A/N: This is probably the longest story I've ever written (which is not necessarily a good thing, mind:), seven parts in total. I owe a mountain of gratitude to Fluffyllama for the beta and to Trobadora for all her help and advice - I love you both dearly:)
The warmth rushed through his lungs into every corner of his body like a bolt of lightning, forcing his back to arch and his hands to clutch onto something soft underneath them.
"Of course," said the familiar voice somewhere nearby. "What suitable first words to be uttered by such a brute."
The overformal tone, the unmistakable sneer in the voice, and the reference to him as an animal left Sirius no doubt as to whom he was speaking with.
"Where am I?"
"In my bedroom."
"And why would that be?"
"That would be because I brought you here."
"To bring, past tense. Do try to concentrate, Black."
His head spinning like a Sneakoscope, Sirius rubbed his eyes and saw the little stars, shining above his head. He knew something was not right about that, but his mind was unable to stay on the subject long enough for him to determine what it was.
"Evidently this will take longer than I anticipated."
The dark figure of Snape floated over him, blocking the stars from his sight, and placing something in his hand.
"Just drink this."
"What is it?"
Sirius forced himself to sit up, which only made him dizzier, and nearly threw up after sniffing at the goblet he was holding.
"It will make you feel better. Trust me."
"That's a laugh."
"Just drink it, Black."
"Aww, it's disgusting!"
"All of it."
"There, happy now?"
The room was starting to take shape, and Sirius could make out the shabby canopy of the bed above his head, pierced with tears and holes, which gave tiny glimpses of the sunlit ceiling. With effort, he pushed himself up and stared fixedly at the cloud of golden dust which glittered in the ray of light streaming through the window. It had been a while since he had seen the sun rise - and that was when he realised another thing wrong with the picture.
"Let's get back to that part about you bringing me here," he said, getting up on his shaky legs. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't I dead?"
"Very much so, I should think."
"Remarkably close to living, this death thing."
"Only if interfered with."
"And why would anybody interfere with my death?"
"Perhaps not all were satisfied with you merely dying."
As much as Sirius would have liked to think he had simply heard him wrong, the sneer on Snape's lips was unmistakable.
"You've brought me back from the dead only to make me suffer some more?" Sirius exclaimed in disbelief. "Is that what you want, you bloody bastard?"
"Can you not tell what I want?" Snape asked, the sneer turning into a half smile.
"Well, several things leap to mind, the biggest one being, of course, even half a brain!" Sirius tried to take a step towards him, but his legs appearing to think otherwise, he had to cling to the bedpost just to stay on his feet. "What the fuck do you think you're doing, meddling with my death!"
"I want justice."
"I think the word you're looking for is revenge."
"I prefer to call it justice."
Sirius sat back down on the bed where he had just woken up. Quickly he counted his options, measured the distance to the door, and planned which of the few pieces of furniture he could use to aid his escape. But Snape was standing firmly between him and the door, and the only thing Sirius could think of throwing at him was a chair that looked rotten enough to fall into pieces at a mere touch.
"How did you do it anyway?" he asked, turning his eyes back to Snape. "How the hell did you bring me back?"
"All is possible if one turns a little further from the Light," Snape said, evidently pleased with himself.
"Ah, the Dark Arts, your favourite." Abruptly Sirius looked down at his feet, only now noticing that something was missing. In an instant, his hands shot down to cover his private parts. "Didn't manage to bring the clothes along, did you?"
"A minor flaw in the Exmortuis Spell," Snape said, sounding not the least bit sorry. "But after all, it is to bring people back from the dead, not to conjure them clothes; that is what the Vestitus Spell is for."
"Which you're not going to use, are you?"
"No, I think not."
Glaring at Snape, Sirius lifted his hand to his neck, where he had felt something that had not been there the last time he checked.
"Possibly not precisely the kind you are used to," Snape said before he could ask, "but every dog needs a collar, don't you think?"
No matter how hard Sirius tried to pull at the band around his throat, the thick leather would not give an inch. He traced his hand all around it, but found neither a buckle nor any seam whatsoever; the collar was completely smooth.
"Take this thing off me this instant, or I'll..." Ignoring his nakedness, Sirius jumped to his feet and staggered to Snape with both hands curled into fists, ready to beat the living daylights out of him.
He did not get far, however, before he felt the collar suddenly tighten around his neck, pressing deeper and deeper into his skin until it completely cut off his supply of air. Frantically he tried to get his fingers underneath it, but the more he struggled, the firmer its hold seemed to become. Sirius felt the wave of panic hit over him, the desperate realisation that there was nothing he could do to stop the collar from choking him to death. Finally his legs gave in, and he fell face down on the floor, right at Snape's feet.
"I was just about to come to this," Snape's voice said faintly, as if coming from somewhere far away. "You see, as I am the one who brought you back, I am now in charge of you, so to speak. That nifty little collar is to prevent you from doing anything nasty, such as attacking me or otherwise disobeying my orders. Such a clever bonus attached to the spell, don't you find?"
As the voice drifted further and further away, taking the light with it, Sirius felt himself sinking deeper into something cold, yet very familiar. All strength had left his limbs, and even though he knew he was lying on the floor, he could not feel it underneath him any more. His eyes were still open, but a dark veil was now covering them, distancing him from the rest of the world.
"Come now, Black," said Snape, more audibly than before. "You can't be in such a hurry to repeat that experience. There will be plenty more chances for you to die later."
The hands took hold of Sirius and pulled him up. All of sudden the collar seemed looser again, and with relief he gasped for air.
"What the fuck was that!"
"Were you not paying any attention to what I just said?" Snape heaved a weary sigh. "I am your master, and therefore you are not to do anything against my will. As you just demonstrated, any attempt to cross me will result in your death."
"But I'm already dead!"
Snape smiled wryly as he took hold of Sirius' arm and led him out of the room into a dark corridor.
Sirius stared in disbelief at the man walking beside him. He was dead, and surely he could not die again, hence if every violation of Snape's wishes lead to being choked to death, Sirius would keep experiencing the agony of dying over and over again! There was not much he would not put past Snape, but that was utterly insane even for him.
"You call this justice!" he shouted at Snape as they walked down the stairs. "This is how you get off, is it, you sick bastard, watching me die!"
"Must I repeat this again," Snape said in a tired voice. "As long as you do as you're told, the collar will not harm you and you can quite happily carry on with your life - or rather, death." He stopped by a door and pushed it open. "Now, I would like one three-minute egg. Make sure it's nice and runny, for I can't stand hardboiled eggs. And then..."
"Why the fuck are you telling me all this?"
"So that you will know what to prepare for me for breakfast. It is nearly nine o'clock, and I haven't had so much as a..."
"That's the bloody house-elf's job!"
"You do know that we will never get this over with if you keep interrupting me?" Snape said impatiently. "Of course, it is difficult for you to understand that not all of us have been fortunate enough to be born into a family with a luxury such as a house-elf..."
"Luxury?" Sirius cut in. "A treacherous arsehole, more like."
"Still a bit sour over what's-his-name, are we?" Snape said, grinning. "Be that as it may, I now have you to take care of such tiresome chores for me. So, unless you have some twisted perversion for dying repeatedly, you will get my breakfast started without delay. You may call me Master if it helps you to get into character."
Snape gave him a little shove, and Sirius found himself standing in the middle of the kitchen. The only window revealed the rising sun, shedding its light over the barren moors. As far as Sirius could see, there was not another house for miles.
Taking a deep breath, he did his best to clear his mind and to sum up his situation. He was held prisoner by a curse-happy madman, whose only objective in life was to revenge himself on Sirius for things done years ago. In addition to this, he was also naked as the day he came into the world, although long since departed from it. Even if he should manage to run out into the moors before dying again, there would be no one there to help a naked man being strangled by a leather collar around his neck. In a nutshell, things were not good.
"Any chance you might conjure me some clothing any time soon?" Sirius ventured to ask.
Snape glared at him as if he had asked for at least the hand of his daughter and half the kingdom instead of a simple Vestitus spell.
"Unless, of course," Sirius continued, "you prefer your eggs served with a couple of pubic hairs, in which case I'm more than happy to be of assistance."
"There," Snape said quickly, taking a tea towel from the counter and throwing it at Sirius. "The proper attire of a house-elf."
At first Sirius merely clenched the tiny piece of cloth in his hand, ready to shove it up Snape's arse and be done with it. Then reason kicked in, and he began arranging it against his naked body, only to discover that it covered no more than his groin and required one hand to hold the towel in place at all times.
"Now, as I was telling you: one runny egg, some toast with honey, and good, strong coffee, black. I shall have it in the dining room, through that door there," Snape concluded, pointing at a door at the other end of the kitchen. "And do wash your hands before touching the food. Death leaves such a bitter aftertaste."
He turned on his heel and slammed the door shut behind him.
For a while, all Sirius could do was stare at the row of blackened kettles and pans, waiting for the blissful moment when he would wake up from his insane nightmare. But no matter how hard he concentrated, the kitchen seemed reluctant to disappear.
Finally resigning himself to the absurdity of the situation, and hoping to dream the bad dream away, Sirius decided to rectify at least one wrong. After a bit of a search through the cupboards, he found another tea towel, and by knotting the two together on one side, he was able to make a sort of a loincloth for himself that covered hardly anything but at least left both of his hands free.
"Right," he said to himself. "Let's make the bastard some breakfast."
"You may clear the table now," Snape said, wiping his mouth on a napkin. "Oh, do get up already. There's no time for you to loiter around."
With effort, Sirius pushed himself up from the dining room floor, his head still pounding from the lack of air. The collar had strangled him in a matter of seconds, and even when he came to the panic was still rushing through him, his whole body trembling from the struggle.
"I trust you will be more attentive to my instructions in the future, for I clearly said one three-minute egg and not the other way around."
Sirius bit his tongue and resisted the temptation of telling the man that he had heard him right the first time.
"I shall leave you now," Snape said and got up from the table. "While I'm out, here is your list of tasks, and I trust I need not remind you what neglecting to carry them out will mean."
He placed a piece of parchment on the table and straightened his robes, preparing to leave.
"Oh, and before I go," he said with a curious smile on his lips, "I should point out that you are not to leave this house, nor are you to use any magic. Should you happen to forget these orders, the collar will not hesitate to remind you."
In one loud crack, Snape Disapparated.
Sirius picked up the list from the table and skimmed it through: dusting, polishing, sweeping, washing, ironing... What the fuck was ironing? Sirius hoped it had something to do with sticking metal wires up a certain person's arse.
"And dinner is to be served at five o'clock sharp," he read from the list and grimaced. "Well, fuck me."
The parchment was quickly crumpled up and on its way into the fireplace. If Snape honestly thought Sirius was going to do all that, the man was more seriously disturbed than he had given him credit for.
"No, this has gone far enough," he said to the empty room. "I think it's high time that I leave this hellhole."
How many times he had died that day, Sirius could not tell any more.
As far as he could remember, the first death had occurred by the front door. Opening it had proved easy, giving Sirius the false hope that he would simply be able to walk through it. However, as soon as his foot had touched the doorstep, the leather band had tightened around his neck and he had collapsed to the floor, being choked to death by that accursed device.
After that, it was all only a string of flashes to him: reaching for the box of Floo Powder and suffocating in front of the fireplace, opening the window and waking up on the floor with a bump and a headache, edging a knife underneath the collar and nearly slitting his throat before being strangled to death.
In the end, Sirius had merely lain on the floor of the kitchen, wondering whether cutting his own throat would actually kill him and send him back to where he belonged, or if he would just continue his half of a life, drained dry of blood and a bit paler.
The kitchen floor was where Snape had found him hours later and ordered him to prepare his dinner, which Sirius had naturally refused to do, and which had naturally led to another dying experience.
The dinner had consisted mainly of badly burnt sausages and even more badly burnt eggs, accompanied by mash. Originally Sirius had intended to make chips, but the potatoes had never quite made it into the pan before the flames had forced him to abandon the idea of boiling anything in oil ever again.
He was in the middle of clearing up the mess he had made in the kitchen when Snape appeared in the doorway.
"I have a little job for you," he said tersely. "Come to the upstairs bathroom as soon as you've restored this room to what it once was."
"Once? You mean a century or two ago?" Sirius asked, pointing at the chipped china and the missing cupboard doors, but Snape had already swept away.
When he reached the door to the bathroom, Sirius halted and took a deep breath, preparing to face his Master. He would most likely spend the night scrubbing mould off the floor tiles with his bare hands, even though the same could be accomplished with one simple wave of a wand and the wonderful word 'Scourgify'. Without knocking, as he could not remember Kreacher ever doing so, Sirius entered the bathroom.
Of all the horrid things he had expected to find, the sight of Snape lying naked in the tub caught him completely by surprise.
"Good, you are here," Snape said, pushing himself to sit up in the tub. "Hopefully I shan't be made to wait that long again."
He stared at Sirius, obviously waiting for some kind of reply, but Sirius was utterly speechless. All he could do was stare at the pale chest rising from the water like a corpse floated ashore. Snape's black hair was dripping wet, and locks of it clung to his face, striping the white with black. This was certainly a Snape Sirius had never seen before. To be honest, Sirius had never thought the man even had a body under those black robes, merely some immaterial concentration of evil, held together by sheer viciousness.
Slowly, Sirius' gaze moved down the chest, the skin turning even whiter under the water, until it stopped at the sight of something much darker, almost black, in the middle of which...
"Here," Snape said and shoved something into Sirius' hand. "You may start with the back."
Tearing his eyes away from the naked body in the tub, Sirius glanced at the sponge and the bar of soap in his hand.
"I may what?"
"Start with the back," Snape repeated as he leant forward. "And do make sure not to miss a spot."
As if in a trance, Sirius rubbed some soap on the sponge, bent down and started to wash Snape's back. He found himself waiting for the skin to fall off in the wake of the sponge and for scales to come into view.
After the back was finished, he moved to the sides and to the arms, and finally to the front. Cautiously he let the sponge slide down Snape's neck and over his chest, avoiding looking at the man, yet sensing the complacent smile on his lips. As everything above the waterline was washed, Sirius straightened up, thinking the job was done; but Snape's voice stopped him.
"Now the legs."
Clenching his teeth, Sirius bent down again and began to rub the sponge against the pale and skinny leg which Snape had lifted out of the water.
At first, Sirius thought it was just his eyes playing tricks on him. The second time, he convinced himself that it was the water that had created the illusion of movement. However, the third time it happened, he knew the hand covering Snape's private parts was not just resting there.
"Fucking hell!" he cried out and threw the sponge into the tub with a loud splash.
"What the devil is the meaning of this!" Snape demanded, taking hold of the sides of the tub as if to stand up, but stopping halfway.
"No, this has gone far enough!" Sirius shouted and turned to leave. "I'm not going to wash your feet while you wank off!"
"Oh, what rubbish," Snape said without managing to sound too convincing, and sat back down in the tub. "Come now, I'm not finished yet."
"I really don't give a fuck!" Sirius reached for the door and flung it open. "You may bloody well wank all by..."
The rest of the words were caught in his throat as the collar started to tighten around it. Sirius tried to tell himself that there was nothing to worry about, that it would soon be over, but panic won once more. Struggling feverishly to tear the collar off, he fell to the floor.
"Next time you will finish me, Black," said Snape's voice somewhere over Sirius' head. "Washing one's own hair is so tiring for the arms."
Still a bit dazed, Sirius stared at the pair of black slippers in front of his face.
"Never would've thought you even bothered with that," he mumbled.
"Well, I won't have to from now on, will I?"
Sirius forced himself back to his feet and met Snape's dark eyes.
"Quite a treat, is it, to have somebody touching you?" Sirius said, grinning. "Got you all excited, didn't it?"
The line of Snape's lips could not possibly have been any straighter.
"What a sorry twat you are, Snivellus." Sirius shook his head. "Forcing some poor sod like me to touch you and then wanking off."
"Believe me," Snape hissed under his breath, his eyes blazing. "I find nothing even remotely exciting in such a sad excuse for a dog."
He threw his towel at Sirius' feet and strode out of the bathroom.
"Tell you what?" Sirius shouted after him. "The next time I'll run the bath for you, and I'll make damn sure there's enough water for you to drown yourself!"
Sirius lay on his back, looking up at the ceiling, or at least in the direction he assumed it to be. His stub of a candle had burnt out long before, leaving him in the dark, but after seeing the cellar once, he was confident he was not missing much. Of course, he could simply go and fetch another candle from upstairs; Snape was bound to be asleep by now, and surely even house-elves were entitled to some form of lighting. However, there was something quite soothing in the darkness, and not being able to see the walls made the small space between the boxes and whatnots seem a little bit roomier.
When Snape had first opened the door to the cellar, Sirius had been certain it would be only a matter of minutes before he found himself hanging upside down in chains. But evidently the man had decided to keep his servant alive and fully functional for a little while longer, and had just left him there, not even bothering to lock the door. However, giving Sirius a blanket in which to wrap himself on the cold floor would have been far too decent for him.
After the day he had had, Sirius had been sure he would fall asleep instantly, yet it must have been hours since Snape had left and he was still wide awake. Come to think of it, Sirius could not remember being either hungry or thirsty all day. Surely economical, being dead. In fact, he had no objections about being dead, at least not any more; it was the continuous repetition of the moment of death that he had a serious problem with.
One would have thought the sensation would grow weaker over time, and the knowledge that he would most certainly survive the strangulation would help eliminate the fear. However, that day had clearly demonstrated the truth to be quite the opposite. Every time the collar had started to tighten, the same panic had come over him, the same sensation of losing control; the awareness that he would regain it in a matter of minutes had been of no use whatsoever. Experience and knowledge did nothing to change the basic reaction of every living creature to being suffocated.
In the darkness of the cellar, Sirius swore he would not go through another death unless he could be absolutely certain never to wake up again.
To be continued...