Snape was almost at the Hogwarts gates when he felt someone coming up beside him, far too closely and stealthily not to arouse suspicion. Instantly his hand found his wand, and in a flash he turned. His robes were still swirling about him as he made out the unmistakable form of the wizard following him.
Lucius Malfoy. Favoring Snape with a hint of a smile, he stepped out into a wan circle of lamplight. “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” he said.
Snape paused, his wand arm still at the ready. He had not seen Malfoy in over a year. He was perhaps a little thinner than he had been, and most definitely older, but his grey eyes gleamed with the same pompous glee.
“That remains to be seen,” Snape said.
“You always did have a flair for the dramatic, Severus,” Malfoy smirked. “You were also always far too suspicious for your own good.”
Snape felt his wand arm lowering, even as his eyes narrowed. “A hazard of my occupation.”
Malfoy’s smile broadened. “Former occupation, don’t you mean?”
This was of course meant as a dig, but Snape said nothing. Sometimes, despite the death of the Dark Lord, he was not entirely sure.
“How ungracious of you not to accept my invitation,” Malfoy continued, affecting an air of wounded offense. “You did not even owl saying you would not attend.”
Snape’s lip began to curl upward. “I was…busy.”
At this Malfoy’s eyebrows lifted in mock surprise. “Indeed? What could be more important than renewing the acquaintance of an old compatriot?”
Snape clenched his teeth. “Straining armadillo bile.”
“Really? And I spent the evening drinking expensive brandy, brandy I would have been quite happy to share.”
“I prefer whiskey…and solitude.”
“And armadillo bile, yes, so you have said.” Malfoy smiled again, a smile that managed to convey absolutely no warmth whatsoever.
Snape said nothing, only turned his back and headed again toward the gates. He knew instinctively that Malfoy would not follow. Even as a ghost, Dumbledore cowed him, and that gave Snape a peculiar comfort.
“Please…” Malfoy said at last, a bit too loudly and with just the tiniest hint of need, as Snape strode away. It was the only time Severus Snape ever heard Malfoy say the word, and this fact alone stilled Snape, and he turned.
Malfoy walked toward him, his hands clasped in front of him and his eyes cast down. They were gestures meant to indicate obsequience, gestures with which Snape was quite familiar. He had seen them displayed often enough in front of the Dark Lord, but they were as artificial now as they had been then. Malfoy never was the true believer that his dear sister-in-law had been (and for all Snape knew, still was).
“I know that you have never really…trusted me, Severus,” he began, “not that you trust anyone, I must say. So I don’t take offense.”
“Take offense or not as you see fit,” said Snape. “I do not care.”
This remark was ignored. But as Snape turned toward the castle again, Malfoy began to pace slowly, like a professor lecturing at a chalkboard. Snape was almost out of earshot when Malfoy spoke again.
“Are you happy, Severus?” he called. “Are you happy with the way things turned out for you?”
This did give Snape pause, especially since it was the second time in the past couple of months that his happiness was suddenly the concern of others. Besides Dumbledore, that was.
Was he happy? Of course not. What he was these days was less…terrified. And less prone to the bouts of overwhelming sadness that had plagued him for the past couple of years. But he had never been happy. Why should things have been any different now?
The question was intrusive, and none of Malfoy's concern. Yet Snape found himself allowing Malfoy to cross the distance between them.
“Well?” Malfoy prodded.
“As you yourself are aware I have no reason not to be,” Snape answered at last.
Malfoy tilted his head thoughtfully. “Well, I seem to recall a time when you were quite eager to leave your current position. Quite eager, in fact, for a position within the Ministry. Yet here you remain.” Malfoy angled his head towards the castle, as if reluctant to actually say its name.
Snape grunted dismissively. “There was a time when I greatly desired a lot of things that I now find irrelevant and pointless.”
At this Malfoy actually chuckled. “Still the same effortless lies. You have a great talent for it, do you know that?”
“Whereas your great talent is stating the obvious, which is, I suppose, why you have gone into civil service.”
But this only seemed to further amuse Malfoy. “Ah, the taste of sour grapes. Perhaps that’s why you always look so pinched around me, Severus."
"That and the fact that I don't particularly enjoy your company."
"Would it please you to know," Malfoy continued, "that you have gained a certain notoriety at the Ministry? And that your newfound notoriety is not entirely, or even mostly negative?”
Snape looked at Malfoy dubiously.
“Your headmaster deserves most of the credit for the rehabilitation of your reputation amongst the rank and file, however there are those who believe that even in death he still manages to remain deceived about your true nature."
As even Snape was unaware of his own true nature, that thought actually made him smile, albeit grimly.
Malfoy obviously took this as an affirmation, and went on. "Strangely enough, in the circles I travel, this only seems to enhance your status. To avoid death and imprisonment even after your murder of the most powerful wizard alive, who still in death defends you, is thought of as quite a remarkable feat indeed. No one, save for Bella perhaps, hates you now.”
As if I care, Snape thought. “Tell her that I shall spend my every waking moment attempting to regain her good graces,” he said.
But Malfoy only shook his head. “Sarcasm, Severus…it’s such a bitter form of wit.”
“Better a bitter wit than none at all. And you can tell her that, too…”
“You’ll understand if I don’t do that,” Malfoy said, with a note of indulgence in his voice. “But Bellatrix notwithstanding, you are in fact admired for what is perceived as your cunning. Many believe that the Dark Lord always did prize personal loyalty a bit too highly for a Slytherin. A true Slytherin’s first loyalty is always to himself.”
“Flatterer,” said Snape contemptuously.
“You misread me, Severus. I am not telling you what I think. I am telling you what others think of you.”
Snape gave a low chuckle. “Really? Well, don’t deprive me in that regard. Do share your thoughts on me, won’t you? I have been so dying to know. My self-worth hinges upon it.”
Ignoring the sarcasm, Malfoy took a step closer, smiling again. “And here I thought you didn’t care.”
“I do not care,” Snape said, willfully forcing himself not to step backward as Malfoy came within a foot of him. “I am curious. Curious as to whether you are capable of being right about something. Anything at all. Even me.”
Malfoy did not seem to take offense at this, only folded his arms across his chest slowly, and for a moment he seemed lost in thought. At last, he said “I think you are far less cunning than you are…virtuous” (he said this last word with evident distaste). “However there is no convincing some people. My words fall on deaf ears.”
Snape stared at Malfoy, an inscrutable look upon his face. “And why didn’t ‘some people’ creep about Hogsmeade lying in wait for me, then? One of those so very convinced of my cunning? Why did they send you?”
“Severus…” Malfoy said slowly, and with a note of disapproval, “you must know this already.”
Snape found Malfoy’s patience, and his tendency to speak to him as if he were some sort of errant child, utterly maddening. And if it were possible to hate him more than he had before, he did.
“Humor me, Lucius,” Snape hissed.
Malfoy was smiling again, an icy, superior smile. As he looked into those frozen grey eyes, Snape thought for a moment he could kill him, thought for a moment that he actually would kill him. Because he had seen in his mind what Lucius was about to say.
And if Lucius Malfoy had been a Legilimens, if he had seen how he was but one hair’s breadth away from an Unforgivable, he would have backed away quickly and disappeared into the darkness, and he would have avoided Severus Snape for the rest of his born days (which, as he was a wizard of pure blood, would turn out to be extraordinarily long).
But Malfoy was no Legilimens. “They sent me because as we all know I am the only one to whom you would actually listen,” he said coolly. “Because I am the only one whom you still envy.”
Snape felt his breath catch in his throat, and for a moment the ground seemed to shift under him. To see it in Malfoy’s mind was violation enough. To have the words hanging in the air between them was far worse.
Lies! he felt like screaming. But they were not lies. Snape, ugly and poor and from nothing and no one, could not even now help himself from envying Malfoy, envying his bright beauty, his wealth, his position. Hating himself for it, Snape curled inward, seething with anger. Anger at himself. Anger at Malfoy. Anger at everything, everyone, everywhere.
Yes, they had sent the right man indeed.
“Severus,” Malfoy said conspiratorially, “a man who may have all that he wants has no cause for envy. You can be a prince in more than just name alone.” At this he slid his hand into his robes and pulled from them a parchment folder, which he pressed into Snape’s clenched fists.
“You can have that position in the Ministry you have always wanted,” he soothed in Snape’s ear, “and a suitable wife…a pureblood wife.”
This was too much. Snape recoiled, stepping back at last, and threw the folder down at Malfoy’s feet. “Your time would be better spent tending to your own wife,” he spat, “so that others don’t have to…”
At this Malfoy’s face curdled, and Snape allowed himself a venomous smile before he turned away. But as Snape’s hand touched the Hogwarts gate, Malfoy spoke one last time.
“Considering your position, you cannot afford pride right now,” he said, in as loud and commanding a voice as he could muster.
As he opened the gate, Severus Snape paused. It seemed as if the gates themselves had some sort of restorative power, and he felt his composure returning.
“On the contrary, Lucius,” he said airily, “pride is one thing that has always been well within my means.”