Slowly, Severus mounted the staircase. On the last steps, he stamped his feet loudly. Better give her a bit of an advance warning, he thought. By now, Albus will have told her … well, told her nothing, of course, trust the secretive sod. But he will have confirmed my story… that, yes. He has to, if he wants his little plan to work. What on earth can I say? "My dear friend, all is forgiven?" She'll have me in St Mungo's, and since I just managed to come up with that sickeningly noble idea, perhaps it's where I should be. Besides, all isn't forgiven. I can't. She should have wondered, should have asked … just once … Blind faith in Dumbledore I can understand, I'm hardly in a position to criticize … after all, I know his plans for Potter, and I still … But she should've asked me why. She should've asked a reason. I thought her the one person who wouldn't just call me a filthy Slytherin Death Eater and be done with it. Not automatically. Not without asking. We were friends. Weren't we? Or was I just someone Albus ordered her to work with?

He opened the door and looked towards his desk. No Minerva, no chairs. Albus, looking haggard, keeping his eyes down. Snape's eyes circled the room. The other portraits looked either worried, embarrassed, or simply avoided his eyes. With the exception of Phineas Black, whose face had an expression that Snape could only describe as a mixture of outrage and amusement. What on earth had Minerva said to Albus?

He saw the two high-backed chairs. Both carefully turned away from Albus's portrait. Minerva in one of them, forcing herself to look at him.

"What needs to be done," he started, taking the other chair, avoiding her eyes for the moment, "What I need your help for … Potter must have Gryffindor's sword." That, at least, was unexpected enough.

"Potter? Gryffindor's sword??" Minerva was glad of his business-like manner. She had meant to be as helpful as possible; it was the least one could do. She still meant to, but this? And even if Potter needed the ruddy sword, why couldn't Severus just hand it to him somehow? Why did he need her? "For Merlin's sake … why?" she added when Severus didn't answer.

"I don't know. I truly don't. And not for lack of asking, I can tell you. I just got the perfectly clear, perfectly incomprehensible order to deliver the sodding sword in such a manner that Potter has to work hard to get it and doesn't know it comes from me. That in itself would not be difficult to do. But there are … complications. That's were you come in."

"Explain." Minerva leaned toward Snape, feeling slightly better at the idea of complications to be sorted. And, if she was quite honest with herself, at the idea that Severus, too, was kept in the dark.

"Dumbledore's Army. They're moving beyond meeting, talking, and playing at resistance. They know. "

"Know what?"

"Know that Dumbledore left Potter Gryffindor's sword in his will. Trust the Ministry to muck things up."

"The Ministry? Well, they usually muck things up, but how did they manage …"

Snape felt better for the return of some of the old acerbity.

"Scrimgeour went to see them. He gave them the other things – did you hear about the legacies?" Seeing that Minerva hadn't, he explained: "Weasley got the Deluminator, Granger a first edition of The Tales of Beedle the Bard in ancient runes, Potter got his first Snitch. And the sword.

"Scrimgeour visited them, tried to find out what was behind the legacies, naturally failed utterly, and handed everything over. Except the sword. And the abysmal idiot went to see them at the Weasleys' place. Might as well yell it up and down Diagon Alley.

"So now Miss Weasley has espoused the sword's cause as her own. Like the staunch little helpmeet she is." That's ChAn, he thought at once.

"There's no need for that!" snapped Minerva. "If anything, she's right, and …" And besides, it's ChAn, she had almost added. Did Severus think about The Game as often as she did? School meetings were, since the arrival of the Carrows, too nightmarish for anything resembling a game, but during the Order meetings she missed it … him … so much. He hadn't been there during MW!Weddings. Or during FdlC!Glamour-queen. FW was too confusing, she had decided, let the girl keep her own name. And it wasn't as if she had actually listed any of these. She just wished there was still someone to list them with.

"Sorry," Snape murmured. He noticed her surprise at that unusual word. "It's been … difficult," he added. Minerva looked contrite. He continued. "The problem is: they plan to steal it. And they want to hand it to Potter."

"Do they know where he is, then? Oh, no … If the Carrows find out …"

"No, they don't know, I'm pretty sure of that," Snape said reassuringly. He wanted to add 'Not that such a minor detail would stop them …' No ChAn, dammit, he reminded himself.

"But they are a complication. Now, here's my idea.

"I've obtained a copy of the sword. I need to get the original to Potter soon and planned to replace it with that copy. It seldom came out of the glass case anyhow, and with a Slytherin Headmaster it could be ignored completely. But if those brats do go after it, they will draw attention to it. And that's the last thing I need.

"Can you, somehow, stop them? They're in your house, they trust you; can you think of a way, without giving them actual information? The Carrows mustn't find out; Merlin knows they stop at nothing. A bunch of students is no match for them. And I don't want them to come to any … physical harm … Any ideas?"

"Let me think …" Minerva stared into the fire for a while. "So there is a replacement sword … if they … or perhaps … " She fell silent.

The obvious solution would be to move the sword beforehand and to protect the case with such powerful spells, for 'security reasons', that no-one can get near it, Snape thought. And I could do it without you. But that would be it. Our … working relationship would be destroyed beyond repair. And I …I can't … I need … your… friendship. There, I've said it.

"And besides," said a little voice in his head, "there might be a day when Voldemort comes to Hogwarts. Or Harry. Or both. Albus hinted at it. On that day, you'd be so much better off with Professor McGonagall on your side. Be honest, the idea of her fighting you outright, without any of your precious 'Rules', scares you shitless. What if you don't win? Worse, what if you do?" Snape reformulated his thoughts carefully. Undoubtedly, he mused, a powerful ally like Minerva was worth having. In the interest of The Order. He suddenly realized she had spoken.

"You're right; the attention … Yes! That's it!"

"You found a way?"

"Absolutely. We let them do it."

Snape stared, momentarily speechless. Stress of the moment? Albus's betrayal? Not as young as she was? Does one ever get over four stunners at her age? Should she lie down? Pull yourself together, man, you sound like Poppy.

"Have you lost it?" Perhaps a tad too un-Poppy-like, but effective.

"Will you listen for once? We let them try, not succeed, obviously." Min's voice, heavy with familiar sarcasm. "Then we stop them; we -- you, as Headmaster, I as Deputy and their Head of House – mete out a suitable punishment. And you, to protect a valuable artifact, send the sword in its case to Gringott's.

"The fake one, I mean. That way you can hand the real one over to Harry, as you planned all along." Snape recognized the kind, patient, and experienced teacher's voice. In a moment, she'll tell me that there's no such thing as a stupid question, he thought, highly amused. Can I risk it? Or is it too early? He decided he could.

Admiringly, soundlessly, he applauded. "Why, Professor McGonagall, that plan is … worthy of my own House," he smiled. To his relief, he saw a flicker of a return smile.

"You need to be out of your office," said Minerva. "Your absence must be publicly known, or they won't risk it. And we must both be here at the right time."

"I have an idea on that. I dare say that tomorrow you can find an excuse to pause at the Gryffindor table, to speak to one of them. I'll pass by, and I'll tell you I want a meeting that afternoon, in your office, to discuss … new regulations. "

"Excellent. But make it later; they must have time to prepare. Friday … no, Saturday. It's a Hogsmeade weekend, the last one before Christmas; the school will be practically deserted."

Snape nodded. "You can throw me your usual 'less than the dust beneath my chariot wheels' look; they'll even feel sorry for you that I'm stopping you from going out yourself. Besides, it means they can't go, either, it'll give them a real sense of sacrifice. They would make that sacrifice, wouldn't they?" he asked, suddenly doubtful.

"Yes!" A whiplash of a reply. However sorry Minerva felt for him, however guilty at that 'less than the dust', she couldn't let this slur pass.

Not called 'the Lion of Gryffindor' for nothing, Snape thought, grinning inwardly. I'll have to be damn careful with your cubs.

"When we return to my office, they'll think we needed something," he added. "There's a little, hidden closet at the bottom of the staircase. We can stay there - it's just big enough – till we hear them come up."

"A closet? I've never heard of it."

"That's why it's called 'hidden'." Snape couldn't resist it. "I've had it made," he added hastily. "I've found it … most convenient … on occasions."

You would, Minerva thought, but she managed to keep her face expressionless.

You want to tell me what a right little Slytherin I am, Snape thought, but you don't feel comfortable enough with me, yet. So you deadpan.

"We'll berate them," he continued, "I'll threaten to bring in the Carrows…"

"I tell you they're in my House," Minerva added. And this time, I'll know you listen, she thought, relaxing against the back of her chair.

"And I give in ungraciously. That is to say, I'll give them detention with Hagrid. The Forbidden Forest is just dangerous enough to be convincing, and Hagrid'll mother them all right. He'll probably ask them to tea."

"I thought you wanted to avoid physical harm?" It was out before Minerva realized. They looked at each other, and, suddenly, they both laughed. Thank Merlin, Snape thought, I can still work with you … laugh with you, even.

"So, that's settled then?" he asked.

"Yes, it seems we have covered it … By the way, how did you know?"

"Know what?"

"That they were planning the theft? How did you find out? They're usually quite good at covering up," Minerva said, with a hint of justifiable pride in her voice.

"They are. They're a credit to you," Snape smiled, "but I'm not the greatest known Legilimens of the Wizarding World for nothing." The moment he said it, he realized something was wrong.

"You've done … WHAT!? That's … that's … How could you? It's an intrusion. A flagrant breach of privacy. It's … Who did you use this on? All students? Gryffindors? " Me, she wanted to ask, but she wasn't sure she wanted an answer. Would it be believable, anyhow?

"It's necessary," he said, calmly. "I had to, for …"

She slammed the arm of her chair before he could finish. "For what?" she almost shouted. "What's your excuse? Why don't you realize that there is no excuse for such … such … unspeakable methods? Why don't we just all join them?"

Looking at her grief-stricken face, Snape suddenly realized that this wasn't about him. Not just about him, at least. Albus … he remembered how he had felt, when Albus told him his plans for Potter. We're all caught up in this mess, he thought. And when it's over … if it's over -- no. When. I must, at least, believe that. When it's over, what will we be like? What will we have done? How like them will we be? I've avoided my own face in mirrors for the past sixteen years.

October 31, 1981. The date flashed before him, automatically. He briefly closed his eyes. And you? he thought. Not in this war, I think. No Unforgivable. Not yet. But the previous ones? He suddenly, ferociously, hoped that this time, Minerva hadn't. And wouldn't. We'll need some true decency, he thought. If we want to return to anything approaching normality.

"I had to," he admitted. "To keep them safe. I did promise him that."

No need to explain who 'him' was. Minerva nodded, accepting the promise, he knew, not the deed.

"I couldn't ask the children."

"Obviously. You could have asked me, though. You did today."

"I asked you to stop them, not to make them tell you things. As if they would. Tell you everything, I mean. And I need to know everything. Besides, the Carrows use Legilimency. So does Bellatrix. So does the Dark Lord himself. If they capture one of them ... If the Dark Lord should find out that they told you … and that we worked together ..."

"They wouldn't know that we work together," Minerva said, in the sad voice of one who fights the inevitable against reason.

"Don't underestimate his intelligence … We can't take the risk. I can't take the risk. I have to do it this way. I know you hate it. Despise it. If …" He paused. No, he thought, I won't say 'if you can think of another way …' because if you can't, then you'll have to agree. Unspoken agreement perhaps, yet agreement. You'd be an accessory to the deed. I don't want you to be … implicated. "I have to," was all he said.

Feverishly, Professor McGonagall tried to think of another way. But every option seemed a dead end. It's because I'm tired, she thought. It's the shock. I'll find something. Soon. I can't let him … just because it's for the children's own … She shuddered as the word 'good' flitted through her mind. Wanted to suppress it, couldn't. She could, and did, suppress the urge to look at Albus's portrait, though. Not yet, she thought, not for a long time.

"Just take care what … when …" She hesitated.

"Oh, I will. Besides, it's not as if ferreting round in students' minds is my favourite spectator sport," Snape drawled. "It's quite enough to mark Longbottom's essays."

How can you joke about it, Minerva wondered. Then she saw the look in his eyes and understood. He's used to doing the dirty job, as decently as possible. And to being despised for it. Sarcasm is a defense mechanism, she realized. Something to hide behind. And the only thing I can do for him is help him with that.

Slowly, she smiled. "Remember," she said. "No ChAn."

A/N Next week I'll continue with a Snape / Slughorn friendship story. Yes, I was surprised myself. It's what fest-writing does for you: exploring completely new characters. Still, there'll be a Hooch/Minerva cameo. I hope to see you all, even if the story won't show up in the Minerva queue.