Malfoy Manor was always a strange collection of paradoxes. The outside was a thing of beauty, with light alabaster detailing and a renaissance style. The peacocks Lucius was so fond of (though he said they were Narcissa's to save face) were happy to strut the estate and did so cheerfully. However the inside of the luscious estate held the darkest and most repulsive dark lord ever to live, let alone live again.
Yet, here Severus Snape was, climbing up the hill to Malfoy Manor to willingly face the monster inside, armed with his wits and his wand, but knowing only the first would save him. Snape hoped that tonight not only would he be able to eat some of the Malfoy's food, but that Voldemort would be pleased enough with him to forgo his usual torture.
Snape grabbed the serpent's head knocker and rapped it against the door, let in immediately by a very tired-looking Narcissa. Her face was withdrawn more than usual, and her hair, though perfect, had lost its shine. She looked old.
"Lovely as ever, Lady Narcissa," Severus lied, kissing the knuckles of the ladies hands. "Where is Lucius?"
Narcissa smiled faintly. "He and his brothers are already in the dining room, waiting for a few more guests," she told him. "I'm certain our Lord is eager to receive you, Severus."
"Then I will not keep him waiting."
Striding over the lengthy entry way, Snape waited no time before knocking on the dining room door.
"Enter" came the voice from inside.
Observing the room was wise, Snape knew, but upon entering any gathering the wiser thing to do was to find the Dark Lord and bow until he instructed you to stop. She Snape ignored the rest of the Death Eaters, instead approaching the head of the table and setting himself firmly on one knee before the man who had cheated death.
"My Lord," he chanted low.
"Rise Severus," Voldemort allowed tersely, a mood which had Snape's neck hairs prickling in alert. "Take your seat here on my left."
Still in favour, then, Severus thought, relieved. He quickly sat in his designated seat, and looked towards his Lord.
"You sound troubled, my Lord," Severus noted with a touch of concern in his voice. "What ails you?"
The room stilled as Voldemort nodded at his servant. "As observant as ever, Severus," the Dark Lord drawled. "I shall reward your insight with knowledge; the Potter boy is as protected at home as he is at Hogwarts."
"With muggles!?" Bellatrix Lestrange led the uproar. "How do they protect him?"
Voldemort waved away the indignation of his follower. "Blood wards, of some kind. Dumbledore keeps the boy with the closest relative of his meddling mother so he can use the same magic that deflected the curse all those years ago to protect the boy now. Even I, with some of his blood in my veins, cannot attack."
Snape was recording valid information with rapt attention. Voldemort had visited Little Whinging. He was still trying to kill the boy.
"I must stop looking at where he is held," Voldemort insisted now, red eyes gleaming, "and instead find out how to bring him to me, on my terms. Only then will he die."
Snape nodded impassively. The Dark Lord constantly brought up his plans for Potter, but he did not take kindly to others assuming they knew better on how to do it. The Dark Lord would be the one to think of the plan here, and it would not require his interjection.
"Is there any news from Hogwarts, Severus?" The Dark Lord inquired after a moment of thought.
Snape straightened in his seat. "I have two things that I need to discuss with you, my Lord," he said differentially. "Firstly, the Ministry has decided that Dumbledore is not running the school sufficiently and has placed Madame Undersecretary Dolores Umbridge in the school as the Defense professor."
Voldemort seemed to consider the news carefully, and Snape noted that he did not, in fact, know of this new development. It was both a relief for him, and a concern for whoever was supposed to be informing him of the Ministry's movements.
"She is too high up in the Ministry for it to simply be a placement," Voldemort drew out slowly. "I am interested to see what she wishes to teach, and what power Fudge will grant her. Keep an eye on the situation, Severus, but do not interfere."
"Yes, my Lord," Snape agreed.
"And the second matter, my spy?"
Snape drew a deep breath and focused his Occlumency walls to the front of his mind. "I have taken an apprentice, at Dumbledore's behest," Snape lied.
"Oh?" Voldemort's red eyes were suddenly very focused on him. "And you accepted?"
Snape forced a smirk on his face. "You will be pleased with his selection, Master," Snape drawled. "He has given me Hermione Granger, mudblood of his precious trio."
There were chitters of laughter around the table, but Voldemort remained silent but for a quirk of a smile on his lips.
"A very useful development, my spy," Voldemort praised. "Is it a standard apprenticeship contract?"
Snape grimaced forcibly. "The mudblood chit had the nerve to demand freedom in her contract. Dumbledore agreed. She feels . . . compelled to complete my commands, but nothing more." Seeing the look of displeasure on his Lord's face, he continued, "but this puts me in control of and regular contact with one of Harry Potter's closest friends. Perhaps I will even become her confidante, my Lord."
Voldemort nodded, but had a curious look on his face.
"And Dumbledore allows you to be in control of an underage girl?" he finally drew out, regarding his spy carefully.
Snape smiled. He opened his mouth to reply-
"She used a Time-Turner!" a small squeaky voice interrupted him.
Peter Pettigrew, gross as ever, was standing in the corner of the room like a bodyguard would, but the Death Eaters knew better. That was a position for a servant, and one without status. He would not sit with them until Voldemort himself invited him.
Voldemort drew his gaze from Snape, which he was instantly grateful for, to turn it on Wormtail.
Wormtail couldn't believe he was being addressed, so he hopped from foot to foot. "The year I returned to you, my Lord, Dumbledore had given her a time-turner to get to all her classes," Pettigrew chattered excitedly. "She was taking too many. I saw her use it a few times."
Snape snorted. "While I'm sure everyone will love to hear your fascination with watching 14-year-old girls," he sneered dericively, "you seemed to be missing more than just your hand. 'A few times'? That stupid girl used the time-turner so much she aged over 15mths more than the 9mth school year. She studied past the seventh-year level, and is being allowed to take her NEWTS this summer. She turned 17 a couple of weeks ago. The Trace is off her."
There was a murmur of confusion and excitement at the table. Voldemort looked intrigued, but said little, letting others argue and prattle in front of him. Most of it was Bellatrix, mocking Snape.
"So, you'll have a little mudblood to play with, dear Sevvie?" Bellatix cooed from the table. "No longer a student, either. Think of the fun you could have with her."
Snape forced himself not to be disgusted at her words, and just sat there impassively. "As if I would bed the little Gryffindor," Snape sneered at them. "The little know-it-all wouldn't please me. She'd just raise her hand and ask questions the whole time I'm taking her."
That was the correct response, cause the whole table laughed eagerly.
Bellatrix cackled happily. "Oh, Sevvie, you're a brute!"
"It's Severus, Bellatrix," Snape drawled. "You won't be pleased if I start calling you Bellie, now, would you?"
That earned another round of laughter, this time without Bellatrix. She sank back into her chair with a frown. Voldemort raised his head, clearly ready again to address us.
"Severus," he started with, "I am pleased with this new development. Train her, to whatever standard Dumbledore requires. He will want to see her progress, and you should not try to hinder it."
"Yes, my Lord," Snape agreed again.
"Lucius, Augustus," he turned his attention to two of his ministry officials, "why was I not informed, either of Miss Umbridge, or the Trace on Miss Granger?"
There was no acceptable answer from either of them. For the rest of the meal, the occasional crucio would attack the heap of Death Eater in the corner, pulling cries from either man. They would remain there, Snape knew, until Voldemort left the room and the house-elves could tend to them.
By the time Snape had left, his Occlumency was frigid and cold in his mind, fighting to keep his conscience well at bay before he returned to the most conscience-inducing old man he'd ever met, Albus Dumbledore.