"When again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
- Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural address


James had never been to Malfoy Manor, though he and Sirius joked that all manner of baby-eating and banshee-breeding rituals went on there. So far, he hadn't seen anything to say otherwise. Even the house elf leading him through the narrow corridors was strange. Instead of chatting enthusiastically, this one scampered just out of range of James' foot, ears hanging limply around his head, and remaining silent in the dark passage.

It was three in the afternoon, and James felt like he was creeping down to the dungeons at midnight for a raw baby-steak.

The elf finally backed up against a towering oak door, looking at James with wide eyes and trembling ears. "Dobby not go any farther, Master Potter. Master Potter must go in by hisself. Dobby will be waiting for Master when Master comes out."

James eyed the door, unsure why the ornate carvings made him think of writhing snakes. "I just go in?"

"Master Potter is expected. Dobby will be here for Master when he returns."

"Yeah, thank you." James pushed open the door, feeling the elf's eyes watching until the door whispered shut behind him.

The first thing he saw was Snape, kneeling not quite in the center of the room, face twisted away from the fire. There was an odd flatness to his skin, but that was probably just the oily dimness that permeated the whole manor.

"Good afternoon, James."

James turned towards the voice. Lucius Malfoy stood by the fire at his father's right hand. Typical.

"Hello, Mr. Malfoy. Hello, Lucius." He gave his best skree-dung eating smile. "Are you ready to begin?"

Calligulus Malfoy, to his son's obvious annoyance, took the lead. "I trust you brought your end of the bargain?"

James shrugged, then carelessly tossed the silver ring in the general direction of the Malfoys. Lucius darted forward as if to catch it, but his father drew his wand and summoned it out of the air with a casual Accio.

The elder Malfoy examined the ring, squinting and putting on a glass monocle which made him look like a lopsided cyclops. James waited while he verified the physical etchings and the magical signature of the ring. "This ring was brought with the knowledge and approval of your father?"

"Yes." James nodded. "My father approved the trade." Once the owl had found him, anyway.

"I'm surprised. You are aware that this ring is the token my father gave your grandfather to stand for the life debt he owed? Do you understand that this ring will end the debt between our families?"

"Yes, he explained it to me. Shall we get on with the ritual now?"

"Of course." Malfoy tilted his head to one side, "Though I am curious as to why you would...spend such a debt on an ugly slave."

James glanced over at Snape, who didn't seem to have heard, even. "The ritual, now?"

The elder Malfoy nodded at his son, who slid to the center of the room. "Your hand, slave." Snape didn't move, except to drag his hand away from where it was clenched against his thigh and offer it to his master. He didn't even flinch when Lucius drew a copper knife from his belt and sliced it across his open palm. The blood welled up, and Lucius wiped his blade in it, then held it against Snape's palm.

"I, Lucius Malfoy, hereby relinquish ownership of this slave and offer his body, mind and soul to be the property of James Harold Potter henceforth."

James stepped forward, drawing his own blade. He looked down at Snape kneeling on the red carpet, refusing to look up. He looked over at Malfoy, who was obviously enjoying the sight.

He almost threw the knife to the floor and ran. He didn't like the quiver in his belly that could be either pleasure or disgust, he didn't like the possibility that he could be feeling the same thing as Lucius Malfoy, ever. He didn't like it, but leaving Snape here would be just as cruel.

"Snape, give me your hand." He tried to keep his voice even, but Snape didn't react one way or another. He just lifted up his hand. James tried to keep the cut shallow, but he didn't have much experience in deliberately mutilating helpless people. When he thought he'd gotten enough blood on the blade, he declared in a shaky voice, "I, James Harold Potter, accept the body, mind and soul of this slave to be my property henceforth. The debt between my house and the house of Lucius Malfoy is finished at the completion of this bargain."

He nodded at Lucius, who had an expectant sneer on his lips. They pulled their blades away from Snape's hands at the same time.

For a moment nothing happened. Then the open gashes flashed green and Snape fell to the carpet, writhing and choking on a scream. James jumped back in horror. Lucius' smirk grew into an amused grin.

Finally, Snape lay still, panting on his side. Blood was smeared across his hands and chest.

"I suggest you remove your slave before he ruins our carpet," Lucius said, the sick grin still playing on his face. "It is worth far more than your new slave."

James bit back the fuck you and instead said quietly, "Snape, get up and get dressed so that we can leave." He sheathed his knife and slid his hand back to his wand. Even so, he jumped when one of the Malfoys cleared his throat.

"Ah, Mr. Potter," the Elder Malfoy intoned, "I'm afraid the slave doesn't have any clothes. As I recall, a wardrobe was not part of the bargain."

Arseholes. James glared at the pair of tow-headed bastards. He finally looked away when Snape made it to his feet, hand clenched against his chest to keep in the blood.

"Follow me, Snape."

He heard Snape stumble behind him, so he stopped as soon as the oak doors had closed. Dobby stopped as well, his ears trembling as he watched Snape sway on his feet. James couldn't tell what was making him so dizzy, but it didn't look like he'd make it through the floo as bad off as he was now. James asked Dobby, "Do you have any bandages? Maybe somePepperup potion?"

Dobby's gaze jumped between James and Snape. "Dobby get bandages for good Master Potter. Dobby get a better potion for Severus Snape if Master James Potter will allow?"

"Just hurry up, will you?" He didn't think Snape would keep on his feet much longer, and he really didn't want to have to deal with carrying Snivellus—Snape—all the way back to the dorms.

Dobby did hurry; he was back in less than a minute. James poured the potion into Snape's mouth while Dobby wrapped up his hands. In a moment, Snape blinked and settled steadily on his heels.

"All right ," James ordered, "Put out your arms."

Still blinking, Snape lifted his arms out in front of him. They looked like long, white twigs fallen from the whomping willow. James stripped off his own robe and helped Snape into it, not wanting to see any more of the pale, skinny body than he already had.

He supposed he was relieved that saving someone didn't mean he had to like them.

Once Snape didn't look about to collapse anymore, he turned to the elf, who did look like he was about to keel over.

"Dobby, can you take us back to the floo?"