INTRODUCTION – Wherein Mr Winston Ipkiss briefly experiences self-doubt, which does not improve his character

INTRODUCTION – Wherein Mr Winston Ipkiss briefly experiences self-doubt, which does not improve his character

Mr Winston Ipkiss of Ipkiss, Ipkiss and Weldon had never seen such a strange couple. They had to be homos – what else could they be? That was, he mused, just typical. They knew at the office that he hated homos; he'd been very clear on the topic with that fairy Eric Henson, and after they'd had their, well, altercation, Henson had left the company, which was only right and proper, because Winston was, after all, the son of one of the senior partners (the other was his uncle). People at the office had become distinctly cool towards Winston after Eric had left, because everybody had liked Eric. Winston, however, knew that he was one day going to be boss, and the life of a boss was by definition a solitary one. You couldn't start getting used to that early enough. They didn't have to like you. They just had to do as they were told and work hard, preferably without wanting payment for overtime.

The fact that Winston was one day going to be boss unfortunately did nothing to make the present more enjoyable. His future minions – Winston refused to think of them as co-workers – did what they could to spite him, which explained why Laura had settled him with this pair. He pretended to be looking through his files, merely to give himself time for closer observation.

There was something subtly wrong about their appearance, for one. The blond guy, who was slightly shorter than his, erm, partner (Winston shuddered discreetly), was wearing a dark grey, three-piece business suit over a white shirt. It all looked quite all right, until you noticed that the collar of his shirt was rather higher than was strictly fashionable. Had been strictly fashionable, Winston corrected himself, since the end of the nineteenth century. And the tie… The tie was a little, well, unsettling. Mostly because the pattern of green and silver snakes on a black background seemed to move. Winston was of course aware that it had to be a trick of the light, but he could hardly stop himself casting surreptitious glances at the slithering reptiles.

The black-haired guy was clad in black jeans and a black shirt under a long black leather overcoat, which looked like something a highwayman might have worn. At least this all-black outfit was blissfully free of moving patterns, but the man had two rather ugly-looking scars on both sides of his throat. They reminded Winston of vampire movies he'd seen, because they looked almost exactly like the telltale puncture marks on the throats of Dracula's victims.

Both men wore their hair long and tied back in a ponytail (the blond had a black velvet bow, what a pervert!) and both were looking at him in a most disquieting manner. The blond was doing so with a degree of supreme arrogance Winston would have very much liked to achieve (but he couldn't very well ask how it was done, now could he?) and the dark guy with an expression that brought up unwelcome memories of Winston's maths teacher and being humiliated in front of his classmates.

The blond, however, looked as if he might have Money with a capital M, although you could never be quite sure these days about such things. Therefore Winston decided to concentrate on that perfectly likeable trait, rather than let himself be distracted by snakes gliding up and down a tie, and a pair of black eyes that seemed more interested in plumbing the depths of his soul than his air of dazzling professionalism.

'I understand,' Winston finally said, 'that you are looking for a flat in Soho, gentlemen. Although I haven't yet had the pleasure of hearing more about what you want – size, extra features, furnished or unfurnished, the usual you know – may I assure you that Ipkiss, Ipkiss and Weldon have been satisfying the needs of their clients since 1973. I'm sure we will find the object of your dreams,' he finished, and treated the two men to one of his charming smiles.

The corners of the blond's mouth moved fractionally. Winston would have liked to think of it as a smile, but it definitely wasn't. Piranhas smiled like that, and when you were close enough to a piranha to see its smile, somebody was going to be very glad you'd made them the beneficiary of your life insurance. The dark guy merely sighed and continued to make Winston feel as if he was being roasted over a small fire.

Winston cleared his throat. 'Well, erm, maybe we ought to start by discussing the sum you would like to invest. Property prices are skyrocketing at the moment, which of course does in no way imply that this isn't an excellent time for buying – the way things look, there is no reason why this upward development shouldn't continue. So it's still a sound investment, especially if you should decide to sell after, maybe, a few refurbishments.'

'Money,' the blond said, 'is of absolutely no importance here. So I'd suggest we don't talk about it. What Mr. Snape here' – he gestured at his black-haired companion – 'needs is a flat of sizeable proportions, whether furnished or unfurnished doesn't matter, in close vicinity of Charing Cross Road. These are all the specifications you're going to need, Mr, erm, Ipkiss. And now kindly tell us if you have any objects corresponding to our wishes.'

There was something about the man's tone of voice, Winston sensed, that simply didn't invite dissent or questions. He suddenly felt very young and unimportant, and the collar of his shirt felt rather tight. 'I, erm, yes. Would sizeable mean approximately, erm, 1200 square feet?'

The blond looked at his companion, who said, 'Yes, that would be more or less what we're looking for.' His voice was deep and a little hoarse, but no less commanding than the blond's mellow tenor.

Fighting the impulse to say 'Yes, SIR!' pull up his socks and run off to do as he'd been told, Winston merely nodded and tried to persuade his hands that they didn't have any reason to tremble. 'I think,' he said, 'I have just what you want. Two offers have already come in, but the owner thought he'd wait a little longer, merely to see if more bidders would come along. The asking price is 250.000 pounds, and the interested parties have already hinted that they'd be prepared to pay up to 275.000.' He leafed through a folder in search for pictures.

'How much would that be in galleons?' the blond asked his companion sotto voce.

'About eight thousand, give or take a few hundred,' the black-haired guy murmured.

Winston, who hadn't listened but watched, and was sure they were talking money, allowed himself to feel a bit smug. It was always the same, wasn't it? First they made a show of regarding money as if it was nothing, but when prices were named, they suddenly realized they didn't want to shell out quite as much. These two probably had a few thousand quid between them, and now they were embarrassed, because they'd taken up half an hour of Winston's time and didn't quite know how to get out of his office without looking like the complete idiots they were. Well, that was homos for you. Or maybe this was just some new homo trick to pick up boyfriends.

So immersed was Winston in his thoughts that he almost missed the blond's next words. 'Can we sign the contract today?'

Scarcely able to believe his ears, Winston gaped at the two men. 'Well, I don't know… You haven't even seen the place!'

'That,' said the black-haired guy called Snape, 'will not be necessary.'

'Will not…' Winston swallowed. 'All right, but I'll have to inform the owner about the offer you're going to put in.' He didn't quite understand what the two were saying to each other, mainly because he wasn't sure what a Spanish man-of-war could possibly have to do with buying property.

'300.000, in cash,' said the blond. 'The offer will be valid until 6 p.m.'

'Erm, yes?' Right now, Winston wasn't being very articulate, because his brain was busy calculating the percentage Ipkiss, Ipkiss and Weldon were going to cash in on this deal. A deal he, Winston, had clinched. Prepared mentally to pat his own shoulder for being a brilliant guy, because he'd finalized such a spectacular transaction, Winston was surprised to feel that his victory didn't really taste of victory. Somehow those two smug bastards had cheated him out of his triumph. Anyway, a deal made was a deal made, and, most of all, money was money. He flashed his clients the smile it had taken him months to perfect, because initially his eyes had failed to cooperate, and it hadn't looked genuine. 'How would you feel about signing the contract today at five p.m., gentlemen? I'm sure the owner will only be too happy to oblige.'

The two rose as one and gave a single, identical nod before they left the office. Winston half expected them to engage in some kind of display of affection – those homos just didn't have any sense of propriety – and kept a close look on the CCTV monitor, but they merely stood for a moment in the lobby, and then they were gone.

Winston rubbed his eyes. They were definitely gone, but he hadn't seen them leave through the door. They'd just… vanished. And since people just vanishing wasn't possible, Winston did the only sensible thing: he picked up the phone and gave Laura the dressing-down of her life, because she'd forgotten to call the CCTV technicians, as he'd told her to do three times already. Not that he had, but he was going to be boss, so who bloody cared?

PART ONE – Wherein Severus Snape ponders the advantages and drawbacks of being a social outcast

Severus Snape closed the door of his flat behind him, pulled his wand out of the holster on his left arm, and began to weave a series of complex, vicious wards, first on the door, then on the windows, and finally on the walls, floor and ceiling.

It was almost dark when he finished after more than three hours of intense and concentrated spell-casting; he'd worked without interruption. He sat down on the floor and, after lighting the tip of his wand with a muttered 'Lumos!', produced a series of miniature objects from the pockets of his leather coat. A few spells later the flat was furnished, sufficiently but sparsely, there were candles illuminating the room and books stacked up against the walls. He didn't have any shelves yet, but that could wait. First things first. He rummaged in his pockets until he found a cell phone, dialled a number and ordered a pizza and three bottles of water. When the pizza arrived, he'd already opened a bottle of wine and sat down to eat and brood.

It was difficult not to think of the flat Lucius had bought him as charity, but then beggars can't be choosers. He had saved Draco's life, and he'd been instrumental in Lucius's acquittal. His own life had been the payment for Draco's, and the flat was a compensation for his testimony, a more than fair price Lucius had paid, so that nobody owed anybody anything anymore. He was free, or as free as a man with no money could possibly be. But, he thought grimly, he wasn't going to remain poor for very long. Not that anybody was going to offer him a job. He ought to know, for he'd tried. No, nobody in the wizarding world – or rather wizarding England, which he had no intention of leaving – had wanted to hire Dumbledore's murderer, the Dark Headmaster of Hogwarts. The Wizengamot may have exonerated him and lifted all charges, but the wizarding population, or rather populace he mentally corrected himself, hadn't. They feared and hated him.

Being feared and hated, however, was something Severus was used to. His students had been afraid of him, even the Slytherins, and most of them had loathed him. Maybe not him, but certainly his teaching methods and cutting sarcasm. Of course they hadn't hated him as a person, because they'd had no idea who he was. His fellow teachers hadn't bothered to find out, either. Well, to be honest, some of them had given it a try, back when he'd joined the staff, but at that time he really hadn't cared about anything but Lily. Hadn't been able to care, to be exact. It had taken him years to get over what he'd done, and when he'd finally been able to live with himself and look out at the world at large it had been too late, because the world hadn't looked back at him anymore. Nobody had been interested in Severus Snape anymore, and those who hadn't simply written him off as an antisocial weirdo had regarded him with cautious suspicion, like for example Minerva.

While he was still teaching at Hogwarts, being unpopular – to put it mildly – hadn't caused him any problems, most of the time at least. Sometimes, yes, he'd felt the need for intelligent conversation or maybe a woman. If the craving had become too strong to suppress, he'd satisfied it as well as he could – women could be bought, after all, and he'd always been welcome at Malfoy Manor for a spot of dinner and discussion.

Now, however, he had no job, and next to no savings, and being a social outcast suddenly made life very difficult.

There were ways to remedy the situation, of course; twisted paths where others feared to tread. But then the paths Severus walked had always been more or less twisted, and fear was something he'd forbidden himself to feel. A matter of discipline, really. Then, during his year as Headmaster of Hogwarts, he'd somehow gone beyond fear. That had been the darkest period of his life, full of desperation and hopeless, powerless hate: the hate that had slowly built up within him and become a driving force that gave him strength, and the hate directed at him by teachers, students and Death Eaters alike, hot dark waves scorching his mind and soul.

And after it was all over… Severus flung the last slice of pizza back on the plate with disgust and poured himself another glass of wine. They'd given him nothing, less than nothing, after it was all over. A few shallow words and reluctant handshakes, yes. But nobody had cared enough to say, Thank you, I owe you my life, is there anything I can do? He was the hangman, the leper – every society needed its outcasts, because they were necessary for society continuously to redefine itself. The hangman had his clearly circumscribed part, which he must play, and society needed him. Nobody wanted to touch him or speak to him though. He was merely there to confirm that there was an inside and an outside, and that he had to live at the outmost periphery, would never be allowed inside.

And in the end, Severus thought grimly, the hangman began to enjoy his role and the fear it inspired. He led a solitary life and people avoided him, yes; but they gave his house a wide berth, and none of the boys even dreamed of stealing his apples or filching a loaf of bread from his kitchen. It was bitter bread, but at least it filled the stomach. If you had the choice between starving or washing down the bitter bread of social exile with a drink of vinegar and bile, you chose survival.

His flat outside of but close to the biggest of wizarding districts in London had been the first step towards the new life Severus intended to build for himself. He may be penniless at the moment, but the money was out there, lots of it, and some of it was going to end up in his pockets. He was a first-rate potions brewer, and potions, illegal potions, would provide him with a nice and steady income. The contact with Borgin & Burkes had been established through Lucius, and the shady shopkeeper in Nocturn Alley had consented to act as Severus's retailer.

Illegal potions, though, weren't the only goods Severus was planning to sell. He possessed a stock of merchandise both less tangible and more precious: secrets. Years of spying, of listening to conversations and at closed doors, had provided him with knowledge about pretty much everybody in wizarding England. And some of that knowledge, if it fell into the wrong hands, might be used in very detrimental ways indeed. Reputation was such a fragile thing, so easily shattered, so difficult to rebuild, especially in times like these, when everybody was still suspecting everybody else of being a sympathizer or collaborator. A small flask containing a compromising memory might suddenly be worth hundreds of galleons.

What others chose to call blackmail, Severus told himself, was in reality a simple business transaction, as far as the wizarding world was concerned. Since memories could be extracted and, according to one's needs, either revisited or destroyed, there was no risk of the blackmailer becoming a lifelong parasite. You took the memory out of your head, you sold it for what it was worth to your business partner, and that was as far as it went. A simple business deal. Supply and demand. Nobody was harmed, everybody got what they wanted.

PART TWO – Wherein Lucius Malfoy succumbs to the lure of cognac

With Draco finishing school at Beauxbatons – a return to Hogwarts had seemed neither possible nor desirable – and Narcissa having left, Malfoy Manor suddenly seemed a very large and hollow place to live in. Lucius Malfoy had retired to his study. It was, compared to the large rooms on the ground and first floor at least, rather small and cosy. Up here on the second floor the ceilings were lower, the windows still large but of less grandiose dimensions than downstairs. The rugs, books and furniture surrounding him here had given Lucius comfort since he'd returned home aged eighteen, a young wizard greedy for life and ready to take over the world.

Even during Voldemort's stay at the manor, nobody had disturbed the privacy of this sanctum. Lucius hadn't entered it either, anxious not to disclose to the Dark Lord or, worse, his sister-in-law Bellatrix the existence of this cherished space. The study had been a kind of externalized secret part of himself, untouched and safe, and the thought of being able to go back there when everything would finally be over had played a more important part in keeping his sanity, Lucius sometimes thought, than ensuring his wife and son's survival.

He'd paid for his errors, in every sense of the word. He'd lost his influence – though only temporarily, or so he liked to think – his beliefs had been torn out of him, his soul flayed alive while he'd been forced to watch, he'd lost a large part of his fortune, his wife had left him and was preparing a formal divorce, and his son had made very clear that he didn't want anything to do with the man who'd almost destroyed his life.

A few days ago, he'd settled his debt with Severus. Ten thousand galleons had been a comparatively small price to pay. During the last two years Severus had done more than could've been expected; Lucius having saved his life would have been more than sufficient compensation though. Then, however, Severus had given the witness statement that ensured Lucius's acquittal. Lucius would have given him anything for having obtained his freedom, but Severus had insisted that the flat was enough, and that this was what he wanted.

Aware that he was drinking too much and starting too early in the day, Lucius poured himself another cognac. Had he lost Severus too? Buying the flat in Muggle London had seemed like an oddly final gesture. Not that Severus intended to leave the wizarding world for good, but still… His friend, if Lucius could still call him that, was so full of hate that Lucius had to admit to himself that he was frightened. He could see how and why Severus had turned into a hermit burning with envy and resentment – Severus was one of life's losers, to put it bluntly, had been one of life's losers for as long as he'd known him. Since Lucius still thought of himself as a winner, despite his losses, he was aware he could gain insight into Severus's ways of thinking only to a certain degree.

Although he'd believed in pureblood supremacy for all his life, Lucius had never given his heart and soul to either Voldemort or the ideology he stood for. He'd married young, maybe not for love but certainly for lust, he'd inherited the family fortune together with the numerous obligations it entailed a short time after his wedding, and not much later he'd had a son. There hadn't been much left to give Voldemort, and it certainly hadn't been personal. Later, after Voldemort's return to life, it had become personal, and that was when Lucius had understood, although much too late, that a few thousand galleons and lip service weren't enough anymore to satisfy his master. After he'd come back, Voldemort had wanted to possess his followers completely, skin and bone and heart and soul, and with every defeat and disappointment it had got worse. Only then had it dawned on Lucius that he was in way over his head and couldn't go back, because his weaknesses – family, power, money, the Malfoy way of life in short – had become strings for Voldemort to pull and make him dance. He'd had too much to lose and, ironically, in the end he'd lost it all, despite his efforts to hold on to it.

With Severus, things had been different. Severus hadn't possessed anything except talent, intelligence and ambition. He, too, had a weakness of course, just as every other human being. He'd always wanted to belong. That had been the one string attached to his heart – Voldemort had seen it the instant he laid eyes on the young wizard. If he'd been a little more careful, a little less convinced of the absolute power of his own charisma, he would've handled that string with more care and gained the most loyal and faithful follower he could have wished for. He had, however, never been a good judge of character and yanked the string so hard that it tore. Only, Lucius thought and chuckled to himself, to be carefully mended by Dumbledore, who'd been a much more cunning and clever puppeteer. Dumbledore had played that string like an instrument, for years, always close to breaking point. In the end, he'd made Severus cut it himself. Since then, Severus had been adrift.

Lucius had never quite understood his own soft spot for Severus. He'd taken an instant liking to the neglected, intense eleven-year-old, and had never ceased to like him. Sometimes he felt the possibility of losing this friend more painfully than Draco's alienation or Narcissa's desertion. Maybe he ought not to have settled the debt just yet. Maybe he ought to have tried a little harder. It would have been nice to have a friend. Then again, Lucius told himself while refilling his glass, it probably wouldn't have worked, not with Severus, and not while all the wounds were still so fresh. Since he'd been forced to murder Dumbledore, Severus didn't seem to have any more weaknesses. He'd always been a hard, harsh man, but now he was as cold and smooth as a sphere of pure, polished steel. There wasn't any scratch or dent to give you a hold. The wounds had sealed over but not healed. Time, or so they said, healed all wounds. Maybe all they needed was time. He certainly had enough of that, and he also had a sufficient amount of cognac to make it pass agreeably, in a soft, blurry haze.