Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

"The Best of Hands"

by Christine Anderson

aka Lilly Malfoy

12 Grimmauld Place, London

He walks along the street, glancing unconcernedly over his shoulder. There is no one else on the street, though the ever-present stereo blares from Number Eleven. Stepping from shadow to shadow, he blends in. Blending in is what he does now. The trend of wizards wearing Muggle clothing had rather passed his generation by, but he has gotten good at this sort of thing, anyway.

And he will never admit it to anyone, but he rather likes some of these garments. Because he likes them, because he's learning to blend in, he usually takes care with his appearance. Usually, but not today.

Today the collar of his coat is half turned up, half not, and his hair is tousled, rather as if he had been running. He hadn't stopped to brush out the tangles; he had only bothered with changing clothes because he had no other way of disguise, Moody's spare Invisibility Cloak having been confiscated when Podmore got himself arrested.

He jogs up the walk to Number 12, his shoes making a satisfying clicking sound against the cement. He is feeling malicious, and because he is in a bit of a hurry, he allows that malice a small, mostly harmless outlet.

He's feeling malicious, and so he rings the doorbell.

He can't hear a thing until the door is opened, of course, but he is absolutely *certain* that Black is cursing him out. Almost a pity he can't hear it; Black has a decent store of those sorts of words, and he may even know a few that the other man doesn't.

Though after fourteen years of watching over Slytherin House, he rather doubts it.

The door is jerked open. The mad old portrait in the downstairs hall is shrieking madly- a mercy the Muggle neighbors can't hear it- and over this racket Black doesn't bother to shout, but makes a sharp, furious 'come in' gesture.

Black hurries towards the portrait, tugging at the curtains which will block off all sight and sound of it.

He taps his foot, content to watch this for a moment, a smile of wry amusement crossing his face.

"-blood traitor, shame of my flesh-" And then she sees him. "Traitor of traitors, twice the betrayer!"

And quite suddenly he has had enough. "Don't talk to me of blood treachery and betrayal, miserable bitch. What did you ever do for either side?" And he helps Black to close the curtains.

Black is trying not to smile. "I really hate agreeing with you, mate-"

He runs a hand through his hair, brushes it off his forehead. "We have a problem."

"What, just the one? It was you rang the doorbell, mate- 's your own fault."

"Yes, well, I needed to get your attention."

"What, decided you're brave enough to duel me after all? You just say the word, Snape- anyplace, anytime."

He sighs. This seems suddenly a terrible waste of time, and he turns, reaches for the doorknob. "Never mind. I am sorry to *trouble* you, Black- Had I known you were so dreadfully *busy* I never would have bothered making the trip. I'll just have to find someone else to help..."

"What's this? You want *my* help? Oh, this is rich, Snivelus, really. Hold on a sec, let me get a quill-"

Black is so busy chuckling to himself that he never sees the other man move. Doesn't notice a thing, in fact, until Snape grabs a large fistful of his collar and shoves him roughly against the nearest wall.

"Bloody damned *fool*! I haven't got time for this, you idiot. I need to see Dumbledore, *now*. And I've got to get back to the school before that horrid woman realizes I'm gone-"

"Merlin, let me *breathe*, Snape! Listen, I'm afraid you're shit out of luck, because Dumbledore's not here. Don't know where he is, come to that. We can send him an owl, but that'll take time-"

Black stops speaking because Snape has twisted his collar a bit tighter, and suddenly it is enough of a struggle to draw breath, without the added stress of attempting to speak.

"*Hell*," says Snape. "Then I suppose you're all I've got, after all." He doesn't bother to hide his disgust at this state of affairs. "Listen, then- Umbridge has sacked Hagrid, and was well on her way to having him arrested, as well. If the Aurors she brought with her hadn't been too moronic to think what half-giant blood would do to protect him, Merlin only knows what they'd have done with him."

Black sighs. "Well- I'm sorry for Hagrid, but it's to be expected, isn't it? He wouldn't listen to anyone about shaping up his curriculum, would he? And you did say he got away?"

"He did," Snape confirms, "but it's not Hagrid that concerns me."

"What, then?"

"If you would shut up, I might be able to tell you," he says, annoyed. "*Minerva*."

"She's not-?"

"I don't bloody know!" Snape snaps at him. "But she caught sight of Umbridge's lot going after Hagrid, went down there to tell them off- and they Stunned her. Four of them, to the chest. At once." He hopes dearly that he does not look as stricken as he feels, but realizes it's probably a lost cause. If the sudden look of sympathy upon Black's face is any indication, he is every bit as transparent as he never wanted to be.

Black winces. "Bloody hell. What do you need?"

*At last,* he thinks, *I seem to have gotten through.* He makes no apologies for his rough treatment of the other man, but he does let him go.

"Never mind Dumbledore, Hagrid will have gone to him, and he'll know as much as I could tell him for now anyway. What I need is to get her out of Hogwarts to St. Mungo's, and if it could be done without Umbridge getting wind of it, that would be best, I think."

"You don't really think she's in danger there?" Black asks.

Snape gives him a sharp look. "Don't be naive, Black- of course she is. I have no lack of trust in Pomfey, but she can't always be there, and it would be all too easy for some...accident to happen. And I will not allow that."

Black nods. "Alright. *Damn* but I wish we hadn't lost Moody's spare cloak-"

A loud *crack* interrupts him.

"Do I hear someone taking my name in vain?" growls Moody from the hallway.

"That you did," Snape says. He looks around for Moody, and smiles when he can't find him anywhere. "Just the man I wanted to see. The very man."

"What do you want, Snape?" Moody asks, pulling off his cloak.

"I need to borrow that cloak of yours."

"Do you, now."

"Don't give me that look, Moody- I truly do need it." And Snape tells him everything, inwardly screaming at the time that this is taking. Seconds become minutes, and it seems there is a clock running in his head, against which they are racing. How much time they have he doesn't know, but he is sure that it's not enough.

Moody tosses the cloak at him. "Go on, then. Best get back before they miss you- and before anything else happens to her. I'd go with you if I could, but I can't be showing my face around there. Ministry thinks I'm abroad on vacation."

Snape catches the cloak out of the air. "Thank you." He starts to put it on-

"Wait a moment," Black says. "You might need a hand."

Snape glares at him, and he grasps the cloak so tightly in his hands that his knuckles go white. "I won't need *your* help."

"No, but she might," Black says flatly.

"That was uncalled for," Snape says. But he nods, and slowly folds the cloak. "This won't hide both of us, but it will cover her. If we can get that far. However, I don't fancy walking into Hogwarts accompanied by the man on top of the Ministry's Most Wanted list."

Black chuckles. "Fair enough. I'll wear the cloak, then, shall I?" He holds out his hand for it.

Snape nods, and hands it over. "Come on, then."

"Luck, lads," says Moody. "Get going, now."

Snape opens the door and steps outside into the sun. He hears Black close the door behind him. And, knowing that he may be seen now, he forces himself to take his time, walk slowly as if he hasn't a care in the world.

He looks it, too, if he only knew it- cool, calm, collected. The upturned collar and the uncombed hair are nothing new in this neighborhood.

But inside, his nerves are jangling with tension. He lights a cigarette simply for something to do, holding it steady in his hand. He brings it to his lips, inhales.

It helps. He had not thought that it would, but it does.

"You *smoke*?" Black asks quietly.

"Yes. Shut up."

"And here I thought you were such a *good* boy..."

Annoyed, Snape turns his head, glances at his watch, takes a long drag on the cigarette.

"Ugh," says Black, catching a whiff of smoke. "Cloves." He coughs, waves an invisible hand to clear the air. Snape watches the smoke as it drifts lazily away on the breeze that will, thankfully, hide any sign of Black's movement, should anyone be watching.

"Quiet," Snape says.

But his companion only laughs under his breath. "Those things'll kill you, you know."

"No quicker than anything else will," Snape says. He even forgets to say it rudely, or sarcastically, or in any other sort of mocking tone. He just says it, matter-of-factly. And it is the truth.

"Point," says Black, and after this he falls silent.

Snape looks at his watch, *really* looks at it this time, and swears under his breath, quickly aware that too much time has passed. And while he doesn't begrudge the Order their security measures, it suddenly seems half a mile is too far to walk before they can safely Apparate.

Black jogs after him, and it is he, knowing this neighborhood better than the back of his own hand, who knows exactly when they have crossed the inner circle of protection radiating out from Number 12.

"Now," he whispers, and they cast their spells together.

They Apparate into a tunnel beneath the floor of Honeydukes Sweetshop in Hogsmeade, and as soon as their feet hit the stairs they begin to descend at a run, racing along the passageway towards the school. It seems to take forever for them to reach their destination.

Snape pauses only long enough to grind the end of his cigarette under his boot; glancing down, he notes with a small, sardonic smile that there are getting to be quite a few of those around. He pulls out his wand- "Evenesco." –and they vanish.

"Alright," Snape says, grabbing the spare robe he'd left in the passage and throwing it on over his Muggle clothes. "I realize your usual inclination is towards chaos and mayhem, Black. However. If you pull *any* of that nonsense here and now, I swear you will regret it. If it is the last thing I ever do, you will. Do you understand?"

"Yes," says Black, and for a wonder there is nothing mocking about his voice. He is actually- has hell frozen over?- taking things seriously.

"Good. Now shut up."

Snape opens the passage, and peers around the corner as if he's looking for someone up to no good, and beckons over his shoulder to Black. And then he strides along the halls, Severus Snape, master of the school, scowl properly in place, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

He whistles once, quiet but sharp.

"Yes, sir?" asks the voice of the gaunt, bloody Slytherin house ghost as he appears at Snape's side.

"All quiet here?" Snape asks the Bloody Baron. Just before his departure, he had told the ghost, *guard her*, and the Baron would not have come to his summons if anything were amiss.

"Yes, sir," says the Baron, by which he means that Minerva McGonagall is no worse, and nothing has happened in Snape's absence.

"Good, good. Carry on."

By which he means, *go to Pomfrey and tell her to be ready*.

"Still there?" he murmurs out of the corner of his mouth, because it's been several moments since he last heard Black.

"Yep," says Black as they hurry after the Slytherin ghost.

The school halls are nearly deserted, and Snape realizes most of the student body must be outside, celebrating their freedom from exams. He is grateful for their absence, as it makes their passage easier.

Madam Pomfrey opens the door to the hospital wing only a crack at his knock, and she peers out through it at him for what seems an eternity before finally seeming to decide he must be who he seems, and stepping aside to let him in.

"Thank you," Snape says dryly. "Has the Baron been by?"

The school nurse shudders. "Yes, he just left."

Snape nods. "How is she?"

Pomfrey sighs. "I've done the best that I can, but- four Stunners, I really can't say. She's strong, but..."

He nods slowly, holding his face expressionless by sheer force of will. "May I see her?"

The nurse leads the way to a bed in the farthest corner of the hospital wing. Minerva lies still, and she is horribly pale. Snape can't help gasping when he sees her, and he feels a hand clutch his shoulder supportively. He looks over his shoulder, but can see no one.

It's Black.

Black, and probably the first gesture of kindness he has ever shown the other man.

Snape shakes his head, but he shoots Black a quick glance that isn't quite as unfriendly as is usual. He leans over Minerva's bed, and ever so gently touches her hand. "She's cold as ice."

And he nods once, decisively. "That settles it. Madam Pomfrey, perhaps you should take a brief walk?"

The nurse purses her lips, looking unhappy. "I'd really rather-"

"Yes, I'm sure," Snape interrupts, "but I believe it's better this way."

"Very well," she says, and leaves.

"What was that all about?" Black asks, doffing the Invisibility Cloak. "I'm fairly sure she can be trusted."

"Probably," Snape agrees, "but I don't trust who might question her, or how they might...persuade her to speak." He kneels beside the bed. "Minerva? I don't know if you can hear me, but everything's going to be alright." He reaches a hand behind his back, and Black hands him the cloak.

Snape wraps her carefully in it, smoothing back her hair before bringing the cloak up to cover her face.

"What?" he snaps, feeling Black's eyes upon him.

"Nothing. I just- Never mind."

*You didn't think I gave a damn about anyone,* he thinks, but doesn't say. Instead he picks up the invisible Minerva, holding her in his arms as carefully as if she were made of spun glass.

Black transforms, and sticks his canine nose out the door. He retreats into the room and nods once.

Snape nods back and whistles up the Bloody Baron again. "You know what to do," he tells the ghost.

With the Baron in the lead they leave the hospital wing, Snape holding Minerva very carefully so that the cloak does not slip. For quite some time he believes that they will make it; they are nearly to the entrance hall, and only a bit past that is the entrance to the secret passage-

And then the Baron is at his side. "Trouble," the ghost whispers.

"What is it?" Snape asks quickly. *So close...So damned close!*

"Umbridge," hisses the Bloody Baron.

"Damnit," Snape says. "Padfoot-" And oh, how he hates that nickname, but he's not stupid enough to yell 'Sirius' within twenty kilometers of Dolores Umbridge- "Get out of here. Go, now."

Black looks up at him, baring teeth, and skips off into an empty classroom. Snape glares after him, but it will have to do. There is no time to find him a safer hiding place.

*And as for me...* He sighs. *Hell.*

But it isn't just him at risk here, and a cold rage fills him with this thought. Minerva McGonagall in his arms, already injured- unable to defend herself, and fragile, so fragile...

"*No*," he whispers fiercely. He glances left and right, seeking anything that might save them, save her-

And then he sees it; a tall black boy, his hair in dreadlocks, wearing Gryffindor colors-

"Jordan!" he hisses across the hall. "Come here."

The Gryffindor boy hesitates.

"I don't bloody have time for this," Snape mutters. "Here, boy, here to me, *now*."

Lee Jordan skids to a stop beside him. "Professor, I didn't-"

"Quiet," says Snape. "When your friends the Weasley twins left school, did they leave any of their inventions in your care? Anything you might happen to have on you just now?"

"No-" Jordan starts to say, but he has the guilty look of someone who realizes they've been caught in a lie.

"Fireworks, Jordan?"

The youth nods unhappily.

Snape, though, positively grins at him. "Wonderful. Run along to the entrance hall and set them off, all of it, whatever you have. Go *now*."

"Why, sir?" Jordan asks.

Snape sighs, but lifts the cloak enough so that Jordan can see Minerva's face. "She's far safer out of this place," Snape says quietly, "but Umbridge is on her way-"

Jordan grins back at him. "I'm onto it, sir!" And he runs off, pulling things from his pockets.

It's truly amazing, Snape thinks as he slips into the classroom where Black is hiding, how many things can be hidden in the pockets of a school robe. And quite potent things, they are, too, he adds to himself, as something begins to emit loud, shrieking sparks in the entrance hall.

They hear Umbridge rush past, screaming that she will expel whoever set off the fireworks. Hear, too, her cry of frustration as they enter the secret passage, when she finds that Jordan has had the wisdom to vanish.

"Fifty points to Gryffindor," Snape whispers as he dashes into the passage.

And he laughs right alongside Black when the other man transforms.

But they aren't out of the woods yet, and so Snape tightens his hold around the cloaked woman in his arms, and slowly ascends the stairs, whispering to her all the while.

"It's alright, it's alright..." And other things, too, things he never would have said if he had thought for a moment Black was paying the least bit of attention, whispers so quiet he does not know if he has even spoken them aloud, or only thought them in the depths of his heart.

He can't remember the last time he has felt so afraid- not for himself, but for someone else. Even among the Death Eaters, it is only his own skin he's risking, and that has always meant less to him than...well, less than most things, but especially her.

The journey to the top of the stairs seems to last twice as long as the journey down, and though he's not in bad shape, he feels his legs screaming by the time they reach the last stair.

"Hold her a moment, would you?" he asks Black. "And for Merlin's sake don't let go."

Black smiles, but says nothing, only holds her up for the moment or so it takes Snape to divest himself of his robe.

This done, he holds out his hands, and he doesn't breathe again until she is safely back in his arms. Snape feels her stir, settle herself against him, and brushes a hand over her cloaked face. "Shh," he whispers.

Black dons the enveloping black robe, pulling up its hood, which casts his face into shadow. "You-"

"Yes?" Snape asks. He is trying to focus upon the Apparition spell, but it is not coming to him.

"I was only wondering," said Black, "if she knew."

Snape says nothing, only smiles enigmatically at him.

"Snape?"

"Thank you for your help," he says, and the words do not come easy to him. "Perhaps you should go back now- there's no reason for you to continue on with me."

"Right. And get told off by Molly and all the rest for not being there if something happens to you? Not to mention Moody, if we've cost him his last cloak-"

"I won't," Snape says. Emphasis on 'I'. "Go *on*," he says quietly. "Someone needs to get word to Dumbledore that we've gotten her out of there."

Black sighs. "Yes, alright... But do me a favor?"

"I'd probably best hear what it is first," Snape says.

Black chuckles. "Always trusting, Snape. It's nothing you can't handle; owl me or stop by sometime, let me know how she's doing? I'm sure the others will want to know, too."

Snape nods. "Consider it done. I'll have to return Moody's cloak to him, at any rate."

"Right then. Cheers, Severus. Take care of her, right?"

"I intend to," Snape says. He Apparates one way, Black another, and they part.

The Order of the Phoenix has a contact at St. Mungo's, and it is to this contact that Snape goes. In no time at all Minerva is settled at the magical hospital, a team of healers swarming around her, and she is regaining some of her usual color.

He watches them for a moment, long enough to assure himself that she is in the best of hands, and then he turns away.

Her voice calls him back. "Severus?"

He slips between healers and their assistants, a matter of seconds before he is at her side. "I'm here."

She smiles drowsily up at him. "I just wanted to say-" She pauses while the Order's contact shoos the hangers-on out. "-thank you."

"It was nothing at all."

Minerva's hand reaches up, and her fingers caress their way down his cheek. "It's more than that."

"Rest, alright? Just rest."

"Worried about me, were you?" she asks.

He recalls the pounding of his heart, sounding like a drum to his own ears, recalls his footsteps matching that beat as he raced down the passage stairs towards her... how much he had wanted to *hurt* Sirius Black for wasting time, her time, while she might have been-

"Yes," he says softly.

"Hagrid get away alright?" she asks, quietly.

Snape nods. "Yes. Minerva, I..." Sighs, glances at his watch. "I am sorry. I need to go."

"Don't apologize," she says. "You have done...enough."

He smiles, leans over, and kisses her very gently. "Rest, my love."

Snape feels her sigh against his lips, as she pushes him gently back. "I promise. Go on, now."

He nods, standing slowly.

"And, Severus?"

"Hmm?"

"Be careful."

"I shall." And he smiles again, as she reaches up, pulls him back down to her. And proceeds to fix his collar.

"I'm sorry. That was...bothering me."

"Better now?" he asks with amusement.

"Yes." Her eyes begin to drift closed. "Love you..."

"I know. Get some sleep. I'll be back when I can."

He doesn't know if she hears or not, but he pauses to straighten her blankets before he goes. On his way through the door he blows out the lamp.

*Oh yes,* he thinks as he folds the cloak and tucks it under his arm. *She knows.*