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Salts and Trolls

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"I'm going to get a Troll," James said, his face in his hands. "I can feel it."

Severus looked up from the sea of important dates that he'd been trying to scribble into memory, all too aware that he'd been letting the conversation around him pass him by. "What?"

"Sirius heard," Peter said, filling in the details as always, "that it's set, the Potions practical."


"All distillation," James groaned. "Maybe even smelling salts."

"What?" Surely, Severus hadn't heard that right. "But that's—"

"An automatic Troll, for half our year," James finished, his tone heavy with disgust. "What is his problem?"

Smelling salts, Severus wanted to say, don't take even half an hour to check and finish. Instead, he asked, "Who?"

"Slughorn!" James' hands slid back onto the table with a thump. "I hate him." Peter, on the opposite side of their messy table in the library, only looked at Severus as if to say, 'help?'.

In a worse mood, Severus would have waded back into his own problem, choosing to brave the frighteningly large amount of history he seemed to have forgotten. There were few ways to tell James or Sirius you didn't care about their problems, and few times when you could get away with it, but Severus was good at keeping count.

This month, Severus reasoned, I can tell him to go sniff salts. That nearly put a smile on his face, and the unexpressed humor made his answer nicer than it might have been. "There's a book on distillation," he said, calmly, keeping his study scroll from closing up. "I found it really helpful."

"Did you?" James said, with a snort. "There I was, wondering if there was anything about potionmaking that you didn't already know," he went on, rolling his eyes. "What's the title?"

"Extraction for Everyone," Severus said, ignoring the barb. "It was our extra text last year."

"I don't remember seeing it on the list," James muttered, sitting back in his seat. "Hmph."

Your house elf reads the list, Severus wanted to say. He looked down at his History notes instead, scanning the messy paragraphs for where he'd left off.

"Well?" James nudged him, none too gently. "Where is it?"

"It's a first year Potions text," Severus explained, not taking an eye off his parchment. "Where do you think it is?"

James scraped his chair back. "Thought you had one on you."

"Think about it," Severus said, unable to resist. "Don't need it anymore, do I?"

"Showoff," James muttered, creaking to his feet. Severus didn't let himself look up until his footsteps had retreated.

Across the table, Peter sighed. "I knew I should've bought that last year," he muttered. "How'd you do it?"

"I read my school list," Severus said, shrugging. "And, you know, paid attention in class. Compared to some people," Mum, but that wasn't Peter's business, "Slughorn's not bad. He'll actually tell you what you need to know well in advance."

Peter nodded slowly. Hesitantly. Severus let his eyes drop down to his notes again, counting internally. Out of all the boys, Peter was the best at hearing what had been said. With Sirius, the same hesitation would have meant he hadn't been listening. With James, a pause like that would have meant he was about to ask again. Silence from Remus meant that he'd started off on a different train of thought.

From Peter, silence could mean anything.

"How do you do it?"

Severus fought to suppress the urge to roll his eyes. "Were you listening at all?" The idea of having to ask Peter this, Peter who listened to everyone, made Severus feel like hitting something. "I just said—"

"Not that," Peter said, quickly. "Nothing on distillation, or...that."

"What, then?" No longer angry, Severus looked up from the scroll. Something about Peter's odd expression held his attention. He wasn't fidgeting, either. He was almost shaking.

An eternity passed before Peter finally shook his head. "I'd have fetched the book for him," he said, in what was almost a whisper. "I'm here, aren't I? I helped track you down." He shrugged, limply. "I want to know how you do it."

All of Severus' old, hard instincts screamed, together: it's a trick. Severus found it disturbingly easy to set them aside and calm them down with evidence he now understood, evidence he now knew how to notice, how to gather. Across from him, Peter's sagging shoulders and and bitter expression made a passionate case for the smaller, less developed instinct that told Severus he wasn't playacting or performing.

Old habits died hard. Despite the evidence before him, a careful reply still felt like the right choice here to Severus. "What do you mean?"

"If I'd been you last year," Peter went on, doggedly, "they wouldn't have listened. But with you—"

"You were there," Severus bit out, dismissively. The old fear had risen in him, the one where the truce had already fallen apart, and he had missed it, and would pay. "Weren't you?"

"Yeah," Peter said, sitting back, crossing his arms. "Not that it mattered."

Severus stared at him, trying to form a question out of the many things he wanted to ask. "Why ask now?" The words came out hard, in a way that was uncomfortably familiar. "If you had a problem then—"

Under the table, Peter kicked him. "Did you find it?" he called, at the air behind Severus— James, Severus thought, because the only one Peter ever cut off his words for like that was James.

"I can always show you how," Severus finished lamely, hoping James hadn't heard anything. He probably thought they'd been talking about distillation the entire time, so Severus cleared his throat, and tried to add to that impression. "Just let me know when."

Thankfully, when James flopped down into the seat beside him, his expression wasn't even mildly curious. Nothing to worry about.

Peter, on the other hand, stared at him like he'd just made a promise.