A SUPPORT JOB

 

by W.M. Achrya

 

Introducing an adult education class at Hogwarts was a dunderhead idea.

It was also Headmaster Dumbledore’s idea, so a mere potions master had very little argument against it, Snape thought wryly.

And there was some merit to giving adult “wild” wizards and witches a chance at education, letting them learn to control their powers and not just have random weird things happen to them.

Only, why Hogwarts, of all places, had to do the job, was beyond Snape. Something to do with the meddling old geezer always wanting to make a difference if he had the means, the potions master suspected.

 

Snape had to admit, though, Dumbledore did pull his weight.

The adult students were exempt from House discipline. Instead, they were assigned individual mentors from among the House heads. Although not a head of a House himself, the headmaster was mentoring as many adult students as anyone else, taking on the ones everyone thought should not have been admitted in the first place.

 

The problem was, the students were of legal age, had finished school a considerable time ago, and most of them had held jobs. They did not test limits, like the young Hogwarts pupils, but were used to personal freedom and chafed at discipline. When entering Hogwarts, they had to sign a contract to follow some given rules of behaviour and to submit to certain disciplinary measures. One of these measures was detention. Of course, having thirty-year-olds write lines was rather pointless, and it was crucial to devise detention tasks related to the rule transgression.

 

Handing out detention slips was the final point on the agenda of Professor Snape’s weekly mentor group meeting.

“Thomas Leander: eight p.m. tonight, the kitchen.”

“Graziella Rissi and Sunil Desai: eight a.m. tomorrow Saturday, the greenhouses.”

“Pyotr Kushkin: seven a.m. tomorrow and Sunday, the magical creatures stables.”

“Cordelia Etchart: nine-thirty a.m. tomorrow Saturday, my office.”

 

“Professor?” Cordelia said firmly, raising her large dark eyes to Snape’s face.

“Is there a problem, Ms. Etchart?”

“Yes, Professor. I have a portkey to visit home over the weekend.”

“Your portkey, Ms. Etchart, is cancelled. Was there anything else?”

“But... but you can’t do that!” Cordelia’s alto voice was rather less firm now.

“You are mistaken, Ms. Etchart. I can, and I have. Remember your contract with Hogwarts.”

“Well, all right, but why?”

“Think again, Ms. Etchart.” Snape’s low, icy tone had a far greater impact than any amount of shrieking histrionics. “We have a policy of not disclosing the nature of adult students’ offences in the presence of their peers. Would you really like me to explain here and now?”

Cordelia had honestly no idea what the problem was, but she had to agree that she preferred not to have it discussed in front of her entire mentor group.

“No, Professor,” she murmured reluctantly.

“You will find out tomorrow at nine-thirty,” the potions master said.

In a louder voice, he addressed the whole group:

“Any further questions?”

As none were forthcoming, he concluded:

“Class dismissed.”

He collected his notes and, with his usual billow of black robes, left the room.

 

“What on earth have you done, Cordelia?” asked Graziella.

She and Sunil knew perfectly well what their own trouble consisted in. Kissing and groping behind Greenhouse number two was no disciplinary issue for a couple of consenting adults, but they had happened to trample some young plants of euphorbia euphorica, causing them to shoot their explosive seeds at any human within reach. The seeds caused attacks of violent and debilitating mirth in anyone they hit. The couple’s detention would be spent habituating the plants to human presence again so that they could be approached closer than seven feet without sending a person into laughter convulsions.

“No clue whatsoever,” Cordelia muttered darkly. “And Snape, of all people. I actually like the old bat’s classes. Potions are so much more... I don’t know... real, tangible, than all that wands and incantations stuff.”

“I’m really sorry,” Graziella sounded and was sincere. “Your portkey cancelled, and everything. Did you have special plans for the weekend?”

“Oh, not that kind of special,” Cordelia said. “Just some improvements to my web site. I have some very nice new photos and was looking forward to publishing them.”

“Yeah, sometimes I think they can take their magic and stuff it. If they can’t even get computers to work in this place...”

“You know the rigmarole. High concentrations of magical energy being incompatible with electricity.”

“Right. Well. Whatever. I just hope he isn’t out to... you know. Molest you, or something.”

“Snape? Hm...” Cordelia decided to turn her mixed emotions into a joke.

“Are you sure I’d call it molestation?” she said with a mock-lewd leer.

Graziella shook her head, grinning. “No accounting for tastes, I guess,” she said.

They hurried out of the classroom to drop off their books before dinner.

 

Later that evening Cordelia lay musing over her detention in particular, and the potions master in general. She could not imagine him, of all people, slapping her with a detention for an opportunity to pull up her robes and ravage her on his desk. She considered herself attractive, and, for all she knew, passion might be lurking behind Snape’s armour of black wool, high collars and rows of buttons, but as his student she was strictly out of bounds. The professor’s legendary unbending discipline was not just something he put on with his teaching robes – it was an integral part of his personality. He would demand nothing of anyone that he was not prepared to submit to himself; the adult class understood this and respected him for it.

Cordelia started making an inventory of everything she had done the previous week that might be considered a breech of school discipline. She could think of nothing that would warrant a detention and loss of portkey privileges. She started again, going back to the previous weekend. Still nothing. In the middle of her third inventory she fell asleep.

 

--- --- ---

 

“Who is Alex Richmond?”

“What?”

“Are you hard of hearing, Ms. Etchart?” the potions master sneered.

“No, Professor, I just can’t see why...”

“I asked you a fairly simple question, nothing very personal or threatening. Kindly answer me. Who is Alex Richmond?”

The first words exchanged between Cordelia and Snape at the beginning of her detention did nothing to resolve her confusion. Why on earth would Snape want to know about...?

“A well-known actor, Professor. In Muggle moving pictures, mostly.”

“Would you consider him good-looking? Physically attractive?”

Cordelia saw no reason for secrecy.

“Yes, Professor, very much so. In fact, lots of women find him extremely attractive.”

She did wish, though, that he would get to the point.

“Does Mr. Richmond have anything to do with my detention?” she asked with just a hint of mockery in her voice.

“Yes, in fact,” Snape answered with a perfectly straight face.

Cordelia could barely contain her giggles.

“I suppose you’ll tell me next that he asked you to punish me, Professor.”

“Not quite, Ms. Etchart. I’ve received complaints concerning you and him from a third party.”

“What do you mean? I’ve never met the man.”

“You do consider yourself what is known as a fan, Ms. Etchart?”

“Well... yes.”

What on earth was he driving at, she thought.

“You own and maintain an Internet web site dedicated to him.”

“Yes, Professor. I wasn’t aware that it was against Hogwarts rules!”

Her tone was decidedly sharp, and her dark eyes flashed against his cold obsidian stare.

He let it pass, and went on calmly: “Not as such. But you seem to be sabotaging Muggle work discipline.”

She said nothing, but he read her questioning look.

“A friend of mine, a healer, runs a clinic in Denmark, and directs a research project at one of their universities. Over the past months, their clerical staff has been less than focused on the job. It seems that they surf the Web to your site during working hours, and drool over the pictures that you provide. Surely you understand that this is a problem, Ms. Etchart.”

“A problem, yes,” she said. “But what makes it my problem? All those pictures are publicly accessible elsewhere, so why should I be punished for it?”

“Don’t be naive, Ms. Etchart. You know very well that your web site is unique. You obviously have a flair for unearthing particularly attractive pictures, and a talent for enhancing them to perfect quality.”

Cordelia sighed. She would have to take her medicine, but not without finding out just how bitter it was going to taste.

“Professor, about my punishment...”

“Yes, Ms. Etchart?”

“Does it involve closing down my web site?”

Snape’s eyes caught hers and held them.

“Your detention task will not be finished in one session. As long as you persist in maintaining your web site, you will return once a week.”

“On weekends?” she found it difficult not to show herself worried.

“Not necessarily,” the professor replied slowly. “The schedule may be... negotiable.”

“So,” Cordelia was getting impatient in earnest. “What is my detention task?”

“You will teach me, Ms. Etchart,” Snape said. “About computers. And about the Internet.”

 

--- --- ---

 

The computer was rather impressive. Not an absolutely top-notch model, but a reliable work horse with an easily maintained system, ample memory and a sizeable screen. Exactly what Cordelia would have recommended for this particular purpose, she thought. But...

“Professor,” she said.

“Yes, Ms. Etchart?”

“Electricity isn’t supposed to work in a highly magical environment.”

“Quite right, Ms. Etchart. Try your wand.”

She drew her wand and swept it about in a testing motion. Nothing. Not a spark from its tip, not the slightest tingle of magical energy.

“That’s why we are on the highest storey of a tower,” Snape went on. “This room is relatively easy to isolate from magic. It’s a strictly Muggle environment. Even many spells that work in Muggle Britain fail here.”

 

Her eyes widened at the accomplishment. The magic-non-magic border line was a subject that fascinated her and she had studied it considerably more than her curriculum demanded. As far as she knew, the greatest authorities disagreed on the theoretical possibility of shielding a specific place from magic. And Professor Snape not only claimed to have resolved the theoretical issue, but also made the technology work.

She pressed the switch on the screen, and another one on the computer. The screen lit up and the hard drive purred into action. The computer began initialising its system. Cordelia could not help grinning at her professor in open admiration.

His lips only twitched slightly in response, and his face resumed its usual neutral mode.

 

“While we wait...” he began.

Cordelia raised one eyebrow in an involuntary Snape impersonation.

“What was so funny a while ago?” he went on.

“When?” she asked.

“When you mentioned the possibility of your Mr. Richmond asking me to punish you.”

This time an unquenchable giggle escaped her.

“Well, he plays you,” she fought to resume a straight face.

“How, ‘he plays me’?”

“In the Muggle Harry Potter movies.”

Snape’s confusion was unmistakably genuine.

“The wizarding war is a legend in the Muggle world,” Cordelia explained. “There is a series of books and films about it. They believe it’s fiction.”

“So there are actors impersonating Potter, Weasley, Granger, Malfoy and the rest of them?”

“Yes. And Professor Dumbledore, Hagrid, even You-Know-Who. Everyone.”

“And this Richmond person is supposed to be Professor Snape.”

“Well, yes.”

Snape took a deep breath, as if about to dive into very cold water.

“Any likeness?” he asked.

“The voice, for one, would fool me. If you’re thinking of physical appearance, in costume and makeup the likeness is rather good,” Cordelia admitted.

“Makeup?”

“Those people aren’t wizards. They use physical means to change a person’s appearance. A wig for different hair; contact lenses to change the eye colour; face paint for colouring and shading, that sort of thing.”

“And without?”

“The bone structure is there...” she observed the potions master’s face, wondering that he bore her scrutiny with perfect calm. “His eyes are much lighter... hazel, I think. And, of course, there’s the hair.”

“Different?”

“Very different. Here, let me show you.”

 

Cordelia rummaged in her personal folder, where she always kept a few choice pictures of Alex Richmond among her study papers. She found one from a red-carpet occasion, the British premiere of one of his latest films. She looked at it and swallowed hard. The actor was facing the photographers with a sardonic, lopsided grin, as if the joke was on them and they did not realise it. His hair was mostly grey these days, he wore it at about collar length, brushed back from his distinctive profile. There was much about his face that Cordelia liked, but she thought in particular that he had a hairline to die for.

“Here, this is a fairly recent one,” she handed the photo to Snape.

He looked at it for a moment, then raised his eyes to Cordelia, and lowered them again to the picture.

Then he looked at her again, and said slowly:

“Are you making fun of me, Ms. Etchart?”

“No, Professor, absolutely not.”

“This man has spotty skin, mousey hair, asymmetric features, mottled red cheeks like some Yorkshire farmer. In fact he’s quite ugly,” the potions master commented dryly.

“I know for a fact that several thousand women disagree with you, Professor,” Cordelia matched the tone of her voice to his.

“To the point of neglecting their work?”

“Some of them to the point of spending hundreds of pounds for a chance to shake his hand and have their picture taken with him. But then, to be honest, his voice has something to do with it too.”

“His voice?”

“Oh, yes. Everybody says they’d be fascinated even if he was reading the phone book to them.”

Snape spent another few moments staring at the photograph before returning it to Cordelia.

“Hm... interesting,” was his only comment.

 

“The computer is working just fine,” Cordelia returned to her detention task. “So far, so good. But how are you going to access the Web? I assume that you don’t have a cable modem.”

“I’ve been told that this doesn’t require a cable,” said the professor, pointing to a cardboard box on the desk.

Cordelia looked at it and shook her head incredulously. Yes, you could use a mobile phone for an Internet connection. It was just about the only solution that might work here, but also an outrageously expensive one.

“Do you know what this will cost you?”

“Yes. I have some money, few vices, and no heirs. Indulging my curiosity is a way as good as any to cheat the Ministry’s Inheritance Fund.”

“All right. Let me find out if this area has mobile coverage, and if it does, I’ll set up the connection.”

“Thank you, Ms. Etchart. I knew I could rely on your expertise. Your detention is not proving too burdensome, I trust?”

There was a tone to his voice that could only be described as dry wit.

Cordelia decided to relax and to be completely honest.

“Not at all, Professor,” she grinned. “These are really cool toys.”

“Is there anything I should do or observe, as your student?” the professor asked.

“Not right now,” she answered. “I’ll have to play around with it for a while. When it’s up and running, I’ll show you some of the basics.”

Snape only nodded, and retired to a tall-backed armchair, where he settled down with a book.

 

--- --- ---

 

Strangely, the connection worked without a hitch. Cordelia decided to install some security updates before embarking on Snape’s first lesson. While she waited for the download and installation to complete, she stole a look at the potions master.

 

Snape had left the armchair and his book, and was standing in front of a mirror on the wall between two of the tall windows of the tower chamber. He looked at his reflection intently; then he stared out of the window as if remembering something. His gaze returned to the mirror, and he pulled the two curtains of stringy black hair away from his face. The effect was difficult to evaluate; his two raised arms made him look as if he was clutching at his head in despair.

Cordelia smiled to herself, rose from her chair, and went to stand close behind him. She nudged his hands out of the way, and braided her own fingers through his hair to draw it back.

He flinched a little, his neck and shoulders going stiff, but after a moment he exhaled and lowered his arms. He examined his face again; Cordelia rose to her toes to peer at the reflection in the mirror over his shoulder.

The effect was undeniably pleasant, she admitted. Oh, yes, another profile and hairline to die for. And neither was his hair the sticky, greasy mess that she had braced herself to touch. The stringy, rat-tail effect was caused by the quality of his hair, so fine that the strands slid together of their own accord.

 

Cordelia sensed no trace of personal neglect, and she inhaled a little deeper than she needed to.

There were the mineral and herbal tangs of potions ingredients, but she also discerned artisanal soap base with a hint of green tea and lemon grass. She could get used to enjoying that scent – which would be an unwise habit to acquire, she told herself.

Her eyes met the professor’s in the mirror, and a slight lift of one eyebrow queried her. Barely discernible, her answering nod signified approval.

 

Before anything could be said, a jarring impact struck the heavy oaken door. A muffled swearword could be heard from the other side, in what appeared to be a woman’s voice.

Then a whole series of impacts assaulted the door, some of them so strong as to light up spots on the inside of the door.

 

Snape swivelled to face the door, and motioned Cordelia out of the way. She scuttled over to the high-backed arm chair that he had vacated earlier and sat down, staring at him wide-eyed, occasionally glancing over at the door. Fear ran cold down her back and settled heavily in the pit of her stomach. No, the wizarding war was no fiction to entertain Muggle children. She had thought that Hogwarts was safe, but...

 

Further words from outside the door were audible enough.

“Come on, Snape, come out of there!”

Silence. Then the screeching went on:

“Blood traitor! Muggle lover! Holed up in a Muggle den!”

More silence, followed by more taunts:

“What are you doing in there, huh? Wanking, Snape? Pulling your useless prick that no-one else will touch? Shoving your worthless wand up your worthless Muggle-loving arse?!”

“How very elegant,” Snape called coolly out to her. “Always the accomplished lady, noble Bellatrix.”

 

Apart from his too-meticulously controlled speech, for all the reaction that the potions master displayed, the woman might as well be taunting a wax effigy.

“She got past my wards,” he murmured to himself. “That bitch is dangerous.”

Then he turned to Cordelia.

“Ms. Etchart, I am deeply sorry. I have caused you to be in danger, and there isn’t even time to explain.”

“Is it the war, You-Know-Who’s politics?”

“Yes.”

“Then I don’t want to know. She’s an enemy of yours and we need to get out of this. That’s good enough for me.”

His relief was unmistakable.

“Thank you, Ms. Etchart. But there is no ‘we’. You are a civilian and a student in my charge. I shall make certain that you are safe.”

“I could be useful,” said Cordelia. She would much rather be part of the action, she decided, than to cower in an armchair feeling her panic mount.

“Magic doesn’t work in here,” she went on. “I’m a brown belt in ju-jitsu. You and I could take her out together, if she can’t throw hexes.”

“You are a... what?”

“It’s a kind of unarmed combat. We do it for sport, like magical duelling clubs. Brown is the highest apprentice grade.”

“Too risky. There has to be something else that I can do. Just let me think.”

 

The silence on the other side of the door had lasted too long for the attacker’s liking.

“Snape, you can’t hide in there forever!”

“Too true,” the professor muttered to Cordelia.

“I have food out here,” the woman went on. “Your own food and drink. There’s wine. Bottles and bottles of it. And water. Nice, cool, splashy water. And you don’t even have a piss pot in there. Oh, all the water. Splash, splash. Can you hear it?”

She gave a cackling laugh at her own wit, and Snape flinched at the sound.

“You’ll have to come out,” the taunts continued. “I’ll get you, and then I’ll get the meddling old geezer too.”

 

The professor turned to one of the windows and stared out of it thoughtfully.

“Yes,” he murmured. “It should work. ”

He opened the window, reached out and flourished his wand. A glittering curve of sparks trailed from the tip. He repeated the gesture, closer to the window frame. Only a couple of inches from the wall did the wand lose its action.

The professor turned to face Cordelia.

“I intend to fly out and eliminate her,” he said simply.

“You’re mad. You’ll break your neck,” Cordelia objected. “Where’s your broom? And even if you had one, it wouldn’t work, you said so yourself, magic doesn’t work here.”

“I know the art of broom-less flight. In your own interest, don’t tell anyone. It’s generally held to be impossible, and no-one would believe you.”

“What?! ... but still, this is a non-magical room!”

“Magic works just outside the window. As soon as I step out, the spell will keep me airborne.”

“Are you sure?!”

“Reasonably.”

 

Cordelia paused for a very brief moment. Then she asked: “Could you carry me?”

“Physically, yes. I have no intention of doing so, though, and risking your life.”

“So you aren’t sure. But you intend to gamble your own life on it.”

“That’s different. I told you I was reasonably certain.”

“What am I supposed to do, then? Watch you break your neck on those rocks,” Cordelia gestured to the rocky slope outside the window, “and just sit here and wait for her to figure out a way of getting in here?”

“Well...”

“That lady out there doesn’t sound like nice company,” Cordelia went on heatedly, with an  edge of panic rising in her voice. “I don’t think I’d enjoy her kind of games. I’d rather take my chancewith you and the rocks, thank you.”

 

Snape scrutinised her face for a few moments. Yes, Cordelia was right. In fact, she did not realise how right she was, but he knew. He would not risk even a random person falling into Bellatrix’ clutches, let alone a student of his – let alone this particular student.

“Ms. Etchart, are you certain?” he asked one final time. “Is this what you want to do?”

“Yes, Professor,” her eyes locked with his. “I’m absolutely certain.”

 

Snape nodded, and took off his voluminous outer robes. The sight of his figure in a black tight fitting coat and trousers made Cordelia’s breath hitch, in spite of their serious predicament.

He looked over the robes, turning them this way and that, judging their dimensions. Then he picked up a small knife from the desk and proceeded to slash the sleeves of the robes into long, narrow strips.

“We may have to act quickly as soon as we land,” he said, “so I don’t want to incapacitate you by tying your legs. But I do want to secure your hands so that you can’t let go while we’re airborne.”

Cordelia nodded, and he rummaged in a drawer filled with odds and ends, bringing out a silk handkerchief and a length of thin rope.

 

The deranged-sounding woman in the outer room went on making noises involving threats to Snape and Dumbledore, but the potions master and Cordelia paid her barely any attention. The professor helped Cordelia to climb up onto the seat of the chair by the desk. Then he turned to face away from her.

“Your mount is ready, my lady,” he quipped. His joke shocked her, but it served its purpose to soothe her embarrassment and apprehension. In all honesty, Snape thought, he was himself not completely sanguine about such close contact with an attractive young woman – one who, into the bargain, had just decided to trust him with her life.

Cordelia had not ridden piggy-back in over twenty years, and the position felt slightly silly, but she appreciated the ease with which the tall, slim man carried her.

“Hold on tight with your legs,” he said matter-of-factly. “I won’t break. You’ll make things easier for me by keeping our centres of gravity close together.”

She crossed her wrists in front of his chest, and he tied them together with the silk handkerchief. Then he tied them again with the hempen rope.

Next, he picked up his robes, swept them about the two of them, and secured them in place with the strips cut from the sleeves.

“This spell calls for rather deep focus,” the professor explained. “Please, don’t scream, don’t talk, and try to breathe as deeply and calmly as you can.”

Cordelia was grateful for something to occupy her mind. She remembered her singing lessons a long time ago, and searched for her abdominal breathing. She felt the potion master’s rib cage expand and contract as he was drawing deep, focusing breaths, and tried to match her breathing to his. He noticed it, and murmured: “That’s good.”

 

Snape opened one of the tall, narrow windows, and stepped onto the low window sill.

“You may prefer to close your eyes,” he said quietly. Cordelia glanced down to the surrounding rocks, and decided to comply.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” he reminded her, and clasped her hand in his briefly. “Ready?”

“Ready, yes,” she murmured into the hair behind his ear.

His hand left hers, and she felt herself drop... and fall...

 

... and they were flying.

The flight was smooth, about the speed of a cantering horse. Cordelia opened her eyes and gasped in wonder at seeing the towers of Hogwarts from the perspective of its rooks and owls.

She reminded herself to keep silent. Tears were running down her cheeks, caused by the sharp wind or by the emotion, she neither knew nor cared. She clung to the potions master’s back, not from fear of falling, but from a need to share her exhilaration with him.

 

By necessity, the aerial excursion had to be brief. They could not risk being seen and identified, and they had an enemy to deal with. Snape tilted his flowing robes to circle back to the tower, and landed them securely in a window two storeys below the one that they had started from.

They found themselves on a spiral staircase, leading to the anteroom where they had left their attacker. They could hear her ranting, swearing and cackling upstairs, occasionally launching a pointless hex at the door of the non-magical chamber.

 

The professor disentangled them from the strips of his robe sleeves, allowed Cordelia to stand and untied her hands. Once more his dark, intense gaze scrutinised her.

“All right, Ms. Etchart?” he asked.

“Perfectly. That was wonderful,” she could not help gasping out with a beaming smile.

His lips curled a little.

Then he said, with his usual reserve: “Your mental control was... quite satisfactory.”

Cordelia gave a slight bow of her head at the compliment, and caught sight of an object lying on the stairs.

“Look! This is how she got here!”

It was a broom. Snape pointed his wand at it, muttered an incantation, and the twigs curled and frizzed, suddenly so dry that a breath might break them.

“Stay back,” he murmured to Cordelia, as he took a step up the stairs, his wand at the ready.

She drew her own wand and followed him at some distance.

 

Snape’s first hex only grazed Bellatrix’ robes, losing him the element of surprise. Now she had the advantage of high ground and used it like the seasoned duellist she was, her hexes rebounding purposefully down the staircase. Both Snape and Cordelia had trouble aiming properly up the stairs. Cordelia heard a sharp intake of breath from Snape, and she saw him stumble, rather than step, into the antechamber.

She mounted a few more steps.

The professor was crouching behind a heavy sideboard for cover, his free hand clutching at his ribs. He raised his wand again, shot off a hex at an awkward angle, and had to duck from Bellatrix’ retaliating spell.

 

Cordelia noticed that the two antagonists were both gathering new energy. A thought struck her.

A wand minus magic was just like a chopstick, an object that non-magical Asians sometimes used as a weapon. And Cordelia had some training in defence against it.

After the next exchange of hexes, she charged into the antechamber, straight at Bellatrix.

Keep moving, she reminded herself. Disarm her.

Bellatrix scraped up enough energy for one more hex that felt like a hard fist hitting Cordelia’s left shoulder.

She ignored it. She grabbed the skinny wild-haired woman’s hand and squeezed the fingers in a practiced grip to get her to release her wand. Bellatrix yelped with pain and anger, but was forced to drop the wand. Before she could claw at Cordelia’s face with her other hand, the student had twisted her arm behind her back, and was forcing her down onto the stone floor.

A spell from Snape’s wand immobilised and silenced the attacker.

The professor gave his student a slight but distinct bow.

“Excellent work, Ms. Etchart,” he said. “Was that some of your brown belt?”

Cordelia could only nod and smile, her head swimming and her chest heaving from the excitement.

“Let us return this,” Snape pointed with his boot at the dishevelled, unconscious woman on the floor, “to its proper place, and get some rest.”

 

In front of the fireplace in the Potion Master’s official study, Snape called the headmaster by floo.

“Albus, you may want to contact the Ministry,” he said.

“About what, Severus?”

“The Azkaban prison seems to have misplaced one of its inmates.”

“Someone we know?”

Snape brought the unconscious Bellatrix into Dumbledore’s field of vision.

“Found in Hogwarts’ grounds close to a broom, on which she had obviously flown in to make an attempt on your life.”

“Thank you for your vigilance, Severus,” said the headmaster. “We’ll let Filch keep an eye on her until the authorities pick her up. They have every reason to make it fast.”

“You should thank Ms. Etchart as well,” the professor added. “Her effort was material in capturing the criminal.”

“Ms. Etchart?”

Cordelia faced the headmaster’s image in the fire. “Yes, Headmaster?”

“Professor Snape is not known for frivolous praise,” there was a wry grin on Dumbledore’s face.

“An official commendation will be added to your academic record.”

Cordelia grinned back: “Thank you, Headmaster!”

 

--- --- ---

 

“You’re injured,” Snape stated to Cordelia. “I’ll see to it when I have treated my own wound. It’ll just take a moment.”

“There’s no need, Professor,” she said, squinting at her shoulder. “It’s just a cut, and it doesn’t even bleed much. It’ll take care of itself.”

“No, it won’t, Ms. Etchart. Bellatrix’ hexes are venomous. Unless I treat you with the antidote, you will lose your arm at best,” he said evenly. “Otherwise, you will last about a week, and you will wish that you had not.”

 

Cordelia paled. She had her share of experience with cuts and bruises, but never anything that would require professional treatment. Her wound was beginning to smart in earnest, and the thought of someone doing things to it made her queasy. She sat in a straight, high-backed wooden armchair, biting her lip, picking at the carved wood of the armrests with her fingernails, watching Snape as he moved about the room.

 

He raised the lid of a small metal-studded oaken chest on his desk, picked up a green glass vial and a slim clear dropper, and brought them over to a mirror on the wall. Cordelia watched his reflection as he unbuttoned his coat and his shirt to uncover the smooth, white skin over his ribs, marred by an angry-looking purplish cut. He pulled the cut-glass stopper out of the vial, immersed the dropper and brought out a small quantity of a greenish liquid. Controlling his work in the mirror, he released five drops of the liquid at regular intervals directly into the wound. At each drop his lips tightened slightly, but his hands moved smoothly and purposefully.

He put down the dropper, closed the vial, and held the cloth of his shirt away from the wound,  observing the effect of the treatment in the mirror. Finally he appeared satisfied with the outcome. He raised his wand and drew its point slowly along the edges of the wound. Again, Cordelia noticed a slight tighteningin his face, and he was drawing slow, determined breaths. The process terminated, there was onlya thin scar, quickly paling into invisibility, where the wound had been.

 

The potions master arranged his clothing, came over to where Cordelia was sitting, and spread a white linen napkin on the table next to her. He placed the green vial and his wand on the napkin, and went back to the oaken chest.

“Please, remove your robes, Ms. Etchart,” he said.

Cordelia complied, not without trouble. The injury was bothering her. It ran along the juncture of her arm and torso, as if the attacker had made a failed attempt to cut off her arm. It was the same purple colour as she had noticed on Severus, and thin purple strands were beginning to spread from it.

The potions master returned, carrying a white china bowl, an about pint-sized plastic bottle containing a clear liquid, a wad of gauze and some metal instruments. One of them turned out to be an ordinary pair of scissors.

“You are beginning to have trouble moving your arm,” the professor commented. “We’ll have to sacrifice your sleeve to get access to the injury. Sit, please.”

He motioned her to the tall armchair again, and sat down on a stool facing her. Quickly and deftly he cut off the sleeve of her blouse, completely uncovering the wound.

“The antidote is rather unpleasant,” he said. “Diluting it will make the treatment a little longer, but less painful.”

Cordelia swallowed hard, and watched him pour a small quantity of the colourless liquid into the bowl.

‘Normal saline solution,’ read the label on the bottle.

The potions master used the clear dropper to add a precise measure of the greenish liquid.

He picked up a piece of gauze in what looked like a cross between a pair of scissors and long-nosed pliers, and dipped it in the bowl.

“Lean back,” he said. “Hold still, please. It’s going to smart.”

He pressed down on her shoulder with his left hand and applied the wet gauze to the wound.

Cordelia’s eyes filled with tears no matter how hard she fought them, her torso contracted and twisted so as to dislodge the hand that pinned her against the back rest, and her injured arm struck out at him by reflex, while her right hand was still clutching at the chair.

“I know it’s painful,” he said gently. “But it’s necessary. Let’s try again.”

“I can’t,” she answered flatly. “You have to give me something for the pain.”

“Impossible,” explained the potions master. “The antidote is extremely reactive. Any potion or spell that might numb the pain would interfere with the active substance and render it ineffective.”

“I can’t do it,” her voice rose in panic. “I’m no fakir or war hero, for fuck’s sake. I was a secretary at a publishing house before coming to Hogwarts. I’m just a pen pusher, damn it!”

 

The potions master put down the forceps and cradled her face in his hands.

“You are far from being just a pen pusher. You’re a very resourceful and brave woman. Being sensitive to pain doesn’t make you a coward. You have to submit to something very unpleasant, but it will be over soon. I’m going to restrain you. It has to be done.”

He released her face, waiting for her reaction.

“You’re going to tie me down,” she whispered.

“Not necessarily. Stand up for a moment.”

Puzzled, she complied. The potions master took her place in the high-backed chair facing the mirror, touched the seat of the chair with his wand and beckoned to her.

“Turn around and sit down with your back to me,” he directed.

She did so, surprised that there was enough space for her in the chair.

Not without discomfort, but gently, he steered her afflicted arm behind her back.

“Now lean back against me,” he instructed her.

She complied, breathing raggedly, bracing herself for the ordeal.

“Focus on your breathing,” he murmured. His mouth was directly by her ear, and she could feel his breath.

“Take a few deep breaths,” he went on. “You are becoming calmer and more relaxed. Every time you exhale, you relax deeper and deeper.”

And she did. Her lower arm trapped between their bodies, her wound exposed and stretched uncomfortably, she felt his chest warm against her back, urging her to relax, his deep focusing breaths leading her to match her own breathing to them. She hardly perceived his words, but the gentle burr of his voice soothed and reassured her. She closed her eyes, so as not to follow his actions in the mirror, and let herself rest completely in the sound of his voice.

His left hand closed firmly about the bicep of her injured arm, and his right arm reached around her, enclosing her. He spoke a little more distinctly.

“There will be some pain now. You will make your way through it and emerge on the other side, safe and unharmed. Scream, if you need to. It may help you breathe. Allow the pain. Let it happen. Focus on your breathing.”

It hurt. She found her breath matching his, let the tears run down her cheeks, tried to think only about drawing breath, again and again, while the pain went on and on. He spoke to her as he worked, his words a repetitive murmur, supporting, soothing.

Then she heard a muted thud of a metal instrument being put down on cloth, and his voice saying: “That’s it. The worst is over. You’ve been very brave.”

She twisted about and squinted at him.

“The worst?” she repeated. “Is there more?”

“You can rest for a while. The poison has been neutralised. I’ll heal the wound when you are ready.”

“And that will hurt?”

“Not as long or as badly as the antidote did.”

“All right. Get on with it.”

She leaned back against his chest and waited for him to pick up his wand.

The burning, searing sensation travelling along the wound was nasty, but, as he had promised, did not last long. He put down the wand and helped her to place her arm in a normal position again. She relaxed against his chest, savouring the feeling of comfort and safety. They sat in silence, resting.

 

After a time, she had no idea how long, she felt his arm move, and he murmured a spell.

A glass of water arrived in his hand and he directed it to her mouth. She drank thirstily, letting him handle the glass, which he did without a word, reading her signals like an experienced nurse.

“Thank you,” she said and straightened her back prior to standing up.

“You should have a look at the result, and move your arm to see if there’s any residual soreness,” the professor suggested.

Cordelia rose to her feet and went to the mirror. Her shoulder had just a hint of a scar, provided that she knew where to look for it. She stretched her arm towards the ceiling with no trouble at all. When she put on her student robes again, there was not even a memory of any stiffness or pain. The potions master was standing behind her, and she turned to face him.

“That’s amazing. I can’t feel a thing, it’s completely healed. You’re incredible!”

Snape gave a slight shake of his head.

“I’m sorry that I had to hurt you.”

“No, I’m the one who should apologise. I acted like a total wimp.”

“Absolutely not. Don’t compare your reactions to mine – I’ve become rather inured to pain, at some cost.”

His face was once again an unreadable mask, and the icy undercurrent had returned to his voice.

“Go and get some rest, Ms. Etchart, ” he added.

“If you don’t mind, Professor…” Cordelia began.

“Yes?”

“We’ve barely started on my detention task.”

“And?”

“I’d very much like to go on. I just need some food and coffee. So, if you are free later…”

“One-thirty in the non-magical room. The password is ‘Kailash’.”

“I’ll be there, Professor.”

“And, Ms. Etchart, you’re welcome to use the computer when my lesson is over. I seem to recall that you have a web site to maintain.”

 

 

THE END