Disclaimer: All belongs to J.K.R.
Drifting upwards through heavy layers of uneasy sleep, the professor's eyes flew open and he gazed about at his surroundings in confusion. It took him a moment to register the fact that he was in the waiting room at St. Mungo's, and another to realize it had been Emmeline Vance incessantly attempting to shake him out of his slumber.
Stifling a yawn and batting her away, he rubbed a hand over his haggard face; as he did so, his sleep-clouded eyes stumbled across a patch of bright sunlight spilling into the dreary room through a partially open window. Jerking awake, Severus sat bolt upright in the uncomfortable chair, his stiff muscles screaming in protest.
It did not matter that he hadn't been given orders to stand guard over the Deputy Headmistress; feeling the responsibility weighing heavily on him, he had silently undertaken the duty to do so on his own, and was beyond frustrated with himself for succumbing to the human weakness that was sleep. She was a crucial member of the Order and Dumbledore's right hand – any number of dangers could have befallen her on his neglectful watch.
Shoving lanky, disarrayed strands of hair out of his face, he agitatedly asked, "How long have I been out?"
Not long enough, Merlin knows, Emmeline thought, standing a few paces away with hands on hips and shrewdly surveying him. Dark circles beneath his weary eyes stood out in shocking contrast against the pale skin of his gaunt face, even more devoid of color than usual, and his clothing appeared wrinkled and sullied. Through her perception, this was not by any means the omniscient inferno that inspired fear in the hearts of children; this was rather a mere mortal sat before her, a shade of that formidable presence.
"Emmeline! How long?" he repeated sharply, glaring intently up at the lofty witch and breaking her out of her trance.
Having just awoken, he had not yet been able to bury the myriad of emotions he was experiencing beneath his normally icy exterior, and Emmeline realized with a twinge of something akin to sympathy that the events of the past night must have truly unnerved him. It was because of this that she answered in a tone lacking her usual haughtiness. "A little over three hours. But it's early still," she added quickly. Like many members of the Order, she knew all too well of the professor's range of moods, and was in no mood to risk the venomous bite of the serpent so early in the day.
Exhausted regardless of the sleep, Severus found that he was in no state to come up with an acerbic response, and suited himself instead to nodding before he turned his face away towards the window. Through the drab taupe curtains, he was able to catch a glimpse of shining blue sky and hear the soft melody of birds singing. How was it possible for it to be so perfect on the exterior, when it felt as though everything within was crumbling apart?
"How is she?"
Though Emmeline had expected the question from the callous Head of Slytherin, she had yet to decide on how to put the answer into words. Gnawing at the corner of her lip, she came forward slowly and settled into a chair beside him, suddenly highly intent on studying her nails. Her answer, when she finally spoke, was slow and deliberate. "Severus, she's … she's in a bad way."
Leaning forward in the chair to rest his elbows against his knees, Severus cradled his head in his hands and slid his eyes closed. "How bad?" came the muffled voice when he finally spoke.
"She went into cardiac arrest shortly before dawn. For a while they ... didn't know if she'd make it. The Healers say she's stable, for now, but they're monitoring her regularly. She's been in and out of consciousness, a touch-and-go sort of thing. They're waiting for her to come out of it before they assess any long-term damage."
He hadn't thought it was possible to feel any worse, but Emmeline's words seemed to put the final nail in the coffin. As the last remnants of sleep were torn away and reality sank in, Severus found that all of the emotions he had forcibly pushed away since he had watched the attack from the library were finally catching up with him.
"Someone should have woken me."
"Oh, do stop trying to carry all the weight on your own. There was nothing you would have been able to do," she snapped before her expression softened a moment later. She stretched a hand out to place it on his shoulder, but thought better of it. The last thing Severus Snape ever wanted was pity, and so instead she lowered her voice substantially and issued him an assignment. "As it is, Severus, I expect Dumbledore will be wanting a full update, and as I'm expected at work in an hour, it looks like you're up."
With a firm nod, she stood and gathered up the few things she'd had with her. "Look in on her before you go, will you?"
As he listened to Emmeline Vance retreating away down the hall to leave him to his solitude, Severus fisted his hands in his hair and found that he could do nothing to still the trembling that overtook him. A raw, stinging ache invaded the back of his throat. He felt as if he wanted to throw something just to hear it break the damnable silence – something, anything to stop the disquieting waves of anxiety from washing over him.
Raising his head, he blinked unfocused eyes at the timid-looking aide, wishing for the useless thing to find something else to gawk at with her bulgy eyes.
"Sir, I'm sorry to disturb you, but –"
"Oh, have out with it already, you twitchy little cow!" Severus snapped throatily, a murderous scowl darkening his features.
The aide took a precautionary step backwards, looking for the entire world as though she might begin to cry. "I – I'm sorry, sir, it's just that ... Professor McGonagall appears to be coming around, and the nurse thought –"
Whatever the nurse thought, Severus didn't give her time to say. Minerva was awaking, and that was all that mattered at the moment. He was on his feet in an instant and hurrying down the hall before the aide even had time to process his movement.
Slowing his pace as he neared her room, the troubled professor of Potions straightened his clothing and ran a hand again over his face. There was a hint of stubble there, he knew, but there was no help for that now. Grasping the doorknob, he took a deep breath and rearranged his face into what he hoped was a neutral expression. It wouldn't do to enter the sickroom of the Deputy Headmistress appearing fretful or distraught – it would give her grounds to needle him for months on end. Turning the knob, the door opened.
"Well, Minerva, it seems –"
Stopping dead in his tracks, his breath hitched in his throat and he reached out to steady himself against the doorframe. He had intended to be sarcastic, to act as though little was amiss. He wanted so desperately to pretend that Minerva had landed herself in a situation that he'd be ribbing her about in the staff room in a few days; but despite Emmeline's advanced warning, he had been in no way prepared.
Minerva lay propped at a twenty-degree angle, looking frailer than he'd ever seen amid a sea of standard hospital-issue linen. Her dark hair had come mostly undone from the tight bun she insisted on imprisoning it in, and aside from being tangled and matted across the pillow, it was the only splash of color present throughout the stark white of the bed sheets. It was this, her pallor, which concerned him most – in Severus' opinion she was far too pale for comfort. It never bode well to look as though Death himself had come to wash away all traces of life.
Edging into the room and closing the door silently behind him, Severus discerned that it was not nearly as quiet here as it had been in the waiting room. Various machines were scattered about the bedside, all whirring and beeping and occasionally hissing. He noted with misgiving that they were all connected to her in some way – whether it be the soft round pads sticking to her brow and chest, or the clear tube that was buried deep within her left forearm.
Lines of concern instantly marring his forehead, the Head of House glanced about, shadowed eyes quickly taking in the rest of the room, before he stepped hesitantly to her bedside and sank into the proffered chair beside it. Try as he might, he could not dispel the heaviness that was curling up and nesting within his chest. Foolishly, he tried to force himself into believing his anxiety was merely a byproduct of an ages-old mistrust of medical institutions, but even he knew that when it came down to the very heart of the matter, she was entirely to blame for his current state.
Despite their rivalry, their disagreements, and their frequent shouting matches, it could not be denied that she was nevertheless an important fixture both at Hogwarts and in the Order; and, therefore, in his life. Under the most normal of circumstances, he selfishly would not have wanted to have his life disrupted for any amount of time. Now, however, there was more to it than that. Although he did not care to admit it, particularly to himself, watching his Deputy Headmistress taunt the fates and defy death as she had done more than disrupted his life.
Just seeing this woman, so strong and unerring, exposed to the consequences of human peril set his stomach churning and left his mind reeling. Had the unthinkable occurred, where would it have left them? And all simply because she had had to be so noble and self-sacrificing, so Gryffindor ... and yet so very Minerva.
Pushing aside his dark thoughts, he glared down at her for a moment, as though she might somehow feel his stony stare and decide to rise, perhaps ready with a fresh barb or rebuke. She did not do so, but Severus allowed his eyes to linger, to take in all that which he had somehow never before taken the time to notice. When, for instance, had her hair, dark as the shadows that had danced about them the night before, begun to streak faintly here and there with gray? When had those delicate lines begun to stem and deepen about her eyes and mouth? And when had she found the time to become so painfully thin and brittle, to allow the soft curve of her cheek to be overtaken by such garish angularity?
Feeling his face begin to crumble, he dropped his gaze to his lap, squeezing his eyes tightly closed. He was shamed – shamed that he, always so careful to observe even the minutest of details, could have ignored the strain, the toll that life was exacting on those nearest him. But worse still was the shock of knowing how susceptible they truly were, of discovering the true meaning of mortality. Minerva McGonagall, a sturdy pillar on which to lean, was no more infallible than the rest of them. Her presence was no more assured of than that of any of their number.
It was the gentle sigh that first broke Severus' despondent reverie. His head snapped up, eyes searching for signs of consciousness, and was not long to wait. Breath released in a rush from his lungs at the sight of her eyes moving rapidly beneath closed lids. He waited on the brink of his seat, palms resting on the edge of her bedside, as she stirred, her eyes flickering; and as they slowly, slowly fluttered open, he felt the waves of relief surge over him.
Recognition passed through her clouded eyes at the sound of his all too familiar voice, and she turned her head on its pillow so that her gaze fell upon him. "Severus, what –" Even as her bloodless lips began to form the question, she blanched, and the politely befuddled look slid from her face. Clearly, the atrocious details of last night had just broken through her mind's defense barrier and bubbled unbidden to the surface.
Gasping, a hand shot across the bed sheets to curl about one of his in a surprisingly strong grip. "The children, Severus! Has anything happened to them? Are they – oh, oh! Hagrid! Did she – is he –" Shooting a frenzied glance about the room, she began to push at her coverings, struggling to pull herself upright. Immediately, the machine closest let loose a burst of red steam and began to emit shrill, piercing beeps.
"They're fine, Minerva! They're all fine." Some reclusive piece of his mind marveled at her constant ability to put the students ahead of all else, but the thought was shoved hastily aside as the discordant screeches filled the room and flooded his ears. His short burst of solace washing away in alarm, he vaulted from his chair with such haste that it was sent skidding backward several feet across the tiled floor. Laying his free hand on her shoulder, he gently nudged her back down and seated himself beside her.
"Calm now," he demanded. "Calm. The students are all perfectly fine. As is Hagrid," he added as she opened her mouth to speak. Raising a brow, he regarded the slight flush spreading across her visage and could only hope it was a good thing. "I don't think you quite understand the predicament you've landed yourself in. We wouldn't want you to fall back into a relapse … mainly because I, for one, have neither the luxury nor the time to sit about on tenterhooks inquiring about your health."
Minerva tipped her head back and scowled up at the ceiling. "You really are the most contemptible man I know. You're only sore because you know that wretched old toad will have you covering some of my classes."
"Well, it really was a very selfish thing for you to do. Especially when there has already been precious little of you to go around." Frowning at his own comment, Severus carefully surveyed his colleague once more. Having already viewed the visible byproducts of her efforts, it became painfully clear just how thinly she had been spreading herself, especially with Dumbledore gone from Hogwarts. He supposed a lesser witch – or wizard, for that matter – would have crumbled beneath the strain long before.
Suddenly aware of her hand still resting firmly within his own, he lifted his face and found her eyes locked sternly upon him. "You could have left me to Poppy. You needn't have taken it upon yourself to become the guardian of my welfare. There were no orders issued that you jeopardize your position at the school to bring me here."
"And how do you know it was me?" he asked roughly, pulling his hand free and getting abruptly to his feet. Standing there beside her sickbed, he was all too aware of her scrutinous observation of his person, too aware of the cogs spinning in her head as she took in his unshaven face, his lack of outer robes, and the wrinkled white shirt that had somehow managed to come untucked on one side.
"Who else, Severus? Who else would have held such high regard for my well-being?" With a sigh of exasperation, Minerva shook her head and blinked her eyelids closed. It was evident that, even after so short a period of time, she growing weary. "Who else would have dared to care at such a moment?"
Fists unclenching and shoulders slumping slightly, Severus turned his face away, set off balance by her simple, straight-forward musings. Finally sinking once more into the chair, he passed a hand across his haggard, bristled face. "I didn't want to see anything more happen to you." That much, at least, he could easily admit. That much he knew.
Toying with the hem of her thin coverlet, he allowed the quiet that followed his admittance to chase away the discomfort. Several minutes went by before her hushed voice broke the quiescence.
"I want to thank you –" He cut her off with a sharp, dismissive wave of his hand.
"There is no need." Once more the silence fell, stretching between them for so long a time that Severus became uncertain as to whether or not Minerva was still awake. Regardless, the need to say something more hung in the air, and he felt that if he did not act swiftly, the ache that was building in his chest would prevent him from ever doing so.
Turning slowly, he took a moment more to gather his thoughts. "Minerva? I don't know … that is to say – should something have happened –" Cursing himself mentally for allowing proper speech to flee him now, he cleared his throat and opened his mouth to try again, the ache more prevalent than ever.
It was she, this time, to cut him off. Lids sliding wearily open, she regarded him for an instant with her fatigued green stare, the corners of her mouth twitching upwards into the softest of smiles. "Come now, Severus," she finally sighed, her eyes slipping closed once more, "I don't think I could bear to see you break down and feel like a human being."
So saying, she reached out and gently brushed her knuckles across the back of his hand. And with a single nod of understanding, he entwined his fingers with hers and felt again her radiant warmth.
Author's Note: I started this story before HBP came out, and had such strong visuals that I simply continued to write it as I had envisioned it before reading book six.