"What shall we wager, then?" asked the drawling voice of Lucius, Lord Malfoy, to his racing opponent, Severus Snape. Excited chatter around them died down a moment while the two considered the terms of their wager.
Sir Severus Snape glowered at his opponent a moment, trying to decide if Lucius was serious or not. After all, he'd only asked to race his new team of blacks against Lucius' own greys, especially in this weather. They were only driving as far as a little inn north of London, turning around, and coming back. Severus wasn't keen on making a wager, but he considered for a moment and then smiled most wickedly.
"If you lose, which you will, Lucius," Severus drawled, steadying his team with a merely tightening of the reins, "I will concoct the most humiliating, disgustingly romantic way for you to propose marriage to the divine Miss Narcissa Black." There were hoots from their assembled cronies at this. "In public." The gales of laughter disturbed the two teams of horses, causing their owners to spend a few seconds calming them.
Lucius eyed his good friend warily and then gave one short nod. "Agreed. Shall we begin?"
"Wait a moment!" called out a voice. Lucius looked down from his perch from his dark green racing curricle. Severus couldn't see the speaker but sighed at the man's almost drunken tone. "What if Snape loses?" There were roars of agreement at this oversight.
"Yes," mused Lucius, grinning with evil intent at his friend one curricle over. "What if you lose?"
"I'm sure you'll think of something," Severus said dismissively. Lucius delighted in personally torturing Severus, usually with Severus owing favors or helping Lucius with some scheme or other. "After all, it's not as if I can propose to my choice now."
"Ah yes," chuckled Lucius with a sneer. "The bluestocking Miss Evans." There were a few laughs.
"I have it!" crowed the unknown speaker in the crowd on the other side of Lucius' carriage. "Snape must dress in women's clothing and walk out with Lupin!" There was a hush as this drunken proposal sunk into the rest of the sodden brains of the gathered spectators. There were a few titters, then outright guffaws, followed by a chorus of agreements and acclamations.
Lucius blanched and Severus didn't feel all that steady himself. He ignored Lucius' brief, concerned look before the blond agreed with a single nod. Neither could think of something better. Many of Malfoy's new cronies were jealous of Snape's apparent close friendship with Malfoy and were eager to humiliate him. The terms had the added bonus of singly out and tormenting cruelly Remus Lupin, who was currently under social scrutiny for being exposed, rumor said, as a sodomite. Both men knew that Lucius would find a way to throw the race, somehow.
Lucius, for his part, was thinking the same lines as Severus. The last thing he wanted to do was throw the race, in truth, but Severus Snape was his good friend. Snape saved his life in Spain and Severus entrusted Lucius with his innermost secret: Severus Snape too preferred men over women but had the intelligence to keep it a better secret. The last thing Lucius wanted was Severus' own secrets exposed. If that secret became public knowledge, then all of Severus' secrets could become public knowledge. A war hero like Severus could suffer greatly at such exposure.
"Very well," agreed Lucius. "Let the race begin."
Someone's doxy, giggling madly, dropped her kerchief into the slushy mud to signal the race's start. The two teams surged forward, darting through the heavy London traffic carefully. Their drivers concentrated on getting the horses and the expensive equippage through the teaming masses of London's streets before letting the horses have their heads on the open road of London's north highway.
Knowing that Lucius intended to throw the race, Severus allowed the other man to gain a lead. What neither man expected was for Fate to intervene, in the form of Snape's own equippage losing a wheel and breaking an axle. The mud was thick on the well-traveled roads in early December. While the snow had melted the winters in England were lately notorious for being harsh.
Severus and Lucius also did not anticipate to have a spy for the cronies they left behind, in the form of Amycus Carrow, a notorious gossip and none to bright. Severus cursed as Carrow slowed his gelding, circled Snape's broken down curricle to ascertain the damage and then kicked his horse into a run to chase after Malfoy, a triumphant expression upon his face. By the time Lucius realized Severus was not behind him, Carrow was pacing beside him, relating Snape's accident with great relish. With a witness such as the dim-witted Amycus, there was no way Lucius could invent his own accident to make the race a draw.
That was how Sir Severus Snape lost his ill-advised wager to Lucius, Lord Malfoy and Fate readied herself for the next throw of the dice.
The Honorable Remus Lupin nodded politely at an old school acquaintance, who blanched noticeably and managed to return the nod quickly. As Remus watched the gentleman turn his horse in the other direction and almost mow down a dowager and two young ladies in his haste to distance himself from the social pariah, Remus reflected on whether or not a journey to the Lake District was in order. He sighed. A loner by nature, Remus would not have considered being ignored by Society a bad thing altogether. However, being a social pariah was more stressful than he'd thought it would be.
People were out enjoying the unexpected break in the weather and taking advantage of it to do last minute socializing and shopping before heading to the country for Christmas, Boxing Day and the New Year. Remus rarely went home himself so he was always in London, uncomfortable though it was currently for him.
"The hypocrite," snarled Sirius Black, Viscount Grimm, heir to the earldom of Grimmauld. "Like it's not popular knowledge that he favors a nice flogging at Madame Tulle's every Tuesday evening." He belatedly shot Remus an apologetic smile.
"Never mind, Sirius," Remus told him calmly. "I don't care about his sort, anyway."
"Yes," drawled Lord James Potter, swinging his cane idly as they walked the park, "do shut up. The more fuss you make over this, Sirius, the less likely the tabbies will forget."
Remus gave a sharp shout of laughter that held little humor. "You don't honestly think they're going to forget Peter's drunken announcement in Almack's, of all places, do you? When I didn't respond to the accusation, I thought Lady Jersey's eyes were going to fall right out of her head."
"Another hypocrite," snapped Sirius. "At least Peter won't be invited back to Almack's if Lady Jersey has any say and she'll have plenty to say."
"Drop it," James advised again, more sternly. "If we ignore it, it will pass."
His eyes lit up and a smile brightened his open features as a carriage pulled up beside them. A stylish and warmly dressed matron sat next to her equally stylish daughter, each holding a fine fur muff. With fiery red hair that matched her spirit and a hoydenish gleam constantly in her green eyes, Miss Lily Evans was a vision of loveliness. Her sister, on the other hand, looked sourer everytime Remus laid eyes upon her. What good points Miss Petunia Evans had, Remus wasn't sure, and they certainly were not immediately evident.
"Mrs. Evans!" James greeted happily, his hazel eyes never straying from Lily's visage. "And Miss Evans one and two."
Lily gave a laugh, Petunia scowled and Mrs. Evans gave James an indulgent smile. "Lord Potter, how wonderful to see you about this afternoon," the matron replied, her eyes skimming over Sirius with no little admiration and Remus with much less admiration. In fact, Remus could say the look he received was decidedly hostile.
Remus suppressed another sigh as he bowed to the ladies. Sirius straightened from his own perfunctory bow and tapped Remus on the shoulder. "Come, let us leave James to moon over his betrothed." Petunia scowled harder while Lily chuckled. Mrs. Evans smiled at James again. "We'll continue on, James. You catch us up later at the club. Come on, Remus."
The two young men strolled away, leaving James to listen to the twitter of feminine tones. As they walked, Remus caught Mrs. Evans exclaim in a slightly admonishing tone, "Such questionable friends you have, my lord."
"Perhaps," James responded affably, "but they are good ones all the same."
"Maybe," Sirius said thoughtfully, tipping his hat coolly to an acquaintance of his father, "I should give the scandalmongers something to titter about and they'll leave you alone."
"Your father will kill you," Remus replied.
"That's okay. Regulus is the spare, after all, and much more his son than I have ever been." Sirius gave Remus a roguish grin. "It'd be worth a try and so much fun."
"Oh Sirius," laughed Remus. "You are a good friend."
"I know," shrugged Sirius dismissively. "If I ever get my hands on that rat Pettigrew, I'll throttle him." Sirius' eyes lit up. "A duel!"
"Is illegal, I'm a terrible shot and besides, talk about hypocritical," snorted Remus, slanting a wary look at Sirius. "Challenging a man for telling the truth."
"It's no one's business! After all, you ..." Sirius' sentence dropped off awkwardly. "Well, at least it's consensual! That's more that Goyle can say! Or Crabbe! I heard Lady Crabbe's ladies maid had to be transferred to one of the other estate houses." Sirius waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "I've seen the pretty baggage. There's no way something like Crabbe seduce someone like her, no matter his title or wealth."
Remus listened to Sirius' idle chatter about their peers with half an ear. His awareness had been prickling for a few minutes now. Senses honed to a sharp edge of awareness during the war with Napoleon told him he was being watched. Like prey. He casually turned his head to the right and the left, peering over Sirius' shoulder. His gaze collided with a pair of black eyes watching him from beneath a dark beaver felt topper. Remus vaguely recognized the man but couldn't place a name.
He mastered a smile and a nod in the gentleman's direction, only to receive a brief widening of coal black eyes before the gentleman turned to speak with another man Remus sinkingly recognized as Lucius, Lord Malfoy. If this man was a friend of Malfoy's, being watched in such an intent manner would bode nothing but ill for Remus. He would take care in the future should the two ever be introduced.
Before he and Sirius left the park's boundaries to catch a hackney to their club, Remus chanced a glance over his shoulder in the direction of Malfoy and his mysterious friend. Black eyes were once again watching him and Remus shivered in a strange sense of interest.