"Severus, Draco," a cold, high-pitched voice said. "Welcome, welcome…come in, no need to dawdle…"

Snape and Malfoy walked towards the man and knelt low before his chair.

"Rise," said the man in a bored sort of way; the two straightened themselves.

"What have you come to say?" the figure asked, leaning back leisurely and surveying them through slitted red eyes.

Neither answered at first. The silence stretched for several seconds, then Snape looked sideways at Malfoy, who looked pale, but said in a perfectly even voice, "I have failed you, my lord."

The man looked at him closely, but said nothing.

"I didn't complete the task you set me," said Malfoy, still speaking calmly, but growing ever paler. "Dumbledore is dead, but it was not by my hands." He bowed his blond head; his eyes fixed steadily on the floor. "I'm sorry, my lord, but I did not do it."

Silence followed these words, in which the snake-like being observed the young man before him.

"Your bravery in coming here tonight is noted, Draco," said the man at last. "But you still did not do as I asked. You needed Severus to do it for you." The man turned his gaze to Snape. "Or perhaps…Severus needed to do it for himself."

Snape bowed his head as well, but unlike Malfoy, his eyes remained on the man. "I assure you, my lord, that is not the case. I figured you would rather have the task completed than left undone. When it became clear Draco would not be doing it, I intervened."

"Indeed? Nothing else pushed you into doing it?"

"Well," said Snape, his thin mouth twisting into a smirk, "if you must know, my lord, the thought of murdering the old man myself had intrigued me ever since I heard it…but I had no plans to act until that night."

The man smirked as well. "Well, your reasons for wanting to are definitely understandable…." The man fell silent, examining his long fingers and flexing them nonchalantly. "But…. Do you not think I realize that you both are accomplished Occlumens? Do you think that perhaps I do not know that you could be lying to me?"

"My lord, I would never try and fool you," said Snape quickly. "I have always been, and still am, completely in your serv – "

"And yet," the man continued, looking up from his hand and meeting Snape's eyes, "you still think it wise to have your barriers up every time you are around me."

"I have been using Occlumency regularly for nearly sixteen years, my lord," said Snape calmly. "It has become routine. And it was only two years ago that I told you my reasons behind everything. Surely you do not think – "

"I will find out eventually, Severus, if you are lying to me," the man said dangerously. "Whatever secrets you are trying to, or not to conceal, they will not remain hidden forever.

"What about you, Draco?" the man said, turning his gaze away from Snape, who had been about to respond, onto Malfoy. "You are using the mind power as well. A much smaller attempt at it, yes, but all the same…. Are you trying to – hide something from me?"

"Never, my lord," said Malfoy immediately. "I am just trying to keep my practice up."

It was a pretty weak response, and Malfoy seemed to realize this. His right hand twitched slightly and he quickly elaborated with, "If Dumbledore had known what I was attempting, he – "

"Dumbledore did know what you were attempting," said the man, a touch of impatience creeping into his voice. "He knew all along. He may have been a foolish man, Draco, but he was not unintelligent."

Malfoy said nothing; his attention had become devoted to his shoes.

"I am, however, pleased that you both have come to me before I to you," the man said slowly. Malfoy looked back up at him. "That does show a certain amount of loyalty…or…perhaps – just – fear." He paused pointedly, but Snape and Malfoy guessed wisely not to speak. "But perhaps not. Well, despite your feeble replies, I do believe you…for now, at least. And the task was completed, even if it was not as I requested." As he spoke, he dipped his arm downward and a wand fell gently from his sleeve into his open palm. Malfoy's gray eyes widened as the yew wand was twirled idly in the man's hand. "But, Draco…you did fail me none the less. Failure is always punished, I'm afraid. Crucio!"

Malfoy screamed, tumbling down on all fours and writhing uncontrollably. Snape averted his eyes. After several moments, the Dark Lord lifted the curse, his red eyes flashing with a mad spark. Malfoy lay crouched, tremoring slightly. Snape looked briefly back at his former student, his face wiped of all feelings, then back at his lord.

"Don't think that you're getting off easy, Severus," said Voldemort silkily, raising his wand again. "I had wanted the boy to complete the task; I already know you're capable of murder."

Something flickered in Snape's eyes, but he kept his gaze level and did not respond.

"Crucio!" Voldemort cried once more.

Snape fell onto the stone cold floor as well, twitching and convulsing. He did not, however, cry out, as his companion had done. A few moments passed, then the Dark Lord seemed satisfied with his Death Eater's suffering, and with a lazy flick of his wand removed the curse.

"I think you've both learned valuable lessons," said Voldemort smoothly, as Snape staggered uneasily to his feet next to Malfoy, who had already righted himself. "Don't you agree?"

"Yes, my lord," they murmured together.

"Good," said Voldemort coolly, his wand disappearing up his sleeve again. "Then I have a mission for the two of you. One that I think you will both find particularly…enjoyable." His eyes glittered brightly, the mad gleam still clearly visible.

"It concerns a certain Harry Potter."