories.
However, it behoves the wizard to remember that the world itself does not adhere to rational laws and categories. Despite what fairy-tales, dictators and religious sects may claim, history is merely an amalgamation of contingent events, not a grand narrative gravitating towards a final telos (see the first lecture in this book for a complete refutation of such nebulous claims). The wizard seeking to espy a rational motive behind all the events that take place around him is therefore himself acting irrationally. In other words, his rationality has taken on an extreme form that is no longer rational, but in fact more closely akin to paranoia.
Occlumency is a magic that often attracts the paranoid and instable – wizards who are as self-destructive as they can be destructive to the world. Directed both against oneself and the world, Occlumency is – without doubt – a dangerous magic. There is perhaps no surer method of going mad.
In the following, I would like to detail a particular case, taken from the St Mungo's files [...] Let us call this particular patient Lawrence A. Twenty-five years old, Lawrence A. lost his mother early in life and was raised by his father, an alcoholic. [...] This patient has retreated so deeply behind his Occlumency shields that he lies in an apparently self-induced coma, completely unreceptive to sensations from the outside world. Legilmency tests on the patient confirm that Lawrence A. only sees the dark walls he erected in his mind to keep outsiders, particularly his father, from invading his thoughts. That those self-same walls have doubled their purpose, preventing him from experiencing external sensation, precluding internal revelation, is an irony that Lawrence A. seems unable, or unwilling, to comprehend. On the contrary, he prefers to remain cocooned in a void, trapped in his own mind – unseeing, unfeeling, as good as dead to the world. Were there but a guiding hand to lead him out of his self-made purgatory! . . .
His elbow feels strange.
Snape blinks into the gloom and is mildly surprised to find himself standing before the door to his room in the Slytherin dorms. Briefly, he wonders how he got there, before turning his mental attention back to his elbow.
It feels as though it might be . . . vibrating. Something is wrapped around it like an electric coil. Eyes growing accustomed to the shadows, Snape peers closer and realises that it is a hand –
Snape licks his lips, which seem to have dried out and become encrusted together. His roommate's face is tilted away, as though he is embarrassed, and yet his fingers squeeze Snape's arm reassuringly.
What just happened? Snape wonders, growing dizzy with panic. Did Kuhn just lead him all the way from the green to the dungeons? Why on earth would he do that? Snape licks his lips again, tasting salt. Has he been crying? Did – oh Merlin – did anyone see?
Kuhn lets go of Snape's arm. He steps forward, turning his profile to Snape as he spells open the door with a flick of wrist.
Snape tries to read his features. He is paranoid enough, at the moment, to feel, if only unconsciously, that the world is made up of a network of signs, signs that he can arrange into meaningful patterns. The torchlight in the passageway flickers, bringing out the gold in Kuhn's skin, the remarkably clear orbs that are his eyes. Kuhn's expression is neutral, but he seems to radiate a quiet confidence, which would indicate that they probably weren't seen . . . that Kuhn at least thinks they weren't seen . . . God. . .
Snape is dimly aware of a muffled creak, the sound of the door opening. Before he can take any further stock of the expressionless face, Kuhn has crossed the threshold into their room.
Snape wipes angrily at his cheeks – they are dry, yet itchy – and follows Kuhn inside. He closes the door behind himself, and, suddenly ashamed, averts his face.
The wards crackle and hum. Snape is so unsettled, so desperate for any kind of mooring that he allows himself to lean into them. The protective magic explores, acknowledges his trembling frame, and for a moment, he feels safe in its embrace.
Only – there aren't any safe havens left, are there? Not now, now that Lily has rejected him again. Strange, that he should only remember that now. Shoulder slumping against the back of the door, Snape buries his face in his hands. He breathes –
Palms, the skin sheathed in a fine covering of soil. Fingers, hinting of earth, of broken, citrusy leaves. Beneath his fingernails – kept short to not interfere with experiments, yet just grown enough to gather dust and dead skin – Snape senses the pressure of accumulating dirt. His face must be covered with dirt now. It feels smudged, at least, and unbearably hot. Bony, ugly – covered in dirt and dried tears.
Snape jerks, hands dropping like rapidly falling cobwebs to his sides. He shifts away from the door and levels a glare at the source of the voice.
Kuhn stands beside his bed, an arm twisted around a dark, snake-like bedpost. His eyes are so large they seem ready to swallow up his entire face; in the harsh rays emitting from one of his infernal lighting spells, they seem as funereal and hazy as the green skull-lamps decorating the Slytherin common room.
"What are you staring at?" Snape is snapping, pulling himself out of his slouch against the door. He avoids those eyes, afraid of what they might see – and he Occludes, because there is nothing they can be allowed to see. If Kuhn's gaze suddenly shrinks away from his own eyes, as though something unbearably cold and heartless were to be seen there, Snape does not particularly care. He does care about the fact that Kuhn has failed to answer his question.
"Well?" Snape demands.
Kuhn narrows his eyes, says nothing. Snape feels his cheeks burning, and a vague sense of self tells him that he has somehow done wrong. He scowls, not really caring, and enters a stalk towards his desk.
Halfway across the room, the electric coil unexpectedly twines itself around his arm again. Snape nearly stumbles; only Kuhn's next words prevent him from lashing out in anger.
"I'm glad you stood up to her, Severus."
Kuhn's eyes are shimmering, fierce; how can there be two pairs of eyes like that in the world? so clear and green . . . Snape meets them for but a moment before clenching his jaw and –
He glares down at his shoes (worn, scuffed so badly the black leather has faded into brown at places). There is a thick prickling sensation building in his throat.
"It was the right thing to do." Kuhn's hand constricts briefly around Snape's arm, all thin bone and energetic strength. "She was spying on us, for God's sake."
Snape frowns and shakes his arm. "Let go."
Kuhn releases him reluctantly.
Snape rubs his arm, vaguely missing the prickling warmth of Kuhn's hand. "Lily's not a sneak," he says, fighting against the thickness in his throat.
"What do you call her spying, then?"
Snape does not respond, merely rubbing his arm.
"She's not only a sneak, she's wrong," Kuhn murmurs. He edges closer to Snape so that, even though they are not actually touching, it almost feels as though they were. "Wrong about you, wrong about me. I never knew a person could be so intelligent and so wrong about everything."
"She's not," Snape insists, turning his glare onto Kuhn.
Who smiles, if sadly. "But she is, Severus. You told her so yourself."
"I – didn't know what I was saying. I shouldn't have said it." Snape realises that he is slouching; he straightens to his full height.
"You don't know Lily the way I do. You wouldn't understand."
Kuhn says nothing, but his expression is disapproving. They are so close. Snape, not wanting to think about Lily yet, tilts his head a little in order to make a surreptitious study of Kuhn's face. Like this, Snape can see every line, every pore. Not that there are many lines on that face. Yes, crow's feet have stamped light impressions around the green eyes, but where Snape is already beginning to develop severe furrows in his cheeks, Kuhn's skin remains transparent and smooth. If Snape did not know for a fact that Kuhn shaved, he would think that his roommate had not yet begun to grow a beard, the skin is so clear around his mouth and chin. In contrast, Snape's skin shows visible signs of his daily shaving charm; there are ugly little red inflammations around several pores from all the times he has botched the spell and cut too deep.
Snape avoids looking at Kuhn's eyes, his gaze jumping to the pale forehead instead. He notices a discoloured patch and thinks for a moment that the light is tricking him. Then he realises that the patch has a different texture from the rest of the skin, as though it had been treated with some kind of lotion or concealer (Muggle, from the vaguely chemical smell).
He would like nothing better than to touch it and discover its secrets. He feels a desire, strangely urgent, to examine Kuhn's body, as though it were a map that might lead him to the source of all of Kuhn's mystery.
(Scars, white and raised in crosshatches against nearly translucent skin. Hex and curse scars, scars from sharp knives. Kuhn's chest, covered in a crisscrossing network of scars. So many questions that Snape cannot bring himself to directly ask, even though they should be simple ones. How old are you. Why – why do you want to be my friend.)
And yet Snape does dare not touch Kuhn any more than he already has, to examine any more of Kuhn than had already been offered in a hand twined briefly around his wrist. He lets his gaze drop back to his shoes, and is at once dizzy. It seems impossible to think.
"It's never easy to tell the truth," says Kuhn, softly.
"Is that what it was?" To his own ears, Snape's voice sounds very far away.
Snape looks over at his desk, at his battery and the pewter cauldron. Kuhn's photographs lie scattered over the tabletop.
Absently, he steps away from Kuhn – who stands aside without comment – and moves over to the desk. His fingers seem to have a mind of their own. Slowly, they arrange the photographs into a fragmented narrative of his experiments.
"She was my best friend," he says quietly, knowing that Kuhn stands at his shoulder, watching his long, knobbly fingers establish a fragile order.
"I betrayed her."
"So you both say."
"I did," insists Snape, moving a photo of his ear next to another showing that same ear in a later stage of electrification.
"Do you want to know what I did?" he asks, after a pause.
He can feel Kuhn's magic in the air between them. It is warm, like a stone in the sun, and yet much too excited for the metaphor – the air quivers between them like a vibrating string. If Snape is reading him correctly, Kuhn is agitated.
Snape turns to Kuhn, notes the distressed expression on his face, and sneers. "I shall tell you anyway. It shall be good for you – teach you not to trust me within an inch of your life. You could use a good lesson in trust, Kuhn."
Green eyes flash in protest. "I don't –"
But something has snapped inside of Snape, like a rubber band holding together thousands of papers that unexpectedly breaks, sending them tumbling to the floor. This is all Kuhn's fault; he is the one making Snape talk about Lily. And so Snape approaches Kuhn with an ugly sneer, aggressively invading his personal space. "Lily was my best friend, and you know what I did to her?" Snape drops his voice to a whisper. "I called her one of the foulest names there is. Yes, I can see that you are beginning to comprehend what I did – you look rather frightened just now, Kuhn. Well, why postpone the show? I called her a Mud–"
"I don't care what you said," interrupts Kuhn, but he sounds desperate, not convinced. "She probably deserved it on some level –"
Snape snarls. Anger mushrooms in him with a shattering force. "She never deserved that!"
"Maybe not that, exactly, but she certainly deserved something!" Kuhn strains to stand even higher, to meet Snape on the same ground. His face has gone from a translucent white to bright red, and the green eyes stare at Snape accusingly. "Aren't you even listening to yourself? Do you really think that a friend would give up on she cared about – her supposed best friend– over a stupid insult? No real friendship is that fragile, Snape –"
"It was real!" Snape is having trouble breathing; his hands are bunched at his sides in fists, despite his overwhelming desire to punch Kuhn in the nose.
"I'm sure it was," says Kuhn in what is probably meant to be a placating tone. To Snape, it only sounds condescending. "But then something must have happened –"
"Of course, you dunderhead, of course something happened," and Snape is so angry that he swings a fist at Kuhn's shoulder –
Kuhn does not even blink; he catches the errant hand in one of his own as though it were a Snitch.
"Don't touch me," pants Snape, struggling to retrieve his hand and not quite daring to swing with the other, lest it also be caught.
Kuhn clamps down his grip, his expression grim. "Tell me what happened first."
"Let go, you imbecile!"
"What do you think?" Still struggling for his hand, Snape feels that he could be shrieking, or sobbing, and yet he is also aware that he is doing neither, that his eyes are dry and his voice barely raised above a whisper.
"Tell me, Severus."
There is something in Kuhn's voice, something commanding or pleading or understanding; whatever it is, it makes Snape momentarily give up on trying to wrench away. "What do you think?" he repeats.
Kuhn does not reply.
Snape closes his eyes. He takes in a shuddering breath. He no longer wants to talk about this, but perhaps . . . perhaps he will. As long as Kuhn remains silent. That way he can pretend he is alone, that he is only speaking to himself.
He takes in another breath, but Kuhn doesn't say anything, so he decides to talk. "What happened. Well, we were Sorted. She got into Gryffindor. They didn't care about blood – or so they claim. She made friends amongst the pretty and rich, friends who didn't like to be seen with poor ugly Slytherins. They wanted to turn her against me – and she let them. And then Potter came along and made everything a thousand times worse . . ." Snape suddenly remembers that he is speaking aloud. He opens his eyes and snarls. "Well? Are you satisfied?"
"What did Potter do?"
"I don't want to talk about him."
"What do you want to talk about?"
Snape's captured hand registers an unaccustomed sensation; were he in a more rational frame of mind, he might realise that Kuhn is gently stroking it with his thumb. As it is, Snape only knows a sudden warm, pleasurable feeling, and he thinks that it is the pleasure that comes from finally having an audience.
Kuhn isn't a bad listener, Snape decides. Perhaps he can afford to tell Kuhn a few more things.
"She was waiting for a good reason to cut me off," he says savagely. He lets out a frustrated breath, although he isn't really frustrated, not with his hand still registering the sensation of being heard. "I know that now. And I also know that if I had been Sorted into a different House, and if I had money, and if I were better-looking, that I could have made it as hard for her to leave me as it was for me to leave her."
What Snape is saying about Lily is tantamount to blasphemy, in his mind. It's such a new – and potentially emancipating – mode of thought for him that he not only has no idea what is going to come out of his mouth next, he is almost afraid of what that will be.
"It was because it was so hard for me to leave her that I had to be the one to break it off," he says slowly. "You know, I don't think I realised that until just now, Kuhn. I doubt that you understand, and I don't know if I can explain what I mean. But I couldn't stand waiting for my sentence anymore. She expected me to slip. And so I thought: why not go ahead – and slip? At least then, the worst would be over."
Snape considers for a moment.
"I never meant to say that word. Not exactly. But I said it. In hindsight, it was . . . I shouldn't have said it." Snape feels his forehead crinkling; he rubs it absently with his free hand. The words are drying up in his mouth; he does not know how to speak of the painfully charged absence Lily has left behind. "Only – I had to say it. It was the only way for me to regain a semblance of control. I would have made too great a fool of myself, otherwise."
Snape tries to say more, but finds that he can't. The words have crumbled to dust.
Kuhn waits expectantly. An awkward moment passes before he squeezes Snape's hand and says, "I understand."
Passively, Snape lets those two words wash over him. It's a comfort to know that one has been understood . . . until ugly comprehension dawns.
Rearing up, Snape shakes his hand free from the all-too-pleasant cage of Kuhn's fingers. "You understand?" he asks in an incredulous voice that trembles. "Don't play me for a fool, Kuhn; you have spoken up for Muggle rights often enough. Surely you cannot condone the use of such a word, no matter the circumstances."
Snape trembles like the string of a harp pulled in the wrong direction and with too much force. His mind is not clear; on the contrary, he twangs with dissonance. All he knows is that he does not trust Kuhn anymore.
Kuhn should not trust him, either. Snape does not trust himself.
"I don't have to like what you said to understand why you said it," says Kuhn, eyes narrowed with confusion and something else – hurt, perhaps. "What else do you expect me to say?"
Snape scowls desperately, wanting to hear other words – wanting Kuhn to show his hand and say exactly what it is he understands, wanting unequivocal assurance that he has been understood and is not merely being pitied. He would even be satisfied with a condemnation – at least it would be clear. "I want you to tell me what part of telling a Muggleborn that she's worthless because of her dirty blood you understand!"
"What's wrong with you?" demands Kuhn, backpedalling away.
For a brief moment of sheer madness, Snape considers lunging forward and grabbing Kuhn by the collar. It would, at least, close the sudden distance between them. Except –
"I don't know what you want me to say. That what you did was wrong?" Kuhn's voice is cold. "At another time in my life, I would have hated you for it. Really hated you, in fact. What you said was wrong on so many levels I can't even get my head completely around it." Kuhn's eyes seem to glint with a polar light. Snape stares at them in fascination. An Aurora Borealis of their own, they are, beautifully barren and unapproachable. "You may hate your father, Snape, but he's still your father – nothing can change that, nothing can change the fact that he's a Muggle."
Snape sneers, but the words do not particularly affect him: he is certain that they are but the prefigurations of something more terrible yet to come. Kuhn is going to reject him, saying he is mad or racist or something similarly rotten.
(Some part of Snape's mind lingers on the image of his father, as though there were some unfinished business between them he'd forgotten to resolve. And yet Snape cannot think for the life of him of what business that could be.)
Kuhn is observing him closely. In all likelihood, he is trying to watch the impact of his words sink in.
Snape curls his upper lip, signalling his readiness for the real blow.
Kuhn's eyes glitter back. "I'm not that person anymore."
"Oh?" Snape's voice is bitter.
Kuhn takes a step towards Snape, who watches him warily. It should not feel so good to have him near again, his magic thrumming close.
"I know that the world is not black and white. I know you don't think that Evans is an inferior witch because of her blood." Kuhn takes another step forward, ignoring Snape's scowl. "Do you think the same about other Muggleborns? I don't know. I'll admit, it worries me to think that Evans might be the exception to your Mudblood-rule."
Snape twitches at the word.
Kuhn watches him with unconcealed interest. "I believe your side of the story, Severus. I don't have to know exact details to get that Evans wasn't as good a friend to you as she could have been. I'm beginning to think the real reason she liked you was because you looked up to her. She didn't have to work hard to make you like her; perhaps it went to her head."
Snape frowns. There was certainly more to his friendship with Lily than a power game, he thinks – that was what had made it so special.
"This is just a hunch, but I think that she thought of your friendship in terms of the influence she had over you. When that began to change, when you stopped doing exactly as she wanted you to do, she probably felt betrayed. Which, I will admit, is probably a gross oversimplification –"
Snape is shaking his head. Kuhn has guessed at a surprising amount of truths and yet interpreted them – all – wrong. Lily's influence over Snape had never waned. The only reason he had fulfilled her worst expectations of him was because that was what she had wanted him to do.
"I should probably shut up, now, shouldn't I?" says Kuhn ruefully. "Let me at least say this: You're not alone to blame. Also, she's not a saint." Kuhn chews thoughtfully on his bottom lip. "By a long run."
Snape laughs – a single bark. Then he frowns. "Why do you care about any of this?" he asks, voice unwillingly cracked.
Kuhn is taken aback. "Why shouldn't I?"
Snape sneers at him. "It's bad form to answer a question with a question."
Kuhn crosses his arms over his chest, looking annoyed. "Evans wasn't only spying on you, Snape."
"Let me rephrase the question in terms you are more likely to understand," says Snape, irritated that Kuhn won't give him a straightforward answer. "Why are you so concerned about a pathetic teenage sob story? What's in it for you?"
"Can't it be –" Intriguingly, Kuhn cuts himself off, his cheeks staining with red.
"Can't it be what?"
Kuhn glares. "You're a right git sometimes, you know that?"
Determined to make Kuhn reveal his motivations, Snape turns to excessive cynicism. "All the less reason for you to give a damn. So, what is it, Kuhn? Blackmail?" Snape smiles coldly. "Or are you planning on running to Evans with all of my dirty secrets? You could make her hate me even more. Even better, why not tell the whole school? I'm sure they'll be grateful to you for providing them with such a good laugh –"
While Snape has been speaking, Kuhn's face has been growing redder and redder. At last he can no longer contain himself, exclaiming: "Snape! Can't it be enough that you're my friend?"
To his credit, Snape thinks, he is only momentarily speechless. He shakes his head, ignoring the strands of greasy hair that swing before his eyes, and assumes his coldest smile. "You're a terrible liar, Kuhn."
Snape hadn't realised that Kuhn's face could get any redder. "No, you bastard, I'm telling the truth, only you're too fucking paranoid to know the difference!"
Could it be? Snape wonders – except that, if Kuhn really ishis friend, why won't he answer any of Snape's questions? Bitterly, Snape contends, "Given that I hardly even know who you are, I certainly prefer to err on the side of paranoia."
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" Kuhn demands.
"Well, who are you, then?"
"I –" Something almost like anguish flickers across Kuhn's face, settling into resignation. Snape watches the shift with a growing sense of restlessness. Perhaps Kuhn will make concessions – perhaps not.
"What do you want to know?" asks Kuhn after a moment.
Snape nearly goggles at him, he is so surprised to have gotten somewhere. For a moment, he is also simply overwhelmed by the thousands of questions rushing through his mind, each competing to be asked first, such as – why did you leave Germany and how old are you and what are the sources of your magic?
(why are you wasting your time with me?)
"I just told you something I've never told anyone else," Snape points out, feeling slightly dizzy with the realisation that he has just shared one of his greatest secrets with Kuhn, of all people. How could he have forgotten the vital fact that Kuhn is terrible at keeping secrets? "Perhaps you might repay the favour."
Kuhn looks vaguely ill himself, but he straightens and says, "Alright."
"Perhaps we should sit down for this," Snape suggests, when he sees that Kuhn is having trouble thinking up something to say.
"Good idea," says Kuhn, sounding stressed. He begins dragging over his desk chair to where Snape is standing.
Snape pulls out his own desk chair, flips it around, and sits with his arms propped across the back and his legs positioned to either side of the seat. Kuhn sets down his chair inches away from Snape and slouches into it.
"OK," Kuhn says, breathing in and raking a hand through his perfectly arranged hair. Bits of it are left sticking up in crazy angles. Together with his flushed face, they make him look as though he's just escaped from an angry dragon. "Well, since we were talking about a girl, I guess I could tell you one of my girl stories."
Snape raises an eyebrow.
"My best friend was a girl." Snape has to wonder at Kuhn's sudden defensiveness, and as always, his persistent use of the past tense. "Most of my friends were girls, actually. Chandra Goodhart reminds me of one of them especially. She was, you know, also a bit barmy. But brilliant. In her own way." Kuhn pauses to stare down at his hands. "Anyway, I don't want to talk about my friends." He pauses again, this time to assess Snape's reaction. "I've decided to tell you about my mum."
Snape attempts to make his expression encouraging, although he is fairly certain that he has failed. Kuhn immediately looks back down to his hands.
"I never knew my mother. She died when I was a baby. Apparently I don't look much like her, except for my eyes. She had green ones as well." Kuhn fidgets, frowning at his hands. "Shortly after I was born, my parents were targeted by a dark wizard. They'd been resisting his attempts to gain power and he wanted them out of his way. But most important, the dark wizard had heard a prophecy – a prophecy about a boy who might defeat him someday. Now obviously, the prophecy was bullshit." Kuhn makes a face, his eyes unusually cloudy. "But this wizard believed what he'd heard, and he decided that I was that boy."
Snape frowns – that was unexpected. Nonetheless, he begins listing possible outcomes in his head. There are, of course, numerous candidates for the dark wizard, starting with the many supporters of Grindelwald who were given easy parole or overlooked by the German authorities. The fact that Kuhn is alive and speaking would indicate that the wizard was killed, probably by one of Kuhn's parents. Undoubtedly, Kuhn's mother died in the struggle.
"A childhood friend of my mother's, who had been working for the dark wizard, heard about his plans to kill her and bravely switched sides. He was responsible for warning my parents in time for us to go into hiding." Kuhn's eyes flicker briefly up to Snape before falling back to his hands. "There was a Fidelius placed on the house, of course. My father chose the Secret Keeper out of his three best friends from school. One of them was a strong, powerful wizard; he seemed too obvious a choice, and only served as a decoy. Another was also powerful, but too ill. The third was weak, something of a coward, and my father thought that nobody would ever guess he was the real Secret Keeper. My father was wrong."
Kuhn takes in an angry breath, his cheeks briefly pressing into his skull. "The third friend was, in fact, a spy for the dark wizard. I don't know the exact details of how or why, but he told him how to find the house. My parents didn't suspect anything was wrong until the dark wizard had already broken onto the premises. My father tried to fight him off to give my mother and me time to escape, but the dark wizard killed him at once. My mother pleaded with him to spare my life. She shielded me with her body rather than giving me up, begging the dark wizard to take her life instead. Naturally, he didn't listen. He killed my mother before turning onto me."
Snape is finding it heard to breathe. Kuhn can't possibly mean that –
"Something strange happened that evening, something that perhaps shouldn't have happened. The wizard cast the killing curse, and I did not die. Obviously." Kuhn smiles weakly. "Instead, the curse bounced back, not killing him exactly, but wounding him so badly that he lost much of his power. Apparently, the force of my mother's sacrifice had acted as a kind of protective magic, shielding me from the wizard's curse." Kuhn touches the discoloured spot on his forehead, saying bitterly, "All that the curse left behind was a scar."
The story about a mother's sacrifice that Kuhn had told in class – it had not been a fairy tale, but an explanation of the genesis of his power. Snape is . . . well, his interest in studying Kuhn has just increased tenfold.
"Did the wizard ever recover?"
Kuhn grimaces, a shadow passing over his eyes. "He died."
Snape runs a finger across his bottom lip. He feels oddly calm in face of the revolutionary nature of Kuhn's revelations.
"You killed him."
Utterly unselfconscious, Snape lifts his finger from his lips to Kuhn's discoloured forehead, to the mysterious patch of skin. He ignores Kuhn's sharp inhaled breath. The scar just barely perceptible to his fingertip, jagged as a bolt of lightning, has been well concealed beneath a skin-coloured cream.
There is not even the faintest trace of magic emanating from the scar. Snape withdraws his finger with clinical detachment, his suspicions confirmed. "Usually curse scars continue to radiate some evidence of dark magic. Did it stop doing so when he died?"
Kuhn stares at him incredulously, as though he cannot understand the motivations behind Snape's questioning.
"Never mind, it's quite obvious. Why do you hide it?"
An ugly flush suffuses Kuhn's thin cheeks. "Why would I not want to be reminded of my mother's death every time I look into the mirror? Are you fucking serious, Snape?"
Snape scowls, refusing to be embarrassed. "She must have loved you very much."
"Yes, well." Kuhn looks sour. "I would much rather have my mother than a stupid scar."
Snape resumes tracing his finger over his bottom lip, imagining what it would be like to have a scar instead of his mother. He thinks about her slight, bowed frame, her brittle hair and long, tobacco-stained fingers, her cold black eyes. She not very beautiful, he thinks, and the thought is accompanied by a sudden wave of shame.
That he could even think about exchanging her for some definitive proof of her love, given in death . . .
But shameful and disloyal as it is to think such a thing, Snape can't help but wish that his mother were different. Not significantly different, but braver, perhaps – stronger. Her eyes are so cold these days, Snape no longer knows when it was he last saw his mother with her Occlumency shields down. There is no better way of blocking out pain, of course, than retreating behind those shields, and Snape is grateful to his mother for teaching him how to Occlude for that very reason. He doesn't begrudge her a refuge from his father and all the other sufferings she has been forced to endure. That's not the point. The point is that he is tired of looking into her face and not being recognised. Just thinking about her blank stare makes him livid with anger. Doesn't she realise that Snape needs her? Doesn't she care enough about him to want to emerge from the shadow-land in her mind?
Snape gathers into himself, anger and shame twisting in him like hot trails of sand caught in a fierce desert wind.
Snape's tone is snappish. Kuhn ignores this, an almost ironic glint to his eye. "We sure make a fine pair, sitting here moping like this."
Snape curls a lip, although Kuhn's words do make him feel slightly less angry.
Kuhn smiles. "Come on, enough dwelling on the past." Ignoring Snape's glare, Kuhn reaches out for Snape's hand and pulls him, rather awkwardly, into a standing position.
Snape, electrified by the contact, can no longer think about his mother. Neither can he look Kuhn in the face.
Kuhn lets go of Snape's hand and begins waving before Snape's eyes. "Earth to Snape, Earth to Snape –"
Snape clears his throat. "You really survived the killing curse?" he asks, letting disbelief colour his voice.
"Yes." Kuhn sounds uncertain, wary even. "Would you rather I hadn't told you?"
"I don't know." One by one, Snape curls his left fingers into his palm. The number of people who would be clamouring for this kind of information, the Dark Lord not least amongst them . . . He lets his voice darken. "You certainly shouldn't tell anyone else."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
Snape's head snaps up; he narrows his eyes with suspicion and something else he doesn't dare too closely examine. "Really?"
"I'm serious," says Kuhn, smiling at him. "This is strictly between you and me."
Snape glances down at his scuffed shoes to hide his impulse to smile back. At another point in time, he might have been disgusted by his roommate's complete lack of guile. What kind of a Slytherin would reveal such sensitive information to someone he by all means shouldn't trust? At present, however, all Snape can think is that Kuhn wouldn't have shared his story if he didn't really consider Snape his friend, which is –
"Good," he says. He brushes back the curtains of his hair, lifts his gaze and – smiles.
Kuhn's smile widens to illuminate gold, to send rays of light cascading through circles of green.
Snape can feel his heart racing. He swallows and turns his gaze back down, hair falling back over his eyes. The shrunken bag of feverfew in his pocket rustles in his robes and he reaches in to take it out. "I need to start brewing," he says with sudden realisation, unshrinking the bag and observing the semi-wilted state of the feverfew.
"Really? I was hoping that you might teach me some of your spells."
Snape looks up in surprise; he'd forgotten his promise to teach Kuhn some of his invented spells. He glances down at the bag in his hands. "The feverfew is wilting."
Kuhn does not seem to understand the urgent implications of that statement. His disappointment spreads to his eyes.
Snape cannot stand looking at them. "Later," he says to the bag of feverfew. "I'll show them to you later."
Kuhn sighs. "I'll leave you to your potions, then. Only –"
Irritation begins to simmer in Snape. "Yes?" he interrupts.
Snape glares at him. Unabashed, Kuhn smiles before turning away.
Through bedraggled strands of hair and with the corner of his eye, Snape watches Kuhn seat himself at his desk and open the pages of a book – probably Like Poppy to Memory: Powerful Potions to Manipulate the Mind, the book Kuhn has been perusing lately for his Defence project. He watches Kuhn lift a finger to his mouth to wet it, then turn the corner of a page.
That (is) could be my friend, he thinks – before shaking his head of its nonsense and turning his attention to unbagging the feverfew.
Kuhn learns Langlock, Muffliato and Levicorpus with enviable ease. The only thing preventing Snape from throwing a tantrum and refusing to show him any further spells is the gratifying amount of enthusiasm Kuhn shows for his "brilliant" inventions. The fact that Kuhn also promises to teach him how to Disillusion himself is also a considerable motivator.
It turns out that Snape is practically a natural when it comes to Disillusionment charms. He has trouble restraining a smirk, even an invisible one, after that.
"How good is your Occlumency?" Kuhn asks, once they are no longer transparent.
Snape, still smirking, says, "I doubt that anyone at this school is better."
"So, who else can Occlude? Lestrange?"
"Every Slytherin worth his salt can Occlude," sneers Snape. "The question is not one of Occlumency, but of Legilmency. Of the Slytherins in our year, only Lestrange and myself, I believe, are Legilmens."
"Yeah, I sort of gathered that he's a Legilmens," says Kuhn ruefully.
"Do you not know how to Occlude?"
Kuhn colours. "Er, well, I had lessons once, but they . . . didn't go so well."
Snape considers him, his puzzling embarrassment. "Occlumency is very difficult to teach. Perhaps you did not trust your instructor enough, or vice versa."
Kuhn's face is now completely red, and he is shifting guiltily from foot to foot. "Erm, probably not."
"Or you lack the proper disposition for Occlumency. It is often said, as a rule, that you are either able to Occlude or you are not."
Kuhn coughs. "I think I probably could, if someone showed me how."
Snape begins to pace. It would indeed be in his own interests were Kuhn able to Occlude, but who would be able to teach him? "That is unlikely to happen. There are no classes taught on the subject at Hogwarts; it is considered too dangerous. Those of us who know Occlumency were taught it at home by our parents. Perhaps, however, you can take instruction out of a book. I'm sure that Professor Slughorn would be willing to give you a list of relevant literature."
Kuhn is shaking his head. "I would rather take a more . . . practical route, if you know what I mean."
Snape stops pacing to stare at him. "No, I do not."
"Well – would you –"
Kuhn has not even finished his sentence before Snape snaps, "Absolutely not. It's unconscionable of you to even ask."
They glare at each other, Kuhn's face a picture of disappointed surprise. "Why?"
"I thought we'd established this already," snaps Snape. "There is a reason that mind magic is not taught at this school. It is a highly dangerous enterprise, requiring mutual trust on part of the Legilmens and the Occlumens –"
"And I thought we'd established that I trust you!"
"You are a fool to do so!" Snape steps in closer to Kuhn, his voice soft and deadly. "One unintentional slip – one push too hard – and I could destroy the very foundations of your sanity. Do you understand the ramifications of what I am saying, Kuhn? This is not a game. If I were to have access to your mind, you would find yourself at considerable risk. I am not about to make that gamble."
Kuhn, damn him, looks at Snape with pleading green eyes and says: "Please."
"Please. Severus, I would do just about anything –"
"What must I say to get this ludicrous idea out of your head?" Immensely frustrated, Snape tears his gaze away from Kuhn and resumes pacing. "I don't remember how I was taught, how do you expect me to teach you?"
"I don't consider that disqualifying. And I'm not afraid, Severus. I don't care about the risk – I needto learn this. And, I will say this again and again – I trust you."
Snape stops pacing to stare at Kuhn, his upper lip curling with disgust. "You are even more reckless than I thought."
Kuhn shrugs. "Desperate times, desperate measures."
Snape shakes his head, unconvinced. "I won't do it," he says firmly.
"Fine," says Kuhn, blotches of red discolouring his cheeks, his head bobbing in an angry rhythm. "Fine. In that case, I want my money back."
"You know, the money you've been using in your battery."
Despite feeling as though a stalactite has just been pounded through his chest, Snape tries to keep calm. There must be a way to talk Kuhn out of this madness. "Don't worry, I promise to give it all back to you in time for Hogsmeade weekend. I only need until then to finish my preliminary experiments. Besides," he adds snidely, "you couldn't possibly spend have anything to spend it on till then."
"This about principles, not money," snaps Kuhn. Like this, jaw set, his hair upended by a long day, he strongly resembles Potter. "If you won't help me, then I won't help you."
"Principles?" Snape repeats, disbelieving and offended. "If this were about principles, then you wouldn't be trying to make me teach you Occlumency!" he hisses. "What if something were to go wrong, then? What if, by invading your mind, I made you forget things, or even worse, go mad? Have you considered how I would feel about having inflicted such a thing?"
"I don't see how it's any worse than me sitting by and letting you experiment on yourself," replies Kuhn with an irritating calm. "In fact, I think your self-experiments are actually more dangerous, in the end."
"You don't know the least about such things, dammit –" Something like anguish is building itself up in Snape, and he growls in order to placate it, glaring at Kuhn with accusation. "I just knew you would try to blackmail me someday."
"Only because you're being such a git!"
"Oh, yes, as if that weren't a valid reason to blackmail a person."
The air trembles with suffocating, angry energy. Kuhn's wand is emitting sparks; his face is twisted in rage. "Fine, then, keep the stupid money!"
"Maybe I don't want to, after all!" shouts Snape. "If this is how you're going to be about it!"
"Fuck off, Snape!"
And with that, Kuhn throws himself onto his bed, spelling the curtains to shut around him with a bang. Snape swallows, intimidated by the sudden emptiness of the room. He shuts his eyes, feeling a thickness building up rapidly in his throat, feeling as though he is going to hurl.
This can't have just happened. It was too fast, too banal . . . This is either a dream, or a simple misunderstanding, easily rectified . . .
Kuhn does not emerge from his bed. He probably has thrown up a silencing charm.
"Kuhn, –" but what is Snape supposed to say? Suddenly disgusted with himself – what a crybaby you are, Snivellus– Snape turns away. After a second's thought, he begins violently dismantling his battery.
Occlumens. . .
That night, Snape has strange dreams that he will only vaguely be able to remember in the morning. His mother features prominently in one. Her skin is shaded an unnatural blue and looks oddly puffy, as though she were the subject of an early Picasso painting. In another dream, Snape finds himself lost in a forest. Not even Hagrid could find him there, the brambles are so thick, the overgrowth so wild. He wanders and wanders, not even glimpsing the sun through the dark, almost black canopy made by the trees.
He wanders aimlessly – until, amazingly, he hears a voice.
Snape awakens in pitch-darkness. There is a face looming over his, made grey and indistinct by the night.
"Snape," it says plaintively, one of its hands rocking him by the arm.
"I'm awake, you dimwit," he says, but his tongue is thick in his mouth and the words do not come out as sharply as they should.
"Sorry." Snape is dimly aware of a weight settling itself down on his bed, an incorporeal sigh. "I had to wake you. I couldn't sleep, knowing what I'd said."
It takes Snape a few seconds to make sense of these sentences. He lifts up his head and squints into the darkness. "Kuhn?"
A pause. "Who else?"
"I thought –" Snape frowns, wondering if that wasn't part of a dream. "I thought we weren't speaking."
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about. I'm sorry, Snape. Truly. I'm very, very sorry for what I said. It was wrong of me to try and force you to teach me Occlumency."
Snape tries to sit up on his elbows, but his head is already too heavy. His elbows collapse and his head sinks back into the pillow. "This is what you had to wake me up in the middle of the night to say?"
Snape considers this. Yesterday evening he had been forced to dismantle his battery, an event that had enraged and sickened him so utterly that he had spent the rest of the evening cooped up in bed, inventing horrible hexes with which to get his revenge. He had not gone to dinner, and since he and Kuhn had avoided each other like the plague, he has no idea whether Kuhn ended up going by himself.
"Does this mean I get to rebuild my battery?"
Kuhn shifts his weight against Snape's legs, dragging the blanket across his skin. "If you want. I haven't touched any of the things you catapulted over to my side of the room."
Snape allows himself a grim moment of satisfaction. Then he closes his eyes, lets out a breath through his nose, and concedes tiredly, "Very well."
"Very well?" Kuhn shifts again, his voice unnaturally high-pitched. "What does that mean?"
"What do you want it to mean?"
"Well . . . we're still friends, right?" Kuhn sounds nervous, worried.
Snape doesn't understand him at all. He opens his eyes to stare at the bed's dark canopy. "I don't know. I don't exactly trust you." He pauses, tasting the cold air with his tongue. "Were we even friends?"
Kuhn's voice is soft. "I'd like to think so."
There is a brief silence. Kuhn shifts again, this time leaning forward.
"We can start over, if you want." Kuhn's cheer sounds forced. All of a sudden, he lifts one of Snape's hands – knotted into the blanket – and begins shaking it up and down. "Hello, my name is Adrian Kuhn, and –"
Snape sneers. "This is stupid."
"Don't you believe in second chances, Snape?"
Snape pulls back his hand, unwillingly reminded of red hair, leaf-green eyes. His throat feels thick. It would be inconsequential of me if I didn't, he thinks. And yet, to Kuhn he says, "I have to think about it."
Disappointed, Kuhn becomes rigidly still. In the ponderous silence that follows, Snape begins to regret his own words.
"Just this once, Kuhn," says Snape, turning over onto his side, burrowing his nose into the pillow. "Do you understand?"
There is a moment of hesitation, and then Kuhn says, "I think so." He pats Snape's hand, still clenched within the blanket, and squeezes.
Snape shuts his eyes tight.
"Thanks," says Kuhn, voice still soft. Snape waits, and finally hears the reluctant squeak of the mattress as Kuhn's weight leaves it.
Snape curls his legs together, up and away from the new absence.
Snape trudges into the Potions classroom in yesterday's robes, his hair clumped together and draped in smelly strings across his face. He glances blearily at the Gryffindors, noticing Lupin's continued absence from their ranks (he had not been in class yesterday either). Lily is packing out her things with slender hands, her cheeks slightly pink and her eyes trained fixedly on her task. Beside her, Potter leans against the desk, eyes hooded behind round metal glasses, mouth curved into a vaguely cruel smile. His smile becomes a sneer as he notices Snape.
"Don't stare at him. You're only making it worse," hisses Kuhn from behind.
Snape only woke up ten minutes ago. Kuhn had pulled apart the curtains of his bed, snapping something about his sleeping habits. For a moment, Snape had been so disoriented to see Kuhn that he'd thought he was in the middle of a dream. Then he'd remembered how Kuhn had sat on his bed, asking for pardon.
Snape may have pardoned Kuhn – in a very provisional sense – but that doesn't mean he isn't annoyed with him. He scowls before pulling out a desk chair and moving it a few inches away from Kuhn's.
"I am not staring," he declares once seated.
"Not anymore, perhaps." Kuhn sounds irritated as he digs into his satchel and begins unpacking parchment and quill, protective goggles and gloves.
Snape narrows his eyes and juts out his chin, his lips a disapproving line. He makes no effort to unpack anything, merely opening Advanced Potions Making to the chapter on elective affinities and pulling out his folded essay from between the pages. Legs stretched out before him, he then crosses his arms and sits back, unconsciously fixing his gaze on the rear of Narcissa's shimmering white-blonde head.
Kuhn begins setting up his cauldron, loud and incompetent. Scowling at the noise, Snape gathers up his stiff limbs and manages to arrange his own cauldron in half the time it has taken Kuhn to simply crank up his tripod.
At some point in time, around the time when Snape had just been about to nod off, Slughorn chooses to make his entrance. He spouts good morning welcomes that wash over Snape like background noise. Trying to keep his eyes open is more strenuous an activity than it might seem . . .
" . . . essays to the front, please," says Slughorn. Snape starts as his essay suddenly sprouts a pair of wings and begins flattering up to a basket on Slughorn's desk.
He is proud of this particular essay, he remembers. The scar-removing potion at the end is really rather beautiful . . . crystalline red and chlorophyll green . . . Snape sits up straight, blood rushing to his cheeks. Damn it – what if Slughorn realises whom those ingredients had been meant to signify? The more Snape thinks about it, the more he is convinced that he could not have been any more obvious about his admiration for Lily . . .
Snape is so caught up in self-tirade that he misses Slughorn's introductory lecture, and therefore the day's assignment. By the time he realises what has happened, he is thoroughly frustrated, and ends up kicking the table leg.
" . . . given its complexity, I would suggest you work in pairs. There will be a prize for the best potion."
Scowling at the self-induced pain in his foot, Snape glances over at Kuhn, who has been taking copious notes. His copy of Advanced Potions Makingalready lies open to the day's assignment, apparently – Snape leans forward, pushing back the hair from his eyes – a Contumacy Concoction.
Snape drops his hand, freeing the greasy sheets of hair that keep his expression hidden from Slughorn, and sneers.
At the front of the classroom, Slughorn is pulling two gleaming bottles from the pocket of his tweed waistcoat. They contain a viscous potion with a phosphorescent green tinge. There are many potions of the type; Snape mentally runs through a list of the most likely candidates –
"I rather doubt that any of you recognise this particular potion," says Slughorn, licking his plump lips. "Those of you aiming for a high score your NEWT exams ought to make a note of it, however. The Ministry may not allow me to teach you how to brew this, but they'll have no qualms about testing you on its properties."
At this pronouncement, Lily sits up straight in her chair, tucking a loose strand of red hair back into her – for safety reasons – tightly knotted bun. Kuhn also begins paying greater attention, craning his neck forward in order to get a better look at the phosphorescent bottles.
Even Potter has dropped his mask of boredom, for once. "Why aren't you allowed to teach us to brew it, sir?"
"It has hallucinogenic properties," says Slughorn briskly.
Potter exchanges a wicked grin with Black.
"Now, Mr Potter, Mr Black, I hope that you aren't getting any ideas," says Slughorn in a tone that is only barely admonishing. The old fraud is almost smiling, damn him. "This potion is much too important to be used as a mere drug –"
"What's it do, then?" calls Black, curiosity burning in his dark eyes.
Slughorn's eyes actually twinkle. "What would you say, Mr Black, when I told you that this potion has the ability to bend certain laws of matter? To overcome them, so to speak?"
Lily lets out an involuntary gasp. Snape curls a lip – she had never used to be such a know-it-all, such a Gryffindor.
"What's so special about that?" says Black, looking annoyed that he hasn't leapt to the same conclusion as Lily.
Slughorn chuckles. "Very good, Mr Black, very good. Let's see – you're thinking that magic, by its very definition, is not subject to the natural order of things."
You idiot, thinks Snape before he is distracted by a faint, rustling sound. He glances around the classroom and realises that Lestrange and Narcissa have their heads together and are muttering discontentedly.
Up until now, Snape has been more asleep than not. Seeing Lestrange and Narcissa's obvious displeasure, however, makes him feel apprehensive, which in turn makes him hyperaware of his surroundings. Feeling fully awake, Snape sends a silent eavesdropping spell (of his own invention) in the direction of Narcissa's shimmering head.
" . . . Slughorn an empiricist. . ."
"Now, now, Cissy, he's merely espousing the standard Ministry position . . ."
"But a Slytherin . . ."
The man in question turns from Black to frown at them. Instantly, Narcissa pulls away from Lestrange, a hand going to her hair as if to pat it down. Snape can only see a sliver of her profile, but he can imagine the rest: Her expression is haughty and accusing, as though Slughorn were the one whispering in class.
Still frowning, Slughorn turns back to the Gryffindors. "Well, Mr Black, that view is not entirely correct. Magic is bound by natural laws. Little corpuscles of energy are transmitted from our wands into the space and time around us, changing them according to laws that are just as natural as those governing the non-magical world." Slughorn peers down his flat, piggish nose. "Potions wouldn't make any sense otherwise, you see. We would never have to measure temperature if we didn't have to worry that the potion we were brewing would suddenly turn into a gas or freeze into a solid according to the natural laws. Does that make sense, my boy?"
Black is as haughty as his cousin, his countenance betraying a supreme, yet elegant boredom. "As much as it ever will," he drawls.
Narcissa is looking at Black with something almost approaching approval. As if sensing her approbation, Black's eyes flicker to hers, darkening for a moment before he turns his face away.
"Good, good." There is a slight edge to Slughorn's tone, the only indication that he has also noticed the subtle exchange between the Blacks. "Now, after all that I've said, can any of you guess what it might be that makes this particular potion so special? Why yes, my dear."
Lily's expression is absent. Her green eyes blink like traffic lights, signalling which trains of thought should proceed and which should come to a halt. Before speaking, she tilts her head as if weighing two hypotheses against each other. "Does the potion suspend the phases of matter?"
Snape closes his eyes, her voice – tentative, low – reverberating in his mind.
"Excellent! Quite brilliant! Five points to Gryffindor." Snape opens his eyes to see that Slughorn's face has turned red from beaming. "I can see that the rest of you have not quite caught on the same way as Miss Evans has. However, the matter is rather easy to understand, rather elementary in fact. You all are aware that matter can exist in a variety of states – solid, liquid, gas. In certain branches of magic, however, we sometimes have need of a state that is neither solid, liquid nor gas, but rather all three at once – or in other words, none of them in particular. Many of the most powerful potions require this special property, a property that bends the rules of both space and time, in order to function.
"Due to the complexity of the brewing process, and the aforementioned hallucinogenic effects, this potion was – rightfully or not – removed from the Hogwarts curriculum some sixty years ago. The NEWT testers are nonetheless rather fond of asking about it on your written exams." At Avery's groan, Slughorn makes a tutting sound. "Now I realise that this may not seem altogether fair, but you should remember that they haven't updated their questions in over a hundred years. As for the kinds of questions you'll be asked, you should make sure to be versed in the potion's various names. It has several different names in every language, you see – in English, for example, we commonly refer to the potion as the 'Shifter', although there are other names as well."
"Such as?" asks Lestrange, never one to do more research on his own than necessary.
"Ah, that discovery I'll leave up to you, my boy," says Slughorn with a maddening twinkle to his eye. "Now, as you all know, I don't believe in coddling –"
Snape snorts to himself.
"I think that many of you are ready to experiment with potions like this." Slughorn's gaze falls on Lily, who is watching him with rapt attention. "So, as possession of this potion by a student is not expressly forbidden, I've decided to award this sample to two of you. The pair that brews the best example of Contumacy Concoction – which, I warn you, is not a task to be taken lightly – shall win the two bottles as prize. I shall look forward to seeing what uses you put the Shifter to in your potions-making."
Snape glances at Lily. Her eyes are wide and (beautiful) gleaming and her mouth a determined line. Obviously, she intends on winning the potion. Looking away, Snape is startled to see that Kuhn staring at Slughorn with an expression almost identical to Lily's.
Kuhn turns to Snape, beseeching. "I need that potion."
Kuhn purses his lips, eyes becoming shifty. "My project," he says evasively.
"Lily is bound to win, you'll have the potions for your project that way."
"But I don't want her to win," insists Kuhn. "I want us to win."
Snape frowns, unsure what to think of that sentence. Kuhn is rather pushy, he thinks. "That is very unlikely."
"Oh, come on, you know we can do it."
"Well . . ." There is the fact that Slughorn actually likes Kuhn. And that Snape can rarely say no to a challenge. "The only way we would win, and I repeat, the chances are exceedingly slim, is if all the actual brewing were left to me –"
"Great. I'll bring you all the ingredients and help you with chopping and stuff."
Snape is nearly amused by Kuhn's immediate acquiescence. He is forced to remind himself that he and Kuhn are on different terms than they were before. "Fine, but don't get your hopes up. If, for some unfathomable reason, we dowin—"
But Slughorn chooses that moment to break in with the announcement, "Well, go on then – and good luck!"
Before Snape can say anything else, Kuhn has set off racing to the ingredients cabinet. Lily arrives there at nearly the same time, panting. The two of them begin a strange dance of avoiding each other while making a competition out of snatching up the best specimens.
Their movements, Snape realises with a kind of belated horror, are nearly identical. It is as though they had been programmed to make mirror gestures of one another. When Lily moves her arm, Kuhn does so as well, with exactly the same kind of inelegant tomboy rashness, the same kind of swift, darting –
Snape tears his gaze away from the odd scene, his cheeks abnormally hot. He is imagining things. Where is the recipe for Contumacy Concoction – page 625 – there. Snape can still feel the heat in his cheeks. Read, Snivellus, read . . . The potion is, obviously, an example of a complicated elective affinity – Snape is certain that the more intricate steps involved, the more contumacious the potion's effect – but it is not a particularly difficult potion to brew otherwise. That is, assuming one knows that dried nettles ought to be pulverised, not chopped – Snape scowls as he scrawls this correction into the margin. Also, Snape knows from experience that the tough outer skin of the crabfish is best opened with a silver knife, not the standard steel ones –
"All right," says a breathless voice, startling Snape out of his thoughts. He looks up to see Kuhn, cheeks flushed, eyes bright, setting out the twelve requisite ingredients on his side of the desk. "Nettles, check; one dead, disgusting crabfish, check; wasp's tails, check; hippogriff feathers –"
"Cut the hippogriff feathers into fifths," interrupts Snape, leaning forward to move the more sensitive ingredients, including the crabfish, over to his side. "When you're finished with that, pulverise the nettles. And I mean pulverise– the book is wrong when it says to chop them."
Kuhn takes this unorthodox instruction with surprising equanimity. Snape had expected at least a token protest. Instead, Kuhn immediately begins cutting the hippogriff feathers, all while wearing a rather irritating smile, as though he were secretly pleased about something.
"We haven't won anything yet," Snape warns, not thinking about the semi-pending status of their friendship.
"But we will," says Kuhn, green eyes brimming with a confidence that Snape does not understand.
Snape shakes his head and turns to his cauldron, spelling on the flame. It flares up in a blue, smelly gust – a smell that Snape loves. He begins removing the skin on the crabfish . . .
In the ensuing half-an-hour, Snape is careful to limit Kuhn's participation in the brewing process to the preparation of ingredients. Everything else – everything that could possibly be considered intellectually tasking – he leaves to himself. This division of labour turns out to be remarkably efficient: Kuhn not only manages to follow Snape's instructions, but he also does so with alacrity. Snape has never before seen such a finely pulverised gram of nettles . . .
It is therefore unsurprising that they reach the potion's resting state five minutes before Advanced Potions Making predicts they should.
Snape turns down the flame beneath the cauldron in order to let the potion simmer. He then casts a silent Muffliato around Kuhn and himself. Kuhn, sensing the web of magic around them, makes an approving noise.
Snape gives him a sidelong glance from behind his straggly hair. "If we do win," he says, his first real words of conversation since they began brewing, "then you may keep both bottles."
"Really?" says Kuhn excitedly. At Snape's disapproving look, he sobers and adds, "What do you want in return?"
"Better," Snape smirks. "In return, I want you to answer a question."
"What kind of question?"
"I haven't decided yet."
"Well, decide now."
"And where would be the fun in that?" asks Snape smoothly. "No. I won't tell you what the question is until after we've won."
Kuhn squints at him, rubbing at his forehead with stained fingers. "A few minutes ago, you were convinced that we'd lose. What's changed?"
"Inspiration," Snape drawls. "I've come up with a slight improvement on the recipe. We'll add a fistful of rue –"
Snape is so used to the gaps in Kuhn's knowledge by now that he doesn't even bother to sneer. "Rue is a horrible smelling herb, Kuhn, often used to keep insects away. Added to this particular potion, it will evince a series of complex changes that you are rather unlikely to understand."
"And waste my breath? Not a chance."
"Oh, come on."
Snape tucks several clumped-together strands of hair behind his ear, glaring all the while at Kuhn. "The rue, you pitiful excuse for a NEWT potions student, will set off an elective affinity, as you should well know. It will neutralise the nettle-crabfish bond, cause the nettles to bind with the wasps' tails and enter an affinity bond with the crabfish that will not only increase the strength of the potion, but also release a pleasant scent."
"How do you define pleasant?" asks Kuhn. Although he remained seemingly unbothered by Snape's insults, he looks slightly nervous now, as though he is afraid that Snape's idea of pleasant is bound to run to the gory and putrefied.
Snape bares his teeth in an almost smile. "Most people would say that pineapple has a pleasant scent, I believe."
Kuhn's eyes light up, as though he actually knows about Slughorn's pineapple obsession. Who could have told him – Narcissa? "Oh. Well, in that case, you should definitely do whatever it was you were planning to do."
Unimpressed, Snape crosses his arms over his chest. "Will you answer a question for me in return?"
"Just win us those potions, Severus – I'll do whatever you ask."
"That, I believe, would be somewhat more than what I originally asked for –"
"Snape, I'll answer your questions, every single one of them, but can we finish brewing the potion first?"
"Patience is a virtue," smirks Snape, turning back to the still-simmering potion. The resting period is nearly over, to judge from colour and viscosity . . .
"Bring me some rue, would you?" he asks, picking up a stirrer.
Snape's little addition to the recipe works wonders for their standing in Slughorn's eyes – that is, for Kuhn's standing in Slughorn's eyes. When, towards the end of the class period, Slughorn comes to test their (more than perfect) potion, he nearly weeps with delight.
"Do I detect – a hint of pineapple?" he cries. "Adrian, my boy, I'm speechless! May I assume that you used rue?"
Kuhn glances at Snape, who remains stiff and expressionless, then nods.
"Of course, Mr Snape, you helped as well, but I must say, this is no ordinary potion. No merely competent brewer could have produced this. This, my dear Adrian, is the fruit of unqualified genius." Slughorn does not appear to notice how Kuhn seems to shrink with each word of praise. Nor does he notice Snape's sneer, only partially hidden behind greasy black hair. "I'm sure you don't mind if I keep a sample for myself? Well, I think it's clear who today's winners are. Ten points to Slytherin, and do enjoy the Shifter, boys –"
Slughorn gives both phosphorescent bottles to Kuhn, then waddles away.
On the Gryffindor side of the room, Snape can see Lily, stone-faced, eyes directing a combined confusion and fury onto her cauldron. He quickly averts his gaze, turning it onto Kuhn instead.
Kuhn, who looks ridiculously miserable. Snape can't help but like him in that moment. Nor can he help but smirk at him. "Aren't you supposed to be happy?"
"You know I'm not," hisses Kuhn. "I mean, yeah, I'm glad to have the potion, but not like this."
"You'd better get used to it." Snape casts another surreptitious Muffliato and begins decanting the cooled-down potion into flasks. "Personally, I don't see what you're moping about. You got the potion, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but –"
"Cork this." Snape hands Kuhn a flask full of the potion, smiling wickedly. "You can bring Slughorn his personal sample."
Kuhn sets down the potion with a scowl. "You're enjoying this, aren't you."
"Unfeeling bastard," retorts Kuhn. "Aren't you the least bit upset about how he treated you?"
"Not one whit," Snape declares, surprised to find that this is true. He pauses significantly, allowing satisfaction to saturate his tone. "Besides, you can't have missed Slughorn's indirect acknowledgement of my genius."
Kuhn snorts. "Trust you to see an insult as a compliment."
"And you to take a compliment for an insult. Which tendency is worse, do you think?"
The corners of Kuhn's lips are twitching. "I guess we make a good team, huh?"
Snape gives him a quelling glare, even though he knows – even though both of them know – that it is a wasted gesture. "Cork this," he says, handing Kuhn another filled flask.
Their fingers briefly touch – and Kuhn nearly drops the flask. Despite this near mishap, Kuhn (suspiciously enough) begins smiling.
The expression is so contagious that Snape catches his own mouth partaking in the same questionable activity.
They file out of their desks in spirits unusually high, Avery, Narcissa and Lestrange close behind them. Avery, of course, tries to get close to Kuhn by showering him with compliments. Kuhn turns to Narcissa instead, whose eyes gleam as she takes in the rare and complex potion – "so beautiful." Lestrange exchanges a knowing glance with Snape, his pale eyes cold and sarcastic. The rush of sudden attention is so distracting that Snape, opening the classroom door, runs right into –
A flash of periwinkle blue, a glimpse of an ornate hem, and Snape is instantly red-faced with horror. He backs into Lestrange, eyes still trained on the floor, and mumbles. "My apologies, Headmaster."
"There is no need for an apology, Mr Snape," says Dumbledore calmly. "It is very difficult to avoid running into people who stand directly in front of doors. You might say, in fact, that it is I who ought to be apologising to you."
Confused, Snape enters the hallway, careful to keep a proper distance between Dumbledore and himself.
Instantly, Kuhn is at his side. "Hello, Professor Dumbledore," Kuhn says. Something in his voice makes Snape take a closer look at his face. There is a guarded expression there, an expression guarding equal mixtures of hope and concern.
Dumbledore's features, however, betray nothing but the mild concern of an elderly Headmaster for a new student. "Hello, Mr Kuhn. I trust that you have been settling in well?"
"Things are going brilliantly," says Kuhn, not quite relaxed, but making a point out of smiling at Narcissa and Lestrange. Both stand to the side, watching the exchange. Potter, Black and Lily also hover close, their expressions partly scowls, partly ones of naked curiosity.
"I am glad to hear it," says Dumbledore, peering down his half-moon spectacles at the two bottles in Kuhn's hands. "And I see that you won Professor Slughorn's competition. Very good, Mr Kuhn, very good."
"We won," corrects Kuhn, placing a hand on Snape's shoulder. "Severus is the potions genius, not me."
There is something inevitable about the way Dumbledore's blue eyes seek him out, as though they were connected to Snape by a magnet. Snape immediately, instinctively Occludes. "I don't doubt that for a moment," says Dumbledore, and perhaps Snape is only imagining it, but there is something condemnatory mixed in with his light tone of praise. "I must confess, it is because of the competition that I am here. I had hoped to catch the end of it, but my timing, as you can see, was unfortunately a bit off – a shame, for Potions were always my favourite subject as a boy . . ." Dumbledore's eyes, which have been roving across the various faces in the hallway, settle back on Snape. "Perhaps, Mr Snape, Mr Kuhn, you would care to accompany me to tea? I would be most interested in hearing the story of your success. It would, I am sure, provide a pleasant recompense for having missed the actual event."
Snape stares resentfully at the silvery beard, so long that it covers most of the metal, rune-engraved belt Dumbledore keeps around his waist. He is certain that Dumbledore is not really interested in swapping potions stories. Something else is at stake, and Snape has a bad feeling about it. If only he had a proper excuse and could get away! Doubtlessly Dumbledore knows that Snape has a free period now.
"If it would truly please you, Headmaster—"
"Oh, but my boy, it would."
Snape glances at Kuhn, whose expression is, frustratingly enough, completely unreadable. "Then I would be happy to oblige."
"As would I," says Kuhn, a strange smile on his face.
Dumbledore claps together his hands in a semblance of delight. "Capital! Thank you for humouring me, boys, I am sure I shall make it worth your while. Now," he begins moving towards the upper-levels, clearly expecting them to follow, "what shall I have the House Elves set out? Scones, perhaps? Or something savoury?"
Snape glances back over his shoulder at the still-gathered potions class. With the possible exception of Lestrange, whose eyes have narrowed to slits, none of the students seems to have sensed anything extraordinary about Dumbledore's request. In fact, as far as Snape can tell, many of them are jealous – Lily especially, who stares into space with pursed lips, her hands white from gripping Advanced Potions Making against her chest –
Dumbledore and Kuhn are already several paces ahead, chattering gaily about cucumber sandwiches and crumpets. Cursing beneath his breath, unable to suppress a sinking feeling of worry, Snape hurries to catch up.
As per usual, much of the material originally intended for this chapter has been swept into the next.
The empiricist/anti-empiricist debate is inspired by tartaucitron's wonderful "Look for me here" : http : / www . thebejeweledgreenbottle . com / 2008%20Winter%20Games/Team%20Phoenix/phoenix-tarteaucitron . html
Also, I am not certain whether this will be of any interest to anyone, but I have created a dreamwidth account (caecelia dot dreamwidth dot org) in order to keep you more informed about my progress and potentially debate issues from the story.