THE DIAGONAL, THE ABYSS, AND THE SPIRAL
In the twenty years of his life, Severus Snape had quite often felt out of place. More often than not, actually.
Never as much as today, though. The overabundance of burgundy velvet, gilt ornaments, chintz and tassels, not to mention mirrors, made him feel like a crow that had accidentally landed in the middle of the Annual Birds of Paradise Carnival Extravaganza.
"Le Talon Rouge" may be the most exclusive shoemaker in wizarding Britain, and if he had more money than wits he might even consider acquiring a pair of dragonhide boots for five thousand galleons; it wouldn't take him two – no, three, he mentally corrected himself after glancing at his watch – hours to decide which pair to buy, though. Well, which pairs. Heaps. An avalanche of shoes.
But that was Narcissa for you.
Suppressing a jaw-unhinging yawn, Severus stared blearily at the blonde witch, who was surrounded by no less than four fawning shop assistants, visibly enjoying the attention that was being lavished on her precious person and giving no signal whatsoever that might have led him to hope that his ordeal was nearing its end.
He sighed. He'd brought it all upon himself, as usual. The chain of causality, if unravelled backwards, led from the shoe shop to Lucius cashing in – with an alacrity wholly unbecoming for a Slytherin; hadn't it been Lucius, the word desperation would've come to mind – the favour Severus owed him, to Severus being grateful and inattentive enough to say that he owed Lucius a favour, to Lucius casting that well-timed, non-verbal Stunner, to Severus almost laughing out loud at yesterday's Death Eater meeting, to their late-night, joint-smoking session in the attic of Malfoy Manor, when...
Come to think of it, it was all Lucius's fault. He'd been the one who'd invited Jean-Christophe, his un-Malfoy-ish-ly shy and awkward, eighteen-year-old French cousin, to stay a few weeks at his ancestral home. To strengthen family ties, allegedly, between the younger generation. Severus had a more than sneaking suspicion that Lucius had merely been bored with his posse of autochthonic admirers and wanted to be admired with a French accent. Besides, he had officially become Lord of The Manor last summer, after his parents had moved to France according to family tradition; not that Severus would ever have mentioned it, but Lucius had seemed a bit lost in the beginning, all on his own in the old pile of stones.
Severus felt a kind of perverse satisfaction at coming to the conclusion that the fault was Lucius's but he, Severus, had to foot the bill. Not Narcissa's shoe bill, fortunately, but having to play chaperone was bad enough. It was also stringent, practically irrefutable proof that the universe was still sticking to its own rules. Considering how the situation with Voldemort was developing, some reassurance was quite welcome.
Trying to blend out Narcissa's cooing and trilling over a creation that seemed to consist of entirely too little leather and too many satin ribbons, he let himself float back to last summer and the sensation of oddly detached bliss he'd felt, sprawled on the dusty wooden floor, flanked by the two cousins.
They could've smoked pot in the Louis XV Salon, had they so chosen. In unspoken agreement they'd trudged up to the attic, though, with their stash of grass and a crate of Lucius's father's favourite Bordeaux – there'd been an element of gleeful vindictiveness to selecting that vintage – and made themselves comfortable. The resinous smell of the huge crossbeams had seemed more pungent, but oddly comforting after his third joint. The sun had gone down already, but the roof was still radiating heat; they'd been sitting in their own bubble of light cast by a few candles, Lucius at his left, so stoned that he was grinning instead of smirking and unable to raise his eyebrows separately, and Jean-Christophe had become uncharacteristically effusive...
"Voyons," said Jean-Christophe, stretching his long thin legs, "zis Narcissa of yours, she eez quite a hand luggage, non?"
Lucius rested his head on Severus shoulder, howling with laughter, took a drag on his joint and promptly started to cough.
"She's either quite a handful, or quite a baggage." Severus rolled his eyes. "And yes, she is, as the here-present scion of the Noble House of Malfoy would doubtlessly agree" – he put down his joint and awkwardly reached around Lucius to pat his back – "if he wasn't currently suffocating."
Jean-Christophe nodded thoughtfully. "Yez. She eez so..."
"Shrill?" Severus supplied.
Lucius snorted into his shoulder.
"No, not zat. Well, zat too, but I meant... capricieuse, you know?"
Finally recovered, Lucius sat up again and started playing with the end of the ribbon that was holding his hair in a ponytail. "My fiancée," he muttered, suddenly moody, "is the single most headstrong, unpredictable and, let us say, shallow creature I know. Don't pat my shoulder in this condescending fashion, Sevvie, or I shall feel honour-bound to hex you."
"I was merely trying to express my sympathy, old thing." Severus's joint had gone out, and he relit it.
"I don't need sympathy, I need an accomplice and an alibi! The betrothal is binding – no way to get rid of her except death. Preferably hers."
"I zought," Jean-Christophe said cautiously, "zat you are completely besotted weez 'er."
"As if," Lucius replied glumly. "How is it humanly possible to be besotted with a woman who is constantly hovering below the Bella Diagonal?"
"Ze... I beg your pardon?"
Lucius shrugged and let his head fall back against the wooden beam supporting their backs. "Let's have some more of that wine." He gestured at the dark corner where the now-half-full crate of wine bottles had been put by the House Elves. "And you, Severus, explain."
"If it please Your Splendiferousness." A not-quite-accurate Accio had them all flat on the floor, ducking the dusty painting hurtling towards them. It crashed into far wall, the noise of splintering wood underscored by a stream of obscenities and loud bleating. "Oops. Sorry. Family heirloom?"
"Possibly." Lucius half-turned to look at the wreckage. "None of the ancestors, though. We wouldn't sink so deep as to be painted with sheep."
Fresh joints were lit and the successfully summoned bottle passed around.
"Ze Bella zing?" Jean-Christophe reminded them.
"Oh, that. Lucius has a theory, you see. It basically says that... I think I'll better draw you a diagram." Severus conjured parchment, quill and ink. He had to manoeuvre a bit but finally managed to lie down on his belly. Jean-Christophe was kneeling next to him, swaying slightly. "So, let me see. If the horizontal axis is craziness, and the vertical is hotness, and a woman is exactly as hot as she's crazy, you get this diagonal. Before getting serious about a woman, you first have to make sure she is always above the diagonal."
"Mais... zat iz brilliant!" Jean-Christophe stabbed the drawing with his finger. "But 'ow doez zis Bella come into it?"
Lucius blew a smoke ring. "She's Narcissa's sister, and she is the diagonal. And believe me, she's extremely crazy."
"Hotter," Severus confirmed gravely. "Stay away from her though, in case you ever meet her." He vanished the writing paraphernalia with a flick of his wand. "She's out of your league and dangerous to boot. Cast a gelding hex on Avery when he tried to cop a feel."
"Pomfrey had one hell of a time reversing it," Lucius said dreamily.
"Oh." Jean-Christophe sat back down, almost upsetting the wine bottle. "Zere are not many women in my league. My league iz so small, becauze I am 'orribly shy, you know?"
"What, really? You don't say." Lucius's expression of innocence would have shamed a newborn lamb.
"Mais oui. Zere are so many zings that could possibly go wrong. Par exemple, one of my older inmates-"
"Mates, you mean," Lucius interrupted him. "Unless of course you have two or more tapeworms aged nineteen or older."
"I don't zink so," Jean-Christophe said after giving the caveat serious consideration.
Never one to get his priorities mixed up by things such as tapeworms, Severus poked Jean-Christophe's bony ribcage with his equally bony right elbow. "So what did those mates of yours tell you?"
"May I 'ave ze bottle?" He took a fortifying sip. "Zey told me about the, uh, ze abyss of ze socks."
Lucius leaned forward to glance past Severus at his cousin. ""Are you feeling quite all right?"
"Oh yes, yes. I am feeling perfectly fine."
"So how come you're going on about a sock abyss?" Severus snatched the bottle back and quaffed some more wine. "Come to think of it, the existence of a sock abyss would explain why I always seem to have only one of a pair..."
"That's the House Elves," Lucius said. "It's their idea of revenge, miserable little buggers. Everybody knows that."
"Speak for yourself, you elitist prick. Not everybody's got House Elves."
"But," Jean-Christophe interrupted their budding argument, "it eez not ze socks which are in ze abyss. It's uz."
"How is it us? You, me and Lucius?"
"No, uz men. We fall into ze abyss of ze socks when... voyons, you're wiz a beautiful woman, and you are about to get, well, better acquainted..."
Lucius leered. "How much better?"
"You mean you're going to..." Lucius made a rude gesture.
"Zat, yes." He blushed furiously. "So you need to get naked. And if you are not careful about ze order in which you take off your clozes, you might end up standing in front of zis beautiful woman in nozing but your socks. Zis makes 'er 'esitate, reconsider, you know, because you look très ridicule like zis, and in ze end zere will not be sex. You 'ave fallen into ze abyss of ze socks, voilà."
Severus hid his face in his hands. "If this isn't the most outrageously ridiculous theory I've ever heard..."
"Ridiculouz? It eez not a zeory! Ze abyss of ze socks is az real az ze spiral of ze giggles!"
"Lucius, is there any way you can make him stop?"
Lucius Accio-ed and uncorked another bottle of wine and handed it to his cousin with a malicious smile. "Don't be such a stick-in-the-mud, Sevvie. I, for one, am very interested in the, uh, spiral of the giggles." He pulled Severus's hair. "And you're, too, you're just playing coy."
"Merlin help me," Severus moaned. But he raised his head when Lucius tapped his shoulder with the bottle. "All right, all right. By all means, do tell us about the spiral of the giggles, Jean-Christophe."
"Iz eez risky, I warn you. To know about ze spiral is to be part of ze spiral. You cannot escape it, evair."
"I guess we can take it," Severus said drily.
They'd had such fun that last summer. Of course they'd been all dignified and aloof about it, following the unwritten but all-important Rule for The Behaviour of Young Males on The Day After: Don't Talk About It. Ever.
Then Jean-Christophe had gone back to France, and they'd joined the Death Eaters, and Lucius had got married to Narcissa.
Taking the Dark Mark had seemed like the coolest thing ever. Lucius's parents would have first disowned and then killed him, had they ever found out, never mind that he was almost twenty-six and married, and Eileen Snape would have thrown a fit. Not to mention Lily Potter. It was secret, it was dangerous and illegal, and all they had to do was show up at the meetings and spout as many inane compliments as they could, the more outlandish the better. On the up side, they had Connections – not that Lucius would've needed them; spiders would have blanched with envy at the web of connections the Malfoys had established over the centuries – and they'd all be part of the new ruling class once the Muggle-born wizards and their lapdogs had been put in their place. In the presence of Junior Death Eaters Voldemort didn't go into details as to what kind of place exactly that was, and neither Lucius nor Severus felt any inclination to ask.
Things had become distinctly less cool when Bella, too, had joined; suddenly Lucius and Severus had the distinct feeling that she was not only watching them, but also reading their minds. They always avoided eye contact with her, and both had begun to study Occlumency with rather more fervour than either cared to admit. Still, the feeling lingered and grew stronger; after the two of them had been sent on their first mission together with Bella and her idiotic paramour Rodolphus Lestrange, they were almost sure that she knew. Knew that afterwards they'd gone and got themselves horribly drunk, knew that they hadn't been celebrating but trying to flush the images from their memory, knew that nothing was cool anymore.
It had been like slowly sliding down a slope that offered no handholds, no way of going anywhere but downwards. Everything was dead serious now. They had to be on their best behaviour. They had to be not only obedient but willing, passionate Death Eaters. With Narcissa pregnant, Lucius had something to lose now. He was as vulnerable as Severus, whose long-coveted Master's degree in Potions was being paid for by the brotherhood. And even though Lily had vilified and betrayed him, Severus didn't want anything to happen to her. They were both bound and gagged; they never talked about it openly, but both knew that the other knew and was feeling the same.
It was February and bitter cold. Voldemort had summoned them to a meeting in some creepy, abandoned Muggle fabric; well over a hundred black-clad figures were shivering in the wind that bit into them, unhindered by the broken windows and partly-fallen walls.
Lucius and Severus had been pushed forward by Bellatrix until they stood in the front row, maybe six feet from the dais on which their Master was shortly going to appear. Uncomfortably aware of how exposed he was, and of Bella's crazed black eyes burning holes into his back, Severus stood a little straighter as the enormous, rusty door swung back on creaking hinges to admit Lord Voldemort.
His booted feet made no noise on the concrete floor as he strode to the podium; he mounted the two steps and stood, tall, commanding and in absolute silence. His followers had been quiet while they waited; nobody felt like talking anymore on these occasions. Now, however, it seemed as if time itself had stopped and frozen them all. No rustle of cloth on cloth, no one cleared their throat or breathed audibly, no one shifted their weight from one foot to the other. They were statues.
Severus told himself to empty his mind. To judge by his slightly bent head and shallow breathing, Lucius was doing the same. Too many rebellious thoughts might be revealed through even the most fleeting of eye contacts; if Voldemort probed their minds, as he had done a few times already, nothing must be there for him to see but dedication to the cause and a few harmless memories.
The image of Lucius, Jean-Christophe and himself passing the bottle round, wreathed in blue smoke and laughing, came suddenly and unbidden. Severus tried to push it away, but the brief surge of longing he'd felt had sufficiently chinked his control; the memory attached itself to his mind like a barnacle.
"Vairy vell. Imagine an occasion, a ceremony of some zort maybe, or a funeral, vair laughing out loud would be ze most 'orrible zing you could possibly do. Ze moment you zink about ze laughing, you also zink about somezing funny, even zough it would not be zat funny if you vair allowed to laugh. But eet iz, becauze you must not laugh, and you almost burst out laughing."
Voldemort was way crazy, but not hot at all. Definitely not above the Bella Diagonal...
Severus felt laughter bubble up, irresistibly.
"But you zomehow succeed to, well, push it down, because you must not laugh."
Severus took a deep breath and concentrated on the tips of his boots peeking out from under the hem of his robes. He visualized the laughter in his mind, imagining a fountain welling up from a round stone basin, and then slowly, gradually losing force until it petered out.
It had been a close shave, but he'd done it. Voldemort had already started to speak, and he hadn't heard one word. This could become dangerous. He went back to looking at the tips of his boots.
"But of courze zis eez useless, because ze laughter will come back. Only zis second time it 'as joined forces wiz ze first, and eez much stronger."
If Bella was the diagonal, Voldemort was the horizontal axis. No trace of hotness. Bella probably thought he was hot, though, and wasn't that a tragedy, because how could the diagonal ever reach the axis?
The laughter was upon him before he could brace himself, but with a superhuman effort he held back. He may even be shaking a little; Lucius turned his head a fraction and was probably looking at him worriedly, not that one could tell with the mask.
"If you are vairy fortunate, you vill beat it a second time. When it comez back for ze zird time, zough, you are doomed... Ze eruption of a volcano will be nothing compared to zis."
Maybe there was a chance, though, for the star-crossed lovers – the older Bella grew, the crazier she would get, and certainly not hotter, so some time around 2020 the diagonal wouldn't be a diagonal anymore but a downward curve, and then, years later, when Voldemort would already be offering random people lemon sherbets and Bella's hair would be white and so long she tripped over it...
Now he was shaking. And he knew that he had maybe a second before...
Then everything went black.
His memories of what had happened afterwards were hazy and somewhat dream-like, due to the strong Confundus charm Lucius had cast on him, so as to send him into a credible delirium. Combined with the heating spell, it had obviously worked a treat; Severus had even received a commendation from the Master, for showing up at the meeting in spite of being delirious with fever.
Lucius had taken him back to Spinner's End – a nice, collateral bonus that. Voldemort's speeches were as long as they were boring.
A House Elf had been summoned from the Manor with a basket of food and a few bottles of wine; the two of them had settled down in front of the fireplace to get some much-needed warmth. The first bottle was consumed in silence.
The awareness that he'd have to thank Lucius made Severus quite uncomfortable – his lapse of self-control was weighing heavily enough already, but acknowledging that he'd been in need of help really rankled. If he was completely truthful with himself, he had to admit, though only in the privacy of his own mind, that Lucius had probably saved his life. Certainly his sanity, because they'd seen Voldemort torture people into a frothing, babbling mess for lesser offences.
It had to be done, and sooner rather than later. He didn't want to carry the knowledge of being in Lucius's debt around with him any longer than absolutely necessary. "I, erm, suppose I have to thank you. That Confundus charm was a stroke of brilliance."
Now Lucius was probably preening, but he wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of actually looking. Severus reached for the second bottle and opened it.
"Yes," Lucius said, holding out his glass, "I quite agree. Would you care to tell me what exactly happened? Did Bella cast a Cheering charm on you?"
"I wish she had. No, it was my own fault – remember Jean-Christophe and the spiral of giggles? It came back to me while I was preparing to Occlude, and I didn't stand a chance."
"Apparently not." Lucius put his glass down and grabbed Severus's elbow. "You know that this must never happen again, don't you? I won't always be there to save you, and-"
"Feel free to stop being patronizing right now," Severus snarled. "All right, yes, you helped me, and I owe you, even big time, but..."
Lucius smiled enigmatically.
Severus felt he'd just made a rather significant mistake. A distraction had to be found, and fortunately there was one diversion that always worked. Mentioning the imminent arrival of the most important baby of the century and whatever was related to this pivotal event was always sure to get Lucius's undivided attention. "Let us talk about more pleasant things. How's Narcissa?"
"That's what you call pleasant?" Lucius topped up his glass. "She's huge. Her mood swings have become completely unpredictable, and her cravings... Tomorrow she wants to go shoe shopping. Eight months pregnant, feet like a troll's, and she wants to go shoe shopping. The outcome is predictable. I shudder at the mere thought."
Severus made what may or may not have passed for a sympathetic noise. "Do you have to accompany her?"
"Of course. She always wants company, because throwing tantrums is just so much more fun if she has an audience... Come to think of it, you owe me a favour, don't you?"
He was doomed.
If there was a hell, and if he'd have to go there, Severus was sure that at some point he'd have to deal with pregnant women buying shoes.
He hoped, however, that by the time he went to hell one simple but important rule would be burned so deeply into his mind that it would transcend death: Watch out for mood swings.
He shouldn't have let himself daydream. Had he been on his guard, he might have stood a chance.
On the bright side, though,
-Now he knew that, if wielded with sufficient determination, a stiletto heel was able to pierce robes, trousers and a quadriceps. His own, unfortunately.
-He had discharged his debt to Lucius
-Now Lucius owed him, because physical injury hadn't been part of the deal
-He knew that the Spiral of Giggles was real. He merely had to find a way of throwing it into a conversation with, say, Bella.
A/N: I pilfered the "Bella Diagonal" from "How I Met Your Mother" - it's Barney Stinson's theory, and he calls it the Vicky Mendoza Diagonal. Both the Sock Gap and the Giggle Loop belong to the first season of "Coupling"; they're products of Geoffrey's somewhat paranoid imagination. Jean-Christophe is my own.