"Come to the Manor immediately. Bring Veritaserum." The note was unsigned, but the watermarked parchment and the crest on the blood-red seal were instantly recognizable. Severus Snape grimaced in irritation as he tossed the note into the fireplace. Lucius Malfoy's summons always came like that: no explanations, no courtesies, no consideration for timing or convenience. If confronted, he would no doubt blame his ill-mannered brevity on security concerns, but Snape had spent enough time among school children to recognize petty one-upmanship when he saw it. Lucius, with his family money and his Ministry connections, currently held Voldemort's favor, while Snape was in disgrace and under suspicion. So when Lucius summoned, Snape was supposed to jump to it, no questions asked.
An indignant hoot reminded him that Lucius' eagle owl still waited on the windowsill. Snape glared at it, and it glared back, unimpressed and unblinking.
"No reply," he told it. The owl ruffled its neck feathers and hooted again. What the hell did it want, a treat? Snape snatched a malachite paperweight from his desk and made as if to throw it. That got the bloody bird going. It gave a high-pitched shriek and took off, leaving a couple of stray feathers on his sill. Snape felt a brief flare of satisfaction, quickly replaced with disgust. It was pathetic, really -- being rude to Lucius Malfoy's owl because he didn't dare be rude to the man himself. Snape slammed the paperweight back down on the desk and stomped over to the back of the room, where an enormous mahogany cabinet took up almost the entire wall.
"Alohomora," he snapped, jabbing his wand toward the lock with a little more force than necessary. The doors nearly smacked him in the face as they sprang open to reveal the neat rows of sealed containers that made up Snape's private potions store. Snape grabbed two identical glass bottles from the top shelf and held them up to the light, squinting until he made out the tiny scratch on the neck of one bottle, the only mark that distinguished it from its twin.
It had taken Snape nearly six years of painstaking research to alter Veritaserum in a way that nullified its effect without altering taste, scent, or color and without turning the stuff into a deadly poison. One day he would patent the formula - along with the intermediate results, which included nine new uses for Jobberknoll feathers - and retire comfortably on the proceeds. In the meantime, no one knew except himself, Dumbledore, and a handful of trusted agents who had profited from the new potion's use. Yet another reason to wish Voldemort dead and gone. Snape smiled grimly as he tucked the bottles, both the real potion and the substitute, into separate pockets. He had no idea what Lucius wanted the Veritaserum for, but it was best to be prepared for any contingency. Relocking the cabinet with a hurried flick of his wand, he snatched his cloak from the back of his chair and hurried from the room.
He Apparated into the Malfoy library, one of the largest rooms in the manor and least likely to have the furniture rearranged without notice. Lucius wasn't there, but a house elf draped in a monogrammed pillowcase conducted Snape down two flights of stairs to a small sitting room. Lucius waited in a chair by the fireplace, sipping brandy from a snifter.
"Severus. Took you long enough."
"One of these days," Snape said dryly, "you will remember that I have to leave school grounds before I can Apparate. I came as soon as I could."
Lucius circled one fingertip along the rim of his glass. "You brought the Veritaserum?"
Snape nodded but made no move to show either of the bottles to Lucius. "Whom are we interrogating?"
Lucius smiled a slow, anticipatory grin that made Snape brace himself mentally. "Come down to the dungeons and see."
Snape composed his face into an expression of bored indifference as he followed his host out of the room. Lucius did not, for a change, appear to be particularly malicious, just amused and rather smug. Presumably, if he had Harry Potter or Albus Dumbledore chained up in the dungeons, he'd be making a bigger production out of it. Still, he was clearly anticipating some sort of strong reaction, and this made Snape coldly determined not to react at all, just on principle.
The dungeons at Malfoy Manor were considerably older than the rest of the building. Lucius liked to claim that they were left over from the Norman castle that originally occupied the site. The place certainly looked medieval enough, though Snape thought some of the implements hanging on the walls were definitely out of period. Both men had to duck their heads to avoid bumping the ceiling as they walked down the central corridor, past a row of iron-bound wooden doors. Torches in iron sconces provided illumination. Snape noted with some amusement that their flames were magical. The stone walls and floor were suspiciously clean, too, and Snape thought he saw a house elf scurrying into one of the side passages at their approach. Apparently Lucius' love of atmosphere didn't extend to a willingness to breathe smoke or get mold on his robes.
A scream echoed through the corridor, cutting off abruptly after a couple of seconds. Snape quirked an eyebrow at Lucius, who shrugged.
"Macnair is down here already. I told him to wait until we arrive, but you know how he gets."
Snape smiled thinly. "Everyone needs a hobby."
They reached the end of the passage, and Lucius pushed open the last door to reveal an unexpectedly large oblong room. The ceiling here was at least two feet higher than in the corridor, and the light came from tall iron candelabras rather than torches. Walden Macnair lounged against the back wall, polishing his wand with a fold of his sleeve and looking rather bored. And sprawled on the floor at Macnair's feet, looking as if he'd been run over by the Hogwarts Express, was Sirius Black.
Shit. Snape had to bite his tongue to keep from saying the word out loud. Black's presence was not a complete surprise, given Lucius' earlier manner, but it was a hell of a complication. Snape fought to gather his thoughts as he crossed the room for a closer look.
Black lay on his back, with one arm wrapped around his stomach and the other tucked against his side at an awkward-looking angle. Snape was no expert, but it sure as hell looked like a dislocated shoulder to him. Black's nose was bleeding, and his left eye was swollen shut. An iron collar around his neck was attached to a length of chain, which in turn was attached to the wall six feet above him. He was dressed as a Muggle in jeans, boots and a black shirt with a motorcycle picture on the front. Snape recalled that Dumbledore had ordered Black to lie low with Lupin, who was supposedly living as a Muggle somewhere in Hammersmith. Apparently the idiot didn't lie low enough.
Lucius and Macnair were both watching, obviously waiting to gauge Snape's reaction, so he shook the chain a bit to make it rattle against the wall. "Well, Black. Someone's finally put you on a leash. It's about time."
"Snape." Black's voice was a painful-sounding rasp. "Traitor. I told Dumbledore not to trust you."
"And he didn't listen." Snape smiled thinly. "What can I say? I guess he must trust me more than you."
Black's reply was predictably obscene. Snape tuned it out while he considered his options. They were depressingly limited. There was no way he could give Black the real Veritaserum. It would compromise Dumbledore's plans, endanger other agents and, not so incidentally, blow Snape's own cover if Lucius happened to ask the wrong questions. But the only alternative was to use the substitute and hope that Black could figure out what was happening and successfully bluff his way through the interrogation. Staking his life on Sirius Black's intelligence was not an experiment Snape particularly cared to make. Perhaps he could stall a bit until a better idea came up…
"Nice catch, Lucius. Did you bring him in all by yourself?"
"No, Macnair and Avery ran into him in Knockturn Alley." Lucius smirked. "Avery's upstairs growing his kneecaps back."
Snape suppressed a grin. Avery did always have lousy reflexes. "It must've been quite a fight."
"It was," Mc Nair said happily, "and after we caught him, he changed into a dog and we had to make him change back. That was fun, too."
"I see." That explained Black's battered state. Snape knew of several spells designed to force an Animagus back into his human shape. Most of them were relatively harmless as long as the subject didn't put up a fight or was quickly overpowered. But if the Animagus resisted, the results tended to become brutal. Dislocated joints were common, along with torn muscles, internal bleeding and, in extreme cases, nerve damage. Under the circumstances, Black actually looked as if he'd got off fairly easily.
"So what happened to Avery's kneecaps?" Snape asked. Macnair looked ready to launch into a detailed account of the fight in Knockturn Alley, but Lucius chose that moment to become businesslike.
"Not now, Severus. We have an interrogation to conduct here."
"Don't rush on my account," Black wheezed from the floor. Everyone ignored him.
Well, so much for stalling. Snape resigned himself to the inevitable and dug the bottle of fake Veritaserum from his left-hand pocket. "Give me a hand, will you, Macnair?"
Macnair raised his wand. "Contraho Vinculum." There was a metallic scrape as the chain that leashed Black to the wall began to shorten. Black gave a harsh cry and rolled over onto all fours, frantically scrambling forward to keep from being strangled by the collar. His movements were clumsy, hampered by his injured shoulder, and he was too slow to keep from having his face slammed into the stone by the shrinking chain. By the time Macnair finally lowered his wand, Black was on his knees, pressed flat against the wall with his head thrown back to give himself room to breathe. Despite the logistical nightmare of the situation, Snape had to admit that the sight was not ungratifying.
Macnair pinched Black's nose shut with one hand and gripped his jaw with the other. Black tried to struggle, but the chain held him effectively immobilized, and Macnair was able to force his mouth open for a few seconds, just long enough for Snape to administer the potion.
Now came the tricky part, the part that was totally out of Snape's control. Snape leaned casually against the wall, tucked his hands into his pockets, and gave in to a childish urge to cross his fingers. Work it out, Black. Pay attention, dammit.
Black stopped struggling. His shoulders sagged, and his posture went as limp as the chain allowed. Snape leaned over to get a clearer look at his face, and saw that his eyelids drooped and his jaw was slack, making him look even more imbecilic than usual. It was a passably accurate impression of a man under the influence of Veritaserum, and Snape breathed a little easier.
"Give him a little slack, Macnair," Lucius ordered. Macnair looked disappointed but obediently flicked his wand, adding about a foot to the chain's length. Black slumped away from the wall, his head drooping forward until Lucius yanked at his hair to make him look up again. "Black. Can you hear me?"
Snape never understood why people persisted in asking that. It wasn't as if Veritaserum had ever been known to render anyone deaf.
"Yes," Black said in a flat voice. Lucius gave a satisfied nod.
"What were you doing in Knockturn Alley?"
"Trying to buy a wand," Black answered without hesitation. "The Aurors broke mine before they took me to Azkaban."
It was a reasonable enough answer. It might even, Snape reflected, be true. A number of shops in Knockturn did a brisk business in bootleg wands, either stolen or made by unlicensed manufacturers. It wasn't the same as having one of Ollivander's creations choose you, but a fugitive couldn't afford to be picky.
Lucius didn't look especially pleased with Black's response, but he didn't challenge it, either.
"You weren't there on Dumbledore's behalf, then?"
"But you do work for Dumbledore?"
"What have you been doing for him?"
Black hesitated. Not long, only for the space of a breath or two, but it was enough to make Snape clench his fists inside his pockets. Neither Lucius nor Macnair remarked on the delay, however.
"Very little, so far," Black went on in the same dull monotone as before. "He said he would need me, but that was weeks ago, and I haven't heard anything. I think Dumbledore is waiting to see what Voldemort will do before he makes his own move."
The sour look on Lucius' face grew more pronounced. "What about the Ministry? We know Dumbledore's been in touch with them. Who's siding with him against Fudge?"
"Arthur Weasley. Amos Diggory."
"We know that!" Lucius growled. "Who else?"
This went on for over half an hour: Lucius spitting out questions, and Black droning useless answers. Macnair fidgeted, obviously bored and frustrated at the lack of anything to torture. Snape observed the performance in silence and did his best not to smirk.
Inevitably, Lucius' patience ran out.
"This is useless! He doesn't know anything."
"What did you expect?" Snape shrugged. "Dumbledore may be a gullible old fool, but even he knows better than to entrust important information to an idiot like Black."
"To hell with him, then." Lucius lifted his wand. "Ava-"
"Wait!" Snape blurted out.
Lucius paused, wand hovering in the air over Black's head. "What is it?" he demanded impatiently.
What, indeed? Snape felt like kicking himself. Where on earth had that idiotic outburst come from? All he'd needed to do was keep his mouth shut, and this whole mess would've been over. He could've left Lucius and Macnair to dispose of the body and returned to Hogwarts with nothing to worry about except breaking the news to Dumbledore. Under the circumstances, no one could possibly have blamed him for Black's death. Instead, Black was still alive, and Snape was stuck scrambling madly after an excuse for interrupting Lucius Malfoy in mid-Unforgivable.
"You do realize, don't you, Lucius, that you're missing a perfect opportunity here?"
Lucius lowered his wand, but his expression did not change. "What are you talking about?"
"You've got that notorious murderer, Sirius Black, chained up in your dungeon. Why not hand him off to the Ministry? Fudge will feed him to the Dementors, and you'll be a hero. There might even be a reward."
He'd hit on the right excuse, something they could all believe. Lucius' frown smoothed out, to be replaced by a cool, satisfied smile. Macnair kept fidgeting. Black stayed silent and motionless, but his face went ashen under the blood and the bruises.
"Good thinking, Severus." Lucius tucked his wand back up his sleeve. "I'll go contact the Ministry right now.
"So you're done with him, then?" Macnair shifted from foot to foot, looking hopeful. Lucius waved his hand dismissively.
"He's all yours. Do you want to come up for a drink, Severus?"
He could still do it. He could leave Macnair to his fun, go upstairs, and drink Lucius' brandy until the Dementors showed up. It was the most sensible course of action, really. He was alone in hostile territory, outnumbered and unprepared for a fight. His cover was too precarious, the work he did for Dumbledore too important; he couldn't risk it all for some idiot Gryffindor. It wasn't his fault Black went and got himself captured. Dumbledore would understand; there was nothing he could've done…
"I think I'll stay here for a bit. Make sure Macnair doesn't kill him by mistake. After all, we wouldn't want to disappoint the Dementors."
"Suit yourself." Lucius swept out of the room.
Macnair gave Snape a deeply affronted look. "I have never killed anyone by mistake!"
"Good for you." Snape pulled his wand from his sleeve. "Obliviate."
It was comical, really, the way Macnair's face went from sadistic glee to blank confusion in the blink of an eye. He looked like Longbottom's toad, with his mouth opening and closing like that. Unfortunately, Snape had no time to appreciate the view.
Macnair crumpled to the floor without a sound. Snape kicked him a couple of times, just to make sure he wasn't faking, and turned his attention to Black.
The collar around Black's neck was fastened with a small iron padlock. Snape pressed the tip of his wand against it, and was amused to see the other man tense at the touch.
"Not quite the way I've always envisioned having my wand at your throat," he acknowledged. Black responded with an amused snort, but did not relax. "Recludo," Snape said, and the padlock popped open with a click.
Black clawed the collar off and tossed it aside. There was an angry red mark around his throat. He rubbed at it, wincing, then braced his good hand against the wall and tried to stand. Three tries later, he still hadn't made it. Snape would've liked to stand back and enjoy the sight, but there was no telling when Lucius might come back, so he settled for putting on his best condescending smirk as he grabbed Black's shirtfront and hauled him to his feet.
"Get a move on, Black, I don't have all day."
Black glared at him with angry, bloodshot eyes. "Bugger off, Snape."
"Bugger off?" Snape repeated incredulously. "That's the best you can do for an insult? Whatever happened to that famous Sirius Black wit?"
"The Dementors ate it," Black said flatly. "Now can we please save the banter for a time when we're not in mortal danger?"
The bastard did have a point. Snape retrieved Macnair's wand from the floor and held it out. "Here. Stun me and get out of here. You *can* Apparate in your condition, I suppose?"
"Guess I'll have to, won't I?" Black muttered. Snape shrugged. He'd done all he could; if the idiot went and splinched himself because he tried to Apparate while badly injured and using a borrowed wand, it was his own damn problem.
"You'll need to go up to the ground floor first; the dungeons are warded against Apparating. I suggest you hurry, before Lucius comes down again."
Black took the wand with an unsteady hand. "Snape-"
"Move it, Black."
"I'm going, I'm going." Black raised the wand. "Stupefy."Chapter 2
Snape woke abruptly and painfully to find Lucius Malfoy standing over him, wand upraised. He looked positively murderous, and Snape surreptitiously felt around for his own wand as he struggled to sit up.
"Lucius… what… what happened?" It was far too easy to put that note of pained vulnerability in his voice. Snape's head throbbed and his body felt as if Hagrid had sat on it. Lucius must have been particularly forceful with his Enervate spell.
"You tell me," Lucius said through clenched teeth. His face was very white, except for two mottled red blotches on his cheeks. "Where the hell is Black?"
Snape turned toward the spot where Black was supposed to be and endeavored to look shocked and appalled. "He's gone!"
"Now you notice?" Lucius' wand hand twitched; Snape got ready to duck. Luckily, Macnair chose that moment to groan and roll over, providing a handy new target. "Enervate!" The spell actually lifted Macnair's body a couple of inches off the floor, then smacked him down again. He sat up, rubbing his head and blinking.
"Lucius… what… what happened?"
Snape had to bite his lip to keep from sniggering. Lucius looked as if he was about to have an apoplexy.
"You bloody idiots! The man was unarmed, chained and injured, and you still let him escape? How the hell did you manage it?"
"I… I don't remember." Macnair blinked rapidly, looking lost and confused. Snape did his best to duplicate the expression.
"Neither do I. The bastard must've cast a Memory Charm on us."
"Do you have any idea how you're making me look?" Lucius shrieked. "Cornelius Fudge is going to be here any moment now, with a Ministry delegation and a herd of reporters in tow, all expecting to find Sirius Black chained up in my dungeon! What the hell am I going to tell them?"
"They're not the ones you need to worry about," Snape said nastily and was gratified to see Lucius go even whiter.
"Oh, God. Lord Voldemort. I'll have to tell him something…"
"Have fun." Snape climbed to his feet and dusted himself off. "I, on the other hand, have to return to Hogwarts."
"You're not going anywhere." Lucius planted himself between Snape and the door. He was still pale, but quickly getting his voice and facial expression under control. "This is your mess, Snape - I would've killed Black on the spot if you hadn't spoken up - and if you think you're going to just slink off and leave me to-"
"Don't be an ass, Lucius. If Voldemort wishes to speak with me -- and I know you'll make sure he does -- he knows perfectly well how to summon me. In the meantime, I left Hogwarts without telling anyone, since you were so keen on speed. I can't be gone too long. People will ask questions." Snape began to edge toward the door, keeping a close eye on Malfoy's wand. His own wand was in his hand, but he made no move to raise it. This was not an advantageous moment to get into a duel with Lucius Malfoy. If push came to shove, Snape was prepared to back down. Still, given the chance, he really wanted to return to Hogwarts before Voldemort summoned him for the inevitable explanations. There were potions one could take in advance to reduce the effects of Cruciatus; extremely dangerous potions, with a staggering addiction rate and a list of side effects that would give a Dementor nightmares, but still preferable to the alternative.
Lucius apparently had no interest in dueling with Snape, either, for he made no further move to prevent Snape from walking out the door. Snape's back itched unpleasantly as he walked up the corridor toward the stairs, but no curses or hexes followed him.
Black had left a trail on his way up: drops of blood on the floor, an occasional smudged red handprint on the wall. No unattached body parts, though. Apparently, the legendary luck that protected drunkards, fools and Gryffindors had held out long enough to let Black Apparate successfully. Snape was almost tempted to collect a bit of the blood -- he could think of at least ten potions he could use it in to make the bastard's life thoroughly miserable -- but time was of the essence, so he merely contented himself with a moment's fantasizing as he Disapparated from Malfoy's front hall to reappear on an empty road just at the outside edge of Hogwarts grounds.
He was halfway to the gate when his left arm began to burn.
It was fortunate, Snape reflected grimly, that his hatred for Sirius Black was so well known. Not even Lucius and Voldemort, in all their combined paranoia, considered the possibility that Snape would willingly aid the man. Instead, Voldemort was all too willing to assume that Black's escape was due to incompetence rather than malice. This meant that Snape got to walk - or at least stagger and crawl - away from the meeting in one piece. It also meant Macnair got to share the punishment, which was a significant bonus. Most of the time, despite the ridiculous Muggle proverb, Snape had found that Misery did not, in fact, love Company. Misery wanted Company to bugger off and die so that Misery could sulk in peace. Screaming Agony, on the other hand, liked Company just fine, mostly because Company provided an alternate target. And Macnair, like many sadists, had no tolerance at all for his own pain. His howling and blubbering had made Snape feel positively stoic by comparison.
Insulting Malfoy owls and blubbering less than Macnair. Not much to hang his dignity on. It certainly didn't offer much consolation as he lay face down in the grass just outside school grounds, waiting for his body to stop twitching.
He had been on the receiving end of Voldemort's Cruciatus before, but that was fifteen years ago. Time had dulled the memory, or maybe he was just getting old and weak. He didn't remember it being so bad before.
He'd made four attempts to get up so far. Each time, his muscles seized up, his stomach cramped, his limbs trembled uncontrollably, and he ended up flat on his face again. At this rate, he'd still by lying there when the students arrived at the start of the term. Snape clenched his fingers around handfuls of grass and made himself breathe slowly and steadily as he gathered his strength for another try. He briefly considered casting a healing charm on himself, but quickly discarded the thought. Charms required a focused mind and a steady hand. At the moment, Snape stood a good chance of turning himself into a toad. So he closed his eyes and counted backwards from a thousand, until his heartbeat slowed back to normal and the twitches subsided. Then he had another try at getting up.
Apparently, the fifth time was the charm. He made it to his feet, though the world rocked precariously from side to side, and he had to fling his arms out to keep his balance. Eventually, the ground steadied beneath his feet, and Snape took a tentative step. Pain darted from his hip down to his ankle, but it was manageable. Just. Snape gritted his teeth and began the slow walk toward the gate.
He went to Dumbledore's office first, but the Headmaster took one look and ordered him straight to the infirmary. For once, Snape didn't feel like arguing about it. He dragged himself down to the Hospital Wing, staggering in just in time to narrowly avoid a collision with Black, who was staggering out. Black had cleaned up and changed into normal clothes, and his shoulder was back in its proper position, but he still looked pale and haggard. Snape, well aware that he looked just as bad, couldn't even find the energy to gloat. For a few moments, the two men just stood there watching each other warily. Then Black muttered something indistinct and brushed past him, one bony shoulder bumping against Snape's as he stepped through the doorway.
Poppy Pomfrey spelled some of the lingering pains from Snape's abused muscles, cast a couple of standard diagnostic charms to check for internal injuries, and measured out a dose of Ache-Away Potion. Snape thanked her brusquely and pocketed the vial without comment. They both knew perfectly well he wasn't going to use it. He had more effective potions back in his rooms; potions that Poppy, not being a licensed medi-witch, had no authority to prescribe. Snape thought about them longingly as he limped from the Hospital Wing back to the Headmaster's office.
Black was already there, consuming tea and sandwiches in front of the fire. He scowled when Snape came in, but kept his mouth shut. Snape ignored him, nodding at Dumbledore instead.
"Severus." Dumbledore smiled from behind his desk, but his eyes were grave with concern. "Have a seat." He waved his hand, and an ottoman chair waddled over, clawed mahogany feet scuffing against the carpet. Snape sat, and the ottoman promptly carried him closer to the fire, forcing Black's chair to edge aside a bit to make room. A cup materialized in the air, hovering patiently until Snape reached out to take it. His elbow twinged unpleasantly as he raised his arm, but he managed to complete the motion without wincing or spilling anything. The cup proved to contain strong black tea with exactly the right amount of sugar in it. A plate of biscuits floated over to present itself for approval, but Snape waved it aside.
For several minutes, no one said anything. Snape sipped his tea while Black inhaled roast-beef sandwiches as if he anticipated a worldwide shortage. Dumbledore occupied the time by folding a square of parchment into a tiny origami crane which fluttered around the room for a few seconds before settling itself on Fawkes' empty perch. The phoenix himself was present only as a small mound of pale gray ashes beneath the perch. It was too bad, really. Snape suspected that both he and Black could've benefited from having a phoenix slobber over them for a bit.
"I know you both need rest," Dumbledore said finally, "so I won't keep you long. Sirius has just been telling me about his misadventure in Knockturn Alley--"
"Ah, yes, that." Snape sneered in Black's general direction and got the expected glower in return. "Were you really shopping for a wand, or did you actually have a legitimate reason for being there?"
"Shopping for a wand is a legitimate reason," Black snapped. "I need to have one if I'm to be of any use--"
"It'll take more than a wand to accomplish that, I'm afraid."
Black's eyes narrowed angrily. "Listen, you greasy git," he began, but Dumbledore's placid voice overrode him in mid-insult.
"Sirius' reasons for being in Knockturn Alley are not the issue here. I'm more concerned with what he may have said during his interrogation." Black instantly looked affronted, and Dumbledore held up one hand to forestall his objections. "I'm not questioning your loyalty, Sirius, or your courage. I know you wouldn't give anything away. But I need to know if anything you said while supposedly under the influence of Veritaserum could be later exposed as a lie. If it can, then we must take steps to provide corroborative details, or Severus will be in danger."
"I see." Black frowned into his teacup. "I'm afraid I wasn't thinking that far ahead at the time." Snape gave a derisive snort. Black spared him a brief, poisonous glare before turning to Dumbledore again. "I think everything I said was either unverifiable or already common knowledge. But I don't remember all of it."
Snape snorted again. Black swore and banged his cup down on the table, splashing the dregs of his tea into the saucer. "What the hell's your problem, Snape?"
"Nothing." Snape folded his arms across his chest and stared at the wall above Black's head. "I didn't say a word."
Black continued to glare. "If you wanted me to do something other than what I did, then you might've dropped a hint, instead of showing up out of the blue, pouring a mystery potion down my throat, and leaving me to improvise."
"Why, yes, of course. How silly of me." Snape rolled his eyes. This was exactly what he'd expected. It was just like Black, having created the mess in the first place, to try and blame the consequences on Snape. The bastard had been doing it since they were both eleven years old. "I should've said, 'Excuse me, Lucius, but could you please let me have a private word with the prisoner before you question him? I need to coach him on how to lie convincingly.' I'm sure that would've gone over swimmingly."
"So you left me to bluff my way through in the dark," Black growled, "which I did, and quite successfully, too, or neither one of us would be standing here now--"
"Oh, so now you're claiming the credit for our--"
"It's not a question of credit, you stupid idio--"
"That's enough, both of you." Dumbledore's voice was only a little sharper than usual, but it was enough to make both Snape and Black snap to attention. "You're obviously both still unwell. Perhaps we should attempt this conversation again in the morning." Dumbledore's expression was more sympathetic than reproachful; nevertheless, Snape found himself feeling quite thoroughly reproached.
"Headmaster," he began, "I assure you I'm--"
"In the morning," Dumbledore repeated in a tone that allowed no possibility for further argument. "Go get some rest, both of you."
"Yes, Sir." Black sighed, looking nearly as chastened as Snape felt, and heaved himself out of his chair. Snape followed suit, only to find his legs cramping again. He hissed in pain, and put the perfect capper on a perfect day by toppling over sideways into Sirius Black's arms.
"Whoa." Black caught Snape roughly by the elbows and set him upright with a grunt. "You all right, Snape?"
"I'm fine." He tried to pull away, but Black was still holding on. Dumbledore was coming around the desk toward them, eyes wide with concern, and Snape knew he had to get out of there immediately, or he'd be fussed right back into the infirmary again. With a desperate effort, he twisted one arm free and shoved Black in the chest, hard. "Get your paws off me."
"Hey, you're the one who fell on me!" Black protested, but he finally let go. Just in time, too, as Dumbledore was beginning to mutter suggestions in which the words "Madam Pomfrey" and "infirmary" played a significant part. Snape was not about to stay long enough to make out the details.
"I'll see you in the morning, Headmaster," he called over his shoulder, and made his escape.
Back in his rooms, Snape stuck Pomfrey's vial of Ache-Away in a desk drawer and chugged a double dose of Numbing Draught instead. Then he drew a bath and soaked for an hour, reheating the water with a tap of his wand when it grew too cold. By the end of the hour he looked and felt like a stewed prune, but that was still closer to human than he'd felt before. The Numbing Draught made him light-headed and leeched all sensation from his fingers and toes, but at least nothing hurt. Snape pulled on a clean nightshirt, sat in front of the fire, and contemplated taking a Dreamless Sleep potion before bed.
He knew exactly what Poppy would say to that. "On top of a Numbing Draught? Are you insane? You'll turn your brain to pumpkin juice!" Which, now that he thought about it, didn't seem like such a bad idea...
Someone knocked on his door. It was a measure of Snape's exhaustion that he muttered "Enter" without first demanding to know who was there. He had immediate cause to regret his carelessness when Sirius Black walked into the room.
"Snape." Black stood in front of the fireplace and braced one hand on the mantelpiece, coming within an inch of knocking over an antique brass apothecary's scale that Snape was particularly fond of. His other hand clutched the neck of a bottle full of amber liquid. "Still awake, I see."
"Maybe," Snape said coldly. "Or maybe I'm asleep and having a nightmare about my private rooms being invaded by an annoying idiot. What are you doing here?" He looked down pointedly at the bottle in Black's hand. "Lose your way in a drunken stupor, did you?"
"I'm stone cold sober!" Black said indignantly "It's not even opened, see?" He thrust the bottle at Snape with a sudden, jerky movement. Snape, brain still operating half a step behind his body, automatically took it. Sure enough, the seal was still in place over the cork.
"All right, you're sober. That leaves the question of what you're doing in my sitting room with a bottle of--" Snape peered at the label with narrowed eyes. "Thirty-year-old Laphroaig?"
Black removed his hand from the mantelpiece, much to Snape's relief, and combed his fingers through his hair. He looked as if he really wanted to be somewhere else, which only emphasized the puzzle of why he wasn't.
"I'm sorry I lost my temper earlier," he said, carefully not meeting Snape's eyes. "Not that you were behaving much better, but… what I said about you not giving me warning -- that was uncalled for."
"Yes," Snape said coldly. "It was. And this, I take it, is your apology?" He held up the bottle.
"No." Black shifted his feet awkwardly. "The part where I said 'I'm sorry I lost my temper' -- that was my apology."
"Then you still haven't answered my question."
Black took a deep breath, held it for a count of three, and slowly let it out again. "I was sitting in my room earlier," he said quietly, "and I was thinking how nice it would be to get completely plastered. So I went over to Hagrid's, planning to cadge some of that paint stripper he usually swills, and he gave me this."
"You got this from Hagrid?" Snape was incredulous. Hagrid's taste in alcohol was generally on par with his taste in pets. The idea of him drinking a thirty-year-old Islay single malt was... was...
"Mind-boggling, isn't it?" Black smirked. "He's got about twenty cases of the stuff, stacked in a storage shed behind his hut. Left over from the Triwizard Tournament, he says. Apparently, the Beauxbatons delegation had horses that would only drink--"
"Single malt whisky. I remember. And Hagrid hasn't finished it all off yet? Astounding."
"Oh, he doesn't like it. Too watery for his taste. But he thought I might like it. And I thought…" Black trailed off into silence and raked at his hair again. Snape peered at him suspiciously.
"And you thought what?"
"That you might like it. And that you, too, might be thinking how nice it would be to get completely plastered."
"How wonderfully empathetic of you," Snape drawled in his most sarcastic voice. "But if I did decide to get drunk, I certainly wouldn't want to do it in your company. I think we've both been tortured enough for one day."
Black tilted his head slightly and gazed at Snape for what seemed a very long time. His expression was cool and guarded, his mouth compressed into a thin, pale line. "I never said anything about us drinking it together," he said finally. I've got my own bottle stashed away. This one's all yours. Think of it as a thank you gift."
"Ah." Snape nodded. "Of course. I save you from torture and death, and you give me a bottle of liquor you scrounged from the Groundskeeper's storage shed. It all balances out."
"Come off it, Snape." Black sounded tired. "I never said it balances out. I just wanted to make a gesture, that's all."
"Because. I refuse to sulk and be bitter just because somebody I hate saved my life. You're a mean, ugly bastard, Snape, and you saved my sorry ass when you didn't have to. I'm damned if I know why you did it, but I do know what it cost you. So thanks. I owe you one. You ever need anything from me, you got it."
"I need you to get your sorry ass out of my sitting room."
"You got it." Black was shutting the door behind him before he even finished speaking.
The room became very quiet, with nothing but the crackling of the fire to break the silence. Snape slumped in his chair, motionless, the Laphroaig cradled in his hands. After a while he peeled the seal off, pulled out the cork, held the bottle under his nose to inhale the scent of peat and brine and heather.
"You do know, don't you," he said to the wall above the fireplace, "that resorting to alcohol after a painful experience is dangerous and unhealthy, and not at all an appropriate coping mechanism?" The wall had nothing to say in response. Snape ran his thumb along the neck of the bottle and mentally ticked off all the things one wasn't supposed to take after a Numbing Draught. Dreamless Sleep potion. Veritaserum. Darjeeling tea. But not, oddly enough, alcohol.
I refuse to sulk and be bitter just because somebody I hate saved my life.
"Fuck you, Black." Snape growled, still addressing the unresponsive wall, and took a swig.
It tasted as fine as it smelled. A warm glow spread from Snape's throat into his chest and down to his stomach. He hadn't even been aware of the muscle knot in the back of his neck until it relaxed. Snape sighed, sank down a little lower in his seat, took another swig. A cozy sense of well being was beginning to creep over him. He knew it was illusory, knew he'd have nothing to show for it in the morning except a raging hangover. But he was going to enjoy it while it lasted, dammit.
"You're welcome," he muttered, and raised the bottle again.
The wall didn't have a word to say all night.
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