Author's Note: Part of the Severus Snape Fuh-Q Fest (response to: Scenario #32: Hogwarts holds some sort of quiz/comp/gameshow. How competitive is Snape, and who is his rival? What will he do to make sure he wins?; and Easy Pairing #23: Snape/Avery.) I have taken Certain Liberties with the canon timeline. Specifically, Rita Skeeter is now a year younger than Our Boys. I don't hear her complaining.
DISCLAIMER: I don't owns 'em. That's J.K. Rowling, don'chaknow. I just slips 'em out in the dead of night and makes 'em have little tea parties. Don't sue me. It'll all done in fun, I don't make a penny from my efforts (as the world at large seems so intent to remind me), and the most valuable thing I have is a kitten. If you sue me, she'll be sad. Do you hate kittens?
Part 17 - Descent
Severus squirmed in his chair. Three weeks later it still hurt to lean against anything. Tom hadn't been able to heal his wounds completely; scar tissue had formed an eroded mountain range of translucent white flesh. It forced him to hold his shoulders stiff, giving him an air of arrogant nobility.
He wasn't sure anyone in the school (save four particular Slytherins who'd been banned to Filch's office) wasn't present for the final round. It probably shouldn't have been anything for him to care about. However, it was a last chance to prove his superiority before the school. It was a last chance to prove to Black, glaring from the other end of the staff table, that Gryffindors weren't better.
As a precaution, the final four players had been tested for cheating spells. A soft yellow glow appeared around Lisa Sprout, but it was quickly determined to be a Calming Charm. She still looked a bit nervous. Longbottom and, to Snape's disappointment, Black were clean. Snape, of course, showed the fleeting silver sparkle of a curse signature; it was there and gone before the other three even saw it.
He finally leaned forward with his forearms on the table. It kept the cruel chair from biting through his buckled robe. Tom had given him two more for the simple reason that anything but that cool silk lining caused the most ripping pain. His voluminous student robes fit nicely over top, and hid the telltale buckles from prying eyes.
The Hall fell quiet as soon as the headmaster stood. "As this is the final round, we will have a different process of elimination. Fifty questions will be given, at the end of which the player with the least number of points will be asked to leave the table. The process will be repeated at seventy-five, and should the final two players be tied after the hundredth there will be a single tiebreaker question. Are you ready?"
Severus readied his palm over his bell. Nobody spoke up. A low hush rippled through the room.
Dumbledore, looking about innocuously, picked up his thick stack of cards. "First question: What toxic component of centaur blood is distilled for use in the anti-carcinomatous potion Cancri Evertere...?"
Forty questions. Severus was calm. Black was in a similar state. Longbottom was sweating slightly but not outwardly upset. Sprout's voice was shaky and reedy. There was good reason; she trailed Black by five points. Dumbledore read the forty-first, and that margin increased to six.
Forty-five questions. Slytherin was leading by nine, and Gryffindor had caught up more or less with Ravenclaw. Lisa frantically pounded her bell and nearly broke into tears when she gave the wrong answer. Flitwick patted her on the shoulder. Severus smirked to himself as he succeeded where she had so spectacularly failed.
Fifty. Lisa stood with more dignity than she really had any right to (in Severus' opinion) and marched along the table towards her House table. They cheered her anyway, and Black grabbed her hand, smiling up at her and muttering something. She smiled weakly before making her way down the steps, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. Her mum caught her in a crushing hug, and Severus saw her lips form, "I'm so proud of you."
Pathetic. Giving laurels to the losers.
Sixty. Severus' back was starting to burn with the tension of slumping forward. He silently wished for a Painkilling Potion, and hit his bell at the question. "Square root of negative one over theta."
It was a small victory. He gritted his teeth.
Seventy. Slytherin was still in the lead by eight, with Ravenclaw and Gryffindor tied. The pain was getting worse. Severus shifted his shoulders. The slide of silk did little to ease the burning. He shut the world out for a fraction of a second and missed the question.
Seventy-five. He was up by nine again, with Ravenclaw and Gryffindor still tied. Part of him begged for both Houses to be eliminated so he could go dig a Painkilling Potion from his trunk. It occurred to him that he ought to have had one with him. Dumbledore mildly said, "Questioning will continue until Gryffindor and Ravenclaw are no longer tied. What role does environmental temperature play in the creation of an Ice Draught?"
Trick question. Severus hit his bell without thinking.
"None." His voice was a bit strained. Severus mentally shouted at himself to pull together.
Dumbledore glanced at him. "Correct. Rounded to the nearest whole number, what percentage of genetic material do the grindylow and the kappa share according to recent magical analysis?"
Severus hit his bell quickly, but when the list of names came up they read, "LONGBOTTOM, BLACK, SNAPE". He cursed silently and took a deep breath. Holding it eased some of the acidic burn.
"Incorrect. Mister Black?"
Painful silence fell over the Ravenclaw and Gryffindor tables. Black frowned to himself. "Ninety-six?" he asked cautiously.
The Gryffindor table exploded with deafening cheers. Potter jumped up on the bench, waving his fists in the air, shouting, "Yes! Yes! Kick his Slytherin arse, mate!"
"That will be ten points from Gryffindor, Mister Potter!" McGonagall snapped.
"It's worth it!" Potter grinned gleefully and danced in a circle before sitting back down.
Frank stood up quietly. He nodded to Severus, who glowered in pain, and walked around the far end of the table. Once again, Black shook his hand, and Frank took his seat at the Ravenclaw table, looking only slightly abashed, and smiled when half the girls in his House covered him with kisses.
Black sneered proudly at Snape. Snape looked wearily back. He shifted in his seat again and stared at the tabletop, awaiting the next question.
Dumbledore cleared his throat. "According to-I understand you're excited, but unless all of you quiet down we can't have a winner." He smiled good-naturedly at the Gryffindors, who had started up an impudent boom-clap-boom-boom-clap-clap pattern pounding on the table. One last BOOM-BOOM-CLAP-CLAP and they mercifully shut up. The headmaster smiled wryly and cleared his throat again. "According to the abandoned 1667 Wizarding Declaration of Separation, what were the three primary incidents cited for complete separation from Muggle society?"
Severus got to his bell ages before Black. "The burning of Overmass Hill, a settlement of Muggle pagans mistaken for a wizarding village; the general accusation of witches and wizards for causing the Black Plague; and the deliberate poisoning of a wizarding family's well outside London, resulting in their deaths."
Severus smirked through his pain. Black didn't stand a chance.
Ninety. Severus gritted his teeth. His back felt like it had been grated. Even the smooth silk was rubbing it raw. He sat up carefully, back bowed strenuously to keep the fabric away from his skin. The healing charms Tom had used regenerated the nerve endings. Something about the Scabbing Spell Lucius had cast made them detect almost any touch as pain, though. He shifted a fraction of an inch and had to suppress a gasp as his skin was wrenched.
He and Black were nearly tied. Severus was a mere two points in the lead. If he could only ignore the pain enough, there'd be no question that he would win. It was difficult enough not letting it show in his actions or face.
The next question came: "Firewhiskey is the result of what potion-making accident?"
Severus hit his bell. Black got there first, though. "Mister Black?"
"Tiberius Ogden's attempt to improve the formula for Flower of Morning."
Yes, and I'm sure there's a reason you know that, 'Mister Black'. How many bottles have you sneaked into the school? Severus fumed. He had to stay in the lead. He had to find a way to ignore the white-hot pokers raking furrows over his back.
Ninety-five. Severus was still up by one. He closed his eyes and listened, focusing on the sound of Dumbledore's voice. The ninety-sixth question was, "The process of becoming an Animagus is regulated due to its extreme danger. What are the three most common dangers and their results?"
Black got to it first. "Inability to revert to human form, which in the worst situation is permanent; mid-point transformation failure, which causes the wizard to retain animal features such as antlers or fur; and inversion, in which the wizard is turned inside-out. Inversion is fatal, and it'll ruin a good carpet faster than you can blink."
"Graphic, but correct." Dumbledore widened his eyes slightly. McGonagall covered her mouth with her hand. Severus frowned. They were tied with only four questions left to go.
Ninety-seven. Arithmancy question. Snape.
Ninety-eight. Transfigurations question. Black.
Ninety-nine. Ancient Runes question. Black. McGonagall threatened to take points from Gryffindor if they didn't quiet down. It still took them nearly thirty seconds. Severus' taut, thin muscles pulled tighter with each one.
One hundred. Potions question.
He and Black stared at each other. Black's eyes were wild, wide, unblinking. Severus glared back unrelentingly. He wouldn't blink. He'd never blink. The screaming in his back dwindled in comparison to the viciousness of his stare. Neither looked away as Dumbledore opened his mouth...
Severus slipped out quietly. He preferred to focus on the pain in his back rather than the outright humiliation he'd just suffered. The whole of Gryffindor screeching, "Pleased to meet you! Hope you guessed my name! But what's puzzling you is the nature of my game...!" grated on his ears and his tortured spine. Potter had started singing at the top of his lungs almost as soon as Black answered the damned question.
Severus had gotten there first.
And he was wrong.
He skirted the wall, letting the overwhelming pound of noise fall behind. His back felt like it had been flayed all over again. If Lucius hadn't done that to him...
He would pay. They would all pay.
He'd almost made it to the dungeons when a soft voice called out to him. "Severus?"
He turned to glare at Lupin. "What?"
The large amber eyes darted to the floor. "You, um... you did well."
Snape looked away, wrapping his arms around his chest. "What would you know about it, werewolf?"
Lupin didn't say anything more.
Severus took a long drag of his cigarette. He let it out through his teeth and ground the butt into the wall. It joined the other three and he started to roll another.
It was a hot day, pleasant and sunny. He stood in a shady alcove along the side of the school. Bright sunlight was one thing he had never gotten used to. He blinked, and imagined the slits of his pupils widening before contracting again to threads. He looked up at the buttresses, the lichen-crusted granite of the castle. It hadn't changed much in the last three years. Hogwarts never changed much, as far as he could tell.
He'd skipped the Hogwarts Express and gone to Hogsmeade just long enough to get his Apparator's Licence. His NEWTs were unsurpassed, his instructors kept telling him that he had the whole world to choose from, and none of them seemed to realise that he didn't have to choose. It was his already.
Tom was waiting for him when he Apparated outside the gate. They finally made it inside forty minutes later, and back out in a couple of days. From there...
He kept to the background. There was no sense in confusing the great unwashed when they already spoke the Dark Lord's name in hushed whispers. Within a year, they didn't speak it at all.
The problem, it seemed, had been his followers. They had years ago decided upon the unlikely name of "Death Eaters" (after a night of heavy drinking and flipping Sickles, if rumour held). The majority were power-hungry idiots with no idea what to do with power once they had it. This led to random killings, simple-minded torture performed on as many people as possible until it started to lose its effect, several captures and near-captures by Ministry officials, and the general sense that the horrifying Dark Lord would take decades to fully establish himself. Tom tried, but he'd never had much instinct for teaching. Most Death Eaters were young, had been recruited during or just out of school.
Tom's strategic brilliance began to shine when his instruments of execution learned the true meaning of discipline.
After much moaning and rather a few glares, Tom allowed Severus to cast a Severing Charm on his prized mane. The three-foot tail was still trapped in its silver hoop; it hung on the bedpost for weeks. However, the sacrifice was necessary. And Severus promised to let his grow out in exchange.
The addition of a curse-form Amplifico Impressio on Snape's part was a slightly more difficult, but no less necessary, change. Over the next month, his senses heightened until he could make out individual strands of cobweb in a dark corner and discern a temperature change of less than a degree. What little mass remained on his body sheeted away until he was as thin and wiry as his beloved. He spent a week more or less locked in the darkened bedroom, counting threads in the sheets, silently mourning what he'd been a year before. His hatred for Malfoy latched onto the pain in his heart and the heightened pain in his back and it fed.
The first Death Eater on whom he was allowed to vent some of that hatred didn't stop screaming for seven hours. Half an hour in, Severus cast a silencing charm on him. He could still hear the hoarse hiss as clearly as if there'd been no charm. He smiled behind his mask, tenderly stroked the mask of his anonymous subject, and brought the rose vine down in an unmarked spot.
There were some doubts to the identity of the new disciplinarian. Most Death Eaters were content to believe that Voldemort had acquired some new skills. A persistent wave of dissidence claimed that it was somebody hired on just to torment them; the rumour branched off into theories of a trained torturer and those of a natural sadist. Severus' name never came up. He supposed Tom had something to do with that.
Life was beautiful.
One warm summer night, a new figure joined the Death Eaters' circle. He was given no introduction, simply stood quietly, a bit behind the others. The mask he wore was stark and white, and his bare hands were nearly as pale as those of the Dark Lord. Whispers filled the night until Lord Voldemort appeared. He raised a delicate black eyebrow and looked at his hissing followers with his piercing red eyes. They fell silent.
The next attack was a shambles. Without so much permeating fear that Voldemort was the one doling out their punishments, the Death Eaters grew sloppy. Two Muggles were left alive - alive - and reported everything to their authorities. The shambles this caused took weeks to set right. Tom didn't sleep for four days straight at one point, devising strategy, pacing, shouting useless threats at the curtains. Severus was allowed to punish those responsible, but it didn't take in quite the same way as before.
So Tom planned another visit to the Muggle world. This time there were four of the chattier Death Eaters, Severus, and Tom himself. The home was Mudblood. Severus might have been loath to attend had there not been an interesting incident a few days before.
Apparently, an eight-year-old child in Plymouth had been hanged on his school playground with his own uniform tie. Strange things happened around him, windows cracking without reason and doors flying open in people's faces and other such nonsense. A small group of bullies took it upon themselves to scare the "magic" out of him. They swore they didn't mean to drive the life out of him as well.
Severus read and re-read the article for an hour. His hands trembled every time he came to the part about cutting the boy down only to have him gasp once and go still in his teacher's arms. Tom cocked his head in curiosity but didn't ask questions. That night, Severus announced through action his devotion to the cause of taming Muggles like the animals they were. Anyone, anyone, who made a child suffer like that deserved no less. Not that he mentioned that fact. There was something personal about it he didn't want to share with anyone yet.
The bloodbath stained the walls and the ceiling of the Mudblood home. All four Death Eaters stood back, afraid to breathe, as Severus slowly gutted the wizard who had dared marry outside his species. Through Scabbing Charms, Ennervation, and a choice variety of potions he was able to keep the man alive for nearly four hours. By the time he set down the small obsidian blade, a thick rope of intestine dribbled its contents to the floor, draped about the reddened room like a garland. He'd requested the Muggle woman watch. It was her fault, after all.
After Severus put down the translucent black knife, the woman picked it up.
He pretended not to notice.
The moment his back was turned, she lunged.
There was the whip of Tom's wand, a burst of green light, and she fell with the blade still clutched tight in her hand. As the four uncharacteristically quiet Death Eaters watched, Tom tenderly removed Severus' mask. He traced those long, loving fingers over cheekbones, eyebrows, nose, and with a faint smile of utter bliss kissed him. Hands clasped, arms wrapped around each other's body; to the melody of their heartbeats they waltzed in the blood of the dead.
Naturally, none of the pissants ever dared treat Severus as less than Lord and Master again.
Severus frowned and lit another cigarette. He'd have to pick up more tobacco in Hogsmeade once he got out. If he got out. Absently, he rubbed the sore place on his left arm. It burned, as if mild acid were trying to eat the skin. Tom said the Dark Mark was to "remind" him. Severus wasn't yet sure if it was meant to remind him, like a wedding ring, that there was someone waiting for him whenever he chose to return, or, like a brand, that his soul had been claimed.
After that night in the Mudblood home, the Death Eaters became so diligent in their efforts that neither Severus nor Tom could readily pick out any in need of punishment. Severus turned his attentions on Lucius, Emeric, Evan, and Adam. He never left scars. He never let them brush the face of death. However, they paid in flecks taken from their souls, chipped away by a bed of nails and burned out by blazing light. Every one of them screamed when the light touched their serpentine pupils. It was simple enough to keep their eyes open.
The first time of many that he spent with Lucius, he learned a wealth of information that he'd not known before. Lucius had only had enough Imperius Salve antidote for two people. In a burst of calculated intuition, he arranged a small accident. The morning of the second match against Gryffindor, Pettigrew upset Evans' pumpkin juice. He promptly gave her his untouched juice, and, mysteriously, she found herself somewhat less tongue-tied on certain matters than she'd been. Apparently, it took rather a lot of cajoling to convince Pettigrew that the clear liquid wouldn't hurt her. In fact, Lucius drank some himself just to prove it.
It was only a few days before the Daily Prophet advertisement for Hogwarts teachers that things changed. Bodies, Muggle bodies, Mudblood bodies, disagreeable pureblood bodies, were all the same. They weren't human. They were little more than firewood. Severus was supervising a raid on a Muggle household. They'd had several children. As always, he demanded their deaths be as quick and painless as possible.
He picked up yet another small corpse. The cocoa mug was still in the boy's hand. Severus frowned. It was half-full. The little Muggle wasn't moving or breathing, and he couldn't hear a pulse. Despite the fact he'd learned to filter out most of the excess sensory input, a pulse was usually loud enough to hear without effort.
He was just about to throw the body on the pile to be burned when the mug slipped from its small hand. Severus froze. He looked down. A low rattle came suddenly from the slender brown throat. Large eyes, the occluded brown of amber, fluttered open halfway. They couldn't focus. One of the pupils had dilated, and the other was red where the eye had filled with blood. Before he could drop the little wretch a hand grasped weakly at his robe. Miniscule twitches betrayed the scream of crippled nerves. Dry, purplish lips parted with a sound like old leaves... and went slack.
Severus stared for a moment into the glazed eyes. The boy's hair was thick and soft, almost as black as his own. Warmth still clung to the body. It almost felt alive, as the boy had been when Severus pulled him to his chest. He tried to deny that the boy hadn't been dead. He tried to forget as he dropped the corpse on the pile and set the thing ablaze. He stood and watched as the flame licked at tiny fingers, blackening them and forcing the flesh to peel back in fragile charcoal curls. Behind his mask, he bit his lip until the blood ran.
It wasn't a Muggle.
It wasn't a monster.
He was only a child.
Something withered in Severus Snape's blackened excuse for a soul. He thought, over and over, I'm one of them, we're the same. For days he tried to ignore the morbid fact. He spent every possible moment with Tom, with the perfect shining creature he would love until time ceased to exist.
He noticed the cracks now.
The childhood grudge Tom had convinced himself was a crusade.
One morning over breakfast, Tom looked up from the Prophet and suggested, eyes shining a bit too much and his warm smile sad, that perhaps they ought to have a contact at Hogwarts. He didn't trust a mere Death Eater with such an important, sensitive mission. If Severus were willing to make the sacrifice, it would mean they were one step closer to their perfect world.
For the first time, Severus wondered how content Tom would be to co-rule once the reality set in.
He once again denied to himself that he certainly wouldn't be.
That night, neither of them slept much. Between the soft kisses, the mutual tears of impending loss (for nobody was more qualified with potions than Severus Snape), the imperfectly perfect moments and abandoned cries of lovemaking, all that Severus could comprehend was that a part of himself had been gutted.
He hurriedly ground out the cigarette and held out his hand. "Headmaster."
Dumbledore smiled. He shook Severus' hand warmly and motioned to the castle's front door with his head. "We'll go up to my office, if you don't mind."
Severus nodded. "That would probably be the most ideal place, sir."
"It's Albus. You're not a student anymore."
"Yes, sir. Albus."
Dumbledore sighed and rolled his eyes. "Nobody can ever simply call me by my name. Sometimes I wonder why I have it in the first place."
They chatted inanely about such trivialities as the weather, recent advances in potions distillation, how unfortunate it was that Dram decided to retire the same year Fellus was tragically eaten on holiday by a lethifold. When asked politely which position he was applying for, Severus only paused a moment before responding with, "Both."
"Severus. You can't teach two classes."
"But I'm qualified for either one."
"Hmm. I have no doubt of that." Dumbledore's voice was neutral. Severus shivered anyway.
He shifted slightly in his robe. He'd learned to ignore the pain along with the sensory overload. However, scar tissue still kept his back stiff and aristocratically straight, and he still swooped to spare his legs. Over time the motions had become more refined, and with his cloak billowing out over his buckled robes he rather resembled a huge bat. Tom had... no. This was rending enough. He didn't want to think about Tom.
Inside the comfortably dim office, Dumbledore waved Severus to the chairs in front of the desk. Delicately, he sat in the one Potter had taken so long ago. Back straight, hands neatly folded in his lap, he waited patiently. Inside, his stomach threatened to burn its way out if it had to.
Dumbledore sat down. He held out a dish. "Sherbet lemon?"
Severus shook his head. "No, thank you."
The headmaster smiled and popped one in his mouth anyway. "Tea? Coffee?"
"I'm fine, si-Albus."
Dumbledore nodded. "Well, I know your background is excellent. Tell me, Severus, what precisely do you feel you can bring to Hogwarts?"
Severus blinked once. He took a shallow, shuddering breath and, averting his eyes, pulled up his left sleeve. The Dark Mark still swelled red from where Tom had applied it that morning. "Information, sir."
Dumbledore's eyes flickered. His mouth set rigid; the corners drew down. "Well. That's certainly a unique qualification." He hesitated.
Severus' guts clenched; he wasn't going to make it out alive. Aurors would come for him. His father would come for him. The knowledge of what her baby had become would kill his mum. Mentioning it had been a daft idea to start with. He didn't speak, only hung his head, afraid to look up.
"You were sent to spy."
"And, yet, you chose to jeopardise your mission and your life."
He nodded again. The Dark Mark itched something horrid.
"You've chosen to defy your master."
He almost said, "My equal, not my master." Instead, he nodded dumbly yet again.
"Why should I believe you, Severus?"
Severus told him.
Dumbledore's eyes twitched. His expression was torn between shock, horror, pity, and an odd sort of sad compassion. "Well. Perhaps I ought to strengthen some of the wards around the grounds." He took a deep breath and let it out explosively. "Why didn't you tell anyone about Romulus?"
"It seemed... private, sir." Severus tilted his chin. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come."
"No, no, dear boy. I'm rather glad you did." The headmaster looked around his office. "Perhaps we ought to have a bit more privacy to discuss... terms of employment." With a gentle flick of his wand he locked the door. It clicked, and the world slipped from Severus' desperate grasp. It felt rather like ice on his skin. He imagined it was the same feeling Lucifer had when he fell.
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