Part XIV

Slytherin Guile

(i) The characters and world of Harry Potter are the property of the brilliant J.K. Rowling. I make no money from this.

(ii) Please read and review. I would love to know what you think of the story.

Rabastan Lestrange was a thin, nervous looking man with dark brown hair and a rakish looking beard that he'd kept since his release from Azkaban. Rabastan always appeared weaker, a follower rather than a leader. It was an image he'd worked hard to build, learning from an early age the value of letting everyone assume he did what his older brother Rodolphus wanted him to. It had saved him many a beating and funnily enough the loyalty and protectiveness of his cold brother who treated him like a pet.

Now, the thin, dark man, who was in truth a brilliant strategist and Snape's best friend, casually meandered over to the Potions Master.

"Watch your back, Brother," Rabastan murmured furtively to Severus as they stood awaiting the pleasure of the Dark Lord. "Our beloved sister is convinced that you are the old twinkler's toy."

Severus nodded and grasped Rabastan's arm. "Thank you. But my devotion to my Master and my cause is unchanged. Be careful yourself."

Rabastan laughed. "I always am. You know that."

Severus smirked. Then, after ensuring that their continuing conversation wasn't garnering unwanted attention, he went on, "If you have need of potions, healing, ask me, Rabby. I bloody worry about you all alone with our dearest Inner Circle. You're not strong like they are. You never have been."

Rabastan smirked in turn. "Oh, I assure you that no one is paying undue attention to the weak nervous fool that I am. I have accepted my fate to amounting to nothing but a look-out at best while others do their duty to the Dark Lord. My latest tragedy is that my magic keeps failing me. I couldn't even kill a house-elf yesterday, even though Bella kept urging me to concentrate. I'm no use for raids now you know."

Severus' eyes looked at his old friend carefully. "That is a pity. I suppose it is the result of your trials at Azkaban. Yes, it can happen, especially to those of a nervous disposition. Rest is the only answer, perhaps somewhere warm."

"Ah," said Rabastan, his bright, almost navy blue eyes sparkling. "I doubt I'll be allowed far from the Manor. In my weakened state I would be a sitting duck. But I'll take it under advisement."

The two friends had spoken thus since the time the Dark Lord had begun scrutinising their thought via Legilimency. Rabastan for all his learning had never been able to have shields as strong as Severus', even though the two had practised together on many occasions. Now they talked via innuendo, ensuring that whatever they said could always pass the Dark Lord's inspection. And yet, they both knew that what they had said and understood was very different to what was the surface meaning of their conversation.

Not long after Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange led the way into the Dark Lord's inner chambers. They were followed by Rodolphus, who turned around to ensure that Rabastan was not far behind.

Severus nodded politely at the older Lestrange and trailed his friend into the Dark Lord's presence, taking his place, as usual in the semi-circle that fanned out from around the Dark Lord's throne.

"Severus, my slippery friend," said Voldemort as soon as they had taken their appointed places and made their genuflections.

Severus looked up to meet the Dark Lord's shrewd red eyes. "My Lord."

"I hear you've taken help. Help from one of the Ravenclaws. Has Dumbledore finally managed to install a spy in your private chambers?"

"No, my Lord," said Severus, meeting the Dark Lord's gaze without flinching. "She is my way of avoiding having the Mudblood Granger given to me to be of service."

Severus lingered on the words, making them sound as crude as he could.

He heard Lucius and Rodolphus guffaw in the background. The Dark Lord smiled. "A Ravenclaw, Severus?"

"Neutral, my Lord. She's a pureblood, intelligent and unconnected too closely to those interfering Gryffindors." Severus sneered at Pettigrew who was standing like a page or footman behind the Dark Lord's high chair.

The Dark Lord noticed the direction of Snape's glance and chuckled. It sounded like nails scratching against a chalkboard and Severus struggled to keep his face impassive.

"Twisty, Severus, very twisty." Then the Dark Lord stood up and began to pace. "My dearest Bella is convinced that you are loyal to Dumbledore and his merry band."

Severus shook his head forcefully. "No, my Lord, I swear this isn't so. I have stayed true. I have never warmed to them. Never given them succour or friendship. All in the school know that I detest the sight of Potter, that I despise the twinkling buffoon that is the Headmaster."

"And yet, you scurry back to them to report of our meetings, do you not?"

These questions had been asked many times. But never had they been asked so publicly. Usually the questions followed punishments, or came with the punishments and lessons. This was different. This required careful handling.

Severus dropped to his knees. "My Lord, I only do as I was bid all those years ago. If I have faltered, you would see it in my mind. I am yours today, my Lord, as I was then."

The Dark Lord threw back his head and laughed. "I know. And if you had doubts as to where your loyalty lay, they would have been erased with my lessons. Is that not so?"

"My Lord is wise in all things," responded Severus.

"Quite so," said the Dark wizard and waved Severus back to his place.

The creature that was once Tom Riddle turned to address Rodolphus next about the breeding programme he was in charge of. Severus listened, trying to pay attention and follow the oblique conversation even as a part of him wondered what the questions had been about. How had it differed from the usual conduct? Had someone been listening? Was that why Severus had been required to state publicly and in front of the Inner Circle his supposed loyalty?

Severus worried at the information and then let it go. It would come to him being seen by all as a loyal follower of the Dark Lord. They knew it would at some point. He'd prepared for that eventuality. There was no point borrowing trouble.

He instead listened next as Lucius was questioned about the progress that was being made with the vampires.

Once the meeting broke up, Lucius being assigned to lead a raid with the minions to a Muggle supermarket in Stoke-on-Trent, Severus followed Rabastan towards the buffet laid out on the outer room.

Rabastan smirked and selected a number of items, Severus following him and selecting exactly the same food. Then, the two meandered to a corner, where they took seats side-by-side on the straight-backed chairs that lined the wall.

Their ritual was long established. Rabastan would check his food for poison, and then Severus would do the same to his plate. Then the two would swap plates and check again before eating. Ostensibly they were ensuring no pranks were played, Rabastan having grown anal about it as a young boy, who had succumbed too many times to his older brother and his friends' jokes. But it was much more serious in Severus' case; something he knew given the change in Rabastan's situation was much the same, too. They both had too much to lose to be taken unawares in any way.

As they ate they talked about general things. They talked about the changes that Rabastan had made since their last discussion to his orchid collection. Eventually, once they'd talked about the trial he was running to measure the nutrients in the soil and its acidic content, they moved on to the benefits of dragon dung as opposed to hippogriff manure. The discussion then turned to an article they had both read in iHerbology Today /iwhen finally, thankfully they heard the quiet sound of a scurrying rat.

The two friends smirked at each other. Pettigrew had finally grown bored of their talk. They had proved, after all, over the many weeks that they had sat like this and conversed that they could talk about Herbology and Rabastan's renewed passion for orchid growing for hours on end.

Assured, at least for the moment that they were not being spied upon, the conversation quickly turned to important matters.

"Is she a plant by the Dark Lord?" asked Rabastan quickly.

"No," stated Severus. "Don't worry. I'm safe enough for the moment. How are you? Do you need extraction? I've not said a word to the meddler, but if you need help, ask me. I'm in a position to help if the worst comes to it."

"No," said Rabastan emphatically. "I'm all right. Bella's stopped playing with me now that I can't even kill successfully. She's fucking Lucius and Rodolphus at the moment; Avery and McNair on occasion."

Severus shook his head. "That's not what I meant."

Rabastan laughed. "I know. But I'm all right. Rodolphus has always found my deference for him enough to ensure that she doesn't play with me alone. He understands that I only comply because it makes him happy. He finds me too puritanical in my sexuality, but it means he trusts me above all others to protect his interests. I'm fine."

Severus sighed.

Rabastan stretched his long legs forward and settled more comfortably in his chair. "Rodolphus is not making progress with getting the Dementors to breed. But it will happen. Soon I think. Bella is obsessed with obtaining something from the Ministry. She and Lucius are working on it together as a joint project. It is so hush hush that they don't even discuss it in the Inner Circle."

Severus frowned. "How do you know and why are you telling me?"

Rabastan narrowed his eyes and glared at his friend. "Don't take me for a fool, Severus. I know that you are not stupid or blind. And only one who has no concept of the horror the world would be would still, willingly follow our beloved Lord. A man of sense could not live in the world he wants to create. I may have believed, but that was a life-time ago. I had time to think in Azkaban. Bella's madness at least ensured that I was left alone more often than not. I know what kind of world I want to occupy if I'm ever free from the ties of my beloved family."

The mocking voice, the angry glare all convinced Severus that Rabastan spoke the truth. But it seemed too pat. No matter their friendship, the two had never, not once, spoken so clearly.

"What has brought this on?" asked Severus setting aside his plate.

"It is time. Time I stopped hiding. Time I did something to free myself." Rabastan growled softly, his agitation obvious.

"Walk with me," said Severus. "You're showing too much emotion for a discussion on dung varieties."

Rabastan laughed. "The world and I are going to the dung heap, Brother."

A/N: Love it or hate it, please let me know what you think.