"Surely we're not obligated to perform Unforgivables?" asked Williamson, sounding at once apologetic and defiant.
Dawlish and Moody stopped in their tracks. The interdepartmental memos that had been flitting behind the heads of the three men as they strode in swift silence down the Ministry corridor swooped high, almost skimming the stone ceiling, and were soon out of sight as the Aurors turned to face each other.
"What's this then?" asked Dawlish in the reasonable tone edged with aggression he usually reserved for interrogations.
"You're not obligated to do anything," snarled Moody. "Except your job. Fail to do that properly, and there are consequences." He scratched his damaged nose.
"My job is what I'm thinking of," said Williamson. "If an interrogation goes pear-shaped, you think Crouch won't blame us? A man that ambitious isn't going to be above sacking a few Aurors if he thinks he stands a better chance at the Minister's job."
Dawlish nodded. "That's not unreasonable."
Moody rolled his eyes. "Not you, too!"
"Think of it. Say we use the Cruciatus curse on an especially stubborn prisoner and he dies. On autopsy they find the fractured limbs, the tongue bitten clean through, vital organs pierced with broken ribs; you know, the usual. The public might lose its taste for...how did Albus Dumbledore put it?"
"'Lowering ourselves to this level of brutality will mean that the enemy has conquered us from within,'" quoted Williamson.
"Read the paper every day, do you?" snapped Moody. "If one of these scum dies, who do you think will care? Take this one we're seeing today, for instance. Renounced by his own mother, and not a friend in the world after we took care of the bloke who did this." He tapped his nose next to the area where a large chunk was missing, the damaged part still pink with newly regenerated skin. "If we kill You-Know-Who's master poisoner, surely the entire wizarding world will breathe a sigh of relief before saying good riddance to bad rubbish." Moody turned his back on his colleagues and resumed a rapid pace down the corridor. He was the shortest of the three men, but powerfully built, and the other two men had to break into a brief run to catch up.
"Dumbledore wouldn't be pleased if he died," remarked Dawlish mildly.
Moody nodded. "Yes. Odd, that. By all accounts, though, this bloke is an uncommonly talented Potions maker. I've thought maybe he managed to slip something to old Dumbledore...something that softens the judgement."
"You're not serious!" interjected Williamson.
"Well, Dumbledore's never been an Auror," persisted Moody. "He doesn't have our training in vigilance."
"No, he's only defeated Grindelwald," said Williamson derisively.
"If Dumbledore has a weakness, it's how sentimental he gets about some of his former students," said Dawlish thoughtfully. "If you're a clever lad from a disadvantaged background, he might overlook your bad points."
"Well, he needs to get over it, doesn't he? This former student of his is a very nasty lad indeed. And here we are."
The corridor running through the Ministry's holding centre had brought them outside one of the cells with security measures reserved for high-risk prisoners. Massive Celtic knots of iron overlaid a section of wall in all directions, fastening even between the stone ceiling above, and the stone floor underfoot and obscuring the door completely.
Moody took out his wand.
"Hang on," said Dawlish, turning to Williamson. "If you don't have the stomach to witness an Unforgivable, he will know." He gestured towards the tangled mass of metal knots, indicating the yet-unseen prisoner.
"If we hold back, he'll hold back," said Moody.
"Lives are at stake," said Dawlish. "Back off now if you must, and we can leave it out of the report. Can't we, Alastor?"
Moody rolled his eyes. "We haven't got all day."
"I thought I was only here as an observer," said Williamson.
"But if he senses weakness in any of us..."
"How is it a weakness to express a few reservations?" snapped Williamson. "I hate Death Eater scum much as the next man. But Dumbledore's denunciation of Unforgivables was..."
Moody put a hand on Williamson's arm. "Some advice, son. Dumbledore is a great man. We all hold him in the highest esteem. But if you want to advance in your career at this Ministry, you'd best not esteem him too openly."
Williamson shook his head. "I'm not any good at politics," he said ruefully, eyes downcast.
"No good Auror is," said Moody. "Except maybe Dawlish here."
"I resent that," said Dawlish.
"I'll let you buy me a drink later, then," said Moody. "Right." He turned to face the cell.
A whisper from Moody, and the massive metal knots began to soften, untie, and retreat, eventually disappearing into wherever they attached until the three Aurors were facing a plain rectangular door of brushed steel. Nudging the door, the three men crowded awkwardly into the small room, trying not to get too close either to the prisoner or the latrine bucket in the corner.
The slight figure before them belied such rigourous security. He did not look up as they entered but remained cross-legged on the floor, thin arms protruding from the sleeves of his ragged grey robes, greasy black hair obscuring his face as he slumped forwards.
He looked up, revealing a thin face dominated by a ridiculously large nose, and spread his filthy hands as if in welcome.
"If I'd known you were coming, I'd have made biscuits," he said, and grinned unpleasantly, revealing discoloured and crooked teeth, his cold black eyes glittering like chips of mica.
"We're here to ask you about the latest disappearances," said Moody. "On your feet, then."
"I'd rather sit, actually," retorted the prisoner. "As a Potions master, I spend so much time on my feet."
"Not lately, I'd wager," said Moody, pointing his wand at the prisoner. The man was lifted from the floor and flattened against the wall as if he were a puppet on invisible strings.
Though helplessly pinned, the man smirked at Moody. "Give me my wand back, and I'll show you how to do that properly."
The three Aurors laughed. Moody released the spell, and the man stumbled as he dropped from the wall. Standing before them, he was tall but slight, thin robes close about his body, and younger than he first appeared, a bit gangly, a few spots prominent against his pale complexion. Despite his youth and ragged clothes, there was an aura of authority about him, and he drew himself up with dignity.
"There's been a misunderstanding," he said, suddenly earnest. "Surely Professor Dumbledore explained to Mr Crouch..."
"Mr Crouch has taken Dumbledore's information under advisement," said Dawlish. "If you cooperate with us, we will tell Mr Crouch, and maybe there can be something positive in it for you."
"We don't negotiate with the likes of him," snarled Moody. "Didn't you get the memo?"
"I'm not negotiating with him, Alastor. I'm just telling him like it is," replied Dawlish mildly. "Mr Snape. Or may I call you Severus? If you can tell us where that mother and her children are being held, we may be able to release you immediately."
Severus shook his head. "You have no grounds to hold me. And I don't know what people you mean."
"Told you he wouldn't cooperate," snapped Moody. "Looks like he may need a little encouragement." He poised his wand, pointing it at Severus.
Dawlish stepped between Moody and Severus, holding his hands up to Moody. "We may yet be able to avoid any unpleasantness. Let me refresh his memory." He turned to Severus. "A half-blood mother and her two children disappeared five days ago. Surely you know the story? The Dark Mark was found over their destroyed house, but no human remains were found on the premises."
Severus shrugged. "I believe they made good their escape and are now hiding amongst Muggles."
"That's not good enough!" spat Moody.
Grinning, Severus pointed first at Moody, then at Dawlish. "Have you two thought about taking your show on the road?"
"Insolent little punk!" snarled Moody, snapping his wrist downwards. Severus dropped heavily to his knees and rolled to one side, hissing in pain.
Dawlish knelt beside Severus. "Alastor, now you've gone and fractured his kneecap." He administered a healing charm and lifted him to his feet.
After testing his leg with a careful step, Severus flung Dawlish away. "Don't ever touch me."
"That's not your call to make," snarled Moody.
"Have you any idea at all what happened to Mrs Livesay and her children?" implored Dawlish. "Dumbledore says you're on our side. Don't you think you need to convince more people besides just Dumbledore?"
Severus looked back at Dawlish, his face unreadable. "Very well, then. It was Regulus Black."
"Regulus Black died two weeks ago," said Moody, exasperated.
"That's what you're supposed to think," said Severus. "Actually, he's much more clever than his idiot brother says. After faking his own death, he went to America, where he befriended a Basilisk. He's a Parseltongue, you know. He convinced the Basilisk to come to Camden with him, where it stared the young family to death before devouring their lifeless bodies. And do you know why he did it?"
All three Aurors were staring at Severus as he spoke, and nodded their heads in unison.
"Because Esther...Mrs Livesay...wouldn't go to the Yule Ball with him in sixth year."
Moody approached Severus and stood nose to imposing nose with him. The latter was almost completely impassive, black eyes wide in mock innocence, wearing the faintest of smirks.
"Yes, Mr Moody?"
"The prisoner is irredeemably uncooperative."
The two older Aurors exchanged a look while Williamson frowned in puzzlement. Then Dawlish nodded and Moody raised his wand.
Severus took a step backwards. "I told you the truth!" he protested, voice cracking. For the split second before the curse hit him, his veneer of snide self-assurance slipped away, and he appeared as no more than a frightened, woefully thin young man, barely out of his teens, hopelessly out of his depth.
"Crucio!" said Moody. He held the curse until just after its victim, no longer able to catch a breath, stopped screaming.
"The trick is to stop before they lose consciousness. Otherwise, you have to rouse them, and the whole process gets so damnably slow," explained Moody to the other Aurors. Dawlish nodded like an apt pupil, but Williamson stood motionless by the door, his face almost as white as the prisoner's.
Moody knelt before Severus and grasped him by the front of his robes. "Did you have anything you wanted to say?"
"Yes," said Severus weakly through clenched teeth. His legs were still contracted in painful spasms, his hands shaking as he tried to wipe the tears from his face.
Moody leaned closer.
"FUCK YOU!" snarled Severus, and he spat a wad of blood-streaked saliva into Moody's face.
Moody held the curse longer this time, until Severus lost consciousness.
"We'll bring him round roughly, so he knows who's in charge. The only way we'll get anything out of this one is if we break him. Oi!" He kicked Severus hard in the ribs.
Severus rolled over, vomited, and began to choke, his entire body racked with spasms, his face turning more purple with each gurgling breath.
"He's dying!" said Williamson, and rushed past the other two before they could stop him. He'd managed to perform some basic first aid, Vanishing the vomit from Severus' airways and clothing and healing a nasty gash in his tongue before Moody set upon him and dragged him away.
"Idiot!" hissed Moody. "We have Healers for that, and they always use a Restraining Charm on a prisoner this dangerous, no matter how ill they appear. Bloody fucking Merlin, he could have gotten your wand!"
"I'm not stupid!" Williamson shouted defensively. "My wand is right here." He shook it in Moody's face. "I kept a tight grip on it at all times. Constant Vigilance, and all that."
Severus had managed to sit up but was still shaking all over. Spittle ran from the corner of his mouth and dripped onto the front of his robes. His eyes no longer glittered in defiance, but were blank, unfocussed. He wrapped his arms about his knees and began to rock.
"You've driven him mad, Alastor," said Dawlish.
"Bollocks!" snapped Moody. "From just twice? You-Know-Who crucios his lot three times before breakfast if he doesn't like the eggs. He's faking."
"Mr Moody," said Williamson. "I have my wand."
"Yes, yes, we can all see that. Good for you, lad. But maybe you won't be so lucky next time."
"Mr Moody, do you have your wand?"
"But of course I have my..." Moody looked at his empty hands in puzzlement.
"EXPELLIARMUS!" screamed Dawlish.
No-one heard Severus' whispered spell. Then Moody began to scream, and collapsed, blood gushing from his face.
No longer blank-eyed and drooling but grinning, his eyes alive with malice, Severus let his hand go limp, allowing the wand to fly easily away. He continued to grin as Dawlish attached him none too gently to the wall with an elaborate network of magically-reinforced chains while Williamson tried to staunch the flow of blood from the chasm in Moody's face. But the Healing charms only lasted a few seconds before they dissolved like acid, blood gushing forth as before.
"The wounds are cursed!" cried Williamson. "He'll bleed to death." He removed a striped rubber ball from a pocket. "Portus!" he whispered, and the ball glowed momentarily. "I'm taking him to St. Mungo's."
"Hang on," said Dawlish. He jammed his wand under Severus' chin almost hard enough to draw blood. "What's the countercurse?"
"There isn't one," said Severus, his voice oddly penetrating even though he could manage no more than a hoarse whisper. "What's the point to a good curse if some tosser goes and cancels it?"
"Go!" said Dawlish to Williamson, giving Severus one last jab for good measure, gratified to see him wince.
The amount of time that passed felt interminable to Severus, though the tiny part of his mind that could always remain objective no matter how grimly dire the circumstances told him slightly over an hour passed before his cell door opened again. Albus Dumbledore entered wordlessly, Vanished his bonds, and caught him as he collapsed, relief flooding through him along with fresh waves of pain. Dumbledore applied a charm that felt like warm syrup being poured over his limbs and torso, and the pain subsided enough for him to be helped to his feet.
Then Dumbledore seized the front of his robes and brought his long and crooked nose close to Severus' own. His blue eyes bored in Severus' with uncomfortable intensity, though Severus knew not to look away.
"The Healers seem to be unable to repair Auror Moody's face. They can barely pour enough Blood-Replenishing potion into him to keep up with what he's losing from that wound. And the damage to the eye is probably irreparable. We are going to St. Mungo's and you are going to help." The older man's gaze turned colder than Severus had ever seen. "If you refuse to administer the countercurse to Auror Moody, I cannot support you any further. Do you understand?"
Severus nodded faintly, too frightened to be angry.
Dumbledore released Severus and made a Port-Key out of one of the lemon drops in his pocket. Turning back to Severus, his eyes resuming some of their customary twinkle, he asked, "There is a countercurse, isn't there, Severus?"
"Of course there is," he croaked. "But..." and he found himself unable to speak further, his voice too damaged by his recent ordeal. Dumbledore offered him a flask and he drank about twelve ounces of water in one draught, stopping only when he needed to breathe, and wiped his mouth. "The Dark Lord never punished anybody for telling stories out of turn," he grumbled.
"Tom doesn't need to," said Dumbledore. "Because his hold on his followers is absolute, he has nothing to fear from stories. People are imaginative, and if they have the freedom to think for themselves, they will speculate on other possible realities. So the Ministry has everything to fear from stories. After all, they have to at least pretend to be democratic." He smiled gently at Severus. "I will explain later. You were saying about Mr Moody?"
"Erm...right...the longer the interval between the curse and the application of the countercurse, the greater the probability of irrevocable damage. He will likely be disfigured and he's probably lost that eye."
Dumbledore regarded him sadly. "They can't say I didn't warn them. Lemon drop?"
"You know I hate those things," said Severus, his voice stronger. He reached for the sweet, and the two men vanished.