FIC: "Experimental Potions" for camillo1978 Recipient:camillo1978 Author:featherxquill Title: Experimental Potions Rating: PG Pairings: Poppy Pomfrey/Severus Snape Word Count: 6000 Warnings/Content Information (Highlight to View): *A touch of hurt/comfort, potions geekery, failure to smut*. Summary: Two students are petrified and the mandrakes are months away from maturity. In the interim, Poppy and Severus work together, attempting to create an alternative draught to re-awaken them. Author's Notes: Many thanks to my wonderful beta, K, and to Beth for being an awesome Mod. Happy Beholder, Camillo!
Poppy Pomfrey was beginning to feel like the ringleader of a circus. In her hospital wing, there were now two petrified boys, a cat, and a ghost. Why not throw in an elephant and a trapeze? The former would be just as hygienic as having a cat in a sterile environment, and her skills with the latter were about equal to what she could do to care for a ghost: basically nothing.
But Poppy supposed this was no time for sarcasm. Petrified students were not a humorous matter.
Justin Finch-Fletchley’s face was twisted into a rictus of shock and fear, one arm half-raised in a defensive gesture and the other reaching for his wand. Poppy settled him onto the bed beside Creevey’s, then ran a series of diagnostic spells over his body. The results were exactly the same as the tests she had run on Creevey: he had no heartbeat, and he was not breathing. There was no response from the optic nerve, and he had no higher brain function, but there was activity deep within, so he was not dead. Muscles were not responding, cells were not replicating, but neither were they decaying. Like Creevey, his body seemed to be in a kind of stasis.
Poppy turned away. There was nothing she could do for him. She slipped her wand back into her robe, and found that her hands were shaking. Her steady, mediwitch hands were shaking.
She hated this, and she couldn’t continue to pretend it didn’t disturb her. Poppy could heal injuries and she could treat illness. Heaven forbid, she could even deal with death. Poppy had lost patients before, during the first war, mostly, and she could deal with it. She carried the burden of memory for every patient who had died in her care, but that was enough. Injuries could be mended, illness could be treated, death was to be coped with, but this limbo...
Poppy closed the curtains around her petrified patients. She would run tests on Nearly Headless Nick later, once she had found another Hogwarts ghost on which to run a control. Right now, she thought a cup of chamomile tea was in order.
She found Severus Snape waiting for her. He was standing by the door to her rest area, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that his back straightened slightly when he saw her, she might have thought he’d become a statue, too.
“Severus,” she greeted, offering what she hoped passed for a smile. “What can I do for you?”
“I’ve brought you another potion,” he said, slipping his hand into his robe and producing a small phial of clear liquid.
“Justin’s diagnostics are the same as Colin’s,” Poppy replied, pushing open the door to her station. “Why would it work now?” She wedged the door open with a piece of wood designed for the task, and Severus followed her inside. “Care for a cup of chamomile?” she asked.
Severus’ lip twitched in the barest hint of a smile. “I’ll pass.” He set the phial down on the table in the middle of the room. “I’ve made a few changes to this one,” he said.
“What kind of changes?” she asked, retrieving a mug and the tin of chamomile - her own blend — from the shelf. When Colin had first been petrified and they’d learned how long it would take the mandrakes to mature, Severus had attempted a version of the restorative draught that substituted mandrake root with wormwood. Wormwood was not as powerful a restorative as mandrake, but it was a versatile ingredient that strongly affected the spirit, and they had hoped it would be enough to counteract whatever curse had been placed on Colin. The attempt had failed, but Severus had obviously not been idle since.
“It’s a draught of my own design,” he said. “The primary ingredient is still wormwood, but I’ve added other restorative ingredients in such a way that I hope will make the wormwood stronger, as well as the potion as a whole.”
“You hope?” Poppy asked, lifting an eyebrow. She held the tin of tea in her hands but did not remove the lid.
Severus’ face was inscrutable. “I haven’t yet had the opportunity to test it.”
Of course he hadn’t. Who could test a potion designed to revive victims of petrification, apart from the victims themselves?
“So you want me,” Poppy said, “to administer an experimental draught to a pair of petrified children, when we have no idea what caused their condition, and when the alternative is simply waiting a few months for the mandrakes to mature so we can administer something we know is safe?”
“In which time,” Severus said, voice distinctly cool, “there could be more attacks, and someone may die. If we manage to revive them, one of them may be able to tell us who attacked him.”
Poppy sighed. “That’s as the case may be, Severus, but right now my responsibility is to the patients already in my care.”
“From what you said last time, you aren’t actually able to do anything to care for them at all.”
Poppy’s grip on the tin in her hands tightened. “No.”
“Then surely an attempt is warranted. The worst that can happen is nothing.”
“The worst that can happen,” Poppy corrected, in a voice more severe than she intended, “Is that it works so well that it revives them just long enough to kill them!”
Severus didn’t even blink at her tone. “Test it on Mrs Norris first, then,” he said, and his expression was so bland that Poppy coughed out a laugh.
“I don’t think Filch would appreciate that suggestion,” she said.
There was a silence between them, then. For several moments they stood there, Poppy still holding the tin of tea and Severus stiff-backed and too proud to give in. The potion on the table was elephant-sized. Eventually, Poppy set the tin down unopened. The metallic click of it against the wood seemed to break the stalemate, because Severus spoke again in the next moment.
“By my estimation,” he said, “this potion is still not as powerful as mandrake draught, so there is little danger of it reviving them only to overpower their hearts or nervous systems.”
Poppy considered. She did trust Severus’ intentions, and his potion-making abilities, for the most part. His skill with potions was intuitive and remarkable, and if anyone could create from scratch a draught that would re-awaken people who had been petrified by an unknown curse, it was him. The only concern that Poppy had was that Severus’ desire for his achievements to be recognised occasionally got in the way of more human concerns, like safety or consent.
But what about the other concerns? Severus was right about the possibility of more attacks, and the likelihood of a student death was disturbingly distinct. Even Poppy’s obligation to her current patients put her in a difficult position. Colin had already been petrified for more than a month, and had shown no signs of recovering on his own. The mandrakes would not be full-grown for another five months. Colin and Justin would miss Christmas, and most of their school year. Their Muggle parents would be beside themselves. If there was even a possibility of reviving them before next May, shouldn’t she be jumping on it?
“Take me through the ingredients,” she said. “And your process.” Poppy was not as adept at potion-making as Severus, but it was a part of her training. If she was going to administer this, she wanted to know exactly how it had been made.
Severus didn’t look happy about it, but he told her. A base of wormwood, decocted from boiling the fresh Artemisia absinthium flowers, Hawthorn berries to increase the muscular action of the heart, Eryngo root for strengthening the spirit. Prepared in a pewter cauldron over two days: the wormwood left overnight, then decanted, with the other ingredients added the following morning, boiled again and then rapidly cooled. When cold, it was decanted again, then filtered to make it as pure as possible.
“That’s always going to be the issue, isn’t it?” she murmured, nodding. “The purity of it.”
That was the beauty of mandrake draught. It was an extraordinarily simple potion, made with nothing but the roots, crushed and boiled with distilled water in a gold cauldron. Three clockwise stirs at 97 degrees and it was done. The most powerful known restorative, and so pure that it could be safely taken by the very young or elderly, and also by the sickest, frailest people on whom other treatments had failed. It had no known side effects. The downside, of course, was its short shelf life, and the very narrow window in which useful root could be harvested. So the biggest issue in creating a potion designed to mimic the effects of mandrake draught with less powerful ingredients was needing more of them, and the instability their magical properties added to the mix.
“I think you’ve done it well, though," she added. "It sounds stable. I’ll contact the boys’ parents for permission, and I’ll let you know the result.”
“It didn’t work.”
Poppy supposed a ‘hello’ on her part might have been polite, but she was too disappointed for niceties. Severus, having bid her enter his office with a disinterested sort of murmur, looked up at the sound of her voice. He held a quill with a feather as black as his robes, and had been scrawling notes into a leather bound journal. He didn’t seem to notice Poppy’s lack of greeting.
“That’s disappointing,” he said, setting the quill aside. “Did anything happen?”
“No,” Poppy answered. “I gave it to them last night and kept them under observation, but nothing.”
“Hm.” Severus laid the quill down and steepled his fingers under his nose, peering down over them and letting out a sigh.
“What could have done this?” Poppy wondered, her voice coming out in a whisper.
Severus sat in thought for several moments longer before he replied. “Any number of things, unfortunately. There are several curses that could be modified to cause what’s happened, and a number of poisons as well, though I’m sure we can rule those out since the ghost was attacked. Creatures, well...I can’t think of any that would be able to move around the castle unnoticed, but if it was a hybrid, Merlin knows. Not my area of expertise.”
He looked up at her, and his expression was thoughtful. Equal parts concern and resignation, Poppy thought.
“Back to the drawing board, I suppose,” he said.
Poppy didn’t know why so many of her colleagues found Severus disagreeable. With her, although reserved, he was insightful and usually polite. Perhaps it had something to do with the similarity of their fields of work, or perhaps it was that although Poppy had been matron during Severus’ school days, she had never been his teacher, and thus he felt he had less to prove to her. Perhaps he also remembered how furious she had been when, during his sixth year, he and James Potter had turned up in her doorway one full moon, beaten and bloody from fighting. She’d managed to get out of them the reason why, and then she’d had Sirius Black dragged out of the bed in which he had by then been peacefully sleeping. He had answered to both Minerva and Albus that night, and neither his month of detentions nor the reaction of his peers when all of Gryffindor’s points were taken away had been particularly enjoyable for him. Severus had not said anything then, nor had he ever mentioned that night since, but he didn’t seem like the type to forget. Whatever the reason, they got along well—well enough, Poppy hoped, that he wouldn’t take her next request too badly.
“If you’re going to be creating more experimental draughts for use on my patients,” she said, “I’d like to be a part of it.”
Severus’ expression hardened. “I’m perfectly capable-” he began, but Poppy cut him off.
“I know you are, Severus. I don’t doubt that for a moment. But they’re my patients, and I can’t do anything for them. I need to help, or I’m going to go mad.”
Severus peered at her, evaluating...her sincerity, perhaps, or maybe even what he knew of her competence. Eventually, he nodded. “Very well, then. I’ll see you down here after dinner.”
After dinner, Poppy arrived promptly. Evenings were a quiet time for her. Her daytime patients — the ones who came with various ailments because it was time for arithmancy or brooms — always found themselves miraculously healed half an hour before dinner, and her overnight guests were given sleeping potion after the evening meal. Poppy usually spent her evenings relaxing in her chambers or having a quiet drink with Minerva or Septima, but tonight she had been eager both to escape the presence of her petrified patients, and to prove to Severus that she would be helpful, and not hold him up by being tardy.
When she arrived, she found that Severus had enlarged his desk and spread books and scrolls across it. Some were open — the books to places marked with sticky note charms, and the scrolls held down with paperweights — and even more were stacked and waiting.
“I had some free time this afternoon,” he told her. “I've already begun.”
“I can see that,” Poppy replied, eyes feeling somewhat larger than normal. She moved a step closer to the desk, scanning the titles on the spines of the unopened books. A few were familiar, but most were more obscure tomes, more than likely from Severus’ own collection. A brief glance at the scrolls revealed many of them to be his own work; Severus’ scrawled, spiky handwriting was unmistakable. “What are we looking for, at this stage?” she asked.
“Anything related to the methods of increasing potion strength; obscure restorative ingredients and their compatibility with others; any potions or ingredients proven to have been effective in the treatment of paralysis or any condition similar to petrification. I’ve exhausted my own knowledge and the usual references, so we’ll have to dig a little deeper.”
“Right, then.” Poppy rubbed her hands together and felt something stirring inside her that was almost excitement. It would be a challenge, and challenges involving books, research and analytical thinking had always been Poppy’s favourite. She felt a little bit guilty for it, considering the patients in her ward, but she couldn’t help thinking that this could even be fun. What a hopeless Ravenclaw she was. She glanced at Severus, though, and saw a similar light in his eyes. Hopeless academics, then, the both of them.
Without another word, Severus swept around his desk and sat. Poppy followed his lead, settling herself in the chair opposite and tucking her legs into the extra space that enlarging the desk had provided. She found that Severus had laid out blank parchment, quill and ink for her, and began by writing the date at the top of the parchment. December 20. Then she pulled the closest book toward her and opened the cover.
“What have you found so far?”
Poppy looked up to find Severus watching her. She glanced down at the fob watch pinned to her blouse and realised they’d been at this for three hours. Merlin. There were notes on her parchment that she scarcely remembered making, and a pile of books beside her with notes poking out from between the pages.
“Hm. A number of things, apparently.” She’d written down a number of ingredients that seemed, in one way or another, to have restorative properties either alone or in combination, but there were a few things she had drawn stars beside because they were of special interest.
“This journal,” she plucked it from her pile, “makes reference to a potion brewed with avens, unicorn horn and ogre blood that was used to revive victims of a Sleeping Beauty curse.”
Snape’s eyebrows lifted. “That must be an old one,” he said.
“1786,” Poppy replied.
He nodded. “Of course. That one could be worth a try, but finding an ogre willing to give us a blood donation might be tricky.” Ogres had been granted Being status in 1811, and while they preferred to live away from wizards, they took their rights very seriously. Something to do with all those years of being chased out of villages and accused of eating children, most likely.
“And this one here talks about using Strengthening Solution to increase the strength of the potion, rather than the drinker.”
Severus grimaced. “I tried that. Salamander blood and wormwood turned out to be quite incompatible. On the plus side, I did have enough pomegranate juice left over to terrify my first years the next day. Half of them think I’m a vampire now.”
Poppy smiled, shaking her head. “This one,” she picked up a slim volume with a leather cover, “had a number of recipes involving snake venom. They could work...”
“Only you’re not comfortable suggesting an ingredient that sits in the grey area between light and dark magic,” Severus finished for her. He looked resigned, almost bored, rather like a student about to be lectured on why he shouldn’t do something.
Poppy arched an eyebrow at him. “I’m not objectively opposed to dark ingredients, Severus. They certainly have their benefits in some cases. Merlin knows that some diseases don’t play fair, and they should be combated with whatever ammunition we have. But there’s a difference between, say, a patient with aggressive wasting sickness agreeing to be treated with a course of snake venom potions, and using one on petrified schoolboys whose Muggle parents couldn’t possibly understand the risks well enough to consent. The truth is, we just don’t know what the effects of these potions are going to be on the soul, psyche and magic of any given individual, which is why they’re regarded as dark in the first place. Colin and Justin’s parents have given me blanket consent to make decisions about which experimental potions to use, but there are some decisions I’m not comfortable making. Would you be?”
Severus stared at her for several moments, eyes strangely intense. Then he shook his head, averting his gaze. “No,” he said, speaking to the parchment in front of him. “No, I suppose I wouldn’t be.”
“Parsley and fennel seeds,” said Poppy.
“Do I look like an old washerwoman with a herb garden?”
“Fennel is cleansing. It could help with the purification.”
“Make it yourself.”
“Dragon’s blood, pepper and ashwinder eggs,” said Severus.
“That would be a unique take on Pepper-Up potion. Quite the stimulant.”
“That’s what we need.”
“Except that any potion containing ashwinder eggs needs to be heated and taken orally to have any effect, and that does pose a few problems.”
“I think it’s time for a break,” Poppy said, when she’d read the same paragraph three times and taken in none of it.
“Hm?” Severus replied, barely looking up from where he was scrawling notes on his parchment.
“A break,” Poppy repeated. “I can’t even think straight. How on earth can you still be focused?”
Severus finished his sentence before he laid his quill down to peer at her. “I can tell you’ve never marked a stack of essays written by a bunch of dunderheads who can’t tell the difference between bubotuber puss and Bundimun secretion,” he said.
Poppy snorted. “And thank Merlin for that. I think it would drive me spare.”
Severus inclined his head. “There are days when I question my sanity. So perhaps you can see that reading things like this is no chore at all.”
“Still,” Poppy replied, “a short break never hurt anyone. I brought provisions.” She produced a heat-keeping flask from the space-charmed pocket of her robes. “Care for tea?”
Severus looked doubtful. “It’s not chamomile, is it?”
Poppy smiled. “No, it’s an oolong blend with a hint of ginger. You might like it.”
Severus considered, then nodded. Clearing a space amid the scrolls and books, he conjured two mugs for them. “You brew tea like a Muggle,” he said as Poppy unscrewed the flask and poured. “Everyone else simply conjures it up from the kitchens.” It was an observation rather than a criticism.
“I learned it from my mother,” Poppy replied. “When I was little, she always let me spoon the tea into the pot. Taught me all the rules for a perfect cup, too: start with cold water, always pre-warm the pot, heat the water to different temperatures for different teas. You can say many good things about the convenience of magic, but Muggles do make a better cup of tea.”
Severus picked up his mug once Poppy had finished pouring, taking a moment to breathe in the smell of the brew before taking a sip.
“Mm,” he agreed. “They do indeed.”
They brainstormed, then they brewed. As Severus said to her, potions was not a theoretical discipline but a practical one, and all the research in the world could not replace spending the afternoon in a lab, experimenting with ingredients. So they brewed. With classes broken up for the Christmas holidays, they had not only the small space off Severus’ storeroom but his entire classroom, so in the days leading up to Christmas, they had potions brewing on every desk.
Some, Poppy made herself from the notes she had made, and it was quite enjoyable to stir a cauldron again. Potion-making had always been something she was quite competent at, but it had been a long time since she’d made any of her own; she’d stopped about the time that Hogwarts had hired a young potions master who had been eager to prove himself and so had taken umbrage with the school matron wanting to brew her own Pepper-Up. Now, though, she found it quite enjoyable to be back on the horse, and she didn’t even mind when Severus came by and peered into her cauldron, occasionally suggesting improvements, but more often simply nodding.
The more complicated or potentially volatile experiments, Severus preferred to brew himself, but after a few days of watching her technique, he allowed her to assist him. Together, they chopped—or crushed, as he instructed her on a few occasions (If you use the flat of the knife, you’ll get more juice out of it, which will increase the potency.)—and when he was working on more delicate operations, she passed him the ingredients as needed. She was even able to teach him a few things (That charm you’re using on your hands is nowhere near adequate; if you splash that on yourself, it’ll eat right through. Give me your hands, I’ll show you the hospital grade protection charm.). By Christmas Eve, they had whittled down their long lists into much shorter ones, and agreed that they would continue their work on Boxing Day.
Christmas morning brought Filch shambling into her hospital wing with a brand new, brightly coloured cat bed. Poppy watched as he settled it on top of a cupboard and then lovingly transferred Mrs Norris’ prone form into it, but when he produced a brush and started whispering to her, she left him to it. It was a sad start to the day, but no one could fail to be cheered by the Hogwarts' Christmas feast — the Great Hall was decked out in festive splendour, and the elves, perhaps to make up for the recent troubled mood in the castle, produced an even more sumptuous feast than usual. Of course, Poppy spared a thought for Colin and Justin who were missing all this, and their families who were missing them, but all in all, the mood was cheerful. That night told a different story — Poppy up close and personal with her bathroom sink after swallowing a sobering potion, in order to deal with Hermione Granger having suddenly sprouted a tail (and what on earth the girl was doing sporting the effects of what was obviously a botched Polyjuice potion on Christmas night, Poppy wasn’t sure she wanted to know) — but the less said about that, the better.
The following morning, she found Severus already brewing.
“You’ve made an early start,” she said when she found him bent over a cauldron.
“This isn’t for them,” he replied. “It’s for me.”
“What-” she started to ask, but as she spoke, the cauldron let out a hiss of steam, and Severus laid his stirrer aside. A moment later, he was transferring its contents into a glass beaker, and Poppy recognised the bright blue of hangover potion. Severus hit the beaker with a cooling charm, then tipped his head back and swallowed the draught straight down. He shuddered, then shook himself.
“Ah, thank Merlin for that.” He rubbed at his temple as he set the beaker down. “Albus is difficult to say no to, but one always regrets it the next morning.”
“I wonder how many men have said that over the years,” quipped Poppy, and Severus snorted.
“You’re remarkably chipper for the morning after,” he said.
“I had to sober up last night. Student emergency.”
Severus grimaced sympathetically, no doubt fully aware of the violent effects of sobering potion. “Well,” he said, sweeping across the room to lift a small phial off his teaching desk, “I thought of something last night that might solve our conundrum.”
“What is it?” she asked, stepping toward him. Surely it wasn’t a potion. Not unless drinking with Albus turned one into a whiskey-soaked genius.
“Take a look.” He handed it to her. “See if you can figure it out.”
Poppy glanced at him. He seemed to regard her as a student of sorts, if the way he inspected her potions and presented her with tests was any indication. She supposed some people might find that attitude grating — especially in someone nearly fifteen years their junior — but Poppy didn’t really mind. She knew she would behave the same way if he were assisting her in the hospital wing, and she enjoyed having her mind stretched by an analytical challenge.
Poppy studied the liquid in the phial. At first glance, it appeared clear, with a viscosity similar to that of water. When she tilted it, though, the light refracted strangely through it, lending it an opalescent quality coloured in shades of red. What on earth? Was this some suggestion Albus had made, perhaps something extracted from dragon’s blood? But when would Severus have had time to prepare it?
Albus. Severus had been drinking with Albus, who shared his office with...
“Phoenix tears?” she asked, arching a curious eyebrow.
Severus’ lips curled up in approval. “Not a common ingredient in potions, given the rarity of tamed phoenixes, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about their powerful healing properties.”
“No,” Poppy agreed. “But how will you brew them?” In all her reading, Poppy hadn’t come across a single mention of phoenix tears being used in potions, and since Severus was only mentioning them now, she suspected he hadn’t either.
“Trial and error,” he said. “If we start with the basic wormwood draught and add these, that should make it almost as pure as mandrake draught.”
They got to work. Severus produced two small, gold cauldrons, and with a modification of the aguamenti charm that produced distilled water, filled them. Poppy worked with dried Artemisia absinthium flowers, and Severus with fresh, which he shredded with his fingers as Poppy set up their cauldrons to heat over gentle flames.
Trial and error. Poppy stirred the dried flowers with her finger, considering. She could make her potion the way Severus was planning to make his, by boiling the flowers, the way mandrake was prepared in its restorative draught. Severus’ previous experiments with the wormwood showed that made for a stable potion, but Poppy didn’t think the properties changed overmuch with drying. Certainly, fresh flowers were more potent, but that was about all. What truly affected wormwood was what it was brewed with, or how it was brewed, not the state it was in to begin with, so it made little sense to mirror Severus’ technique.
Asphodel in an infusion of wormwood — that was how one made Draught of the Living Death. The first step, at any rate, and it was the asphodel that dictated the behaviour of the wormwood in quieting the spirit. Perhaps adding phoenix tears to a similar infusion would help heal the spirit. Poppy conjured a mesh infuser basket for the purpose.
While she waited for her cauldron to boil, she crossed the room to consult Severus’ notes with regard to quantities. An infusion would probably require more-
“Bugger it!” Severus cursed, and Poppy turned as a hissing sound issued from his cauldron. It billowed forth a cloud of thick, white steam that completely enveloped his upper half. Poppy abandoned the notes and moved toward him, but before she’d taken three steps he was dispelling the steam with waves of his wand.
“Keep back,” he told her. “It’s not...” But he didn’t finish the sentence. Steam dissipating, he tucked his wand away, but he did not move. His hand dropped to the counter and she watched his fingers turn white as he gripped it, eyes squeezing closed a moment later in a grimace.
“You’re injured,” she said, moving forward. The steam was gone, but Poppy did notice a faint, lingering smell in the air, traces of something bitter and green. “Did it burn you?”
“No,” Severus answered, but his voice grated out of him. He glanced up at her, but only long enough for her to see that his face was contorted with pain, and his eyes were full of it. “I’m fine. Stay there. Just... stay.”
Stay? Like she was some kind of dog? Poppy felt irritation flare. He could treat her like a potions student if he wished, inspecting her brews and testing her knowledge, but he was not going to treat her as though she didn’t know an injury when she saw one.
“You’re clearly not fine, Severus, and if you think I’m just going to stand here and let you deny it, you’ve got another thing coming.” She swept forward, reaching for his arm to turn him to face her, but the moment she touched him he rounded on her, grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her. Hard.
Poppy was too stunned to react. She went rigid in his hands as he pulled her against him and crushed his mouth to hers, and it took her a moment to register what was happening, and also to realise what the protrusion jutting into her hip was.
No. Nonono. Something was very wrong here. Poppy twisted, managed to get her hands up between them, and pushed Severus away.
“Stop,” she said, and it was her most commanding school-matron voice that came out, assertive and assured, even though her heart was beating hard and she felt distinctly dishevelled.
It was enough. Severus wrenched himself away from her, turned to the side, pressed two shaking hands against the workbench and gripped it tight again.
“I’m sorry,” he grated out. “That wasn’t... I’m not...” Pink had risen into his normally sallow cheeks. He lifted a hand to rub at the bridge of his nose, then bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut. Poppy couldn’t tell whether the gesture was pain or shame.
“I know you’re not,” she said. Whatever the end of that last sentence had been in his head, she was sure it was true. He wasn’t himself, he wasn’t a monster, he wasn’t attracted to her. All likely conclusions, and all true, so far as she could tell. What had the potion done to him?
“You should go. Go, before I do something...” He wouldn’t look at her.
She could. She could turn and leave the room right now, and it would diffuse the situation. It might help him regain some composure. Then again, it might not. It might leave him in a manic sexual state in a school full of young women, and if that wasn’t neglecting her duty of care both to the students and to him as a victim of magical mishap, she didn’t know what was.
“I can’t,” she said. “But you won’t. I won’t let you. Don’t you worry about that.” Poppy let her wand slip into her palm. She had dealt with patients under behavioural enchantments before, and none of them had ever got the best of her. She drew up a chair for him. “Sit,” she told him. “Let me have a look at you. And if having me here makes you uncomfortable, think about how much less comfortable you’d be in a full-body bind in your current state.”
Severus’ grip tightened on his workbench again, but then, with a grimace, he pushed himself away from it and hobbled to the chair she’d made for him. The stiffness of his gait did make Poppy feel for him, and she hated to make him suffer more, but there was no other option. When he was safely seated with his arms by his sides — holding tight to the underside of the chair, by the look of it — she moved toward him again.
“I’m going to touch you.” She thought it best to give him warning this time, but even so, he flinched when she laid a hand on his forehead and pushed his head back far enough that she could see his eyes. Holding his eyebrow up, she lit the tip of her wand and surveyed one eye, then repeated the process with the other. His pupils were so dilated that she could barely see the iris at all.
A diagnostic spell would tell her whether the symptoms he was experiencing were temporary or indicative of a deeper problem. She whispered the incantation and started the scan.
Severus watched her as she worked. “Do you really find me so repellent,” he asked, his voice a harsh whisper, “that you would put me in a full-body bind before you would consider the alternative?”
Poppy was struck by the openness of the question, and what it said about Severus’ opinion of himself. She studied him for a moment.
“No,” she replied, and that wasn’t the matron voice at all. “If you had kissed me under other circumstances, I might have reciprocated. But right now you’re under the influence of a botched potion, and I have no idea if you’re capable of consent.”
Severus laughed, desperate and humourless. “You’re worried about my consent? Merlin’s balls, I’m in agony. I haven’t had any human contact in years. It would be a mercy.”
Poppy wasn’t sure what to say. Said nothing, running the diagnostic scan over his body.
“Don’t you ever get lonely here in the castle?” His voice was earnest, this time, but not pleading.
The scan completed, she found nothing wrong with him. At all. A minor head cold, recently cured. A nick from shaving, recently healed. Most diagnostic scans found something. People were rarely in perfect health. But Severus was.
Phoenix tears. The phoenix tears had healed him, but how did that account for the state he was in? Unless...
“How long have you been repressing your desires?” she demanded.
“I...” He sucked in a breath, stared at her. “For you, or for sex in general?”
For...her? Poppy was dumbfounded. It was the last thing she'd expected to hear from him, but, after thinking the idea over for a moment, did that necessarily make it unwelcome?
It certainly wasn't the matron who answered his question. "Both," she said.
“In general, a long time. Years. For you? About a week. Ever since you were actually willing to discuss dark magic with me. Most people baulk at the very idea. I...admire intelligence. And an open mind.” He shifted in his seat, grimaced again. “Fuck.” His voice was nearly a whimper.
“I think,” Poppy said, laying her wand aside and running a clinical eye over him, “that under the circumstances, we can safely say that phoenix tears may not be the best choice for use on the students. I may have an open mind, but I'm willing to veto that one right now.”
She softened her tone, taking in his pained, vulnerable expression, then reached out to cup his face in her hands. “It is a gift between friends,” she said, and kissed him.