Title: A Conversation Amongst Equals
Age-Range Category: Five
Character(s)/Pairing(s): Severus Snape and Minerva McGonagall
Beta Reader(s): Lolly
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): Adult Language and implied violence.
Note: Many, many thanks to my beta on this one; without her support and encouragement, I would have settled for something that I was quite unhappy with.
Summary: Severus gave Minerva the cold shoulder for twenty-two years… until he finally gave her a shoulder to cry on.
Severus flatly refused to speak with her.
It didn't matter how much Minerva McGonagall begged or pleaded; the end result was the same. For twenty-two long years following the Battle of Hogwarts, he had walked out of every room the moment she entered, often disappearing down the dark corridors of Hogwarts and not to be seen for weeks.
Once, in a fit of pure desperation, she had gone to Lucius Malfoy to see if he would intercede on her behalf. To her astonishment the man had not only done so, but did not request a favour in return; unfortunately, even the entreaties of his closest confidant had not convinced Severus to speak with her. Oh, as Headmistress, she could have ordered him to her office in order to clear the air, but after everything that had happened, she simply couldn't foist her selfish wish upon him.
Ironic, then, that he ended up being the one who found her half-dead on the fourth floor corridor.
A nasty case of wizarding flu had hit the Castle, and the sheer number of ill staff had required Minerva to cover the evening rounds for several people. It had been years since her last set of patrols, and as a result, she had overestimated her own health—not to mention underestimated how much of a workout the activity would provide.
Heart galloping like an out of control three-legged pony, Minerva desperately tried to catch her breath as she leaned on the statue of Fiacre the Perpetually Blighted. More worrying to her was the shooting starburst of pain that occurred at each inhale; dimly, Minerva realized that she was in far more trouble than merely being out of shape, and struggled to call out to her elf as the world narrowed to a black tunnel around her.
The next thing that she registered was lying on the cold stone floor. Black eyes flashing with menace, Severus stood yelling above her.
"Oh, for Pete's sake, woman, now is not the time for amateur theatrics! Sit up and breathe!" With a snarl, he glared at the motley crowd that had assembled around them. "Don't just stand there, you useless, bleating lot. Fetch Poppy!"
Weakly, Minerva rolled onto her back, hips and knees protesting the entire way. There was a deep crack in one of the flying buttresses, she noted, and wondered how the last architectural inspection missed it; the oversight would have to be addressed in the of sternest terms.
Severus stepped closer, and Minerva felt the ripple of black robes over her pallid skin. Her last thought as her eyes fluttered shut was Severus finally looked far better than he had during his stint as Headmaster. Not that it would take much…
Then there was nothing.
He was sitting next to her when she woke.
The golden light of the rising sun vividly illuminated his sharp features, and for once, his hair was as neat and shiny as a raven's wing. For all that, he appeared tired and shifted restlessly in his chair as he waited.
"It's a shame," she rasped, wincing at the sound of her voice; she felt as dry as a summer spigot. "…that it took something like this to finally get you to speak to me."
Severus whirled to face her, lips compressing. "And do you blame me? Truly, after all that, can you not understand why I had no wish to make peace?"
"For the first year, or even the first five, perhaps. But after that? Severus, what did you have to gain by being so… so obstinate?"
"Obstinate?" he hissed, a dull red flush spreading over his cheeks. "You dare call me obstinate when it was you who tried to kill me at least four times during that last year? Those are the attempts that I knew about, mind, and doesn't even began to count the number of attempts that were made by others that you sanctioned!"
Minerva struggled to sit upright. "And that is precisely why I wanted to apologize…"
Like a Blast-Ended Skrewt sighting a spare pillow, Severus exploded. "Ah, so just because you've felt the urge to apologize, I must be a good little boy and listen?"
"No," Minerva bit out slowly, her own temper bubbling to the surface. "You are under no obligation to accept my apology, but the least you can do is listen. It isn't as if you were blameless in all of this, after all."
The laugh that he let out was a bitter and deeply rancorous sound. "I've always been a dark and foul monster, haven't I? A bad apple, capable of the very worst…"
"Capable of the very best!" she interrupted heatedly.
"Nice of you to recognize that virtue now! Better late than never, eh?"
Minerva opened her mouth to speak again, but he cut her off with the simple expediency of slamming his hand onto the side of the bookcase next to him; the resounding impact made her flinch.
"Did you ever stop and ask yourself why the Dark Lord never came to Hogwarts? It was the jewel in his crown… and yet he neglected us quite shamefully. Did you ever question why despite all the threats, the students never had detention alone with the Carrows, or why the Order was still receiving a steady stream of information? No, you did none of these things…"
He rose and stepped forward. "Eleven, Minerva. You've known me since I was eleven fucking years old! There have been countless cups of tea, and innumerable chess matches in that time; you've scraped me off the floor more times than I care to remember, and seen me snivelling like a baby when the worst happened. And yet, after all that, you questioned nothing. Accepted the status quo…" His expression was of such raw anguish that she recoiled, shrinking back in her chair.
One long finger jabbed the air inches away from her face. "I can almost forgive you for not trusting me; I am, and have always been a bastard, even at the best of times. But do you want to know what I can't forgive? Do you, Minerva?" he demanded.
"What?" she whispered, feeling tears fill her eyes.
"You stood by his side—for what, forty years?—and saw how he operated… how he lived to manipulate those around him. And then you watched the old bastard get sicker and sicker after putting on that sodding ring, and it never occurred to you that not only might he be dying, but that he would have a plan for that, too. Smartest witch of your age, and you couldn't figure that out."
Minerva felt a great roil of shame overtake her; it was true. She had been wilfully blind. Hadn't wanted to believe, if she was being honest with herself. Taking a shuddering breath in, she tried to explain. "You are right. I put all my faith in him, Severus. I trusted him to keep me in the loop; I thought my counsel meant something to him." She gave a sour chuckle, the feminine twin to Severus' own. "You weren't the only one betrayed, boyo. As you said, I was his right-hand man for the better part of forty years, and in the end, it meant nothing. At least you knew that he was giving you lip service from the start; I had to face that unpalatable fact only after I was shown to be the biggest fool in all of Wizarding Britain."
Remembering those dark days—the Castle in utter ruins, the long lists of the dead, and the realization that she could fix none of it—she began to weep.
"Don't. Don't fucking cry. Not after all this time." Angrily, Severus whipped out a snowy white handkerchief and shoved it in her general direction.
Minerva took it with a shaking hand. "I can't exactly turn off my emotions, Severus."
"And you think that I could?" he exclaimed incredulously.
"Well, you certainly lived to martyr yourself, didn't you?" Minerva snapped, her ire suddenly breaking free. "I should have seen past his lies; you are absolutely correct on that count. But you should have come to me when it was evident that he had lost his bloody mind!"
Without a conscious thought of doing so, Minerva found herself on her feet, standing boot-to-boot with Severus. "You followed him willingly, but you could have carved your own path—did you not always encourage your Slytherins to think for themselves?—instead of meekly falling into line with his orders! How long have you known me, Severus?" she questioned, throwing his own words back at him. "Since you were eleven! Do you really think that I would allow Albus to ask such a thing of you? That I would have let you face that ghastly task alone? That I would have permitted the abuse during your year as Headmaster had I known even part of the truth..?"
She took in a shuddering breath, aware that her accent had grown unmanageable. "The problem is, you've always hated yourself. Felt that you were beyond the pale and unworthy of redemption. But you weren't. You only had to reach your hand out and ask for help…"
A sneer curled his lip, and Minerva could see that he was barely holding back a torrent of terrible words. "I did ask for help, and look where that landed me."
Anger draining out of her like a sieve, Minerva subsided back into her chair. "And sometimes you have to ask more than one person to find what you seek. You didn't have to go it alone."
"And so, as always, what happened to me was my fault."
"No, no… that's not what I meant at all," she whispered, grief tearing her apart. "It was always such a bitter throne, knowing that I had failed you that badly…"
Burying her face in her hands—and Severus' handkerchief—she let herself have a good cry. Twenty-two years, she thought. Twenty-two years and I can't even apologize correctly…
"I would have given anything," she murmured as the tears overflowed. "Anything and everything, just to trade places with you, even if it were only for a moment. To save you…"
He looked away from her, black eyes focusing on pastoral landscape out the window for several painful minutes.
"What's that old saying? 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth...'" After a beat, Severus glanced back. "And what an inheritance it proved to be, eh Minerva? We followed blindly when we both would have been better served acting independently. I am sorry, for what's it worth. If I could go back and change things…" He shrugged, the harsh lines of his face deepening. "It may not matter anymore, but I am sorry. For everything."
Reaching out, she laid a cool hand upon his own. "It matters, Severus." Peering around the Head's Office, she took in the piles of paperwork that had never seemed to shrink and the unfinished cup of rose-hip tea on the side table. "Somewhere, I'd like to think that it matters."
The room grew quiet, and Minerva allowed herself to just… be. The forthcoming changes would be huge, and her role relatively small; it would take an adjustment to accept such a diminished capacity.
"Well, we are here now. I suppose that counts for something." Severus' voice—that rich and chocolatey baritone that could command crowds and classrooms alike—sounded suddenly wry.
"We certainly are," she agreed, fighting off an entirely inappropriate attack of the giggles.
"Really, woman, show some decorum…" he drawled, appearing amused as he took in her twitching expression.
A chuckle escaped. "Oh, come now. It's all a bit absurd, you have to admit."
"Yes, that was another reason I wasn't up for speaking to you. It took awhile to… ah, come to terms."
Severus appeared rather chagrined by the admission, and that set off another fit of hilarity as events caught up with her. Minerva doubled over with laughter, and after a moment, Severus joined her, the lively sound rolling off the rafters.
"Come here," she finally gasped, and yanked him into a firm hug as soon as he was within reach. His arms tightened around her abruptly, as if to squeeze the life from her; for all that it hurt, it was a welcome pressure. Resting her forehead on his bony shoulder, she sighed, taking in the soft wool and distinctive scent at last.
"Oh, Severus… does it get any better?"
He gave a low snort. "I wouldn't know. I changed my middle name from Tobias to Avoidance twenty-two years ago."
"Vitatio, I think…"
He pulled back slightly, peering down at her with a quizzical brow. "Pardon me?"
"Your middle name would be Vitatio. If you went for the Latin, of course; I can't think of what avoidance would be in Gaelic or German at the moment. Severus Vitatio Snape. It works, you know. Sounds very Roman."
"Mad woman." His chin rested on the top of her head, a tender benediction.
"Any idea who the Patron Saint of Ostriches is? If you get to change your middle name, then I should be able to give myself one."
"Not a bloody clue." The words were a pleasant rumble under her ear. "Why ostriches?"
"Seems appropriate, given my life-long affinity for burying my head in the sand."
He tipped her chin back with deft fingers. "Stop that. The guilt ends now. We can't change the past, either of us. The only way is forward." Black met emerald for a charged instant, decades of history flashing between them. "I can't do this alone, Minerva. I'm reaching out."
Minerva knotted one hand about his and brought it up to his heart, emotion making it difficult to speak. "I'm here, and I'm not letting go."
His eyes became suspiciously moist. "Good. Because I'm not letting go, either."
Allowing her head fall back to his shoulder, Minerva took a wobbly breath in; she felt like a battered survivor from a shipwreck as the boisterous sound of the Castle bells suddenly washed over them. I am no longer alone in this… whatever 'this' may be. Or whatever it might bring, for that matter…
"Gods, but I'm exhausted," she said, sagging boneless in his arms.
"As you should be…" Carefully, he led her back to her chair, making sure that she was properly settled before dragging his within reach.
Keen gaze traveling to the door, Severus stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Who do suppose it'll be?"
"Not Filius. He wanted to retire at the end of the year. Perhaps Vector if she plays her cards right; McMurry has a chance. Longbottom," she told him with a faint smile. "…is a long shot, but he is popular amongst the Board."
"At the risk of granting a pig wings, I must admit that I hope it's Longbottom."
The answer was unexpected, and she shot him a quizzical glance. "Why?"
"Because." He crossed his arms, looking a tad petulant.
"Because you think that Hogwarts needs to become the preeminent Herbology institute in the world? Or because the school needs yet another Gryffindor Headmaster?" she queried with a smirk.
"Because," he intoned, only mildly irritated. "…Hogwarts needs someone young. Someone who is living in the present, and is also looking forward to the future. Neither of us were, Minerva, and the same holds true for Vector. The war hasn't ended for us, and it never will. Longbottom… he knows the worst of it, but he has much to live for."
He rolled his eyes. "Oh, huzzah."
The low reverberation of the outer stairs springing to life interrupted the banter, and they both turned their attention towards the heavy door. Without looking at her, Severus stuck his hand out; Minerva blindly clutched at it. Please, please, please! she prayed, unable to put any further words towards the unspoken wish.
After an excruciating wait, the sixty-third Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry walked into his new office.
It was Neville Longbottom.
Minerva felt herself go weak-kneed with relief; he wouldn't dismiss her life's work, and indeed, would build upon it. He was the best possible choice, really.
Neville's warm and generous eyes met hers, sorrow painting his features. "Minerva. As happy as I am to see you, I can't help but wish you were sitting behind that desk, and not above it."
She smiled, tears rolling down her face again. "I feel the same, I assure you. Congratulations, Headmaster Longbottom."
Severus leaned forward, and the movement caught Longbottom's attention. His face went blank with astonishment as he recognized the figure half-hidden in the shadows of Minerva's portrait.
"Headmaster Snape. It is an unexpected honour to find you in this office, as well."
"Is it?" Severus asked, question scrupulously neutral.
"Yes," Neville said with heartfelt sincerity. "You saved us all, and I would be privileged to hear your counsel, should you see fit to give it."
"We'll see how you feel about that in three months' time," Severus grumbled, but Minerva thought he sounded pleased.
"Have you given thought to your Deputy, Neville?"
"Ah, yes… actually, that's what took me so long to come up here. I've already asked her, and she's accepted."
Severus gave him an arch look. "A Slytherin Deputy, Headmaster Longbottom?"
"The best person for the job, sir." His grin became cheeky. "Note that I said person, Minerva, not woman."
"I did pick up on that, yes," she said dryly, as the rest of the Headmasters and Headmistresses filed back into their portraits.
Turning to Minerva, Severus gave her a considering look. "Did you touch the bottle that I left?"
She shook her head. "I never found something sweet enough to warrant breaking the seal."
His mouth thinned at that. "It'll be well-aged, at least… Longbottom—your first task as Headmaster is to open up the bottom right-hand drawer of the desk and have a drink on us."
Amused, Longbottom did as ordered, pouring himself a healthy measure of whiskey. Holding it up to the two professors in the portrait, he saluted them. "I hope to live up to your high standards, and can serve the Castle with as much dedication and fortitude as you both demonstrated."
Severus shook his head, giving Minerva's hand a comforting squeeze as he did so. "No, Headmaster Longbottom. You'll do it better."