A/N: I was in a motorcycle accident on 8/1/04. I required surgery to mend the broken bone and the torn muscles required a great deal of sitting around drugged to the gills. This story has never been abandoned, but it was put on hold until I could recover from the accident and the subsequent medical treatment. It all took much longer than anyone anticipated, and I thank you for your patience.
"I hear interesting things, Severus, brought to me on pale wings," Voldemort said, filled with unnecessary dramatics and self-importance. Snape stood before the decaying throne (someone had commented that Voldemort upholstered it with the skins of muggle-born children, but Snape hadn't any idea if it were true), legs slightly apart for balance. His hands were clasped behind his back; he did not think about the wand concealed in his sleeve. The Death Eaters surrounded them in a half circle. He could feel Lucius' presence behind him, two bodies to the left. Even when Lucius tried to still himself, it was only the silence of winter sky.
"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?" Voldemort's voice was lazy, bored. He sought entertainment. They had played this game too long for it to be properly entertaining.
Snape made a fanciful attempt at meekness of tone and servility. "What accusations are leveled, Lord?"
"Lucius tells me that I was wrong about you, Severus, that I was incorrect in my interpretation of your character."
He was less afraid than he had anticipated. All of his careful preparation of his mental state was ultimately for naught. This was somehow disappointing to him. His heart felt cold and absent—there was ultimately nothing to hide. He wondered if Dumbledore knew, or if it mattered now.
"And what does Mister Malfoy say, Lord?"
"He tells me that it was through your direct influence that the children could be taken at all, that you assisted my Death Eaters in passing unnoticed until they could be captured. That you had, in fact, been responsible for the elixir that rendered the girl useless, incapable of shouting for help even in the crowd."
There is a specific sort of pain that comes from having all of the air removed from one's lungs. It is worse than drowning, because you are drowning in the free air, unable still to draw breath. Despite the mask, he allowed none of it to show on his face. He, in fact, lifted one brow laconically.
"And you had expected what, precisely, my Lord?"
"It was the young Malfoy's opinion that you worked for Dumbledore, Severus, that you had spent much of your time endeavoring to convince the younger Slytherin children that they did not belong in my ranks, in our future."
"My lord, you would believe the words of a child over one of your most trusted servants?"
"Lucius has served me well. Obviously you have, as well, but I am curious, Severus: why did you not bring this to me directly? Why did you not wish to crow in your victory?"
"Have I ever, Lord?"
"When you were a boy, yes. You were frequently quite proud of yourself, Severus."
"Let us say, then, that adulthood and maturity bring about a certain lack of a desire to behave like a fool simply because one has had an accomplishment."
Voldemort laughed; it was the sound of steel on concrete. His face twisted with an afterthought, but he merely waved one clawed hand at Snape, forcing the man to stumble backwards out of the smaller circle near the throne.
"What are you playing at, Lucius?" he demanded later, placing the cat bag on the divan and unfastening it. It was a long weekend; he intended to stay this time, whether Lucius wished it or otherwise.
Lucius reached to scratch the cat's ears when it emerged from the bag. It flattened itself beneath his hand, attempted to meld with the divan. "You've never appreciated it when I've saved your life," he said lightly.
Severus ignored him and poured a glass of brandy.
"Of all the things to choose as a familiar..." Lucius frowned when the cat melted beyond his reach.
Severus glanced at him. "A cat is the traditional choice, is it not?"
"For a witch."
Severus shrugged, taking his seat. "I am a traditionalist."
"What does it eat?"
"Other familiars: rats, very small owls, the occasional frog. What do you think a cat consumes, Lucius?"
"Specifically formulated Severus Snape Brand feline dinner?"
"I would consider throwing something at you, Lucius, if I were not such a well-respected member of the wizarding world."
"Narcissa makes a habit of tossing expensive wine glasses at me on a regular basis. Draco has yet to learn how to have an attractive tantrum; though I am certain careful observation of his mother will no doubt pay off."
"Heaven forbid I should ever have a thing in common with Narcissa."
"Aside from me, of course."
Speak of the devil and he will appear.
Narcissa paused in the doorway, framing herself for effect. She was dressed in sumptuous winter white, the color enhancing the pallor of her skin. A glass of white wine dangled from her hand. She struck him as being very slightly drunk. Snape was unimpressed.
"Severus," she said, "my son tells me that you did nothing when that Potter child viciously attacked him on the quidditch field. With such dubious parentage, one can hardly be surprised at his stunning lack of manners, but, Severus, really, how could you allow him to do that to our son?"
"I hardly consider an easily mended bloodied nose to be a severe detraction from the welfare of your sainted son."
She trembled with irritation.
"Narcissa, might I implore you? If you intend to lob that glass at my head, do allow me to toss up a shield. I've never quite managed to get the reek of that swill you call wine out of my clothing."
Shrieking with impotent fury, she turned on her heel and stalked from the room. While Lucius had a flair for the dramatic, at least his often took the form of something useful. Pure blood was no promise for intelligence, Snape mused. Draco acquired his weakness from his mother. Lucius would have never gone crying to mummy over a such a trifling thing.
Dumbledore was on his third glass and McGonagall was not far behind him. The two of them sat in a pair of armchairs that had been turned to face the windows; the bottle lay between them, momentarily forgotten.
Snape cleared his throat, feeling rather like a small child being forced to watch his parents make a spectacle of themselves. Dumbledore roused himself, gesturing thickly with one ringed hand. "Severus, my boy, come and join us."
"Sir, I hardly think this is the appropriate time for such a—"
"Nonsense. What could be a more appropriate time? Would you like a chocolate frog? Minerva was kind enough to bring a half dozen of the things. . .I am fairly certain that one is still hopping around in the corridors."
Snape's face closed in distaste. "People are dying, headmaster, and you are—eating chocolate frogs."
"He's right, you know," Dumbledore said in an aside to McGonagall. She tittered softly, sounding too much like someone on the edge of tears. "Well, I suppose it simply wouldn't do to spend an entire evening sampling a scotch rather older than you are, Severus. Have some news I haven't already received? Brinks and Jones, former suspected Death Eaters, found in a field outside of Manchester."
"Hardly 'suspected'," Snape said dryly.
"What were they doing in Manchester?"
"It isn't near any current bases of power; it is simple misdirection. They were nothing more than fodder, Albus." Snape picked up the bottle and sniffed it experimentally. "This war is turning both sides into a veritable sea of alcoholics."
"Except you, Severus," McGonagall said primly, lips pursed.
"I value my mental faculties."
"Markavian Jones, yes?" Dumbledore passed a hand over his eyes. "A large family; a second or third son, unimportant, sorted into your house—he had brown hair, and kept a teddy bear until one of the other children found it in his trunk. Which of the Brinks?"
"Samantha," Snape said, drinking directly from the bottle. He had been present while they died, held up as an example to the others that their loyalty belonged to Voldemort before any sort of mundane concerns.
"A Gryffindor." McGonagall pressed her lips firmly together, flattening disappointment. "She was young."
"She attempted to stand up to the Dark Lord. Apparently she'd grown fond of Mister Jones. Idiot girl." He drifted to the window, forcing it open with a squeal of ice. The snow blew into the room and he breathed deeply, searing his lungs with the cold. He found it preferable to the scotch.
"Has he taken to punishing the Death Eaters for interpersonal relations?" Minerva could make anything sound like it came directly from a textbook.
Snape leaned his elbows on the sill, heedless of the chill seeping through the wool of his winter robes. "If it interferes with his ability to punish them at will, yes."
"Are you and Lucius in any danger of that?" she asked.
He resisted the desire to snort. He was, however, irrationally annoyed that their association was a matter of discussion. "Hardly, Minerva. Lucius is not stupid."
"Are you?" The question was very gentle.
He turned, frozen in a moment of rare speechlessness: unable to phrase an answer, he stared at her. "No," he said finally, voice tight. "I think I've proven it often enough to my Lord that I will—not interfere."
He had gathered his robes around him, tucking his hands into his arms; she watched him in silence: impasse.
"Ah!" Dumbledore said suddenly, shattering the moment. He held the wriggling, croaking chocolate frog in one aged palm. "Caught it!"
Lucius was twenty-three. Having committed some slightly less than minor infraction, he was on his knees before Voldemort. The long tail of his blonde hair was wrapped around Voldemort's fist.
Lucius was too proud to scream. He was a Malfoy; this was to be expected. His father had never screamed, either. His mother was weak, but she was dead. Small, stranged noises escaped him instead.
Severus dug his nails into his palms. His back was perfectly straight. Even if the mask had not hidden his face, his expression would have been empty.
"Crucio!" Voldemort growled, leaning his inhuman face close to Lucius'. The dark magic and his lust for life everlasting had already begun to corrupt him. Lucius watched him brazenly, despite the muscles of his face twitching as the spell ripped through him.
The potions, of course, did nothing afterward. Lucius lay on his side, curled around his stomach like a wounded animal. He could not stand to be touched, so Severus stood beside the bed, breathing and counting Lucius' breaths.
"Pride will kill us both," Severus said, worldly wise in the manner of overly grave seventeen year olds. Lucius turned over to look at him, a shimmer of tears on the surface of his grey eyes.
"Pride will keep us alive."