My steps echo through the vast stone corridors. Charmed serpent's heads unfurl their tongues in my direction as I pass, their beady, glassy eyes swirling within carved sockets. I shudder, turn my face to the ground to stare at the dusty marble floor.
I've traipsed through this hallway dozens of times. My sensible Mary-Janes, my school shoes, have left a neat track in the gray dust; the house-elves at this manor are truly abysmal. Or rather, house-elf, singular. I've never asked where the others went; he hasn't offered any explanation. I seriously doubt one of the family took up knitting and freed them with hand-made socks.
"Dirty Mudblood," a portrait hisses as I pass, then hurries out of the frame.
It echoes. Mudblood, Mudblood, over and over again.
There's nothing to do. Nobody to talk to. I'm completely, totally alone.
I glance down at my watch.
Three months. More than three months. I haven't seen any living creature except the hateful house-elf, Loki, in ages, and even twelve weeks ago when I saw him last, Snape was just a dark-robed silhouette that peered into my door in the middle of the night.
Twelve weeks ago I still had enough spirit to laugh about it; imagining buttoned-up Snape as the pervy Peeping Tom of Hogwarts.
Loki mentioned that he's been back at the Manor house in the past week, but I haven't seen him. It surprises me how much I wish I had, if only for a minute.
I can predict his behaviour, to some degree; when he returns, it's usually to mix up some potions. As he finishes them, he arranges them with obsessive precision in lines on the hall table. It's conveniently set next to the foyer's grand marble fireplace. He can just floo out with them when he's done brewing - that's not to imply, though, that he leaves floo powder about so I can use the network. I have to stay where I'm told; and since Snape doesn't trust me to obey, he leaves the doors warded.
He's slipped up this time, though; he's lowered the wards so he can creep about unhindered, and even at the end of the hall I can see the potions set along the edge of the ancient oak table.
I slide out of my shoes and gently set them aside. The fat square heels make too much noise; it sounds like a horse clopping over the rich, marbled floor tiles. In my stockings I pad to the table, pressing myself against the wall on the off-chance that Snape is working in the lab.
The first phial steams beneath the cork with what looks like quicksilver. Contraceptive, I think humourlessly, and move on to the next. A buttery, beautiful, opaque concoction, but useless to me - it's just Veritaserum. The last, though, piques my interest. Pale pink, iridescent, with a candy-coloured clarity; this one might have potential. I can think of two potions that look that way - a cough suppressant, and a numbing draught. Only scent can cement it. I very gently wriggle the cork off the top of one of the small bottles and let the steam waft toward my face. It's deceptively sweet-smelling, like maraschino cherry syrup. Definitely useful.
I palm a bottle, more than enough for my purposes, scurry back to where I'd left my shoes, and softly shut the door behind me.
I hope Snape forgives me for stealing.
The potion is almost too sweet to drink. Its sticky viscosity lodges in my throat, leaving the taste of cherry with a harsh undercurrent like varnish remover permanently on my breath. My fingers begin to tingle within seconds, and a dull smile appears on my lips.
A dose for a girl my size is usually two or three drops. Not two or three tablespoonfuls. Save the racing heart, the feeling isn't unpleasant. My skin is clammy, and I can't think, but I feel like I'm floating three feet off the ground. Colours are sharply bright; green jacquard against gray window glass; white linens against dark wood; my red and gold school tie hung over the door, fluttering in the draughty room.
I'll be with my parents, my sister, my boyfriend, my best friend. I wasn't raised to be devoutly Christian, but I firmly believe, now more than ever, that there must be something beyond this.
Very soon now.
My body is shaking, I'm cold, and the racing, panicked thudding in my chest has slowed to a near stop. I'm frightened, but not as frightened as I thought I'd be. Mostly, I wish I had someone with me. My mind seems strangely disconnected from my body.
The sound barely registers in my mind, but I hear it.
"Dirty mudblood thief, the master asks for his potion back."
It's Loki. I have no energy, and think it best not to answer. I have, after all, left the room immaculate, and have even chosen to expire atop the neatly-made bed sheets, as to not rumple them. He has no reason to complain.
"Mudblood?" he asks, "Muuuddd-bloood, what's wrong with you? You didn't be drinking Master's potion? Bad Mudblood! Bad, bad!"
"Shh," I manage to whisper, "Be a good house-elf, don't tell..."
He's already gone.
It's my last thought before I can no longer fight off the exhaustion that overwhelms my mind.
Snape was always around. Every conversation at No. 12, every stolen kiss between Harry and Ginny, Ron and myself, Remus and Nymphadora, McGonagall and Dumbledore, every discussion.
He was always watching.
He particularly hated Ron, likely because there was nobody more clumsy or more rude than him in Order headquarters at that time. Poor Ron was Snape's new Neville; an imperfect child to pick on. Too bad Ron was never weak enough to cry. He'd just shrug, mutter something like 'bastard,' or 'arse,' and leave Snape and I to work on the potions needed by the Order of the Phoenix.
Dumbledore had made me Snape's assistant in the makeshift potions lab within what had once been the guest latrine of the most Noble House of Black. Shades of Moaning Myrtle and the Polyjuice incident, I thought with a laugh.
It wasn't too bad once we'd transfigured everything to his specifications. He was so anal about certain things - the counters needed to be at precisely waist height; the ingredients needed to be arranged by name, oldest ingredients at the front of the shelf, date written in black ink on the bottom left-hand corner of the label, all capital letters. Cauldrons were to be stacked first by metal type, then by volume capacity, lip down and legs up.
I asked him a lot of questions; in the first two weeks he gave me curt one-word answers. I didn't expect much more. In fact, I was just grateful that he didn't tell me to shut up and throw a couple of references to my frizzy hair in my direction.
It was after I got a bout of flu that his frosty demeanour melted, just slightly. The entire Order was there for the weekend, but after vomiting on Ron's shoes, most everyone decided to stay away from me. Harry had brought me a couple of comforting muggle objects - a hot water bottle, a radio with a set of headphones, and a bottle of Schweppes ginger ale. My favourite sweater wasn't enough to keep me warm, and Molly and Harry had loaded me down with half a dozen knitted blankets, like a nest to curl into. Harry'd even convinced Molly to cook me up some chicken soup until the potions ingredients shops opened and Professor Snape could brew me up a proper cure.
My poor Harry. There were so many times he struck me as an old man trapped within a soft, too-young body.
I loved him so much.
Snape was kind enough to brew me a potion to dull the symptoms, probably because he was afraid I might use his cloak as a sick bag. He woke me up - I'd fallen asleep on a chair - by shaking my wrist.
"Hmm? Professor," I gulped back bile. "I'm afraid I can't help you in the lab today."
"Don't be foolish, child," he replied acidly. "Why in God's name do you have threads stuck in your ears? Is this some sort of Muggle quack medicine, like that bag of water flopping around on your stomach like a dying flounder?"
I had to laugh at that. It made it all the funnier that my brain felt floaty and his cloak seemed to be shifting back and forth slowly before my eyes, like a bat rearranging its wings before beating off into the sky.
"No, it's music," I croaked through my sore throat. "Lean down for a moment?"
He did so, tentatively, as if I was about to hit him with a tazer rather than press a tiny speaker into his ear. Christ, I wouldn't have even exposed him to the wonders of the walkman were I not high with fever, but people do strange things when they're not in their right mind.
He leapt back when I pushed the headphone against his ear, then relaxed.
"Gaetano Donizetti... the Lucia di Lammermoor libretto." He nodded curtly. "You have more complex tastes in music than I anticipated, Miss Granger."
I laughed until my stomach lurched and I had to swallow back acid. When I'd played the music for Ron and Harry, they'd screwed up their faces and spat, "Opera, ew!" and "Why don't you just listen to something decent on the WWN?"
"I'm surprised, Professor, that you even know what muggle Opera is," I yawned widely. "I like Wagner's Nibelungenleid better, even though Siegfried singing to his sword was a bit much."
He nodded slowly and stirred an entire bottle of clear potion into my glass of ginger ale.
"Miss Granger." I closed my eyes and ignored him. "Miss Granger, listen to me."
"Hmm, yes, Sir, I'm listening," I replied sleepily.
"Drink this whenever you feel a bout of nausea," he ordered. "Do you understand?"
"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir."
"You're welcome, Miss Granger." He paused. "Sweet dreams."
From that day on he let me listen to my Muggle radio in the lab, as long as he wasn't using a knife.
He still didn't talk much.
I open my eyes, just a crack. It's bright - that's not right, I must be dead. The small corner room has never been bright.
"Mum?" I croak, squeezing my eyes shut.
No, I can't be dead. I can still feel my heartbeat, and my legs tingle painfully. Purgatory? I groan and roll over. My face settles into a soft pillow. I snap my eyes open, and realize that I'm still in the room at the mansion, still lying on the coverlet, and at the end of the bed, Snape sits staring at me.
Not purgatory. Hell.
I look over at the house-elf. It grins smugly at me from its perch on a nearby set of fire-irons, then sticks its tongue out at me. I sigh, pull myself up and fold my hands around my chin, my eyes glued to the floor.
"That wasn't a cough suppressant, Granger," Snape seethes.
"I know that!" I reply indignantly.
Damn. I could've simply pretended I'd made a mix-up, but because of my arrogance I've just revealed that I purposely poisoned myself. He raises an eyebrow in my direction, and Loki giggles.
"See, Master? Loki tells you so! Thief! Thief!" he crows. "Punish the thief, Master!"
"Silence," Professor Snape hisses.
His tone cuts through my sleepy mind like a knife, and I involuntarily cringe and pull my knees to my chest. I wonder if he will punish me; he certainly can't assign detention anymore, or take away house-points. Up until now he's been careful to stay as far away as possible from me, and I doubt it's in his nature to think up creative forms of discipline.
I doubt he'd inflict anything horrible on me, but there's always the chance...
I shiver. Maybe he's the one who's been ordering the house-elf to treat me like a prisoner.
Loki dances on the handle on a pair of tongs, his hankie-frock swaying along with his hips.
"So, Miss Granger." Snape stands. "You decided to medicate yourself with numbing potion."
He's still in his Death Eater robes, heavy, black velvet with intertwined silver snakes along the edges. Black leather gloves fit snugly over his long fingers, and his mask has been tossed onto a nearby table. At Hogwarts he was intimidating; here he is terrifying.
"What is the maximum daily dose of a standard numbing potion, Miss Granger?"
I swallow audibly.
"Five drops," I reply hoarsely.
My voice is rusty from disuse.
"And you drank an entire bottle. Brilliant." He glares at me. "Are you aware how difficult it is to reverse an overdose of numbing potion?"
I shake my head. I've disappointed him, but I'm now more worried about how he plans to take out his wrath on me. He hasn't quite realized how much easier his life would've been if he'd let me go through with it.
I'd thought it all out; he wouldn't have the obligation to keep me, he'd have an adequate excuse to give Voldemort as to why I'd died, and I would be released from this gilt-lined Bastille.
"Why did you bother?" I sigh quietly. "You've just caused yourself more trouble."
My teeth chatter; gooseflesh prickles my arms. Instead of meeting Professor Snape's gaze, I examine my hands. They're anaemic gray and my silver watch band hangs loosely around my wrist. Have I lost that much weight? I suppose so; the sharp lines of my hipbones jut out along the edge of my belt.
"Loki, bring Miss Granger something to drink," Snape orders.
Loki sticks out his bottom lip. "Loki isn't bringing Missy Mudblood any tea. Dirty mudbloods need to learn their places."
Professor Snape looks at me, as if waiting for a response. Instead, I pull the blanket up tighter around my chin. From experience, I know that it's best just to agree with Loki; he has a way of forgetting about you, or worse, when he is angered.
"I am your master," Snape replies icily, "And you will do as I say."
Loki pouts. "Oh-kay. Fine. Loki goes and gets tea. Loki is a good house-elf..."
"Silently!" Snape barks.
He disappears, leaving the Professor and I alone together in the room. Neither of us speaks; I'm afraid to, and I'm fairly certain he thinks lecturing to me is a waste of time. He just watches, those unnaturally black eyes aware of each small movement. I try to stay perfectly still.
My watch beeps; seven a.m., my wake-up time. Hogwarts may have burnt to the ground and there's no Ancient Runes to go to, not even the guarantee of a regular breakfast, but I can still keep to my regular schedule - up at seven a.m., to sleep at midnight.
The soft sound breaks the silence, and finally, Professor Snape finds something to say to me.
"So I leave for a couple of weeks and..."
He sneers at me for interrupting, "Pardon me?"
I lick my lips. "It's been twelve weeks, Sir, since you were here last."
He looks down at me, and I catch a hint of surprise on his normally expressionless face.
"I didn't realize," he mutters, "It was that long..."
"It's difficult to tell, I suppose, when it's perpetually nighttime." I glance at the window. "I take it... things are going badly."
He raises an eyebrow. "That depends on whose side you're on."
"I guessed, you know, that everyone in the Order had died..."
"I didn't say that, Miss Granger." He glares at me. "Let me guess, you were trying to starve yourself, and the numbing potion happened to be more convenient."
I glanced around suspiciously. "No, no, I could've thought of something better than that... it's," I drop my voice to a whisper, "Your house-elf. He's... not like most. He doesn't do what he's told."
Loki suddenly reappears, precariously balancing a tray heavy with a porcelain tea service, complete with cut lemons, sugar cubes, milk, cream and biscuits. He's never brought all that paraphernalia for me before.
"How does Missy Mudblood take her tea?" Loki sniffs. "Lots of lemon, no sugars?"
"Half a milk."
Loki smirks, dribbles the milk in, then pushes the teacup toward me. Professor Snape reaches out before I have a chance, snatches up the cup, and brings it to his lips. Loki's smirk vanishes; his eyes widen, and he runs up and begins tugging on Professor Snape's pant leg.
"No, no, Sir, a separate cup for Master!" Loki shrieks.
Snape's lip curls knowingly. I can't help but wonder how Slytherins instinctively distrust everyone, including house-elves. He sniffs the cup, takes a sip, swirls it around in his mouth, then spits it back into the cup. With that, he purposefully holds out the teacup and pours the milky contents out onto the dark carpeting. I let out a whimper.
"I'll have to clean it up," I murmur.
He narrows his eyes at me, and doesn't deign to respond. His eyes alight on the house-elf, and I recognize the glitter in his eyes, the same malicious expression he got when he tormented Neville in class.
I almost pity Loki. Almost.
"You, my repugnant excuse for a house-elf, will clean that up immediately. If I catch you slipping emetics into anyone's food or drink, you will be put out with only a sock."
His eyes widened. "But Mistress Aurelia..."
"I am your master, am I not?"
"Yes, Sir, 'course." Loki nods obediently. "Forgive Loki, please, Sir. No socks..."
"You're dismissed," he snaps, "And get the place cleaned up, it's filthy."
This is the Professor Snape I know; bossy, rude, curt. It's almost relieving to have something so familiar to hold onto.
"Don't look so pleased, Miss Granger," he snaps, "You're in no state to discuss anything this morning, however, I will expect a full explanation for your juvenile behaviour in the evening."
He plunks down a bottle on the table next to me. A sedative. I frown at it; I don't need it, I'm certainly not going to try and kill myself tonight.
Snape, however, doesn't look like he's willing to put up with an argument, and after almost five minutes of him being nearly-civil, I don't press my luck. He stands in the doorway until I drink the potion, crawl deep under the covers, and settle into a fitful sleep.