Chapter 52

Sworn

xxx

"Or perhaps," Hermione exclaimed, while taking pains to keep her voice hushed as they walked down the echoing corridor, "he wanted to congratulate the Gryffindor team for the recent victory—"

"Hermione, you're not even on the Quidditch team."

"I know, okay Ronald?"

"Then why'd you say it?" retorted Ron. "You know that's not the reason Dumbledore called us down. It's because Snape ratted on us—"

"That doesn't even make any sense," Hermione bit back, her voice reaching higher octaves with each word. "Why would the Professor go through all the trouble of talking to us, just to turn around and tell the Headmaster we've been sneaking off the grounds…" She paused, chewing on her lip and frowning. Desperately, she sighed, "Oh, Harry what do you think?"

Harry glanced back as Hermione tugged at loose fabric of his jumper. He could see her contemplating another possible excuse for the vague missive they had received from Dumbledore that afternoon. He couldn't deny that even he felt the beginnings of worry in his gut, but nevertheless, he said evenly, "Just calm down, Hermione. I am sure it will be nothing worse than the usual reasons we are called down to anyone's office."

"No offense, mate, but most of those times have actually been pretty bad."

"Shut up, Ron!" Harry and Hermione snapped in unison. The redhead fell quiet, glaring at his shoes as he stomped down the hallway after them.

But when Harry and his friends pushed back that heavy oak door guarding Dumbledore's office, the sight that greeted them made Harry wish that he, like his redheaded friend, had assumed the worst. Dumbledore was seated, austere, at his desk. Severus was standing behind him, gazing out over the grounds. Lupin was in one of the chairs near the fireplace, reading.

When Harry fully opened the door, Dumbledore ceased writing, Severus turned his head over his shoulder, and Lupin set down his book and stood. The attention of the room instantly focused on them; Harry leaned back almost as if in response to the brunt of it. On cue, Hermione reached out and nudged him forward.

"I need to shut the door, Harry," she whispered harshly, and he and Ron stepped into the office.

"Headmaster, you wanted to see us?" Harry queried nervously as the door swung shut.

"We did, Harry, yes," said Dumbledore, a wry smile brightening his features. He beckoned. "Please, come in."

Now Severus was fully facing them, but he did not speak. Harry locked eyes with him momentarily, but as soon as it looked as though his Father might have something to say, Lupin was there grasping him by the shoulders and pulling him into a brief embrace.

"Harry, it has been too long," he said warmly.

Harry nodded and reminded himself to smile; he was glad to see Lupin, and it looked as though the man had need of the kindness. He appeared worn, aged in a way that Harry had not recognized in some time.

"Remus, what are you doing here?"

"Well, I suppose that's a bit of what we wanted to talk to you about," said Lupin. "Please, sit down."

When they had found their seats in front of Dumbledore's desk, Lupin came around to stand at his shoulder opposite of Severus. They painted quite the intimidating picture, thought Harry, as three sets of eyes came to rest on him.

"Perhaps you three are already aware," Dumbledore posed, "that yesterday we held our first Order meeting in several months?"

"No, I was not aware," Harry said steadily; he avoided his Father's eyes.

"Ah, well, slipped through the cracks, I am sure. It so happens that you were a very important topic on our agenda, you should be pleased to know."

Harry did not see how this fact could be at all pleasing, so he remained quiet while he waited for Dumbledore to explain.

It was not Dumbledore that spoke next, however, but Severus. "What the Headmaster is trying to explain in an unnecessarily suspenseful way," he paused to glance disdainfully at the older man seated in front of him, "is that yesterday, we came to the agreement that you shall all be inducted into the Order of the Phoenix a bit ahead of schedule. Being close to the age of majority, you should be sufficiently prepared to shoulder the responsibilities that accompany this honor, with the understanding that you will adhere to certain limits."

Whatever occurred over the next few moments, Harry was unaware of. He had heard his Father, but he couldn't react. He was waiting for the qualifier, but it seemed it had already been delivered. "What limits?" he couldn't help but ask. It might have been a different response than expected, but it didn't occur to him to care.

"There are some rules," Severus told them pointedly. "This is not a license to rush headfirst into battle. You are expected to govern your actions judiciously. Your protection must not usurp our resources. In all instances requiring action, you will be expected to report back to us in a timely manner, and in an appropriate way. If you are to accept, you must realize that one of the Order's greatest functions has been to ensure your protection. You are not to jeopardize that."

"The Order does function primarily to coordinate our plan of attack against Voldemort and his followers," Dumbledore explained more gently. "We are certain you have discernible skills that will help us to this effect."

"What sort of skills?" asked Hermione tentatively.

"Why, I should think that would be obvious, Miss Granger! Despite our best efforts, you three have, since entering the school, acted autonomously to solve whatever mysteries or challenges you have encountered." Dumbledore spoke with a hint of amusement. "And you have done a fair job, I might admit."

Severus' lips pursed as he glared sideways at Dumbledore.

"It is important that we are able to collaborate, in the coming months. We are certain never to act alone," Lupin specified, "as action is often discussed, delegated, and carefully coordinated to minimize risks and consequential damage."

"That is where this scenario presents mutual benefits. Professor Snape astutely observed that you three always seem to be possessed of information taken from just the sources we are most unlikely to witness," said Dumbledore, "as well as the fact that you have expressed a desire to become more involved and knowledgeable on Order matters."

"This was your idea?" Harry blurted automatically in a low voice of disbelief.

Grudgingly, Severus nodded once.

"…Which is why I will be returning to Hogwarts, with the sole purpose of providing my assistance here in whatever way I am needed—including acting as a confidant for you three," Lupin was saying with a small smile. "Although, my official job title will be Assistant to our resident Potions Master, here," he finished, the smile growing as he gestured towards Severus. "For the remainder of the school year."

"He is rather busy, you see," Dumbledore added helpfully.

Snape's hand twitched at his side, but he remained otherwise still. His eyes, Harry noticed, were unusually bright.

"Not to mention," said Lupin, "that to see Severus' vote of confidence in me will reinforce the trust of the parents who previously had a problem with my condition. Right, Severus?"

"Yes," said Severus tightly. "And not to mention that it will allow him to brew his own bloody Wolfsbane Potion, so that he does not in fact take up more of my precious time."

"Well," said Harry in a breath, drawing their attention. He could feel the tension rising between them. "That all seems like a very good idea…you two, working together."

"Again," muttered Ron.

"Ah, but in closer quarters," said Snape with a stiff smirk and narrowed eyes. "So you can see the benefits I am reaping from this grand idea."

Harry was not sure, but he thought Ron's shaking shoulders might be from repressed laughter. He hoped his Father hadn't seen.

Safe. His Father was too busy glaring at the back of Dumbledore's head to notice Ron's gloating.

"So, what happens now?" asked Harry.

"We will be holding our next meeting two weeks from today, at which you will formally accept your positions," said Dumbledore, adjusting his spectacles and peering over them expectantly. "Do you, in fact, accept?"

"Yes!" Hermione replied emphatically, while Ron nodded next to her. Harry was watching his Father's passive expression intently, and affirmed quietly. He was uncertain why, if this had been his Father's idea, the man was behaving so dourly. He wanted to be happy about these developments, but there was a sense of foreboding in his father's demeanor that made him think he might need to read more closely between the lines before celebrating.

Dumbledore was shuffling the papers on his desk. "I'll have you read these in full before the meeting," he said, giving them to Lupin to pass over. "You will sign with a witness and swear an oath before you are officiated.

"Understand what you are entering into," Severus said in a low voice. "Your word is binding. Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley, bear in mind that though you have taken on Harry's burdens as your own, and that is noble, your oath binds you to this path. You must be certain you understand your responsibilities."

"We understand, Professor," Hermione said softly.

"Yes, sir," Ron said with a sobered nod.

"And Harry?" questioned Severus. "You are ready to enter into the Order of the Phoenix?"

Harry maintained firm eye contact. He was ready. He had been preparing for this ever since he had stepped foot in Hogwarts. To take control of his own fate, to finally have an effect rather than to be affected by the decisions of those around him. Confidently, and with just a hint of a smile, he stared straight back at his Father and replied.

"You know that you don't even have to ask."

xxx

The last thing he wanted was to leave, Harry reflected as he exited the Library. He had left his friends crouching over a table in the very back of the library, excitedly discussing the events of the day. He tried to ignore the overwhelming temptation to stay, to ignore all the implications of Severus' behavior this afternoon. But Harry knew that he wouldn't be able to enjoy his time with them until he had resolved whatever had remained unsaid between him and his Father.

Upon finding both the Potions Classroom and his Father's office empty, Harry found his way to the door of Severus' quarters. He rapped his knuckles against the wooden door, but received no answer. Huffing, he shifted his stance and leaned closer to the door, listening for the sound of nearing footsteps. Impatiently, he knocked again.

Almost immediately, the door swung open this time, though no one was standing behind it. He heard his Father's grumbling and stuck his head through the door. Across the room were Severus and Lupin, with the latter seated, and his Father standing with his wand in the hand at his side.

"Oh, Harry," said Severus, looking faintly surprised.

"Who did you think I was?" Harry asked with a half smile. The man looked disgruntled. He imagined it had something to do with his current company.

"Dumbledore, of course," Severus muttered with a roll of his eyes. "Come in."

Harry did as he was asked and stepped inside the room. Lupin was standing now. "I will leave you two," he said to Severus, who nodded curtly.

"I can come back—"

"It's no trouble, really, Harry," Lupin insisted. "We were just finishing. Good night, Severus." As he crossed the room, he gave Harry a smile that was not exactly forced, but which didn't seem to meet his eyes. Harry returned the smile and bid him goodbye, waiting until the door was closed safely behind him to turn back to Severus.

"What was that about?" Harry asked abruptly. He was fairly certain that his Father vehemently hated Lupin, and now they were having casual conversation over tea in his private quarters?

Severus sighed. "I am glad you're here, Harry. Sit down."

Severus cleared away place in front of where Lupin had previously been seated, and placed a fresh cup of steaming tea there for Harry. Shivering from the cold, Harry gladly drank from the cup as he waited for his Father to begin speaking.

Severus sat across from Harry in the high backed armchair, his elbows resting on the sides and his fingertips barely touching as they met across his lap. "How do you feel about your meeting with the Headmaster, today?" he asked at last.

"You mean my meeting with you, Remus, and the Headmaster?"

A snort of derision. "Oh, that was certainly not my meeting, Harry. I was merely a bystander."

"Oh," Harry said to save himself from having to immediately respond, swallowing hard. So then it had been as he suspected; his Father did not want him to join the Order. Unexpectedly, he felt his stomach dip in disappointment. "You know how long I have been waiting for this. I know you don't think I'm ready—"

Severus frowned and shook his head, silencing him. "Harry, I did not intend to imply that I disapprove. It was my idea that you three join the Order."

"Then why—"

"Surely, you understand that my displeasure is not with you, but with the Headmaster," Severus intoned, tilting his head to catch Harry's downward cast eyes.

"It is?" As soon as the words left his mouth, and he saw the quirk of Severus' lips, he felt silly for having said it. "I mean—why? What has he done this time?"

"This time," Severus scoffed. "Aside from the fact that he has hired Lupin to take on the responsibility of helping my son? It was I that secured your place in the Order, so that we might build a better working relationship. Dumbledore, however, would prefer I continue to waste my time on Mr. Kinnaird."

"And so he asked Lupin to step in to watch over us—"

"When that is what I have tried to do all along, yes," Severus forcefully finished his sentence for him. He shook his head. "But no matter. I cannot change the Headmaster's mind; I can only use my considerable skill to circumvent him in any way possible."

"If it will make you feel better, I will talk to you, not Lupin—"

"I appreciate the sentiment, Harry, but that is not the sole issue. And you should go to Lupin, if you feel you can speak to him. I would prefer anything over you running off on your own."

"I hope," Harry said carefully, "that you don't think I would rather talk to Remus than you. If that's what's causing the friction—"

Severus' eyebrows knit together over softened eyes. "I am in no way upset with you, Harry. Nor, in fact, am I upset with Lupin. He is perhaps not my first choice in colleague, but at least he has the sense to recognize Dumbledore's lunacy for what it is. Lupin was here this evening to discuss the terms of his responsibilities as my assistant."

"I thought it was strange that Dumbledore would choose him as your assistant, of all people. Is he trying to punish you for something?"

"Perhaps," Severus admitted. "But it was Lupin that planted the idea in his mind, after we discussed the idea. Let Dumbledore think he is keeping me in line," he said derisively. "The old man doesn't realize he has been outwitted. If I am to be forced to continue training Kinnaird, it is with Lupin's help that we will finally extract something of use from him. While he watches Kinnaird, I will be able to monitor Draco's progress—"

"Wait, I thought we agreed that he wasn't trustworthy," interrupted Harry at once. "Now you want to help him again?"

Severus looked annoyed, but explained anyways, "I have explained to you already that while I do not trust Malfoy, I do think that he is a far better candidate for what we need done than Kinnaird."

"And what about what Hermione said in her letter?" asked Harry. "That Kinnaird and Malfoy were together, just the other night—they seem to avoid each other all the time, and then they are sneaking out of the castle—"

"If you three continue to report to me on these events, leave it to me to uncover their meaning. Draco will be out of the hospital wing soon; I am simply waiting until the opportune moment to question him about these events. For your part, however, there is something I would like you to do until then. I want you to leave Draco alone, but observe him quietly. I would like you to report to me on both his and Kinnaird's behavior."

"You're asking me to spy on them?"

"In a sense, yes. But subtlety is key, Harry. You must remember, neither man credits you with true ability or intelligence. This may not be what you want to hear—" he added at Harry's blanch, "But it is very important to remember. With you playing the role of naïve child and Lupin acting as a trustworthy friend, I am certain we will discover the source of the increasingly odd behavior we have lately begun to witness."

xxx

Severus' first stop of the morning was at the infirmary, with a relatively thick stack of twine bundled papers at his side. He had sympathy for Draco Malfoy, certainly—he was in a position no one could envy—but that did not mean he could be excused for an entire week's worth of homework. The week was already half-way over, and Severus could see where this was heading.

The infirmary was mostly empty this morning, with the exception of Madam Pomfrey, who was humming as she tidied the beds, and Malfoy, who was pretending to sleep in the farthest corner of the room.

"Oh, Severus," said Madam Pomfrey briskly as he stepped into the room. She glanced at the package he held, and nodded toward a stack of papers and books on the nightstand next to Malfoy's bed. "You can set that there, with the rest. Mr. Malfoy is sleeping right now."

"Thank you, Poppy," said Severus, "although I think Mr. Malfoy is quite awake. Isn't that right, Draco?"

Malfoy did not stir and Madam Pomfrey moved as though to escort Severus from the hospital wing. Severus moved past her as though he had not noticed. He stood over Malfoy and observed him quietly. The boy's chest was barely moving as he took shallow, quiet breaths. Severus could see he was trying not to breathe. His eyelids fluttered just slightly, but Severus suspected this was a sign of a struggle to keep them closed.

"Leave us," he commanded Pomfrey, and he was surprised when he heard the door close behind her a moment later. Malfoy remained suspiciously still, and Severus growled, "There are ways of waking a sleeping boy, Mr. Malfoy, if you are so difficult to rouse…"

A yawn, then a stretch, and the dramatically suspenseful prying open of ice blue eyes.

"Oh, Professor," said Draco Malfoy in a naïve, faint tone. Black eyes peered down at him. Malfoy winced, and sat up. "Is there something I can do for you?"

Severus' eyes were all dark between the lids, barely slits as he evaluated Malfoy's appearance. The boy actually looked well rested for the first time in weeks. His skin was not tinged with purple and green as he had become accustomed to, but rather he looked bright and ready to greet the day.

"Why aren't you back in class yet?" Severus queried at once.

"Professor, I am hardly in any condition to return."

"Then I have only one request," said Severus, dropping the papers onto the boy's lap. "Finish these in a timely manner." Malfoy simply stared at him; there was no wince, now. Without warning, Severus reached forward and stripped the covers from the bed. Underneath, Malfoy was completely dressed, and wholly uninjured.

"Once again, why are you not in class?"

Draco's expression turned to somewhat of a dignified pout, and he crossed his arms. "Professor, I don't think it is lost on you the difficulties I am going through right now. Don't you suppose it's to your advantage that I maintain my mental health?"

"Your mental health," Severus scoffed, "would be better maintained in the classroom, Mr. Malfoy."

Malfoy laughed bitterly, shook his head, and folded his arms. His gaze moved back to the window. "I am just taking a short break from reality, that's all."

"Not to be confused with shrinking from the circumstances," Severus added sternly. "It would be a mistake to resign yourself to the worst outcome, Draco. Concentrating on your classes will give you normality to cling to, and a goal to work towards. If you stop caring about your future, you will lose your chance for one."

"Well, whatever you say, Professor," said Draco, pulling the covers back up over himself and turning to face the wall, "I am still excused from classes until next week."

Severus' nostrils flared as he exhaled forcefully, but he felt somehow powerless. "Don't be dramatic, Malfoy, sit back up," Severus said wearily as he sank back to sit on the next bed. He waited while Malfoy reluctantly turned over and pushed himself into a sitting position, looking the part of a petulant first-year.

Severus ignored his pouting, which was becoming exceedingly aggravating to him now. "I am not delusional enough to believe this year has been easy on your, Mr. Malfoy." Severus glanced over his shoulder to see that the door to the infirmary was still closed and that the room was still empty. "That does not, however, excuse you from taking responsibility for your own actions. I won't have you hiding in the infirmary—"

"I am not hiding," Malfoy hissed suddenly, his expression instantly going cold. "And if I was, what does it matter? Taking responsibility? I've got more responsibility than anyone in this castle—"

"Quite the presumption, Mr. Malfoy," Severus stated idly, watching him with steady eyes. "You have potential, I think, to take on responsibility, but so far… I am not certain your actions fall into that category."

"I didn't choose this," Malfoy said darkly, his chest heaving now; Severus' accusations were driving him to anger. "You can't think I chose this."

"We all make decisions every day," Severus said softly. "Perhaps not on our circumstances, but on what we do with them. I hope that you will learn that sooner rather than later."

Malfoy folded his arms and didn't respond; Severus waited. He was uncertain how to help the boy in front of him; he felt an odd sense of responsibility for his welfare, now. The boy's Father had seemingly offered him up as a prize to the Dark Lord, and Draco seemed all too aware of the pressure coming from those who supported Harry, as well. At times, when his age showed through the cracks of his hardened expression, Severus was reminded of how dearly he needed someone to speak for his best interests. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the sentiment.

Not speaking, Malfoy continued to stare at his lap. With each passing moment, Severus' tolerance was slowly evaporating. As the last remnant of his patience escaped into the abyss, he gave a deep, pained sigh and rose to his feet. "I think that the time has come, Mr. Malfoy," he said with an air of finality, "for you to begin making some difficult decisions. I am more than willing to help you, Draco, but only under certain conditions."

This seemed to gain Malfoy's interest, although he maintained an affected look of dispassion. "What conditions?"

"You do not appear well enough to discuss this at the moment," Severus replied after a moment of deliberation, glancing pointedly at the hospital bed upon which the boy sat. "We will need to reconvene when you feel well enough to return to class."

By the time Severus had finished speaking, he had already taken several steps toward the door.

"Professor—" Malfoy said quickly, but stopped himself from pleading with Severus' back.

Half turned and staring dubiously over his shoulder, Severus responded with a slow, "Yes?"

"I am well enough to speak with you now."

"If you are not well enough to return to classes, Mr. Malfoy, I shall have to disagree."

And Severus crossed the room in long strides, his gaze focused firmly on the door ahead. He did not glance back at the silent boy as he exited the infirmary. Not surprisingly, Madam Pomfrey was waiting dutifully outside the doors.

"I assume you have finished?" she asked, moving as though to go back inside.

"Quite the contrary," said Severus evenly. "You have excused the boy from his classes what grounds, Madam Pomfrey?"

Both taken aback and gravely affronted, Madam Pomfrey addressed Severus stiffly. "I hardly see how Mr. Malfoy's personal afflictions are the business of the Potions Master," she sniffed, "but I have already conferred with the Headmaster on this point. The boy is here under his orders."

Severus did not intend to betray his surprise at this, but suspected he had done so as he sharply turned his gaze on her. In an instant, his expression was again flat, and his voice cold. "I am the boy's Head of House, Madam, and I will thank you to remember that. And in that vein, I must inquire as to why the Headmaster gave such orders?"

"I meant no offence, Professor," Madam Pomfrey responded with a chill to her tone, but proper deference in her expression. "The Headmaster gave no reason. When the boy turned up here yet again—and the severity of his ailments has been decreasing with each visit, mind you—I did inform the Headmaster that Mr. Malfoy was more than capable of attending classes this week. He told me not to discharge the boy until he seemed ready."

"I see," Severus said distantly, staring back at the tall oak doors as if he could see the boy behind them.

"Well, perhaps you can talk to Professor Dumbledore," said Pomfrey begrudgingly; Severus guessed she disliked enlisting his help. "It's not healthy for the boy to stay here by himself, brooding."

"No, it is not," Severus agreed quietly. "I am fairly certain, however, that the Headmaster will treat my advice as dispensable as yours."

Pomfrey neither agreed nor disagreed with his statement, but rather replied, "The disadvantage of having lived for so long is that no advice seems quite as reliable as what we have learned from our experiences. Perhaps we should not forget why Headmaster Dumbledore feels he knows best." Her eyes briefly scanned Severus' expression curiously, but it was little more than a passing glance as she finally moved past him and slipped through the doors back into the infirmary. In her wake, Severus was left staring after where she had disappeared with narrowed eyes. Unwilling to sacrifice his dignity by chasing the last word, he settled for departing in silence. It was better to discredit her opinion by ignoring it than to certify it with his indignation.

Severus didn't get far. He heard the heavy door reopen and stopped where he stood, turning just slightly in acknowledgement of Pomfrey's return. The sight in his peripheral vision, however, was not that of the aging school nurse. With an expression of mild interest, he turned fully to face Malfoy, who was standing in front of the door looking solemn, shoulders hunched in defeat. Madam Pomfrey stood a ways behind him in the infirmary, watching with a pleased expression.

"Feeling better, are we?" inquired Severus slowly, making little effort to withhold his smirk.

Malfoy sighed in exasperation and rolled his eyes. "Can we talk?" he asked, as though it pained him. "In your office?" he added, jerking his head toward Madam Pomfrey.

"That is for Madam Pomfrey to decide," replied Severus evenly. "You realize that by leaving the infirmary, you have agreed to return to classes."

"Fine," Malfoy muttered.

"Try again," commanded Severus.

"Yes, sir," said Malfoy, not without a hint of sarcasm. Severus nodded in the direction of Madam Pomfrey, and Malfoy turned to address her. "May I be excused?"

Madam Pomfrey nodded, and to Severus' observation, seemed grateful for the consideration. "Do try not to return to me too soon, Mr. Malfoy," she advised gently.

Malfoy's manner was aloof as they departed from the hospital wing, but Severus did not leave him to his acrimony for long. "I hope you realize my intentions, Draco."

"I'm sorry, sir?" Malfoy's expression was one of instant bemusement, as though he might not have heard correctly.

"I would genuinely like to help you," Severus clarified. "You are correct; perhaps you have been given to the idea that you could not have prevented the unfortunate circumstances you now find yourself in. I regret that you felt you could not come to me at a time when I might have helped you."

Malfoy glanced at him dubiously. "You? Professor, as far as I knew, you were one of the Dark Lord's most loyal agents. If I were that stupid, I'd already be dead."

Severus gave a faint murmur of amusement and inclined his head in consent. "The Headmaster, then. I do not question your lack of agency so much as I question whether we have failed you in some ways."

"Some ways," Malfoy remarked with derision. "It's never been a mystery the path my Father has set for me. And I won't deny that I welcomed the responsibility…but I don't think I realized what was coming. There's no one who can get me out, now. I thought, perhaps, if I could prove my loyalty…but I've only ever been discounted by the Headmaster."

"It has been my experience that when it is difficult to make the right choice, it becomes easier to say that we have none," Severus said softly.

"I don't think you know—"

"Don't I?" Severus asked, stopping to stare down at Malfoy. His eyes rested on him at length, his frown deepening as he observed the look of unrelenting opposition on his face. It was as though nothing he could say would move him to think anything different than what he already believed he knew—that he was doomed to an unchangeable fate, that he had experience beyond the adults around him, that made him impervious to any wisdom he was given. His gaze intensifying, Severus took a step towards Malfoy. "There are many things you will never understand about how I came to stand where I am now, Draco. What my life has been is nothing I ever wish to discuss, but it has been a product of ill-made choices. What I do wish to share with you is what I have learned from my difficulties. I believe you are smart enough to realize the value of the wisdom I may impart to you. If you believe yourself above it, I would ask you to inform me now, before I waste any more of my time on you."

Malfoy tilted his head down and his eyes shifted side to side, as though wrestling with his response. "I do want your help, Professor," Malfoy said, and Severus felt he was being sincere. "I am just frustrated with the circumstances."

"I understand that, but the circumstances you lament are no longer within your ability to change. The sooner you acknowledge that, the better. Your greatest option, now, is to make the best of the opportunities you have. We are willing to help you, Draco. That is a far greater advantage than you seem willing to acknowledge."

Malfoy snorted. "Who is 'we'?"

"Myself, and potentially the Headmaster," said Severus, beginning to walk forward again. "He may be difficult to deal with, but the man will never deny help to someone he trusts."

"Someone he considers valuable, you mean."

Severus sighed, but did not respond. It was difficult for him to defend the headmaster. He had always considered him to be a great man—had he held some resentment for him at times? Certainly. But he couldn't deny that he had done great things, and was a benevolent and intelligent man. Despite his flaws, he knew that the man would be willing to help Draco if only the boy would help him to prove his worth.

"I believe value is the wrong word, Draco. It is rather your loyalty that he is concerned with."

"But haven't I already shown myself to be loyal?" Draco exclaimed. "What more can I do? If not for me, Potter—Harry," he said, at Severus' raised brow, "would never have made it to Hogwarts for his sixth year. I have given you everything you've asked for! I have risked myself to help defeat the Dark Lord—I don't see how there can be any room to doubt my loyalty."

Having reached his office, Severus did not wait for Draco's response. He paused to dismantle the wards on his door, and then pushed it open, entering the dark room. Malfoy followed quickly behind him and closed the door, waiting while Severus lit the candles around his office and leaned against his desk, waiting for Malfoy to join him there.

When Malfoy had finally taken his place in the seat nearest to Severus, the older man paused to consider his next words. He didn't want to be overly harsh in what seemed to be a delicate moment; yet he could not allow the boy the sympathy he was obviously seeking.

"The fact remains, Draco, you have only ever sought to prove yourself through vague means; the Headmaster has never witnessed your efforts firsthand, and even Harry, while seeking a vesicle for your redemption, you have treated as a mere means—your act is not very convincing, Draco. I do not wish to discourage you from doing good, but rather encourage you to sacrifice your pride in these matters. Your loyalty, even to me, remains ambiguous."

It was only at the look of shocked anger on Malfoy's face that Severus wondered if he had been too honest with him. A moment later, however, the look was replaced with a certain hardness that Severus had come to recognize as resolve. "What can I do, then?" Malfoy asked steadily.

Mild relief gave way to a subtle smile of approval for Malfoy's determination, and Severus said slowly, "There is the issue of Kinnaird."

Malfoy looked suddenly concerned. "What about him?"

"The Headmaster seems primarily concerned with the advantages that he may offer—but I believe he is mistaken. I am telling you this in confidence, Draco. Perhaps, if you could help me to show Dumbledore—"

"I don't think so," Malfoy quickly interrupted him, shaking his head. Severus stared at him curiously.

"Draco?"

"I haven't much contact with him, I mean," Malfoy amended, shrugging his shoulders helplessly. "And the Dark Lord certainly encourages this."

Severus murmured thoughtfully, and asked pointedly, "Draco, I was under the impression that it was Kinnaird who accompanied you from the castle just last week. Is this not true?"

Malfoy appeared to contemplate this for a moment, before nodding slowly. "The Dark Lord sometimes asks him to 'collect me', but he is always quiet. It's only been recently. We don't speak, much."

Severus frowned. "Have you ever questioned why it is that the Dark Lord sends him to collect you, when he is most often already in the castle? If he is to go through the trouble of sending a message to Kinnaird, why not send the message to you?"

"It the most convenient way for me to leave the castle, accompanied by a faculty member, Professor," Malfoy replied; Severus searched his expression for some sign of machination or deceit, but found neither there. "I am, after all, still a student."

"You are certain," said Severus with warning in his tone, "that there is nothing else you might recall as pertinent?"

"Professor, my Father has instructed me to stay away from the man as much as possible. That is all I know. He seems to think that Kinnaird represents a danger to me."

"A danger?" Severus questioned interestedly. "Why?"

"Something about him not being trustworthy—I don't know, Professor. Is this what you meant when you said you would help me under certain conditions? This is your agenda?"

Severus pressed his lips together in speculation, debating how to proceed. He could see that despite his best efforts, he was neither going to convince Draco to prove himself to the Headmaster, nor to disprove Kinnaird. At least, not all at once. For whatever reason, Malfoy seemed to be closing himself off rather than opening up. Perhaps he needed a subtler approach; Malfoy was not so easy to persuade as he had hoped.

"No, Mr. Malfoy, that is not what I meant," Severus conceded. He contemplated Malfoy for a moment. He released the edge of the desk and pushed away from it, coming to stand in front of the young Slytherin. He folded his hands in front of him and stared down the length of his nose at him. The boy looked up at him and swallowed, seemingly sensing the shift in mood. "As I have said, I am willing to assist you, Draco, but I cannot take your loyalty on faith any longer."

"Professor?"

"The conditions I have alluded to involve a spell which will bind you to your word—irrevocably. If you are loyal as you say you are, you will realize the necessity of such an action. You have done well, Draco, but the Dark Lord has ways of making one talk—and if he realizes that I am helping you, he will certainly try. You realize, I cannot allow this to happen."

Realization seemed to set in for Malfoy, and trepidation overwhelmed his features. "Professor, you don't mean the Unbreakable Vow?"

"No, Draco, I would not wish to gamble your life on your ability to withstand the will of your master," Severus said with resignation. "Nor do I wish to gamble my son's. What I require of you, therefore, is the assurance that my help, and your knowledge, will not damn my efforts in this war. There is a spell—one which unlike the unbreakable vow, will not result in your death, but similar to it, will ensure that the moment you act on the intention to betray me, your mind will become something akin to a blank sheet of parchment, your short-term memories erased."

"Well then I'll be as good as dead anyway, won't I?" Malfoy exclaimed, appalled.

"You are so certain you will fail?" Severus asked, eyebrows raised.

"You certainly seem to be," he spat back.

"I am certain it would be better for you to lose memory of the last year of your life than to tell the Dark Lord something vitally important."

Malfoy was shaking his head slowly, clenching and unclenching his jaw.

"Draco, this is not simply a case of trust. You have to understand, this is for your own protection as well. Suppose the Dark Lord learns why you injured him, that you crawled back to the castle and reported to me—"

"All the more reason for me to keep yours secrets," reasoned Malfoy. "Have I betrayed you yet?"

"No, Draco, but your reluctance to choose a side has me worried."

"So now you will force my compliance." There was resentment in his voice, and defiance in his eyes. Again, Severus found himself faced with a boy he could not reason with. His mind was already set; he felt the world was against him, and Severus imagined he was no exception. He could not blame him—he could admit to himself that even he had been callous toward a boy who, by all appearances, had seemed to be deceiving them. His recent help, however, and recent troubles had him wishing he could correct his carelessness. Admittedly, however, he seemed to be failing.

"No, I dare say that would be counterproductive. In my experience, total compliance cannot be forced." Severus was circling slowly about the room, coming to stand in front of the locked black cabinet in the back. "I had hoped you would recognize the value of what I am offering you, but there is of course an alternative."

"And that is?" Draco remained staring stonily forward. Behind him, the click of a lock sounded, and the he heard the scrape of the pensieve across the stone surface of the counter. His head twitched slightly, but Severus could see that the boy was trying to show as little interest as possible.

"I will be requiring your memories," Severus said, and Malfoy turned now. "For safe keeping, of course."

Malfoy's voice lowered, and he said, dumbfounded, "Excuse me?"

"It is not to say that I don't understand your trepidation at swearing an oath you may not fulfill, but if you cannot, I can't allow you to continue putting us all at risk—yourself included," Severus added as Malfoy opened his mouth to object. The boy's shoulders fell and he looked away, remaining silent for a long time before Severus continued.

"I appreciate what you have done," Severus intoned with a hint of compassion, "and I will not forget it; but it is not safe for you to continue to spy for us, attempting to prove your loyalty. Not if you are not willing to sacrifice your pride."

"My mind, not my pride," Malfoy reminded him, more than daunted by the prospect.

"Your memories will only be erased should you act on the intent to betray them, Mr. Malfoy. Even in such a case, I think you would find yourself glad not to have any memory of your actions over the past year. It could save your life."

Pure refusal seemingly no longer an option, Malfoy took pause to consider the terms laid out for him. He was something like caught animal, loathe to come to his trapper but with no other way out of the cage. Severus waited calmly for him to realize his position. When it had happened, Severus' only clue was the squaring of his shoulders and the calm extraction of his wand.

"Teach me the incantation," Malfoy commanded steadily.

"In due process, Mr. Malfoy," Severus replied, as though he had never expected any other answer. "But first," he said, producing a thin, shining blade from within the green velvet folds of fabric in his hands, "turn over your palm."

Closing his eyes and steeling his expression, Malfoy obeyed. If Severus were to admit it to himself, the boy had never truly had a choice.

xxx

"And what, exactly, does the Headmaster want with me?"

Severus stalked quickly down the dark corridor of the dungeons, his footsteps punishing against the cold hard floor. Next to him, Lupin easily kept pace.

Harry trailed behind the two men at a close enough distance to be indirectly involved in the conversation, but discreet enough not to be scolded back to the common room by his Father. He considered the circumstances in which he had become involved to be extremely lucky, sorry as he felt to admit it.

"You are Kinnaird's mentor, after all," Lupin answered in subdued tones. "I am certain the Headmaster hopes you might have some hint as to his whereabouts."

"Mentor might not be the word I would choose for myself," Severus bit out, but Harry thought he heard a hint of worry there. Harry felt it as well; he had the moment that Lupin had shown up in the common room, searching—almost frantically—for his Father.

"Kinnaird has never gone missing before, Severus, and you must admit it coincides with his attendance to the recent Order meeting in an awfully suggestive way."

"It has only been a few days," Severus ground out tightly. "It most likely means he is finally doing his job." Lupin glanced back at Harry, seemingly seeking assistance, but Harry could only shrug. He could sense his Father's tension, and knew better than to contribute to it.

"It is doubly suspect that Malfoy has spent the week locked in the hospital wing, for no apparent reason," Lupin added probingly. Severus aimed a peripheral glare at him, but said nothing.

The rest of the trip to Dumbledore's office was spent in silence, much to Harry's chagrin. When they arrived outside of the stone gargoyle statue, Severus looked expectantly at his son.

"What?" Harry asked, but Severus only continued to stare at him. After a moment, Harry dutifully said the password to the stature.

"No, Harry, that's not what I meant," Severus said, nodding back toward the corridor behind him.

"I can help!" Harry insisted quickly.

"I'm not so certain of that."

"I want to hear," Harry pleaded. "You said I could have a bigger part in what's going on—how am I to listen for important information around the castle if I don't know what's going on?"

"I don't believe the Headmaster meant for you to come, Harry," Lupin said gently. "I do appreciate your help locating your Father."

"If the Headmaster tells me to leave, you won't hear another sound out of me," Harry promised solemnly.

"I don't have time for this," Severus snapped, turning and stepping onto the staircase. "Suit yourself."

Lupin glanced at Harry and smiled briefly enough for Severus to miss it.

"There you are," Dumbledore said at once, as the three men entered the room. He appeared to have been pacing prior to this, but had stopped now. "Remus, thank you for your help—and, Harry?"

"I just wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help, Professor," Harry offered, cringing inwardly at the hardness present on the Headmaster's face. "I might be able to learn from Malfoy where Kinnaird has gone—"

"I have actually located him, thankfully, but that is very kind of you, Harry," said Dumbledore with a little less severity in his expression. "There is, in fact. Please go to the hospital wing and ask Madam Pomfrey to be ready to act when I send word. I will need her assistance."

"Certainly, Professor," Harry replied.

"And Remus, if you would be so kind as to go to Grimmauld Place and assist meet Kingsley there, you may help him to go and collect Mr. Kinnaird—"

"So Mr. Kinnaird, is not, in fact, missing?" Severus' dark voice cut through Dumbledore's, and both Harry and Remus ceased their progress towards the door in favor of stopping to stare at the two men in the center of the room.

Ire radiated from Dumbledore's stiff shoulders and trained gaze, but his composure was steady. "No, Severus, although perhaps it would be a better alternative to what he is, which is in very bad shape and in need of assistance to get back to the castle."

"I fail to see how this concerns me," Severus said coldly. "Mr. Malfoy has returned to the castle more than once in what I am certain is equally poor condition. I thought that by now we had satisfied ourselves by dismissing it as part of the routine."

"Harry," came Remus' low whisper as his hand fell on Harry's shoulder. The older man urged him backward, in the direction of the door. Harry wanted to remain frozen, apprehensive over how this scene would unfold. Dumbledore, however, was silent, and seemed all too aware of the reason for his lingering.

Severus stood with his chin tilted upward in defiance, waiting for the sound of the door closing behind him to signal that he and Dumbledore were alone. When Harry and Lupin had gone, the full weight of Dumbledore's anger became entirely apparent in his normally placid demeanor. Still, when he spoke, it was in even, measured tones.

"If you had been doing as I have asked, Severus, you would have realized days ago that Kinnaird's planned outing had gone far too long to be ignored. Do you know why the young man's meeting with Voldemort did not go as planned Severus? Do you care?"

Severus barely withheld his sneer. "Enlighten me, Headmaster."

"Imagine if as a young spy, I had simply allowed you to leave an Order meeting and return to Riddle without anything to report," Dumbledore proposed. "Would you have considered me negligent, perhaps, Severus?"

"I would consider myself extremely stupid for not having planned for that ahead of time."

"I think perhaps you would have blamed me," Dumbledore stated, not without a hint of dryness. "Based on precedent."

"You are more than welcome to take the task off my hands," Severus retorted. "I am hardly qualified to give him false information which is meant to come from you. He is your little pet project, after all, and I have not spent the last few days sitting idly by. I have a full schedule of classes to attend to. I have a son to watch almost constantly. And Draco Malfoy, no matter how convenient it may be to let him rot in the hospital wing under Madam Pomfrey's watchful eye, perhaps deserves a little more guidance than that!"

"Why do you use every discussion about Kinnaird as an opportunity to discuss Mr. Malfoy? I am not unsympathetic, Severus, but for everyone's sake we cannot devote all of our resources to such an unreliable boy—"

"He has sworn his loyalty, Albus," Severus interjected with a tone of finality, as though he needed to say very little else. "He committed a blood oath, just last night."

"You did not have the authority—"

"I don't care," Severus said firmly. "I apologize, Headmaster, but I have done what is necessary. I trust you have not forgotten the requirements of the potion which will release Harry from Voldemort's hold on him—the blood and oath of a sworn Death Eater? I found a way to secure both and to protect ourselves from betrayal. It is a greater sign of loyalty than we have ever earned from Branson Kinnaird. If I have overstepped my boundaries, then I will accept whatever action you choose to take next. Otherwise, I would like to be dismissed. I will not take the blame for your boy's failures."

"Well, I hope you are quite satisfied with yourself, Severus," Dumbledore replied after a beat, straightening his robes. "And I certainly hope Mr. Malfoy had nothing to do with Mr. Kinnaird's difficulties this weekend. The evidence certainly seems to suggest that he may have."

Severus wanted to question this supposed evidence, but he felt wary of starting another discussion that he did not feel tolerant enough to finish. He waited for a moment, and then replied, "I will watch him, Headmaster. If there is evidence of such a thing, I will discover it."

"We shall see, Severus," Dumbledore replied tiredly, but even Severus could see that he was losing the will to fight with him, as well. It seemed that they could not agree.

With little more response from the Headmaster, Severus finally saw himself to the door. "For the last time, Dumbledore," he said as his hand rested on the brass handle, "I will warn you not to alienate that boy for the sake of this man. Too much is riding on him to make such a grave mistake."

xxx End Chapter xxx

AN: It is 5:30 AM. I stayed up all night to get this to you before my finals begin. I hope you feel the love I'm sending your way, and you send some back to me. Please enjoy, please review : )