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?

In Academia

Part 16 - The Comfort Of Good Friends

By Sushi


Tom had dozed off. It took quite a bit to do that to either of them, and it never lasted long, but he lay perfectly still with air whistling softly through his crooked nose. Severus pushed a piece of hair out of his face. It promptly fell back. Without the silver ring to hold it, it went everywhere.

"Tom?" Severus said softly. His arm was numb where eleven stone of Dark Lord was cutting off the circulation.

No answer.

"I can't feel my fingers, Tom."

A slight smacking of lips.

"Budge up."

Tom snorted. He muttered something incoherent and rolled over. Severus pulled his arm free while he could. Tom immediately settled into the pillow. He shifted for a few moments and the soft whistling started again. Severus smirked and kissed his bare shoulder before rolling out from under the duvet.

The Easter holiday hadn't gone quite as he'd hoped. Normally, there were loads of students there and it was easy to sneak out. After what happened to Romulus, though, most of the parents called their children home. Lupin had left the day after his brother died, accompanied by a woman with his large, amber eyes and tawny hair, and a man who looked like he would crumble any moment. The result was that fewer students were easier to look out for and it was more difficult for him to sneak out for long periods of time.

To make matters worse, Tom was busy almost every day and night. The proof was in the Prophet every morning: sixteen Muggles found impaled on fence spikes in Lancashire, three Mudblood homes burned to the ground outside Bristol, suspected use of the Imperius Curse on Ministry officials. Severus made mental notes on everything, where subtlety was necessary and how to improve this or that. It was all fine and wonderful as far as a reign of terror went, but the execution was sloppy.

Finally, on Good Friday, Tom was free, Severus was able to sneak away relatively early in the day, and the Invisibility Cloak Tom had lent him was put to good use. That was a good couple of hours ago. The Invisibility Cloak and the rest of Severus' clothes were strung from the door to the bedroom.

Stretching, Severus rubbed his tingling left arm. A few good flexes of his fingers and the blood ran swift once more. He followed the trail, pulling clothes on as he found them, leaving his shoes and socks where they'd fallen. He found himself standing in the hall underneath the trapdoor to the attic. He wasn't much in the mood to read, and Tom had encouraged him to treat the cottage as his home. With a flick of his wand the trapdoor slid open, and he levitated upstairs.

It was a large attic, larger than a cottage of the size should have had and probably magically altered. Torches came to life on command, throwing flickering shadows over shelf upon shelf of bottles and vials and jars and odd packets of dried things. Everything was meticulously alphabetised and listed by common and scientific names. An enormous set of shelves was devoted to completed potions. Cauldrons hung upside-down from the ceiling to avoid dust settling in them and causing issues. Severus selected an enameled iron one and within a few minutes had a variant Painkilling Potion simmering over a small flame. Tom had given him the formula to help with his legs.

It had to simmer for half an hour, and the only necessary stirring was fifteen minutes in. Severus set a timer and wandered to the potions shelves to pick through. He lifted jar and phials of liquids, delicate, shimmering ones that would kill with the most exquisite pleasure, thick, toady ones that slurped when he turned them and could dissolve a person from the inside out. From the most whimsical to the most lethal, Tom's chemical arsenal could make a hardened nihilist tremble in fear.

The timer dinged and Severus dutifully stirred the cauldron twelve times before setting the clock again. He cleaned the stirring rod and went back to the shelves.

He'd just set down the fragile Flower of Morning (so named for the chrysanthemum-shaped fireballs it created) when he noticed an exceedingly small vial at the back of a shelf. It was the same type they used in school. Severus frowned. None of the others were standard student vials. He picked it up and held it up to the light. Transparent green gel broke the light, creating a shattered lattice of light and shadow. Hesitantly, he unscrewed the cap and waited for the scent to fill the air.


Severus recapped the vial. He turned it over. Etched on the bottom were the letters L.B.M. He nearly crushed the glass in his fist. He barely heard the soft sound of feet settling behind him. Long arms wrapped around his chest, and lips found his cheek. "You should have woken me."

"How long have you had this?" Severus opened his fist, letting the vial rest innocently in his palm.

"Ah, Lucius' potion." Tom plucked it from his hand. "He brought it... maybe last November? He didn't tell me where he got it. After you told me about finding my notes I assumed you'd given it to him. Why?"

Severus was quiet. His fist curled. His lip twisted into a sneer. "Has he brought you any others?"

"No. I helped him make some antidote, though." A pause. "Oh, dear." The arm around Severus' waist tightened. "I'll speak to him, shall I?"



Severus wriggled out of Tom's hold and swept over to his cauldron. He stared at it, fidgeting. He heard the rustle of heavy robes, felt a hand lay against his back. "I'm going to kill him." He said it calmly, matter-of-factly. The cauldron burped.

"I'd rather you didn't."

"Why? Running out of lackeys?"

Tom's hand stiffened in surprise. "Actually," he said with an edge in his voice, "I'm not keen on the thought of you being sent to Azkaban. You're cleverer than that, Severus. I'm disappointed that you'd stoop to something as crass as murder."

"What am I supposed to do? Just ignore it?" Severus spat. The timer dinged, and he hauled the cauldron off the burner. He dropped it, and it splashed on his hand. He hissed.

"Calm down!" Tom grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to the potions shelf. He quickly pulled down a bottle of clear goo. It stank of menthol. He took Severus' hand forcefully and smeared the goo thickly on red skin. "You of all people should know better than that." His reddish eyes were narrowed, lips drawn thin and tight.

"Sorry," Severus muttered. He sneered slightly, but let Tom rub the burn potion into his hand.

"If you're that set on revenge, wait. He's too dunderheaded to remember anything a year from now. That ought to give you enough time to come up with something fitting."

Severus was quiet. Tom kept rubbing more potion into his hand. The redness had faded, and a cool tingle ran from his fingers to his wrist.

"Think about it," Tom said softly. "Is it better to kill him now and spend your life in Azkaban, or make him pay in flesh for a long, long time? He doesn't even have to be certain it's you."

"I want to do it."

"I never said it wouldn't be you. I only said he doesn't have to be certain it's you." Tom set the bottle aside and wiped his hands on a towel. He stroked Severus' cheek. "Look at me, love."

Severus did. Tom's eyes were level with his. A few strands of black hair fell around that pale face. Long, slender hands grasped Severus' narrow waist. Tom said nothing, only gazed at him intently.

It clicked.

Severus' lips curled in a slow, wide smile. Tom mirrored it. It was a thing of ominous beauty and stark terror.

They really were so very alike.


Sirius Black glared straight at Snape. Lucius did the same, but Snape kicked him under the table and he stopped. They were down to seven; Lupin had, understandably, been excused from the Academic Bowl. The Great Hall churned with motion as swarms of students shoved and shuffled to their seats. The noise made Snape's stomach clench.

Tom had cast Amplifico Impressio - the minor form, not the curse form - on him as an experiment the night before. Severus had simply blinked at the end of the spell and, suddenly, tiny flecks of dust were visible on the clean table. The microscopic thread wrapped around Tom's miniscule hook on the table was as clear as yarn in the low light that always filled the cottage. His hearing, his senses of touch and taste and smell, everything was amplified viciously. While it certainly made for a fascinating time on top of the duvet, Severus was starting to wish it took less than a few days for the charm to fade.

He squinted in the bright sunlight of the Great Hall. Severus had tilted his hat so the brim cast a shadow over his eyes. He was silently grateful that he'd inherited his mother's pitch black eyes; it meant nobody else could see the slits his pupils had become. Thankfully, the noise in the room was settling down. He could still hear the shuffle of feet and the swish of fabric, and the low noise of a couple kissing at the Ravenclaw table, but the overall crushing roar was dying.

Dumbledore clapped his hands. It sounded like a bullwhip. "If you'd all settle down, round four is about to begin." Severus thought he heard a subtle hissing beside him. He glanced at Lucius. Lucius narrowed his eyes.

The array of small sounds lessened. It became bearable. He no longer felt as if his ears were about to split. A Hufflepuff's compact suddenly reflected a shard of sunlight into his eyes. Severus whimpered. He squeezed them shut. When he looked up, the headmaster was watching him with an unreadable expression.

"If everyone is ready?" he asked, turning away from Snape.


Dumbledore nodded and picked up a small stack of cards. "Hands on bells. Question one is: In the underground regime of the Goblin Rebellion of 1843, what was the title given to the primary tactical advisor of a guerilla general?"

Severus smacked his bell a fraction of a second after Lucius. He cursed mentally. The names came up above the headmaster's head: MALFOY, SNAPE, PIERCE.

"Mister Malfoy?"

Lucius paused a fraction of a second. Severus frowned - the odd hiss rose and fell. "The Gurzkah Geh'main."


Lucius gave Severus a smug, sidelong look. Severus raised an eyebrow.

"Question two, a continuation of question one: What is the literal translation, into English, of 'Gurzkah Geh'main'?"

Again, Severus smacked his bell. Again, Lucius beat him by the slightest fraction of a second. Severus scowled. Once again, the names came up: MALFOY, SNAPE, LONGBOTTOM, PIERCE.

"Mister Malfoy, again?"

Lucius paused, once again, for a fraction of a heartbeat. The hiss was lower now. Severus had to strain to even be sure it was there. "An obsidian blade that fits well into a skilled hand."


The questions came as quickly as before. By question fourteen, Lucius had taken thirteen of them, every single one with Severus close behind. Lucius didn't know all those things. He'd be lucky if he knew a third of them. The hiss accompanied every question.

The fifteenth was the same as before. Lucius hit his bell and waited for the names to come up. Severus looked at him. In that fractional pause, Lucius' eyes flickered towards the Slytherin table.

Emeric had his hand over his mouth. He looked like he was mouthing something. Severus' eyes narrowed vengefully.

Lucius was just opening his mouth when Snape cut in. "Headmaster?"

"Mister Snape, I'm afraid it's not your-"

"Malfoy's cheating." He sneered at his own House. "He's got a Surveillance Charm running and Avery's giving him the answers."

Emeric pounded the table. "That's not true!" It might have been more convincing had he not used the hand he'd been muttering into. Lucius yelped and fell over backwards.

He got up, rubbing his ear. He didn't take his vicious eyes off Severus. A hand went for his wand. Severus stared him down. Go ahead and try it, Malfoy. You've got plenty of witnesses, and I don't have a skull on my arm.

The room had gone up in a roar of excited chatter once more. Severus glanced around and saw Black staring at him with open shock. The headmaster cleared his throat. When that didn't work he clapped his hands. Severus winced at the sharp sound.

"All of you, settle down!" He swept the room with a stern blue gaze. "We will have a short recess until this matter can be resolved." Dumbledore motioned to McGonagall and Flitwick. They stood with him.

Flitwick went to the Slytherin table and glowered at Avery. Avery reluctantly stood. His face had gone red enough to hide his freckles. He shot Snape a look that could have burned holes through steel.

McGonagall touched him lightly on the shoulder. "You'll have to come with me, Mister Snape."

He nodded and stood primly. She led him to Flitwick's nearby office, where Lucius and Emeric were already hunched against the cold stares of professor and headmaster. There were no empty chairs, so he simply stood behind his Housemates, hands clasped at the small of his back. Emeric glanced over. He looked ready to spit venom.

Dumbledore paced around the three of them. The twinkle in his eyes was gone, giving him an air of constrictive authority. "I'm disappointed. Deeply disappointed."

"You haven't got any conclusive evidence, sir," Lucius said sharply. "I think Snape is only lying because he's not good enough."

"We'll see about that, Mister Malfoy. Filius?"

Professor Flitwick hopped off his tall chair and trotted around the desk. His wand was in his hand. Clearing his throat, he pointed it at Lucius. "Denudo Incantatem!"

An odd red glow developed around Lucius' right ear. Three cirrus like branches hovered and shifted around it. One led straight to Emeric's right hand. The back of Lucius' neck turned just as red as the cloud.

"Minerva, would you please find Socrates and inform him of the situation?"

"Certainly, Albus." She threw the two of them her own cool look and left.

"I'm deeply, deeply disappointed that any Hogwarts student would stoop to such levels in order to cheat. I'm afraid the punishment will be severe." He paused. "Considering that it was a member of your own House who revealed you, I'm loath to take points. However, rest assured there are plenty of suitable alternatives."

"How d'you know Snape wasn't involved, sir?" Emeric looked up with arrogantly hooded eyes.

"I had nothing to do with this, Headmaster. I saw Avery speaking into his hand, and, based on Malfoy's performance today, I deduced what was going on."

Dumbledore nodded. "Very logical, Mister Snape. Ten points to Slytherin for that alone. Assuming you're telling the truth, which I have no reason to doubt." He turned to Flitwick. "May I leave these two with you, Filius? I need to speak with Mister Snape in private. Perhaps you could try to find out who our other two miscreants are?"

"Yes, sir." Flitwick's expression was steeled behind his cloud of a beard.

"Sir?" Lucius piped up.

Dumbledore looked at him. "I hope this is good, Mister Malfoy. You're in enough trouble as it stands."

"Well, sir, you know, Severus talks in his sleep sometimes. He's been saying... suspicious things lately-"

"Spit it out, Mister Malfoy."

"You ought to look at his left arm, sir. I think you'll find something interesting there."

Severus blinked at his former friend. The fool didn't know what sort of mistake he was making. Whatever trouble Dumbledore had in store for him was nothing - nothing - compared to what the Dark Lords would subject him to. He raised the loose fabric of his left sleeve. "I don't see what's so interesting about my arm, Lucius. New fetish of yours, perhaps?"

Malfoy stared incredulously. He reached out with stiff fingertips to touch the unblemished flesh. "No. No, you're one of the Dark Lord's followers. I... I heard you. You-I-"

"Please. Do you honestly think I would stoop to following some self-declared 'Dark Lord'?"

Lucius shook his head. "You self-serving, pretentious, greasy-haired bastard-"

"That's enough!" snapped Dumbledore. "You have been found guilty of cheating, Mister Malfoy. The method alone is very nearly enough to have you expelled. I suggest you hold your tongue before I do so." The pale blue eyes burned with bottled fury. Severus found himself stepping back from the headmaster - he'd certainly not want to tangle with him magically.

Dumbledore touched Severus' shoulder. "Come with me."

Severus nodded silently. He looked back at Lucius and Emeric as he walked out. They stared at him with an intensity that might have made another man crumble.

They walked in silence towards the headmaster's office. Severus held his chin aloof, swooping along in his hip-propelled way. Dumbledore kept up more easily than a man of a hundred and thirty should have. The whispered password, "Wine gums," was more than audible to Severus. He smirked to himself; should he want it, he had access to every particle of information Hogwarts had to offer. At least, he did until the password was changed.

Dumbledore motioned to one of the chairs in front of his desk. Severus knew for a fact that Sirius Black had sat in it not that long ago. He wrinkled his nose, but sat anyway. He folded his hands gracefully in his lap and waited.

The headmaster clasped his hands on his desk and leaned forward. "What happened, Severus?"

Snape blinked. The headmaster seldom called him by his first name. The only time he could remember, he'd just been informed of a curse that, despite his best efforts and research, was, indeed, permanent. He'd only stopped looking into cures when he found out that Tom had it, too. It became a point of pride. Snape straightened his shoulders a bit more and opened his mouth. "Malfoy paused after every question. Additionally, he was answering things he couldn't have known."

"Such as?"

"The precise ratio of saltpetre to African violet sap to manticore blood to iron filings in Malicious Elixir, the significance of larger prime numbers in relation to quadrilateral Arithmagical extrapolation, the literal translation of 'Gurzkah Geh'main'. Shall I go on?"

"How do you know he wouldn't know them?"

Severus smirked. "If you'll look at his record, headmaster, he's average in Potions at best, has never studied Arithmancy, and finds History a complete bore. However," his smirk grew into a cold smile, "Rosier is fifth in our year in Potions, Avery is third in Arithmancy, and Wilkes is virtually fluent in Gobbledygook thanks to his mother's work with Gringotts."

Dumbledore regarded him. "You're certain they're involved?"

"I'd wager my life on it, sir." Severus sat calmly, eyebrows raised in a secure, serene sort of way.

"What about Patil? He's the only other Slytherin boy in your year."

"I'd sooner suspect Hagrid, sir. Nagendra would never stoop to cheating."

"Is there anyone else you'd suspect?"

"No, sir."

Dumbledore nodded. "Thank you, Severus."

Snape started to get up. Dumbledore waved a hand at him.

"Sit back down. I have a few more things to ask you."

Severus sat a bit suspiciously. He kept his hands on the arms of the chair. "Sir?"

"How did you really figure out what was going on?"

"I already told you, sir."

Dumbledore shook his head. "You've been wincing at the slightest sound since you arrived at the Great Hall. Furthermore, your hat?" He motioned to it. "You haven't normally got it pushed so far over your eyes. You heard something, didn't you?"

Severus blinked. He feigned shock. "Headmaster, I don't quite know of what you're accusing me."

"A sense amplification charm isn't forbidden, Severus, but I don't understand why you would use one unless you suspected something."

Caught between transparent lie and damning truth, Severus decided to compromise. "I was simply experimenting last night, sir. I honestly had no idea they had planned to cheat." He looked at Dumbledore innocently. "It seems to have been for the best, though."

Dumbledore chuckled. "That it has." He stood up. Something in his eyes told Snape the matter wasn't quite settled in that sharp old mind, but he wasn't about to hear another word of it. "Let's hope this is the last time any outrageous claims are made against you, eh?"

Severus smirked. "Yes, sir."

A few minutes later, Severus sat alone at the Slytherin portion of the table. A strong round of applause had risen up when he re-entered the Hall, surprisingly well divided between Houses. He glanced down the Gryffindor table and caught Lupin's small smile and enthusiastic clapping. He returned the smile.

Professor Dumbledore was once again in the middle of the staff table. He cleared his throat, and the deafening (to Severus, anyway) rumble of feet and hands and voices settled to a low growl. "In light of the situation, all points will be reduced to zero. My apologies to Ravenclaw for this necessity." He nodded to Longbottom, who'd beaten Lucius once. "The first sixteen questions will be stricken, and the final tally will be based on the remaining eighty-four. If all players are ready, we'll resume now."

He picked up his cards again. "In what year, by whom, and in response to what was the position of Auror instated in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement?" Three names came up: SNAPE, PUGGLESBY, BLACK. "Mister Snape?"

"In or around the year 1347, by the modern calendar, by the first Auror, Lord Aurelius Camden of Bath. It was created to hunt down and 'illuminate in the light of day' - hence the name 'Auror' - the Dark wizard Sericus and his followers, known as the Silken Cord."


Severus smiled. There was no way he could lose.


Two days later, he was still quite pleased with himself. Out of eighty-four questions, Severus had swept forty, and he could have done much better had the day's general buildup of noise and other sensory overload not given him a Cruciatus-level headache. He'd made a mental note to mention that to Tom; really, how could the man live with the permanent curse form of the spell?

Severus peered in the mirror. His pupils were no longer serpentine slits. At least, he couldn't see if they were or not and so he assumed that they'd gone back to normal. His skin was still hypersensitive, however; touch and smell seemed to take the longest to go back to normal, and they seemed set on translating everything to pain.

He'd suffered through classes for a single day. He'd tolerated the combined stench of three nauseating meals. Now, after what should have been a soothing blood warm bath in the prefects' tub was marred horribly by the last prefect using those damned scented bubbles, all he wanted was to escape. He pulled on the robe Tom had given him a couple of weeks before, buckled himself in thoroughly, tossed a light cloak over top, made a quick detour to leave his toiletries in his trunk, and went outside for a walk.

The early May evening was cool, pleasantly so. Were his skin not still so sensitive he would have forgone the cloak. As it went, though, he'd decided to try Tom's habit of going without anything underneath. The occasional slight breeze tickled its way up the robe and caressed his bits. It sent a shudder up his spine. Not an entirely unwanted shudder, he had to admit. The air smelled cool and clean, and from the distant mountains he detected the faint ozone scent of snow melting and running in slushy trails. Severus smiled; Tom outright forbade any shoes past his radiator until the thaw was over.

Severus wandered past the Quidditch pitch, simply enjoying the falling dark. It was going on nine, and there was still plenty of light from the west. The brightness touching his eyes triggered no pain, simply a warm burst of ecstasy over being alive. The grass was soft beneath his shoes, the ground firm and comforting and perfect for walking, and were his skin not so opposed to the idea he might have found a secluded spot to pull off his robe and just enjoy the cool green softness on his body.

After all, the world needed senseless acts of beauty.

He started down the large, natural ramp that ran along the cliffs to the lake. There were doubtlessly people there, but Severus could find a secluded place like an alcove or maybe a small cave in the cliff side and just be isolated. He paused for a moment to soak in some of the sunlight. Severus felt rather like a cat. He stretched his arms and arched his back and only that kept him from landing on his face when the body bind struck.

He would have winced if he could when he crashed full-force on his fingertips. His hat rolled away. There was the sound of muffled footsteps, a few hissed orders, and he felt himself being dragged by the feet into the edge of woods that ran along the path. He couldn't see who'd done it, but by the scent of cologne wafting back at him, Malfoy was involved.

"Drop him," Lucius said when they reached a small, grassy clearing. Someone did, and a moment later he was balanced precariously on his fingertips, pointed toes digging into the soil. Someone - Wilkes - asked what to do about the cloak. "Just shove it up with everything else." Severus' heart pounded. He felt a distant, detached shiver of fury run through his petrified muscles.

Robe and cloak alike were pushed up almost to his shoulders. Severus tried to close his eyes. He couldn't. The cool air bit his skin. It felt like being thrust into a vat of ice. Lucius laughed when he saw Severus' lack of anything underneath. "Oh, well, this is an unexpected invitation. Here I thought you'd had your fill of me, Sev."

Severus tried to grit his teeth. Malfoy's suffering would be unparalleled.

A soft, wheezy voice asked, "What now?"

"We already discussed this, Emeric. God, you didn't even bring your potion with you, did you? Brilliant, we're in the woods with an asthmatic, surrounded by pollen-"

"I brought one." A slight rustling of robes.

"Then why don't you drink it already?"

"I don't," wheeze, "need it yet."

Lucius snorted. "You lot, go get to work. And hurry. S'not like we've got a lot of time, here." Three distinct sets of footsteps trudged off. Lucius knelt in front of Severus. The magically oversized Stetson had slipped over his eyes. He nudged it back with a finger. "Evening, Sev."

Severus didn't answer. He couldn't speak.

"Nice weather we're having, isn't it?"


"No, I don't think we'll have any rain tonight. Too bad, really. You'd enjoy camping out, I expect."

Again, silence.

"What's that? What am I doing?"

Still, silence.

Lucius patted Snape's head. "Don't worry about that. You'll find out soon enough." He knelt there, a blissful look on his delicate face, humming softly to himself. Severus seethed quietly. Tom was going to hear of this. Oh, yes, he was.

A minute later the three sets of footsteps came within hearing distance again. Voices were arguing, and the dry wheeze was steady now.

"Just take it, Emeric! You should have told us you're allergic to roses!"

"I'm not," gasp, "allergic," wheeze, "to roses! I," wheeze, "told you it was the," gasp, "Whomping Willow blooming!"

"Take the stupid potion. We had to drag Snape out here, we don't want to have to drag you back."

"Bite me," wheeze, "Evan."

"Emeric, just take the fucking potion already," Lucius snarled. "We don't have time to muck about." He stood, leaving Severus to stare unblinkingly at a field of green.

From behind, the sound of a vial being opened and a small amount of liquid being sucked out filled the air. Severus smelled the bitter chocolate stench of Easy Breathing. The wheezing lessened, but it would take time for it to go away completely. More sounds arose, thick, whippy sounds, and the crack of vines being stripped. Lucius giggled.

"I think we're set. Emeric, go sit down until you can handle it. We don't want to have to carry you up to see Madam Pomfrey again."

"Prick." Another wheeze, softer and moister than before. It was followed by a violent fit of coughing, a wet, choking sound, and the unmistakable splat of something thick landing in the grass.

"God, Emeric, that's disgusting. Can't you hold it?"

"Only if you want me to choke to death."

"Would be an improvement, sometimes." A pause. "Hold tight, I'll have him ready in a minute." More footsteps, and Lucius once again knelt in front of Snape. "I've got a little surprise for you, Sev." He reached into his robe and withdrew a small jar of yellow lotion. "Not much left, is there? You've been a busy boy this year. Seeing as it was in your table and not your trunk, I didn't think you'd mind." He unscrewed the lid. The sweet, cardamom-tinged scent of kulfi wafted out.

Lucius dipped three fingers in. He smirked lopsidedly. "I've wanted to do this for so long, my friend. The Dark Lord would be pleased with our creativity, no?" He stood up. Suddenly, there was a piercing, slapping pain in the middle of Severus' back. He would have flinched. Another quickly followed, and another, and merciless hands began rubbing the lotion in. The bite of the cool air turned to flensing. Severus had no choice but to take it.

"Give me that thing, Adam. I'll tell you when you can help." A rustle of vines, a slight hiss. "Goddammit, I thought you stripped all these off. Least that stuff's still good. Ow. Dammit." There were a few experimental whistling sounds. Severus braced himself.

The first bite of thorn and vine dug into his flesh and seemed to carry off huge chunks of it. He couldn't even gasp. Pain upon pain, magnified ten times beyond what it should have been, radiated out from myriad tiny holes. A metallic miasma teased his nostrils and threatened to bring up his supper. Another lash, this one lower on his back, dug into spine. For a moment, the agony made him black out.

A few more hideous lashes, and two more whips joined in. They devoured him from scapulae to sacrum, wrenching flesh, renting nerve. Trickles of hot blood began to drip from Severus' sides, run down through the cleft in his arse, pool behind his knees. The searing, knifing pains filled him, bounced back and forth, built upon each other until his nerve endings fizzled and failed and all he felt was heat, damnable heat, immolating his flesh and dissolving the last remnants of his skin. The whole time, Lucius murmured to him in a sweet, loving tone.

"The Dark Lord doesn't like it when people hurt his followers, Sev. All we wanted to do is make sure Slytherin wins. Can't you understand that? It's a simple concept, really, although I honestly wouldn't expect someone as ambitionless as you to understand. He's trying to make the world better for our kind. I suppose that if you're too stubborn to accept that... well, it's a shame, really, isn't it? He was so eager to meet you. All in all, he was a bit surprised when I told him about that little spell I helped you with - did you know that you've got an Osmosis Curse? I found it in one of his books. S'why you're so ugly - but I don't think he minded terribly much. Seemed rather impressed with you. Too bad you're such a failure, then, isn't it? Oh, and he loves making potions. You're a bit alike in that respect. He helped me make one. Why do you think Evans told her pathetic little boyfriend that you shagged her rotten?"

The lilting tone went on and on and on. "'Course, that leaves a whole other matter. You used an Unforgivable Curse on a fellow student. That sort of thing really ought to come to the attention of the headmaster, wouldn't you agree? I'm sure Lord Voldemort will be pleased to know that we've sent one of his opponents to Azkaban. If you'd only watched your mouth when you met him you wouldn't be in this mess, Severus. We Death Eaters watch out for our own. We're one big happy family. That's what you want, isn't it? A family who'll accept you for who you are? You don't seem to have much luck with that. Shame. Nothing that can be helped now, I suppose." An especially vicious whip and tear seemed to lay Severus' shoulder blades open to the air. Cooling, useless tears involuntarily dripped down the sides of his nose.

Emeric still wheezed softly behind the noise. The wheezing had grown steadily more intense. "Lucius... Lucius, stop it. You'll," wheeze, "kill him."

"Grow some balls, Emeric. It's only a little blood."

"Lucius," wheeze, "please. Stop it."

"He's right, Lucius," Adam said. One of the flails stopped. "I really don't want to have to explain anything."

"He's not going to die." Lucius brought his flail down hard. "Am I right, Severus?"

"Lucius, stop it," Evan said as his whip ceased as well. "Do whatever you want, only stop hitting him. I mean, god, there's no skin left on his back!"

Lucius' whip came down twice more and finally stopped. There were a few moments of silence, and the soft sudden fuff of a rose vine hitting the grass. "Fine. I suppose you want me to clot him up, too?"

"Please, Lucius?" Emeric still wheezed. "I don't know how much more of this I can take. I mean," wheeze, "it's not like he's a Muggle or anything."

"You cowards. Fine." There were a few muttered words and an itching stiffness covered Severus' flayed back. "Don't go anywhere. I've got things to finish." He made a thoughtful sound for a moment. "I think... put him on his back."

There was a small array of protestant sounds, but Severus felt himself being rolled over. Blades of grass dug into his flesh like knives. Lucius hovered over him. He pointed his wand. "Finite Incantatem!"

Severus' arms fell to his sides. Wrenching pain shot through his skull and ricocheted. He went utterly limp, trembling at the onslaught still echoing through his battered body. Lucius smiled. He started to open his mouth to perform some other spell, but Severus somehow found the strength to rasp, "You shouldn't have done that, Lucius."

"Oh? And why not?"

"I'll tell."

Lucius laughed derisively. "And what are you going to tell old Dumbledore, hmm? That you were abducted by a pack of Death Eaters and lived?"

Severus said nothing. Bitter frost seemed to envelop him from inside. Slowly, hands clumsy and slipping, he managed to undo the high neck of his cloak. It fell back. Silver buckles glinted in the muffled twilight.

The organic stench of urine filled the air. It came from Wilkes' direction. Rosier keened; Avery's low wheezing turned desperate. Lucius simply stared, blanching.

"I don't believe you," he hissed.

"I'm sure Tom will be eager to hear this."


"Riddle. Lord Voldemort."

Lucius took a step back, pale face impassive. Adam started to whimper. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he chanted. "Don't tell him. Don't tell him. I'm sorry. Please, Severus. Please. Don't tell him."

Severus glanced at him with hooded eyes. His hands had fallen back to his shoulders. He could barely find the strength to breathe.

Lucius stood back, staring. The harsh rise and fall of his chest belied his calm. He didn't budge as Adam and Evan carefully, reverently began to pull down and smooth the cassock-cut robe. They kissed the hem gently and scurried back, heads bowed. Lucius glanced at them in disgust.

He didn't dare speak, though.

Quietly, Adam still whimpering in terror under his breath and Emeric wheezing steadily, they left the clearing. Lucius walked backwards, hat slipping over his forehead, until he was mostly hidden by the trees. Severus kept his black eyes fixed on his former friend. Only when Lucius was out of sight did he close them.

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