Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter.
Author's Note: This takes place during The Order of the Phoenix.
'You must discipline him, Severus!'
'He is a prankster—a child.'
'A prankster? Child yes, but this is dangerous mischief to play! I demand you see him.'
'Do you presume to order me?'
'—and, no. I will not listen.'
'Then you are a fool. It will ruin Malfoy to treat him always with kid gloves.'
'Hardly the first error I have made. Goodnight, Professor.'
Never had they fought so bitterly. Minerva McGonagall was breathing heavily, her chin held high and her spine straight, unbending iron. Severus Snape was himself strained, a sheen of sweat on his grey forehead and his chest rising and falling in a rapid, shallow motion. The hour was late and both professors were exhausted.
McGonagall blocked Snape's exit. She stood firm against her office door.
'Do you plan to make error a habit, then?' she asked. 'Even when students' lives are at stake?'
Snape's eyes flashed. 'Stand aside, Minerva.'
'No. Answer me!'
'Do you think my reply will be "yes"?'
'You hardly have a right to say otherwise.'
'I will act as I please.'
'Why? What gain is there, in being silent?'
'None whatsoever, if you are thinking of promotion—or influence.'
'I did not say so.'
'Selfishness—a dismissal of duty.'
Snape laughed. It was a cold, bitter sound.
'I have never done less than my duty,' he said.
Though furious, Minerva's tone was quiet.
'Speak with him, Severus. You must.'
Snape's surrender was abrupt and unexpected. It left McGonagall disoriented and upset. She looked fiercely at the potions master but saw only the same, unyielding hardness, the same flat dispassion in his eyes.
'Tomorrow then. You'll talk to Malfoy.'
She stepped nearer him.
'I want a formal apology, to the rest of my class and myself. Do you understand?'
His reply lacked Snape's usual fire. It was subdued and spiritless. Minerva felt her anger abate just a little, in watching him.
'Are you alright, Severus?' she asked.
Ungraciously, Snape's white lip twisted at her concern.
'Do I look otherwise?' he said. 'Now, will you let me pass?'
Her hand rested on his cheek. He flinched at the contact but did not pull away.
'You're feverish,' said McGonagall, matter-of-factly.
'It has been a trying night. I need only sleep.'
'Dumbledore tells me you have refused to give Potter further lessons in Occlumency.'
'Oh God—Minerva—must I beg before you'll let me retire to my own quarters?'
Snape faced McGonagall with an expression of unprecedented violence.
Minerva, unaffected, remained like a cruel sentry between him and freedom.
'Tell me what happened.'
'It is no business of yours.'
'The boy was badly upset. He looked as if he'd seen a ghost!'
'Well.' Snape turned from her. 'Perhaps he had.'
'What do you mean?'
Snape was silent.
McGonagall left the door to stand by him. The light from the single candle on her desk accentuated his angled features, casting shadows at his cheeks and the hollows of his eyes. He sensed her gaze but did not acknowledge it, his own fixed on the small, flickering flame.
His fists were clenched tightly at his sides, knuckles white from rigid pressure. McGonagall noticed this, as well as his determined moodiness, and the furrow in her brow deepened. She thought of the hapless teenager who had somehow caused her colleague this unprecedented inner turmoil. The boy had been badly affected by his last meeting with the potions master, his natural bewilderment now an almost manic anxiety.
'Shame on you, Severus,' she said at last. 'To be so hard on Harry, who never did you any harm—it's beneath even you.'
'Even I?' Snape's voice was pure acid.
McGonagall's patience wavered. Despite her colleague's derision he was no less distant than before. Her fingers curled on her wand. If a small part of her mind knew that her method was wrong, a violation of privacy and self that was repulsive even to consider, her protective lion's nature was roused. Harry was hurt. She needed to know why.
She raised her wand swiftly, silently—
—And found the motion confronted by a similar offensive, Snape's wand at a parallel slant to her own.
Snape half-turned towards her in a stance not dissimilar from a practiced fencer's.
McGonagall moistened dry lips. 'You misunderstand,' she said. 'I wouldn't—of course I wouldn't—'
'I am not at all surprised,' said Snape. 'Believe me when I say, Professor McGonagall, that I have the—highest—respect for your dedication to your students. I care little that you would do this to me. I expect no less. But to hear you risk a lie in your own defense—to think me so utterly dense as to believe it—well.'
He spoke in an almost breathless whisper. His raised wand, despite his sure grip, was trembling.
'Severus, please.' McGonagall set her own wand aside on the desk. 'Tell me what is the matter! This isn't like you. You're mad as Moody. I've never seen you so badly affected by anything. I don't care if you turn me into a toad but for Heaven's sake, before you do it, at least tell me why.'
His black eyes flickered. There was something strange in their dull depths.
'He knows,' he said. 'The boy—he knows.'
McGonagall stared at him. 'Potter? Knows—?'
'He saw me,' said the potions master, calm as death. 'He may have no wit of his own, but Mr. Potter is a more than capable mimic in the dark arts.'
McGonagall did not understand. She knew Snape was trying to satisfy her concern but he was so deliberately evasive, not to say obscure, that she didn't get any of it. Harry and the dark arts? The very idea. As if. And as for mimicry, well, except for Snape's unofficial lessons there was no opportunity to—
'He didn't…' she hesitated. Again, 'He didn't….'
'Yes, Professor, he did.' Snape almost seemed to take pleasure in her discomfiture. He lowered his wand sharply, as if he had never meant to raise it. 'That is why I can teach him no more. I can't risk, won't risk, another—incident. The boy is desperate to see his parents, to know more of them. His one success with me can do nothing but make him more so. Already he has seen…too much.'
Again that shadow passed over him, making his already haggard features yet paler.
'But do you think he's ready?' McGonagall pressed. 'You're the only one who can help him in this, Severus.'
'He doesn't want my help.'
'He needs it anyway.'
McGonagall was startled to see Snape's face contort in sudden anguish. Swift as he twisted his head aside, the image of his pain impressed itself sharply on her memory, it was so entirely alien to him. And being so strange, so unlike her reserved colleague, dare she call him friend, McGonagall was herself strongly affected. She couldn't bear to see him suffer. Without thinking, she gripped his shoulder.
'Severus, tell me what is the matter. For pity's sake!'
He remained withdrawn, shaking.
Her voice broke, barely.
At last he turned to her. He was the color of bleached bone.
'Potter saw me at my weakest,' said Snape. 'He saw me humiliated, helpless. What if—'
McGonagall's hand on him tightened.
'What if he saw worse?' she finished, softly.
Snape returned her glance, his lids low. 'The boy may be an imbecile,' he said, 'but he is strong. None of us are safe from the dark lord. In case of the worst, Potter is prepared and ready for him. That is all I can offer.'
For an instant she was silent. Then, 'Very well. I trust your judgment.'
'Indeed?' Snape looked surprised.
Perversely, McGonagall enjoyed his unease as he had hers. She clucked her tongue.
'Don't be thick, Severus. You're hardly the villain you style yourself to be.'
His mouth worked but he seemed incapable of speech.
Despite the novelty of seeing him at a loss for words, McGonagall's amusement waned at the potion master's perplexity. She released him slowly, studying his face.
'Is it really so strange?' she asked. 'Dumbledore never doubts you. Why ought I—or the others, for that matter?'
A harsh sound, almost a laugh, escaped him. 'Have I ever given you reason to trust me?'
'Many times.' She spoke emphatically, with a firmness meant to stamp out opposition rather than reassure or empathize. 'Since Potter's first year I watched you protect him at the risk of your own life. It was you who recognized that vile little Quirrel as a threat, long before any of us had even begun to suspect anything out of the ordinary. How dare you ask me if I have reason to trust you, as if I am some silly first year paralyzed by an unfriendly face. I have never understood your temper, Severus, but I begin to think it some foolish defense against others recognizing the very real and gallant heart within.'
If Snape had been startled before, now he was mortified.
McGonagall guided her colleague, unresisting, to the door.
'A little rest will do you good,' she observed. 'Sleep well, Severus.'
The hall outside was quiet and dark. Snape stood, seeming somewhat lost among the shadows that suited him so well.
'Minerva,' he said. 'Forgive me, I….'
She watched him not coldly but critically.
'Thank you,' he said. 'You cannot know—and yet it means a great deal—that you should trust me.'
'Of course,' she replied. 'I would be a halfwit not to.'
Her tone was curt but there was a smile on her lips.
Snape returned her humor with an arch scorn that was starkly ironic in light of their conversation. Abruptly, he turned on his heel. The motion was hurried, his cloak stirring a quick, cool breeze.
'—And don't forget—Malfoy must apologize to his classmates tomorrow—!'
There was no reply. He was gone, vanished into blackness.
Sighing, McGonagall shut her office door.
There were some mysteries she doubted would ever be solved, and Severus Snape was just such an anomaly.