Disclaimer: If you recognise it, it's JKR's. I'm just having fun playing around in her world, and not making money, so don't sue me, please...not that I have anything worth suing me over, anyway. :)
Author's Note: Hey there! I wrote this a while ago, and left it to rot on my computer...I don't really remember why, except that maybe I'd thought it was too OOC to post. I found it the other day, and figured that as long as it was finished anyway, it might as well go up on . Enjoy!
Edit 23/3: Just fixing a typo that was bothering me. If you see any more, let me know! :)
For Minerva McGonagall, there was nothing unusual about the start of another year. She waited alone at the doors to the docks as usual, ready to escort the new first years to their Sorting—and as such, was unaware that, for her colleagues and those students already in the Great Hall, the start of this year was very unusual indeed.
The returning students filtered into the hall slowly, as they typically did, talking and laughing with those they hadn't seen all summer, getting up or waving as more students from the long line of carriages finally reached the castle. It took a relatively long time for everyone to settle down and take their seats at the house tables; one table, however, remained woefully empty.
It was hard to be sure at first—after all, not even half the carriages had arrived yet, judging by the number of students milling about the hall—but then more people came, and more, and still the table was devoid of students. The staff, already seated at the head table, frowned and waited, but after nearly twenty minutes, there was no denying that there were simply no Slytherins present.
Minerva listened until the rumble of students' feet faded from the Entrance Hall before leading the new students up to the doors. Double-checking that she had the new register, she asked them to follow her and led them to the Great Hall, smiling faintly at their whispered exclamations of wonder.
She very nearly stopped dead in the doorway—had she come too early? Where were at least a quarter of their students?—but, looking to the head table, knew there had been no mistake on her part. She pressed her lips together and continued up the centre aisle, noting Dumbledore's grim expression and Pomona Sprout and Poppy Pomfrey's curious frowns. Severus Snape, she noticed with a reluctant pang, was white-faced, staring numbly at the table; he appeared to have taken the absence of his house as a serious blow.
Glaring sharply at the already seated students, who also seemed curious about the Slytherins, Minerva held out the Sorting hat and began calling the names of the new first years. Still half-absorbed in her own thoughts, she hardly noticed as the first small girl was sorted into her house.
Loud applause from the Gryffindor table greeted the Sorting Hat's pronouncement. The next student was a Gryffindor as well; then a Ravenclaw, and a Hufflepuff. Further down Minerva's list was another Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, a Gryffindor...another Hufflepuff...two more Ravenclaws...
Minerva knew she was frowning by now, and glanced surreptitiously at the staff table behind her. Not a single Slytherin student yet in the whole class? It was unheard of. No house was left out during a Sorting. Dumbledore apparently found this very interesting; though he clapped for each student, his gaze was focused inward, and he was stroking his beard absent-mindedly. Minerva was dying to hear his thoughts, but then her eyes drifted over Professor Snape again, and she hurriedly turned her attention back to the dwindling line of unsorted first years.
And then she understood. As each new student sat down on the stool, their eyes flickered over the four house tables, lingering for a bit on the Slytherins'. She couldn't hear the conversations between the Hat and the children, but the looks on their faces clearly said the same thing: Don't put me at that table, where I'll stand out. Where I'll be alone. Not there. That's not for me.
The very last first year became a Hufflepuff, and then the Sorting was finished. Minerva went to take the Hat and stool back to Dumbledore's office and returned to find Dumbledore halfway through his pre-meal speech.
"—not to be used in the corridors. Anyone wishing to try out for their house Quidditch team may submit their name to their head of house, and—" He broke off suddenly as Madam Hooch whispered something to him from a few seats away. "In order to maintain the traditional season schedule, an inter-house team will also be offered this year—contact Madam Hooch. Now—" everyone's golden plates were suddenly piled high with food—"I suggest eveyone try the chicken. It's delicious."
Several students laughed, and the hall was filled with good-natured chatter as the feast began.
Minerva passed on Dumbledore's suggestion, opting for a steak instead. As Pomona and Filius Flitwick congratulated Madam Hooch on the idea of an inter-house team to take Slytherin's place, Minerva sighed and turned to the silent man on her right.
"Severus, would you pass—oh. Thank you," she added quickly, as he handed her the gravy without looking at her. She knew better than to be offended; he had never had a particularly charming personality and often accompanied favours with snide remarks. Considering the inexplicable disappearance of his house, Minerva supposed she was lucky he didn't say anything.
Ignoring him, she turned back to her plate to find Dumbledore watching her, his eyes sparkling in amusement. "Minerva, you're not having chicken? I'm hurt."
"Really, Albus, you know I've never liked poultry," Minerva sighed. She eyed the cooked bird legs with distaste before looking back into Albus' lined face. "I—do you have any ideas as to...?"
"—the disappearance of our young Slytherins?" Albus finished. His face held little trace of laughter now; Minerva felt rather than saw Severus tense next to her. "I have my suspicions, of course, but little more than that."
"Yes, really," said Filius from Albus' other side; he had apparently been eavesdropping. "Most unusual...any theories you'd care to share?"
"Rebellion, perhaps?" said Pomona quickly, before Albus could answer. "Their parents are upset about your stance on You-Know-Who, so they pulled the students out of school?"
Poppy shook her head. "That doesn't account for the first years. There should be at least some Slytherins here—not everyone could know which house they would be sorted into."
"Fair point," Pomona conceded. Minerva half-considered telling them what she had observed during the Sorting, but then Madam Hooch piped up.
"It could be a conspiracy!" she said excitedly; despite her stern demeanour, she had a bit of a soft spot for ridiculous tales of mystery and suspense. "No, listen—they're trying to bring down the school from within, right? If it looks like they're gone, then we're all going to be thinking, 'well, we're well shot of them now,' and not be expecting trouble from the other houses...while they could be plotting the whole time to use other students to do their dirty work, or disguise themselves as being from another house, and hitting us when we least expect it..."
Minerva didn't snort, but it was a close thing; that was one of the most far-fetched ideas she'd heard all night. With what she considered amazing thick-headedness, however, she saw many of her colleagues looking as though they thought there was something to the flying teacher's words.
"We can't rule it out," said Filius—Filius, the usually level-headed Ravenclaw!—as he looked along the table. "If it's true, however, we must admit we're in for a rough time indeed. If not...well, I hate to say it, but it does look something sinister..."
There was uneasy muttering too low for Minerva to make out; those involved in the conversation looked unusually gloomy. Personally, she didn't think any good was at the heart of this, but there was no use worrying until they knew for certain. Perhaps Albus was thinking along the same lines, for he cleared his throat and looked around at them all, his eyes twinkling once more.
"Forgive me for ruining the mood, but you all are being rather dramatic. Personally, I would not be surprised if they had all planned a house holiday to Majorca—it was one of Salazar Slytherin's favourite travel destinations. I expect they will be back before long; they will of course want to make a grand return entrance."
The staff table went deathly quiet. Minerva stared at Albus, appalled; no one was entirely sure whether to take him seriously or not. He had either just told the worst joke of all time or gone completely mad...
"Oh, very good, Headmaster!" Charity Burbage shrieked suddenly, and fell about giggling with her neighbour, Bathsheba Babbling. Minerva looked around at her colleagues in alarm as the awkward spell was broken; whether because of Charity's helpless fits of sniggering or simply because they had the most horrible sense of humour, the table had dissolved into laughter.
Filius wiped a tear from his eye. "Haha...house holiday, eh? And I suppose it was you that gave them permission to go, didn't you, Albus!"
"Can—can you imagine—" Poppy seemed to be having difficulty speaking with the stitch in her side— "S-Salazar Slytherin in—in a—" She leaned over and whispered something in Pomona's ear, and they both flushed scarlet and howled with laughter again.
"Albus..." said Minerva helplessly; this was ridiculous. It wasn't at all funny, and the students were starting to stare.
Albus turned back to her with his infuriating smile. "Yes, Minerva?" he said politely, but then his face changed, the smile sliding from it as his eyes focused over Minerva's shoulder. She turned in time to see Severus's back disappearing through the door behind them; he had gotten up and left without a word.
"Oh dear," said Albus quietly, looking uncertain. Minerva gave him a disapproving glare; he was the one that had started it. Replacing the Slytherin Quidditch team without a second thought, joking so flippantly about the disappearance of students...and now the students in the hall were staring worse than ever. Brilliant. She couldn't blame Severus for running.
Half unaware of her own actions, she pushed back her own chair and made to leave. Albus looked slightly relieved.
"Minerva, if you find him, could you—"
"I'm not apologising for you, Albus," she snapped. "As a matter of fact I think he's right to leave. The lot of you are behaving like children."
Ignoring the incredulous stares from her colleagues, she swept out of the hall through the same door Severus had used and stalked down several corridors, too angry to care where she was going. It wasn't until she saw the hem of a black cloak disappearing around another corner that she realised she had inadvertently followed him.
The footsteps ahead of her faltered, and she caught up with him quickly. His eyes flashed in fury when he turned to her, and he was breathing heavily; Minerva could scarcely recall the last time he was this upset.
"I suppose you're here to tell me he didn't mean it, are you?" he spat. "Is the greatest wizard of all time having trouble taking back his words today? Or did you offer to tell me instead, hoping that it might make a difference?"
"No," said Minerva curtly. "As a matter of fact, I think what he did was horrible, and I could not stand for it a moment longer. Any apologies he owes you he will have to make himself."
Severus watched her for a long moment, his black eyes narrowed, but then nodded. "Oh, he most certainly will...not that it matters. I'm leaving."
"Yes, leaving. I expect to be fully packed within a few hours."
"Don't be ridiculous," said Minerva, slightly taken aback by his detached manner.
"That is not an idle threat. I am clearly no longer needed—there's hardly a use for a Head of Slytherin without a house. You can tell Dumbledore that my formal resignation will be on his desk by tomorrow morning."
Minerva shook her head. "Are you forgetting your other students?" she asked, though she knew perfectly well he was not. "The other houses must learn potions as well, and we both know there is no one better for the job."
"There's plenty of aspiring young apothecaries who would relish the position," said Severus dismissively, "and teaching hardly requires the best in the business. Merlin knows the students never listen to me in any case."
"You know that's not true," said Minerva quietly. "You are needed here, no matter what the behaviour of your house."
"But not wanted here."
Minerva shook her head again. "Don't make me argue with you, Severus," she said wearily. "You're wanted just as much—if not more—than you're needed. Even if a certain Headmaster hardly says things to prove that," she added bitterly.
Severus smirked very slightly at her tone, but grew sober again almost at once. "If only he knew..." he said, so softly that Minerva wondered if he'd meant for her to hear. He shook himself. "Minerva, I respect him; really, I do," he said more forcefully, "but—how can he—my students—acting like they're—"
His rage was rendering him incoherent, but Minerva got the gist of it. "I know. He really shouldn't have said it." She hoped staying calm might soothe his temper, but on the contrary, his face twisted with some strong emotion.
"Shouldn't have said it? DAMMIT, Minerva, don't you understand?" he shouted. She winced at the audible crack as his fist connected with the stone wall, but he didn't even flinch. He stood there, looking for all the world as though he had just finished a marathon, his chest heaving, his thin frame shaking with fury.
"U—understand?" asked Minerva faintly; she had not expected such a violent reaction from him. "You mean you know where—?"
"YES, hang it all, of course I know where they are!" Severus bellowed. "AND ALL ALBUS CAN DO IS SIT THERE AND LAUGH AND SPECULATE WITH THE REST OF THEM! HE DOESN'T EVEN CONSIDER—!"
He stopped suddenly, his undamaged hand covering his face. "It's my fault," continued after a while, his voice considerably softer and unusually hoarse. "Merlin, it's my fault."
"Isn't it obvious where they've gone?" he said desperately, his glittering black eyes boring into Minerva's. "The—the Dark Lord—he's taken Slytherin House for his own. All of them. The few that didn't want to join him right from the beginning will learn, or..." He swallowed visibly, suddenly looking quite sick. "They'll all fight for him, Minerva, every last one. And they'll die for him."
Minerva caught her breath as his voice broke; his anger had evaporated, to be replaced with a look of such pain that she wondered at his ability to go on.
"I've failed," he said after a moment. "Merlin, I—I couldn't even keep one from—what have I done? Everything I've told them...worthless..."
"No, Minerva, I—I can't do this anymore," he said. "I can't—fight."
Minerva considered him thoughtfully. "You've never turned your back on a fight in your life, Severus," she said quietly, after a moment. "Why should you start now?"
His voice was tortured. "I still work against Him; you know that, but...Merlin...they're only children, Minerva! I cannot fight to kill them as I would the others! I—I can't—" he trailed away as his throat constricted. "I can't watch them die."
Minerva's heart went out to him as he turned away quickly, but not before she had seen the single tear that slipped down his cheek. His back to her, he swiped angrily at his eyes with his uninjured hand, but the damage was done. Out of respect for his pride, Minerva remained where she was and said nothing, but when he seemed no closer to composing himself several minutes later, she could no longer pretend she didn't notice his grieving. She went to his side and wordlessly offered him her handkerchief, which he took without looking at her.
After another minute of silence, Severus mopped at his face one last time and, with what looked like enormous effort, turned to face her. She could tell he was mortified—Merlin, I would be, too; I don't think he's ever broken down like that before—but his eyes were still red and he looked too miserable for her to say anything about it.
"I'm sorry," he said, "You shouldn't have to put up with my—"
"Nonsense," she interrupted firmly. "If anyone has an excuse, it's you."
He gave a funny half-shrug and took a shaky breath. "I should go."
"You're—you're not still thinking of leaving, are you?" Minerva asked tentatively.
"Of course I am."
Minerva shook her head. "I—Severus, we need you. Please, don't." When he did not look convinced, she added, "Who else am I going to argue with every day?"
He gave a very small smirk. "In that case...I will stay. For a little while, at least. Someone needs to be around to challenge your decisions."
"That's the spirit."
He heaved a tired sigh. "I really should go, now. I can't say I'm hungry enough to return to the feast, but I've kept you long enough."
"If you insist," said Minerva. She was startled to discover she had forgotten all about the Welcoming Feast. Still, it wouldn't be a bad idea to return. She had almost let him go before she caught Severus' wrist again.
"Severus, your hand."
Looking mildly surprised, as though he had forgotten, he held up the hand that had collided with the wall and examined it. His once slender white fingers were swollen and bruised, the knuckles misshapen; blood was still oozing from the places where the rough stone had opened his flesh.
"I suppose I should get Poppy to set it right later," he muttered.
Minerva drew her wand. "Let me."
He raised an eyebrow, but allowed her to take his hand gingerly in her own and touch her wand to it. She frowned in concentration as the healing magic flowed from its tip; Severus grimaced as the broken bones squirmed back into place and reformed, his skin closed itself, and the bruises faded. Both of them let out a sigh when it was done.
"Thank you," said Severus wonderingly, inspecting the hand again. It was indeed as flawless as it had ever been. "May I ask where you learned...?"
Minerva gave a snort of mirthless laughter; they weren't memories she particularly enjoyed. "I wasn't always going to be a teacher, you know. I was quite keen on Healing when I was in school."
Severus eyed her with interest. "A Healer," he mused. Then, to Minerva's surprise, he nodded. "Yes, it fits you. But you gave it up."
He had such an inconvenient talent for guessing the truth. Minerva very nearly cursed him aloud before answering, "Yes. Yes, I did. I'd finished basic training and all—goodness, I was three weeks away from getting my full license. And then..."
And then... Merlin, but she couldn't explain it. How did one explain the tangible fear as an epidemic raced through the wizarding world, killing far too many and leaving others without family? She had worked hours—countless exhausting hours—moving from ward to ward in St. Mungo's, wondering if it would ever end as she cared for the stricken masses. She still remembered the looks in those glazed eyes, the pain, the sheer terror as life after life slipped away...she shuddered involuntarily, and her eyes came to rest on Severus again. He was watching her intently.
"It was before your time," she whispered, not surprised that her voice wouldn't function normally. "There was an outbreak of Dragon Pox—a particularly deadly strain. No one knew what to do. Our head of Experimental Potions was struck down within two days. People were scared, Severus. We were scared. We didn't know what we were doing half the time—we were just running around trying to keep everyone comfortable, and..."
Severus would have Minerva's undying gratitude for remaining silent; she didn't think she could continue otherwise. "One night, they moved me to a children's ward. I—I finished my shift, and I was done. I couldn't handle it anymore."
"Why?" asked Severus finally.
Minerva favoured him with a sad, watery smile. "I couldn't watch them die."
A bond of silent understanding passed between them; they would go back to their bickering and stiff manners tomorrow, if only for show. Now, it was only important that they kept their students from sharing the fate of so many others.
"I should go," said Minerva at last.
"You should," agreed Severus, and, giving her a slight bow, continued on his way. At the corner he turned back. "Minerva?"
She watched him studying her, feeling a rush of affection for this private man she so often called a rival. "Yes?"
"Tell Albus that if he expects me to stay, I want a pay rise."
Minerva shook her head in exasperation as she turned away, but the corners of her mouth crept up in a smirk that was surely mirroring his own. It seemed he would never fail to remind everyone that there was still a Slytherin in the castle.
"Git," she whispered fondly, and returned to the Great Hall to watch over her children.
Author's Note: Thanks very much for reading—hope it was time well spent. Comments, questions, etc. are always welcome! Have a nice day. :)