"Lest I Wither"
by JiM

I must lose myself in action,
lest I wither in despair
- Lord Tennyson

* * * Coffee can be hard on the system * * *

It wasn't fair, Snape thought, then sighed. He was whining and that made him irritated at himself, even if it was only in the privacy of his own skull. But it was the first day of the Christmas holiday and even he had been looking forward to sleeping late this morning. Instead, he had been awakened by a summons to the Headmaster's office. No one should have to face Dumbledore's eternal perkiness at this hour of the morning, certainly not one Severus Snape. He yanked on the robe he had discarded last night, ran his hands through his hair and decided that he was kempt enough for Albus Dumbledore and whatever disaster he was planning to announce now. Because when he was summoned like this, it was never good news.

He was grimly pleased to note that he had been right again. When he entered the Headmaster's office, after snarling out the ridiculous password for this week, he saw that the office was full of people. Minerva McGonagall was red-eyed and sniffling; Madame Pomfrey looked grave, her lips pinched tightly together. Dumbledore looked very solemn and nodded to Severus before fixing his gaze back on the fourth person in the room.

Harry Potter.

But this was a Harry Potter he had never seen before. The boy, no, man, he corrected himself, was slumped into a chair in front of Dumbledore's desk. While his Ministry robes were crisp and clean, the man himself was gray with exhaustion. His face was unshaven, his eyes were red and his lips were cracked and white.

"Well, Potter, you look like a troll sat on you." Veterans of too many fights, Snape and Potter had never been able to reconcile enough to actually do anything but snipe at one another, even in the heat of battle. In the five years since Potter's graduation, they had worked together fairly often, usually successfully. Snape had even grown to appreciate the younger man's rejoinders, once he lost his baby teeth and had grown some real verbal fangs.

Potter smiled faintly. "You look the same as always, professor." The twist to his lips belied the courtesy of his words.

"Severus, my boy, come have a seat. We are in need of your expertise."

Snape raised an eyebrow as he sat himself down in the only empty chair. "I'm afraid I don't have any hangover cures in my stores. Wouldn't Madame Pomfrey be a better source for Potter to consult?" There was a hitching breath from McGonagall and then she was burying her face in a lace handkerchief. What in the nine hells was wrong with the woman? Surely she was used to his snapping and snarling, after all these years. Especially at Potter, who wasn't even looking at him.

Pomfrey spoke. "No, Severus, I can't help Harry. I'm afraid that only you can." Her somber tone managed to suggest that she truly was afraid of that possibility.

"All right. Would someone care to tell me what is wrong with Mr. Potter? Then, perhaps I could help him, then get back to enjoying my first day of vacation in four months?"

"The story we're going to give people is that Harry has come back to Hogwarts to consult with our staff and to do some research in the library. That should sufficiently explain his presence without alarming the general public or allowing Voldemort to think that his plan has actually succeeded. In the meantime, the rest of us will try to find a solution..."

"Albus. WHAT are you babbling about?" Snape was beginning to wish he'd taken a long hot shower before answering the summons; his head felt like it was stuffed with mouse fur and bat wings.

Just as Dumbledore opened his mouth to reply, Potter said flatly, "I've been poisoned."



"Oh, hell. With what?"

Watery, bloodshot eyes met his gaze. "I don't know. No one does. The man who did this claims there is no antidote." Potter's voice was as steady as his gaze.

"Tell me everything." And they did.

Harry Potter, the Ministry's not-so-secret weapon in the escalating fight against Voldemort and his followers, had been poisoned by a spy who had infiltrated the Ministry and worked beside Harry for over half a year. Even he had not known the name or provenance of the poison he had poured into a cup of coffee for Harry to drink. All he had been told was that the poison was ancient, relatively slow-acting, and that there was no known antidote. Veritaserum and interrogation in Azkaban hadn't produced any more information than that.

Snape's eyes slid to his colleague. "Poppy? Any thoughts?"

"The Ministry got the best mediwizards and witches to take a look at him. All they did was manage to make the situation worse." She practically spat the words.

Dumbledore explained. "The poison reacts to magic. Any attempt to counter-act it with magical means merely speeds its progress. That's why we must turn to you."

"Wouldn't St. Mungo's be a better place for him?"

Potter looked annoyed at being talked about. "Their poison specialist hasn't got a clue. And there's no way we could keep it quiet if I were admitted there, even incognito. Everyone knows this damned scar and I can't even cast a glamour on myself because of the poison. Polyjuice Potion is out, too. Besides, I kind of wanted ..." his voice trailed off, suddenly sounding years younger.

"What, Potter?" he asked absently, thinking hard about various poisons and their antidotes.

"I wanted to come home to die," Harry Potter said with quiet dignity.

There was a stunned silence. Albus Dumbledore stared at his desktop and swallowed; a tear trickled from Pomfrey's eye. Minerva continued to sniffle quietly into her handkerchief. Even Fawkes' feathers drooped.

"Don't be dramatic, Potter," Snape snapped. "You're not going to die." He stood suddenly. "Poppy, take some blood and urine samples from him, would you?"
He towered over Harry Potter, then reached down a hand. When his fingers touched Potter's dark hair, the young man looked up at him in shock. The shock at his rare gesture of affection became comical when Snape yanked three or four hairs out. "I'll start testing these; maybe something will turn up..." He strode out without another word. A babble rose behind him, but he ignored it as he began making a mental list of the volumes he would need from the library.