Chapter 51

Discrimination

xxx

"I believe I owe you the courtesy of a warning."

This was the sentence that punctuated the equilibrium of their silence as Harry and Snape descended the steps to the dungeons.

Harry's eyes instantly flew to meet Snape's, and what he met there was a sense of firm calm that suggested a confidence of conviction. His expression held neither ire nor anxiety, but acceptance of whatever Harry's reaction might be to his subsequent confession.

"You may not like me very much, a few moments from now."

Harry swallowed. On the day of their return to the castle, Harry had prepared himself for a number of things. The admission his Father had just uttered was not one of them. He had already endured the unease of the day; his conversation with Severus the prior evening had ended on an unsettling note, and neither man had confronted the issues since. He had hoped that once he reached the castle, he would be free to escape the man's shrewd glances and pregnant pauses.

"Sir?" he questioned.

"I will explain, momentarily," Severus replied in a subdued voice. "But perhaps not here. I would simply like to brace you for the fact that we are not on our way to tea."

As the two rounded the corner to the deserted corridor just ahead of Snape's office, the older man reached into the pocket of his robes. The envelope he then pulled from the black folds looked as though it had endured a lifetime's mistreatment. He halted and extended it to Harry, who stood staring at the envelope in consternation.

"Take it," commanded Severus unapologetically. "It is yours."

Harry frowned, his arm outstretched; as confusion gave way to the beginnings of comprehension, he snatched the tarnished envelope. Its ripped flap hung agape, and he quickly pulled the parchment from inside. He unfolded an equally abused letter, and began to read.

Snape did not hesitate, waiting for a reaction. As Harry's eyes scanned the letter, Severus began to speak. "I know that you will be angry with me for having chosen the action that I did," Severus stated solemnly. It was not that self-reproach was completely absent from his persona, it was that he seemed to accept that this was the only way to resolve the problem they now faced.

Turning a deaf ear to his Father momentarily, Harry finished reading the letter. When his eyes had drifted over the last line of fine black script, he continued to stare at the paper if only to allow himself a few moments to formulate a response.

"You…you read this?" Harry asked in disbelief.

"I did."

"So, what I told you yesterday, you—"

"I had intended to confront you with it," Severus explained calmly. "When you confessed before I had the chance to do so, I took the evening to decide how next to approach."

A mounting sense of indignation was suspended only by the incredulity Harry felt towards the situation as a whole. He could not immediately comprehend the consequences of this letter for him and his friends, nor could he analyze the comparison of the actual feelings he had towards his Father in this moment in versus the feelings that he ought to have. He knew that it was right to feel blighted, as though a terrible invasion had occurred, and yet he was so blindsided by his Father's uncharacteristically straightforward approach that he couldn't decide which thought to acknowledge first.

Severus had begun to walk again, and Harry had to jog several steps in order to catch him. What Harry might have considered the beginning of an impressive monologue was put to rest before the words could even arrange into some semblance of sense. As they turned the corner to the last hallway leading to his office, Harry faltered. Standing in front of Severus' office door, looking respectively anxious and defiant, were Hermione and Ron.

Before the man had even started his purposeful walk towards his friends, Harry knew what was about to happen. He understood, now, why Severus had thought to warn him.

Severus reached the door to his office in several quick steps, greeting the two Gryffindors brusquely before allowing them entrance. Hermione's eyes were wide as they met Harry's behind Severus' back; he knew that she, like himself, understood the circumstances. Yet both were powerless to change their fortune.

"You may be seated," Severus said to them all, removing his outer robes and casting them over his own chair before sinking into it.

"The letter, Harry—"

Harry understood the question behind her words even as she whispered them under her breath to him. They stared at each other, and Harry shook his head subtly, as though to assure her that he was just as surprised as she was.

As they arranged themselves in a line in front of Snape's desk, with Hermione seated in the middle, she stared up at him with apprehension. "What is all of this about, sir?"

"I do not think we need to maintain the pretense of naivety any longer, Miss Granger."

"Sir?"

"The letter, Harry," Severus said in way of command, beckoning for the letter impatiently. Begrudgingly, Harry foisted the parchments towards him. He privately thought that Severus had a lot of audacity to demand it as though it had now become his property. In the presence of his friends, however, and with their fates at stake, he didn't dare to speak. He would have plenty of time for that, later.

Severus began to read aloud, and the grace of his voice might have been soothing but for the fact that the three of them cringed with each sentence he uttered. When he finished, he released the letter calmly and let it drift down to the desk, staring at them as though he had just read nothing more important than the business ads out of the Daily Prophet.

"I am going to give you a chance to speak first, Miss Granger."

Harry and Ron's eyes met as they both turned to face Hermione, who was sinking down into her seat as though it were made out of quicksand. Her eyes downturned, they fluttered closed in a way that might have been mistaken for a painstakingly long blink, and then they were open again as she lifted her head and looked back to the Professor.

"No?" Severus prodded inquisitively, but Hermione sat forward in her chair. He lifted his eyebrows in challenge.

"Professor Snape," she began, her voice faltering at first. She took a breath and began again, gaining strength. "If we're dropping pretenses, I should start by saying that I don't know how you came about that letter but it was meant for Harry."

Behind her, a loud smack drew several pairs of eyes to Ron; his palm was pressed against his forehead, and he was staring at Hermione, apparently astounded. When he realized the attention of the room had shifted to him, he peeled his hand from his face and tucked it into his lap, averting his wide eyes from the scene.

"Yes, I am well aware of the secrecy between the three of you," responded Snape bitingly. "I inquire as to the need for it."

Hermione's head turned slightly towards Harry, and he knew that he could not let Hermione bear the weight of handling his Father on her own.

"It's not her fault," said Harry, and Hermione winced. Harry knew she understood what he was sacrificing by admitting this. "She said we should come to you."

"And yet no one did," said Snape gravely.

"I told them not to. I told you, my friends have always been loyal to me."

Beside him, Ron and Hermione were nodding their heads slowly in agreement.

"That is a very nice sentiment," responded Snape to the children in front of them. "However, I did not call you here for a lesson on the strength of your friendship. I asked you three to come here, together, so that there may be no confusion or miscommunication between the three of you from now on. I am going to tell you exactly what I expect of you, and then none of you can claim ignorance for the rest of the time in which we are acquainted.

"Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley, in following Malfoy the other night, you risked your lives. I shouldn't need to explain, but to avoid confusion, I will. You underestimate Draco Malfoy; you have been attending school together since you were children, and you still consider him to be within the realm of your power. Draco Malfoy is no longer a mere student, however. He is a Death Eater. He is not an agent of Dumbledore. There is a real possibility that he could lead you to danger. You must acknowledge that, first and foremost."

"Professor," said Hermione slowly, with difficulty, as she glanced apprehensively in Ron's direction. Though the other boy did not respond verbally, he nodded once to encourage her on. "Don't you think that is a little unfair?"

Hermione's speech was tentative, as though she realized she was close to an invisible line; her face, however, conveyed an actively working mind and a determination to maintain her position.

"My assessment, Miss Granger?"

"Yes. I think you have the wrong idea of the spirit in which we act on our own."

"You would have me believe," said Snape with eyes narrowed, "that you were completely aware of the stupidity of your actions?"

"That's what's unfair, Professor. You really believe we are stupid? Me, one of your best students? Harry, your son?" She glanced over in Ron's direction, but apparently decided to stop there. He scowled and folded his arms.

Harry was paying very little attention to his friends. He was watching his Father's expression as it moved from steadfast firmness to concession. He inclined his head only slightly, and his eyes flickered from Hermione's face, to Ron's, and back to Harry. His gaze rested there for several minutes, and then he sat back in his chair, broadening his gaze to all three of them.

"If not done in the name of stupidity, then in the name of what, Miss Granger?"

"I think Harry already told you, sir. Loyalty. In the last six years of our lives, while we might have made some reckless decisions, we made them out of necessity because no one else would act. We aren't ignorant of the danger; we risk it because we want to help Harry."

Severus evaluated Hermione shrewdly. "If you think I am working towards different ends, you are mistaken. Why not utilize the resources at your disposal?"

"What resources?" Ron finally spoke up, the tone of his voice suggesting he had finally been spurred to action by his frustration with Snape.

"Do you forget the years I spent in the Dark Lord's service?" Snape ground out, turning a harsh glare on Ron. "I believe I have erred in the fact that I have been repeatedly reprimanding Harry, when I did not realize how the three of you acted as a unit. Perhaps, by dealing with you as a triplet of trouble, I can get to the source of the problem. You must stop acting on your own. You must come to me—"

"How are we to come to you when you're always so angry?" Ron blurted out, but a look of regret instantly overcame him.

"Excuse me, Weasley?" Severus' tone was sharp, his eyes bright with trained emotion.

Ron's eyes were pressed closed; he looked as though he were willing himself back in time to stop his own mouth from betraying him. "Please don't give me detention," he mumbled in a rush of breath, and next to him, Hermione sighed.

"That is the problem, Professor," she admitted, saving Ron from having to speak. "However you choose to state it…"

"Sometimes, you're terrifying," added Harry from her side.

To everyone's surprise, a corner of Severus' lips turned upwards. The half-smile did not match the dark look in his eyes, however, as he considered the children before him. He looked menacingly satisfied with their evaluation of his demeanor.

"Flattered though I may be," responded Snape sardonically, dark brows forming a high arch above his hooked nose, "that I am able to intimidate such a brave group of Gryffindors, I admit that I am a bit disappointed. I had thought better of you than all of that."

"Better of us? Not five minutes ago, you were calling us idiots, and now—"

"Don't be brash, Harry," snapped Severus, the amusement fading from his expression.

"It seems I have to be, to make you listen."

Severus' jaws were working as though he were clenching and unclenching his teeth, tempering his own response. "By all means then," he said stiffly, hands splayed open. "I am listening."

Harry took a deep breath and tried to still himself. At this moment, he felt the enormity of giving voice to what seemed like a thousand thoughts pressing at the front of his mind. He felt a rush of anticipation, and he knew that if he did not clear his head, he would never articulate what he held most important.

"You told me just the other day that you realize that you can be overbearing, and that you act that way out of concern," said Harry. "But you have been overbearing for the entire time we have known you, to the point of cruelty, even. You expect us to change the way we react to you, and yet you've changed nothing about the way you treat us!"

"Harry-" came Hermione's soothing voice at his side, but he ignored her.

"If you can invade my privacy, insult our intelligence, and impose your will on us all in the name of concern, excusing your actions only by explaining that it is simply 'your way', then why can't we do the same and act out of the same sense of duty that we always have? If you can explain away the rashness of your actions, then why can't I?"

"Because as your parent, I have a right to do what I see fit, if it results in your protection—"

"That's bull!" Harry exclaimed forcefully; he stated it as a fact, and would not accept anything else.

"Harry!" This time, Hermione's voice cut through Harry's closed off consciousness, and he took another deep breath, calming himself. He knew that this was a product of the resentment he felt towards a number of things, and also that he needed to control himself if he was to solve anything.

"You ought to tread lightly, Harry," said Severus after a length of silence, his dark eyes working furiously as he evaluated the boy before him. "You are nearing the point of no return. I will be clear: I am permitting this one mistake to go unpunished. There won't be another."

"Yes, sir," said Harry begrudgingly, looking away. He knew that he should not shout at his Father, and he knew that the man could have chosen to react much more angrily towards him and his friends than he had thus far. He felt a sharp desire for justice, though, stabbing at an already open wound: he had to make himself heard.

For what seemed like an inordinately long amount of time, no one in the room spoke. Harry felt as though it were unwise to speak until Severus had said his piece; from what he could tell, his friends agreed with him.

Severus sat across from the three adolescents, uncertain how to proceed. At the beginning of the day, as he had contemplated the consequences in store for the young Gryffindors, he had concluded that the best course of action was to appeal to their more noble natures. He had intended to bring them together and to convince them, collectively, to act in what he deemed a more rational way. What he was beginning to understand, however, was that he was rapidly losing his audience. He wanted to lash out at them for their defiance, yet he knew to do so would be the final alienating blow.

"So," intoned Severus at last, "I am to understand, you believe there is a double standard here?"

"Well…yes," Harry replied, irritation still edging its way into his tone. "I think you expect me to do everything you say, but explain everything you do with some absolute excuse of 'I'm the adult'. When will I be in an adult, in your eyes?"

"When you start acting like one."

"That's what you always say," Harry responded softly, and Severus found himself unexpectedly moved by the desperation in his voice. "But I don't think there's anything I could do to convince you that I'm ready."

At Harry's sudden turn in tone, Severus felt the conversation shifting to a new dynamic. His initial thought was to send his friends from the room; he would have liked to deal with his son one on one, for this. However, he had brought them together for a purpose, and that purpose had not been accomplished. He knew that when Harry was outside of his influences, it was his friends he turned to. He needed them all to understand that he existed not only as a harsh authority figure whom they needed to avoid, but as a reliable confidant. Observing the mutual defiance in their expressions, he realized the scale of the endeavor.

"I have tried, repeatedly," Severus began, weariness and frustration apparent in all of his mannerisms, "to change the light in which I view you. All of you," he added, looking pointedly to Ron and Hermione. "However, the attempts are made in your absence. When I am sitting quietly in my office, grading my papers, I am not plotting how next to destroy your sense of independence. I am considering exactly the opposite. However, any of those thoughts are often countered by some impending catastrophe of your design.

"I understand, you think I am unfair. I have heard that, loud and clear. However, I would like you to consider that perhaps the reason you always expect an angry reaction is because somewhere, deep down in the recesses of your impetuous little Gryffindor brains, you realize that you are partially guilty of the rashness and immaturity with which I accuse you."

"Perhaps, sometimes, you deserve it. Perhaps, sometimes, you need to be reprimanded by someone as harsh as myself. I think it is for your good; disagree with me all you would like, but I do not treat you cruelly for the hell of it. I do not use my status as a Professor and a parent to bully you mercilessly. I try, at least, to use it in order to protect you."

"But we don't need—"

"Do not," warned Severus firmly, "tell me that you don't need to be protected. We all need to be protected. You are fortunate that you currently remain one of the protected, not of the sacrificed."

What Severus realized, as he said this, and what Harry realized as well, was that he was referring to himself in the number of the sacrificed. He knew the costs of the war they were fighting. He had known it when Dumbledore had placed him on the alter years ago, asking him to spy when what he had truly desired had been to run. And he recognized it now, as he saw that the importance of the task was worth his life, and was worth the lives of those who had sacrificed themselves so far. He couldn't allow his son to take this for granted, not only for himself, but for those countless others as well.

"What I am trying to tell you, Harry, and you two," he said, sparing a glance to his friends, "is that being treated as an adult does not mean giving you free reign to do as you please if it means placing you in danger. When you stop making dangerous decisions, I will give you more freedom. Until then, I will allow you to think of me as your enemy, if it will protect you. I will react harshly to your misdeeds if it will make you understand how wrong they are. I will invade your privacy if I feel you are hiding secrets that might bring you to harm. I will let you hate me, if it means keeping you safe."

Harry's breath escaped him in a forceful rush, matching the horrible clenching feeling of having received a sharp blow to the gut. He wanted to look away from his Father, wanted to evaluate his friends sitting silently beside him, but for some reason he could not tear his eyes away from the mixture of fierce determination and painful resignation in Severus' countenance.

He didn't know how to respond. He didn't know where to begin, or where he would end once he had. He felt an instinctive impulse to apologize, but was unsure which words to offer up as penance. Had he misjudged his Father? Perhaps not intentionally. He had never thought the man didn't care for him, but he had rarely felt it as he did in this moment. The nature of the conversation, however, was not one of sentimentality. Severus' manner was fierce and intimidating; he felt as though he were staring the frightful beast of logic in the face, unwilling to speak for fear of saying the wrong thing yet again.

Hermione and Ron couldn't save him now, he knew. They were just as stunned as he was. It was not their battle to win; they were simply in league with him, waiting to follow at his command.

"I don't hate you," Harry said at last, knowing that it was the one thing he could say in truth. "I could never hate you, now."

"I am glad to hear it," answered Severus' in subdued tones, his expression unchanging.

"And I have tried to do as you say, and act more rationally…but I can't help the unexpected things that come up. I always end up in the same place: sitting in front of your desk, feeling awful, and looking back and seeing how right you are, but powerless to go back and change my actions. My hindsight is great, but in the moment, when I don't know everything… it's so hard to guess what you would want me to do. I can only do what I have always done, and that's to act quickly."

"We want to do the right thing," said Hermione quietly at his side. "But we don't always have the resources to do so."

"Precisely my point, Miss Granger," replied Severus with some satisfaction. "I do."

"It's that you don't take us seriously," said Harry. "How many times have I told you something suspicious about Malfoy? And you refuse to explain his actions, even though you have knowledge that could help me understand. When I jump to conclusions about him and run to you again, you say to me still that I don't understand it and don't need to. But don't you understand, if I knew everything about him ahead of time, I might have made different decisions?"

"If Ron and I had known about Malfoy before seeing him in the woods, we wouldn't have followed him," Hermione added, as if to support Harry's claims in case Severus needed clarification. "But all we knew was that you didn't seem to take Harry seriously about him, and we thought if you didn't believe he was up to something, and we could help prove it to you, it might save Harry from whatever Malfoy was planning. I know, it was still foolish and impulsive, but it seemed necessary, at the time, because we didn't know anything."

The sound Severus emitted resembled a drawling chuckle, but it didn't seem possible that something so benign could sound so dark. "I see," he said after a moment of considering them, looking something akin to impressed, though not quite there. "So you claim innocence to any accusations of folly due to your ignorance of the facts and evidence surrounding the loyalty, or lack-thereof, of Draco Malfoy?

"Yes," said the three Gryffindors in unison, with varying degrees of confidence and relief at having finally communicated this message.

Severus sighed deeply. "I do not intend for you to fear me—" Severus began, only pausing slightly at the sudden interruption of Ron's obnoxious snorting sound, "—so much that I become the one you are fighting."

"I don't think any of us consciously fights you, Professor," offered Hermione.

"I am not concerned by what you choose to name your tactics of evasion and defiance, I would just like for them to cease." His words were harsher than he seemed to realize, by the way he had delivered them. "Now, I hope that we have reached an understanding here today. What I would like for you to take away from this is that I am not your enemy, even though it might appear so at times."

"We understand that," answered Hermione.

"We shall see," replied Severus in a cynically dubious tone of voice, expression flat.

"Do you understand us?" asked Harry pointedly, lifting his eyebrows.

"I realize," Severus said with difficulty, his eyes level with them even as they seemed to want to roll upwards as an expression of his annoyance, "why you have felt as though your lack of knowledge was a disadvantage. Where I often believe that these matters ought not to concern you, perhaps I did not take into account that you feel as though you are being treated like children. The information I am privy to carries certain responsibilities, and I have not wanted you to bear that burden. However, if it will help you to act more judiciously, I will answer your questions honestly in the future. Though, I do hope you realize what you are asking for. The realities I have spared you are often harsher than I believe you anticipate."

The three children exchanged glances quickly, as though to be discrete, but none of them spoke to one another. Harry turned to his Father. "We will accept whatever responsibilities we must."

"I am glad to hear it," said Severus with a lilt to his tone somewhat like mocking, but it was hard to pinpoint exactly what lent it that quality. "Now, as to the letter. I think you realize why I felt within my rights to open it, and I hope in the future you will not feel the need for so much secrecy. May we put this issue to rest?"

Though he knew his efforts would be wasted, Harry felt a subtle urge to avenge the indignation he'd felt earlier. He wanted Severus to know how angry his actions had made him. He did, however, realize that this was an urge borne of impracticality. He would accomplish nothing by railing against an offense his Father had freely admitted to, and for which he knew the older man would not repent of.

"I might remind you that the three of you have broken a number of rules over the past week," said Severus. "If you would prefer to address them individually, we certainly may."

"No need for that, Professor," Hermione abruptly responded, when Harry failed to do so. There was a nervous quality to her voice that she masked with inappropriate laughter. "Right, Harry?"

"Right," Harry admitted, prompted by her eyes, which were fixed on him pleadingly. If he were to admit it to himself, he was fortunate that this conversation had ended in his favor.

xxx

"But Professor Snape, isn't it sort of mean?" asked first year Orrin Kelly, whose slightly round, freckled face was crumpling sadly under the pressure of being directed to dismember a portion of Scarab beetles.

Severus whirled in the direction of the small voice, his lips pressed firm. "Mr. Kelly, these are a common Potions ingredient, not your pets. They are already dead, at any cost."

The eleven year old had no response for him except for a faint quiver in his facial muscles. Next to him, his partner giggled.

Severus sighed and relented; it occurred to him that he was perhaps softening in his old age, but he had no desire to humiliate this particularly sensitive student.

"Begin to clean your work stations," said Severus, moving back to his desk. "We will continue on Wednesday. I expect you all to return to class prepared."

As the students completed their work for the day and finally began to file past him, Severus mused that this was not even his most challenging task of the day. An inevitable meeting with Dumbledore loomed over him; it was the start of the school week, the beginning of May, and the day of the first Order meeting in several months. There wasn't a single reason that would excuse Severus from meeting with the Headmaster.

The subjects weighing on Severus' mind were heavy; Malfoy's viability as a spy over Kinnaird was one, and secondly Harry's recent shift in ideals. Both topics required action, and Severus was tasked with conveying the importance of this to the Headmaster. He would need to portray the events that had recently elapsed in such a way that Dumbledore would come to see their current situation through the exact scope Severus was looking through.

This was the dilemma that Severus contemplated some time later, as he sat in Dumbledore's office waiting for the man to return from whatever task had drawn him away. Impatiently, Severus glanced at the clock, and back at the fireplace. It was a quarter past four, with the Order meeting a short forty-five minutes away. They were already pressed for time.

"Ah, Severus, I am glad you are here," said Dumbledore when he finally strode through the door several minutes later.

"I should be saying the same to you," remarked Severus, remaining seated as Dumbledore moved behind his desk.

"I apologize for my tardiness," Dumbledore responded placatingly. "I had the most unfortunate run in with young Mr. Creevey as he was coming out of Herbology. Suffice it to say that a visit to the hospital wing was necessary; I felt obligated to escort him there."

"How benevolent you are, Headmaster."

"And as another matter of interest," Dumbledore continued mildly, "It was there that I ran into Mr. Malfoy. Did you know he had returned to the infirmary as of this morning?"

Dumbledore asked in a tone that suggested he might already know the answer, but it appeared that what he was not expecting Severus answer when he replied. "I was unaware, Headmaster. Is he—"

"Yes, fine. At least, physically. I had it from him that Professor McGonagall sent him there this morning when he showed up to class sleep deprived and bearing the scars of this weekend's difficulties. He would not confide in me any further than that. I believe, Severus, it is coming time to intervene. It seems inhumane to leave him to this fate any longer—"

"Albus, if you are thinking that you can save Mr. Malfoy from this fate by pulling him away from the influence of his family and the Dark Lord, you will bring a rain of fire down on us like we have never experienced before," Severus warned, rigid as he examined Dumbledore's features. "The Dark Lord has taken him on as his final tether to this world—as a young vessel through which he may act for the next century. If you pull him, you risk an attack, not only on us but on Harry as well."

"It seems a risk to have Mr. Kinnaird and Mr. Malfoy in constant observance of each other; Voldemort will not need to look far to discern which information they volunteer is true and which is fabricated."

"Then take Kinnaird out," suggested Severus, to which Dumbledore frowned.

"Severus, what do you see when you look at Mr. Kinnaird?"

"A complication," Severus growled.

"Severus," said Dumbledore firmly. "I intend to ask, what do you believe his motives are? Why are you so certain that he will fail? I feel you hate him for reasons beyond his abilities."

"What has he done for us that has been particularly helpful, Albus? What has he done to prove his allegiance?"

"He has given me his word, and I believe that an opportunity will one day present itself when we will be glad that we had him in place—"

"So we are wasting our time and resources on a man who might give us an advantage one day?"

"What would you suggest, Severus?" Dumbledore queried. "You never gave up your work willingly because you understood how important it was that you could be there to influence the mind of Voldemort and to bring us essential information. We need someone; I am sorry if Mr. Kinnaird is not your first choice, but I don't know what other option you think that we have."

"What about Mr. Malfoy?" asked Severus sharply, to which Dumbledore frowned.

"He may help us if he desires, but I am not going to risk giving him any sort of information that might incriminate us. It would be suicide, Severus, to trust him."

"What if it wasn't?" Severus' voice was low, the solemnity of it garnering Dumbledore's full attention as he gazed at Severus with interest.

"How could we know?"

"Recently, Mr. Malfoy returned from one of his weekends away a great deal worse for the wear; what he returned with was the final ingredient for our potion. In around two months, we may finally be able to release Harry from the connection which binds him inextricably to the Dark Lord. This is due to Draco's work, not Kinnaird's, and it was done in the absence of any request. Perhaps he is no more trustworthy than Kinnaird, but I am certain at least of his immense value to us. I am not certain of Kinnaird's."

Across the desk, Dumbledore's consciousness seemed to disappear behind a cloud of thought. His eyes were momentarily vacant, his features frozen as he stared ahead, and then he returned, a new light of intelligence flashing in his eyes.

"This has so many implications," said the Headmaster softly. "Why did you not inform me sooner?"

"I took time to verify that Malfoy's claims were correct, and that the sample he returned with was in fact of the Dark Lord." It was the truth, but not the whole truth, Severus knew. "I wanted to be certain of the news I had to bring you."

"We have less time than we thought, it seems."

Severus agreed, "It seems. Which is why I suggest that now, if ever, we must trim the fat, so to speak."

"I will not dismiss Mr. Kinnaird and seal his fate in such a way simply because of your dislike of him, Severus. It is not only unethical, it places us at an even further disadvantage. Furthermore, I am still unconvinced of Mr. Malfoy's loyalty."

"We cannot be certain of anyone's loyalty until all has been said and done, Albus. I know what the Dark Lord wants to hear, and I am well trained to recognize the information that will incriminate us. I have given neither man anything of the sort. This is a matter of your trust in my skills of discernment, Albus."

"I have faith in your abilities, but—"

"Then listen to me," hissed Severus, aware of the vehemence in his voice only after he had spoken. Briefly closing his eyes, he leveled his voice and continued. "I will respect your decision to keep Mr. Kinnaird within your sphere of influence, Albus, but I request that you allow me to stop wasting my extremely valuable time on him if he does not produce results. I believe my efforts would be better spent on influencing Draco; he is young, moldable. He could still be helped, brought over to our side. Only, however, if you do not scare him off. Promise me, you will allow me to dedicate some time to affecting my influence over him."

"I will consider it, Severus. But as to Kinnaird, I am unwilling to sacrifice him based on your opinion. I hope you can see the sense in that."

Severus wanted to growl in response, but instead he spoke. "I hope you will realize that should others be in my position, they would be of the same mind. This is not dependent on my surly nature, Albus, despite what you may think."

"Perhaps we will see about that," Dumbledore replied vaguely.

Irritated with the old man's inability to commit to a decision, Severus gestured his deference and changed the subject. "I have been rather consumed, of late, in dealing with my son. Harry has begun his training in White Magic. He and his friends seemed to have reached a point, as well, where they realize the imminence of the threat. They are chomping at the bit, Albus, almost outside of my control."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean that they feel the pressure of what must be accomplished, and it is encouraging in them a new-found sense of independence. They are constantly acting on their impulses."

"Certainly a force to reckon with, if their past behavior is any indication. Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems independence has always been one of their more prominent traits?"

"True, Albus, but I previously saw audacious defiance rather than a growing sense of autonomy. We must be able to occupy them; we might steady their hands by keeping them busy."

"How?"

"They require a sense of importance. Perhaps, if they were given the information that helps us to exercise sound judgment, they might develop a more dutiful sense of responsibility. They might stop acting so rashly if they did not feel it was necessary to act in such a way."

"Severus, if what you are suggesting-"

"They will all soon be of age, Albus," stated Severus firmly. "And we must stop coddling them. I can think of no better way to help them to grow into the adult roles they insist on playing than to teach them to appreciate the responsibilities that accompany adulthood."

"Do you really believe they are ready?"

"They will never be ready. But there is no better way to teach a bird how to fly than to push it from the nest."

"And if they don't fly?"

"Then they will have learned to stop jumping on their own."

xxx

"I maintain that the meetings I have with Professor Snape are vital to my success. I may not seem immediately disposable to the Dark Lord, but it is my proximity to Harry Potter—" A huff of annoyance came from Severus, but Kinnaird did not seem to notice the slip. The fact remained that the rest of the world had coined his son's familial name as more of a phrase than an assignment of identity.

"—that interests him. Harry's progress has been, for some time now, the Dark Lord's main topic of inquiry. If I can no longer report that, I cannot guess what other uses he will find for me."

"I, for one, do not approve of using the boy as leverage for Mr. Kinnaird's success," McGonagall stated in a factual tone, as though she were lecturing a class. Indeed, she looked as though she were silently instructing them as she sharply met the gaze of those sitting around her. "Quite a slippery slope, don't you agree?"

Branson Kinnaird was standing over the long, curved table, shoulders thrust forward and knuckles white as his palms pressed hard against the wooden surface. He stared hard at McGonagall, and replied, "I never meant to imply that I intend to use the boy. I do not barter details about his personal life to tickle the fancy of the Dark Lord, nor do I reveal damaging information about him for some evil purpose."

Behind him, almost absent mindedly, Severus rolled his eyes at the melodramatic nature of it all. At least the young man looked convinced of the act he was putting forward. His stance was emphatic, his demeanor one of presumptuous importance. Severus stealthily assessed the few Order members seated around the table. It was a small, private meeting that they had been in dire need of for some time now. Kinnaird's attendance had only served to heighten the tension between the Headmaster and himself; it was unprecedented, and as far as Severus was concerned, ill-advised.

"Severus, you brought us to this topic, perhaps you might share your thoughts," McGonagall stated stiffly from the end of the table's arch, nearest to Dumbledore in the center of the room.

Severus's eyes snapped to attention at the mention of his name, even while the rest of him remained still, leaning back into his chair with his arms folded firmly across his chest. When he responded, it was in slow, deliberate tones. "I have already given my thoughts on the subject, but I will respond. Firstly, I hope that no one in this room would think it acceptable to use my son for personal gain. That goes without saying. Any offender would answer a fate far worse than that at the hands of the Dark Lord."

Severus' eyes were thunderous as he glanced at Kinnaird, and then to Dumbledore. His irritation with the Headmaster was mounting with each annoyance that Kinnaird uttered. Severus could only hope that the other Order members would draw the same conclusions about him as Severus had reached; it was only that hope that kept his tongue firmly locked behind bars of teeth.

"And secondly, Severus?" replied Dumbledore, his demeanor maddeningly serene as he nodded in Severus' direction.

"Secondly," answered Severus after a beat, "I have given my dissent on the issue of my meetings with Mr. Kinnaird. They are beginning to seem unnecessary, and I believe he should move on to more industrious pursuits. A majority of our time spent together is relatively unproductive."

"Yes," interrupted Kinnaird tensely, "Because you spend most of the time shouting at me."

"An exaggeration," Severus replied, waving his hand as if to silence the sound of his voice. "And at any cost, I fear this has become a forum for the lodging of complaints. I move to adjourn, if there are no objections."

As if in warning, Severus stared stonily around the table at his colleagues.

"Severus is right," McGonagall stated definitively. "Mr. Kinnaird, you had requested brevity, due to an impending meeting of upmost importance; is that time not drawing near?"

McGonagall's eyes had moved to Kinnaird, whom Severus could observe contemplating his response several seats away.

"Indeed," said Kinnaird as he released his grip on the table and smoothed his hair back. "I hope that when I return, you will have considered what I have said—not for my own selfish pursuits, as you have suggested, but for the greater good."

For the greater good, Severus sneered disdainfully at the cliché, his eyes fixed intently on the back of Kinnaird's skull as he exited the room.

"I haven't any idea what you meant by bringing that man into this meeting." The words were out of McGonagall's mouth before the door had fully closed behind him. Her tone was disapproving. "He has no place in these affairs."

"My dear Professor McGonagall," replied Dumbledore pleasantly, "That is precisely why I invited him to this meeting. I thought you all might help decide a disagreement Severus and I have been having for quite some time now. In addition to my and Severus' opinions, I value yours. "

"I asked before, and I will ask again," said McGonagall. "What is your opinion, Severus?"

"He is either naïve enough to believe all of the tripe he puts forward, or he's being openly manipulative," stated Severus. "Possibly, he is loyal, and thoroughly believes in the Dark Lord's ignorance; this would mean that his demise is imminent. However, his survival has been continuous, so I believe it is more likely he is a boy in over his head, attempting to play both sides. I believe that he is simply treading water, now, trying to stay afloat. He will use whatever means necessary to succeed in survival, on either side."

"Is there someone he trusts?" inquired Nymphadora Tonks at once, jaunting her upper body forward as she positioned herself toward the Headmaster. Her manner was one of intense interest. "We could find him out rather quickly with a well done inquiry. Though I haven't had much time to judge, myself, it seems from this description that he might be easily discovered."

"Perhaps we ought not take him so lightly," suggested Lupin sagely, who sat next to the energetic Tonks. "He has succeeded in a number of things—I hope that we will not fool ourselves by negating the discernible amount of skill it has taken to both secure a place in Hogwarts and continue to thrive in Voldemort's circle."

"Yes, and it even appears that he has earned our Headmaster's trust," intoned Snape silkily, cutting smoothly through the growing discussion.

"Is it true, Albus?" questioned Molly Weasley, her tone less accusatory than surprised. "Are you convinced of his loyalty?"

Dumbledore's response began in the form of a slow nod. "It is not his loyalty I am convinced of rather than his need. His chances of success increase with each of our victories. And even greater than this, I believe that his role currently keeps Voldemort complacent. As long as Voldemort is allowed to conclude that we are within the realm of his control, he will not act. We need as much time as possible. Harry's seventeenth birthday is approaching, and as such, Voldemort may begin to focus his attention on him more greatly."

"He is a distraction, then," observed Tonks at once, as though guessing at the correct strategy.

"A great deal more than that, Nymphadora," said Dumbledore gently, smiling over at her. "And I hope you will forgive me if I do not elaborate."

"Allow me to make a suggestion." Lupin spoke leadingly. "It seems to me that in our haste to enhance our view into Voldemort's mind, several oversights have been committed. What Severus has indicated about Kinnaird is that he is not a steadfast agent of our cause; I move that those stationed at Hogwarts keep a closer watch on the man who has access to Harry. Perhaps we need to find more reasons to spend time at Hogwarts."

"Aye," said Tonks, nodding emphatically. Across the way, Molly Weasley's head was bobbing along.

"It will be difficult to facilitate," answered McGonagall, glancing at Dumbledore's imperceptible expression.

"We put the measures in place at the beginning of the year, Minerva, to ensure that if we were needed, our presence would be easily accepted."

"Yes, added security is certainly necessary at times such as these," added Molly Weasley.

"But ought we to communicate that we are in a heightened state of awareness?" questioned Severus, drawing the attention of his colleagues. They waited for him to continue. "This brings me to my next point of contention. I move that our best chance at observing Kinnaird is by using those already in place at Hogwarts."

"Such as yourself, Severus?" questioned Lupin drolly. "Are you so perturbed at the thought of my return to the school?"

"Though I appreciate your unnecessary level of attention to my feelings, Lupin, my proposal is based on logic. Allow me to familiarize you with the concept. Headmaster, will you permit me to expound upon what we discussed earlier?"

Severus knew that he was in a slightly precarious position, having only proposed his ideas to Dumbledore this afternoon and now bringing them into the order meeting before having reached an agreement. However, Dumbledore nodded graciously and gestured for the small group of Order members to turn in Severus' direction.

"As the Headmaster mentioned earlier, Harry's seventeenth birthday is approaching. He is completely aware of what this may mean for him. It is causing him to act most unpredictably; it is my contention that the best way to protect him is to arm him with information."

"Professor?" Concern colored the tone of Mrs. Weasley's voice.

"In an attempt to protect Harry, and his determined-to-be-killed young compatriots," Severus began to explain tiredly, aware suddenly of his audience, "I have tried in vain to put an escalating level of constraint on his life. Time and time again, I have disciplined him to no avail. So, I began to contemplate the commonalities in my son's escapades—and it occurred to me that he was not the sole source of the problem. This past weekend, I was fortunate to catch the three in yet another act of secrecy, and after confronting them as a group, I have come to several conclusions. One, we have, to our detriment, overlooked how useful the three of them are."

"Useful in what way, Professor?" McGonagall spoke from several seats away, her tone sharp. She seemed to be saying, careful, Severus.

"Despite my best efforts, the three are constantly bursting with information that they are afraid to reveal, but which has important implications," Severus answered her slowly, carefully choosing his words. "It seems that they have eyes and ears everywhere. I have always credited this to a damaging sense of curiosity, but they see Hogwarts through a wider lens than we are able to when confined to our singular classrooms and occupied in our individual efforts. The three of them act as a true unit, and they glean information from events we are unable to observe. The crux of the matter is that they constantly feel they have cause to investigate where their interest has been peaked."

"To clarify, then," Lupin said, his eyes narrowed, unconsciously making hand gestures as he spoke, "You believe that rather than to station more Order members to Hogwarts, thereby signaling that we are in a heightened state of alert, we ought to set the children to the task."

Severus' lips pursed together, and he bit back on a snide remark. "I am saying, I have found myself time and time again asking them to confide in me, because their constant secrecy puts us all at a severe disadvantage. However, it seems that the harsher my reprimand, the more they hide. If we gave them specific tasks to focus on, they might gain the direction they need to keep them from straying too far. They would be held accountable for telling us all that they know; it would by their duty to the Order. I believe it would appeal to their sense of honor."

Far from the indignation Severus had expected from her, Molly Weasley gave a short chuckle, shaking her head, and said, "So, you wish to make them officially accountable to you or another adult at all times. This seems like a mother's dream, Professor."

"But not only that," Tonks interjected. "Sounds to me like you want them inducted into the Order. Is that right?"

Severus nodded his head to the side in acknowledgement. "I believe it might be beneficial to allow them to attend an Order meeting now and again. It will encourage maturation if they are held accountable for their escapades in a professional sense. It will certainly bolster their confidence in the adults they are meant to trust. There is a serious lack of that, right now."

Severus leaned back in his chair and gazed around at the faces in the room with him. He met a few varying degrees of contemplation, there, but perceived only one stance of opposition. Now came the narrowing of the eyes and folding of arms from Molly Weasley's corner. "Albus, I thought we had discussed this last year," she said to the Headmaster.

"Severus does make a valid point, Molly," said Lupin gently. "They will all soon be of age. Delaying the inevitable by mere months can only put us at a disadvantage, if we are working against a clock set by Voldemort's patience."

"And if one of us moved onto the staff, Molly?" suggested Shacklebolt. "As Remus suggested. If the kids had someone trustworthy whom they could consult."

"I might be more comfortable with that," Molly acquiesced, though not without difficulty.

"I would be willing to volunteer," said Lupin.

"Yes, of course you would, Lupin, but I am certain it is unnecessary," answered Severus stiffly. "I am perfectly capable of watching over my own son, as well as his friends."

"Severus, your contention has been that you wish to cease your meetings with Kinnaird due to your other responsibilities," Dumbledore observed to Severus' chagrin. "Perhaps if Remus were there to assist you in your duties, you could continue to balance his training. Remus, let us discuss the details after the meeting. Now, Severus, if you have finished all that you wished to say, shall we put this to a vote?"

"By all means," Severus agreed evenly. He stared straight ahead, his eyes avoiding those of the others in their room as they demonstrated their support by the raising of their hands.

"It is settled, then. Severus, I trust you will help to facilitate this transition for the children, along with Remus here, when he joins us at Hogwarts."

"Of course, Headmaster," he answered stiffly. Though he should have felt victory in the outcome of the meeting, it had not come without sacrifice. He resented Lupin's involvement, the implication that his guidance was not enough to protect his son. He would have to continue to train Kinnaird; he had failed to gain an audience with the rest of the order, on that point of contention. It was bittersweet.

As the meeting adjourned, Severus was one of the first to exit the room. He couldn't have remained; he was in no mood to pretend he was satisfied with the results of the day, and was certain his irascibility would only be met with bemusement.

"Severus, wait," a voice called down the hallway as Severus neared the foyer of Grimmauld Place. Exhaling, he turned his head over his shoulder. Lupin was walking towards him; they were alone in the hallway, and Severus could not pretend he hadn't heard him. Cursing himself for not having left the building faster, he turned and faced the approaching man.

"What is it, Lupin?" he inquired tiredly. "Come to gloat?"

"Whatever would I gloat about, Severus?" asked Lupin sincerely, frowning. "I only want to help you and Harry, in whatever way that I can." He placed his hand on Severus' shoulder; the Potion Master's dark eyes flew to the offending appendage, but he said nothing.

"Please, can we speak alone for a second?" Lupin asked, gesturing to the door nearest to them. After a moment of deliberation, and mostly out of a desire to get the werewolf to take his hands off him, Severus complied and stepped through the door into the kitchen. The door closed as Lupin followed him in, and Severus moved to the side of the room, resting a hand on the counter top and waiting with an expression of contentious expectancy for him to explain himself.

"I admit that I have not been your greatest supporter in your journey with Harry, Severus," Lupin began. "However, what I see now is a man who has surpassed my expectations in taking on the role. It would seem you have the boy's best interests at heart."

"Your flattery is unnecessary, Lupin," Severus remarked churlishly. "Is this what you wished to discuss?"

"No," said Lupin, sighing. "I wanted to discuss my return to Hogwarts with you."

"Are you asking for my permission?"

"Certainly not. Severus, perhaps you should sit."

"Standing is fine with me. I am certain this will not take long."

But Lupin was already pulling out a chair at the table. Severus ignored his attempt at graciousness and waited as he seated himself. Lupin rested his elbows on his knees, knotted his hands, and rested his chin atop them. "I agree with you about Kinnaird, Severus."

Severus' expression betrayed none of his surprise, and he responded simply, "I see."

"Dumbledore will not give him up, however, you must realize."

"Must I?" asked Severus. "I had not gained that sense, from this meeting."

"I could help you," suggested Lupin. "I thought, if I were stationed at Hogwarts, I could do ask Tonks suggested; I could watch Kinnaird by getting closer to him."

"And how do you propose to do that?"

"Well, I have not discussed my position with the Headmaster, but whatever purpose I am given for my stay at the castle, I will not be teaching. I will not be confined to a classroom, as you are. Furthermore, Kinnaird has not found the mentor in you that he apparently aimed to. He has few allies in whom he can confide. My theory is that I will be well received if I present myself as a friend."

"And then—"

"I will be making the rounds with him. I will be watching him. And I will bring my memories back to you; your perception is sharp, Severus, perhaps keener than the Headmaster's, at this point. He can't stand to be blind, and he lost his eyes when you left the Dark Lord's service. He keeps Kinnaird around to maintain some semblance of control—but I believe that is a mistake. You and I have disagreed on many things, but on this subject, I defer to you."

Ah, and how sweet his deference seemed to Severus after the Headmaster had so neatly refused his requests to regain ownership of his time wasted on a man he had little regard for.

"If you could observe Kinnaird's actions, his speech, while he was interacting with me, rather than you or the Headmaster, both of whom he fears and wishes to impress…"

Severus turned fully toward Lupin and leaned back against the counter, folding his arms across his chest. "What do you see as an end to our joint efforts?"

"For once, Severus, I see eye to eye with you. I can only hope that my assistance will help the Headmaster to do the same."

xxx End Chapter xxx

AN: I have had a very busy month since we last met, and I hope that the work I put into this chapter is apparent. Please be kind, and review. Knowing that you are out there reading really lifts my spirits. That's everything to me at this busy time of year!