Duty Calls

       At 9:45 that evening, Hermione Granger knocked on the door to Snape's office. "I'll not keep you long," the potions master promised her, "as I have my first guard duty rotation in fifteen minutes." He couldn't help sneering a bit at the thought. "I was wondering if you would be interested in conducting some research for me."
       Ten minutes later they emerged from the office together, Hermione bright-eyed with excitement as she hurried off to the library, Snape a good deal less cheerful as he headed out the front door of the castle. He made his way quickly across the grounds and down to the warming shed that had been erected for those on guard duty, wondering which elf he'd be keeping company with for the next two hours. Flitwick was in charge of organizing the staff guard duty schedule; Dobby was managing the house elves. He pushed open the door to the shed and stepped cautiously inside.
       "Mister Severus!"
       Oh, no, Snape thought. It was the woolen hat hoarder himself. He was wearing several of them on this chilly night, along with his Weasley sweater.
       Dobby hopped ecstatically about the shed, thrilled to be serving Albus Dumbledore in such an important capacity. "Look, Mister Severus, look!" he cried, pointing out the various spying devices Dumbledore had placed around the hut. There were portholes that provided expanded views of the grounds and the forest beyond. Next to them hung conch shells that, when pressed, would serve as listening devices. Snape wondered how Dobby would react if they happened to overhear centaurs engaged in amorous activities.
       Mounted securely near the door was a lantern connected to the fireplace in Dumbledore's office; they could communicate with the headmaster, or, in his absence, the portraits decorating his office. "Look, Mister Severus!" Dobby cried in excitement. "It only takes a pinch!" He tossed a dab of floo powder in the lantern and called, "Guards Dobby and Mister Severus reporting in, sir!"
       Dumbledore did not bother to turn to his own fireplace. "Thank you, Dobby," he called back. "Keep warm!" The elf turned to Snape with a grin large enough to split his silly face.
       "Dobby, don't call me 'Mister Severus,'" said Snape curtly. The phrase was an unpleasant reminder of just how long they'd known each other and under what circumstances. "I'm not your master," Snape reminded the elf, "or a guest in your master's home. Just say 'Professor Snape.'"
       "Yes, sir, Mister Severus!" Dobby chirped cheerfully, and Snape stifled the urge to kick him as he'd seen Lucius do so many times by stepping outside the shed to check the gate. Dobby followed him enthusiastically.
       "Does Mister Sever... Professor Snape think Dobby and Mister... Professor Snape will see any action tonight?" the elf asked eagerly.
       "We're not here to fight, Dobby," Snape reminded him. "We're here to watch for signs of an attack. And wise soldiers," he added pointedly, "never long for combat."
       "Dobby is not afraid, Mister Severus," the tiny creature assured him. "Dobby is very... aaaaahhhh!" The house elf squealed in surprise as Snape suddenly levitated him into the air and began spinning him in dizzying pirouettes. "Professor Snape, Professor Snape, Professor Snape!" the house elf corrected himself frantically.
       "I always knew you were a smart elf, Dobby," Snape murmured as he set his guard duty partner back down. The disoriented elf staggered about, then fell on his rump, muttering to himself. Snape just made out the words, "Dobby could teach Professor Snape a thing or two."
       "Is that so?" the potions master smirked as he turned away and reached out to check the sturdiness of the locked front gate. Before his hands could close on the iron bars, they disappeared from sight as the world turned black. Something had rendered him blind.
       "Dobby!" Snape cried, reaching instinctively for his wand. His sight returned instantly and he spun around, heart racing, to find the house elf smiling triumphantly at him, his hands on his bony little hips. Snape needed several moments to recover before asking incredulously, "Can all house elves do that?"
       "No, Professor Snape, sir," Dobby assured him. "Dobby has been working to recover the skills we possessed when we were 'happy hunters and gatherers.'"
       "Happy hunt..." Snape groaned. Dobby must have fished Malfoy's essay out of the rubbish last year. The elf grinned at him.
       "Young master Malfoy has been making progress," he noted. Snape shook his head at the title.
       "Let's just call him 'Draco.'" he suggested. "Between you and me." Dobby beamed with delight. "Now," Snape added more severely, "...about those things you could teach me..."
       The 6th years held their breath when he swept into Defense class two weeks later. The Slytherins hoped desperately that he would show up Lupin; it would make the situation so much easier to endure. As for the rest of the students, they just wanted the week to pass without incident. Snape had taken such good care of them during Flying Defense lessons; he'd even taught them a thing or two. It would be a shame to lose ground now.
       "He looks tired," Harry muttered to Malfoy as Snape entered the hall, which was cleared of desks for today's lesson but still contained the head table platform.
       "So does Granger," Mafoy shot back, and Harry had to agree. Hermione looked very self-satisfied these days but distinctly weary nonetheless.
       "Silence!" Snape ordered before commanding them to form two lines facing each other, an arm's length apart on all sides. "Professor Lupin has asked me to strengthen your shield charms. You will work with the person across from you."
       He mounted the head table platform and turned to face them. "I trust you are all aware that a properly cast shield charm will deflect many curses and hexes. However, a shield cast simultaneously by the hexer will produce a ricochet effect that will bounce the curse back and forth between the two wizards. If both shields are sufficiently strong, the curse will disintegrate harmlessly. Otherwise..." He gave them a nasty little smile. "Victory belongs to the strong."
       He looked them over and then called Justin Finch-Fletchley and Padma Patil to the platform. A wave of disappointment washed over Malfoy until he spotted an equally disgruntled Harry Potter. We're idiots, Malfoy realized with a grin.
       Justin and Padma squared off. "To strengthen your shields," Snape coached them, "cast from your side in a fluid motion rather than chopping your wand in front of you. This is easy to do if you have the good sense to turn sideways in the first place, presenting your attacker with a narrower target." The students practiced the motion a time or two, their wands in their right hands. As their right arms came up, their left arms flew out behind them. "Keep your left hand against your body," Snape insisted. "Put all your energy into the motion of your wand arm."
       When they were ready, he ordered Justin to cast a tickling curse and warned him not to cast his own shield until after Padma had cast hers.
       "Rictusempra!" Justin cried.
       They were a comical sight, their faces scrunched with effort as they held their wands on each other. Then Justin fell to the floor in a fit of giggles and Padma lowered her wand, breathing hard.
       "Errors?" Snape asked. Hermione raised her hand tentatively and Snape nodded at her.
       "You said to keep the left hand down to conserve energy for the wand arm," Hermione remembered. "Did they lose power to their shields because they were gritting their teeth?"
       "Very good, Miss Granger," Snape nodded. "Remember that any energy spent on extraneous effort is that much less you can extend to your shield." He dismissed Justin and Padma and set the class to practicing with each other, ordering them to change partners every five minutes. After half an hour of walking among them, pointing out tensed knees and inquiring as to whether their toes were curled inside their shoes, he called them back to order and once again mounted the platform.
       "The benefit to this method of practice," he explained, "is that curses lose strength as they bounce. It is therefore a fairly safe way to improve skills among equals... whatever eventually hits one of you will probably do little damage. However..." He took out his own wand and Neville whimpered. Harry gave him a sharp jab in the ribs. "A curse from a more powerful wizard will pierce a weaker wizard's shield. Does anyone know the best method for practicing with a stronger wizard?"
       Malfoy's hand shot up. So did Hermione's, of course, but to Malfoy's delight, Harry Potter's did not.
       "Malfoy?" Snape called.
       "Time trials, sir," Draco responded.
       "Line up!" Snape ordered.
       The Slytherins grabbed the top spots in the queue and Harry had to grab Neville's arm to keep him from seeking the bottom.
       "We'll start with five seconds," Snape suggested. "Rictusempra!" And he cast a curse at Malfoy who responded immediately, "Protego!" and held Snape off proudly for the full amount of time. Every Slytherin succeeded in fending off the five second curse but several Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs were eliminated before Snape reached the Gryffindors.

       "Ready, Potter?" Snape asked evenly. Harry nodded, wondering if Snape would play fair. But every Gryffindor except Lavender Brown came through the first elimination.
       "Six seconds!" Snape declared as he stalked back to the head of the queue to start again. Soon the eliminated students were clapping and cheering from their seats on the floor as the exercise proceeded. It was amazing how much harder it got as the time increased. Most of the remaining students could handle eight seconds, but by 10 seconds, only Malfoy, Millicent, Harry, Hermione and Neville remained. Snape eliminated Millicent and Hermione, then paused to scold the girls for not having a representative in the final three.
       "If you've reached the ridiculous age where you are afraid to look smart in front of the boys," he snarled, "I highly recommend you move beyond it as soon as possible."
       Eleven seconds made Malfoy turn red and perspire. Harry's wand arm trembled but held up. Then Snape turned to Neville, who had barely endured 10 seconds.
       "Can you do anything a Slytherin can do, Mr. Longbotton?" Snape whispered for only Neville to hear. Neville drew himself up to his full height, then immediately slumped again so as not to waste energy on posture. Eleven seconds later, he was still standing.
       Twelve seconds were too much for Malfoy. As he collapsed with giggles, Snape hurled an anticipatory "SILENCE!" at the Gryffindors who'd sprung to their feet to cheer their house as the last one standing. They froze with their mouths and their hands in the air, looking for all the world as if they'd been immobilized by a freezing charm. Snape raised an eyebrow at them and they sat back down, applauding politely for Malfoy before turning their attention to Harry and Neville.
       Both boys endured thirteen seconds, then fourteen. Fifteen proved too much for Neville, who received a nice round of applause for his accomplishments as he crawled across the floor to sit beside Ron. Harry made it through just as his glasses began to slide down his sweaty nose. Snape put his wand away, congratulated Harry, and gave the Gryffindors permission to celebrate with the curtest of nods. They leapt to their feet again and surrounded Harry, pounding him on the back. "Brilliant!" Ron shouted above his housemates' cheers.
       "Enough!" Snape finally commanded. "Back to your lines!" When the students were once again facing each other in two queues, Snape ordered them to take three steps backwards, creating a wide swath down the middle of the hall. He placed himself at the head of the queues in the center of the path.
       "Now," he told the students who gazed curiously at him, "I will reward you for your concentrated efforts in class today." He placed his right foot behind him, rocked backwards on it to lift his left foot a few inches in the air, then brought his left foot back down and gave a leap. He sailed forty feet across the room, almost reaching the hall's main doors.
       "Whoa!" Ron cried as the other students gasped. Snape whirled smartly around and marched back up the path to his starting position, then turned to face them.
       "That," he explained imperiously, "was a demonstration of a skill I acquired from one of our magical bretheren. It served the house elf well in his days as a happy hunter and gatherer..." He tossed a sour look at Malfoy. "...enabling him to pursue or evade over uneven ground, chasms or small bodies of water. It should serve you equally well."
       The students began to bounce with excitement. Frankly, it looked like the most fun a person could have without a broom.
       "A few precautions," Snape noted. "Concentrate on your landing, not on maximizing your distance. This maneuver is prone to injury, even moreso for human beings. It is also extremely draining, and while energy abounds at your stage in life, you will find battle a bit more demanding than the activities of Hogwarts. Try to perform this exercise with as little energy expenditure as possible." He wondered sourly if anyone was listening to him besides the Slytherins and Granger or if they were too busy imagining themselves leaping across their common rooms in a single bound. Then he saw in his own mind's eye Neville Longbottom jumping right over Albus Dumbledore's head during a chance hallway encounter. The image cheered him enormously.
       He taught them how to do it and then scattered them throughout the nearby corridors to practice. For the rest of the week, students spent every spare minute leaping through the halls of the castle. Never had anything so useful been so much fun. And by the end of the week, Harry could hold off Snape's tickling hex for a full 30 seconds.
       The only thing that made him happier was seeing how much healthier Lupin looked when he returned to class the following Monday.

An Obedient House