Chapter Thirty-Three: Banter and Betrayal
With a resigned sigh, Severus left his right hand firmly upon Harry's left shoulder as they moved past the threshold of the wards surrounding the Hospital's isolation wing. He ignored Minerva as he felt her gaze heavily upon Harry and himself, partially to reassure her that all was normal... but mostly to irritate her as was their long-standing tradition.
A moment's pressure to Harry's shoulder and Severus brought them both to a halt before he released Harry and let his hand fall to his side. When nothing spectacular or dreadful came to pass at the loss of contact, he led the way to a pair of bunks already set up for them along with a chair nearby for Minerva. A soft growl and a pointed finger at the bunk, and Harry gave in to recline on the bunk rather than just sitting on the edge as Severus did. Harry knew as well as Severus did just how tired Harry was; the aura was telling in the leftover signs from the physical and emotional trauma.
"So, Minerva," Severus began with a smile which was artfully large enough for Minerva to know that their unspoken tradition was to be maintained, "How can we best entertain you?"
"Professor!" exclaimed Harry in shock, his formality with Severus also showing where he stood with his own Head of House: not comfortable enough with her to be at ease with the use of Severus' first name in her presence.
"Oh, that's quite all right, Mr. Potter," Minerva waved off the question. "I'm quite used to Severus' bristly nature... One might wonder if there wasn't a porcupine somewhere in his ancestry." And so the battle was joined.
Shaking his head, Severus smirked, "Your particular skill at self transformation explains to the observant why you are so fond of using rodents as transfiguration victims in your classes."
"And your own use of them as potions ingredients is less permanent?" Minerva shot back, seemingly irate.
"At least it is more useful," Severus sneered in return. "I'm not in the habit of drinking out of goblets still lined with fur.
With a gentler smile as she glanced at Harry, her murmur was just as fast as the badinage between her and Severus, "Speaking of which. Would you like some tea, Harry? The Headmaster had a tin of shortbread biscuits sent from Hogsmeade." When Harry nodded, eager for something to occupy his hands with during the unexpected display between his professors, Minerva's wand gestured gracefully as she summoned forth a table bearing a tea set and the promised biscuits. The transfiguration professor neatly poured out two cups and brought one over to Harry, making certain the boy could handle the cup without issue and making a pleasant fuss over doling out enough sugar and cream.
When she returned to the table and took up the second cup for herself, Severus let himself show the faintest of pouts. A battle was so much less fun without a proper amount of fuel. "You didn't pour me a cup," was his game observation, smirk firmly hidden.
"You don't like my furry cups, remember?" Taking a dainty sip of the faintly steaming tea, she settled the cup back on the saucer with all the poise of a noble partaking the drink with royalty.
Potter snickered and tried hiding the expression behind his own cup, still a fruitless endeavor as the amusement blazed forth in his aura. Still, Severus couldn't very well let that pass without punishment. Timing, he considered, was everything.
As Harry took another sip from his tea, Severus promptly sniped, "Your tea is likely akin to my rat-infested potions at any rate." With vindictive enjoyment, Severus ignored Harry's spewing of his tea onto the coverlet, "I could ask Trelawney to give you some pointers if you like."
Minerva grimaced with as much dignity as the expression allowed for. "Quite unnecessary, thank you Severus." While Harry finished regaining his composure Minerva cast a cleaning and drying spell upon Harry's covers, removing all trace of the tea stains. Task completed, she at last relented and poured tea into the third cup and held it out to Severus, witholding the additives as he preferred.
Severus' smile wasn't warm, but it did acknowledge the long history between the two of them- both when he was student and then teacher.
Harry's expectations hadn't been so advanced as to imagine the current scene playing out before him; it had both surprised him and put him more at ease. At first the argument seemed to be just that- an argument. But the subject matter was so basic that it couldn't have been gone over many a time in the past, and the mannerisms of the two adults hadn't contained any real anger. He'd seen them both angry before. Especially Severus, he thought with a grin.
But when Professor McGonnagal finally gave Severus a cup of tea as well (he thoughtfully noticed that nothing was added), it seemed that the banter was over for the moment as the two settled into their respective seats to sip in silence. Silence wasn't a bad thing, Harry decided, not when it was a comfortable one shared by others rather than one from boredom or embarrassment.
At long last, Severus set his cup down on the table between their bunks and murmured, "So then. Albus has explained everything to you?"
"As much as he was able to," McGonnagal murmured from over her cup, and for a moment there was an expression difficult to define, especially without the benefit of a visible aura and the observations he'd had of Severus since their reunion this summer.
"In other words, not very much," was Severus' wry rejoinder.
Shaking her head, McGonnagal gently lowered her teacup. "Oh, he detailed the events he knew of and likely all that you have told him." Her tone of voice was soothing yet factual enough to make it clear that she wasn't trying to coddle Severus. A wise move on her part, Harry knew. "He just didn't go into the rationalization behind it. He never did, beyond the very basic." Her last words seemed very reluctantly spoken, and Severus caught on them immediately with a furrowed brow.
"He never did? How long have you known about this, Minerva?" Her first name was still used, but Severus' voice had a touch of wariness to it now.
If McGonnagal had been younger, hadn't the experience of a Deputy Headmistress, hadn't shepherded thousands of children through lifetime experiences both frightening and wonderful, she might have hesitated before speaking. "The Headmaster made me aware of this the night we got you back from them in your sixth year, Severus. It was then that he discovered what they were doing to you. That you were being conditioned and could not be aware of all of your actions. You needed to be watched over, and he needed the help of someone that he trusted to do so."
Severus' expression had been growing increasingly blank; a sure sign of a harsh reign on his temper. His voice was disquietingly soft as well. "And so you agreed with the actions he took? You agreed to help him put in his own conditioning?"
"No," McGonnagal firmly and unhesitatingly denied. "I felt that such an action put us on the level of Tom Riddle as he was known back then."
Harry blinked, then wiped at his eyes as they seemed to unfocus slightly behind his glasses; something was odd. He looked over at Severus and was then able to figure it out. He was starting to see Severus' aura again- and it wasn't a pleasant or happy one as Severus started to curl in on himself, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. The voice began to match the aura as well, containing harsh tones of betrayal and anger.
"Still you allowed him to do so; a silent accomplice ... I remember it now- as I lay helpless here in the infirmary ... Dumbledore's speaking words over me that bore a striking similairity to the ones that Riddle did ... they tore through my mind ... trying to make me into what I am not."
McGonnagal remained firm in her words although she displayed a similar regret as Dumbledore had done. "It was for your protection, Severus. Had the Headmaster not taken steps to counter Riddle's moves-"
"Quite," Severus interrupted. "And so I was a chess game- or better yet- a tug of war. I certainly wasn't a student near to his majority who should be made aware of the situation so that he could make his own choices."
"You were under the influence of Lucius Malfoy and his cadre, Severus. We were learning that this involved more than the fate of an individual or even a group of Slytherin students," McGonnagal insisted. "If we had not taken action, we would have been more than negligent of our students' welfare. We would have been putting our future in peril as we have come to see. Especially now that Harry is involved as well, this shows us how vital your abilities are to Voldemort's defeat."
Silence reigned for several moments before Severus quietly replied, "I can nevertheless not help but wonder ... if any of my choices - to take the Dark Mark, or to spy on Voldemort - were in fact my own."
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