It was worse than he'd thought. He should have brought camphor. Snape coughed distastefully, pushing the sharp-sweet stench out of his head. He could breathe through his mouth easily enough, and really, the smell just confirmed the necessity of his little visit.
Unlike many of his supposed comrades, Snape despised the sight of carnage, stomaching the necessary dissections of his chosen craft easily because they were neat, surgical affairs that held no resemblance to the mess that was made when one inflicted harm on a living, moving, struggling animal. For a day and a half now, since giving the order for the first fall of the whip, he hadn't faced the wall. The eloquent looks of the audience and faculty had told him enough, but eventually, the smell had made it clear that something needed to be done. Sweat and adrenaline, stone, leather, blood, pain and general filth were unpleasant enough, but today there had been this edge to it as well, and neither allowing them to die nor allowing them down so soon was an option, thus it had come to this.
In the darkness of the empty hall, illuminated only by moonlight, it wasn't as bad to look at as he had feared, though his gut still clenched and lurched at the sight. The blue cast to it all helped a great deal, putting the dried blood black and tinting the angrier scarlets and pestilential yellows to sullen purples that gnarled into a mass that thankfully little-resembled any part of the human body.
Smoothly, efficiently, he strode forward, passing the grotesque tableau out of his line of sight and coming alongside the first of the two figures against the wall. Macmillan's head was lolled against one hoisted shoulder, thin slits of unseeing white catching the light at his eyes, the heavy curls matted flat where they had pressed to the stone for hours before he had fallen unconscious. Snape wrapped the tip of his wand in a scrap of rag, using it to lift the youth's chin and examine his face carefully for signs of fever.
There were none, but nor had he really expected any. He had known too many too like this one; barely literate livestock. Macmillan thought that being taken in as the pet of a bored young aristo made him different, that his money made him different, but the truth of his breeding was still as clear as the thick cords of his neck and the misspelled child's hand of his examinations. He'd last. He'd last as who even knew how many of his ancestors had; Highland rabble, brigands and highwaymen, Jacobite traitors, smugglers and back-alley brawlers. Young Ernest would scarcely be the first of the clan to span a tripod, and oh yes, he would last.
Snape pulled his wand back, hearing the soft thud of the head knocking against the wall again as he turned to the other figure, his mouth tightening until the air hissed between his lips. Perhaps it might be acceptable if one of them died.
But no, that would be too much, and he knew it. Too much, too soon. There was a line he was walking already thinner than the split of a hair, and he couldn't afford to let emotion tip his hand. The double agent who had to be ready to remain in the graces of the victor, whomever that may be. Already, it was a task proving more difficult than he would have expected with Potter and most of the Weasleys gone.
No one had been more surprised than he when the Dark Lord had appointed him Headmaster. The assumption had been that Umbridge would serve again, or that McGonagall would be allowed to stand with a few...augmentations to her staff. He was to have been the Judas whisper in the Dark Lord's ear, keeping him from ever coming too close to the Order, to the truth of Potter and the Horcruxes, lulling him against the gradual amputations of his soul until it was too late. He was to have, even if as a mask, the greatness he had so long been promised.
Yet instead, he was back here; the royal adviser fallen to king of a court of snotty, hormonal brats who thought they could somehow have their precious Dumbledore back if they threw tantrum enough. They had no idea how short the Dark Lord's patience had become. He had learned Lucius' lesson well; he held neither the illusion that a failure with "just children" would be seen leniently, nor that there were second chances to be bought with what had once been unlimited favor.
There would be, could be now no repetition of the giddy chaos that had reigned alongside Umbridge. Officially, of course, he had moved at once to place the Carrows in charge of discipline, but that would mean little to the increasing madness of his Master if these first wisps of rebellious steam came to a boil. So their boldness had been met with boldness of his own, and they had seen now that this was no laughing trade of pranks and detentions even as the Dark Lord had been sent word of his servant's vigor.
No one prepared you for the grown-up rules when you decided to play your little game of hero, did they, Longbottom? He felt no pity as he considered the oblivious, flaccid face of the chained youth. No pity, no sudden change from the itch that had caught his palm every time since he had first seen the maddeningly self-aware worthlessness in the cowish brown eyes beneath the mousy hair. So pathetic, so Yorkshire, so plain and yes, plain to mean both so unremarkable and so obvious.
So obvious that it should have been him; his family to die that night. The nothing, disposable, meaningless, powerless. The son of the older, the more accomplished, the more decorated couple who should have been the worthy opponants for the Dark Lord, leaving the spoiled sports hero to be swept out of the way like so much nothing in the way of his prize. So obvious that there was nothing of her beauty, her spark, her talent in this offspring of those with the gall to be spared. So obvious there was nothing worth saving in those who had been saved.
The air choked him now; not with the stench, but with the memories. Memories of what a cocksure fool he had been, how he had taken the Dark Lord's promise of reward to mean that she was safe. How certain he had been in the choice before he had ever passed along a word of the prophecy. How he had prepared his rooms for her even as she had frittered away what neither of them knew would be her last hours. The sheets, fresh from the package and soft as a gasp. The lilies, not too many, so tastefully arranged. The tea and clean handkerchief, because of course having her would mean discarding the husband and infant. Every detail prepared for every possibility except that she would never come.
If the angle had been possible, Snape would have slapped him.
He closed his eyes, his fists tightening on the handle of his wand until the hilt left grooves in the thin, fleshless lines of his fingers. Until the only ragged breaths were those of the festering reminder sagged against his bonds. Until he could look again with the cold detachment of a soul sold so many times that its own supposed master could lay little claim to the luxury of emotion.
Yes, the infection was in this one, no question. The moonlight could confuse the flush of his cheeks, but it made the beads of sweat stand out all the brighter, and nothing could conceal the shivers that quietly chattered the chains.
Quickly, Snape snatched the little flask from the inner pocket of his robes. Odorless, colorless, it would sting, but that mattered nothing and what did matter, it would do. The infection would take no further hold, and for another two days at least, he would live. Beyond that it would be up to Madame Pomfrey, but that was scarcely his problem, and she was competent enough. He tipped it unceremoniously over the torn shoulders, flicking his wrist to scatter it across the entire span of the wounds.
Longbottom's head jerked up, his eyes flying open in shock before crushing tight again. A sound that would have been a scream before dehydration had rasped his throat and swollen his tongue tore loose without time to brace against, and the petty victory brought a cold smile to Snape's eyes. He leaned in, so close that even had the other been conscious, it would still have been only between the two of them.
"You are highly unlikely to remember this, and more's the pity, but perhaps it will stick somewhere in that thick skull of yours. You are surviving this because it would be too much too soon for you to die tonight." His voice was as cold as the lilies still held frozen at his bedside.
The muddy-dark eyes blinked a few times, focusing now as anger fought with pain and illness and the desire for a retort against the impossibility of it and the fierceness of his stubbornness. A trickle of blood ran down the shapeless chin from a split in the lip reopened. Snape extended a finger, tapping it, not wiping it away. "However, you are disposable. You always were. You always will be. Even your beloved Dumbledore understood that sometimes, there need to be tactical sacrifices. And mark me, if that time comes again, you will not be spared a second time so someone better may die." He paused, examining the eyes for delirium. "Nod if you understand me."
There was a shudder that for a moment he thought was about to be a nod, then Longbottom's face contorted so abruptly that he jumped back, thinking he was about to vomit. Instead, a gob of bloody spittle splattered the floor where his shoes had been, and it wasn't fever that burned the unrepentant look.
Snape did not react at once. He savored the confusion of his apparent indifference to the childish gesture, calmly screwing the top back onto the flask and tucking it back into his pocket. Calmly, he straightened his robes, turning away and towards the stairs that lead off the platform and out of the hall.
He was not a man who liked the messy bits, but there was something more satisfying than he ever would have expected when he spun, the point of his elbow and flat of his forearm slamming deep and hard into the latticed wounds still bubbling with antiseptic. Still, there was no true cry, but the spine arched, the rasping gulp of air in the instant before Longbottom passed out again was rich with agony, and there had been a lot of small, wet popping and tearing noises that said more than a scream could have.
The moon was reflecting brightly again on things that had not been damp before, the bubbling more earnest as it settled in deeper to places that had been crusted over. Snape flicked a spell over his sleeve and the edge of his hand, though both would be washed thoroughly later. He did not like gore.
The anger had cooled fully now, and he did not look back again. They would be alive in the morning, his point made by evening, the wings torn from the fledgling rebellion to leave him free to try and figure out how to do his true job from within this supposed honor turned inadvertent prison. And in the mean time, he had the rest of the night for fresh sheets, frozen flowers, a cup of tea, and memories that could be as malleable as regretful fantasy needed them to be.