‘Draco, what a pleasant surprise,’ Snape said scornfully as a thick hood was pulled back to reveal a head of white blond hair that shone in the candlelight. The rising aggravation he always felt in the presence of the younger man was kept valiantly from his voice, and he inclined his head slightly in greeting. ‘It has been some time.’
‘Come now, Severus, you can hardly blame me for that.’ As Draco had grown so the likeness to his father had gradually diminished, something for which Snape was infinitely grateful. He had more of his mother in his face now, his lines softer, although more attractive for it. He lacked the impressive stature of Lucius too, without the broad shoulders and towering height. Draco Malfoy was someone whose authority you could easily dismiss, and then live to regret doing so. ‘You have become so difficult to find of late, the rare occasions you do deign to appear spent hiding away in that potions lab of yours. I barely see you but as another masked face.’
‘I have been busy.’
There was a well-placed flicker of practised emotion, the smallest sigh as Draco shook his head in false sympathy and agreement, his movements easy and fluid as he matched Snape’s long strides down the empty hallway. ‘As have we all.’ The casual remark promised of any number of captivating and whimsical stories, available for the telling at the mere price of a question. It was a cost Snape considered far too high.
Transparent though Draco’s motives were, Snape saw little choice but to play into his hands regardless. Lucius had always extolled the virtues of subtle manipulation, but without his father’s guidance, Draco had developed a disquieting appreciation for palpable scheming, taking pleasure in the knowledge that people knew they were being manoeuvred, but were unable to stop it. ‘And how is the school?’ The topic would be raised sooner or later anyway, as Snape reclaimed at least a little footing in the discussion, steering the conversation towards the most expedient conclusion and carefully Occluding his mind. There were days when he regretted teaching the art of Legilimency to someone he had always known would not hesitate to use it as a weapon straight back against him, in smug thanks and appreciation for the gift. But Snape had spent most of his life in the company of one Malfoy or another, and had learnt to read their intentions through what they did not say and do.
‘Thriving.’ Draco looked pleased and excessively proud, with what Snape considered to be little reason. The school functioned smoothly enough, thanks to the strict rules and regulations enforced, and the Headmaster was now no more than a figurehead. The Dark Lord had stripped the position of any real power, and all that remained was whatever had been engrained into it simply by holding the same title once held by Dumbledore. Snape was fairly sure that once that name had faded into history, the position would be as meaningless as that held by any other vaunted ministry official. ‘Although it would be much more so if you were to consider returning.’
Snape’s back stiffened, regardless of the expected nature of the request. It was made frequently and loudly, seeming to lack only the stomped foot and tantrums that would not make a wholly startling accompaniment. Draco had jumped at the opportunity, when Hogwarts had been offered to him, realising early on that he had been mistaken and misled. The school had always been a fundamental symbol of prestige to him, but the Dark Lord did not share status any more than he did control. Dragging Snape down with him had since turned into an obsession. ‘Finding a Potions Master equal to your skill is proving impossible. Say you will not reduce me to suffering through another year of incompetence?’ The look of haughty self-assurance caused Snape to bite back a snarl as Draco smiled beseechingly, hopefulness etched across his elegant features.
‘I will not return to Hogwarts, Draco, no matter how much you beg and plead.’ His doorway was thankfully fast approaching, although Draco gave no indication of leaving. If Snape had thought the boy’s ego could use a little reducing whilst he was still at school, it was nothing compared to what it needed now. Faced with domination over so much more than just his fellow housemates, the younger Malfoy had risen to unfathomable heights within the circle of Death Eaters. His confidence was surprisingly easy to dent though, rising magnificently to combat anything that reminded him of what he did not yet have, and was unlikely to ever achieve. ‘However, if you are that desperate, you could always crawl to our Lord again. Beseech for me to be ordered into your service. I am sure he will once again deny you.’ Snape’s comment did not have the intended result. Malfoys hid their anger well, but not so well as it appeared Draco managed, a lazy grin spreading across his lips.
‘I would not be so sure.’ Draco’s words were tinged with a hint of expected victory to come, snide and obviously pleased for it. ‘Our Master is in surprisingly good spirits today.’
‘Then there must have been some fortuitous news indeed.’
‘You sound surprised; the news was not of your giving?’ His tone was far too innocent. Draco knew exactly what had improved the Dark Lords notoriously temperamental mood, or he at least wanted Snape to believe he did. Actual knowledge was probably not strictly necessary, given Draco’s increasingly complicated outlook. Often he simply wanted to know whether or not Snape himself was privy to every last word the Dark Lord spoke, and every last action the Dark Lord made, and it was not always for reasons of suspicion or doubt. No, sometimes Draco just wanted to further bolster his claims to importance, wanted to find out if there was something he could hold above Snape. He wanted to make sure there was nothing Snape knew that had been kept from him. Snape wondered if Draco realised how painfully obvious his fanaticism had made him. ‘I assumed, with your prolonged absence, that when you finally returned it would be with something of note.’ He simply couldn’t miss out on the final comment either, couldn’t resist not only inserting the knife, but also twisting it with vicious glee.
‘I have not been gone that long.’ Snape’s door towered before him, now feeling more like the entrance to a tomb than his sanctuary. It opened beneath his fingers and he entered, Draco following without invitation, as Snape had known he would. The elaborate cloak was removed, swishing through the still air as it swung across Draco’s shoulders and onto the largely unused stand. Against the faded and rotting wood it looked slightly larger than life, richer than should be possible. Or perhaps the extravagant tastes bequeathed from Lucius simply made Snape’s rooms look that bit shabbier.
‘It used to be that barely a day would go by where you wouldn’t be found stalking these very halls.’ Manners, along with finding themselves in second place, were unacceptable to a Malfoy, as Draco cast a disapproving look around the small room. Disgust was one of the few emotions the boy never bothered to try to hide. ‘We were of the impression that you had nowhere else to go.’
Snape almost closed his eyes in dismay, dreading the answer to the following question. ‘We?’
‘My mother has expressed the occasional enquiry as to your health.’ Snape openly rolled his eyes. Narcissa Malfoy was more of a curse these days than anything else, and he deeply regretted every moment his ability to avoid her proved inadequate. She blamed him for something, although Snape had never been absolutely certain as to what, and seemed intent on claiming back something equally intangible. Snape had his suspicions that he knew exactly what it was she wanted, however, and that he was shying away from the sheer enormity of what the woman had hoped to get from him. ‘It will be nice to finally have an answer for her.’
Snape’s reply was short and clipped, accompanied by the gentle clinking of glass as he poured himself a drink. ‘Tell her that her concern is misplaced, but appreciated.’ Draco smirked at the response before reclining onto the musty sofa, treating Snape to a dry chuckle that made his blood boil.
‘That disgusting stuff will be the death of you.’ There was a little too much hope in the sentence to maintain the façade of humour, or to allow even the smallest inkling of sincerity to remain in Draco’s following offer: ‘You are always most welcome at the manor.’ Snape wouldn’t have set one foot within the outermost wards of the manor at any cost.
‘Contrary to what is apparently popular opinion, I do have my own accommodation.’ Draco sniffed dismissively, managing to indicate that if the room in which he was forced to sit was any indication he pitied Snape for having so little. It was a gesture that pushed Snape into continuing. ‘Which is, as always, sufficient for my needs.’ He grimaced at how much it rang in his own ears like justification.
‘The school was your home for so long, though, and you should see it now.’ Snape didn’t want to see it now though, and besides, how much could stone walls and small children change? He certainly didn’t want to walk its halls again in some ridiculous parody of a time that should have been long forgotten. ‘It is all you remember and more.’
‘I will not go back.’ It was definitive, an absolute statement of complete irrefutability delivered in a tone that should have closed the discussion from all further debate.
‘You should not fear the past, Severus.’ The purposefully disrespectful use of his first name had Snape itching for his wand. But words seldom failed the Potions Master, and to curse now would mean victory of a sort for Draco, if something of a hollow one.
‘I fear nothing, you impudent brat.’ Draco visibly glowered at the mild insult, a remnant of his childhood. To be called such a thing as an adolescent had infuriated him no end, and to call him it as an adult had an equally desirable effect. It took the respect he craved and demanded, and slapped him round the face with it. It at least managed to shut him up. ‘I merely have no desire to return to a place whose walls I was forced to suffer within for untold years.’
‘I did not realise I was so unbearable in my youth,’ the younger Malfoy smirked.
‘You were, of course, the one small ray of hope in what was an otherwise dismal time.’ Snape looked derisively down his hooked nose at the figure still lounging on his furniture. ‘Do not try my patience.’
‘Your patience is the very essence of legends.’ Draco dismissed the warning with a regal wave of his hand, the gesture dissipating the mild threat as though it were no more than wisps of smoke hanging in the air. ‘If I did not try it to breakage simply by greeting you, then I would worry something was truly wrong.’
‘Get to the point, Draco, and get to it quickly.’ There was only so long Snape could stomach to play the game, despite the fact that Draco seemed willing to keep it up indefinitely. But sometimes the blunt approach was favourable. Sometimes one could fool a Malfoy into believing he was getting his own way. ‘The meeting with our Lord took longer than I anticipated, and I have other places I need to be.’ Draco raised a curious eyebrow, as though mentally traversing a very short list of all the places he believed Snape would likely frequent, and dismissing them all on the grounds that none required he keep to any sort of schedule. He opened his mouth, smiling slightly, as if delaying the Potions Master for as long as possible were an interesting challenge, but apparently decided against it. Crossing his arms he regarded his former professor with a calculating gaze.
‘I am not the only one to find your reluctance to return to the school odd.’ It was delivered as a jibe, but there was no mistaking the hints of warning. It was not the one Snape had been expecting. He didn’t doubt that it was something that had only been considered odd with a little encouragement and a carefully dropped remark or two. ‘Not so much as a visit since it was reopened? Our Master may have indulged you up until now, but his amusement is wearing thin.’ Draco sat forward slightly as he spoke, suspicion now evident, but masking something else. There was something far too hungry in the way Draco was staring. ‘Why does the place cause you such grief?’
‘It is none of your concern.’ That didn’t stop Draco from guessing though.
‘Barely a trace of that old fool Dumbledore remains to indicate he was ever there.’ To his benefit, Draco didn’t flinch as Severus spun angrily on him, eyes lit furiously as he hissed between gritted teeth.
‘Do not mention his name!’
‘Dumbledore?’ The grin was back again, only far more predatory in nature. ‘My, my, what has aggrieved you so? Tell me you do not regret his death, for that would be some secret to be keeping.’ Snape allowed a snort of disbelief at the accusations.
‘His death could not have come soon enough.’
‘Still cannot take a joke, can you? Rest assured your hatred of the man is well known, although the reason not.’ Snape could feel Draco pushing gently against the walls of his mind, searching for the answer only the Dark Lord had ever had the privilege of hearing. ‘You hate him more than our Master ever managed.’ Hate was an easy emotion though, one that often proved a lot easier to manifest and maintain than mere indifference.
Snape managed to force a reply despite his clenched jaw. ‘He betrayed me.’
‘Betrayed you?’ The sentence was accompanied with a low chuckle. ‘You forget yourself, Severus. You were the spy; it was you who betrayed him.’
‘It was no more than he deserved.’
‘How you do nurture your grudges.’
Trembling with rage, all thoughts and worries of appearances forgotten, Snape took a single step forwards. ‘Listen to me, you ignorant little whelp.’ Draco found himself staring down the end of a shaking wand, black eyes boring mercilessly into him. He fingered his own wand lightly, the gesture all the more menacing for its obvious innocuousness. It had Snape breathing harshly through his nose and reigning in his temper with the thought of how much he stood to lose with a single misplaced word spoken in anger. Draco had proven time and time again that he considered outright blackmail a valuable tool, and that Snape’s subservience to him would not be marred if it could only be achieved with its use. ‘I do not answer to you,’ he said softly, ‘and you would do well to desist in acting as though I should.’
‘It was merely friendly concern.’ The long fingers continued to hover over the light wood as though Snape’s own wand was a measly figment of Draco’s imagination. ‘Surely you cannot be that unfamiliar with it, despite your years of self imposed seclusion.’
‘Friendly concern?’ Severus couldn’t help the bark of laughter. ‘Why Draco, you must be losing your touch. Your true motives are far too obvious.’
‘As is your paranoia.’
‘You should be honoured by all our Lord gave you.’ Draco frowned wrathfully at the sudden sentiment, not daring to voice his disagreement whilst they remained within the walls of the Dark Lord’s domain. ‘Or did you have your mind set on something other than Hogwarts? Higher aspirations perhaps? Or does a Malfoy simply not like to ever feel as though he is being outdone?’ Draco scowled at Snape’s words.
‘I am hardly outdone,’ he scoffed, eyes darkening with contemplation, drifting from Snape to stare intently at the wooden arm of the seat. ‘Still, I am curious as to why the Dark Lord would value your contributions to the cause over mine.’
‘Managing to kill Dumbledore was hardly the accomplishment you would claim given that he appeared near death anyway,’ Snape tossed out casually. Draco did not take well to having his prime triumph so easily belittled.
‘And it would be uncharacteristically foolish of you to think that was all I have done.’
Snape raised a single eyebrow, challenging the blonde to name one other thing whilst saying, with feigned concern, as if trying to calm the boy, ‘second choice was no insult, Draco.’ Yes, it was still possible to disarm a Malfoy and throw their impeccable control off balance, as Draco growled in the back of his throat.
‘Your position should have been mine. I earned it, and I will have it yet.’
It wasn’t a surprising admission, but Snape still felt a pang of regret that he had taught Draco so poorly that he still didn’t realise they were fighting over mere scraps. ‘You really are a spoiled little brat.’
‘I’m not scared of you any more, and your contributions have been no less vaunted than mine.’
‘The Dark Lord will not assign me to Hogwarts,’ Snape declared with absolutely no doubt. ‘Neither to replace you, nor to work for you, as I am sure you would prefer. He does not rate the importance of the potions capabilities of the younger generation quite as highly as you.’ Snape lowered his wand, letting it hang loosely at his side. ‘This childish habit of yours to be the best is really rather tiresome, and you can endeavour to ram your non-existent authority down my throat as much as you like, it will not change things.’
‘You take too much for granted.’ Draco stood. With his casual aloofness lost, sitting on the low seat made him visibly uncomfortable. Snape fought not to step backwards and away from the sudden closeness the movement created. ‘Things change, Severus, the world moves on. There is always an opportunity to further oneself if one happens to know where to look.’
‘And then what?’ Snape scorned. ‘Say you do manage to remove me, what will there be left for you to achieve?’ Draco snarled to match Snape’s own, but did not say anything. ‘It seems you did manage to inherit a few things from your father. I’m sure he would be proud. He always did have a nose for sniffing out power. It was his weakness too; for once he found it he could never have enough.’ Snape let his voice drop. ‘So tell me, Draco Malfoy, what it is you truly want?’ He paused for effect, letting the question hang unanswered in the stale air. ‘Do you want to be the Dark Lord’s right hand man, at the very top of the ladder, with the entire world beneath you? Because we all know that no matter how you dress it up, the only thing you will ever be is a servant, because that is exactly what we are. For there will always be someone higher than you, always someone you have to bow before and obey unless you truly are idiotic enough to attempt to claim His position for yourself.’
‘I just need to be better than you.’ Said with such vengeful honesty that Snape felt a momentary stab of concern that was horribly unfamiliar. Draco continued to glare at him, the belief that he had suffered a terrible injustice radiating from his cold eyes. Snape didn’t doubt that the only reason the Killing Curse had not yet been thrown in his face was because Draco did still, for all his lauding, fear the Dark Lord’s wrath.
‘For now, perhaps you have managed to convince yourself it would be enough, but our Master knows you better even than I. He will not hesitate to remind you of your place.’ Fear flashed again behind the grey eyes, the ingrained fear stemming from attributed impossible powers that allowed the Dark Lord to see and hear everything. But no Malfoy feared for long, as a cruel smile once again twisted Draco’s deceivingly angelic appearance.
‘And what about you, Severus?’ Draco was mocking now, his voice soft and lilting in the quiet of the room. ‘The Dark Lord may know me better than you, but does he know you better than I?’
‘He knows my loyalty, which is all that matters.’ Draco didn’t look convinced, and Snape could hardly blame him. He was simply clutching at straws now. ‘He knows I am devoted to him, as opposed to simply being devoted to the position.’
‘You cannot lie to yourself forever,’ Draco smirked, stepping back elegantly and brushing his robes down with sharp jerks of his hands, as if shabbiness was a contamination he needed to free himself from. The blonde was in the much more familiar waters of blackmail now - a place Snape had hoped never to have to confront him - and that bit more comfortable for it. ‘But don’t worry, I won’t tell him your little secret. It’ll be much more fun when he finds out for himself. And he will.’ Snape’s knuckles were white around his wand. ‘He won’t forgive you quite so quickly a second time when he discovers he is being laughed at for being so easily deceived by a half-blood.’ Snape exhaled heavily, all the air leaving his lungs in one great rush. ‘Yes, Severus, I know all about that. The Snape family history isn’t as well hidden as you would like.’ Draco smiled again, bowing low with exaggeration as Snape narrowed his eyes. ‘I look forward to seeing you kept on your toes, and I won’t keep you from your oh-so-important engagements any longer.’
The door swung open again as the young Malfoy grasped his cloak, still chuckling to himself in amusement. And when the door slammed closed, with only the softly retreating footsteps to be heard, Snape felt none of the relief he had expected upon the eventual departure.
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