Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter or the characters therein. This is written strictly for fun and in no way for profit. This disclaimer applies to all chapters of this story.
It was a bright fall day near the beginning of term, summer's last breath, and she could not stand to grade one single essay more at the moment. Contrary to popular belief, one's faculty for enjoying a beautiful day did not automatically shrivel up into a raisin-sized lump lodged in the lizard brain at the age of fifty. At least hers hadn't, so far. So Minerva set the fourth year homework aside and left by the back door of her office, descending the twisting private stair that led (most of the time) to the tower's exit. Perhaps she had overestimated her enjoyment faculty's un-shriveled state, for she felt a pang of the incongruous half-hearted guilt of playing hooky as she opened the door to the grounds. She sniffed to herself. Really, Minerva. At the fifty-six, one is perfectly entitled to some fresh air. A turn about the grounds will do you good.
It would be a short turn in any case – though the air was still warm, dusk was closing fast, dyeing all the shadows deeper and casting the few faint shafts of light remaining orange. The Whomping Willow, ahead and to her left, was limned in silhouette by the glow, its spindly branches like finger bones grasping at the sky. The sun would be completely gone within the half hour – she'd already seen Remus off to the Shrieking Shack some while ago. The poor boy didn't like to take chances. Not that she blamed him in the slightest.
She struck off toward the lake at a brisk pace. Perhaps if she were lucky, the exercise might fortify her enough to finish grading those essays. When she had reached the point at which her shoes began to squelch mutinously, she turned to to parallel the shore. Once, she thought she caught a glimpse of the squid, but he was less active at night. (When asked whether the squid slept at night, Hagrid had posited that it did no such thing but instead went down "to th' deeps, like" to hunt. It had given rise to much unsettling speculation among the students about what the squid could possibly be hunting.)
She had made perhaps a quarter of a circuit of the lake engrossed in thoughts about the upcoming sixth year projects and the first year lesson plans before she nearly tripped over a rock in the dark and abruptly realized that the sun had set some minutes ago. Chagrined at having lost track of the time, she turned on her heel and headed briskly back, feeling much more equal to the task ahead of her.
The only warning was a sudden, rapid thudding of footsteps to her right, alarmingly close at hand. She had gotten as far as a half turn and hand set on her wand to neutralize whatever student mischief might be afoot when something shot blindly through the hedge and crashed heavily into her side. "Shite," muttered a breathless, faintly hysterical-sounding voice somewhere slightly below the level of her shoulder. In the brief confusion that followed, Minerva managed to land a firm grip on the miscreant's collar. "Young man, I very much hope you have a good explanation forthcoming." There was no immediate response, just another series of ragged, wheezing breaths. Minerva hissed between her teeth and frog-marched him over to the square of light shed by a high-up castle window.
Upon getting a good look at her assailant, she became immediately concerned. "Mr. Snape? Whatever is the matter?" Pale and breathing hard, his dark eyes were ringed in white, like a horse about to bolt. She knew Snape as a quiet, studious Slytherin in her fifth-year Transfiguration class, best recognized within Gryffindor as the Potter gang's favored target. He'd always seemed a steady sort, not readily panicked. Indeed, after years of association with the Marauders, his ability not to panic had to be nothing short of iron-clad.
Snape said nothing, but his eyes darted to a point over her shoulder, and she heard the approach of another series of footfalls.
"Damnit, Prongs, now we've lost him. He's going to rat on us the moment he finds a prof."
"Shut up, Padfoot. I can't believe you did that."
"What? It was just a prank. And you should have seen his face when he came running out of there..." The speaker's voice degenerated into snorting laughter, and she felt Snape tense up.
"He could have been killed! What the hell were you planning on saying to Remus in the morning? 'Sorry, I let you eat Snivellus?'"
Minerva felt the blood drain from her face and stepped hastily forward.
"Mr. Black and Mr. Potter. I might have known." The shadows froze and pivoted toward her, revealing the horror-struck faces of Gryffindor's finest. "I believe a trip to the Headmaster's office is in order. This instant, Mr. Black. Get moving."
Listening to Albus' shamelessly ill-conceived judgement of the trio left Minerva no less furious. She had had to bite her tongue at several points to keep from openly disputing the Headmaster's judgement in front of the students. She was aware of Albus' fondness for Potter and Company and his well-founded concerns regarding Black's background and home life. She had no little share of fondness for Potter and Company and concern for Black herself. But she found herself utterly appalled at Albus' lack of consideration for Snape, and she was resolved that she would have words with the Headmaster at the earliest possible opportunity.
She eyed the trio of sullen teenagers who had followed her out of the office. For now, she would fix what she could.
"Mr. Black and Mr. Potter, I am extremely disappointed. It has been years since I was so ashamed of my House. Fifty points from Gryffindor, Mr. Black. You are both banned from all Quidditch practice and matches, effective immediately. If I catch either of you so much as out past curfew this year, you will be extremely sorry for it. Is that clear?"
"It had better be. Dismissed."
She waited until the two were safely past a corner and out of earshot before addressing Snape, using the brief pause to covertly look him over. He was presently staring fixedly after Black and Potter, lips pressed whitely together. The panicky expression he'd worn before had given way to a focused, tightly controlled mien Minerva judged to be the edge of a dangerous temper. Though he seemed much more in command of himself, he was still worryingly pale, and bore the hint of what might be a shocky tremor.
He seemed to snap out of whatever vengeful reverie he'd been engaged in and turned to face her.
"It seems I owe you an apology – both personally and on behalf of my House. A prank of that nature should never have occurred. The fact that it did speaks of a serious lack of respect on the part Messrs. Potter and Black and of a lack of vigilance on the part of their professors."
Snape blinked and she thought she caught a brief, subtle startled expression cross his face. It faded quickly from view, but she had the sense that she was receiving his full attention.
"You have my word that those boys, and particularly Mr. Black, will be under close scrutiny from now on, and that further infarctions will be punished severely."
Snape was still regarding her with that serious, wary expression, and on impulse she inserted an addendum to her speech.
"Mr. Snape, if you have any further difficulties this year, of any sort, related to them or not, you are always welcome to talk to me. My office hours are posted on my door and in the Transfiguration classroom, but if I'm not teaching I'm usually in."
That gained her a much plainer look of surprise. She doubted Snape would take advantage of her offer – four school years of keeping to oneself and suffering in silence didn't just up and die – but hopefully it at least gave him an emergency escape of sorts. The thought coiled in the back of her mind that the dangerous political tensions of the past few years had escalated badly this summer, and that Slytherin House might shortly become uncomfortable for a half-blood like Snape.
She cleared her throat and returned to the original course of her speech. "Now, off with you to the infirmary. Madam Pomfrey will likely want you to stay the night for observation. You are, of course, excused from classes tomorrow."
Snape nodded. "Yes, Professor." A second of hesitation. "Thank you."
AN: Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. I've always liked mentor stories, and this seemed like a different take.
This story is currently looking for a beta reader, mostly for characterization/plothole-checking and to prevent me from getting too verbose. If you're interested, please drop me a line.
Thanks for reading!