Severus Snape stretched in his bed as lazily as a cat and with as much finesse. An observer might have noted the smooth ripple of muscle beneath the skin of his back, or the flex of long, elegant fingers as he completed the manoeuvre, but there was no one to watch, for he was completely and agreeably alone. Furthermore, the day was his to do with as he wished, as were all of his days, now—there were no students awaiting his supervision, no fellow teachers to silently study and unfairly judge him, no maniacal 'mentor' to steal his youth and find his performance forever wanting. He was a solitary man of reclusive habits living a gloriously sequestered existence.
Life had bloody well never been so satisfactory before.
He stood from his bed, pyjama pants hanging upon narrow hips, and padded into the loo to perform his morning ablutions. Hot water from the shower sluiced the soap from a body which had seen its share of hardship in more than forty years of life, but he spared scarcely a thought for its relative lack of beauty as he towelled himself dry. The horrific scar at his throat, which not all the Healers' skill had sufficed to mend, no longer drew his eye; he was thankful to be alive, and it was enough.
He took the minimum amount of time to comb his shoulder length hair, shave, and brush his teeth before donning his usual garb, dressing completely before leaving his room, as he did every day: Crisp white linen, familiar black wool, and overall, black robes. And when he sallied forth in search of his first cup of black coffee, his robes might have been said to billow in his wake.
Post-war wizarding Britain had seen some changes, both those favourable and those less so. One change which had benefitted Severus involved the house-elves of the Death Eaters whose property had been confiscated by a furious Ministry of Magic. The house-elves, torn from the homes they had served all their lives, had been auctioned off like livestock, and the funds had gone into trust for the maintenance and education of the orphans whose parents had died in the war.
Severus' thin lips curved nastily as he recalled the so-called indignation of the chronic bellyachers, who were, of course, amongst Potter's crowd. They had shown up en masse—both of them—to 'protest' the sale of sentient beings. Severus had paid them no mind at all. He had taken the indecent amount of gold the Ministry had awarded him whilst he still occupied a bed at St Mungo's—reparations for a lifetime of service to his country—and he had purchased a house-elf to ease his life at Spinner's End. He had attended the auction more out of curiosity than anything, doubtful that his resources would extend to the purchase of a servant, but the discovery of Gabs the house-elf had sealed his decision. Surely unearthing a creature whose previous mad mistress, Bellatrix Lestrange, had cursed the pathetic elf into permanent silence, was providence. Here was an opportunity to acquire willing hands to perform all the unpleasant tasks which were a necessary part of home ownership without having to endure unwanted chatter. As his old Granny Snape would have said, it was meant to be.
Stalking now into his cramped kitchen, a space which had been made somehow open and inviting by the hardworking Gabs, Severus frowned at the empty coffee pot.
'Where's my coffee?' he demanded brusquely.
Gabs did not have the facility to form words, but he had the ability to communicate more clearly with looks and gestures than most of Severus' former students had managed with the full use of their annoying voices. Just now, the house-elf responded to his master's question with a withering glance at Severus, followed by a pointed look at the clock on the wall.
What, only half-past seven? Severus usually didn't arrive at the breakfast table until eight.
'Well, get busy!' he snapped, seating himself at the table. 'And where's my newspaper?'
The answer to this query was a shrug of the elf's shoulders as he busied himself brewing coffee. Gabs was perfectly capable of producing a cup of coffee with the snap of his bony fingers, but he well knew his master preferred freshly ground beans brewed the old-fashioned way.
Severus sighed with impatience and stared out the open window, watching for the owl which would deliver his Daily Prophet. He lived alone, but that was no reason to become sloppy in one's habits. Like clockwork, six mornings out of seven, by nine o'clock, he was at his desk in the cellar, hard at work. If this work on some mornings consisted of nothing more taxing than reading up on the subject of his current fancy, that was no one's business but his own. By one o'clock, after ingesting a light luncheon, he would go out to attend to errands, and as often as not, he found himself at the Ministry of Magic, lost in the stacks of the National Wizarding Archives.
His government's belated recognition of his efforts had been tardy, but it had been deliciously guilty, and therefore, embarrassingly generous. Not that Severus was embarrassed. He was far too satisfied to suffer from such a fatuous emotion. An excess of gold in his Gringotts vault gave him the leisure to immerse himself in the subject matter of his own choosing, and if such engrossment yielded a train of thought Severus felt an urge to put to parchment, then a scholarly article bearing his name might appear in a wizarding periodical.
Idly, he pulled the pile of morning post before him and extracted his reading glasses from the interior pocket of his robes, perching them above the pronounced hook which never failed to keep them in place. He began to riffle through the stack, the smell of percolating coffee offering the promise of relief to come. He flicked the parchment engraved with his solicitor's name—a bill, no doubt—from the top of the stack, and smirked when next he recognised the handwriting of one of his self-confessed 'fans'. Gladiola Jambull was a witch of fifty-plus years who had, supposedly, fallen 'in love' with the 'spy who won Dumbledore's war'. She wrote impassioned, adoring letters once or twice a week, and Severus could only be thankful that her husband was a sensible man—otherwise, he would be watching his back for jealous-husband retaliation day and night.
He set the fan mail aside and glanced out the window again, pleased to see a brown barn owl approaching his kitchen window rather like a bat out of hell. He frowned as the harassed-looking bird lit upon the table, upsetting the salt cellar.
'Watch yourself,' he snapped irritably. 'And where's my newspaper?'
The owl ruffled its feathers and held out its leg, offering the missive tied there.
'All right,' Severus grumbled, unfastening the leather thong. 'Have an owl treat,' he added, gesturing toward the dish near the window sill.
But the owl screeched loudly and launched itself through the opening into the morning air, beating its wings wildly.
'That bird is touched,' Severus observed to Gabs as the silent house-elf placed a mug brimming with strong black coffee before him.
Gabs' only response was to start violently and thrust his finger toward the swiftly departing bird, which was dipping and weaving unsteadily, as if an unseen force were constraining its headlong flight.
'Now what?' Severus demanded, wondering if it were now to fall to his lot to somehow relieve avian insanity—and then he was struck to silence by the sight of the grumpy barn owl exploding in a shower of blood, bone, and feathers.
Severus blinked once, as if to clear his vision, and looked again, but there were still pathetic brown and white feathers wafting about in the breeze.
'That's not typical behaviour for a common barn owl,' he said aloud, and his gaze was drawn to the somewhat grubby envelope he had retrieved from the now-defunct bird.
His name was on the letter, though not written by hand; in fact, it had been cut from the cover of Witch Weekly. He recognised the sickly pink background to the stark black of the block letters spelling out 'SNAPE'. His eagerly anticipated coffee forgotten, he took up his butter knife and slit open the envelope. The folded parchment slid onto the tabletop, and he used the tip of the knife to lift the edge, successfully laying the piece of cheap flatware along the edge of the missive. There was no harm in being careful, was there? No one knew better than he the dangers posed by colourless, odourless poison.
As his eyes strained to focus, letters and entire words cut from various printed material swirled madly, then arranged themselves into readable format. Mutely, he read through the words, then closed his eyes and blindly reached for his coffee.
This was going to require a substantial quantity of caffeine.
We have the love of your life. If you ever want to see her alive again, you will do as you're told. NO MAGICAL LAW ENFORCEMENT. If you contact the Ministry, she dies. If you don't do as you're told, she dies.
Bring ten thousand Galleons in a bag and leave it at the National Wizarding Archives in the conveniently located book return box before midnight tonight.
Please find enclosed indisputable proof that we have her. Do as you're told and the love of your life will live to love again.
Severus took up the discarded envelope and peered inside. It would seem that the fools had seen fit to send him, by owl post, a rat's tail. With a grimace of disgust, he dumped the item onto the aged yellow Formica tabletop. Upon closer inspection, he decided it was hair—probably human, if it was, indeed, from the head of the 'love of his life'.
He poked the unremarkable brown mat of hair, and a faintly familiar odour rose from it.
Severus read through the words again, a pucker between his brows, and then pushed the mess aside, reaching instead for the jam pot. Taking up his spoon, he dipped strawberry jam from the pot and began to spread it on his toast with the back of his spoon.
Perhaps the most puzzling feature of the nonsensical note was the identity of the supposed 'love of his life'. No such person existed.
The meeting he had borne with the shade of Lily Evans Potter in the murk above his bleeding body in the Shrieking Shack had been short and to the point. His oldest, dearest friend had assured him that any debt he owed her was paid in full by his care of her offspring. Her next message had been rather more succinct.
'No, you can't come with me! Get back into your body! You're not finished!'
He bit off a piece of toast and chewed thoughtfully. If not for the exploding owl, he might have been tempted to consider the entire thing a joke, however poorly conceived. But a set of persons who were willing to explode an owl to prevent detection were not a group to be trifled with. And the admonition not to involve Magical Law Enforcement bespoke some criminal sophistication. After all, if he had been in possession of such a thing as a love of his life, he would have been a perfect mark for kidnappers—well, his monetary windfall was public knowledge, wasn't it? As was his rather unfortunate tendency to cling to the object of his affections with the tenacity of a niffler with a shiny knick-knack.
He took up his fork and lifted scrambled eggs to his lips, his gaze fixed upon the sugar bowl as if it were the repository of great wisdom. How, then, was he to discern the identity of the kidnap victim? He was not intimate with any women—to be honest, he wasn't even friendly with any women—and the ransom note had specified that the person was a she. Well, at least he had the satisfaction of knowing that the extortionists didn't think he was gay.
Not that there was anything wrong with that, of course. It just wasn't his cup of tea, as it were.
He took up his napkin and fastidiously wiped his mouth, reaching for the parchment again with the other hand. The blackguards asked for the gold to be left in the Archives … wasn't that an odd request? Of course, he spent a good bit of his free time dawdling about the Archives, as any observant sort of person would know.
The Archives. The scent still lingering in his nostrils was from the Archives. That was where he knew it from. But whom did he know at the Archives?
As understanding dawned, his eyes closed, and he drew his spectacles from his face, reaching with a long-suffering sigh to sharply pinch the bridge of his nose.
'Oh, no. It couldn't be.' He opened his eyes again to find the puzzled gaze of Gabs upon him, and addressed his next words to the house-elf. 'Why do these things always happen to me?'
He stood with sudden resolution and dropped his napkin upon the tabletop. He tucked the ransom note into his robes, checked for his Gringotts key, and spoke gruffly to Gabs without bothering to look at the elf again.
'I shan't be home for lunch,' he said, sweeping past Gabs with a purposeful stride. 'If and when the Prophet comes, leave it on my desk. I'm off to …' He frowned. Perhaps it would be best not to advertise his whereabouts. He continued out his garden door without completing his sentence.
He took a deep breath of the crisp October air, his senses popping with an exhilarating air of purpose. So, someone was missing? It was very bad, to be sure—but ah! It was great to be doing something again!
He turned on the spot and was gone.