Disclaimer: Only the plot bunnies are mine, most of the characters belong to the great Madame Rowling. I only steal them from time to time to play with them.
Chapter One: A New Era
The unthinkable had happened: Voldemort had won the war.
It had been so strange, the first few weeks, and it was a queerness that didn't fade or disintegrate with the passage of months and years. Voldemort had won. For a full month after his victory, grisly corpses had been on display outside what was formerly the Ministry of Magic, an object lesson for any who would protest dissatisfaction. Most passed by them as quickly as possible, their eyes adverted from the disgusting trophies, holding their breath against the putrid stench of decay. The Death Eaters, those finally rewarded with what they thought of as power, would pass just as quickly, but not without leaving a curse or wad of spittle.
One man, however, clad in the silver trimmed black velvet robes of one high in favor with the Dark Lord, did not hurry by, nor did he swear or spit or laugh. His stomach churned violently at the purely physical reminders of sight and smell, despite his hardening experiences. More so, though, his bile would rise in his throat at the memories. There, right on the end, hung the bits and pieces left of Remus Lupin after Fenrir Greyback had finished what he started so many years ago, the final step of utter destruction. Severus had never considered the man a friend, but he had been…tolerable, the past few years, and had made an effort to be nice to his old adversary. There hung, too, Minerva McGonagall, her old body dessicated from starvation even before they'd gotten around to killing her, held captive after that final, momentous battle. He could name, not all of them, but many of them.
It was his self-imposed penance. Dumbledore's faith had been so absolute that Harry would succeed that, in a very uncharacteristic fashion, Severus had made no contingency plans, not thought of any desperate gamble to slay the deranged murderer ruling half the wizarding world. He had given up everything for the side that lost, and was rewarded beyond belief by the man he'd betrayed, by the one he'd wanted more than anything in creation to destroy.
He had truly come to loathe irony.
There was never a set time for his coming to the old Ministry. Sometimes he'd come in the morning, before heat could make the smell unbearable. Sometimes he'd come at night, when no one else was traversing the way. And when his guilt ate at him intolerably, he'd come in the middle of the afternoon, simply leaning against a wall on the opposite side of the street, looking and remembering.
Often, it was the gate that absorbed his attention. There, in place of pride, their legs dangling with every movement of the once majestic gate, hung the remains of the Golden Trio. There had been quite a bit of argument, he recalled, in how to position them. Most had argued that, as the archenemy of their lord, Potter should be in the middle, at the peak of the triangle, while some, Lucius Malfoy among them, had claimed that it was more aesthetically pleasing to have Granger swinging at the apex, balanced on either side by the boys. The majority, however, had won out, and there hung Potter, suspended in such a way that he was stretched but not split by the opening of the gate, flanked in death as he was in life by Granger and Weasley. He remembered, and his penance continued.
Their bodies were no longer there, taken down when they'd decayed past all recognition, but still he came, his mind's eye still seeing them there. He drew his robes tighter against the chill that accompanied the setting sun, his pitch eyes unfathomable. He didn't even flinch as the pop of an Apparation resounded in the air next to him.
"Severus," the newcomer greeted. "How astonishing to see you out of your home."
"Contrary to popular belief, Lucius, I have been known to get out once in a while. Every day, in fact," he replied, not taking his gaze from the wall.
Lucius Malfoy had been little changed by the years. His appearance was as immaculate and discerning as ever, his expression distantly disdainful. He had been well rewarded for his loyalty and viciousness, having been granted the position as the Dark Lord's second. The pair maintained the façade of friendship, at least, for it pleased their Master, but in truth their ways had separated.
Severus Snape was a very private man, who lived a very private life. He had, respectfully, declined his Master's offers of prestige and glory, accepting only a generous living and locking himself away in his house most of the time. This disappointed many of his fellows, but they left him alone at the indulgent command of the man who had once been Tom Riddle. For all the years that he had pretended to serve Voldemort, he had been surrounded by children; his Master didn't mind giving him some peace.
Occasionally, however, there came a time when the Dark Lord wished the company of his severe Potions Master, and he would send Lucius out with the…invitation, as it were, to join them for an evening or a celebration.
This was one such time.
Lucius watched his old friend from the corner of his cold grey eyes, but the other man's face was unreadable. "He wants you there, Severus," he informed him without preamble.
"Where?" came the simple reply.
"At the Syron's Lair, tonight. They'll be dining at eight." Severus nodded abstractedly, but said nothing. Having delivered his message, Lucius saluted him mockingly with the head of his cane and Disapparated.
His reflections continually astonished him. His eyes would fall on Potter or Weasley, and dwell there for a time, but they would inevitably travel on to Granger, where they would remain until he left. Even now that the bodies were gone, he would stare at that space she had been, his thoughts flying about frantically. He just couldn't get past the feeling that he had been looking at himself.
Hermione Jane Granger, muggle-born, dead at eighteen, and without a doubt, one of the brightest minds the wizarding world had ever seen. She had been a know-it-all Gryffindor, desperate to fit into a world full of people that didn't want her there, and she had stood strong against them all. He had seen her when the Trio had come through yet another of their numerous escapades during school, her face flushed with adrenaline, her breath coming fast, yet she had never radiated the joy or the thrill that her counterparts had. She had seemed content that it had been accomplished, that it was a job well done, but for her, that was as far as it ever went. It was in the library, reading a new book, or discussing something one-on-one with a professor, that Granger had been happy, when she had truly glowed. Let the boys have the quests of Quidditch and petty insults; her grail was knowledge, and she pursued it relentlessly.
Just as he had.
Physically, he bore no resemblance to the bushy-haired girl, but still he saw himself. He had wasted his entire life trying to redeem a mistake he had made in his youth, and she had been killed before she could leave her youth behind. Sighing, he turned away and vanished, appearing in his country house.
It was one of the few things he had accepted as 'just reward' after the war was ended, a great deal of money and a house away from the city, away from activity and noise and company. It was his sanctuary, his escape from the world. There, within those walls, memory was allowed to walk without fear of capture, or death. Memory was allowed to claim him as its own, to continue his penance.
He wandered up the stairs to the master suite, standing in front of his wardrobe and staring at the clothing held within. His robes were mandatory, they marked his place as someone to be feared and respected by all those who had not helped to bring the regime about.
As he had helped.
Shuddering, he closed the carved doors. There was simply no point in changing clothes for a celebration, especially not at the Syron's Lair; they would simply be coming off after dinner anyway. Coming off and possibly getting burned when he got home, depending on how the night went.
He heard the clock in the hall chime half past seven as he smoothed his black hair back into a leather thong, away from his face. He left his house and appeared in Diagon Alley just as the lamps sprang into life in the darkness. There was little remaining of the original Diagon Alley, where so many students had laughed and shouted in the course of buying their school supplies. Knockturn Alley had expanded, had taken over, and there was little if anything that did not have an element of the unsavory about it. Masking his distaste, he glided from the Apparation point towards the appointed place.
The Syron's Lair had once been a staple of Knockturn Alley, where the morally deficient could buy company and consolation if they had the price. It was stiff price for even the most simple girls and tasks, but well worth it, and it was no surprise that it was once again the Dark Lord's chosen entertainment. It had relocated to the center of Diagon Alley, just next to the former Leaky Cauldron, and Madame Lareine commanded it as efficiently as ever. Her clientele was fastidiously chosen; even the robes of a Death Eater didn't guarantee your admittance into her empire.
The angelic looking girl at the door nodded to Severus as he approached, her flawless memory checking him against the register of approved guests for the night. Her bodyguard, a hulking black man, opened the door for him, and he inclined his head briefly in acknowledgement.
Madame Lareine herself was waiting in the nave to escort him in to the private dining room, a service she provided only on the nights when the Dark Lord graced them with his presence. With spun gold hair and cornflower eyes, she was an astonishing beauty, but a fading one. Fortunately for Madame Lareine, née Olivia Walsham, nature had gifted her with a keen intellect and the kind of beauty that ages gracefully, the flower wilting around the steel encased within. She kept it well hidden, but she had a soft spot for the dark, brooding man, who never mistreated her beloved girls and always left more than his fee.
"He is celebrating something new," she told him quietly, in a still dulcet voice. "He himself is taking care of the finances."
"That is good to know," he answered, his tone equally low. "I thank you." He'd never bothered with the rituals of polite society, but he adhered to them now, if only in deference to that mocking god, irony. Rudeness was, in so many ways, the rule, and he was determined to have his small spites.
His eyes adjusted to the lower lighting of the dining room, the candles floating in last eddies above their heads. The Dark Lord looked up when he entered, his vermillion gaze gleaming. "Severus," he greeted sibilantly. "I am very glad to see you here."
Severus bowed deeply, but not a fraction more than absolutely necessary. "When my lord requests, I shall always make every endeavor to fulfill," he replied, his sonorous voice wringing the sincerity out of the falsehoods.
Tom Riddle gestured grandly to the seat on his left, opposite the ever-elegant Lucius. "Sit beside me, my Potions Master. You have earned your place, and tonight I must insist you claim it."
"As you will, my Lord," he murmured, sweeping to his seat. His gait was such that his robes still kept their characteristic billow, an unnatural grace that many aspiring sycophants tried to gain as an affectation, but none came even close to the fluidity of the original.
Half hidden in the shadows of the large, formal room, men with the trained silence of observers waited. Once all dozen of the Dark Lord's guests were arrived and seated, these men left at the wave of the Madame's hand, returning only a moment later with their wards. These were the bodyguards, each one pledged to protect one of the Lair's girls with his very life. With all the attention on the parading beauties, the house-elves sent the food up to the table, ladening it with steaming roasts, strong gravies, crisp vegetables, and all manner of things meant to tempt the palate, as well as encourage longevity in certain endeavours.
Severus ignored the girls, as he usually did when he had a choice about the matter. They were the only custom tonight, and these thirteen men would have a pick of any of the most beautiful women money could buy, but he had little interest in them. It was too much to hope that he could avoid the experience entirely, but he'd be damned if he'd be seen salivating over them like a wolf on the scent of prey.
He waited patiently for the Dark Lord to take the first bite, then applied himself to his food with studied timing. It was a game of his, a private amusement, to see how much small talk he could avoid by carefully planning his bites and chews to coincide with the openings in conversation. There were times, however few and far between, where he was able to get through an entire meal without saying a single word, only nodding occasionally as if he were paying close attention.
One of the girls, an exotic temptress with smoldering black eyes, sat down to a mid-sized harp, her fingers running over the strings and ushering forth pure sound. A moment later, one of her friends began singing softly, her voice perfectly pitched to blend with the sweet tones of the harp. They were perfectly trained, the girls of the Lair. Beautiful, elegant, witty, educated, talented, pliant…they were everything and only what the customer wanted to be, and could change at the drop of a hat to what the situation required. Most of them were almost more courtesan than prostitute, charming enough company even without the sex. They had the amazing ability to make most men believe that they existed solely for their pleasure.
Severus wanted none of it. He didn't want to believe, even for a moment, that someone loved him and cared for him, abhorred the thought of being duped into such easy contentedness. He deserved no such ease. He hated the Syron's Lair, where the sophisticated finery of china and drape served only to mask the fact that this was an establishment where men paid girls for that most primitive of human drives. Scratch the gilt surface only the slightest bit and it was too easy to find the gasping, sweating, grunting reality.
The meal finished, one of his rare successes at silence, and all eyes turned expectantly to the Dark Lord. His long, thin face stretched into a grotesque facsimile of a smile. "Perhaps," he began slyly, "you are wondering as to the cause of this beneficence?" Agreeing murmurs, careful not to sound too curious but equally cautious not to appear disinterested, answered him. "I have received word from the wizarding 'president' of America, and he has sworn to claim no action against us. That neutrality will not save him when the time comes, but it leaves us free to continue with our work into Eurasia and the Mediterranean," he informed them, and delighted cried issued forth from his closest circle, but for two. He didn't need to look to know who those silent voices were; Severus and Lucius never indulged in such undignified things. "It won't be long now, my most loyal followers, before the whole of the world trembles at our feet, and how much greater the rewards shall be then. Until that point, we are here tonight for a simple taste of what everyday will be like once this has occurred."
That was their cue, their permission to unleash the slavering, lusting beasts within. Severus leaned back in his chair, sipping at his wine as he watched his fellows fall upon the girls, some making their choices quickly, others expressing a heartbeat's consideration before letting their prey lead them away. The man who was once Tom Riddle stopped in the doorway, glancing back over his shoulder at the dark man.
"I will never understand, Severus, why you insist on being so ascetic," he commented mildly, but the former spy could detect the underlying warning, the inherent threat.
He inclined his head in slight obeisance, pitching his voice to the perfect blend of respect and humor. "I wish merely to let the excellent meal settle before engaging in more…active…pursuits, my Lord," he answered politely. "It would be a shame to waste such fine company on something as degrading as a stomach cramp."
Laughing, a sound which sent hidden shivers down Severus' spine, the reptilian man nodded and continued on his way.
Madame Lareine emerged from her station near the door and sent the remaining girls out with a small flutter of her beringed fingers. She knew Severus' preferences, and she knew that he would later request one of her girls to appease the whims of the man who ruled them all. Until that point, he would, as usual, wish simply to be left alone. With a last look around, she gave a satisfied nod and left him in peace.
Surprisingly enough, however, there was one girl who stayed in the room. She'd seated herself quietly in the shadows when they'd entered, and while he knew he'd seen her before on other visits, his gaze had never been drawn to her. She caught his notice now, abandoning her refuge in the half-light and emerging into the full gleam of the candles. He caught only a passing glance at her face as she seated herself at the polished piano, not playing anything, simply resting her hands on the ivory keys and regarding them thoughtfully. The girl was beyond attractive, of course, Madame Lareine would engage no one that did not far surpass the usual superlatives, but there was something deeper in her, a solemnity that gave grace and elegance to her actions.
Blue-back hair cascaded in silken waves down her back, caught back from her face with amethyst and diamond studded combs. Her vivid violet eyes were huge against her alabaster skin, delicate features giving her an almost otherworldly look. While he knew that the girls themselves owned nothing but what was directly given to them by a patron, she availed herself of the house's borrowed wealth with more restraint than the other girls, dressing herself in a semi-sheer lavender robe that, while leaving only a little to the imagination, somehow seemed to clothe her more fully than all the spangled, bejeweled confections normally seen.
He continued to sip at his wine, watching her with interest. He knew that somewhere in the darker corners of the room, her bodyguard stood, ready to stop anything that got out of hand with either word, fist, or hex, but he was no threat to the girl, so the bodyguard remained out of sight.
The girl twisted around on the bench to look at him, nodding towards the instrument with a quizzical quirk of her eyebrow. He said nothing, merely inclined his head the barest amount, and she turned her back to him once more, her fingers beginning their soft dance across the keys.
He found the song entrancing, and that in itself was enough to astound him. In the years since his world had shattered completely, he had become inured to beauty in all its various forms. It was not a song that one would expect to hear in such an establishment. It was not the husky crooning of a seduction, nor the sweet promise of a lover. It was not the jovial laughter of a raucous good time, nor the soothing hush of uninhibited sleep. In fact, if he'd had to put a name to it, he might even have called it a requiem. There was something about it, something so infinitely sad, that caught at his heart, all but frozen beneath his self-castigation. There was a pace to it, a subtle rhythm that bespoke vaguely at life and light, but it was a song of mourning, a song of despair, something with which he was only too familiar.
Severus started when the requiem ended, his long fingers clutching convulsively at the stem of the glass. It shocked him how relaxed he'd become, that the sudden silence could unnerve him so. He wished for her to continue, to keep playing, but didn't wish to break the spell so much more profound than any incantation or wand-waving could create.
As if divining his thoughts, she flexed her fingers and resumed, this time choosing a soft nocturne that drifted dreamily through the space, carrying his tension along with it. He didn't understand how something so simple could go against more than twenty-five years of forced alertness with nary a battle to show for it, but for once in his life, he simply let it happen. Later, perhaps, he would request her of Madame Lareine, but for now, he was more than content to let her simply have her time.
Time passed, he honestly wasn't sure how much, and Lareine entered, eyes widening almost indiscernibly at the sight of Severus Snape nearly dozing in his chair. "Lord Snape," she murmured, loathe to bring him back to the mundane world of cares. "The Dark Lord inquired of you; he wished to know if you felt your meal sufficiently settled."
Pitch black eyes snapped open and caught her own, and she suddenly felt a keen affinity for the mouse quivering before the owl. He scowled briefly, but the expression faded as his gaze traveled back to the piano. "What is her name?" he asked quietly.
"She is called Nocturne," she answered simply, and that was information enough. All her girls had real names when they came in, of course, but those names were forgotten at the door. That anonymity was one of their protections, just as the bodyguards, and what they were called within the confines of the Lair were all the gentlemen needed to know.
"Nocturne," he repeated, the word rolling off his tongue in the dark, sensuous voice that was his signature as much as his sneer and his grace.
The girl in question turned to glance at the both of them, her breathtaking face void of all expression. It was not the cultivated indifference of, say, Lucius, but instead a genuine lack of concern, and somehow that made her all the more fascinating.
"Are you interested in her company, Lord Snape?" The Madame asked delicately.
"I had rather ask if she were interested in mine," he muttered under his breath, not really intending anyone to hear.
Her lips twitching in a fleeting smile, Nocturne cocked her head and regarded him, considering him with a great deal more thought than had been shown at the selection of her fellows. She shared a look with her employer, her silence as intriguing as her music, and slid off the piano bench, walking towards him with fluid steps. Stopping a few feet away, she met his eyes and extended her hand out to him, watching him.
Setting down his long empty wine glass, Severus remained seated for a moment, his mind wrapping itself around the current puzzle. It had been a long time since his brain had been so happily employed, and his lips curved in an all but indistinguishable smirk. Standing, he slid his cool hand into hers, and allowed her to lead him from the room.