"Surely your superiors have noticed by now that chasing every darkhaired vagrant in Britain isn't the best way to capture Black," Severus Snape said to Adam Murphy.
"That would require more effort for thinking than they'd want to exert."
"Somebody must want to succeed, in the name of job security if not justice."
Murphy snickered. "You'd think so."
The two were seated in the kitchen of Murphy's muggle flat, sharing a Murphy Special, a homemade pizza involving peppery roast pork and plenty of onions.
Adam had never lost his attachment to the society he'd been born to, nor did he feel any great desire to use magic for every simple task. He was a fair cook, in his own opinion, and his father and Sev both agreed. He didn't feel any need to live among fellow wizards just to avoid frying bacon or washing dishes by hand.
The two were using this final chance before Sev would be all but unavailable at Hogwarts to go over the information they'd gathered about Murphy's unofficial case. They'd found names and identities enough to form some theories.
First, they'd discovered that the dead, partially transfigured victims had all been squibs. Snape believed they didn't have magic enough to survive the transformation.
"These bastards have experimented on them, conceivably as a group," he'd hissed when the realization struck, seeming to grow angrier with every word. "You know how some witches and wizards prey on squibs. They're told every day of their lives that they're fucking defective! The original group might have volunteered if they were told the tests were for a cure for their inability to use magic. Argus wouldn't hesitate for a second!".
A shocked Murphy had interrupted Snape's diatribe. "Filch is a squib?"
"He is, and I know for a fact he's looked into those quack cures crooked bastards keep marketing to people like him. Slughorn nearly killed Argus trying to undo the damage from some rubbish potion the summer after I finished at Hogwarts."
"Fuck. How'd you find out?"
"Madam Pomfrey requested my assistance. Even as a student, I had a knack for fixing botched potions. The Slug usually Vanished them and let the student start fresh, but I could never afford to waste materials, so I learned to fix my mistakes."
"I should look into personal ads," Adam said thoughtfully now. "If they're targeting squibs for this research, there's bound to be a trail."
"I suspect they've moved on, although perhaps you can find some clue as to their previous actions. None of the living victims were squibs, were they?"
"No. Criminals and vagrants. Three of the ones with a record had no wands. They'd been snapped. Two spent short terms in Azkaban but the third was a kid so they opted for mercy and just ended her education and took her wand."
"And future," Snape added drily. "Did she have any knowledge of the muggle world?"
"She has a muggle criminal record so she does now," Adam replied. "As a minor she lived in Godric's Hollow. She has a muggleborn grandmother but there doesn't appear to be any contact with her muggle relatives."
"Is there any relationship with the wizarding family?"
"Not anymore. She's dead to them."
"Disgraced," Snape noted without surprise. "I can never understand how easily magical families disown members even as they bewail the shrinking wizarding population."
"It's a crazy world and wizards are the craziest of the lot."
"Agreed. Were the rest as isolated?"
"Minor criminals and vagrants. If there was anyone to miss them they'd likely be afraid to approach the authorities."
"Using squibs was a failed methodology, I should think. Any weres?"
"Why in hell would they try it on someone that's already cursed?"
"To see what effect their potion has? If a werewolf could voluntarily change form, it might interfere with the curse."
Murphy opened his mouth, then shut it and shook his head. That was just the kind of out there theory Snape would come up with. The only person who could comfortably discuss his wilder notions that Adam knew of was Fremont, a Ravenclaw from his own year. Of course, Fremont was an honest to God genius, so no surprise there.
Since there was no chance this was some benevolent attempt at a cure for lycanthropy gone wrong, he returned to a continuing problem with the investigation.
"They still want us to drop everything at the slightest whiff of a Black sighting. They haven't even developed a way to gauge a report's reliability yet. It's madness."
Snape picked up another slice of pizza, pausing as if to admire the distribution of toppings. After a big bite was chewed and swallowed with gusto he replied. "You can make use of that stupidity. If a sighting quickly proves fruitless, take a bit of time to follow up on another case. If you do manage an arrest, claim that it was a fortunate coincidence."
He put on a thickheaded voice. "We were investigating Madam Smith's Black sighting when we spotted the bloke that robbed that shop. Course we arrested him before he could wander off. Maybe he'll know something about Black when we question him. Them criminals all know each other, don't they?"
Murphy chuckled. "Is that how you do things at Hogwarts?"
Snape grimaced. "When necessary. I do have to prioritize according to the Headmaster's wishes."
"Even when it makes your job harder? Is it true the Gryff favoritism is getting out of control again? There've been some weird stories the last couple of years," he added a little hesitantly. "Someone told me he rigged the House Cup year before last, which sounded silly, then there were the stories about petrified students last year, only it wasn't just the hex. What the fuck is happening, Sev?"
Snape hesitated before replying. "I can't really discuss events at Hogwarts."
Because Dumbledore loves his secrets, he didn't need to add. Murphy knew. No matter how outrageous or violent the worst students became, law enforcement was never called in, not even after the hideous lakeside assault he'd witnessed as a first year.
Adam didn't voice his loathing of Dumbledore, since Snape already knew but didn't share it, saying only, "I have other sources, mate."
Snape swallowed a couple of bites before saying anything more. Murphy's suspicion that he was buying time was confirmed when he said, clearly unhappy, "I'll have even less time to be of help than I'd expected this year. Do you recall Remus Lupin? He was a prefect."
He managed to stifle his first reply, That useless bastard who always covered for his friends? and say, "The sickly looking one?" instead.
"He's still unwell, unfortunately, and he's been hired as this year's sacrifice to the DADA position. I shall be spending a good deal of time brewing potions for his health. And covering the class when he isn't up to it," Snape added, his annoyance evident.
"Of course you will," Murphy replied without playing down the sarcasm.
Sev was certainly capable of teaching the class and even kept a syllabus for remedial tutoring when the year's professor was incompetent. Never mind he had a difficult class of his own to teach which required equipment and material preparation. Never mind he was Head of Slytherin, responsible for a quarter of the school's students. Never mind his extra duty patrolling the bloody castle because some students liked to sneak around at night looking for trouble to get into.
In Dumbledore's fucking delusional world, Severus had plenty of extra time to play substitute for an unwell coworker. And why, he didn't bother to ask, isn't Pomfrey responsible for Lupin's fucking potions? Or, why couldn't Dumbledore find it in the budget to buy the damned things?
Too sensible. Maybe the bastard has something repulsive, Murphy thought bitterly. The Headmaster would never risk embarrassing an old favorite of his. Too bad if that makes extra work for another staff member.
"I don't suppose Dumbledore knows you need a few hours of sleep every week," Adam said lightly, hiding the anger he felt on his friend's behalf.
"He is aware. It perturbs him to no end." Snape's smirk invited Murphy's snicker in reply.
"This DADA nonsense started when Dumbledore became Headmaster, didn't it?"
"It's been decades. I can't say exactly when it started."
"A couple of my mates from work think he put the curse on."
The professor scoffed. "That's daft."
Murphy shrugged, taking a long drink of his stout before replying. "He's widely considered the most powerful wizard alive and a genius, so why hasn't he fixed the problem? Why hasn't he called in a cursebreaker if he can't? That question isn't so daft, now is it?"
Giving his friend an enquiring look, he went on, "Some think Dumbledore wants to nip any possible competition in the bud. He could also be trying to cripple any new Dark practitioners so they'll never become a threat."
"Competition for what?" Snape asked, taking a pull of his own ale.
"According to my mates, he's either worried about losing his title as Wizarding Britain's Greatest Hero or he secretly has Dark plans of his own."
Murphy rose to slap his choking friend heartily on the back. "Sorry. Should've waited for you to swallow."
Snape's glare lacked a bit of its usual strength due to his teary eyes. "I know aurors are mental, but is the entire DMLE mad as well? Anyone who's noticed how he dotes on the Boy Who Lived will know the first option is ludicrous, and Dumbledore certainly isn't evil."
"There are people who think he's hoarding power, Sev," Murphy said soberly. "He holds three of the most influential positions in the wizarding world and doesn't seem ready to give any of them up. There's gossip that Fudge won't shit without Dumbledore's advice, too. That'd be four."
Snape nibbled at his pizza crust while he considered his reply. "One can only wish he had such control over that idiot Fudge," he finally said. "As to the rest, I can only say that the Headmaster does have difficulty trusting in others' judgment."
"Does he plan to hold onto all those jobs until he handpicks a successor or dies in office? Don't you think that's an unhealthy precedent to set?"
Snape didn't answer directly. "The Supreme Mugwump's position is little more than a gavel banging exercise, isn't it? He breaks up volatile debates and oversees votes but doesn't take part himself."
"Bullshit. You taught me better than that by third year! If there's a tie, he casts the deciding vote, and we both know he's pulling strings between sessions so most votes will go the way he wants. It's even easier in the Wizengamot where most of the current members are either old cronies or grew up fucking revering him!"
"That isn't as true as you think," Snape countered. "A good number resent how respected Dumbledore is while the ambitious find him an obstacle."
A factor that didn't deny Murphy's own point, the younger man noted but didn't say. "Wizards live too long and refuse to step aside for the next generation and fresh ideas. This isn't a healthy system, Severus. You know it as well as I do."
While he didn't reply verbally, Sev's face began slip towards that disturbingly blank look he got sometimes, which led to a cold, rather harsh manner he slipped on like those black robes he always wore to teach.
Murphy hated Occlumency, even if it might have saved his friend's sanity after fifth year.
To reorient him back to being just Sev, Adam returned to an earlier, less political subject. "Why did the old man pick Lupin, anyway? Git was too gutless to use his authority when he was a prefect. What makes Dumbledore think he can manage a classroom?"
Black eyes flicked to meet his with what he chose to see as gratitude as they shifted back to Snape's usual glinting expressiveness.
"He's grown since then, in theory," he replied with obvious doubt. "At the least, he was among the best at DADA as a student and a competent tutor. He was credited with Pettigrew receiving quite good marks on his exams and Lupin did tutor other Gryffindors with decent results. Accomplishing such a near miracle is certainly in his favor, as is the fact that his name isn't Gilderoy Fucking Lockhart," he snarled. "Any marginally intelligent lifeform would do better than that moron."
How Lockhart had Obliviated himself remained a subject of speculation but Murphy ignored the obvious diversion.
"Tutoring a few volunteers isn't the same as teaching a classroom full of all sorts. Lupin taught kids who wanted to learn. And you know sorting Gryffindor doesn't guarantee they were stupid."
Severus sighed. "No, but far too many have the attention span of mayflies. Academic ability tends to count for less than Quidditch skill or the ability to attract attention by way of breaking rules. Mind you, the ones who are capable of using their brains can be quite promising," he admitted grudgingly.
Murphy knew he was thinking of the clever and imaginative Weasley twins, who he'd asked Adam to intervene for earlier in the summer. The boys had immense talent but used it to commit mayhem rather than excel academically as their brothers had.
He'd heard stories from other friends about another exceptional Gryffindor, though, amidst complaints that she hadn't sorted Ravenclaw where she surely belonged. "What about the Granger girl? Is she as smart as they say?"
Snape grimaced. "She leans too much on her excellent memory. She went to proper schools just as you and I did, Adam, but she still insists on regurgitating the book verbatim when answering questions. That hardly proves understanding. She does the same on her written assignments only more so. Ad nauseum, in fact," he added drily. "She does an immense amount of research but seems incapable of summarizing, let alone synthesizing, ideas. Miss Granger adds a foot or more to nearly every written assignment, often with fascinating information, but she has yet to take that next step by building on it. At times she knows something is there, I can feel it, but she never touches an original idea. The girl is so determined to say what she believes the professor wishes to hear that it stifles her ability to express original thought."
"How about in class?"
"She may know all the answers, but she's the sort who needs to be noticed for having them. Unceasingly. If Granger had her way, I'd never find out whether Weasley, Bulstrode or my other chronically distracted students had learned a thing."
"Sounds like a nuisance."
"Not to mention a bloody thief," Snape griped.
"A thief? Are you sure?"
The Potions Master took a deep swig of his ale. "Potions ingredients were stolen from my private supply. Miss Granger later found herself in the infirmary after adding cat hair to a Polyjuice Potion. She failed to regain her natural form in an hour as she should have."
"Naturally she made the task of fixing the problem harder by lying," he went on sourly. "She claimed that it was a charm gone wrong, but I quickly discovered that wasn't the case. I eventually tracked the problem to a potion being used on the cat she'd acquired a hair from, a cat belonging to one of my Slytherins. Two others had been attacked during the Christmas holiday. Naturally, I was encouraged to ignore the offense since she's a close friend to the untouchable Mr. Potter."
Murphy would rather touch a live wire than that subject. Several of his fellow police claimed that the Boy Who Lived and Arthur Weasley's youngest had gotten a pass when they'd broken the Statute itself at the beginning of the last school year.
He was glad not to have been involved in the cleanup. He'd have had words for those punks if he'd had to mess with innocent minds because of their behavior.
Adam didn't give a fuck whether they'd intended a grand entrance or were just incredibly stupid after missing the train. Having magic didn't mean they had greater rights than the majority of the human race, not in his book, even if the Ministry thought otherwise.
Putting aside his bitter thoughts, he asked, "How'd the girl manage to brew Polyjuice? It takes time if I recall right."
"She brewed it secretly in an empty room, she claims simply for the challenge. Bollocks. The brat lives for the admiration she gets for being clever. I have no doubt she shared the Polyjuice with her usual partners in crime. They were luckier in their choice of hair, I suppose."
Looking for something, anything, positive in the mess, Murphy noted, "She must be a decent brewer, at least. Polyjuice isn't easy."
"The directions are written down," his friend grumbled before admitting, "Her practical work is always correctly done. I can hardly take points for lack of flair or inspiration. Granger could probably make a living as a brewer one day, assuming she's learned a lesson from her carelessness."
"Not inventive, though."
"Not that I've observed, but Miss Granger may be sabotaging her own progress by nannying her housemates. The constant distractions would allow little opportunity to innovate."
"I have little doubt she coaches Weasley and Potter through their homework. Her phrasing has crept into both their essays on enough occasions to hint at it."
"You did say she quotes the book."
"Indeed she does, but neither boy is even close to being as verbose. Both are likelier to paraphrase in order to write less."
"So they do know the work," Murphy pounced verbally.
"Only when they choose to. Neither boy puts in much effort. They prefer being taught by someone who likes them or is willing to overlook their slovenly work habits."
Which Snape hadn't done even as a student himself. His editorial help on written work had been dreaded by everyone else in their Study Club. Fremont had called Snape's red inked remarks the Trail of Doom. Murphy had found them hilarious, but supposed the majority of students would agree with Fremont.
"In addition, Granger spends every lab day hissing directions at Neville Longbottom. How he is to learn while constantly directed and distracted is beyond me, but he's never once told the little shrew to shut her gob!"
"So she cheats. How many cauldrons have you had her scrub?"
"None. Assisting classmates isn't cheating, in both Dumbledore and Mcgonagall's estimation. Given the allowances made for the trio, I've given up trying to convince either that they are problematic. I shall save my complaints for highly visible offenses this year."
"You really have got a lot on your plate these days, don't you?" Murphy asked, feeling guilty. "I can manage my not-case as well as my regular work. We've uncovered enough to build on. And who k nows? Maybe the Gryffinloon will trip and fall down right at old Moody's feet."
"I keep hearing rumors he's retiring," Snape said. "I'd be delighted if he did except that I want Black back in Azkaban first. Or dead. I'm hardly particular so long as my students are safe and the Dementors go back where they belong."
The thought of that lunatic running loose has to terrify you, Murphy thought, wishing he could think of something cheerful to raise his spirits. Instead, he realized what Snape had just implied and said, "Back where they belong? The extra security they're talking about for Hogwarts is Dementors?"
Severus raised his drink with a sardonic smirk. "Our Ministry in its infinite wisdom." More grimly, he added, "I fear I shall have to be exceptionally strict, even for me, this year, lest some hormone addled young fools sneak off on an escapade and get themselves Kissed. The Ministry's protection may be more dangerous than Black."
"And of course Potter's little group are among the likeliest to rush headlong into danger," he went on. "They do not listen and their first two years at Hogwarts have conditioned them to expect leniency whenever they disregard the rules, assuming they receive any punishment at all. They've been rewarded in the past."
Sev was eying the bottle in his hand ever more morosely. Sensing his sinking mood, Murphy took Snape's bottle and his own, dumping both down the sink. "Da bought me a blender. How about a milkshake? Chocolate sound good? I've got pistachio ice cream, too."
In response to the look that got him, Adam shrugged innocently. "Who was it told us alcohol is a depressant? Skinny fellow, bit of a swot."
Sev scowled but admitted, "I was the one who read that, wasn't I? I'll admit that I was more concerned about Mulce's temper, but you still had your sad days then."
Unspoken thoughtfulness, Snape's normal kind. Adam had had bad times then, all through his years at school, actually.
His mother had died in hospital only months before his eleventh birthday. Adam hadn't even been able to visit her towards the end. When he did, the machines aiding her and any other patients nearby went mad. They hadn't known why it happened but the pattern became clear enough that there was no choice. Adam had had to stay away when his father visited Mum.
Fucking do they wait so long to tell muggleborns and their families about magic? If we'd known what was happening maybe I could've learned to control it!
That was then. Damned if he'd let old memories bring him down now. He pulled his blender from the cabinet. "I'm thinking pistachio for me."
Snape nodded but there was a distant look in his eyes. Anthony Mulciber had killed himself shortly after being sentenced to Azkaban. An addiction to certain Dark magics had poisoned the young Death Eater long before he swallowed a lethal blend of muggle pills he'd somehow gotten smuggled into the prison.
He'd been an ass whose humor sometimes edged into malice, an unapologetic bigot who somehow overlooked the blood defects of those he'd seen as family, the halfblood Snape and muggleborn Murphy. The idiot had come so close to a lifechanging revelation. Just a little more time to grow up and maybe he'd never have decided to please his father by joining the DE's. Hell, if Dumbledore has curbed those fucking would-be heroes before they started bragging about planning to fight against Lord He-Who...
Fuck. Stop this now. He turned on the blender and poured the milkshakes into a couple of tacky beer steins his father had picked up on a holiday in Germany, then offered one to Snape.
When his friend had taken it, he raised his stein and said, "To lost friends."
"To friends gone far away," Sev countered, raising his own.
They tapped their glasses and drank.