Characters: Minerva McGonagall, Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape
Warning(s): Spoilers through OotP
Summary: Minerva McGonagall isn't as powerful as Dumbledore, or as mysterious and dangerous as Snape. So where does she fit into the triumvirate that runs Hogwarts? Her role may just be the most important of all.
How Albus always knew, Minerva had long since ceased trying to guess. So she took it in stride when, in the middle of an utterly routine and pedestrian discussion of Quidditch schedules, he paused thoughtfully for a moment, and said, "Incidentally, Minerva...I would appreciate it very much if you would keep your schedule clear next Wednesday evening." And without so much as a word of explanation, he returned to the topic at hand.
Minerva had dutifully cleared her schedule for that evening, then promptly forgotten the matter. It wasn't until two days after Albus's flight from Hogwarts, and the ascension of that beastly woman Umbridge to the position of Headmistress, that the incident came back to her.
She was rounding a corner on her way to the dungeons to find out first-hand what on earth the kerfuffle on the fourth floor had been about (Sir Nicholas had reported something about a Slytherin boy stuffed into a toilet) when she was very nearly run down by her Slytherin counterpart, Severus Snape. The look on his face as she stumbled backward in surprise made her wry apology catch in her throat, threatening to choke her.
"Confound it, Minerva! Watch where you're going," he snarled, and Minerva couldn't help but wince. It wasn't uncommon to see Severus in a foul mood. On the contrary, it was practically his default mode of operation. But he also prided himself on his self-control, so it was rare to see him fume openly. Right now, however, he was positively seething. "What the blazes are you doing down here?"
Minerva collected herself hastily, trying to imagine what could have brought his temper to such a full-on boil. Surely not the boy stuck in the loo? Then her heart sank as it occurred to her that it was on Wednesday evenings that Harry Potter reported to Severus for his Occlumency lessons.
"What's he done this time, Severus?" she asked resignedly, checking a sigh, and had the satisfaction of seeing her younger colleague taken aback at the question. One did not have to be Albus Dumbledore to give the impression that one was a step ahead of the game.
"It's none of your--" Snape began, but hauled up short as Minerva raised her eyebrows sharply, eyeing him sternly over the rims of her square spectacles. She was well acquainted with his animosity toward the entire Potter clan--not entirely unjustified, in her opinion--but she made only so much allowance for it, as he knew very well.
Severus dropped his gaze, folding his arms defensively across his chest. For one moment, the impression of the sullen teenager Minerva remembered from years before was so powerful that she barely stopped herself scolding him to stand up straight.
"Your prize student," he growled resentfully, "has once again proven himself not only arrogant beyond description, but devoid of so much as an iota of self-control, and unworthy of a single moment's trust."
"Trust?" she repeated, surprised. That Severus would be in a position to say such a thing suggested he had indeed given Potter the benefit of the doubt for once, only to regret it. Minerva silently promised the headstrong boy the dressing-down of a lifetime for having thrown away such an unprecedented chance.
"All right," she said carefully, raising one hand in a placating gesture. With her initial shock wearing off, she could recognize the subtle cues in Severus' manner that spoke not merely of anger, but of acute distress.
That, at least, she understood. Everyone in the school was feeling the effects of Dumbledore's ousting, but his loss had been a sore blow for the two of them especially. The right and left hands, as it were, were hard-pressed to function properly, lacking a head. But one thing was certain, they needed to stick together if they meant to see Hogwarts through this crisis--Harry Potter or no Harry Potter. "Storming about the castle won't resolve anything; you'll only frighten a lot of innocent Hufflepuffs. Why don't you come and have a cup of tea with me, and tell me what's happened. And then we'll work out what's best to be done about it."
Severus raised his eyes and gave her a wary, appraising look. Unlike his two most recent predecessors in the position of Head of Slytherin House, he had managed--perhaps because he was comparatively young--to get it through his thick skull fairly early on that she was not out to get him, and that made things a great deal easier. But he wasn't one to trust easily, and Harry Potter's arrival at the school had strained things between them from day one.
She returned the look calmly, having no ulterior motives to hide, and at last he sighed and turned away in the direction of the kitchen, shoulder slumping a bit. She caught up and fell in step beside him, matching his long strides easily; they were practically the same height.
"I trust nothing irreplaceable was broken?" she ventured when the silence grew oppressive, having seen Severus lose his temper once or twice before.
"Jar of dried cockroaches," he muttered. "Won't be hard to replace."
"Has your aim improved at all?" She was very careful to keep a straight face.
He snorted humorlessly. "Sadly, no. I missed him by at least six inches. Waste of perfectly good roaches."
Hiding a smile, she found and tickled the rather absurd painting that granted access to the hidden kitchen entrance, and they entered the large, warm room together. The house-elves greeted Minerva with delight, and Severus with respectful deference and an undertone of fear.
In short order they were seated at one of the four long tables, steaming cups of tea set before them. Minerva listened patiently as Severus related his tale of woe--the telling of which took a good bit longer than it ought, between his editing out or circumventing certain details of the lessons which could not be told in such a public place, and stopping to pull himself together when his blood pressure threatened to skyrocket.
Inwardly, she sighed. She'd felt from the very beginning that the whole thing was a bad idea, and had told Albus as much. His reasoning was sound enough, as far as it went, but it appeared to her that this policy of distancing himself from Potter was doing more harm than good--not only to Harry Potter, but to Albus himself, who cared more for the boy than he let on, and now to Severus as well.
It was hardly the first time that she had disagreed with the Headmaster's actions. They had gone round and round about the appropriate disciplinary action for Sirius Black following his infamous Prank, among other things (she held to this day that the young rapscallion had deserved expulsion for such a shocking display of negligent cruelty.) But it was the first time he'd left her to deal with the aftermath of his own mistake. She would have a few choice words to say to the barmy old windbag when he returned.
Minerva didn't allow herself to contemplate the possibility that he might not.
"...threw a jar of cockroaches at his head, and told him never to come back," Severus finished, taking great interest in his tea, which he had been stirring unnecessarily for several minutes.
"Never?" she said, dismayed. "Oh, Severus. It was a terrible violation of your privacy, and I don't blame you in the least for being angry. But there isn't anyone else who can teach the boy now..."
"Albus should have thought of that before he allowed those idiot children to get him driven out," Severus snapped, his eyes flashing. "I tried, Minerva. I truly did, but the boy is beyond infuriating! I could have met him halfway, if he had only been willing to do the same, but he made no effort at all." He ran a hand through his lank, oily hair, an old gesture she had rarely seen--indeed, only on those occasions when he knew he'd done something that would disappoint Albus. "I don't know what to do," he added unhappily.
Minerva sipped at her tea, searching vainly for something helpful to say. If the relationship between Albus and Severus was akin to that of a father and his highly dysfunctional prodigal son, she was not blind to what that implied about her own position.
She didn't mind, really. An only child, unmarried and without children of her own, she supposed those two were as close as she would ever come to having a family. And the Founders knew, they needed her.
Albus might be an unparalleled genius, but he was utterly incapable of managing such mundane tasks as filing a bit of paperwork where he'd be able to find it again, or remembering which House team was scheduled to play which at the next match. He'd been known to Floo off to Hogsmeade, intending to speak briefly to his brother Aberforth on some urgent matter, only to return three hours later with a heaping bag of Honeydukes sweets. Minerva had heard it said that reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it; she occasionally wondered whether that might account for Albus's preternaturally serene disposition.
And Severus...it was in his nature to lash out at practically everyone and everything around him, with the curious exception of herself. Even as a student, he'd never seemed to harbor the same resentment toward her as he did toward other Gryffindors--perhaps because he understood that she held her House to the same standards as any other.
She'd lost count of the times she had smoothed things over between the two of them, when Severus had gone off on some unfathomable Slytherin tangent and even Albus's considerable patience was taxed to its limits. Or when Albus's wiser-than-thou demeanor, or his sometimes excessive affection for his own House, had threatened to drive Severus round the bend.
Now, with the Headmaster absent, she was not only the sole voice of reason in a position of authority at the school, but quite possibly the only person at Hogwarts capable of keeping Severus in check. She shuddered to think what would happen if Umbridge were to find an excuse to sack her, as well.
Not if, she corrected grimly; when. The miserable cow was only biding her time, waiting for an opportunity. Minerva didn't flatter herself so much as to believe that she could elude the woman's machinations forever. But she'd bloody well make herself as difficult as possible to be rid of...and in the meantime, carry on with her duties (both official and otherwise) as best she could.
"Well. If you don't feel you can continue, then I suppose that's that," she said finally. "It may be just as well, if the boy is making no progress, as you say. Though I'll confess, I don't fully understand the ramifications. Legilimency and Occlumency are a bit outside my area of expertise."
Severus nodded. "I wish the Headmaster was here," he said softly.
"So do I," she murmured, reaching across the table to pat his hand. As always, he startled a bit at the gesture, but let it pass unchallenged.
They sat there in silence for some time, lost in their own thoughts, as the fire dwindled and the house-elves vanished one by one into the vast silence of the sleeping castle.
Rising at last with a quiet "Good night," which Severus did not seem to hear, Minerva left her half-empty cup and slipped out into the corridors and away toward Gryffindor tower.
There was a forlorn sense to the large empty corridors, as though they missed the noisy bustle of students passing through them. But Minerva found a certain comfort in them all the same; Hogwarts was still Hogwarts, and if it had weathered more than a thousand years of conflict and rampant human stupidity, it could certainly outlast the likes of Dolores Umbridge.
Up ahead, two small shadows detached themselves from the wall and trotted toward her with the glint of bright eyes and twin mrrrowws of invitation. Crookshanks and Mrs. Norris, inviting her to join in their nightly sojourn.
It had been some time. Why not? she thought, reaching out with her mind toward the Other Self that lay always just on the outskirts of her consciousness.
A moment later, happily rid of human form and all its attendant burdens, she slipped off down the corridor with her companions, falling with unconscious ease into her proper place between them--the third that completed the whole.