"—but you don't engage it directly! You never look it in the eyes! Just throw the salt. Throw the salt!"
"Mr. James, sir, please calm down."
"Not until you swear!" yelled Mr. James, smacking away a house-elf that had popped into the air beside him. "Swear to me that you'll—"
"Throw salt in the general direction of the demon as it rises from the soup pot, but not gaze directly into its eyes?" asked Severus, rising from his chair in the waiting area.
"Yes, that's right! Good man! Yes, you must never—"
"Engage it directly. Got it, Mr. James, promise," the harried Healer said, leading the patient away.
The intake witch at the desk smiled crisply at Severus. "Have you two met?"
"Do you mean the house-elf? I barely saw it."
"He," the intake witch said pointedly, "wasn't whom I meant. Do you know Mr. James?"
"No, but it seemed clear that the fastest way to move your patient along was to humour him."
"Yes, well, we manage."
Severus snorted more than huffed and held up his hand. "Would it be too much to ask for someone to manage this?"
"Merlin!" exclaimed the intake witch. "How'd you manage that?"
"Drunken spell crafting, were you?"
"No, certainly not!" Severus insisted.
"Well, how else does one end up with one's fingers elongated and twisted into the shapes of ancient runes?" Strout asked, delicately pulling and poking at his left hand.
Severus snatched it away and scowed. "I was not inebriated."
"Bully for you, young man."
"I was not—"
"Now listen," Healer Strout interrupted, holding up her hands for silence. "It's Saturday night, which is, in case you weren't aware, a very busy night for St. Mungo's. The Healers in Intake couldn't pinpoint your issue and thought I might be able to, but if you don't answer my questions directly, I'm sending you back to Hogwarts to Poppy Pomfrey."
"No! I don't wa—"
"Yes, to Poppy, with whom I know you did not consult before coming here, no matter what it says in your paperwork. Would you like me to check, dear? She's only a fire-call away."
"Do not do—"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Please," Severus said, "please do not fire-call Madam Pomfrey. I did not consult with her. She's . . . she's—"
"Not so much very older than you, and you're either too untrusting of her or too embarrassed by what you've done to talk to her, is that it?"
Setting his mouth into a firm, mortified line, Severus made no reply.
"Now then," Healer Strout said, "tell me what this has to do with sex."
It had been his mother who had told him that during a summer home. Severus couldn't remember which one, but it had been one in which his mam had given him her old textbooks concerning runes.
"Read about them, certainly, but don't throw them casually, and never, ever use them for anything even remotely like a love spell—and do stay the hell away from love spells, boy. More trouble than they're worth, they are."
Being the youngest teacher at Hogwarts, Severus found himself with a lot of free time on his hands. He tended to use that time to read, and well, he'd finally got around to reading the book on runecasting that his mother had referred to as "the worst of the lot" of the ones she'd given him.
Why did she give the damn book to me if she didn't mean for me to use it? he wondered, trying to follow the conversation with Healer Strout.
"And you picked out an intriguing little spell, did you?"
"And what did it have to do with sex, dear?"
Severus sighed. "It was supposed to—"
"Boy!" Strout said sharply, sounding entirely too much like his mam for comfort. "What did the spell have to do with sex?"
"It was a name transfer, placed upon another person, it—"
"Oh, you imbecilic prick!" Strout shouted. "An essence-infusing spell? A write-your-fucking-runic-name-across-someone's-heart spell? Do you know how unstable and rape-y and damaging such things are?"
Squeezing his eyes tightly shut, Severus forced himself not to melt away into the floor. His hand felt as though it were on fire. He needed help.
"I suppose you do. Tell me," damanded Strout, "upon whom were you planning to 'write' your name? To excite her, his? interest in you? Who was your intended victim?"
"I wasn't trying to victimise anyone! The spell was supposed to open people's minds to one's potential! It's not . . . not 'rape-y'. I just wanted . . . ."
"Yes? You just wanted . . . ?"
"Someone to talk to me. Someone to . . . to give me a chance, that's all. That's all, I swear!" Severus told her, turning away from Strout's gaze.
"No, I'm not a Legilimens, Mr. Snape, but I do have Veritaserum at my disposal."
Severus swallowed. "I swear, Healer Strout. I was not planning to take advantage of anyone. I just wanted to shake someone's hand, anyone's hand, and have . . . have a real conversation."
"And given your past, you find that impossible, do you?"
"Yes, Healer Strout, I do."
"Sit down," Strout ordered.
Severus did so.
"Your hand must be all pins and burning needles.
"I can help you, but before I do I must have your word on a few things."
"I want you to promise me that you will not mess about with runes. They're powerful and not playthings—and neither are young women!"
"But I wasn't trying to—"
"Your word, Mr. Snape. I want your word."
"I promise. You have it, my word. You have my word that I wasn't trying to hurt anyone, or force anyone to do anything. I just wanted someone to talk to me, that's all!"
Severus stopped talking and breathing and thinking. The pain in his hand was growing worse, but not as bad as the stinging in his eyes. It was abjectly awful, thoroughly humiliating, to be so desperate for company.
"I shouldn't have done it, I know that, now. Please, Healer Strout. I won't do it again."
"There now, that's a good boy," Strout said, her demeanour changing from frosty to warm. She pulled a small phial from her pocket.
Severus took it with his good hand. "Do I drink it?"
"No, you pour a drop on your afflicted hand and rub it in with your good one. Just one drop." She took back the phial. "I'll pour, you rub."
"What's in this?"
"Nothing you need know about if you're not going to be playing with runes ever again."
"But I teach Potions. I should know about, er, remedies."
"Then you read and study, but no more experimenting."
Severus rubbed the last of the potion, which seemed to last for much longer than a single drop should, into his fingers, wincing a bit as they uncurled and shrank back to their normal state.
"Yes, thank you, ma'am," Severus replied, too relieved by the cessation of pain and recent embarrasment to hate himself for replying to Strout as if she were his mam, and he, a child.
"Now then, as to your other problem, I—"
"What other pro—"
"Do stop interrupting, dear. It's tiresome," Strout said.
Severus silently rubbed his fingers in spite of the fact that they no longer hurt.
"A thirty-five-year-old man with a terrible reputation working in a lonely castle filled with older professors should know how to make friends, but it's not a surprise that he doesn't."
"You have plenty of company if you'd open your eyes."
"I do not."
"You have the house-elves. You have that lonely caretaker."
"Yes, Filch. Argus also has time for a chat as I recall, especially if one spares a kind word for his cat, Mr. Norrs."
"It's Mrs. Norris," Severus corrected.
"Is it? Well, it wasn't when he first started at the school, but then, I imagine he's had several kitties since then. The point I'm making, or rather, you're making, is that you do notice the other people around you. You know Argus' cat's name. You see the house-elves every day. You must have occasion to speak to your fellow professors."
"Yes, but not one of them likes me! Not one of them seeks me out."
"Really? And do you make yourself available to them?" asked Strout. And then, waving an arm over Severus' person, she continued, "Or do you dress in this welcoming, vampiric manner to tell them to keep themselves to themselves?"
"We all dress in robes," Severus protested.
"Severus Snape, I believe that you carry a great deal of anxiety with regard to your past. It colours your interactions with others. I think you have a difficult time being open. Work on that. Talk to the people who do talk to you. Talk to the house-elves, as well. And don't put on airs. You know better than anyone that you're no better than anyone else."
Severus opened his mouth to protest but closed it almost at once.
"And do stop fucking with runes. You cannot magic yourself into true friendship. If you don't know that, you've no business being a professor."
Severus drew himself up. "I thank you for your assistance, Healer Strout, but—"
"Don't get stroppy with me, boy. You know what you did. It's that which causes your present issues. Frankly, I feel as though you worry too much and are out of practice being civil. Talk to the house-elves. They love to keep company with their humans. It'll make you feel more at ease in conversation, and that will make it easier to talk to others."
"But they don't like me," admitted Severus.
"Perhaps, perhaps not. Perhaps they simply don't know you." Strout laid a hand on Severus' shoulder. "You've made some stupid mistakes, dear, but you're not the first to do so, and you won't be the last. You need to move forward, understood?"
"I truly wasn't planning to compromise anyone, I swear."
"And I believe you. Now then, go home and talk to the house-elves."
With that, Strout left him.
With waggling ears, Bixie continued, "Is Professor Snape being all right?"
"I am, yes," Severus said, remembering what Healer Strout had said. "And how are you, Bixie?"
"The professor is asking about Bixie's how?"
"I am. Er, am I very messy, Bixie?"
"Professor Snape is not very messy at all! Professor Snape is a very tidy wizard, indeed! Bixie is proud to serve him!"
Severus winced, which Bixie appeared to notice.
"Did Bixie say something to upset Professor Snape?"
"No," Severus said quickly, lest the house-elf seek to damage himself. "I . . . I am happy with Bixie's, with your, service. Thank you, Bixie."
Bixie's eyes widened and his ears went straight. "Professor Snape is the best of professors! Professor Snape thanks Bixie!"
"You are a very good house-elf, Bixie, and a great help to me," Severus said, feeling only the slightest bit silly in the face of such heartfelt praise and gratitude.
"Is Professor Snape wanting anything?"
"Er, no, I suppose not. Just . . . ."
"Yes?" asked Bixie, hovering in an expectant, excited manner before him.
Severus wanted to ask him to stay, but he suspected that doing so wouldn't be appropriate. House-elves want to serve. I should ask him to do something—and then he can come back and talk to me again.
"Bixie is here to help! Ask! Ask, Professor Snape!"
"Well, there is one thing. Would you please ask Madam Pince if she'd like to take over the care of some books on ancient runes? There is the pile," he said, pointing to his desk. "Perhaps you could take her a list of the titles?"
"It is done!"
Bixie moved so fast that Severus barely saw him make a list and disappear. In fact, the afterimage of the house-elf hadn't left his eyes before Bixie returned.
"Madam Pince is putting her head in the fire, Professor Snape!"
And so she was. "Snape! What's this? You've a copy of Benchley's Reading the Runes: A Moderne Interpretation? The 15th century edition?"
Bixie giggled. "Madam Pince is wanting that book!"
Ordinarily, Severus would have dismissed the house-elf with a sharp retort, but on this occasion, Severus said, "It certainly seems like it. Please go about your duties—but return at tea time so that I don't work through it."
Grinning from one happily shaking ear to the other, Bixie popped out of the room, and Severus took himself off to his hearth.
"And your patient responded to it?"
"Oh, yes, dear, of course he did," Miriam told her. "Some patients need a firm hand whether they realise it or not, and it's our job to figure out how best to engage them."
"Well, it's just that my patient, he's . . . difficult, and I suppose, not my patient. It's just that Bixie, one of our house-elves, Bixie said that Pro—that my would-be patient had injured himself during some spe—an activity, but he wouldn't come see me. How can I help people who won't seek me out?"
"You're concerned that they're not taking you seriously?" asked Miriam.
"Yes. Many people don't, you know. I haven't any true authoritative presence, I suppose, but—"
"Young lady," Miriam interrupted, "if you act fluffy, people will treat you like a cloud. Get a bit stormy now and again, girl, and that'll gain respect for you soon enough. Take it from your old teacher: things will get better over time, especially if you try talking to your would-be patient."
"Talking to him? Out of the Infirmary?"
"Yes, dear—and not about what ails him. A few non-threatening conversations here, a few requests for assistance there, and your would-be patient will become comfortable with you."
"'Assistance'?" asked Poppy.
"You're a clever girl. I'm certain there's something with which the young man could help you."
"Now why do I suspect you know of whom I speak?" asked Poppy.
"Because I talk to the house-elves, dear. And they are full of gossip."
"How many house-elf births have you attended, Healer Strout?"
"Oh, Poppy, I've lost count. It was my bread and butter, you know, before I began working at St. Mungo's, and the dears do love to visit when they can. They pop in and out from Hogwarts, for example, all the time—but let's not worry about that. You know I'm discreet. Find a way to talk to this difficult man. Find a way," Strout continued, "to make him respect your talents. I know you can. And on that note, I must be getting back to work."
"The Strout Witch helps house-elves and wizards. She is good."
It was Bixie's job, and he was relatively new at it, to be sure, to keep Professor Snape's chambers and lab. It was an important job, and although he was still watched by more senior house-elves, they tended to allow Bixie to work in peace.
"Bixie is good at his job. Bixie takes good care of his Snape."
Bixie was good at his job, he knew, because his egg mothers and the Strout Witch had taken good care of him, had taught him how to take good care of others.
"Bixie is always asking for help when he needs it to help take care of his professor, and today, Professor Snape is feeling better because of Bixie's work! Bixie is a very good house-elf!"
"Bixie," complained another house-elf in the attic, "is a chatty house-elf, and Tissy would like to be a sleeping house-elf!"
"Bixie is not sorry for being a proud house-elf!"
"And Tissy is glad that Bixie is a proud house-elf, but Tissy is still wanting to be a sleeping house-elf so Bixie should please be being a silent, proud house-elf!"
Bixie giggled. "So many words, Tissy says, with such a tiny mouth to talk with!"
"Tissy knows where Bixie sleeps."
"Yes, of course Tissy does," replied Bixie.
"And," continued Tissy, "Tissy knows how to conjure cold water above sleepy house-elves' heads and pour it out all over loud and proud house-elves!"
"Bixie is sorry, Tissy. Bixie will be quiet."
Tissy said nothing.
"Bixie means it!"
"Bixie is still talking!" exclaimed Tissy.
Bixie giggled again. "So is Tissy."
"You is being quiet now, you good house-elf, Bixie," insisted Tissy.
"You is always a good house-elf, too," said Bixie.
"Good night, Bixie!"
"Good night, Tissy!"
It fell silent in the attic, and quietly, so as not to disturb anyone, Bixie whispered, "Good night, Professor Snape."
It was surprising how just a little conversation had made him feel less lonely than he could remember feeling in years. Healer Strout's stern advice, Bixie's cheerful words, and Madam Pince's book-related discussion had all done as much to Heal his mood as Strout's potion had done to Heal his hand.
I am never fucking with runes again, thought Severus, yawning through a relaxing stretch. I'll stick to Potions and brewing and leave runecasting to the idiots.
And in the morning, he'd not take the presence of his assigned house-elf for granted.
"Good night, Bixie."