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 11 - The Brightest And The Most Beloved
Severus found Lucius' note rolled up on his bed. It was simple, concise, and very, very shaky.
Saturday the twenty-fourth, eight in the evening. Go alone. Please, be nice. Please.
He nodded to himself. The timing was good, not a Hogsmeade weekend or a practise night. Hufflepuff was playing Gryffindor that afternoon, so everybody would be a bit distracted. Nobody would care if a lone Slytherin vanished for a few hours. Hell, nobody seemed to care that a lone Slytherin was vanishing.
He raked a hand through his limp, greasy hair. It came back with a thin layer of hemp oil. Severus wiped it on his robe and frowned. The silken mess had, in the last few weeks, grown drier and drier until he could either deal with the oil that protected it from shimmering, corrosive fumes sitting on top in a sticky layer, or let the brittle strands be destroyed completely.
He dropped the note in his drawer and gathered up a few things before heading to the prefects' bathroom. Cringing, he muttered the password, "Rub-a-dub-dub," so low the door had to pause to make sure it heard him. Head bowed, he stepped in, and it took a moment to realise he heard splashing.
"Goddammit! James, you were supposed to lock the door!"
"Me? You're the one who had to go back to get your bathrobe. Or were you going to try streaking the girls' dorm again?"
Black snorted. He looked up. "Fuck off, Snape."
"Oi! Watch your mouth around my brother, Padfoot!"
"Sorry, Moony. You didn't hear me, did you, Rommy?"
A high voice said, "Y'mean when you told Greaseball to fuck off?"
"ROMMY!" Remus started giggling. "I'm telling Mum."
"You're bloody well not!"
"Bloody well am!" The splashing started again.
At least twenty types of bubbles filled the air, the water, nearly obscuring five particular Gryffindors. Potter and Black sat at the edge, perhaps a foot apart, glaring at Severus. Remus was torn between drenching his brother and sending his own "go-on-try-it-I-dare-you" looks. Peter, huddled in the corner, kept his head down. He kept glancing up at Severus, then dropping his eyes before his cheeks could go red.
Snape arched an eyebrow. "This is a pretty picture. I almost wish I had a camera."
"Wank mags getting too sticky to read, Snapey-poo?" Black grinned viciously and wiggled his eyebrows.
Severus bristled. "Actually, I was thinking of something a little more beneficial. Say, having a particular prefect's status revoked for allowing his friends in here?"
Potter snorted. "As if anyone's going to listen to you."
"Say that again?"
Potter lifted his head from the edge of the tub where he'd let it drop back. His glasses were gone, making him a bit cross-eyed. "Who's got more clout, Head Boy, or some Slytherin who wanted a peepshow?"
"There is nothing here that could interest me, Potter."
Peter squeaked, but didn't move. Apparently, he would let it slide as part of their secret. All the better for Snape - the fat rat was starting to get whiny about going public, at least to their friends, and Snape did not need that in his life. The whole experiment had grown tedious long ago and he was just waiting for an excuse to cut it off.
"Guys, cut it out," Remus said. His mouth was drawn in perturbation. "Not in front of the K-I-D."
"I'm not a kid!" Romulus folded his arms, sitting next to Remus. His shoulders barely stuck out of the water.
"That's right," Snape muttered, "you're a whelp."
As soon as he said it, he knew he was a dead man.
Five sets of eyes locked on him. Romulus looked terrified, Peter disbelieving, Potter and Black outraged, and Remus looked like he wanted to finish what he'd failed at the year before. Snape took a step backwards. Even if his muscle hadn't been melting like ice in spring, he couldn't take on five at once and expect to walk out. A loud splash signaled that one of them had gotten out. Even before Black and Potter could haul themselves up, Snape was met with the unexpectedly terrifying sight of Remus Lupin stalking, naked, towards him, slender muscles sliding over a slim frame.
Severus took a couple of quick steps backwards. Before he could properly turn to run, though, a hand caught him by the collar. The last thing he remembered before the pain made him black out was an impression of blood spattering his slender, pale hands.
His head screamed.
It started in his teeth and oozed up through his nose and cheekbone, into his eye, around his skull and down his throat. Severus moaned. When he tried to sit up, he thought he'd been body bound. No, no, he was only too weak to move.
"You're awake, then?" Madam Pomfrey's clipped voice broke through some of the dull grey fog that filled his head.
Severus tried to speak, but all he could do was moan. It was an oddly sexual sound. The gasping quality surprised him.
A moment later, a sharp, strong hand lifted his head, and a goblet was pressed to his lips. "Go slowly. We don't want you to choke."
He automatically obeyed. The potion was sweet and tart and thin, like lime juice and honey. His mum gave him the same type of Painkilling Potion when he was seven and flew face-first into the side of the shop. That felt pretty much like this did. If Madam Pomfrey hadn't spoken, he might have thought he was back home and in his bed with the old Caerphilly Catapults sheets. With a twinge that was lost in the fading pain, he realised he'd never see his room again.
"Wha'time'zit?" he slurred.
"Eight in the morning, Friday, January twenty-third. Nineteen seventy-six, in case you feel like you've slept for a year. You've been out all night." Madam Pomfrey patted his hand and stood up. "Rest for now. When you're feeling a bit better, the headmaster would like a word with you."
Severus tried to complain, but the last threads of his pain vanished and, with it, any will he had to stay awake. It was an odd sensation, and he suspected he'd been given a flavourless sleeping draught along with the Painkilling Potion.
When he opened his eyes again, the hospital wing was bright and warm with afternoon sun. Gingerly, he sat up. His hat was sitting on the table at his right hand and he habitually put it on. His robe and trousers were gone, replaced with red-and-white striped pajamas. He felt like a stick of peppermint rock.
Madam Pomfrey was tending a Ravenclaw girl with small snakes for hair. Severus watched quietly. He had the distant impression of the headmaster wanting to see him. Probably something about the fight. The Gryffindor-loving coot would probably try to pin the whole thing on him. Madam Pomfrey suddenly turned around. "Oh! You're awake, Severus! Just a moment, I'll summon the headmaster."
"It wasn't my fault," he said in a gravely voice.
She gave him perhaps the oddest look he'd seen in his life.
A few minutes later, with his green bathrobe wrapped over the pajamas, Severus sat in Madam Pomfrey's office. Professor Dumbledore looked grave behind the desk, Madam Pomfrey not much perkier in the chair beside Severus. "I'm afraid, Mister Snape," Dumbledore said gently, "that you've rather a lot of explaining to do."
"Lupin started it. I didn't touch him."
Dumbledore shook his head. "Not about that, although you can rest assured that Mister Lupin has been suitably punished."
"How? A nice silver dagger?"
The faint translucency in Dumbledore's blue eyes vanished and his mouth set hard. "I realise that you have had your differences in the past. May I remind you that Mister Lupin had nothing to do with that incident, and was just as much a victim as you?"
Severus snorted. "He says."
"Whatever the case, I take that sort of comment seriously. You're in enough trouble without adding murder threats to the list, Mister Snape."
Severus shrugged. "Would you just tell me what I did so I can get my detentions over with?"
"I'm afraid you're facing expulsion."
Severus gaped. A tight wad of horror began to swell in his stomach. "They started it! All I wanted was to have a bath in peace!"
"Madam Pomfrey noted something off in your readings when she examined you. She looked into it. I'm afraid she found the curse signature."
"What curse signature? What the Hell are you talking about?" Severus looked from Dumbledore to Pomfrey. "I didn't curse him! I didn't curse any of them!"
"The Osmosis Curse," Madam Pomfrey said. Her spine was rigid, her expression cool.
"I haven't used an Osmosis Charm in ages," Snape said warily. Waking up, puking his guts out, had killed his taste for them. "I certainly wouldn't put one on anyone else, either."
Dumbledore shook his head. "Not an Osmosis Charm, Mister Snape, your Osmosis Curse. It's no use denying it."
"What's an Osmosis Curse?" Severus squinted in confusion, staring at the headmaster. "How long was I out before I got here? If anyone's been cursed, you ought to ask that lot about it!" His stomach quivered in fear.
"The signature wasn't fresh, Mister Snape," Madam Pomfrey said gently but firmly. "It was between two weeks and six months old."
Severus blinked dumbly. The swelling lump of horror turned to one of dread.
"You know nothing about it?" Dumbledore leaned forward intently.
"You would swear to this."
"Before council, under Veritaserum."
"So you honestly have no idea how this happened."
"Idea how what happened? I've never even heard of an Osmosis Curse."
Dumbledore rubbed his eyes. "May I see your left arm, Mister Snape?"
"Why?" he asked. His eyes narrowed.
"I didn't see anything, Headmaster."
"I'd only like to test something, Poppy. Severus, please show me your arm."
Scowling, Severus pushed back his sleeve to reveal pristine, pallid skin, slightly yellow and traced with blue veins. "Satisfied, sir?"
"Just a moment." Dumbledore touched Severus' arm with his wand and muttered something. Severus felt a slight tingle, but nothing else happened. With a small sigh, Dumbledore leaned back in the chair. "I wholeheartedly apologise. However, I fear this places us in an awkward situation."
Severus felt very small and young and lost. His heart was pounding, and his mouth ached for a cigarette. "What happened to me?"
"That's what I'm trying to ascertain. You've obviously been the victim of an Osmosis Curse without your knowledge, but that spell cannot take hold without consent."
"So you're wrong."
The slow shake of Dumbledore's head felt like a coffin nail being driven home.
Madam Pomfrey touched his thin knee. "We've suspected something for a while, Severus. Professor Fellus said he'd talked to you, though, and he couldn't see anything wrong apart from overwork. Professor Dumbledore or I would have approached you, but we didn't want to panic you. If we'd imagined anything like this... quite honestly, if I'd paid closer attention to how much you've changed... I'm so sorry." She scowled at no-one. "You said you'd used Osmosis Charms?"
He nodded, the swell of horror snaking through his intestines. "Not for schoolwork. Only things like the Academic Bowl. And some research."
Dumbledore hummed. "I suppose the curse could have been cast while a charm was active. If you were the one to cast the charm, that might be mistaken for consent." He leaned back in the chair, turning idly from side to side. "It's not a common spell, though. In fact, I doubt it would be accessible to any student. It's Dark magic, very close to an Unforgivable Curse. Most Aurors haven't even heard of it. I wish there were something I could do for you, I truly do."
"You could cast the counter-curse for a start." Manners were gone in a flurry of anxiety.
Dumbledore looked at his hands. They were wizened, and speckled with stray brown spots. "There is no counter-curse," he said quietly. "I'm afraid the effects are permanent, including all side effects. This would account for your... rather drastic physical changes, I regret to say. I'm sorry I didn't think of it sooner. And I'm sorry I didn't speak with you myself."
Severus felt numb. He'd ignored his ever-looser robes, concealed himself in layers of heavy cloaks, denied the dagger pains that shot through wasting muscle whenever he exerted himself, turned a blind eye to the unfamiliar sallow face that stared at him from the mirror because he knew that, when he was out of school, it would go away. It was only stress. It was nothing to worry about.
He slowly crumpled forward, arms around his chest. Severus' breath came in sharp wheezes. "There has to be a counter-curse."
"I'm sorry." The headmaster sounded truly apologetic.
Severus trembled. His hat slipped off. He was too shaken to bother picking it up. "Why isn't it an Unforgivable Curse if it's so bad?"
"Consent, Severus. The Unforgivable Curses can be cast on anyone with or without his knowledge. I would consider this an Unforgivable use of a forgivable curse. It also gives a signature, which the Unforgivables don't do. Do you have any idea who might have cast it?"
Severus shook his head. Lucius was the only person he knew who might think of something like this, but he wouldn't have done it to his best friend. Some things were beyond even Lucius' broad morals.
Dumbledore stood up and stood behind Severus, rubbing his back gently. "Should you think of anyone who might have done this, don't hesitate to tell me."
Severus nodded mutely. His eyes were fixed on the floor.
"Additionally, I'm always here should you ever need anything. Would you care to join me in my office?"
"I want to be alone. Sir."
"Then I shall respect your wishes. Poppy, would you be too put out if Severus uses office for a little while?"
"Heavens, no. Take all the time you need, dear. I'll be in the wing if you need anything."
Severus grunted his thanks. A couple of gentle pats on the back, and he was alone.
The first thing he did was scrabble for his wand. Clutching it tightly, the tip digging into his forehead, he squeezed his eyes shut and muttered, "Finite Incantatem!" A jolt of agony nearly put him on the floor. He bit back a whine and tipped forward until his head rested on his knees.
For some reason, his mind drifted a story he'd once read in a Muggle Studies book. It wasn't the sort of thing he'd ideally read, but his epic quest for knowledge eventually led him to the tale of an angel named Lucifer. Lucifer was the brightest, the most beautiful, and the most beloved of all angels, until the intelligence and boldness that put him so far above the rest damned him forever. The concept baffled Severus; simply because he thought differently than the rest of the angels, Lucifer was punished. His beauty was stripped, and he was plunged, literally and figuratively, into his own Hell.
He understood how Lucifer felt.
He ground out his cigarette before kicking off from beyond the Quidditch pitch. If he wasn't careful the nicotine would stain his teeth, but, in the light of a more permanent Hell, yellow teeth didn't seem so serious.
The flight - half an hour, more or less - gave him time to think about better ways to avoid Dumbledore. If he needed other ways, at least. The man had stopped him after supper and tried to insist on a game of chess. It was ridiculous. It was ludicrous. It was bleeding insane. The headmaster did not play chess with a student, not even if the student was poor, fading, cursed Severus Snape.
In the end he'd finally insisted that he was tired. Given his pattern of insomnia, Severus had deduced that it was a symptom of the curse; Dumbledore, with a faint smile, bade him goodnight.
The Scottish countryside passed below him in the darkness. With the help of a black cloak, Severus was swift, silent, an invisible predator stalking the past. Tom was tucked safely in his pocket, just in case Voldemort mentioned that particular research. He and Tom had talked, and they'd agreed that he would play the part of a simple record once more.
Just as he was pondering the use of the kitchen as a detour spot to avoid the headmaster, the rocky hills below dropped off sharply and Severus saw the cheerful light of the little cottage. Once again it struck him how utterly incongruous it was to Voldemort's reputation. How odd all around, really. He was already being called the most feared Dark wizard in a thousand years, yet he was little more than a terrorist who had to recruit schoolchildren. Either the wizarding world was filled with incompetents (of which he had no doubt anyway), or there was a great deal Severus had yet to learn about the Dark Lord.
He touched down outside the fence, as Lucius had, and tapped the gate with his wand. It hesitated, then swung open. He waited for it to come to a stop - that bollocks comment stuck with him. The tendrils of power were there again when he stepped through. This time, they merely danced over his skin. It felt like being licked by an excited dog. He smirked faintly at the thought of taking his revenge on Lupin in sins of flesh.
He'd barely knocked when the door swung wide. Voldemort beamed. "You're right on time. Come in, leave your things."
"Hello," Severus said curtly as he stepped over the threshold. The same comfort as last time permeated the cottage. The great and terrible Dark Lord took his cloak and invited him to remove his shoes because snow did do such dreadful things to the floor. Severus nodded and, mostly to humour his host, left them steaming by the radiator.
There were doilies over the backs of two chairs now. Severus looked at them oddly until Voldemort said, smiling, "It's a hobby of mine. You've no idea how dull it gets with no-one to talk to." He waved Severus into a chair and proceeded to pour him a cup of tea. "Milk, no sugar, correct?"
"Yes, thank you." Snape took the cup and watched intently while Voldemort poured his own. Lemon, one lump, as before. His movements were delicate, but undeniably masculine. He had the careful touch of one who had spent years bowed over a cauldron. Snape got the feeling that, just as he watched and recorded every move Voldemort made, Voldemort did the same of him.
They sat in silence for a few moments, simply looking at each other. The soft, slightly quizzical smirk Voldemort seldom seemed to be without soon widened into a smile. "Neither of us is much for small talk. You still want to learn about Tom, then?"
Severus nodded. He finally took a sip of tea. It was the same Darjeeling as before.
Voldemort rest his mouth against his clasped hands. "Let me think. Tom Marvolo Riddle. Tom was... stunningly brilliant. Anything he wanted to master, he did. The only exception that comes to mind is Quidditch, but he was still one of Slytherin's better Keepers this century. Do you play?"
Severus blinked. "Yes, sir. Keeper." He hoped he was still able to play.
The gentle smile widened. "Now, you see, this is another reason Lucius is so incompetent. He knows I'm fond of Quidditch. I'll have to have a talk with him. He should mention details like this." Long, white fingers stretched and re-clasped, momentarily covering Voldemort's mouth in a way that was almost coy. He tipped his eyes down thoughtfully.
"What else would you want to know about Tom? His specialty was Potions, but you knew that already. He created substances that could turn a bird's mind from flying. I can still see him leaning over his cauldron." The Dark Lord's voice turned wistful, his eyes focused on something further away in time than in distance. "To watch his hands as he minced a root, or gutted a rat, made me wonder why we were ever taught anything else. That was true magic. He had the most beautiful hands, you know. Very soft, very delicate. He always wore gloves on the pitch so they wouldn't callus." The serpentine eyes closed, as if trying to hold in a fleeting image.
"You sound like you were in love with him," Severus remarked dryly.
The eyes opened. "No. Only an observer. Nobody was ever in love with Tom." He swept to his feet, black robes swirling and coming to rest as he stood in front of the fireplace. His long, white hands were clasped behind his back. "It was impossible to ever be in love with Tom Riddle. That would have been like trying to capture the sun - too high, too engulfing. Only another sun could do that." Voldemort glanced at Snape. "How did you come to be so interested in him?"
Severus shrugged. "I found some papers of his. They were interesting, that's all." He pushed his hat to the back of his head.
"Do you have them?"
Severus paused. Hesitantly, he reached into his robe and withdrew Tom. "Only this one. It's a record parchment." Reluctantly, he held it out. He felt like a limb had been severed when Voldemort slid it from his fingers.
"Ah, yes. I remember this. He completed it just after Christmas our seventh year." The narrow black brows came together studiously. "Hello, Tom."
The parchment stiffened for a moment, then went happily lax. Tom must have said something because Voldemort chuckled.
"Yes, it has been a long time, hasn't it?" A pause. "Oh, of course not. It's a very private matter to bring up. I wouldn't want just anyone to know that I'd created a record of myself." Another pause. The gentle smile came back. "All right." Another pause. "Yes, I have one someplace. I'll go fetch it, then?" Voldemort handed Tom back to Severus. "I have something to show you."
Severus was left alone for a moment. He looked down at Tom, wondering what he'd said. "What's he getting?"
You'll see. Tom curved giddily.
"You're awfully happy. Glad to see your friend?"
One might say that.
Before Severus could pry any information, Voldemort returned. In his hand was a small paperboard book, only a couple of layers thick, in an old, deep shade of green. The Hogwarts crest was stamped across the front in silver; the Slytherin crest, too, was stamped on it, in the bottom right corner. He held it out. "Have a look."
Inside, the black and white photo of a dark-haired boy in Quidditch robes looked up suspiciously. His broom was clutched tightly in one gloved hand. He was quite tall, and powerfully slender, and his handsome face was angular and inquisitive. He narrowed his eyes slightly. Severus blinked. "Tom?"
The photo looked surprised. It nodded. Severus' face broke into a wide grin.
"You like what you see?"
Severus wasn't quite sure how to answer. "He was handsome, wasn't he, sir?"
Voldemort's smile came back a little bitter. "Yes. He was." He once again moved to stare at the fire. "Time ravages beauty and preserves..." he motioned to his white face, his brittle waves of hair caught in the silver hoop, "this."
Severus froze with his cup against his lip. It burned, but he barely felt it. He stared at the tall, gaunt man gazing into the fire; Voldemort's gentle smile was gone, replaced with an expression of utmost stoicism.
Forcing himself to retain control of his body, Snape set down his cup and saucer. He didn't know whether to cry out to the heavens in joy, or to shatter at the parody of power Tom had become. Instead, he asked evenly, "What happened to you, Tom?"
Rusty eyes darted towards him. They reflected the red of the fire. "I haven't been called that in a very long time."
Severus didn't say a word. He simply sat, waiting, hands folded in his lap.
After a long pause, Tom looked away. "The Muggles and Mudbloods that control this world happened." His shoulders straightened, went stiff; he tilted his chin defiantly. "My mother died before I was dry from the womb, my father refused to acknowledge my existence, and, so, I was sent to," he laughed bitterly, "an orphanage."
"What was it like?"
"You want to know? Or are you only being polite?" The hiss in Tom's soothing voice rose; it sent icy shivers through the tiny muscles along Severus' spine.
"If I didn't want to know, I wouldn't have asked." Snape arched a sharp eyebrow and held it, waiting patiently for whatever challenge or accedence might come.
"You've got courage, Severus Snape. I can appreciate that. You've also got a brain, and you're able to use it. I can appreciate that more." Tom closed his eyes. Alabaster lids creased as he spat words like they were venom. "There were twelve of us in my room, twelve little beds lined up in two rows. Almost every day, something strange happened in that room. The beds would be made so the foot was at the head and the head was at the foot, or all of our trunks would fly open and we'd not be allowed supper in order to clean up the mess. Once the beds even stacked themselves on each other. Two stacks of six, can you picture it? Skeletal, hard iron beds with mattresses too thin to cushion the frames.
"It took them a while, but the Muggles finally figured out that it was me. I did it. The matron locked me in a storage cupboard with the roaches for a month after that. I was let out twice a day for... whatever was necessary, and the rest of the time I was kept there in order to break whatever defiant power dwelled in me. Oh, no." His eyes narrowed. A low, dangerous hiss started in Tom's throat. "They were afraid of me. That was one of the few signs of intelligence I have ever found in the Muggle world."
Voldemort turned his head to look at Severus. Severus returned the stare. He could see the passion trapped within every nerve, the pain and poison seething just below the surface, felt raw power encompassing the Dark Lord like spines. "Bow before me, Severus Snape."
Severus tilted his chin. "No."
"Bow before me, or I will make you regret you ever came to this house." Voldemort drew his wand. He lifted it level to Severus' eyes.
Severus stood up. He moved in front of the fireplace and held his arms a few degrees away from his sides. "No, Tom."
"You haven't given me reason to. A threat isn't a display of power, nor is an undirected wave of power reason to cower in fear. I'm not your lapdog."
For untold moments Severus felt death trickling down the side of his neck in a tickling play of nerves. The pale yew wand hovered, outstretched, tip aimed straight at his eyes. It suddenly dropped. A wry smirk grew on Tom's face. "You've no idea how many wizards crumble when they think they're about to die."
"I'd rather die than blindly follow anyone."
"Even if it means power beyond your wildest dreams?"
Severus folded his arms in annoyance. "Are you implying I haven't any of my own?"
Tom chuckled. "No," he said fondly, "not at all." Quickly, he waved Severus into his chair. "Sit down, you have questions."
"How do you know?" Snape sat and accepted a hot cup of tea with a slight nod.
"Because I would." Tom leaned back in his seat, chin resting on his fists, bent elbows on his chair's arms. "Go on, then." His eyes shone with mirth, or amusement.
Severus stirred his tea a moment. "How can you justify punishing Muggles for what a few of them did to you?"
Tom looked thoughtful a moment. "I don't punish them for what they did to me, I simply want to right the balance of power. I've seen, both first-hand and through study, what they're capable of doing to each other. Horrible, vicious creatures, Muggles. They think their lack of magic gives them license to hurt each other as they please."
Tom looked at him intently. "There's a little country in southeast Asia called Cambodia. Several months ago, their Muggle government was overthrown by a dictator whose notion of gaining loyalty includes genocide."
"So how does what you do not count as genocide?"
Rusty eyes widened for a moment. "Is it better to allow an undisciplined society to run rampant and thus destroy itself, or is it better to make an example of a few to benefit the whole?"
Severus took a drink. "You're saying you want wizards to rule in order to prevent Muggles from destroying themselves."
"And us along the way." The tender, quizzical smirk was back. "They're like children, Severus. Our rightful purpose is to guide them, not be trampled and dragged along like so much dust. Children have a very black and white world, though. They see good, and evil, yet are unable to see anything but good in themselves. They don't recognise that good and evil are illusions. There's only the question of power, and who wields it."
"If there's no good or evil, how do you know power is being wielded correctly?"
Tom chuckled softly. "You're not one to underestimate, are you? The only true way to tell is by what benefits the largest number. It's an inexact science, very difficult to gauge. However, at the moment Muggles are capable of little more than bullying and posturing. Wizarding society worked through the worst of that years ago."
Their eyes locked for a moment. Tom cocked an eyebrow. "We haven't sunk vast resources into killing as many wizards as we can at once. I assume you've heard of the atomic bomb?"
Severus nodded. "It's supposed to be like a giant Immolatus spell, right?"
Tom shook his head slowly. "It's a Muggle device that tears reality apart from the inside out. Only a little is destroyed, but so much chaos is released that it's more akin to a Killing Curse that can kill thousands, maybe millions, at once. The lucky ones die immediately. The rest can linger minutes, or years." He shuddered silently before clearing his throat. "The only such devices used in active Muggle warfare so far were detonated in Japan not long after the end of my seventh year. My years at Hogwarts were dark days the world over, all thanks to Muggle childishness and their silly illusions of good and evil."
Severus sat quietly. His mind churned what Tom had said. Much of it, to his chagrin, rang true. However, he still didn't believe it enough to do anything but listen. And ask questions. "Why Mudbloods, too?"
Tom snorted. "Mudbloods are the reason we suffer so many Muggle traits. They weaken us with their murderous beliefs. Think, Severus. They're abominations, neither wizard nor Muggle. As long as they're treated as wizards, we're subject to their Muggle-borne prejudices and vendettas, and we have no defence against the cancer they represent." His fingers dug into the arms of his chair, straining, revealing bowstring tension he tried to hide in the hunch of his shoulders.
Severus blinked. "Does that apply to anyone who's grown up with Muggles?"
The rusty eyes flared for a moment, and Snape had to fight a flinch. "I don't believe the same things as those creatures," Voldemort said in a voice fat with warning. "You ought to know that already, Severus Snape."
Severus peered at him. A small voice screamed at him to run away, to never look back, that Tom Riddle was dead. Another, though, said to give the man a chance, he had reason to be bitter just as Severus did. The voices echoed, each trying to scream louder than the other. His mouth curved into a smile. "You make a compelling point."
Tom relaxed. His eyelids fluttered. "Does that mean you'll be back again?"
"Yes. But it doesn't mean I'll take your word for any of this."
The warm, gentle smile stole a grey tinge that had settled on Tom's skin. "I'd be dreadfully disappointed if you did."
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