THE SUBSTITUTE, Chapter Seven
She saw Snape coming back from the Forbidden Forest from her bedroom window later that morning, his face held in its customary severe lines. Whether or not he made an appearance for luncheon, Minerva didn't know – she herself elected to eat in her rooms.
"Professor McGonagall is not feeling well?" Dobby inquired as he set down the tray, his eyebrows drawn into worried bloodhound-lines. Minerva sighed.
"I'm fine, Dobby," she said. "Just catching up on some overdue grading, that's all."
He nodded, but it was clear he didn't believe her – house-elves could smell a lie from a hundred paces. Ten to one she'd be getting an afternoon house-call from Poppy, Minerva thought, and fought the urge to wearily massage her temples.
It was very hard not to blame this whole mess on Steve Irwin. Nevertheless, when he came lolloping up to her the next morning in the Great Hall after breakfast, wearing a repentant look and bearing a slightly wilted bouquet of carnations, Minerva managed a polite smile.
"Apologies due all round," he said, and offered her the flowers with a rueful upward glance that made him look, more than ever, like a startled blond guinea pig. "'Fraid I tied one on last night – there's a whole chunk of yesterday I can't remember for love nor money. Much obliged for the rescue; hope it wasn't an inconvenience."
Minerva, feeling her polite Company Smile turning into an outright grimace, sighed and took the carnations. "Not at all, Professor," she said tightly. "Centaurs have a somewhat esoteric sense of humour; if anything, I'd say you were more victim than villain in the matter. And –" she swallowed hard –"it's not as if we did much rescuing, now, is it?"
It wasn't an entirely rhetorical question. She was fairly certain that by the time she and Snape had gotten … shudder … friendly, Irwin had been out cold. And he'd seemed just as insensate this morning, during her – uh, tidying up.
But one couldn't be too sure, could one?
She watched him carefully, not sure what to hope for – what did he know, if anything? Surely if he'd seen, if he'd remembered, it would be all over his face; if ever she'd met a man without guile, Steve Irwin was that man. But he only smiled, his eyes clear and open as ever, and tipped his head to one side.
"Even so," he said. "'S the thought that counts. And I do appreciate it, Minerva."
A small group of students at the Gryffindor table, lingering over their porridge, cut sly glances their way. One of the girls giggled. Minerva, in the innermost depths of her soul, cursed silently – and stepped back; now wasn't the time to question Irwin further, no matter how much she'd have liked to do just that. "A pleasure," she said, and backed hurriedly away toward the Grand Staircase, holding the carnations away from her as if he'd handed her a bunch of poison oak.
She managed to avoid direct conversation with Snape until the following Tuesday, at which point her luck ran out. Tuesdays meant faculty meetings after dinner, up in the conference room off Albus's office, and generally Minerva was the first to arrive. Tonight, however, she was detained – one of her third-years, a Beater on Hufflepuff's Reserve team, had missed class the following day due to a compound fracture, and had questions about his Transfiguration assignment – and by the time she'd shaken him off and wrangled her way past the spinning gargoyle ('Acid pop!'), everyone else had arrived at the meeting and the only seat left empty was next to Snape.
"Severus," she murmured, sliding into her chair and hitching it discreetly away from him. He grunted, but didn't look up from his grading. Across the table, Dumbledore beamed at her.
"Ah, there you are, Minerva," he said. "I presume you got young Gardner sorted out, then?"
"That's a job for more than fifteen minutes after dinner, I'm afraid," Minerva said, and watched from the corner of her eye as Hetty Hooch went into an impromptu coughing fit. Sprout, looking disgruntled, pounded her on the back. Dumbledore's beatific expression didn't falter.
"Good, good." He nodded brightly. "Well, then, shall we anon? Any old business?"
A squeak from the end of the table; apparently Flitwick needed more boot-buttons and another shipment of chipmunks. Minerva groaned inwardly – these supply-lists of his were interminable, and contagious to boot; any minute now, someone else would catch the bug and suddenly decide they were understocked, too. The only question was – who?
"Headmaster." A wispy voice and pale, limply raised hand from the corner armchair by the fire. "As long as you're ordering – another box of crystal balls, if you'd be so kind; breakage has been simply rampant this month –"
Of course, Minerva thought, who else?, and added another paragraph to her mental list of Things She'd Like to Say Aloud But Never Would, Due to Good Upbringing. Beside her, Severus hummed in malevolent satisfaction and reloaded his quill with red ink. Worse than execrable, Minerva read over his shoulder. Will need significant rewriting merely to achieve a state of honourable failure. Will not accept in current state.
He looked pensive for a moment, then lowered quill to parchment once again. See me for detention tomorrow night. You will need a grammatical primer and a pair of dragonhide gloves.
"Oh, honestly," Minerva muttered, and his shoulders stiffened. By the time he looked up, however, he'd effectively masked all outward signs of surprise.
"Honesty," he repeated, and smirked. "A virtue to which I constantly aspire. How about yourself, Minerva?"
Across the room, Poppy had climbed onto the supply-list bandwagon and – from the sound of it – put her foot down hard on the accelerator. "Don't I wish," Minerva said fervently, and was surprised to hear a muffled snicker of appreciation from Snape.
"Cathartic in the extreme," he remarked now under his breath. "And remarkably satisfying, for all that it's viewed by society at large as a bit of a social disease."
"Social disease?" Struck by a new and horrifying phalanx of catastrophic possibilities, Minerva frowned and hitched her chair away another few inches. Severus, reading her mind, smirked.
"Don't worry, Minerva," he murmured. "It's been at least two weeks since my last orgy; I rather imagine that whatever parasites I picked up at the time are too fatigued by now to make the jump." A malicious glance, sliding from the top of her securely-pinned knot of hair to the toes of her sensible black-leather boots. "And if not – why fret? The moment they touched you, they'd die of cold anyway."
That cut, but she'd slit her throat before she let him see it. Determinedly, she curled her lip at him. "An orgy, Severus?" she hissed. "I don't believe it for a minute. You're the only man I know who can use his own personality instead of Contraceptus. When the Death-Eaters celebrate, they probably make you stay in the corner and run the hi-fi."
He didn't like that one little bit, oh no. She could almost see his comeback curdling the air between them; it took her a moment to realise that the rest of the room had fallen silent … and that she and Snape were the object of the faculty's expectant stares.
"… all right then, Minerva?" That was Dumbledore, twinkling at her. Probably still talking about supplies, Minerva thought, and smiled haughtily; some of us plan ahead, and order accordingly.
"Fine, thank you," she said, and was vaguely alarmed to hear Hooch snicker quietly from across the room. Dumbledore turned to Snape.
"And you, Severus?"
Snape jerked his head in grudging assent. Another suppressed giggle from the opposite corner. Dumbledore beamed.
"Fine, then," he said. "Wonderful to see you two working together so amicably. I'm quite certain that the Leaving Feast will be the best it's been yet, with both of you co-chairing the committee."
Wait a minute.
Minerva opened her mouth, thought better of what she was about to say, and closed it again. Beside her, Snape was fuming silently and trying unsuccessfully not to show it.
They'd been had.