C/A/N: (Co-Author's Note): This entire chapter is the work of the epically talented emdramaqueen. I'm sure you will be as mesmerised as I (KeeperoftheNine) was when it arrived in my inbox earlier today. We both apologise profusely for the lack of updating in the past months. Real life has a nasty tendency to get in the way of writing, yet we are both determined to change our game and update more frequently in the future. Thank you for your patience and ongoing support. We would be nothing without our beloved readers!
Chapter Seventeen: Tempt Me into My Old Ways
Arms held firmly around her back, Isolde felt her captor's hands constricting hers, palms pressing knuckles into oblivion. Her face forced so close to the uneven stone, she sensed the unnatural imprint on her cheek; the shop's wall provided no solace as it smeared her skin's surface with grit and debris. Ugly rasps of breath laboured in her ear as she futilely tested her bonds, her attempts and failures sparking a derisive laugh.
As the man's breathing became more measured, the grasp on her wrists slackened enough for Isolde to part from the brick face, but a firm tug on her shoulder spun her around before she willed her own feet to move again.
Isolde always yearned to have inherited her mother's eyes – so warm in their brown, they were almost golden, whereas her father's were a cold, steely grey. Almost vacuous.
Grey thawed into grey as the smell of Firewhisky intensified. A tumult of inebriated goodnight kisses crashed back to her, their lips' grin timelessly sickening. Palms met brick, encasing her head in a globe of pungency.
"So that's the scrawny wretch who bought you the dress, is it?" His head jerked in the direction of the main street, where, from these distant shadows, not even drunken ramblings could be heard.
His upper lip stooped in another toothy sneer, his stagnant breath closing his daughter's eyes in disgust.
"Don't you dare bring Marius into any of this. He was simply-"
A finger, tacky in texture, pressed her lips to a standstill.
"That, Isolde, will be entirely up to you. I suggest you pay closer attention to who you choose to spend your time with. Grisly Ravenclaws are undeserving, to say the least." His fingertip pinched her lip in thought. "It's terribly displeasing..."
Shaking her head, Isolde nudged her father's hand away, sensing a fleeting protest from his finger as its dry-liquored surface recoiled. "If you're referring to Flank, I already know he's at school. I really couldn't give a damn!" Barnabus' brows rose as she amplified. "I'm not going to alter my list of friends for either of you."
On this note of verve, Isolde began to push herself free from his arms' lock, but his hands met her shoulders with increased vigour, crushing her back to the wall again. His face so close now, their two pairs of eyes bled into one. "This is not just for you, Isolde. I've given you everything! Everything you ever wanted-"
Isolde scoffed, more at his desperation than his ignorance. "You're absolutely right. Where shall I start? Thank you, Father, for turning our home into a mirthless pit of opulence; I'm so grateful you made Mum absolutely miserable– and where are my manners? Thank you; I wouldn't have coped without you sitting on the front row and clapping whilst your friends took their share of me – "
Snatching at her cheeks, he pressed her mouth to distortion. "Listen, witch." The heavy breathing returned. "This is not about you." The shift in his gaze was mammoth but indescribable. "Things are shifting, immense things." Another pause bulged as Isolde watched her father's eyes glaze with awe, as though his Messiah stood between them, promising everything.
Malice replaced delight as she felt his fingertips reclaim her. "If you're not with us, you're not with us... do you understand, darling?"
As his implication sank in, her face contorted with aversion.
Shoving her father at arm's length, Isolde roughly tugged up his left sleeve. Her hand snatched at his forearm. "Stop talking like you're already one of them! You're not – you don't have to-"
Her words stopped short as she felt a resounding smack, her head meeting the stone again. Whether the throbbing was a result of the initial blow, or her subsequent collision with the wall, she could not discern, but a sharp tug on her hair and cheek drew back her attention. "Don't you dare try to save me, Isolde." The word left his mouth like a piece of rotten meat. "I'm here to warn you." Tapping her throbbing cheek, he stepped closer. "You play nicely with Ichabod. Draw blood again, my love, and-"
A terse grin. "Well, just you try it..."
His touch and footsteps had withdrawn long before Isolde staggered back into the now empty side street. Like a transient spectre, her father had left no trace of his visitation, save for the still-throbbing case of her cheek and an even more resounding imprint on her mind.
As if it had deliberately crept along the cobbles to greet her, the broken POTTER REALLY STINKS badge was the first thing she noticed as she reclaimed her surroundings. The reminder of school day frivolities, of juvenile pettiness, felt a thousand miles from her feet. Achingly close, it lay battered from passing footfall, and still Isolde yearned for its simplicity.
Kicking the mocking comfort beneath another layer of snow, Isolde drew further from the shadowy alcove and began her lonesome trek back to the castle.
Though the dim, familiar flicker of candle fought for her attention, she trudged towards the arterial road without glancing even once at the mouth of Zuranders.
Severus Snape often contemplated the questionable value of his Hogwarts colleagues, most notably when they drew out an already tedious staff meeting by arguing over bygone Quidditch triumphs, but if there was one thing Severus had learned from Professor Flitwick, it was to bring his own glass to The Hog's Head.
Despite the loitering stench of unseen goat, the inn still offered more glamour than The Mewling Quim. Its rough wooden tables carried years of wear, their surfaces engrained with indelible troughs and scrapings, and the candles, casting equal measures of light and shadow, bore no resemblance to their longer, tapered brothers in the Great Hall. Stacked high and wide with the remnants of their ancestors, the plump and uneven mounds of wax stood stubbornly on every other ledge or tabletop, dispatching all manner of distorted silhouettes on the unpainted walls.
And yet the shadows were what drew them: wizards, witches, Squibs, the occasional wayward House Elf. They all sought the same sultry blackness.
Save for the dull clamour of collected glasses and Sickles, the barman's presence was just that: a lolloping shadow, seemingly ignorant of his tavern's inner mischief.
Three hours had passed within its walls, each one more testing than its predecessor, but Severus still clutched his first serving of Firewhisky. Keen to remain alert, he had watched his foul companion top himself up to the point of inebriation, his increasingly potent breath making the smell of goat oddly preferable. Favouring the dark comfort of his own quarters, or even the Malfoy drawing room, Severus rarely ventured into The Hog's Head. In fact, as he recalled his last visitation, when he had spied a shifty Quirrell from a secreted booth, a familiar and prickling remorse turned his stomach.
If he had planned further ahead, rather than allowing himself to be distracted by Flank's idle prattling, he would not have seated himself so near to the closed door at the far end of the room – certainly, he scolded, he would not have allowed himself to sit facing it.
Sighing inwardly, Severus distracted himself with an image of the pile of unmarked essays waiting for him at the castle. As his eyes shifted back to his burbling companion, he reminded himself why he had accompanied him to this hovel.
Never again, he had sworn to himself. Never again, if it was within his power, would he allow Flank to be alone with Isolde while she was under his care. For reasons he still could not fathom, he felt more than a dutiful accountability for the Slytherin girl, and the self chastisement he had endured for days after the Yule Ball had been far more painful than the elongated minutes of mindless blabber he had sat through that afternoon. As wretched and seemingly wasteful his day had been, he knew with utter certainty that Isolde had remained untouched.
As Flank took another mouthful, Severus allowed himself a swift glance at the tattered clock in the corner behind the bar. It was past seven. The students would be safely within the castle now. He would make his excuses and leave.
As if the faint gesture roused him from slumber, Flank sputtered and took in a sharp suck of fusty air. "Very good of you to come, Sev. Very good of you. A fine way to pass the time, is it not?"
Severus gazed incredulously at his drinking partner. Even in his drunken stupor, Flank was surely aware of his restlessness.
Offering no elaboration, Severus stared down at the glass he had transfigured from a spare quill. Though its contents promised an evening of vague solace, it had barely been touched.
"Did I tell you the old man won't let me stay in the castle?"
"Only eight times since our arrival. Do tell me again," Severus muttered, squinting through the meagre smattering of cleanliness in the nearest lattice window: as the streetlamp at the inn's entrance lit with sudden vigour, Severus deduced that the passing shadow belonged to the town's porter.
Though the surprisingly reliable clock told him otherwise, the afternoon had seemed endless. With each refilling of Flank's tumbler, conversation had become increasingly cyclical, as if the two men were victims of a rogue Time-Turner, its sole intent to send one of them mad.
"The old fool says there's no room left in the castle, what with those foreigners visiting for the Tournament. Why can't those Durmstrang boys camp out near the Forest? They must be used to the cold; I'm told it's always snowing in Russia."
Severus raised his eyebrows. "I was not aware that Norway was a part of Russia, but I salute your superior command of Geography."
Long oblivious to mockery, Flank slammed down his glass, its insides spitting on the tabletop. "Surely my comfort should be a priority, not those haughty, fur-encrusted champions. Dumbledore's done this on purpose, I know it."
Welcoming a nudge in a new direction, Severus humoured him with more than his usual grunt. "In his defence, Flank, you could have chosen somewhere slightly more wholesome than The Hog's Head."
Wincing as he swallowed another mouthful of liquor, Flank shook his head. "Nope! Made the reservation for me, he did - the moth-eaten busybody."
As this new information settled, Severus glanced over at the bar where Aberforth was wiping pint glasses with a grimy cloth. Seemingly oblivious to their very presence, he hummed an indistinct ditty behind his bearded lips. Fleetingly, Severus recalled his earliest visitations to the inn – the way the barman stood out of natural earshot, wiping the same dusty glasses as the older Slytherins smuggled him in and delivered their inductions. For a moment, a younger, smarmy Malfoy replaced the face of Flank, smirking assuredly beside his subordinates as he showed off his Mark. Grimacing, Severus recalled its rawness; even in the dim glow of the candlelight and accompanying filth of the place, the harsh crimson outline had stood provocatively from the tender flesh, crude and glorious. Even with his back turned, the barman must have felt its menacing pull, its voiceless subjects as they sat in awe.
The memory splintered as the older, stouter barman added a spontaneous whistle to his tune, tugging his waistband back up around his belly. Before retreating to the storeroom, Aberforth's pale blue eyes met Severus for the briefest of moments. His features unmoving, the man shifted his gaze to Flank before he turned away, carrying an empty crate into the darkness.
As he watched Flank stare keenly at his now empty glass, Severus wondered just how calculated this had been. Albus had hardly arranged Flank's accommodation here for the sake of his brother's income. So estranged from each other, the Dumbledore brothers only betrayed their connection with their twinkling eyes and obstinate beards, and, as his surname was rarely disclosed, Aberforth's dishevelled, rounder appearance often severed the link altogether. As the residue of humming and clattering crept from the dim threshold, Severus considered how well informed the barman was. Had Albus asked him to keep an eye on Flank? Perhaps, like many new residents of Hogsmeade, Flank was ignorant of the barman's connection to the Order.
Severus' gaze swung to the bar again as Aberforth emerged with another crate, setting it down on the counter. Dumbledore's response to Isolde's plight had been sickening, but perhaps he was making some form of compensation? If not for the sake of Isolde, then for the greater good.
Severus held back a snarl as the phrase swam through his mind. Adjusting his gaze back to his companion, he realised Flank was already speaking.
"...probably for the best. If I see that seventh-year Slytherin waltzing the halls..." His eyes glazed over, a spot of whisky dripping down his chin. "No... I want her...untouched... for the wedding." Though he had chosen a relatively neutral word, it still sounded crass on his lips and Severus had to gather all his resolve to appear unmoved.
"As romantic as your original plan undoubtedly was, what has inspired this change of heart? Why is it so important that Isolde is... untouched when you wed her?" Even as the words departed his lips, Severus' stomach churned with guilt; when was the last night he had not dreamt, asleep or awake, of devouring her himself? Was he any better than the pitiful excuse for a man drooped before him?
Flank's hideous laugh shook the table. "Oh, Sev...has it been that long?" As Flank gazed glassy-eyed into the space above his companion's head, he did not witness Severus' wand hand twitch inside his cloak. "You must have experienced that delightful sensation of being the first to tread foot in clean, crisp snow. That first crunch through its slightly unrelenting exterior... it's simply exquisite..."
As Flank's face softened in remembrance, Severus' hardened in disgust. How many other naive patches of snow had he trampled before Isolde? How long, exactly, would she have to suffer his filthy touch? Would she (his stomach lunged at the mere notion) thaw beyond all recognition?
With no visible catalyst, Flank's tone sharpened. "Not to mention the fact that I don't want no half-blood Ravenclaw beating me to the snitch!" He poured another glassful into his open, laughing mouth.
Flank's eyes suddenly hardened as his clammy hands grabbed at Severus' sleeves. "Seriously, Sev, she consumes me...I'm no longer in possession of my own loins... my own soul..."
Severus snorted. "That must be a nuisance."
With a callous shrug, he severed Flank's grip of him as he felt his eyes fix involuntarily on the far wall of the inn. Like a base craving, its crooked door had harassed him all afternoon, and Severus, an ageless addict of self-reproach, had allowed it to. Invited it, almost. Why else would he have instinctually seated himself to face it, the four-walled memento of his greatest error?
In the furthest depths of his remembrance, the door had only ever stood ajar once. This rarity alone had enticed him, even before he had heard the voices – the male and female murmur of a routine dialogue. A keen accomplice, the stairwell had not betrayed a single footstep of his approach as he drew nearer to the lighted landing. For several minutes he had stood there, the inner voices now distinct and recognisable. Severus recalled how the woman's voice altered, became almost otherworldly as she rasped with definition; how he had smirked in the candlelight as he envisaged his master's cold, gratified hand on his shoulder as he relayed the news...
"I think you'll find her much more willing when the time comes. And Sev will help to break her in a bit for you, I'm sure."
At the mention of his name, Severus tore his eyes from the door to find a new face, equally disagreeable, searching his own expectantly. Penitent phantoms still churning his insides, he battled to look neutrally into the eyes of Barnabus Hamilton. Still wearing his outer cloak, he had clearly only just joined them, though Severus held no recollection of his arrival. Raising his eyebrows questioningly, he sought clarification.
Conjuring a tumbler from the bar's surface, Barnabus chortled. "Merlin, Sev. Just how much have you had to drink?"
"Far from enough." As his present surroundings made themselves known again, Severus' countenance hardened.
If Barnabus' inflamed cheeks were anything to go by, he had already quaffed an ample load of whisky before his arrival. "I was just saying to Ichabod... my Isolde is quite a feisty one. Merlin knows where she gets it from! I'm sure, with your expert levels of discipline, you can help to mould her in time for Easter, eh?"
An endless barrage of retorts whipped towards his inner lips, frantic to attack the lunacy seated before him. Instead, Severus stared resolutely at the object of his night's torture. Between his companions' stooped shoulders, he had an unmasked view of the offensive gateway. It could flake and crumble with the years, and yet he could not undo the footsteps he'd made over its threshold; could not unhear those colossal words...
He could, however, avoid stepping through it again.
Doggedly, Severus rose to his feet, his broad profile now effortlessly putting his companions in shadow. "As titillating as this discourse is, I have duties back at the castle. Do excuse me, Mr Hamilton." Severus slid himself fluidly from the space between bench and table, his well-versed composure masking his keenness to depart.
Barnabus stood clumsily in protest. "But we have much to discuss, old boy! The wedding plans alone! And Flank was going to tell us all about the new marital home he has purchased. Took quite a chunk out of his inheritance, he tells me!" Barnabus knocked Flank brashly on the back as the two of them chortled again.
An iceberg in the mirth, Severus stood unyieldingly. "A deprivation I will have to bear as stoically as I can. Goodnight." With a nod bore out of habit more than courtesy, Severus swept from the inn and into the sobering chill of the deserted street.
With its militia of sporadically lit windows, the castle stood courageously in the growing blackness. In Severus' early years, the school's twinkling splendour had crept its way from the animated pages of Hogwarts: a History and into the core of his daydreams. Years before his eleventh birthday, its magnitude and promises of refuge had entrenched his every thought and fancy.
If he squinted into the night, the glow of her old window regained its definition as he strode across the school grounds. Though he had vainly tried to unlearn its location, the light still shone more harshly than the rest, like Venus amongst its subordinates – an undesirable keepsake.
It was perhaps a blessing the Slytherin dormitories squatted below the lake's surface.
Safe for the time being, Isolde was no doubt giggling blithely with her housemates – completing a Charms essay, perhaps. Sipping a strong coffee to get her through the final piece of parchment.
Severus paused beside the lakeside, staring through its gloom to the dungeons beneath.
The phrase had pursued his every step as he strode from the school gates, and a giddiness he could not ascribe to his hurried Apparition lingered in the depths of his empty stomach.
"Goyle, get out of my light."
Isolde didn't even need to glance upwards from her parchment; only one Slytherin could cast that much shadow.
The bulky profile remained.
"Your swotty little friend's outside. You can tell him from me: if he comes down here again, I'll hex his knob off."
"Thanks, I will," Isolde replied in a surprisingly charming tone as she heaved herself from her green leather armchair. "Though I hardly think he needs to worry. Have you mastered that first-year levitation spell yet?" Patting her messenger on the back, she dropped quill and parchment to the imprinted seat. "Don't worry. Keep at it."
Despite the morose mood her father had left her in, the sight of Marius' keen grin at the bottom of the dungeon stairs made her smile inwardly. "I'm surprised you don't have a face rash after today's performance..."
"Nah! Kathy's got a pretty epic one, though," he beamed as Isolde reached him.
"What do you want?"
"I'm not here to copy your Charms essay." He looked almost proud.
"Wonders never cease! What is it then? I was hoping for an early one tonight..." Isolde raised her hand to stifle a yawn as a cluster of third-year girls traipsed past, whispering and giggling at Marius as they stepped into the common room.
Ensuring they were now alone, Marius indicated towards a nearby classroom. "Just quickly – promise."
Isolde rolled her eyes, but followed, letting another yawn escape her lips.
Neither one of them uttered an illumination spell, so they enclosed themselves in near darkness as the door clicked behind them. The rows of benches seemed to almost float in the hub of the room, their kick-worn bases masked in the absence of candlelight. Seeking a prop to cloak the sudden awkwardness, Marius inched towards the nearest stool, perching himself only partially on its creaky seat. "I, er... wanted to apologise for earlier."
In the pause which followed, Isolde raised her eyebrows questioningly. Their carefree visit to Madam Puddifoot's felt like almost weeks ago. Whatever gripe or grudge her Ravenclaw friend thought she held against him, it was going to sound delightfully trivial now.
"About that dick, Flank. I didn't mean to give anything away, you know-"
"Marius, shut up. I don't want to discuss that; especially not here." Despite the onslaught of darkness surrounding them, his cheeks were perceptibly crimson.
"Anyway, I told Kath you left because you probably felt a bit awkward – you know, a bit of a gooseberry. We both felt really bad, so we got you this..." Pausing, Marius fumbled with his cloak, reaching for his inside pocket.
Anticipating his usual supply of caffeine, Isolde curved her extended hand to accept the warm cup, but she was surprised when her fingers sensed an entirely different shape. "What's this?" Bringing the rectangular mystery closer to her face, she squinted in the darkness.
Isolde felt her entire body stiffen as the hauntingly familiar wisps of greyish vapour sprang in tiny gusts beneath her grip. As her fingertips clung to it grudgingly, she could almost feel its pulse from within the very pages as she recollected the first copy she had owned.
The Potion Master's Mistress
The emblazoned text, once so enthralling to her, now stood crudely in her grasp.
Clearly unable to see the full impact of his gift, Marius continued smugly. "We tried to get your favourite one... you know, the one you read 'til its spine bled, but the cashier said some bloke bought it the other day. Would you believe it? You must have been the only rampant teen to have read that in years and then someone goes and buys it! Anyway, this is the next best one. Just been released this year, he said." Relaxing with his supposed success, Marius now stood free of his prop and stepped closer to Isolde. "Now, we bought you this as a peace offering, Iz. Not for you to slink into your dorm for days on end, fantasising about this dark, rugged Potions master, ok?" Grinning, he tapped the book's surface.
The illustrated fumes rose again as if reignited by his touch. As the dark figure's cloak fluttered beneath her thumb, Isolde dropped the book to the floor.
"Marius, I can't take this. Please – take it back." As if horrified by its very presence, Isolde edged back further towards the classroom door.
Clearly affronted, Marius scooped the book from the floor. "Don't be ridiculous. Iz, take it," he insisted, thrusting it back towards Isolde.
"Marius, can't you get it into your thick skull? I don't want it!" Taking the book back momentarily, Isolde cast it into the depths of the deserted classroom, its pages splaying open against a distant stool leg.
For several seconds, both students stared into the open darkness before Marius turned to face Isolde. "What's with you? You've been acting weirdly since the Yule Ball. You can't blame this on a caffeine withdrawal!"
A faint, new sound invaded the room.
Tap – tap – tap.
Both students paused, faces of horror replacing their irritation.
Tap – tap – tap.
"Is that you?" queried Marius, though his proximity to Isolde told him otherwise.
Tap – tap – tap.
"What in Merlin's hairy-"
"Mr – Spencer."
If it was possible, the room seemed to fall into an even blacker black as the familiar, deep voice resonated from the far corner. As Isolde allowed her eyes to readjust once more, a meagre glow of candlelight began to creep from the door of the distant storeroom, encasing its recent occupant in a thin film of light.
"It is far past your curfew. Have you lost your way?"
His penetrable stare tore through the stuttering Ravenclaw as he stepped closer, the darkness still obscuring his whole profile.
He had not yet looked at Isolde.
"No, sir. I'm terribly sorry, sir. I was just asking Iz about her Charms-"
"That will be all, Mr Spencer." His usual satisfied smirk at this point was poignantly absent.
As her companion scuttled wordlessly from the room, the remaining two occupants were left in momentary silence.
Tap – tap - tap.
The door now slightly ajar, in influx of light assaulted the shadows, and Isolde could see Professor Snape in his entirety.
His eyes finally rested on her, his features unreadable. Isolde had not even noticed, so aware was she of two things: they were now alone, and The Potion Master's Mistress, its dishevelled pages pressed firmly together, now lay clasped within his hand. A singular thumb remained poised above the sturdy cover.
Tap- tap- tap.