Daily Deviant
- there is no such thing as 'too kinky'
Kinky Kristmas Fic: ????? (Severus Snape/Narcissa Malfoy/Minerva McGonagall/Tom Riddle, Jr/Nagini) 
20th December 2011 12:00
Kristmas Wish Fulfilled for: [info]pre_raphaelite1
From: [info]kelly_chambliss

Title:?????
Characters: Severus Snape/Narcissa Malfoy/Minerva McGonagall/Tom Riddle, Jr/Nagini
Rating: NC-17
Kinks/Themes Included: corsets, clothing!porn, kinky gadgetry, bestiality
Other Content: Steampunk!AU, fivesome, voyeurism. Prompt: "the dawn of a new age"
Word Count: ~~15,000
Summary/Description: It's 1894, the dawn of a new age, and Severus Snape, shipping clerk, wants a bit more magic in his world. But few know better than he that life is always a big question mark.
Author's Notes: Your character list really intrigued me, Mystery Member, and by the time I saw "steampunk" and "corsets," I had no question which KK prompt I was going to claim. I wanted the story to be kinky and atmospheric, but I didn't end up with exactly the kinks and atmosphere I intended when I started. Thus it's probably not as "shuddery" as you might have wished. And as you see by the word count, it's a monster of a fic. But I hope you'll enjoy it all the same.

As I wrote, I was inspired (in different ways, at different stages) by the following pieces of fanart:

Steampunk Snape (minus the goggles) by Dracosoftie
Art Nouveau Snape by Hever
Narcissa by Dvervzimu
Madam Malfoy by Herentasmeridiae
HP_Narcissa (with Nagini) by Srebrnylis
Tom Riddle by Einheitstochter
Tom Riddle (with Nagini) by Chilli Villi
Minerva McGonagall by Dorus the Walrus

Happy Kinky Holidays to all the Deviants, and to the kind and patient mods.

My thanks to my ever-helpful beta are extensive and unending.

~~~~~

London, 1894

The magnificent engine took up nearly the entire music-hall stage, its burnished metal gleaming in the flickering footlights. Taller than the frock-coated magician who stood beside it, the machine was breath-taking, exciting, sinister. Its central core was a cylinder of brass with a cut-glass door set into it. Other shimmering panels of different-coloured glass circled the core, and through them the audience could see the entire interior, an empty crimson-lined space bathed in brilliant light.

From his position in the two-shilling stalls, Severus Snape growled in annoyance as he craned his neck to see around the babbling families and beer-swilling layabouts and courting couples who obscured his vision. He'd paid the extra money for the lower stalls, foregoing the usual upper-gallery seat that better suited his minor-clerk's wages, specifically to get a better view of this mysterious contraption that seemed about to take the music-hall world by storm.

He thought it was probably only a matter of time until this popular magic act -- "The Query Family!" shouted the posters outside, accompanied by large, ornate question-marks -- moved to the swankier venues in Leicester Square, for which he had neither the funds nor the proper clothing. And before that happened, Severus had a few queries of his own, a few things that he needed to learn about this machine and this family.

For they were magical. He knew it, he could feel it -- the same fizzy tickle in his limbs, the same pulsing heat in his chest, the same sense of being almost (but not quite) able to see beyond the surface of the world to something deeper and clearer. They were same sensations he'd had as a young boy in Spinner's End, before his mam died of the diphtheria, and his da took to drink.

He didn't remember much of his mam's looks -- his mind would only bring up a blurry flash of a pale face surrounded by dark hair, and a pair of welcoming arms that held him close against a soft, lavender-scented bosom.

But he remembered clearly the sparkling, tingly feel of her magic, how he would watch in awe as she waved her thin ebony wand to make all manner of wonderful things happen. He would sit at her side for hours, listening to tales of the magical school he would one day attend, the marvelous spells he'd be able to do.

"You'll make our fortune, boy!" his da would laugh, back in those sunny days before misfortune chewed up the Snapes of Spinner's End and spit them out, his mother to the mass grave of the epidemic, his father to drink and the loss of his mill job and his home, Severus to the charity of Mr Howard the mill owner, who had liked him and sent him away to be educated at Primrose Academy, a school for boys of the trading and lower middle classes. Most of them, like Severus, were there on the largesse of some do-gooder who saw promise in them, or some rich man who needed a place to park an inconvenience sprung from the wrong side of the blanket.

Primrose (and a more incongruous name could not be imagined) had not been as bad as Mr. Dickens' Dotheboys Hall, but it had been grim enough. Still, Severus -- bright and quiet and bookish, though fast enough with his fists when he needed to be -- had managed to scrape up enough learning and polish to secure a position as a clerk in the carting firm of Haltern and Mills. He spent his days preparing bills of lading and his nights at the music halls or with his mother's books.

They were all he had of her now -- six books and her ebony wand, wrapped carefully in flannel and kept in a locked box under his lodging-house bed. He'd never attended his mother's magical school, of course, and he would have written off the story long ago as simply a tale invented to amuse a child -- if it hadn't been for the spell books, with their densely-printed, tissue-thin pages that never wrinkled or tore or stained. Slowly, laboriously, night after night, he raised his mother's wand and taught himself charms and runes and transfigurations (potions intrigued him, but he had no idea where to find the ingredients). He learned, and he waited for the day when somehow, somewhere, he would find others of his kind.

And then, last week, he'd gone with his mate Fellowes to the South London Palace, for Fellowes was sweet on one of the dancers there, and they'd arrived just as the magic act had begun -- the Query Family.

Severus had been watching them with only half an eye -- what was the point of cheap theatrical "magic" when he could do the real thing? -- when suddenly the stage had gone completely dark. Every light was extinguished, only to flare to life again to reveal the great brass cylinder, its glass sparkling, coloured smoke pouring from a dozen copper tubes, its bright red interior almost too blinding to look at.

Severus had felt it then -- the tell-tale surge of heat that crackled across his skin.

Magic.

His day had come. At last.

~~~~~

What with the crowd and the annoying presence of Fellowes, Severus had not been able to make his way to the stage door in time to confront the Querys in person, but on reflection, he thought the delay was for the best. He'd had time to collect himself, to plan, and Severus rarely did anything without a plan. Life had taught him that survival went not to the fittest but to the canniest, and self-preservation had long been his main goal.

But the goal of self-advancement was not far behind. His magic, he knew, could be his ticket to wealth and comfort and leisure; he yearned to shed the inky skin of the clerk for the butterfly-freedom of a man of letters. First, though, he needed to learn how to put his powers to best use. He needed to learn the ways of the magical world.

He needed the Querys.

So he'd placed his precious wand securely in the inner pocket of his coat and come once again to the Palace, to sit this time in the two-shilling stalls and watch as, once more, the gaslights and footlights suddenly died and then were reborn amid the screams and gasps of the audience. Again, the cylinder appeared, and the Great Query stepped on stage beside it.

He was a tall man, dark-haired and dashing in impeccable evening clothes, with a cape of flame-coloured satin slung carelessly over his shoulder. From this distance at least, he looked handsome, and Severus could hear the shopgirls giggle and swoon.

"Ladies and gentlemen," boomed Query in a faultlessly posh accent, "be not alarmed. Nay, be comforted, for this evening you will learn the answers to some of your deepest questions, and you will observe wonders such as you have never imagined. Behold!"

With a flourish, he raised his arm to extend a golden wand. It was no stage prop, Severus knew; he could feel the power of it rippling through the smoky air. "Accio the Tome of Answers!" Query cried, and from behind him a great ornate book appeared, its gilt pages opening as it floated to hover at Query's side.

"It's electickity, that is," declared a gaudily-dressed swain nearby, his arm draped over the shoulder of a girl in a large beribboned bonnet. "'E's moved that book by some sort 'o current, you bet."

"Ooooh, Charlie," simpered the girl, "the things wot you know. Nobody smarter."

Severus tried to quell them with a glare, and suddenly he could feel his own power surge forth as, to his annoyance, he unwittingly cast a silencing spell on the hapless young man. Though he had made great strides with his magic, he didn't yet have it under complete control; sometimes, like now, it burst out when he least expected it.

"'Ere, Charlie!" the girl screeched in alarm, as the lad's mouth opened and closed soundlessly. "Wot've you gone and done to yer voice, then?"

Before Severus could cast a counter-charm, a wave of magic seemed to wash over him, and he turned to see the Great Query's dark eyes fastened directly on him. In the brief moment before the magician looked away, Severus felt stripped bare, and he shivered in spite of himself.

He pulled himself together enough to release the silencing charm, but the encounter left him shaken. He barely attended to Query's next words, and by the next time he focused on the stage, Query was circling the hanging book, moving his wand over and behind it to demonstrate to the audience that no strings or wires held it.

"Such is the power of this magical book," Query was intoning, "that it contains within it all the knowledge of our fair universe. To those who are pure of heart, it will answer any question put to it." Sheathing his golden wand, he clapped his hands.

From the wings appeared a lovely young woman, about Severus's age or a bit older. Soft, pale-blonde curls escaped from her elaborately-arranged hair to trail across her neck and bare shoulders. Compared to those of most of the dancing girls and singers at the music hall, her dress was fairly demure: black, with high, gathered sleeves, a neckline that shewed only a hint of snowy cleavage, a black skirt that fell floorward in a long sweep.

But it was the accessories that had the men of the hall whistling: the tight, boned bodice of black-and-red stripes that set off the girl's high, firm breasts, the ruffle of scarlet satin that lifted her skirt in the front to expose black-stockinged ankles, the exquisite high-heeled red kid boots.

And of course, there was the girl's lovely face: fair and cool, she was porcelain perfection, and Severus fully understood the audience's randy response. He himself wasn't attracted by her sort of unapproachable iciness, but he knew that for others, she represented any number of unexpressed hopes and dreams.

Mr Query knew it, too. Beaming, he escorted the girl to the edge of the footlights. "My daughter, Miss Narcissa Query," he said. "She will be assisting me in unlocking the glorious powers you will see here tonight. Oh, but fear not, my friends -- it is not dark magic you will be feeling; no evil forces here. There is only the blessed power of Truth and Light and Purity."

A wave of his wand brought a flurry of doves out of the upper galleries; the audiences' cries of surprise turned to gasps admiration as the beautiful birds circled the hall and then disappeared into the wings of the stage.

"And now, my dear," said Query to Narcissa, "may I have the sacred quill?"

Narcissa gave a little curtsey and held out a pillow of dark red velvet decorated with gold braid and tassels. On it lay a large feather of gleaming white. Query's wand flashed again, and the feather levitated slowly into the air as from above, a shaft of bright light shone down to illuminate quill and book together.

Silent now, the entire house watched as the quill floated, seemingly of its own accord, to hang poised over the book. The Great Query raised his wand high and shook his shoulders so that his red cloak framed him. His other hand he reached towards his daughter, and she reached back to clasp it with her own. The velvet pillow was left to hover in the air, and after a moment, it zoomed into the center of the great smoking cylinder and disappeared.

The crowd gave a collective gasp and burst into applause, though Severus thought he felt a slight undercurrent of discomfort, as if they could sense that here was an exhibition of the unknown beyond any cheap stage trickery.

The scent of magic was cloyingly thick in the air now; Severus felt almost light-headed with it and more determined than ever to connect himself to these Querys. There were questions to asked, Query was right about that, and Severus intended to make certain that his own were answered.

Query and Narcissa had been standing with their arms still raised, their heads bowed, and now Query looked up to declaim, "The Book of All Answers is ready! Which of you will come forward with a question?"

There were murmurs and shuffles from the audience, and finally a buxom, red-faced woman with frizzy hair and an oversized hat pushed her way towards the front of the house. A cook or washerwoman on her monthly half-day, Severus thought, though he had no doubt that the Great Query would treat her like the grandest lady in the land.

And so he did. "Come forward, dear, brave madam," he said, gallantly assisting her up to the stage and bending (with a flourish of cloak) to kiss her hand. "What is your name, please?"

"Prbtdr," she said, and then, when a smiling Query cupped a hand behind his ear to encourage her to speak up, she shouted, "MRS PETERS!" so loudly that the beautiful Narcissa gave a startled little jump. The audience roared with laughter, causing poor Mrs Peters to flush an even deeper red. Then the attention began to please her, and she flashed a cheeky grin.

"Delighted, my dear Mrs Peters," said Query, bowing. "And what question would you like to ask the Book of Answers?"

"Me lad," the woman said. "Me lad Walter. 'E's at a crossroads, like, and don't know what way to go. So I thought mebbe, you know, the book…"

She gestured vaguely, and Query nodded as he reached a gloved hand towards Mrs Peters' frizzy head.

"May I?" he asked, and at her vigourous nod, he placed his fingers on her cheek. Then he threw back his own head, his face contorted in an expression of intense concentration. Finally he opened his eyes and stepped back.

"So you want to know," he said to Mrs Peters and to the audience at large, "whether young Walter should join her majesty's navy or should try to make his fortune in Australia?"

"Blimey!" cried Mrs Peters. "It's like you was inside me very 'ead. That's it to a jot. That's the exact question."

A murmur swelled from the audience, of interest, admiration, some skepticism. Again, Severus felt that light current of unease, until the moment was broken (near him, at least), by the formerly charmed-silent Charlie, who said, "Aw, she's a plant, inn't she?" The louts around him guffawed, and the tension dissipated, though Charlie was so happy with the response that he repeated his comment five or six more times. Severus wished he'd let the imbecile remain a permanent mute.

But if Charlie was no longer paying attention to the magic act, others were. The usual constant movement and talk that marked the music-hall experience had stilled, and most people were watching raptly.

Up on stage, Query turned smartly, the red cloak billowing behind him, and pointed his wand at the floating quill and book.

"Book of Answers," he shouted. "Respond!"

"Respond!" called Narcissa.

Mrs Peters, not to be outdone, also shouted, "Respond!" and gave a salute as the crowd laughed.

Query scowled and for just a moment looked quite sinister; Severus could tell that he didn't like having his dramatic moment upstaged. But almost immediately, his face smoothed into an expression of benign, even fatherly concern.

"Join hands!" he cried, reaching for Narcissa, who promptly reached for Mrs Peters. "Concentrate!"

The quill dipped toward the blank page of the book, and slowly, slowly, began to write.

The crowd watched, enthralled, as the pen moved of its own volition, forming letter after letter. When finally it stopped, there was a hush and then applause. Query waited until he heard the sound peak and start to fade; then he turned toward Mrs Peters and motioned toward the book.

Severus caught the look of embarrassed confusion that briefly crossed her face and realised all at once what it meant: Mrs Peters could not read.

Query had apparently drawn the same conclusion, for he quickly extended his gesture to his assistant, as if he had intended to call upon her from the start.

"Narcissa, my dear," he said. "Would you tell us what the Book has said?"

With another curtsy, Narcissa stepped downstage of Mrs Peters and her father (the better to show off her boots and legs, Severus surmised) and angled herself in front of the book so that her face was to the audience and her pale-blonde hair shone in the light.

"'Mr Walter Peters,'" she read, "'should do as his name tells him.'"

"Wot's that mean, then?" Mrs Peters asked.

"Your lad's full name," said Query. "What is it?"

"Walter Matthew Sidney Peters."

Query turned towards the audience. "What does his name tell Mr Walter Matthew SIDNEY Peters?" he demanded. "Whither should he direct his steps?"

"To Sydney!" shouted the crowd, Charlie included. Mrs Peters clamped her hands to her mouth in astonishment and allowed Narcissa to help her off; Severus could see her mouthing "thank you, thank you" as she walked.

The audience cheered, but Mrs Peters had barely left the stage before there was a flash of blue light from the great cylinder, and a thin trail of bright green smoke began to lengthen itself from one of the gently-puffing copper tubes.

The quill, too, suddenly began darting about the stage on its own, its colour changing from white to the same vivid green as the smoke. Dashing to the book, it waited until a new page turned and then began to scribble furiously.

The rope of smoke, meanwhile, curled out into the audience. Some screamed; others laughed; all kept their eyes glued to it.

"Magic is on the move, my friends!" Query boomed and strode over to read the page on which the green quill had finally finished writing. "It is written: the right man must be found.'" Wheeling, he came directly down to the footlights and addressed the crowd. "Where is he? Who is the right man? Is it you, sir? You?" As he pointed at various men in the audience, the line of green smoke headed toward each one, hovering briefly before snaking off again.

Remembering how intensely Query had stared at him when he'd inadvertently hexed the loud-mouthed Charlie, Severus began to suspect that he knew exactly where the smoke would fetch up, and he was not disappointed.

"Is it you, sir?" Query shouted one more time, and the smoke came directly to Severus's stall, where it formed itself above his head into a sparkling green question mark.

The audience gasped anew, and all those near Severus drew back from him in awe and interest, Charlie's girl clinging to her beau's arm and giggling.

"Come, my son, and see what the magic asks of you," Query called, and Severus was nothing loath. He'd come to the South London Palace intent on finding the Querys. Now, it seemed, the Querys were finding him. As far as Severus was concerned, it came to the same thing.

~~~~~

He was surprised by how difficult it was, from the stage, to see beyond the footlights. But after the first moment, he almost forgot that the audience was present, so strongly did he feel the pulse of magic from the two people who stood in front of him. They knew he felt it, too, he was sure of it. Narcissa, he fancied, smiled at him too knowingly, and shaking hands with Query had given him exactly the sort of tingling jolt that he imagined electricity must give.

"What is your name, my friend?" Query asked, and Severus responded honestly. He had nothing to hide. Well, not his name, at any rate.

"And are you willing to go wherever the magic takes you, Mr Snape?" Query asked next, cocking his head and smiling. Both he and his daughter very were attractive people, and they knew it. And it was more than just appearance; there was something charismatic about both of them, Query especially. The man was hypnotic, no question, and…dangerous with it. Severus wasn't sure why that word suddenly came to his mind, but it was the right one, he could feel it.

The sensation was both worrying and exhilarating.

"Yes, Mr Query," he said. "I will go wherever the magic takes me."

The Great Query turned to the audience. "Shall we send him?" he shouted.

In the roar of approval that followed, the magical cylinder suddenly began to emit even larger clouds of coloured smoke, and the bright light inside the ruby-red core began to flicker, first white, then green, then white again.

This time when Query looked at Severus, the challenge in his eyes was unmistakable.

"Step into my machine," he invited, gesturing toward the shimmering glass door.

"Cor, don't do it, love!" shouted a woman's voice from the audience, and the crowd laughed.

"Go on, hero, get in!" yelled a man -- Charlie, Severus was sure of it -- and soon the entire house was roaring, stamping, howling, "In! In! In! In!"

Severus stepped in.

The ruby-red lining looked deep and sparkling, just as he imagined a real ruby might look. Through the curved glass slits in the sides he could see the stage, as if he were looking out from inside a bottle. There was no exit save the door by which he'd entered, no trick floor or hinged roof that Severus could see. All the coloured, pulsing gimcracks notwithstanding, the thing appeared to be no more than ordinary industrial piping, not magical at all.

He was both disappointed and not a little relieved. Then he realised that the crowd had quieted and that Query had been speaking to him.

"I beg your pardon?" Severus said, annoyed with himself. He didn't want to let the other man gain too much of an upper hand.

"I said, are you ready?"

"For what?"

The audience laughed as if he'd said something funny, and Severus unconsciously balled his fists. The boys at Primrose Academy would have recognised his scowl and beat a respectful retreat; even the masters had come to understand that Severus Snape was not to be mocked.

But if the Great Query noticed the anger, he ignored it.

"For the great unknown! The great adventure!" he shouted. "Seize it, lad! Seize the chance, seize the day! Seize the quill!"

The quill?

At that very moment, the feather quill -- dazzling white once more -- floated into the light-drenched cylinder. Severus caught it in one hand.

Immediately, he felt as if a hook caught him directly behind his navel, and he jerked forward; it took all of his not-inconsiderable self-control not to cry out. He was pulled onward as if by a tow-rope, wind whistling in his ears, when suddenly he slammed to a halt, his knees nearly buckling.

His hair had come loose from its tie, and he had to shake it from his eyes before he could see where he was.

It looked to be a drawing room, moderately-sized and almost too warm from the fire crackling in the grate. He had a confused impression of overstuffed chairs and antimacassars, beaded door curtains, peacock feathers in an urn, a large aspidistra on a stand, a hearthrug flanked by an ornate horsehair sofa, and was that a cauldron over the fire...?

Any investigation he might have made was forestalled by a figure that rose from the sofa. It was a woman, tall, thin, and dark-haired, swathed in a tartan shawl, small wire-framed spectacles perched on her nose. She spoke in a sharp Scottish voice.

"Stop where you are."

Before Severus could move, he couldn't -- because the dark-haired woman, with a very steady hand, had pointed a wand at him and said something that sounded suspiciously spell-like.

And Severus realised that he was immobile.

"You will explain yourself," the woman demanded as he felt himself begin to tumble over. She waited until he hit the ground before adding, "At once."

~~~~~

All was eventually made clear. The dark-haired woman, it turned out, was Minerva Riddle -- wife of the Great Query, real name Thomas M. Riddle.

Mrs Riddle didn't openly dispute Severus's story about how he had come to appear in her drawing room, but neither did she release him from the immobility spell. Still, she unbent enough to explain that she usually accompanied "the act" to the music hall to serve as dresser and props mistress but had remained behind this evening because of a headache.

"I hope you are recovered now," Severus said, as politely as he could from his prone position on the floor. He had the feeling that it might not be a bad idea to enjoy Mrs Riddle's approval.

But she seemed to find the comment a bit too forward. There was a stiff pause before she replied, "Tolerably."

He tried again. "You are Narcissa's mother?" he asked, with an obscure sense that women always enjoyed talking about their children.

Something flared in Mrs Riddle's eyes, and her pointed face was momentarily lit by an odd expression. "Hardly," she said. For some reason, she reminded Severus of a cat faced with a particularly juicy canary.

He decided to forego further conversation until Query…er, Riddle arrived. There were too many possible pitfalls here; best simply to resign himself to lying in uncomfortable silence.

But rather to his surprise, Mrs Riddle spoke again. "You are magical?" she asked.

"Do non-magical people normally materialise out of thin air in your sitting room?" was what Severus wanted to say. What he did say was, "Yes. Self-trained."

She eyed him narrowly. "Then you did not attend Hogwarts School?"

"I did not," he replied, though what business it was of hers, he wasn't sure. But he fancied that her ramrod-straight back relaxed a fraction at his words.

Interesting.

She fell silent then, and Severus took the opportunity of studying her. Not young, but decidedly handsome in a prim, sharp-featured way; he preferred her type to the more languidly-pretty Narcissa. With her strong jaw, patrician nose, and considerable quantity of mostly-black hair, Mrs Riddle looked elegantly respectable and just the slightest bit frightening. Not someone to run afoul of, Severus decided.

But then, neither was he. He thought he might very much enjoy testing her limits.

~~~~~

There was an odd sense of inevitability about how it all ended. The Great Query and his assistant did eventually return, and Severus -- released from the "body-bind" spell and plied with tea -- found himself explaining his history in more elaborate detail than he had ever vouchsafed to anyone.

He wasn't yet certain if it made sense to trust these people, but still, aside from his mother, they were the only other magical beings he'd ever encountered. He'd seen enough of his own world -- "Muggle," his mam had always called it -- to know its limitations, and he firmly believed that the magical one could only be better. He wanted to belong to it, and the Querys could be his way in.

"So now you know why I am not part of the magical world," he concluded at last. "But I am curious as to why you are not."

Tom Riddle smiled but did not answer immediately. Instead, he said, "We'll get to that, but first, I wonder if I could ask you a favour, sir?" Before Severus could say yea or nay, Riddle went on, "Do you have a wand, and, if I were to ask you, could you do some magic for me?

What was this, an audition of some sort? Severus wondered. But he had nothing to lose, so he inclined his head in acquiescence.

"Yes, I have a wand," he said, removing it slowly from his coat. It was not without some trepidation that he allowed the Riddles to take it from him; he was coming to understand that for a wizard, a wand was like an extension of his heart. He felt anxious without it, in the brief moments during which Mr and Mrs Riddle inspected it, but they soon returned it.

"Your mother seems to have cared for it well, and you after her," Mrs Riddle said, approval clear in her voice. Severus felt that she warmed to him a bit.

And then the audition -- for such it clearly was -- began.

Riddle asked Severus to perform a variety of spells and charms; he even invited him to prepare a few potions, though Severus was forced to confess that he didn't know how, since he'd never had the ingredients or tools to prepare them.

"Ah, well, no matter," Riddle said. "You have shown me enough to make clear that you have a great deal of magical ability." He sat quiet for a moment and then suddenly turned to look at his wife. "My dear?" he asked.

Mrs Riddle gave Severus a glance that he could only think of as appraising, and pursed her thin lips. "Yes," she said. "I believe he will suit."

"Will suit what?" Severus demanded. He was willing to be agreeable up to a point, if it would help him gain his ends, but he refused to be discussed as if he were not in the room.

Riddle answered smoothly, as Severus would come to understand that he always did. "I will be frank," he said, a phrase that usually made Severus assume the speaker was anything but. "In the wizarding world, our abilities are not surprising; they are shared by all. Oh, some people are magically more skilled or powerful than others, of course -- I may say without boasting that I am one of those more-powerful people -- but we all compete on more or less the same level. We most of us survive, but not many of us prevail.

"Here in the Muggle world, however, our abilities are exceptional, unusual. Our superiority is clear. And since I am not a man who is prepared simply to survive, I have chosen to come to a place where I am likely to prevail. My dear wife -- " and here he extended a hand and a smile to Mrs Riddle, who sat straight and silent opposite him -- "is also a witch of great ability, and Narcissa is quite gifted as well. We have done very well for ourselves as Muggle magicians, and I believe we can do even better. Eventually we plan to earn enough to able to give up the stage entirely."

"And do what?" Severus asked suspiciously.

"Ah, who is to say, my boy? The world will be our oyster, so to speak. I might go into politics, perhaps, or land speculation. The possibilities are endless. But those days have yet to arrive. First, we have the rest of our fortunes to earn."

With a wave of his wand, Riddle freshened the drawing-room fire and motioned the tea pot to pour more tea. Severus was not surprised to find that it was still nicely warm.

"We are making a name for ourselves," Riddle continued, "but we need to do even more. Our success depends on more and grander tricks and effects. We can become international stars. But it will require a great deal of magical energy and effort. In short, we need to expand the act. We have been looking for an additional member of our troupe, and when I felt your power in the audience tonight, I thought perhaps we had found our man."

"You want me to stand on stage in a red cape?" Severus asked, incredulous.

Riddle laughed. "Oh, not immediately, of course. You have a great deal to learn. I am proposing an apprenticeship, Mr Snape. We -- Minerva and Narcissa and I -- will help you complete your magical education, teaching you what you need to know to work with us, and you, in return, will remain in our employ for at least a year, contributing to the act as we deem appropriate. If, at the end of a year, we find our association to be mutually beneficial, we may all elect to continue. If not, we will part ways with no hard feelings."

After a moment, he added, "You will want to think over the proposal, of course, or perhaps you have questions to ask. Shall we meet tomorrow and --"

"No," Severus interrupted. He'd made up his mind. "I accept your offer."

Riddle beamed. "Excellent." He clapped his hands, and to Severus's astonishment, a little being with huge ears and eyes, his tiny body wrapped in what looked like a tea towel, appeared with a pop.

"Master called?" it -- he? -- squeaked.

"Champagne, Beckley," Riddle ordered. "We have something to celebrate."

The creature popped away again, and before Severus could even ask who or what Beckley was, he was back, with four shimmering glasses on a tray.

Mrs Riddle floated one glass to each of them, and Mr Riddle raised his in a toast.

"To Severus Snape," he said. "The newest Query. And what a deep one he appears to be."

~~~~~

Thus began a series of encounters in which Severus was educated -- in more ways than one.

He'd felt a surge of something like happiness as he'd personally handed in his notice to old Mr Haltern and had cleared out his high wooden writing desk at the carting firm. His tedious inky days as a clerk were over.

Instead of spending his time tracking other people's goods and money, he journeyed every morning to the Riddle family's townhouse in a quiet street near Paddington (they were, indeed, doing well for themselves; Westbourne Terrace was respectably middle class).

Mornings were usually spent with Tom Riddle, learning not only wandwork but matters of stage presence and stance. Though Severus at first felt foolish prancing and striding about, he soon came to enjoy the sense of power and control that he felt as he lifted his wand and caused ordinary household objects to do his bidding. Soon he could make his own cape swirl and billow as satisfyingly as Riddle himself.

He also enjoyed helping to create gadgets and gimcracks to amuse the credulous Muggle audiences. He and Riddle began constructing a moving winged horse, gaunt and spectral, made of metal plates charmed together, with glowing red eyes and nostrils through which smoke could pour. Riddle said that it was a replica of an actual magical beast, although he claimed that he wouldn't have been able to make it move quite so realistically as Severus did.

Severus was sceptical. "I find it hard to believe," he said, "that someone as young and self-taught as I could be more skilled at any sort of magic than a man such as yourself. Even I can tell that you're a wizard of uncommon ability."

Riddle had been smiling, and on the surface, his expression didn't seem to change. But the atmosphere in the room suddenly changed, became chilly, and Severus had to stop himself from visibly shivering. He knew, somehow, that he didn't want to show weakness before this man.

"Nagini!" Riddle barked. Severus assumed the word to be some sort of hex or spell -- until he caught movement out of the corner of his eye and saw, with a thrill of horror, that a great snake had emerged from a basket near the fire. As it passed Severus, it paused and lifted its thick, flattened head to stare at him and flick its forked tongue.

"Come, my pet," Riddle almost crooned, and only after the giant snake had slithered up his arm and across his shoulders did he deign to speak to Severus.

"And now, Mr Snape," he said, in a tone that managed to sound both deadly and genial, "you will tell me, if you please, just how it is that you come to assume that I am 'a wizard of uncommon ability.' You will tell me what you know about me, and you will tell me precisely."

Severus resolutely quelled the flutter of unease in his stomach and answered straightforwardly. "What I know about you, Mr Riddle, is what I have learnt since the night you were kind enough to offer me an apprenticeship. Since then, I've daily witnessed your displays of magic; I would have to be very thick indeed not to recognise your gifts."

His inner voice of discretion told him to stop there, but he ignored it; he refused to let himself be intimidated by some jumped-up stage magician, powerful wizard or not. "But," he added, "your question about what else I know does make me wonder, sir, whether there is something else that I ought to know."

He braced himself for…he hardly knew what, for some sort of angry response, some further indication of the dark side that he had gradually become certain existed in Tom Riddle. His fingers closed round the wand in his pocket, just in case.

But Riddle surprised him by chuckling and changing the subject. "Ah, that apprenticeship was one of my better ideas, my boy," he said, as lightly as if the previous moment's stand-off had never occurred. "Take this wonderful mechanical contrivance of yours. The Muggles will recognise it as a clever piece of engineering, of course, but they'll be deuced if they can figure out how it works. Yet they'll all deem themselves too smart to consider the true explanation -- magic. And that, my friend, is the essence of Muggle stupidity. They will always refuse to face the truth, and in that refusal lies our opportunity."

As he spoke, he unwound the snake from his shoulders and held it out like an offering. Severus felt a wave of revulsion but was careful not to show by so much as the quiver of an eyelid that the snake unnerved him.

"This is Nagini," Riddle said, his voice fond. "She has been with me for many years and is quite a member of the family. You should meet her properly, Mr Snape. Come; touch her. She wants to get to know you, do you not, Nagini?" He stroked the large, flat head, and Severus steeled himself to do the same.

The snake felt cool and dry under his fingers, its scaly skin -- a shimmering green marked with a pattern of black diamonds -- actually rather attractive at close range. Nagini blinked lazily and rubbed the side of her head against Severus's hand; if it hadn't been a giant snake he was thinking of, he could almost have said that she nuzzled him.

"How do you do, Nagini?" Severus said, feeling silly, but Riddle seemed to expect some sort of response from him. To his shock, the huge snake nodded, for all the world as if she had understood him.

"Ah, she likes you!" Riddle said. "I am sure the two of you will be great friends."

Privately, Severus had his doubts. But then the snake opened its mouth a trifle, and he could have sworn that she grinned.

On to Part 2
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