"This! This is why!" Dumbledore's portrait was shouting when Minerva finally arrived in the headmaster's office. Snape had sent her a note—a torn corner of parchment, folded once, informing her that her presence was required in his office immediately—almost an hour ago, and she'd put off responding for as long as she could think of excuses. "The Master of the Castle is never supposed to be the headmaster of the school as well! I told you! I told you!"
"What is going on?" Minerva shouted, standing in the doorway and trying not to gape.
The portraits of the former headmasters and headmistresses were all awake, all looking down on the room, all silent. Dumbledore's portrait was shouting, though. And there was a phantom wind whistling through the room. Books and bits of parchment flew everywhere, getting caught in strange drafts; the delicate instruments scattered around the room trembled and let off various alarms, from oddly-colored smoke to piercing whistles.
"Where were you?" Snape bellowed, spinning to face her. His eyes were glowing; that was the first thing she noticed. A blue-white luminescence, like moonlight, subtle and yet glaring in its strangeness. His hair, longer than she'd seen it since she met him, had been yanked back into a bun at the crown of his head. His robes and coat were nowhere to be seen; his waistcoat was a muted green-grey, his plain white shirt had the sleeves rolled up and the top few buttons undone. Any thought she might have had, seeing him so casual, so human, went out of her mind when she saw the deep black of the Dark Mark on his arm.
"Don't give me fucking excuses, Minerva!" he shouted, and she realized that she'd never heard him raise his voice before. "I am the Master of this castle; I can feel the inhabitants move through the wards. You were in your office! You've been in your office for an hour, ever since I sent you the note."
"The forms," she said, though it was a ridiculous excuse and they both knew it. She'd been finding as many of those as she could since he'd been appointed headmaster, making his life as difficult as she could. "You, yourself, said that all disciplinary requests had to—"
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Minerva," he moaned. "I understand why you'd rather fill out the bloody forms than have an impromptu meeting with me, but—"
He cut himself off, pain pinching his features, and he spun to face the tall device that looked a bit like a trebuchet made of silvery tubes; it had begun letting off a crackling gold glow, as if it was preparing itself to discharge some electrical force. Snape touched one tube, then another, and then waved long-fingered hands over the top of it. The glow receded.
"You need to summon your Warden," Dumbledore said, his painted face concerned. "Severus—"
"I can't!" Snape said sharply, spinning to face the portrait behind the desk.
"She's being tortured, Severus. There is no other explanation for this sort of reaction, for the duration of the fluctuations."
"I know that." Snape paced, his attention snapping from one object to the next. The phantom wind in the room intensified, screaming against Minerva's senses, and Snape pulled his pocketwatch out of his waistcoat pocket. "It's been two hours."
"Summon her or she'll be dead!" One of the portraits Minerva didn't know, one that was usually only a source of a low droning snore, said.
"You think the castle is reacting now, boy, you just wait until you've lost your Warden. I told you, I told you! You should never have accepted the Mastery, never named a Warden!" This from a wizard with a monocle, an ear-horn, and a long curled wig, his portrait hung high on the wall next to the cabinet in which Dumbledore had once stored a Pensieve.
"No, it had to be done; Severus needed the advantage," Dumbledore said, his sharp blue eyes snapping to the wigged wizard's portrait only for a second before they locked onto Severus again.
"Minerva," Severus said, and he was suddenly directly in front of her, close enough to kiss. It was all she could do not to step back from him. "Help me. Please. I need your help."
She'd never heard him ask for help before.
He looked like the old Severus, the one who had been her student so long ago and, not so long ago at all, her friend.
"Minerva," Dumbledore said from his spot on the wall, and her eyes slid past Severus and to the painting. "Minerva, I'm so sorry. Please, we haven't time for a proper explanation. Just trust him."
"Trust him? Him?"
"Yes, Minerva. Trust Severus."
The castle shook. She couldn't tell if it actually shook, or if it just seemed to from her place in the headmaster's office. Things were always different in that particular place, so attuned to the rest of the castle, so many objects in the room monitoring other things.
Severus swore again, spinning away from her.
"They're killing her," the portrait of a batty-looking old witch with a frizzy pouf of white hair adorned with multi-colored feathers moaned from a gilded frame near the door. "They're killing her and she's going to tear the castle apart from the pain of it!"
"Who?" Minerva asked. The batty-looking witch glared at her.
"The Warden of the Castle!"
"The what?" Minerva asked, feeling wrong-footed for the first time in a very long time.
"How are you even on your feet, man?" a headmaster observed from the far wall. He had a narrow face and wore a pointed black hat with a crook at the tip, and his frame was probably the least ornamental of all of them. "Call her to you." His tone was gentle.
"She will make it," Severus growled at the portrait, then turned to Minerva, his glowing eyes wide, his hand extended to her, beseeching. "Minerva, please. Help me. The wards… the castle…"
"There is no time to explain, Minerva," Dumbledore said, his voice too intense to be properly conciliatory. "Just know that it is imperative for you to do your part as Deputy. Right now."
She hesitated only a moment longer before stepping into the room properly. All of the devices monitoring the wards were showing tension, and her wand was keyed to be able to make adjustments. She did, watching Severus in her peripheral, at first because she feared he'd attack her once her attention was diverted, and then because he was doing three times the work that she was and entirely wandlessly.
Almost a full hour passed, and then the wards snapped back to their usual settings. Severus stumbled back, gasping, and sat down hard on the edge of his desk. A stack of papers—a teetering tower of disciplinary requests, actually—fell to the floor, joining the mess of other parchments and office detritus that had been floating about since before she'd entered the office.
"Call her to you now," the headmaster in the plain frame instructed, his tone still gentle but with steel under it now.
The witch arrived before he could call her. There should have been a crash or a scream, but it happened silently. One moment, the headmaster and his deputy were alone, the next there was a figure on the floor at the center of the room. She lay on her side, half curled into herself.
Severus was on the witch in an instant, wand flicking up and down her body, and then he was chanting low and soft. Blood evaporated from her skin, wounds healing a bit more with each pass of his wand. There were soft chinking noises now and again, and Minerva saw glittering stones—crystals? diamonds?—dropping from the witch's wounds and onto the stone floor.
"The Warden of the Castle," the batty-looking headmistress in the frame by the door said, almost sounding proud.
"What is that?" Minerva asked, moving closer to the portrait, hoping for an answer.
"Well, it's hardly common practice these days," the portrait said, her focus on Severus and the witch as she spoke. "It used to be the way things were done, especially when witch burning was in vogue.
"The castle is sentient, as I'm sure you're aware. There are four people that it talks to—the Headmaster of the School, the Deputy Headmaster (or Headmistress, of course), the Master of the Castle, and the Warden of the Castle. The Head and Deputy see to the people in the school, of course, and they've taken care of the rest since there hasn't been anybody else in centuries, but when there is danger, it's best to have all the positions filled.
"It's highly irregular for the Master to be the Headmaster as well; quite unhealthy, actually. The castle is routing much too much power through one vessel. Especially with the Warden away.
"The Warden of the Castle is aware of the castle the way the Master is, but only when he—or she, in this case—is physically present. She's the one who has the most interaction with the castle. When these things were more usual, the Warden was usually given the position of caretaker during peacetime, actually.
"But these two are a bit of a desperate plan. They enacted the old spells, accepted the positions even though he'd be acting as Headmaster and Master, and she wouldn't be in the castle if all went to plan. Idiot children."
"That's enough, thank you, Headmistress Levine," Severus snapped, leaning back from the prone figure of the witch. There was blood on his shirt, but not much of it. He looked exhausted, the dark circles around his eyes only exaggerated by the fading glow.
Minerva opened her mouth to direct a few questions at Severus, but the witch on the floor jerked, whimpered, screamed, whimpered again. Severus extended a hand, still sitting back on his heels. The last whimper stopped the moment his longest finger touched her temple. Minerva half expected him to stroke the witch's cheek—he had such a look on his face that she'd never seen there before, let alone imagined him capable of—but instead he dropped his hand back to his lap as the witch sat up.
"Leave it to Dobby," the witch muttered. She folded her knees up to her chest and pressed her palms to her face for a moment, seeming to calm herself.
"The Malfoys' old elf?" Severus asked. There was a remarkable lack of bite in his voice.
"Yes. He rescued us. Well. He rescued Harry and Ron—he dropped a chandelier on me."
"Which rendered you unconscious, allowing the castle to summon you to safety."
"If I'd let it pull me back, it would have given everything away. And Harry and Ron would have been in the Malfoy cellar without a lick of Occlumency between them."
"The castle almost bloody Apparated out to get you itself."
The witch laughed, though there wasn't much humor in the noise. Minerva recognized her, then. The laugh, the voice, the curls. Hermione Granger.
"I had to call Minerva in to help," Severus said. Minerva suspected he said it to alert Miss Granger to her presence.
"That bad, hm?" Miss Granger asked, shifting so that she was cross-legged in front of him, her hands in her lap. She turned a bit, smiled a closed-lip smile at Minerva, then turned back to the headmaster.
"You ought to stay on the floor; you were… it lasted for almost three hours. You're going to have aftershocks."
Minerva didn't like the look that crossed over Severus's face. Murderous didn't even begin to describe it.
She felt frozen on the sidelines of the conversation. She didn't dare move, didn't say anything. She watched them, reevaluating, wondering.
"You look awful."
"You say the sweetest things."
"You haven't been eating."
"We ran out of food."
"You should have called on the castle."
"And how would I explain that? 'Oh, I just found this roast growing in the forest. Try the carrots!' Yeah, right. You might not like them, but they're not idiots."
"Beg to differ."
Minerva finally burst. "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?"
A/N: Well. Welcome to the latest "big project." It ties together more than a few plot bunnies that have cropped up and never quite fit anywhere else. It's going to be slow-going at first so far as updates go; I'm trying to work out how I want to layer some of these storylines together.