Harry prepares for his OWLs, and...
Harry hurtled down the steps to the dungeons, taking them two at a time. He had run all the way from Gryffindor Tower, and he had just over two minutes to get to the potions classroom. It hardly seemed fair having potions on a Saturday, but the fifth years were having practicals in preparation for their OWLS, and Snape wanted to test them each individually to prevent them from helping each other - and this had been said with a significant glare at Neville and Hermione. Harry, his name beginning with a P, had the rotten luck of falling right in the middle of the list, so while he had been excused double potions on Friday while A to H ran the gauntlet, he was stuck giving up Saturday quidditch practice along with the rest of I through P.
Hermione had done her practical yesterday, she being a G, but of course she wouldn't tell him or Ron what she had to make. "That would be like cheating," she'd said when they'd begged her repeatedly for even the tiniest hint. "And anyway, Professor Snape made us swear not to tell." She'd turned back to the arithmancy essay she was polishing up for Professor Vector. Sucking thoughtfully on her quill, she'd said almost absently, "So long as you've studied, you shouldn't have anything to worry about."
Harry, remembering how back in his fourth year Snape had once threatened to poison him in order to test his antidote, wasn't so sure.
Running headlong as he was, when Harry tripped over a slightly raised flagstone, he sprawled flat out.. Just in time, he flung his hands out to stop himself from smashing his nose into the cold, hard floor, but his glasses went skittering on a few feet ahead of him, and he skinned both hands and one knee pretty badly. Grimly, Harry picked himself up and dusted himself off, ignoring the sting in his palms. He reached for his glasses and settled them back on his face. He would have liked to go to Madame Pomfrey for some mercurochrome or something (God knew what germs bred in the dungeons. Aunt Petunia would die of shock to see the damp, mildewy walls), but knowing Snape, if Harry were late, he would take points.
He limped up to the potions classroom with roughly twenty seconds to spare, and Snape met him with an unpleasant smile. "Had a little accident, did we Potter?" he said nastily, and it occurred to Harry that Snape must have seen him trip. "Five points from Gryffindor for running in the halls." And with that, he turned on his heel, and swept into the classroom.
Harry gritted his teeth and followed.
A single work station was set out for him in front of Snape's desk. There were the usual brass scales, mortar and pestle, and a couple of sharp knives, as well as an array of ingredients. A rag lay on the workbench, too, as if someone had just cleaned up. Probably who ever came before Potter, H. J., Harry thought. "So. what am I making? Sir," Harry added belatedly catching the narrowing of Snape's eyes. Indeed, Snape was watching him intently.
"Look at the ingredients. Tell me what you're making."
Fine. If that was how it was going to be... Harry looked at the neatly labelled jars lined up on the workbench: ginger root, orange blossom water, belladonna berries (that was a new one), and charcoal, of all things. Harry frowned at the odd collection. "Belladonna is... poisonous, isn't it, sir?"
"Extremely. Is that an answer?"
"If it's poison, do I still have to test it when I'm done?" Harry asked, eyeing the empty pewter goblet that stood next to the small cauldron.
"Mister Potter, I shall poison you myself if you don't get started. The instructions are there beside you. It's not a potion we've covered in class, but if you can't make it, then you needn't bother taking your OWL. You might as well save your examiner the time it would take to fail you."
Harry bit his tongue on the answer he wanted to give. The instructions were indeed there, under the rag. It was slightly damp, but thankfully, it didn't seem to have smudged the ink. Harry pushed it aside, and began to read, ignoring the irritating warm tingle that started up in his skinned right hand. The potion looked fairly straight forward. It seemed to be an antidote of some sort, and there weren't too many steps to complete. As everything seemed to be mercifully pre-measured, he should be able to manage it.
Snape was watching him again, his dark gaze intense. A prickle of unease shivered up Harry's spine, and he rubbed his tingling hand on his jeans. He wished again that he could have gone to the hospital wing.
All right. First step: crush charcoal to fine powder. Harry took a lump of charcoal from its jar, and set it in the mortar. He started stabbing at it with the pestle until he saw Snape's raised eyebrow, and he remembered Hermione's constant admonishment, 'Not like that! Press and grind. Press and grind.' Hurriedly, he corrected his technique, and saw Snape mark something down on a parchment. Strike one, he guessed. This wasn't going very well. The annoying tingle in his hand quickly became an inconvenient numbness as he brought the pestle down again and again on the charcoal. Finally, when it was ground to his satisfaction, Harry read the next step. Place powdered charcoal in cloth. Strain orange blossom water through cloth into cauldron. Right. Harry cast about for a cloth, and reached for the rag. So it was a little damp. It should still do. He was going to pour water over it anyway.
"Not that one," Professor Snape said suddenly and quite sharply. Instead, he tossed a folded white cloth at Harry. Sullenly, Harry dumped the powdered charcoal into the cloth, wondering if that had counted as strike two. It was hardly fair, though, to expect him to make a potion without the necessary equipment.
Harry shook his hand vigorously to try to force some feeling back into his fingers. At least, he tried to shake it vigorously, but his arm suddenly felt like it was made of lead. "Problem, mister Potter?" Snape asked with that same intent look again.
Harry meant to say "No", but it came out "Nnuh...", so he shook his head instead. His chest hurt, and he felt sick to his stomach. Stress could do that to you, couldn't it? Harry couldn't remember having test anxiety before, but then being in a room alone with Snape would be enough to make anyone anxious. He just wanted to finish the potion and get out.
Harry poured the orange blossom water over the charcoal, cursing when some of it splashed onto the workbench. Not stopping to worry about it, he looked for the next step. Peel and slice ginger root. Drop into cauldron one slice at a time. Bring to a boil, then simmer for four minutes.
Harry set to peeling and slicing the root. His fingers wouldn't cooperate, and the slices were irregular. He hissed when he managed to slice his thumb. Apparently, he could still feel that. He stuck his thumb in his mouth, not caring when that met with a slight, tense frown from Snape, and used his other hand to drop the ginger slices one by one into the cauldron. The metallic taste of blood invaded his mouth and spread cross his tongue with a warm tingle.
Once the last slice was added, Harry poked his wand at the cauldron, and set it to boil on the little blue flames that sprouted up. Feeling absolutely wretched, Harry leaned his forehead against the workbench while he waited for the potion to come to a boil. His stomach roiled. That and the increasing pain in his chest left him panting. One more step. Just one more step, he thought. Crush the belladonna berries, add to the cauldron, and remove immediately from heat. Then he could go to the hospital wing. Perhaps something at breakfast hadn't agreed with him. Or perhaps he was allergic to something - one of the potions ingredients, maybe, or... or...
"Potter?" Snape had risen from his desk, and he was leaning toward the workbench, face tight. He actually sounded... concerned. Harry lifted his head, and met Professor Snape's worried gaze. His throat felt unbearably tight. Suddenly, it all clicked. "Yuh-you... poi... soned me," he slurred.
"What's the next step, Potter?" Snape asked firmly as if Harry hadn't spoken.
"You... achally... d-did i'. How'd you...?" The cloth. It had to have been soaked in something, and Snape had purposefully left it where Harry would be sure to touch it. That explained why he'd not wanted Harry to use it to strain the orange blossom water. It would have tainted the potion...
"What's the next step?" Snape's voice was like a whip crack to Harry's scattered mind, snapping it brutally back into focus.
"B-bella... donna," he said.
Harry fumbled for the belladonna berries. No few of them ended up on the floor, but over half of them he put into the mortar. He reached clumsily for the pestle, and he was dimly surprised when Snape's long-fingered hand closed over his, forcing him to mash the berries with quick, efficient strokes. The resulting red-purple mush was dumped unceremoniously into the cauldron.
It was Snape who removed the cauldron from the heat, Snape who ladled the antidote into the goblet through a fine mesh strainer. "Drink it, Potter," he ordered, thrusting the cup against Harry's lips.
Harry nearly choked. His numb throat didn't want to swallow the potion. It was faintly oily, and tasted strongly of ginger and something else that was sharply, shudderingly bitter. Snape massaged his throat with cool fingers until Harry swallowed the last of the potion. "Sit," Snape said, mannuvering Harry onto a stool. Harry was only too happy to oblige. Ever so slowly, the pain in his chest subsided, his nausea quieted, and the annoying prickle of returning sensation spread through his hands and fingers. He wondered if that meant he'd passed.
Snape knelt on the cold stone floor of the potions classroom before Harry Potter. "Look at me, Potter," he ordered. The Boy Who Lived opened cloudy green eyes to stare dully at him, but at least the disturbing pinprick pupils were returning to a normal size. He pressed two fingers under the boy's jaw to feel his pulse. It was satisfactorily steady.
"Up, Potter," he said, lifting the boy to his unsteady feet. "To the hospital wing." It was a long and uncomfortable walk with Snape half carrying Potter against his hip. What few students were about on a Saturday afternoon stopped and stared in the halls until he began to take points for loitering. Poppy, of course, made an immediate fuss. When he instructed her to keep Potter warm and rested, the mediwitch charmed the boy into a pair of unflattering red striped pyjamas, and tucked him in under no less than three quilts.
"Keep him here for the next seven to twelve hours," Snape ordered. "Don't let him argue. And give him plenty of warm fluids."
"But what has happened, Severus," Poppy asked, full of concern.
He declined to answer. Instead, he said, "If Potter complains of nausea, chest pain, or numbness, fetch me immediately . Do you understand?"
"Yes, of course, but..." But Poppy was forestalled.
At that moment, a calm, quiet voice called from the doorway of the hospital wing. "Severus, a word, if you please."
A sickening sinking feeling rose in Snape's stomach as if he had swallowed a stone. "Of course, Headmaster," he murmured.
Dumbledore drew him out into the hall. For the longest moment, he was silent, and that silence ate into Snape, tearing at him more than any tirade could have. At last, in a sad tone, Dumbledore said, "Tell me why you have done this, Severus."
Snape stared at his white-knuckled hands clenched in front of him, lank hair curtaining his downcast face, because he absolutely could not bear to look up and to see the aching disappointment in the Headmaster's eyes. "I didn't intend for him to be so strongly affected. I didn't expect him to ingest the poison directly. He cut his thumb. He put it in his mouth..."
"But was this really necessary, Severus?"
"He needed.... He needs to learn to work under pressure. If he can't rise to a challenge... If he can't brew a simple antidote when it's needed, then how can he stand against the Dark Lord? If he can't save himself, then how can he be expected to save the entire wizarding world?"
Snape nearly flinched when Dumbledore's warm hand fell on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "I know that there are... ill-feelings between the two of you. But Harry is young yet, Severus. He will learn... as you did. Perhaps... Perhaps he has learned a valuable lesson today after all. Certainly, one that he will not soon forget." The warm hand rested for just a moment longer. "But..."
Snape held his breath, waiting for the inevitable. He had expected it, perhaps from the moment that the Headmaster had offered him - a former Death Eater - a teaching position. And yet, faced with his impending dismissal, he felt sick. Not least because he had thrown away a second chance he scarce deserved from the only man who had ever had faith in him.
"... do try not to make a habit of it, won't you, Severus?"
Snape looked up sharply. The familiar twinkle was back in Dumbledore's astonishingly blue eyes. With a benign smile, he drew a little silver tin from one of his many hidden pockets. It rattled cheerfully. "Sherbet lemon?"