Hogwarts, August 6th
Severus's knife cut with satisfying smoothness. Unfortunately, the sliced object was a rasher of bacon, not Hagrid or his infernal creation. "Run it by me again," he sighed. "The big oaf did what?"
"He tried to cross-breed Fire Crabs and Acromantulas. And, strange as it sounds, there was some reason to his madness. He felt that an Acromantula would be excellent for guarding the Stone – you know how they were originally intended to guard wizard dwellings or treasure, or so we believe."
"Yes. I've read Scamander's book, too," Severus answered. Not that he would be able to deliver such a near-verbatim quote. "And how, precisely, would cross-breeding them with Fire Crabs be a good idea?"
"Hagrid felt it would be unwise to introduce Acromantulas into the school. They are somewhat difficult to control."
"As are our students. A meeting would be inevitable."
"Quite. Especially since the Acromantulas are highly intelligent."
"Unlike our students." Severus couldn't resist the opportunity.
"Fire Crabs are herbivores," Minerva explained, smiling at his remark. "Hagrid felt that a combination of the Acromantula's intelligence and fearsome looks, and the Fire Crab's flames and herbivorous nature, would result in a species that could guard the Stone effectively. He was particularly chuffed with the idea of a creature that shoots flames from behind – it would give a clear message to an intruder, without immediate risk. He wanted to call them Blast-ended Mantulas."
"And where did this well-laid plan go wrong?"
"The creature's body is too heavy – the shell of the Fire Crab weighs a lot. And the spiders' legs can't cope with it. So, basically, it's unable to move properly – most of the animals couldn't move at all. It renders them useless as guards and unable to survive on their own. There were only two that could get about. Before he went off, Hagrid did consider putting them down, but he felt they deserved a chance, and since they are, indeed, plant-eaters, he thought there was no risk."
"Thank Merlin for the wet, Scottish summers. We could have lost the better part of the Forest," Severus sighed. "So, if I get it right, there's two of them. Barely able to move, shooting flames from behind, and since the dry spell is likely to last for a day or so, we need to find them rather urgently."
"That's the situation in a nutshell, Severus. Well done. It's a pity term hasn't started yet, or I'd award five points to Slytherin," Minerva replied. "Now, do you have an equally Slytherin plan for dealing with them?"
"We'll follow the ash trail," Severus suggested, "and then we'd best approach the creature on two sides. We find out which end shoots the flames, and then I'd suggest a killing curse between the eyes – painless and quick. From what I've heard, it might be better than letting the things 'take their chance'. Totally misguided kindness, that." He looked at Minerva to see how she would take it – would she accept his view, or take pity on Hagrid and his infernal invention? For Hagrid would be devastated.
"You're quite right," Minerva said, with more enthusiasm than he had expected. Nothing of the sentimentalist about her, then? One might award five points to Gryffindor, for a rare display of common sense.
On the other hand, one might deduct ten points for giving a man idiotic dreams about chess pieces in a Knight's armour, but with interesting curves, that came to life in the arms of a knight in black – and then, suddenly, there had been no armour on either side; it was always so easy in dreams, wasn't it, no fumbling, no spells, just everything as one wanted it to be.
Or should he award ten points for that dream? It had been quite something. Well, today it seemed he could play at knight-in-black-armour. With a creature that spouted flames in the best dragon-tradition. Without any of the blushing maiden nonsense – he rather liked the thought of Knight Minerva. If she gave him even the smallest encouragement, he might celebrate their victory with a quick kiss. Not that she would encourage him, of course. But a man could have his fantasies.
Severus munched his second helping of bacon with something resembling benevolence.
"There's the trail!" Minerva pointed to the little heaps of ash. Now that she knew what it was, she could see traces of the Fire Crab's shell – it did look as if something had been dragged along. Clearly, the things could only move themselves with great difficulty; Severus was right that there was no point in prolonging their lives. And his plan of action was most satisfying. Sensible, humane, and he had shown no hesitation in including her. That really felt rather marvellous. During the Grindelwald War, it had taken more energy to be considered for active duty than to perform it. Miss McGonagall can deliver the messages. The ladies can look after the wounded. Things had improved somewhat over the years – a few more witches in prominent positions, and Amelia Bones did sterling work in promoting more women, but after years of negotiating with Fudge (And what does Albus have to say about this? Let's check that first, shall we?) Severus's attitude was novel and quite … exciting.
"The ashes are still glowing; it must be quite near. There – what's that?" Severus turned his head in the direction of a faint, clicking sound. It came from behind a dense cluster of trees. They both ran towards it, Severus to the left, Minerva to the right, to get them each on one side of whatever loomed behind the trees.
"Ye gods – it's a carnage!" Severus shout came from the other side of … what exactly were they looking at? A huge mass of spiders' legs, blood, and torn-off pieces of meat. One of the spider-crab things, that much was clear. And next to it, a giant stone? No, it moved. A giant carapace – it was the other one. Lashing around with its legs, trying to move towards the slain creature, but unable to do more than turn aimlessly in a circle.
Minerva wasn't sure which side was the head until one end spouted a long flame that nearly hit Severus. Thank Merlin for dragon hide – and for Severus's excellent reflexes.
"WATCH OUT!" he shouted, and ran towards the thing, carefully steering clear of the flames. Minerva ran to the other end, casting a Petrificus as she went. She noticed that Severus Stunned the animal, as well. She had no idea which spell had hit home, but the large legs stopped their frantic movement. Severus stepped towards what had to be the head and aimed carefully.
"There's eight eyes, all right," he said, "but there isn't much space between, so…" Suddenly, the huge creature moved, and Severus shot a green light from his wand. "Aveda Kedavra!" He took a few steps back. Minerva hurried towards him. She gasped in surprise at the sight. The thing had opened its mouth. Teeth as long as a grown man's hand.
"A plant-eater, Hagrid said?" Severus queried.
"Essentially a harmless creature. Those were his words. I could murder him for this! Do you think this one killed the other?"
"I can't think what else would cause such damage. Do you see those teeth? They're tusks, almost."
"Well, at least we got rid of them. And now I'm going back to Floo Albus. I don't intend to spend the next days worrying about the kind of animal Hagrid will bring to protect the Stone, and …"
"You won't," Severus interrupted her. "Have to worry about that, I mean. Listen. Do you hear it, too?"
Minerva listened and felt her blood turn to ice. The clicking sound they had heard on the path hadn't stopped. In fact, it was coming closer.
"And this," Severus said, pointing at the Blast-ended Mantula, "This doesn't even have pincers to click with. Which means …"
They both moved at the same time, instinctively standing back to back as they scanned the line of trees around the clearing.
"There!" Minerva shouted, as the first Acromantula rushed forward. "Between the eyes – or right in it!"
"Or in the mouth, that works too!" Severus yelled back.
Great, Minerva thought. Wait till you see the white of their teeth. Take up teaching, her former Head of House had said, a safe and suitable career for a girl. She aimed her wand at the nearest Acromantula and Stunned it. It did stop running, but the pincers still clicked in an ominous manner. Not the time to take the animal-friendly view, then.
Both she and Severus cast spells and green fire in all directions – how many were there? Finally, no further spider showed up. They stood both very still, listening carefully, trying to separate the sound of the tell-tale clicking from their own, ragged breaths.
"This seems to be it," she finally said.
"Nine of them," Severus panted. "Now, run!"
They raced back to the castle, not stopping till they were safely inside. Once they had caught their breath, Severus went off to warn Filch, and Minerva descended to the kitchens to give warning to the House-Elves. Once that was done, and once the House-Elves had expressed their gratitude in tea, cake and sandwiches, Minerva went to the staff room, staggering slightly under the heavy tray that she had insisted on carrying herself. The Elves were upset enough as it was.
Severus had made himself comfortable in one of the chairs, but he leapt up as soon as she came in.
"Here, let me help with that," he said, taking the tray from her. Did he touch her hands longer than necessary? Was there a special meaning to his solicitude? Was she, Minerva McGonagall, behaving like a love-sick student? Not quite. Her students wouldn't think carrying a tray was anything special. Bless their romantic little hearts, they would have wanted Severus to attack every spider single-handedly, and preferably with the Sword of Gryffindor. But Minerva preferred a man who was willing to lend a helping hand over a Knight in Shining Armour. She had never quite seen why a man's ability to slay a dragon or, as some fairy-tales would have it, to mount a glass hill on horseback, would make him more attractive. Rare though the skills might be, what kind of a guarantee were they for future happiness?
With an effort, Minerva turned her thoughts to the problem at hand. The real problem.
"Do you know the size of Hagrid's colony?" she asked Severus, once they were both seated.
"We're never out of Acromantula poison – and it's pretty hard to get. There must be more of them, somewhere."
"We are talking about a large colony, aren't we?" Minerva whispered.
"Yes. I think so. I've no idea how large exactly, but while we were there, I kept wondering …"
Minerva heaved a deep sigh. "Hagrid caused this, he can sort it out," she suggested. "And then he can start explaining – and it had better be good. A whole colony of Acromantulas out here somewhere? And he's breeding with them? Close to a school? Of all the irresponsible things!"
"I must give Hagrid one thing," Severus mused, "we've never had trouble before. He seems to have them well under control, or safely in one special spot, at least. I wonder what made them come out …"
"Those things," Minerva snapped. "Those aptly-named Blasted Mantulas. I dare say they got wind of it – and didn't like them. You see, Hagrid was right after all. The Mantulas do eat plants, and …"
"The Acromantulas ate them," Severus finished her sentence. "Or at least destroyed them. I must say I can see their point."
With great care Severus put the bottles on the side-board. He quickly checked the room. Everything was in perfect order.
Now, give me a little encouragement, he had thought when he had killed the Blasted Mantula. Just a little bit …And then the giant spiders had charged.
By the time they were back at the castle and had regained their breath, the chances of a victory kiss were null and void. But he had not quite given up hope. When Minerva had brought in the tea tray, he had leapt to her assistance. For one brief second, as their hands touched, he had thought he'd heard her breath quicken; he had believed that she was interested. Instead, she had asked him about the size of the spider colony, every inch the calm and capable Deputy Head who dealt with a problem.
But the game wasn't over yet. Black Knight moves forwards.
Tonight, he would behave like a perfect gentleman. A perfect, Slytherin gentleman.
He had donned his most elegant robes. And, more importantly, he had made a little trip to that part of the dungeons that contained, to coin one of Albus's phrases, potions beyond anything we brew here. How Muggles managed to achieve the Transfiguration of grape juice into liquid velvet with chocolate undertones and just a hint of the tartness of brambles, he'd never understand.
Of course, he wouldn't press wine on Minerva, or make her drink more than she wanted. But the Burgundy would be there. And after that, an excellent Firewhisky.
"Give me just a little encouragement," Severus whispered.
Minerva slowly walked towards the staff room. They had taken to dining there, rather than in the Great Hall. It was cosier, and there were comfortable chairs – they had taken to having coffee and a drink there, as well. And tonight, she looked forward to it even more than usual.
Something had changed between them, that afternoon. She had realised it as they had walked back to the castle. It wasn't so much in what they had said – they had always been pretty outspoken together. It was more in how much they had felt they could say, in a lack of caution. I don't feel I have to weigh my words any more, she thought. Ever since we got this assignment together, I was careful not to break the pleasant atmosphere. Treading on eggshells. And I think Severus was, too. We've stopped doing that.
Clearly, fighting off Acromantulas was a bonding experience. There could be an interesting team-building training there. It would beat mere role-play any day. On the other hand, perhaps not. She doubted whether building a better team ought to start with 'first, assemble the body parts'.
For now, she merely looked forward to a nice, relaxing dinner with a friend. For which you've dressed up to the nines? she thought. And that little nap you had this afternoon? Your dream started with fighting Acromantulas, but then the two of you were kissing like mad, and it ended with … It had ended with taking a cold shower. And a steadying dram. Now she'd think no more of the nonsense; she would simply enjoy her dinner.
As she entered the room, Severus, who looked his most suave – had he dressed up, too? Surely not? - carefully uncorked a bottle of wine. It had a small layer of dust on it.
"I've looted Albus's stock of burgundy," Severus said. "I felt we deserved something decent to drink to our victory."
"Albus would want to be present in spirit," Minerva nodded.
"Quite. That's why I've looted his whisky as well."
They both laughed. He handed her a glass, and admired the colour of his own. "Liquid rubies. He does himself well – and he owes us one, for today's work."
Minerva looked up in surprise. This was fairly outspoken. Severus seldom criticised Albus – not when others could hear him. Severus looked back and smiled, almost apologetically.
"This was beyond a joke," he finally said. "When I heard those clicking pincers – I've some idea of how many there may be in the grounds. Given the stock of poison, I mean. And then, when I saw those last four coming – what if this is just the start, I thought. What if the whole bleeding lot is behind. I might not have been able to hold them for long enough – you could have been killed!"
Minerva put a reassuring hand on his arm. He was even more terrified than I, she thought. He knew what might have been there. And his only thought is that I could have been killed? She put down her glass and leaned over.
She wouldn't be acting out her dream – she had no intention of doing so. She would merely comfort a good friend, who would take a hug in the spirit in which it was meant – make that, the spirit in which it ought to be meant.
"We're both all right," she whispered, and gave Severus a quick kiss. He took it as she thought he would, leaning over, putting his arms around her, for a friendly hug, of course …
Only, that wasn't quite a hug, more like …
And his lips …