Snape awoke at about four in the afternoon, groggy and even more irritable than usual.
He hated sleeping during the day. For some reason, it made his subconscious mind regress to childhood, and his temper was never improved by dreams of hiding behind the sofa in Spinner's End every time the Daleks appeared on the TV; or of doing up only the top toggle of his school duffle coat, not using the sleeves and charging around pretending to be Batman. Stanley Wiggins from number 34 had made a terrible Robin. Stan's reluctance to be tied up then rescued every evening was really rather tiresome to the aspiring little superhero Severus, forcing him to make his improvised bat-cape billow behind him as a means of intimidation.
He threw off the blankets and stalked to the bathroom, muttering darkly about having spent the first eleven years of his life as a slave to the black and white box in the corner of the room. Muggles used the damned things to avoid contact with their children by mesmerising the little brutes into silence, though it must have been different in the past, he mused. The Dark Lord's time in the orphanage would have pre-dated the advent of affordable televisual equipment, if his calculations were correct. He must have grown up without the joys of The Avengers or the caped crusader, instead…doing what? Trying to survive the Second Muggle World War? Had little Tom Riddle carried a government-issue gas mask in a cardboard box? Been fed on rations of dried egg and tinned spam? Had he played Spitfires and Messerschmidts in the dormitories? Been evacuated in order to escape interminable air-raids and lead a completely alien existence surrounded by strangers in the countryside, like Toby Snape?
He turned the shower up far too hot to distract him from thoughts of his father. The scary Daleks, with their robotic voices and fearsome low-budget weaponry were preferable, every time.
Flooing straight to the Headmaster's study to check on Dumbledore, Snape was disconcerted to find Fawkes cowering in a corner, as various erratic bangs and crackles sounded from the adjacent bedroom.
"What's going on?" he asked the phoenix. Fawkes stared balefully at him and ducked underneath his cloak for protection. "Don't you dare scorch my new summer robes," he threatened.
Stepping cautiously through the communicating door, he called out.
"Albus? Is everything all right?"
"Ooh, Severus, do come in!" chirped a cheery voice, with an odd stereo effect to it. Snape peered in and beheld a scene of devastation.
Feathers from a ruined duvet floated through the air, a three-legged blue albatross with pointy ears glared at him from the windowsill, the curtains appeared to have been inexpertly transfigured into tarpaulin, and the pungent odour of fire and brimstone pervaded the air. There was also a six foot long bloom of a scorch mark reaching from floor to ceiling on the west-facing wall.
"Good afternoon, dear boy!" beamed Dumbledore, from the bed. And also from the top shelf of the bookcase. Snape's sharp eyes flicked from one Headmaster to the other in disbelief. Two of them! It was the stuff of nightmares.
"What the bloody hell is going on?" he demanded, fear quite justifiably overriding respect for the moment.
"I was just practising a little spellcasting with my left hand," the Albus on the bed flicked his wrist and a nearby vase exploded. "Whoops!"
Startled by the bang, Fawkes stuck his head out from his Snapish hiding place and began shrilly scolding at everyone, for once not sounding the least bit musical or mythical. In fact, though Severus was no phoenixmouth, he suspected that he was hearing a fine selection of the more vulgar pyro-avian expressions.
"Oh dear," sighed the bookcase-Albus. "Do be careful, Albus!"
"Don't worry, Albus, I'm getting the hang of it now!" replied the bed-Albus.
"Sticky toffee pudding," said the Albatross.
"I am going to go now," said Snape evenly, backing away slowly after an amazing feat of self-control stopped him from howling and/or weeping at the horrifying scenes inside the tower. The screams of the tortured souls in Voldemort's sinister lair were infinitely preferable to such alarming displays of chaos. "I believe Minerva is far more qualified to assist you…both…in your current predicament."
"Ah, not really, Severus," the bed-Albus looked rather shifty.
"We had a little accident with dear Minerva," explained the bookcase-Albus. He pointed to the mutated tripod albatross, which fixed him with a beady yellow eye.
"Sticky toffee pudding," it repeated, with some irritation.
"No," he looked from Dumbledore to Dumbledore, convinced it was some kind of practical joke. "That cannot really be…"
"Alas! It is indeed Minerva!" exclaimed the bookcase-Albus woefully.
"I merely attempted a calming charm when she noticed my damaged arm and began to panic," bed-Albus supplied.
"Sadly, he's not yet as accurate with his left hand as he was with his right," said the other.
"Each time I try to put her back to normal it gets worse," he didn't sound as penitent as he ought. "Watch this! Finite Incantatem!"
Dumbledore flicked his left hand again and the McGonagall albatross sprouted a fourth leg.
"Sticky toffee pudding," she wailed plaintively.
Snape waited a few seconds in order to let the image imprint itself forever into his memory, then returned the Head of Gryffindor to her natural form.
Once the shrieking had died down, he managed to banish the duplicate Dumbledore and set the room back to rights, though at the Headmaster's special request he left the tarpaulin curtains as they were – to "add a certain je ne sais quoi" to the atmosphere. Minerva huffed off to her rooms for a wee lie down, leaving Master and Spy alone. A careful inspection of the damaged arm revealed that the Creeping Smoulder had not advanced since he last saw it, but the blackened area remained unresponsive to stimuli.
"How much of this would you like to tell Voldemort, Severus?" The question was quiet and so unexpected that Snape flinched at the name more visibly than he had in years.
"You believe I should tell him about your injury?" he asked incredulously.
"Certainly, my boy," the blue eyes were suddenly sharp as splinters of flint. "He will be delighted with the news and also with the wizard who delivers it. I don't think we can waste such a great opportunity to boost your popularity - it is merely a question of how much information to pass on."
"As little as possible," Snape said stiffly. "If he discovers that you have been weakened he may decide on sudden and dangerous courses of action."
"Weakened?" queried the Headmaster.
Dumbledore picked up his wand in his good hand and flicked it, sending Snape diving for cover underneath the solid oak bedframe. When no explosions were forthcoming, he risked a peek and saw that the old man had conjured a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa, complete with her frame and the Louvre's specially designed bullet-proof glass casing, and was hovering it at eye-level for critical inspection.
"A very impressive facsimile, Albus," he admitted. "Perhaps your powers are not much weaker after all."
"Facsimile?" he frowned, a glint of mischief on his wrinkled face. "I doubt that any copy could ever match the glory of the original."
"Albus!" yelled Snape, leaping to his feet. "Put that back AT ONCE! The muggles will have a fit!"
Looking completely unrepentant, Albus sent the painting back to Paris with the merest twitch of his wand.
The Riddle House was not as quiet as he had hoped when he arrived to deliver the awesome news. He fingered the Fortescue Ice-cream menu, still nestling with saccharine malevolence in his pocket, hoping to use it as a talisman against any unpredictable mood-swing the Dark Lord might experience. The garish yellow concoction he had delivered to Dumbledore earlier that day had certainly perked him up. Snape had high hopes for Florean's skill with a cocoa bean having a soothing effect on the evil one's torment.
In the entrance hall, a number of Death Eaters were gathered in a circle, laughing boisterously as they watched some kind of spectacle taking place on the stairs. Dreading a glimpse of their downright horrible tastes in entertainment, he tried to blend into the shadows and pass without being noticed, but Bellatrix spotted him before he had managed five yards.
"Oh ho, slippery Snape! Come and see what you missed!" she shrieked. All the others turned to look at him, some with dangerous expressions, some merely curious.
"What are you talking about?" he sneered, cowing the younger Death Eaters with some judicious glaring.
"The fight, of course!" she trilled. "You were so busy being a good boy for darling Dumbly-Wumbly that you missed all the fun!"
Someone in the crowd began muttering about the 'fun' of being beaten in duels by a load of kids, then watching your mates get arrested while you had to flee like a weasel, but a hex from Bella silenced him.
"Watch this, Sevvie!" She commanded. "You'll like it, I promise!"
Snape noticed for the first time that two high-backed chairs had been placed about a yard apart at the foot of the staircase, and a dusty old sheet was draped between them, a ventilation charm leaving it blowing slightly in the breeze. Rodolphus Lestrange did something to his hair which made it slightly shaggy and grinned with unnatural roguishness at the audience before throwing a set of showy but harmless hexes at his wife, who returned them with a high-pitched cackle.
Not daring to breathe, the potions master stared with fascination as the scene played out before him, recognising immediately that the Lestranges were re-enacting the last moments of his late nemesis.
With exaggerated swagger and bravado, Rodolphus blocked a dummy curse and laughed aloud.
"Come on, you can do better than that!" he taunted.
The light hit him square in the chest and the Death Eaters cheered as the gloating expression melted from his face, replaced by one of startled disbelief. Bella laughed nastily and with some clever levitation, flung him backwards down the stairs and through the curtain.
Snape joined in the rapturous applause.
"Told you that you'd like it," she leaned over the banister and grinned at him.
"Is that really what happened?" Snape asked, breathless with a mixture of awe at the simplicity of it and envy that he had missed out on the real event.
"Yep," she smiled, watching her husband struggling to get up while entangled in drapery and falling over. "Wham! Straight through the veil. It was bloody fantastic! You really should try killing someone down in the Department of Mysteries - they just vanish, body and soul at the same time!"
They sighed contentedly, lost for a time in pleasant thoughts of murder and destruction, until the unhinged witch quietly reminded him that they were still no nearer solving the riddle of Voldemort's recent bizarre behaviour. Knowing she would not want their suspicions aired in front of the others, he merely nodded and staged a quick exit.
Snape made his way upstairs to the reception chamber where the Dark Lord was hatching his wicked plots. Any irritation at being disturbed mid-scheme by one of his minions evaporated the instant said minion delivered the compelling news.
He punched the air.
He did a funny dance which involved holding one of his ankles and waggling his bent knee in the air.
He calmed down again.
"Ssseverus, you may also exsspress your delight," Voldemort straightened his robes and regained his composure.
"Hurrah, my Lord," said Snape, flatly.
"Well done, my ssstoic ssservant for bringing me this news ssso ssswiftly," the Dark Lord rubbed his thin fingers together. "Finally victory is in sssight!"
Safely hidden in his subservient pose, the spy allowed himself a grimace of apprehension at the thought of this madman and his freakish followers destroying life as he knew it. Snape did not consider that life, as he knew it, was particularly sweet or overflowing with rosebuds, but the kind of coup that the Dark Lord had in mind would make his daily trials at school look like a dream. Not a real dream, of course - they tended to be filled with flashbacks of werewolf claws, abuse at the hands of Potters or the pleading faces of long-dead muggle victims - more like the amazing visions of wonder one attained after consuming the wrong kind of mushroom.
Presently, he found himself sweeping through the corridors of the old house, a respectful distance behind his Master. It was strangely reminiscent of patrolling Hogwarts, noticing the way the odd stray Death Eaters cringed away and pressed themselves against the walls to avoid them. Merlin, if the curfew-breaking brats thought Snape was fearsome, they really should see Voldemort now! Robes flowing, lips sneering, eyes flashing dangerously as he threatened to do far worse things than deduct a few house points from those who displeased him. This was better. This was Power.
Forgetting his earlier thoughts about the shambles of a society which would exist should the Dark forces ever win the war, Snape enjoyed a little fantasy centring on being able to wield such strict control and keep the little dunderheads in line with some real discipline. He stopped smiling to himself when he realised how much he sounded like Filch
Their progress ended at the door to the cellar, where the Dark Lord performed a complex sequence of unlocking spells and finally brought out a huge metal key with a wrought-iron skull as its head and turned it in the creaking lock.
"Ssskeleton key," he joked as the bolts sprang back with a clang. Snape managed to turn his groan into a cough before he received any serious curses.
As far as prisons went, the room was not too bad. Ollivander was sitting in a comfortable-looking armchair, completing an odd sort of puzzle book consisting of pages and pages of square grids, filled inexplicably with different patterns of numbers from 1 to 9. His familiar, Kevin the little spider-monkey, was perched on the back of his chair, scratching himself in a place not quite appropriate for scratching in polite company.
"How are you, Mr Ollivander?" asked Voldemort pleasantly. "Do you have everything you require?"
"Aside from my liberty, Mr Riddle?" he retorted tartly.
Voldemort ignored him and began interrogating the old man on the task he had been set, wondering when his excellent brain was going to come up with a solution to the little problem of his and Potter's wands not being able to duel effectively. How, he demanded, was he to vanquish the brat without getting the whole laser show like last time?
"You could just throttle him," he suggested.
"No!" shouted Voldemort, going from rational to psychotic in the space of half a second. "We are wizards! I will not stoop to crude muggle methods of killing! The subtlety and style of magic is what separates us from them, and their, filthy, ape-like, primitive, filthy, inefficient, filthy dirty ways!" His red eyes were bulging out of their sockets and a throbbing vein had appeared on each temple. Snape had taken an involuntary step back even before he had yelled the first 'filthy'.
"I understand your rationale," the wand maker calmly added a six in the middle of one of his puzzles, then looked up at the monkey. "Kevin, do stop playing with yourself in public. But I believe I already told you that the special effects you witnessed will occur each and every time two brother wands meet in hostile circumstances."
"But…!" began the Dark Lord.
"And in answer to your next question," Ollivander interrupted. "A wizard's first wand is his best match. Subsequent instruments will always form a slightly inferior bond, so I can provide you with a new one, but you may lose a little of your power or focus. Will that be all?"
The Dark Lord's lower lip began to wobble. Striding out of the cell with as much dignity as he could muster, he collapsed against the wall of the corridor once they were out of earshot.
"Whyyyyyyy, Severus?" he sobbed. "Why am I thwarted at every turn?"
Patting his master's bony shoulder comfortingly, Snape was confronted with yet another difficult decision. He had a potential solution to this problem, but telling him might tip the balance and give the Death Eaters the ability to win.
Voldemort should not risk losing his edge by replacing his own wand. He should destroy Potter's. Fighting with a second-choice wand, without the supernatural ability to cancel out the curses of the enemy, Potter would stand no chance, especially if Dumbledore's injury made him less effective as supreme protector.
It was perfect. Too perfect, unfortunately. Searching deep inside himself, Snape just could not do it. Voldemort or one of the others would reach the same conclusion eventually, or perhaps force Ollivander to do so, but by then the spy would have had chance to discuss it with Dumbledore. He grimaced. Being an unsung genius could be so tiresome
The lesser problem of how to stop the Dark Lord crying like a baby was much more easily dealt with. He pulled the Fortescue's menu from his pocket and waved it in front of the teary villain.
"Master, look what I have discovered!" he bowed very low. Voldemort sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
"What is it?" he hiccoughed.
"Comfort food, my Lord!" Snape opened out the folded card and pointed to some sumptuous illustrations. "Observe! Quadruply Gooey Cocoa Deluxe! Whipple Scrumptious Fudge Mallow Delight! Gloopy Loopy Squelchy Browniefied Dark Chocolate Nut Extravaganza!"
Voldemort snatched the leaflet and straightened up.
"Ice cream?" he asked. "This is the result of your research into the most delicious substances on earth?"
"Yes, my Lord," Snape vowed never to let him know exactly where he had got the idea. "Though no research is ever completely exhaustive. I was recently given a tip concerning creamed spinach, and another suggestion of burgers, Master."
"Spinach?" the Dark Lord spat viciously. "Don't even mention that poison in my presence! They used to force-feed it to us every day at the orph…ahem…the awful mudblood-infested hellhole they call Hogwarts!"
Snape knew better than to give any indication of having spotted the slip.
"Yes, my Lord," he humbly lowered his eyes. "And the burgers?"
The penetrating eyes, redder than usual thanks to the recent crying fit, narrowed dangerously as he advanced on Severus, looming so close that both their noses touched.
"Have you been mixing with Americans, Ssseverus?" he whispered, accusingly.
"No, Master!" This was another of the Dark Lord's prejudices which Snape did not share. He didn't mind Americans. Batman had been an American, after all.
"Are you absssolutely certain?"
"Yes, Master. There are not many of them in rural Scotland."
"Fine," Voldemort conceded the point and returned his attention to the menu, running his finger down the page as he analysed the composition of each wickedly wonderful treat. "Hmm. Aha! That looks more like it! A missssion, my loyal Ssseverus!"
Snape hit the floor and kissed the hem of his robes.
"Anything, Master. Your wish is my command!" he crawled, knowing perfectly well which sundae he was going to choose. It was rather sad that the old megalomaniac was so predictable.
"Fetch me," he paused for dramatic effect, letting a little wandless magic make his robes billow and his eyes spark. "Death by Chocolate!"
Once he was clear of the house, he rolled his eyes until they started to ache. There was no denying it anymore. For the first time in his life, Snape really, really couldn't wait until the first of September.
AN: If you don't know what a Dalek is, try Google images. They look like a cross between a tin can and a motorised wheelchair, but most Brits under the age of fifty will have memories of being absolutely terrified by them as children.
Yes, I've borrowed a phrase from Roald Dahl again, for he is the greatest! I've also borrowed some comfort foods from my reviewers…