A/N- Set at the end of 'The Chamber of Secrets', after the celebratory feast on the day Harry rescued Ginny. I can quite imagine that the staff might continue with a private little celebration of their own in the staff room after the students finally went to bed. (After all, they couldn't have celebrated too madly in the Great Hall, in charge of so many teenagers!)
Disclaimer- I own nothing except the paper on which this was written. Oh, and I probably own the pen too. But not the characters or the location- they belong to JK Rowling.
"Not celebrating, Professor McGonagall?"
Minerva froze as the silky tones washed over her. Closing her eyes for a second, she concentrated on sounding normal.
"Not tonight, Severus," she replied without turning round. "I'm a little tired, and the Feast was celebration enough for me."
'A little tired' was the understatement of the century, Severus Snape reflected as he stepped past his motionless colleague and turned to look at her. Her thin face was pale and drawn, and the bags under her eyes could easily have held a couple of small dragons and still had room for a house elf or two.
His tones as he addressed his colleague were surprisingly gentle.
"It wasn't your fault, Minerva. You can stop beating yourself up about it now."
"Not my fault?" Minerva's voice rose, uncharacteristically shrill. "The girl could have died, Severus!"
Dimly aware that they were stood in the middle of a corridor some twelve feet from the staffroom, Minerva recognised that this was not the place for this conversation. However, exhaustion and stress overrode her better judgement as her mouth prepared to unleash a bitter, self-deprecating tirade upon her friend.
Evidently spotting the danger signs, Severus grasped her elbow gently and drew her down the corridor in the direction of her quarters.
"You do look a little tired, Minerva," he soothed as he led his unresisting colleague along. "A good night's sleep will be the best thing for you."
Minerva snorted. He was right, she knew that, but the chances of her managing a good night's sleep were incredibly remote. She'd barely managed to catch more than a few hours each night since Albus' departure. At that moment in time she desired nothing more than a solid eight hours, but she was intelligent enough to realise that in the aftermath of the day's events she was highly likely to lie awake tossing and turning.
Severus seemed to understand the snort, for one corner of his lips twitched in sympathy.
"I can give you a sleeping draught," he offered.
She opened her mouth to protest and he held up his hand to silence her.
"No, let me, Minerva," he insisted in tones that brooked no disagreement. "You need it."
Minerva considered reminding him that she was the Deputy Headmistress and wasn't obliged to do anything he said, thank you very much; but decided she was too exhausted to waste breath arguing with Severus. In her present state she was bound to lose, and she could do without the indignity.
Severus' lips twitched again. He'd never thought he'd see the day that Minerva McGonagall passed up the opportunity for a brisk battle of wits. She must have been even more done in than he'd realised.
Unprotesting now, she let him lead her to her quarters, her feet moving as if of their own accord. Severus was reluctant to leave her in order to fetch the potion, but in spite of being a powerful wizard he knew it was ridiculously unviable to attempt to summon the bottle from here, and he didn't trust the house elves to fetch the right one. They were far too scared to touch any of his personal effects, anyway.
Guiding Minerva into the outer room of her quarters, Severus deposited the exhausted and uncharacteristically uncomplaining Minerva into one of the armchairs.
"Get yourself ready for bed, Minerva," he ordered as softly as he knew how. "I shall return presently with the potion."
It took him some ten minutes or so to hurry down to the dungeons, locate the correct bottle and hasten back. Severus let himself back into the comfortable suite as quietly as he could just in case Minerva's exhaustion had got the better of her overactive conscience. Knowing the witch as he did, he did not really expect this to be the case; and sure enough it came as little surprise to the wizard upon re-entering the outer room to discover the Deputy Headmistress still sat exactly where and how he had left her, staring blankly into the empty fireplace.
As he halted and stared at her, he wondered how on earth she had managed to get through the Feast. Running on autopilot, he supposed, a shiver of something akin to fear running through him. It was so unlike Minerva McGonagall to go to pieces. But then again, she had had an incredibly stressful day. They all had; but Minerva's had undoubtedly been worse than most.
Softly he crossed the room, kneeling before the chair to take her hands in his.
"Minerva? Come on, my dear, we must get you to bed," he murmured, not quite sure where the soothing words had come from. The very idea of Severus Snape speaking words of comfort and calling someone 'my dear' was unheard of in Hogwarts.
Minerva immediately indentified the source of the words for him. "You sound like Albus," she commented hollowly, uncharacteristically allowing herself to be helped to her feet and led through to her bedchamber.
Albus. Severus found his teeth clenching as he fought to suppress the sudden flash of anger that accompanied the Headmaster's name. His Deputy Headmistress was mentally torturing herself, and where was he? Merrily drinking the night away in the staffroom with the rest of their colleagues. Yet as Minerva's accusation suggested, Albus should be the one coaxing her into bed, not he. Nursemaiding a fellow member of staff like this was completely out of character for Severus. But he was not a complete bastard, and any fool could see that left to her own devices Minerva would wind up making herself ill.
"Do you want me to sound like Severus?" he questioned with a rare smile. "Pull yourself together, woman! I need you to find your nightclothes and change into them- don't make me do it for you, or that lovely robe of yours will find itself transfigured into a nightdress in Slytherin colours."
Minerva raised an eyebrow. "You wouldn't dare," she responded crisply, sounding much more like herself again. "But very well. You can leave the room; or better yet, give me the potion now and be gone."
Minerva did not hold out much hope for this- knowing Severus, he would insist upon administering the draught himself and watching to make sure she swallowed it. But it would be most unlike her not to at least attempt to oust him from her bedchamber with all possible speed; and she felt she owed him that much at least. The poor man was obviously quite worried about her.
"Never fear," Severus retorted sharply, confirming her expectations. "I'll give you the potion myself once you are safely tucked up in bed. I shall wait in the other room- you may call me when you are decent."
"If I must." Minerva managed a smile as she shooed her colleague from her bedchamber.
Severus raised an eyebrow as he backed out of the room. "You have ten minutes," he said. "If you haven't called me by then I will assume you are trying to duck out of the potion and I warn you, Professor McGonagall, I will come in and administer it." He shot her a look and closed the door behind him.
"Will you?" Minerva called as she hastened to change. "I may be tired, Severus, but I can still wield a wand."
"You know damn well that I will, Minerva!" Severus growled, busying himself with pouring a suitable dose of the potion into a goblet. "You need a good night's sleep to put things in perspective; and if you don't take this potion I shall disarm you, bind you and levitate you to the hospital wing, where I can assure you, Madam Pomfrey will fuss more than I."
"Alright, alright!" Minerva muttered darkly, loath to show how touched she was by Severus' unusual display of caring. To display that would be to admit that she needed taking care of, which was a step too far for her pride.
"Alright, come on through and poison me," she called presently, once she was changed into her nightgown and curled beneath her covers.
Severus attempted to look hurt as he cautiously pushed the door open. "Do you really have so little faith in my abilities?"
He was somewhat surprised when Minerva smiled suddenly in response. "I have every faith in you, Severus, and you know that very well," she chided gently. "Do you really think I'd allow you to attend to me like this if I didn't trust you?"
Flattered by the compliment though he was, the Potions Master could not help but feel a little uncomfortable at the praise. Seeking to restore his equilibrium, he smirked. "You trust me to hold good on my promise to levitate you to the hospital wing, you mean."
"There is that," Minerva agreed with a smirk of her own. She held out a hand for the goblet of potion her colleague offered her and swallowed it down with a grimace. "Urgh, nasty stuff! Almost as bad as Skele-gro."
Severus raised an eyebrow as he removed the empty goblet from the witch's hand. "Well of course it tastes vile, Minerva- where would the fun be in brewing potions that taste nice? Pleasant-tasting potions are never effective, anyway."
Minerva gave a tired smirk as she snuggled down against her pillows. "That, my dear Severus, depends on whether or not you count Firewhisky a potion."
"Oh, stop trying to outsmart me and go to sleep, Minerva!" Severus retorted, but there was no bite in his tones.
The witch raised an eyebrow at him. "Aren't you leaving, then? You've administered your potion; you can go now."
"Not until I've seen you safely asleep," Severus responded with a quiet determination, sinking into the chair in front of the dressing table to make his point.
Minerva tried to protest, but her eyes were already drifting shut.
"No… need…" she murmured even as something deep inside her protested how nice it was to feel that someone cared.
Severus smiled to himself. Even were he inclined to leave immediately as she professed to wish, he suspected that she would be asleep before he reached the door. As it was, since the Deputy Headmistress was in no fit state to protest, the Potions Master remained silently where he was some minutes longer, contemplatively watching the rise and fall of the scarlet sheets as they moved with Minerva's deep, steady breathing. Idly he wondered if the witch seriously slept in Gryffindor-coloured sheets, or if she had charmed them that colour prior to his entrance in order to annoy him.
When satisfied that she was soundly asleep, Severus rose from his seat and cautiously approached the bed to check that the potion had had its proper effect. Minerva's eyes were closed, and she looked calm and peaceful. The scarlet sheets, he was forced to admit, set off the witch's pale skin and long dark hair very nicely; and Severus could not help but smile as he stood there for a long moment simply watching her sleep.
Presently he sighed, gently drawing the covers closer around her.
"Sweet dreams, Minerva," he whispered. He was not quite sure what possessed him, but something compelled him to lean over and press a soft kiss to her forehead.
For a split second he could have sworn that she smiled in her sleep, but it must have been a trick of the light.