"The Dark Lord is pleased with Rookwood," Avery muttered resentfully as Snape placed a steaming cup of tea before him and took a seat across from his guest. "If he would tell me whatever it is he told Rookwood, I'm certain I would prove just as valuable..."
Snape gave him a slow nod, taking a long sip from his own cup. He didn't respond immediately; in truth, Avery ought to have been thankful not to have been set such a task as Rookwood. It involved the Horcruxes, and Snape knew that Rookwood had been bound by an unbreakable vow not to speak of it to anyone other than Snape or the Dark Lord himself...and he also knew that Rookwood would most certainly be killed as soon as his purpose had been served, whether he was successful or not. Mindful of the fact that he could not say such a thing to the man sitting in his living room, however, Snape replied at length, "You know it is not your place to question your Master's purposes, Avery. Trust that the Dark Lord is blessed with more powers of foresight than yourself."
"Of course, Severus," Avery responded immediately, and Snape detected a glint of fear in the man's eyes. "You know I would not question...I only meant, I wish to serve a higher purpose. To fulfill the Dark Lord's desires is my highest calling."
Snape knew that Avery's unease was due to the fact that Snape had recently become the Dark Lord's most highly ranked servant in the inner circle; to gain his approval was of utmost importance to any Death Eater who wished to continue in the Dark Lord's service. Snape had no interest in relaying Avery's wishes to Voldemort, however. The man was of neither threat nor annoyance, and so his death was of relatively little interest to him.
"As it is for all of us, Avery," said Snape, who wished to steer the conversation away from the task to which Rookwood had been set. "Now, tell me. How is Draco's training progressing? I have it on authority that you have been assisting the Lestranges."
"The boy shows certain reluctance, still," Avery told him, disapproval evident in his expression.
"In what way?" Snape questioned sharply.
"He has yet to successfully produce a killing curse on anything larger than a mouse, much less the countless muggles we've provided him with as targets for practice. He's been well versed in tactics of torture, but seems incapable of reproducing them on his own victims... He hasn't got the nerve for it, it would seem. Sicked up several times in the last week alone."
"And what of the Dark Lord's reaction?"
"He is growing...impatient."
"Naturally," said Snape, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully. Impatient, he thought, was too mild a word. He would not allow Draco indefinite time to progress; the boy would meet his end sooner than later if he did not learn to produce results. In fact, the only reason he had been allowed this much time was his family name, but even that was losing ground with Voldemort. The Malfoys had repeatedly disappointed him, and their value to the cause was dwindling by the day.
"Perhaps if you were to take over the training..." Avery carefully suggested after a moment, watching Snape's reaction intently. "The boy respects you so. Your influence could only produce better results."
"Until the Dark Lord wishes it, I will not interfere."
Avery nodded, and then said solemnly, "I don't believe he wishes to see the boy succeed."
"Nor do I," Snape agreed, though he soundly wished this wasn't the truth. The Lestranges had been unable to make much progress with the boy, and Draco had been repeatedly punished for his failure. Avery had hit it on the mark: the boy simply didn't have the nerve. Snape strongly suspected that the Dark Lord was using the boy's training to induce misery for both him and his family. Eventually, he would take the boy's lack of results as an indicator of the family's worth, and murder them.
"Lucius is still asking for you," Avery told him, breaking through Snape's thoughtful reverie. Snape looked up with interest.
"Does he know the Dark Lord has forbidden it?"
Snape shook his head silently. These were truly desperate days when Lucius Malfoy was locked up in Azkaban, begging for a word with Severus Snape. He supposed the man believed he was owed something. In the days when Voldemort had first risen to power, their roles had been reversed: Lucius had been Voldemort's right hand man, and Snape had been the snivelling, needy servant who had yet to prove his worth. Lucius had given him a leg up, recommending him for important missions and speaking well of him to their master. What Lucius didn't realize, however, was that even Snape wouldn't be able to make the Dark Lord believe in the redemption of the Malfoy name. He viewed them as a lost cause, and was toying with them more for entertainment than anything. Otherwise, Lucius would have already been released, and would be at liberty to prove his worth once again.
"Lucius ought to be reminded to whom he answers," said Snape as he cleared their empty cups.
"Is that the message you wish me to relay?" Avery asked delicately as he stood, correctly taking the clearing of the cups as a dismissal.
Snape nodded. "And tell him that everything we discussed is falling into place."
It was as specific as Snape dared to be when dealing with another Death Eater, but he trusted that Lucius would get the message. Standing, he saw Avery to the front door.
"It was good speaking with you, brother," Avery said as Snape opened the door for him. He stepped out onto the front landing.
"Always a pleasure," Snape responded, giving him a nod of goodbye. Avery returned the nod and turned to Apparate, and Snape closed the door behind him.
Locking the door against both intruders and as a cautionary measure for Hermione, Snape turned and went into his kitchen. Remembering that Hermione had refused to touch her food that morning, he quickly prepared a sandwich and a cool glass of milk for her and headed upstairs. It was time to put his plan in action.
He knocked twice before she responded, grudgingly inviting him in. He opened the door and found her lying on her stomach with her feet at the head of the bed, perusing some book that she had obviously found in his library.
"What is that?" Snape asked with narrowed eyes, his tone reminding Hermione distinctly of her days at Hogwarts.
"You never told me I couldn't," Hermione said quickly, tightening her grasp on the text and scrambling into a sitting position; she looked somewhat fearful of his reaction.
"That is true," he said slowly, considering her as he approached. Holding out his hand, he gestured for her to hand over the book. From the way she was clutching it to her body, he was given the distinct impression that she felt it was her lifeline. He nearly scoffed at the notion, and motioned for the book again, more insistency in his expression. Letting out a huff of irritation, she slowly released it to him.
Inspecting the tome, he saw that she had chosen a relatively harmless volume. Looking from her crestfallen expression to the text, he nodded as he handed it back to her. "Take care that I do not catch you with anything...undesirable."
"I'll leave your Dark Arts books alone, Snape, don't worry," Hermione said darkly, jerking the book from his grasp. He raised his eyebrows, but did not comment on her attitude. Instead, he turned from her and set the food he'd brought on her nightstand. He noticed her sparing it a glance, but when he turned back to her, she averted her eyes from it resolutely.
"Starving yourself won't do either of us any good, Miss Granger," said Snape, careful not to let his irritation edge its way into his voice. "You must be hungry."
"Don't lie to me; you're not very convincing."
Hermione took a moment to glare at him before leaning back against the headboard and resolutely cracking the spine of the book to fall open on her lap. Decidedly ignoring his presence at the end of her bed, she redirected her attention to her book.
It seemed to Snape that Hermione was going to be more difficult to sway than he had thought. He had assumed that this small act of kindness, bringing dinner up to her and allowing her to read his books, would have softened her attitude, but she seemed determined to keep him at a distance. He would have to adjust his approach.
"It seems I was not entirely fair to you earlier, Miss Granger," Snape said after a moment of watching her read. She did not look up at him, but he noticed that her eyes had stopped roaming the page before her. Taking this as a sign that she was listening, he continued. "I suppose it is not unreasonable to answer your questions, as long as they only concern things directly related to you. I perhaps did not stress enough that your safety is one of my greatest priorities at this point. That may not be exactly what you are looking to hear, but to offer you more specific details could compromise both of our situations. I hope that this will at least offer you some comfort."
He had expected a reaction of surprise, or at least a softening of her attitude. Hermione's face became resolutetly hard, however, and she asked harshly, "What are you playing at?"
"I'm sorry, Miss Granger, I don't quite understand your meaning," he lied.
"You know exactly what I mean, and don't pretend otherwise," said Hermione, swinging her legs from the bed and turning to face him. "You've been nothing but unpleasant-not that I would expect anything else-and suddenly you're worried about my comfort? What exactly do you want?"
Severus heaved a dramatic but believable sigh, and folded his arms across his chest. "It has not escaped my attention that you will be staying with me for quite some time. The prospect of sharing a house with a resentful woman is not an entirely pleasant one."
The sharp laugh that escaped Hermione was somewhat unnerving, for Snape had never seen this side of her. "Do you honestly think that by assuring me safety you can erase my resentment? You kidnapped me, Snape! Sprained my ankle, carried me out of the castle, attempted to threaten me into submission, and plan to use me for your own selfish purposes. But now that you've realized I can't be intimidated into bending to your will, you've decided to try a little honey instead of vinegar. I'm not stupid, Snape. If the prospect of sharing a house with an unpleasant woman bothers you, here's the one and only remedy: release me."
"You know that I won't," said Snape.
"Then I suppose we're at an impasse," said Hermione.
"Very well," Snape said stiffly, stepping towards her door. "If you truly do not wish me to attempt to improve your standard of living and treat you respectfully, I suppose it is your choice. But Miss Granger, be wary of this: I will not initiate any more peace offerings. When you have decided to take me up on this one, you may let me know. Until then, I suppose you may continue to enjoy the solice of your room. Good night, Miss Granger."
And before Hermione could get a word in edgewise, Snape had snapped the door shut behind him, leaving her to sit upon her bed, staring at the spot where he had been standing a moment before. As she listened to Snape's footsteps fall as he moved back down the hallway, Hermione crossed her arms in front of her stomach and considered what had just transpired. She supposed, upon reflection, that she had behaved rather rashly; though she was still incensed at his attempts to manipulate her, it dawned on her that it would have been wiser to accept his offering while continuing to privately resist his control over her. Rather, she had taken the route of boldly asserting her intelligence and gaining only the outcome of losing what little kindnesses he had chosen to bestow upon her. In retrospect, she hadn't ever stood a chance of using such an argument to gain her freedom.
How very Gryffindor, Hermione privately sneered to herself in perfect imitation of Snape.
Lying back on the bed to stare at the plain white ceiling, Hermione reminded herself that she didn't need Snape's courtesy, especially if only extended to her out of a desire for persuasion. She might have responded rashly, but she supposed that kindness from a man she so greatly disliked wasn't too much to lose. She huffed and turned over on her side, finding herself staring at the sandwich he had left for her. For a moment she considered throwing it out into the hallway, unwilling to accept anything he offered her...but as her stomach gave a loud growl at the thought, she quickly pushed the idea to the side and sat up to eat. It wasn't until she had taken a bite that she realized how hungry she had become. Her meal was gone in a few short minutes, and she returned her attention to her book. She smirked to herself as she flipped through the pages; with the size of Snape's library, he could ignore her all he liked.
As the next few days passed by, however, and Snape made no more visits to Hermione's room, she began to realize the extent to which he was going to take this if she didn't make the first move. She hadn't eaten except for the half-eaten box of stale crackers she'd found in his barren cupboards, and Snape had locked the door to his library against her. She was bored, hungry, and overall, very frustrated with her situation. Every time she heard footsteps falling in the hallway, she perked up slightly, thinking he was on his way to ask if she had reconsidered...but his steps always fell short of her room, the silence followed by the close of a different door. There were moments when weakness threatened to overwhelm her, when the desire for food or even for entertainment seemed more important than her pride...and then she reminded herself of the reasons for which she needed to prove a point to her captor. To her, this was a matter of strength and vulnerability, of resolve and capitulation...she felt she was willing to make the sacrifice to prove her strength of character. It was mind over matter.
On the third day of her isolation, these ideas were failing her. Try as she might, she couldn't quite remember the logic that had led her to self-induced starvation and mind-numbing boredom. It was with the gut-wrenching feeling of surrender that she rose from her bed and moved to the door. It was with pain that she detached her sense of pride from her ego and stepped into the hallway. It was with extreme anxiety that she moved down the stairs, casting her eyes around for Snape. It was with her proverbial tail between her legs that she entered the kitchen after discovering the sitting room empty, to find Snape seated at the table, a generous portion of steak and kidney pie steaming in front of him as he contemplated the latest edition of the Daily Prophet.
He waited until she had come to stand directly in front of the table before setting down the paper. Then, with the air of sudden realization that she was standing there, he said, "Ah, Miss Granger! Still alive, I see."
"Yes," Hermione said tersely, unable to keep her greedy eyes off of his meal. He noticed her looking, but merely smirked and returned to reading.
Hermione waited for him to re-acknowledge her, but he seemed intent upon making her ask not only for food, but for attention as well.
"I'm...I'm very hungry," Hermione said after a moment, to which Snape responded:
"Are you now?"
"Yes," Hermione said through gritted teeth.
"Manners, Miss Granger," Snape tutted mockingly, his smirk growing into a grin of satisfaction.
Hermione considered for a moment turning and heading back to her room. She realized, however, that this would only be more painful the second time around, and she couldn't go without eating another day.
"May I please eat?" Hermione asked, mentally kicking herself when the question escaped her sounding much more earnest than she had intended.
"I suppose that depends," said Snape, setting down the paper. As his dark gaze came to rest on her, she realized that she had preferred speaking to him when he was dividing his attention between her and his reading. "I would hate to be accused of manipulating you."
Hermione fought against rolling her eyes at his rather obvious indication that he wished her to ask his forgiveness, and settled with folding her hands in front of her and gazing down at them. As she had suspected, this show of submission prompted him onward.
"Could it be that you are now regretting your rather hasty response of several days past?"
"I suppose I was...rather rash," Hermione said slowly, not daring to look back up at him lest he suspect her insincere.
"Sit down, Miss Granger," commanded Snape, flicking his wand at the chair, which slid out for her.
Hermione did as she was told, and was surprised when a meal identical to Snape's appeared in front of her. She looked at it hesitantly, and then picked up her fork and muttered a reluctant, "Thank you."
"I have told you that I do not wish to make your stay here entirely unpleasant. I simply ask that you extend to me the same courtesy."
Snape said no more on the subject, but Hermione was involuntarily grateful that he had eased the shame of capitulation by accepting her small admission as an apology. By the end of the meal, which they finished in not entirely uncomfortable silence, Hermione was in a far more generous mood, and offered Snape a small and guilty smile as he cleared her plate for her. He returned it with a nod, and said as he turned away, "If you would like to select another book from the library, I would be willing to accompany you while you do so."
"Why do you need to accompany me?" The words spilled from her mouth before she could put a stopper in them, and Snape slowly turned his head to glare at her.
"Do you wish to select another book, or do you not?" He asked quietly.
"Then I suggest you mind your manners," he said coldly. "Or have you forgotten your lesson now that your stomach is full?"
"Apologies, sir," said Hermione stiffly, swallowing her irritation for her own sake. "I would very much like some more reading material."
"Very well, then," Snape responded, sweeping at once from the room. Assuming she was meant to follow, Hermione at once stood and hurried after him.
As Hermione approached the door Snape held ajar, she couldn't help but fall prey to the wave of resentment that washed over her as she observed the way he was watching her. It was a look of pure amusement; almost as though he regarded her as a dog to which he had offered a biscuit. Still, she could only avoid his eyes as she slipped quickly past him and into the room.
Instantly, she knew this would from here on out be her only tether to sanity. It was a small room, yes, comparable to the rest of the house, but shelves upon shelves held enough books to keep her busy for what seemed like an eternity. Forgetting almost immediately why she had ever felt even the slightest twinge of annoyance, Hermione began to peruse Snape's vast collection of books. A great deal of time passed before her thoughts returned to Snape himself, and as this thought came to her, she realized that he was still standing in the doorway, leaning almost elegantly against the door frame. His dark eyes were resting steadily on her, his thoughts indecipherable. Taken aback, she stood with her gaze locked with his for a moment.
"Do you like what you see?" he asked silkily, and there was a smoothness to his voice that she had not noticed before.
Blinking furiously, she responded, "I… what?"
One eyebrow lifted. Next, the corner of his lips. And then, his hand, as he gestured to the room behind her. "My collection," he said simply, looking around. "Do you find it satisfactory?"
"Oh," Hermione responded, with uncharacteristic daftness. Nervously, she lifted her hand to her hair, more for something to do than with any hopes of smoothing it down. "It's quite large… I'm not sure where to start."
The other corner of Snape's lips quirked, a full-fledged smirk upon his face now. Hermione blushed furiously.
"You're not the first person to tell me that," Snape responded, moving towards her. Hermione took a step back, not knowing how to respond, but Snape glided past her, moving resolutely towards the back wall of literature.
Hermione watched as Snape deftly selected a book from one of the top shelves. The book fell open in his hands, and his eyes drifted quickly over the page. Snapping it closed again, he turned and handed it to her; she snatched it up, burning with curiosity. One glance quickly told her what she needed to know.
"This is about dark magic!" Hermione practically cried, thrusting the book back into Snape's hands as if it would burn her if she held it too long.
"It is not about dark magic," Snape replied evenly, annoyance playing on face. "It is about dark magical items. It should prove a rather educational read, and one you just may want to finish quickly, at that."
Hermione frowned, but did not protest as Snape pressed the book back into her hands. At once, she decided that she should at the very least read it over, if for no other reason than to decipher what exactly Snape was getting at.
"Fine," she said slowly, though she was still holding the book as though it were a fragile object. "And if I decide I do not wish to read it?"
"Then you are welcome to select another book," Snape stated simply, and, after a moment, added pointedly, "After all, it's not as if you will be lacking in time."
Hermione frowned deeply, but did not respond. Holding the book in her hand, she turned and moved into the hallway, standing as she waited for Snape. He closed the door behind him and then, much to Hermione's chagrin, took out his wand to re-lock the door. Seeing her expression, the smirk she was coming to despise returned to his face.
"Oh, come now," he said in a low, mocking tone. "What do you expect? You are still a prisoner, after all."
For a moment Snape stood before her, almost as though challenging her to respond. Hermione, however, firmly kept her mouth shut, clinging to the book as though afraid he was waiting for a reason to yank it out of her hands. Her horror at the thought of studying Dark Arts was fading quickly, and instead she was simply glad for something to occupy her otherwise wasted time here.
After a moment of silence, Snape seemed satisfied that she would not defy him any further. "Perhaps you should take solace in your room," he suggested then, and Hermione balked at the suggestion that he assumed she would rather do anything but. "I have some pressing matters to attend to."
"Gladly," Hermione retorted, though as she spoke, she was displeased to hear her tone sound much more snippety than cool, as she had intended. Still, she whirled around in a fashion that she was sure should have made even the Potions Master himself jealous, and returned quickly to the room to which she had been confined for the past three days.
As she closed the door behind her, Hermione realized how grateful she had been to spend some time outside of this confined space. Still, she could not dwell on that. She threw herself upon her bed and opened her prize to the table of contents, scanning the page for something of interest.
Within moments, Hermione's eyes zeroed in on one word in the middle of the page. Horcruxes.
"What?" Hermione said in a confused whisper, flipping immediately to the page specified. There, before her eyes, was a wealth of information about the exact topic she had hoped to help Harry learn more about. But this was not about how to destroy them… this was about how to avoid being hurt by them.
But why would Snape have given her such a useful tool when she wasn't even allowed to contact Harry? Was it to taunt her with information that was now useless? Was it to tempt her into acting rashly, for some purpose she could not yet see? Was she misinterpreting the meaning entirely; was this book a warning that there were many cursed objects within the house, a warning not to go hunting through any of his things?
In an instant, Hermione was on her feet, crossing the space between the bed and the door in three strides; her hand rested on the door handle as she contemplated her next move. Should she confront Snape, ask him what exactly his meaning was?
Had he already told her?
He had suggested she read the book. And quickly, he had added. Why?
Her hand fell from the door knob, and she stood in her place, bewildered. In that moment, she was certain that no amount of questioning would persuade Snape to explain his purpose. No amount of intelligence on her end could interpret his intent without some clarification from the man himself. What she could do was take what he had said very literally; perhaps, if she did so without questioning his motives, she could make better sense of the circumstances.
Reluctantly, Hermione swallowed her urge to demand answers. Forcibly, she calmed her overly active mind and put a halt to the series of questions dancing about her brain. Slowly, she returned to her place on the bed and reopened the book she held in her hand. Obediently, she began to read, and quickly. Truthfully, she told herself, she had nothing to lose by reading before asking questions.
After all, all she had was time.
xxx End Chapter xxx
AN: Please Review, and I'll be eternally yours :)