THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS

Disclaimer: Any characters, places or things that you may recognise are the property of others. Unfortunately.

Summary: Set during OotP, a Friday evening provides a glimpse into not only what's going on amongst the staff during Umbridge's reign but a little insight into their some of their relationships as well. MM and SS pov.

Minerva's head was pounding, she was exhausted and she was up to her eyebrows in work, most of which seemed to have been created by Dolores Umbridge. And so, if it hadn't been for the fact that the person knocking on her door this late on a Friday evening was probably a sick or upset student then she would likely have ignored the rapping, hoping that whoever it was would go away and leave her alone.

When it turned out to be Severus standing in the doorway when she bade them enter, she wasn't sure whether to be relieved or irritated.

"Can I help you, Severus?" she asked, looking up from her desk, as he entered her private sitting room.

"I've brought you something." He said succinctly closing the door behind him and crossing the distance between them with a few long strides.

She was tired. She really didn't have the time or energy to deal with Severus being cryptic. Sliding her glasses off, she pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath before looking at him again.

"I thought you might like something for that headache you've been nursing for the last two days." He expanded without further encouragement.

Minerva scowled. She immensely disliked being read like a book and unfortunately the Head of Slytherin, was particularly gifted at it.

Over the last ten years, the two of them had developed a unique sort of friendship based on mutual respect and an understanding of the way the other portrayed themselves, especially in public. That didn't stop him from being a young upstart at times however.

"Thank you." She finally settled on, knowing that he really did have her best interest at heart. "But that really wasn't necessary."

Severus snorted at this and moving round her desk, was crouching down at her side before she could say another word.

Swivelling her seat to look at him, she was about to protest but was cut short by sheer surprise as he leaned forward and with finger and thumb above and below her left eye, pulled it right open as though he were inspecting it for something.

"Just what do you think you're doing?" she asked vehemently, having re-found her voice, and pushed him back out of her face.

"Trying to judge what best to give you." The Slytherin replied matter of factly. "When was the last time you slept through the night?"

"When was the last time you slept through the night?" she threw back at him, trying to gather her wits for a duel of words she strongly suspected she was going to loose.

"I have been getting my usual six hours recently. And besides I am not the one who looks as though strong breeze would nock me over."

"I do n…"

"Don't be ridiculous Minerva. You look like hell and you should be glad that I managed to talk Poppy out of coming up here and confining you to the hospital wing without preamble."

"The lesser of two evils…" she muttered to herself, standing to try and even out the playing field a little.

"Indeed. If that's how you would like to look at it." Severus responded calmly, his serenity not helping her mood any. "So have you been sleeping? Is it that the students and our Lauded High Inquisitor are keeping you up, or that your sleep itself is disturbed?"

"A little of both I suppose. " she sighed, as the realisation struck that she really didn't have the strength to fight.

"And when was the last time you ate?" he asked and Minerva found that she had to think about that one.

"I was at dinner." She said after a moment.

"Yes, and left to deal with that weeping first year before you had even lifted your spoon to the soup."

"I suppose…" she was quickly realising that she might have to be a little creative over this one.

"Don't lie Minerva, I'll test your blood sugar if I have to." Severus warned darkly.

"Well in that case," she continued, scowling. "I suppose it would have been breakfast time. It's been a long day and at the moment you are doing nothing to help hasten it to it's close."

"We'll see about that. And for the record half a slice of toast and a cup of tea does not a breakfast make." Severus stated, reaching for her wrist.

This was getting beyond ridiculous.

"Really, Severus! I may have a particularly sore head and I will admit to being completely exhausted but I really don't think any of this is strictly necessary. Now if you would be kind enough to dose me with whichever potion it is that you've decided fits best then I would be most grateful however, if you're not willing to do that…"

"Would you please calm down Minerva –" Severus softened, "I am merely doing what I have to in order to try and maintain the fragile health of a friend."

Her frustration melted somewhat at this, despite herself and she found her shoulders relaxing a little. This change was all immediately reversed however, when she suddenly found herself hovering several inches above the ground.

"What?!" she protested. "Are you weighing me Severus Snape?"

"Yes. How else do you expect me to calculate the correct dosage?"

"You've never done it before." She snapped.

"No, but you've never lost such a spectacular amount of weight after your yearly physical before. Poppy's records are usually more than accurate enough."

"I have not…" she began to protest but stopped, partly due to the look on Severus' face and partly as she really did know deep down that she had perhaps been loosing a little more weight recently than was strictly advisable.

"I'm afraid to say it's official – you now weigh less than most third years." He declared lowering her to the floor and scribbling a note that he immediately handed to a newly summoned house elf. "Take this to Madame Pomfrey please and then if you could bring up the tray I requested from the kitchen." He requested and the creature nodded before vanishing with a soft pop.

"It's not as though I mean to skip meals…" she said, raising a hand to her head which had suddenly begun to throb all the more fiercely.

"I know. However that doesn't alter the fact that you have been though, or the fact that you're skin and bone and running yourself positively ragged." He said gently, taking her elbow and leading her across to the small settee that sat in front of the fire.

Moments later, the house elf reappeared carrying a tray with soup and rolls as well as a pot of tea and something that smelled wonderfully like rhubarb crumble.

"See what you miss when you don't make it to dinner?" Snape teased dryly, knowing full well her love of rhubarb. "Now, you need to eat and I need to do some maths." He continued placing the tray before her and making it quite clear there was to be no argument.

Picking up her spoon, Minerva made a valiant attempt to eat the soup, stopping to daintily tear off chunks of bread. She didn't miss the fact that Severus was watching her out of the side of his eye.

"You do not need to watch me as though I were Neville Longbottom in front of a cauldron Severus."

"Believe me, if you were Longbottom I would be watching you much more closely." Came the flat reply.

Minerva turned her attention back to the food and despite the fact that her headache was causing her stomach to roil; she did her best to finish the bowl.

When she protested at the crumble, there was just no way she was going to face that, she got a genuine look of surprise.

"Perhaps after I've taken something for my head." She offered.

"Hmm – well at least there's something in your stomach now." He conceded, as he began to pour out measures. "I really should be taking you down to see Poppy and asking her to keep you in overnight for observation before I give you either of these – all things considered. However…" he held up a placating hand. "I wont in this instance."

Minerva offered him a pathetic attempt at a smile in an attempt to show her appreciation for this small reprieve.

"Now this one should help lift your headache," Severus continued, indicating the first of the two glasses. "And this should ensure that you sleep through tonight. Pomona has already agreed to keep an eye on your students tonight."

"Thank you. " she said sincerely but before she could move to take either of them, there was another nock at her door.

Minerva looked at Severus, a thousand thoughts running through her head. Although she had admitted students while Severus was visiting on previous occasions, and certainly other staff members without the blink of an eye, the idea that she might be exposing this relationship to the scrutiny of Dolores Jane Umbridge was another thing entirely.

"Don't worry – I was needing to borrow your facilities in any case." Severus said, standing.

"Take these with you, will you?" she asked, hurriedly picking up both of the potions. Then changing her mind, as her headache only increased at the sharp movement, she took back the analgesic and downed it before sending him on his way.

For the second time that evening, she commanded someone to enter her rooms unsure of what to expect. Her immediate reaction upon seeing that it was not in fact Dolores Umbridge was relief but this in turn this was quickly outweighed by her concern for the obviously distraught student that entered.

"Miss Harris?" she asked, crossing the room in order to close the door behind the weeping first year. "Now what is it that has you out of bed at this time of night?" she asked, ushering the girl across room.

This was the second of her youngsters who she had in tears tonight and she knew exactly who was responsible.

"It's… It's…" the usually rather well composed girl began. "It's Mary…" she sniffed, taking a seat on the sofa, while Minerva chose to perch on the edge of an armchair by the fire.

She handed the child a clean handkerchief and summoning a house elf, asked her to bring up a cup of hot chocolate.

"Now take a deep breath, Miss Harris, and start from the beginning." She instructed.

"Well I suppose it started with Professor Umbridge this afternoon." She began, obviously trying her hardest to maintain her control and confirming Minerva's suspicions.

"She was in a horrible mood today, not that she's ever very nice," the young girl added. "but today she was so… So… mean."

"Yes. I believe that Professor Umbridge did feel the need to reprimand some members of your class this afternoon and that she was perhaps… a little over-zealous."

"I know you spoke to Mary earlier and she seemed to feel much better after you spoke to her. But… I don't know what she said but… It's not just Mary!" she finished with a sob. "Umbridge's just so mean to everyone! The way she talks to us… especially people who don't come from magical families. And the things she suggests…!"

Minerva listened carefully as this astute young girl vented her concerns, fresh tears pouring down her cheeks as she played with the chord of her dressing gown.

"It's not what she says so much, but how she says it, and what it is she chooses not to say." Miss Harris looked up directly into her eyes then, "Sometimes I don't think the others get it – that they don't understand what it is that she really means. What it is she is suggesting…" she trailed off.

Annabelle Harris had two older brothers and an older sister, all of whom had been Ravenclaws like their parents, and was the youngest by almost ten years. Minerva had always thought this had had a significant impact on the girl's mature air and composed manner, she was certainly above her peers in terms of intelligence.

So what this was really about was the fact that Miss Harris was able to understand Dolores Umbridge's clumsy insinuations, while the vast majority if her classmates were not and thus had a great number of concerns and no one to voice them to.

"I am regrettably aware of Professor Umbridge's unfortunate habit of threatening students in the same fashion she does the teaching staff." Minerva began calmly. "There is little I can do to prevent the High Inquisitor from making such statements but I can assure you that I will do absolutely everything in my power to insure that she cannot act upon them." She continued sternly.

She wished with all her heart that she could entirely dispel the fears of this and all of her students but she had never believed in actively lying to them.

"Now, I know that some of the things Professor Umbridge says are untrue, unfair and particularly unpleasant but I want you to know that if she says anything that concerns you particularly then you are to come and see me at once. Do you understand me, Miss Harris?"

"Yes, Professor." She said, placing her now empty mug back on the coffee table.

"Now you dry those tears and get yourself back to bed and I'll be along in a wee while just to make sure that you're all ok." She reassured, the young girl as she ushered her towards the door.

"Thank you, Professor." Came the quiet response.

"Not at all," Minerva reiterated, placing a gentle hand on the girls shoulder, "now just you remember what I said – If you have any concerns about any of your Professors, come and let me know and you have my word that I will not let her hurt any of you if I can do anything to help it."

Miss Harris nodded, and set off down the corridor back towards the portrait hole, the sound of her slippers on the stone hallway the only sound echoing off the walls. Minerva stood in the doorway until she saw the portrait opening and the 1st year slip inside, before stepping back into the warmth of her room and closing her door on the night.

Her hand still on the doorknob, she leant forward till her head was resting against the panelled oak, and closing her eyes, tried desperately to reign in her emotions.

She hated this. She hated not being in control. It just made her so angry!

Before she had a chance to quell the sudden urge, she had grabbed the vase sitting on the bookcase to her right and turning, hurled it across the room with all her might so that it crashed against the far wall, missing Severus' head by less than a foot.

Severus Snape came out of the bathroom and ducked. It was only years of repressing pretty much any and all automatic reactions that prevented him squealing like a first year Hufflepuff as the glass smashed barely inches above his head.

"Well it's clear to see why you were a Chaser." He comented drolly, privately impressed that Minerva's compromised form had still allowed her to throw not an insubstantial piece of glass that far across the room.

"That. Bloody. Woman." The Gryffindor ground out, fists still clenched at her side. "Damn her. How dare she…!"

Minerva's anger was obviously so profound that she was struggling to form the words in order to express it and for some one known for her eloquence that was rather startling.

"I mean… Just Who Does She Think She IS!"

"Well that would see rather obvious." Severus responded, shaking the glass out of her hair.

When he looked back up at Minerva, it seemed that it had just dawned on her what she had just done.

"Oh!" her hand went to her mouth and her knees seemed to give way beneath her, sliding down the door until she ended up sitting with her back to the door. "I… I…. Oh… Severus!" it was almost a sob, as her head fell forward and her forehead rested on her knees.

Even from where he was standing Severus could see that her shoulders were shaking with emotion and closing the distance between them, he crouched down beside her.

"It's ok." He said softly and after a moments hesitation reached out to place a hand on her arm. "I'm fine."

When this didn't garner a response, he became more concerned for her.

"Minerva? It's okay."

She was almost gasping for breath now, tremors overtaking her body as she was wracked with almost hysterical sobs. In all the years that he had worked with her, Severus had never seen her cry and now she had broken down so completely it was more than slightly unnerving.

"Minerva." His voice was firmer now, knowing that he would have to try and take control of the situation. "Listen to me. I am fine and so are you going to be but I need to you to calm down."

Severus knew that there was a possibility that the medication he had given her might have side effects and that was why he had asked Filius to keep an eye on his own students tonight, but there was no indication that extreme emotional outbursts would be one of them. No, this was all Minerva, the exhaustion the stress and the need for release all combining to break down years of carefully crafted repression.

When he had spoken to Poppy earlier, she had all but said that she was just waiting for the damn to burst; 'I've known Minerva a long time,' she had begun 'I know what she's like. She takes it all so personally, but she wont let it show. She thinks she has to be strong all the time, for the students, for us, for Albus. She want's to protect us all from what's going on and failing that, she certainly doesn't want to bother us with her own measly concerns.'

Well the tears were certainly flowing now and although Severus agreed that Minerva needed some kind of catharsis he was also convinced that this was too extreme to be healthy.

"Come on now, calm down." he urged her, slipping his hand up her arm and across her shoulders. It didn't take long for him to realise that there was no hope of him getting through to her when she was in such a state.

She was rocking back and forth and purely on instinct Severus found himself tightening his arm around her shoulders to try and ground her. He shifted round so that his back was against the door, and settled in to ride out the storm.

Severus was just in the process of deciding what he was going to do with the tiny chunks he was going to curse Umbridge into, when Minerva's back shifted under her hand.

"I… I'm…sorry." she began, lifting her forehead from her knees and taking a shuddering breath.

"Don't." he said, pulling his handkerchief out of his pocket. "How are you feeling?" he asked having let her dry her face and blow her nose.

"Well I can't say that the crying jag has helped my headache." She replied lightly, but her tone let him know that she was still in some considerable discomfort.

"I'm sure that you'll feel the benefit of it in the morning."

"Hmmm…" she responded, closing her eyes and letting her head fall back.

"Well let's get you up, shall we?" he levered himself up first, before turning to offer her a hand.

She took it and with his help got herself vertical but, in the process her face lost all traces of colour it did have, and if it wasn't for his supporting hand at her elbow she might well have ended up back on the floor.

"Better?" he asked, when she seemed to have regained her balance.

"Yes. But I am beginning to regret dinner." She took another steadying breath before continuing. "I'm going to have to clear that glass up before someone stands on it." Her eyes lingered on the smashed vase.

"It'll wait. I promise that I'll be careful and we're about to get you off your feet so…" he gently led her across the settee.

"Thank you, Severus." She breathed as he settled her back into the cushions.

Turning down the lights, Severus conjured a basin of cool water.

"Why don't you wash your face?" he suggested, talking one of the several flannels he had also conjured and wetting and ringing the cloth out, he applied it to the back of her neck.

"Almost human." Minerva declared after a few minutes, sounding almost like herself. "I am sorry that I… and I that you had to see…"

"This from the woman who has seen me through all sorts of…"

"Now it's my turn to say 'enough'." She laid a gentle hand on his arm.

She caught his gaze and refused to let go for several seconds before collapsing back against the back of the sofa.

"I'm too old for this Severus." she exclaimed with the sigh. Severus snorted.

"Your age isn't the problem here Minerva. The fact that you care too much is." It was Minerva's turn to snort this time.

"Albus is convinced he'll be forced to leave the school before the months out." She continued quietly after a moment.

"I'm surprised he's lasted as long as he has." Severus pointed out.

"I'm surprised any of us have manage to contain the urge to strangle the woman thus far." She replied a little hollowly.

"Ah… but you see the pleasure in commiting the act would be entirely outweighed by the consequences."

"Entirely?" she queried with a raised eyebrow. "And in any case, you're suggesting that I'd get caught?"

"Alright." He declared standing up, in at least partial mockery. "That's enough. You've obviously had far too much excitement today."

"That's certainly true. I don't suppose you'd like to part with another dose of whatever that was earlier would you? I think I've undone any good it did with my histrionics."

"I'm afraid I can't – but there's always vial number two."

Minerva hesitated and Severus knew that she was weighing up the options and that the one that involved potion induced sleep was loosing out. Despite the levity of the last few moments he could all but see the weight of responsibility sitting on her shoulders.

"Did that sound like it was an offer? My mistake. You will take the sleeping draft and sleep for at least," he checked his pocket-watch, only mildly surprised to find that it was well past midnight. "seven hours. After which you will actually eat breakfast and happen to visit the hospital wing before attending to anything else that requires your attention."

"But…"

"But nothing. Tomorrow is Saturday and Pomona has already visited your students once this evening." he removed a slip of parchment from his pocket as if to suggest she had notified him of the fact, but ensured it remained outside Minerva's reach since it was actually a list of potions he needed to brew over the weekend, "and will no doubt pay them more attention than is strictly necessary."

"I thought I was getting you instead of Poppy?" she pointed out dryly.

"That was before I realised quite how run-down you were."

"We've had this conversation before Severus." Her tone had now lost all it's humour.

"Yes and due to that, and several other factors, I've decided that I'd be more comfortable if you saw a medical professional."

"You think I've lost the plot."

"I think nothing of the sort." He replied sharply.

"Well apart from the bits where I threw a heavy object at you and then had complete emotional breakdown I'm not quite sure what changed your mind."

"Minerva." He warned.

"Well."

"Just because you let go of your infamously well controlled temper does not mean that I think you're any more crazy than I did two hours ago."

"What did I do two hours ago to make you think I was crazy?"

"Open the door without even asking who was there?"

She scowled in response but lifted her hand to her forehead in a wince of pain.

"Are you sure there's no chance of a refill?" she asked, looking up at him with plaintive eyes.

"Absolutely not." He stated categorically. "But sleep will help. Come on…"

All but lifting her from the couch, he gave her a moment to regain her balance before strong-arming her towards the door that led into her bedroom beneath the common room of Gryffindor tower.

"I'd suggest that you complete any preparations you might want to before you take this." He indicated the sleeping draught. "It should act fairly quickly."

"Thank you." She said as she moved away and opened a drawer to pull out a nightgown. "You can leave now." She pointed out, as she turned back towards him.

"I shall wait till I'm sure you've actually made it safely into bed, but" he cut off her protest, "I shall grant you a little privacy."

And with that, he retreated out of the room closing the door behind him.

As Severus settled himself on Minerva's wing-backed chair by the fire, a glass of his host's favourite whiskey and one of her books for company, he took a moment to ponder the incredulity of it all. He had learned at an early age that very little was what it seemed, especially in terms of the relationships people formed with one and another. Though he would fight Minerva tooth and nail in public and took every pleasure in winding her up at any time, he would have to acknowledge, at least to himself, that he would also fight to the death for her.

Known as a bastion of fairness and righteousness she had fought for him during his school years and yet it was the Head of Gryffindor that still seemed to suffer most from knowing that it had not been enough. She did not pity him though. Since he had arrived back at the castle she had treated him with more respect than he deserved and for that he would always be grateful. He would always feel beholden to the Headmaster, would owe him a debt larger than he could ever repay, and that would always stand between them. But there was always something between Albus Dumbledore and the rest of the world. He was spread so thinly that he had all but lost contact with the everyday running of the school. He would swoop in, make a proclamation or some impressive act and then leave his Deputy to carry it to fruition.

Severus' concern for Minerva had started probably before there was anything really observable to be concerned about. Only last week he had overheard Pomona and Filius trying to get her to agree to pass on some of her work to them and even before Poppy had cornered him, he had seen the medi-witches eyes following the Gryffindor when she left the table having once again barely touched her dinner. And yet, he was fairly certain that Albus had noticed nothing untoward, or if he had, had chosen not to act.

She was his rock. She held him firm. But if he was not careful this rock would give too much of herself in his name and everyone elses, the needs of her students, her friends and colleagues as well as the headmaster's all coming before her own. His rock would crumble without the right support.

Albus may not have realised this, but Severus did and after all she had done for him he would gladly offer her his own brand of TLC when it was needed, whether she wanted to accept it or not. This, he thought swirling the deep amber liquid around the bottom of his glass, was the least he could do for the woman who had seen him at his very worst and accepted even what he could not bare.

A/N – I'm not sure how obvious this is, but this piece ended up somewhere entirely differently from where it started. I hope that this doesn't spoil the overall effect but as ever, I think it's exceptionally hard to tell from this side of the computer screen.

Feedback always welcome.

Thanks for reading

xLx