Chapter 53

Acquittal

xxx

"Thank you, Madam," Remus Lupin said. A warm smile and he pushed several galleons forward; behind him, Severus stood and tied his heavy woolen cloak across his shoulders. His expression was less genial as he nodded to the witch behind the bar. Together, the two men took their leave.

The evening air was a crisp and sweet cold, moisture from the spring meltdown growing frosty on the windows in the absence of the sun. Severus pulled his cloak closed across his chest and frowned against the contrast to the warmth absorbed from a recently imbibed glass of mead. Next to him, Lupin set the pace for a slow gait.

"I think it best we arrive early," Severus said tersely, lengthening his strides. "I am wary of what awaits us."

He was referring, of course, to the upcoming scheduled meeting with Kinnaird.

"There is little reason to believe Kinnaird would ask us to meet in a muggle town if he were leading an ambush, Severus."

"Well, you clearly haven't the mind for such cunning, then," remarked Severus sardonically, "because I can think of several."

It was only out of a sense of duty that Severus had agreed to meet with Kinnaird outside the confines of Hogwarts. It had been a little over a week since the Headmaster had admonished him for what he had seen as noncompliance, for failing to effectively help Kinnaird to do the job he had been assigned. In Severus' not-so-humble opinion, the Dark Lord was certainly capable of dealing far worse punishments than that which Kinnaird had endured. Moreover, it was by Kinnaird's own failing that he had incurred such wrath in the first place. It was hardly Severus' fault if he could not teach what he was certain could only come naturally.

And yet, Severus had to wonder at his own callousness. A certain amount of hardness had been a necessity over the course of his life, but was it possible that he now lacked another essential character trait: empathy?

Severus sneered as the thought occurred; such philosophic ponderings were surely a waste of contemplation, at best. The point of the matter was that Severus could see the importance of upholding his duty, as a member of the Order, at the very least. Perhaps he had allowed himself to forget some of the principles he had been busy trying to instill in his son. Perhaps, he had been negligent in assisting Kinnaird.

And now, Severus mused, barely aware as an eyebrow rose compulsively, these meetings might become mutually beneficial, what with the werewolf helping him to uncover Kinnaird's true intentions.

At that thought, Severus glanced sideways at his current partner. "Your wards were laid correctly? You are certain you would have seen, if they had been triggered." He glanced dubiously again at the discreet ring on Lupin's finger.

"As I said, I tested them yesterday," Lupin responded, patience waning. "From the very same pub where we've been for the past several hours. Have some faith in my abilities, Severus, though I know it pains you to do so. I think it safe to say that no one unexpected awaits us."

Severus huffed in derision and started to walk a little faster. The natural desire to hurry this unpleasant process along was creeping into his consciousness, and he silently decided to refrain from any further goading; the sooner Lupin secured Kinnaird's trust, the sooner Severus could excuse himself from this unpleasant duty. Today would be one mere step out of many in this direction.

Lupin appeared to have a wiser sense about him than Severus would ever have cared to admit, especially in his younger days; even so, it was not beyond him to recognize the potential that his peer had as a colleague. It was not past Severus' comprehension that his old grudges were being forcibly pushed aside over time, however incomprehensible such progress was. That being said, while Severus would not have said it aloud to Lupin himself, he was pleased with how well the other man had planned the day's undertaking.

Somewhat contrary to Severus' unspoken expectations, their entrance into the muggle town was not one greeted by bells and whistles, nor was there anyone about to observe their arrival. A nearby railroad track sent low rumbles through the otherwise still atmosphere. A few windows were lit behind closed curtains. The road was mostly unpaved, and the land around them seemed mostly agricultural. At the end of the street was a somewhat decrepit building, and it was to that one that Lupin nodded.

"There," he said, shuddering at the sound of a rumble that had nothing to do with the passing train. He glanced up, and a few drops of cold rain began to fall. "Let's get inside."

They moved quickly and silently to the overhang outside the inn's entrance, and at Severus' nod, Lupin entered first into the building. Inside, several patrons were seated around the rail of the bar, and a young man stood leaning toward them from behind it, exchanging quiet words. At the sound of the door opening, he glanced up, and straightened.

"Good evening, gentlemen," said the muggle far more graciously than Severus had expected. "What can I do for you?" He glanced queerly at them in their thick cloaks- Severus's with its hood still up, framing his face sinisterly- but he asked no questions.

"Tell Mr. Hew that his guests have arrived, please," said Lupin, his manner businesslike. He folded his hands in front of him and gave a smile of acknowledgement to the white-haired man at the bar, who hadn't stopped staring at them since their entry.

"Ah, Mr. Hew," said the younger man, almost genially, as though he was reminded of an old friend. "Of course."

Shortly, Kinnaird arrived at the bottom of the staircase at the other side of the room. He caught sight of Severus and Lupin quickly, and thanked the bartender curtly before beckoning them to follow.

"You stay here often?" Severus inquired as soon as they were out of hearing range, following Kinnaird down the narrow corridor at the top of the stairs.

"I like this inn," Kinnaird commented mildly. "Friendly service, few questions."

"I find that hard to believe, in such a quiet town," Severus remarked, not without a hint of suspicion. He hoped the muggle's memory wasn't being abused, or that Kinnaird was not foolishly exposing the town to danger.

"They're thankful for the business," Kinnaird responded dismissively. "And it's not a fifteen minute walk to the nearest Wizarding town, a fine place to Apparate from. I'm a quiet guest," he assured them. Shortly, he was ushering them into a dimly lit but cozy room.

"Remus, I must admit, I was surprised at your visit the other day," Kinnaird said once he had closed the door behind them. "When I sent word to Snape requesting a meeting, I did wonder at your sudden arrival. Is Remus receiving all of your post, these days, Professor?"

There was derision in his tone, but Severus displayed nothing of having been affected by it. Instead, he offered a tight smile as he slowly lowered his hood from his face. "I apologize for my need to delegate, Kinnaird; I had not realized you required my personal touch in a response. Now, to get to the point, what is it that you summoned us here for?"

"He's a feeling a tad irascible, Branson," Lupin quipped with a touch of amusement. "Imagine the trouble you might have gone through if we had not stopped off for a glass of mead. If it will make you more pleasant, I'd be happy to treat you to another round of spirits, Professor."

Severus' only response was to growl, but at Lupin's wink, he could see what he was playing at. Admittedly, Lupin might have greater success with Kinnaird this way. Decidedly, Severus allowed the comment to pass, and took a seat.

"Now, for the reason I requested you."

"I should hope the reason," Severus said through gritted teeth, "is that you have something to report on the Dark Lord's next planned activities."

"I do," Kinnaird said; there was something in his expression that indicated his enjoyment at this meeting having occurred on his terms. "But of course, I have already discussed this with the Headmaster. I am surprised he has not spoken to you yet. Nevertheless, what I am concerned with is rather the behavior of Lucius Malfoy, as of late. You know that Voldemort has not permitted my return to Hogwarts until next week, but I thought that you might be instructed to keep an eye on the junior Malfoy."

Severus' eyes drew close together, and his voice was low and deep as he spoke. "Draco? I had thought the Dark Lord had taken pains to ensure you two had little interaction."

"Oh, he has," Kinnaird responded vaguely. "But it is not my interactions with him that have me doubting his loyalty. It is rather the senior Malfoy."

He paused, frowned. Severus nodded. "Go on."

"Lucius has alluded to several events that have occurred within the castle, as of late, to the Dark Lord. I am not certain whether Lucius has intended to goad me with this information, or not, but it is blatantly obvious that he has insider knowledge of what has been going on behind the castle doors—including your frequent trips to and from the castle."

Kinnaird was addressing Severus now, and for once, he appeared incredibly sincere. Severus' eyes narrowed and he evaluated the younger man thoroughly, while Lupin responded.

"What does he allude to, Branson?"

"It is not what he says. It is what the Dark Lord says to him."

"Elaborate," Severus commanded.

A roll of the eyes: annoyance.

"The Dark Lord intimated to us that Harry's recent gains in strength are a cause for concern—for action, even, although he did not say what kind. Malfoy's response, specifically, was that he had reason to believe that Harry has become stronger within recent months. He said that Draco had an encounter with him that proved it, and that he would be willing to supply the memory."

"The only person Harry has done any duels with has been you," said Severus. "So are you certain that you have the correct facts?"

"You are more than welcome to examine my memories, Professor," Kinnaird offered at once, a hint of daring in his voice.

"I don't think that Severus intends to express serious doubt, rather than to seek assurance," Lupin said at once; his voice had a calming effect. Kinnaird turned towards Lupin, but Severus' gaze did not move from the young man.

Now Lupin took over speaking, glancing sharply at Severus as soon as the man looked as though he might interrupt. "What else has he said?"

"He has mentioned your comings and goings from the castle. The Dark Lord has asked him to determine where you and your son are travelling to. I thought that this would be of interest to you, Professor."

Despite Lupin's best efforts, Kinnaird's attention had returned to Severus. Try as he might, Severus could not resist the intrigue that was plaguing him now; he needed to know more.

"I wonder if you might permit me to explore your mind, Mr. Kinnaird."

"As you have had ample opportunities to do so during our Occlumency sessions together, I can't imagine why I would protest," Kinnaird responded.

There was little warning; Severus had risen to his feet. He descended upon Kinnaird immediately, his own searching mind invading Kinnaird's consciousness; little resistance met him there. Images flickered through Severus' vision, as though viewing a series of portraits in rapid succession; he saw the faces he expected: Dumbledore's, his own, Voldemort's, Harry's, and then at last, Malfoy's. He pressed at that memory, and images formed in his field of vision as though splayed across a canvas.

From the position of bended knee and his eyes cast downward, Lucius spoke quietly. "I have reason to believe he thinks the boy will soon be strong enough to defeat you—"

"Foolish, as always," Voldemort hissed spitefully; his back was turned to Lucius, dim light showing through the narrow window that he stood facing.

"Potter has been spending much time with his new Father, if you can really refer to him as such, after so little time—yes, yes, his little friend, Granger, constantly tagging along too— No, Snape is gone whenever the boy is, and more than that— He is getting stronger, my Lord, it has been confirmed…"

"Yes," Voldemort murmured, shifting to an area beyond Severus' limited visual scope, "He must have something for which he leaves the castle… I am certain the answer lies in young Potter's 'training'… Branson, you have spent extensive time with the two—"

Red eyes took on a life of their own as Voldemort returned to Kinnaird's line of vision, and Severus was reminded of his own years of service as he heard the deceit in Kinnaird's voice.

"Dark Arts cannot be taught on Hogwarts grounds, Master, without the approval of the Headmaster… I am certain that Snape has been unwilling to play by those rules, if Potter's recent advancement in dueling has been any indication."

"The Dark Arts… yes, Severus would believe that the best route to Potter's success… but we must be certain. Observe the nature of his magic, Branson, and come to me with your mind open on the day of our next meeting. I hope you will not arrive with anything disappointing to show me."

No response issued from either Kinnaird or Malfoy, and the Dark Lord was silent for what seemed like a long moment; a pressure built against Severus' mind, as though Kinnaird was attempting to end the memory, but Severus pressed on. At last, Voldemort spoke to dismiss them, but as Kinnaird's memory came to a natural conclusion, Severus' last view was of Malfoy lingering behind.

Whatever was said after that point, Severus knew only one thing; there was something Lucius was speaking to Voldemort about that he would not say in front of Kinnaird, and he felt it insistent enough to ignore a dismissal from even the Dark Lord…

Severus retreated from Kinnaird's mind, his energies spent. He had seen that Kinnaird was not lying; Voldemort did indeed press for information that suggested a certain knowledge of what had been going on at Hogwarts… and the fact that Kinnaird had volunteered the information was possibly proof enough that he had not been the source of these revelations. And yet, this had Severus' mind reeling… what he had seen of Draco lately was genuine, he was certain. Was it possible that the boy had given them up without knowing he had done so?

"So," Severus breathed, aware that Kinnaird was still gasping from the encounter. "The question remains, what have you told the Dark Lord about your duels with Harry?"

"What you have asked me to," Kinnaird ground out from behind clenched teeth. "No more, no less."

Severus' eyes went to Lupin's, who looked as though he was uncertain what to make of this as well.

"I am not certain what you have seen, Severus, but I think it safe to say that your next question should be for Malfoy. Am I wrong?"

"You're not," Severus found himself admitting in spite of his persisting desire to interrogate Kinnaird. "But I think you underestimate the difficulty of asking such a question with subtlety. Even more so, I wonder if my efforts might be better spent on Lucius."

"That might be rather difficult for you, Severus. Perhaps this might be an opportunity for Mr. Kinnaird to prove his worth…"

Severus glanced sharply in Lupin's direction; next to him, Kinnaird appeared dismayed. Severus' expression was hard and unforgiving; Lupin's suggestion felt somehow like a layered reminder of his relative uselessness in the field. Like an Auror whose nerves are shot from one too many harried days, he had been resigned to the desk. His wisdom was needed, but his skills were transferrable.

"Of course," Severus ground out stiffly after a brief length of silence. "And yet, one might also be wary of Lucius' leanings towards self-preservation. I am inclined to believe that if there is something that Lucius will not discuss in front of you, there is a fair certainty that it may be about you."

"And what might he say?" Kinnaird inquired. Severus was immediately given to the idea that Kinnaird did not quite agree.

"It is simply a warning," Severus offered apathetically. "A hunch, if you will. You are welcome to leave the advice if you think it stands without merit."

Kinnaird exhaled loudly through his nostrils and folded his arms tight across his chest. "I am more than open to suggestions. Or, instruction, which is what I believe you are meant to give me."

The noise that escaped Severus was partly a scoff and partly a chuckle; he shook his head and indulged in a brief smirk. It was not a look of amusement, but borne rather of disdain. He took several steps toward the door, maintaining meaningful eye contact with Lupin.

"I can only do so much with what you have given me," Severus said as he reached the threshold of the room. "But find out what Lucius has said to the Dark Lord, and I may be able to help before this problem escalates beyond your control."

"And how am I to—"

"Do you expect me to predict when an opportunity will arise?" Severus snapped, visibly irritated. "I have told you what to expect from Lucius, and I have told you what you must do. It is your own resourcefulness that you must rely on, not my implicit instruction."

Severus waited a moment to see his words sink in for Kinnaird, and then his hand was on the door. "Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to the school. Lupin?"

"I will return later, Severus." Lupin glanced at Kinnaird, who did not look entirely welcoming of company, but neither did he object. "I think that Mr. Kinnaird and I have some unfinished business."

xxx

When Severus entered his house, it was with intensity reminiscent of a much younger Potions Master. The walk from the periphery of the property had seemed long, but his anger had hardly dissipated during the journey.

A brief inventory of the lower floor, and then Severus was headed to the upper. He had to ensure that Harry had made it here safely for the afternoon; it seemed to so foolish, now, that they had believed the Floo system a safe way to travel. If Kinnaird's memory had been accurate—and Severus felt confident that it was—then Voldemort would certainly be working to discover where he and the boy were traveling to so frequently.

Even more unsettling was that Severus had not been able to determine Voldemort's source of information. It had seemed so clear; Draco had vowed not to betray him, and yet Kinnaird was blameless as ever. But how Kinnaird had extracted himself so neatly from the web of implications, Severus was unsure. His eyes rolled briefly upwards at the thought. There was some obscure piece of evidence, he was certain, that perhaps he had yet to glean from the experience. It was for that reason that his thoughts were cyclically returning to the encounter, and continued to do so even as he searched for his son.

xxx

Harry sat in the center of a circle of candles, the room faintly tinged with orange emanating from the surrounding orbs. It was only in the clarity of a totally blank mind that Harry could feel the pressure of darkness against his strong mental barriers. And while Harry knew that such barriers were unnecessary, he felt that with the absolute control he had been granted in this moment, he had found a new option: that he could welcome the darkness might pose a possible advantage.

It was a fleeting moment and then Harry had forced the idea from his mind. That was not the reason for his practice today.

Harry kept his eyes lowered as they fluttered open; he inhaled deeply, blinked once more, and stared around the room. The intensity of the color lingering in the nearest glass spheres was brighter today, and Harry's lips quirked upwards at the small accomplishment.

His mind was awake yet quiet. He felt as though he were sharply aware of his own consciousness; his senses were more alert, while his control over his mind was nearing effortless. He faintly noticed the deep rise and fall of his own chest, his own breathing harsh against the stillness of the room.

Depleted of physical energy, it was a moment before Harry unfolded his legs from underneath him and rose to his feet. He exited the room, and was surprised but not startled to find his Father waiting for him some way down the hall, leaning with his back against the wall and his leg bent.

"How did you fare?" His Father's low tone was subdued, and he stood still as Harry approached him.

"Not too poorly," Harry answered as he came to a halt in front of the older man, who appeared darkly contemplative. Harry frowned in response to his expression, but continued. "I think I am making headway on the theories where she last left off."

Severus nodded slowly. "I applaud your efforts, but I am not certain it's best to venture into unknown territory before having mastered the already explored."

Harry shrugged, and began to walk slowly with his Father in the direction of the staircase. "All my greatest problems, and the greatest potential solutions, seem to be with my control over my mind. To approach White Magic in the same way as Occlumency…I can't help my intrigue."

"To extend the benefits and explorations of the mind's use in magic as an intriguing idea, as you say," Severus responded slowly; Harry could sense the qualification to come. "I have not expressly forbidden your foray into the art, but I request that you would advise me of your intentions before you try anything new."

"Sir?"

"We will have to discuss your advancement in this area before you push it any further past what we have already determined is safe. Do you understand my meaning, Harry?"

There was a depth in Severus' eyes as he stared down at his son that prompted Harry to question whether his mind was as well-protected as he had previously thought. He averted his eyes and focused on clearing his mind. Could Severus know what Harry had felt, today? That even as he had not allowed Voldemort into his mind, he could not entirely purge himself of the temptation to use their connection to see what his enemy was planning? Even if for only a fleeting moment, Harry had experienced a feeling of immense control… and a suggestion of the things he might be able to achieve in manipulating Voldemort as he had been manipulated before.

Harry shook his head and returned his gaze to his Father. His expression was benign, and he nodded sincerely. "Of course, sir. I would expect nothing else."

Severus' eyes flickered suspiciously over Harry's face, but all he said was, "Good." He turned and resumed walking. "We must return to the castle. We will need to Apparate, today."

"Why?" Harry questioned at once, frowning. "What happened?"

"The Dark Lord knows about our frequent trips to and from the castle. I have yet to determine how; I had thought it dangerous to be seen coming and going frequently, lest we were followed, but I wonder now if our use of the floo is being tracked at the ministry."

"Will we be coming back here, then? I mean, is it safe?"

"Our location is as safe as our Secret Keeper is trustworthy," Severus said slowly. "I do not think our location has been compromised… but I would not like to risk exposing ourselves if Voldemort is trying to monitor our whereabouts. We will have to be more careful about when we leave the castle, Harry, and whom we bring along."

"My friends?" Harry questioned. "If Dumbledore trusts them with the location of the Order Headquarters—"

"I don't distrust them, Harry," Severus interrupted in annoyance. "But the fewer variables in this equation, the sooner I can determine the source of the Dark Lord's knowledge. And not only that information—he has ideas about you which concern me as well."

"What sort of ideas?" Harry inquired.

Tensely, Severus replied, "He is concerned with your strength—with your training."

Harry swallowed, nodded. He had often felt the Dark Lord's presence at the gates of his occluded mind; did the Dark Lord sense the power growing there? "So," Harry breathed, "What's next?"

"Well, to begin," said Severus ominously, now ushering Harry outside into the cool air, "I think we had better get thee to a pensieve."

xxx

Severus' quarters were dim, lit only by the glow of a dying fire and a sparse arrangement of candles around the room. In front of the fireplace, a shallow black basin sat, giving off a faint light of its own; for dozens of strands collected from his son were swirling together, the silver coloring brighter than normal for all of the memories contained within.

Next to the basin, a collection of vials sat uncorked, and next to Severus: Lupin. The gaunt figure sat slumped in the chair, a shallow glass of amber liquid clasped by its rim in his dangling hand. He took a sip, audibly swished it in his mouth, and swallowed with a faint rasp.

"Two hours, Severus, and no more than three of Kinnaird's memories correlated to those that Harry felt were significant." Lupin sighed. "What do you make of it?"

"I cannot say I am astonished," Severus answered him. "I had not expected him to be forthcoming with information."

"To the contrary, Severus, he appeared nothing more than happy to help. I believe that he believes in his innocence, wholeheartedly."

"And you?" Severus' question was honest in its nature.

Lupin hesitated, watching Severus with bated breath for a moment before he sat forward and placed his brandy glass on the table. He folded his hands in his lap and leaned into the warmth of the fire, contemplative. "I think we are missing something, Severus. There is some gap in perception, here, though I cannot say whose is correct. Perhaps we have overlooked something in Draco Malfoy's actions. It is hard to say." Lupin's eyes shifted sideways towards Severus; he crooked an arm and rested his temple on his raised, closed fist, resting his partial gaze on the Potions Master. "Draco must be the key."

Severus nodded solemnly. "When I left the Dark Lord's service, I felt certain that I would never miss the horrific experience of peering in to so dark a mind… how fitting now that I find it is the one thing I most desire to do."

The room turned quiet. Lupin appeared at a loss for words of wisdom; Severus was lost in his own search for answers.

Years ago, the solution might have seemed simple; this was what Severus had risked his life for—moments such as these. Moments when clarity was hard to find, and their greatest insight into the Dark Lord's mind was little more than hearsay. He had once been the solution to these problems; now, he was little more than a bystander.

And so Severus had spent hours, perhaps in vain, sifting through Harry's memories, sifting through Kinnaird's, to no avail.

"You see what you must do, don't you?" Lupin asked abruptly.

"Naturally," Severus responded with no small amount of disdain. "I'll have to access Draco's mind… but I wonder that he will allow me to do so freely. The child is quite accomplished in Occlumency. I am certain he has the ability to extract damaging memories before his meetings with me, if I know anything about how Lucius instructs his son."

"You will have to catch him by surprise, then, won't you?"

"That may be more easily said than it can be done, as it were," Severus muttered quietly. "The boy has a way of coming off quite blamelessly, I do believe."

"Yes, well," Lupin agreed, sitting forward. "Perhaps that is part of the problem. Perhaps it's not with him that we should be placing the blame… we must cut off the downward trickle of manipulation at its source."

Severus nodded slowly. "Yes. Lucius…"

"If Draco is as dedicated as he says—"

"It would be a mistake," Severus interrupted in a low voice, "to suggest that Draco might easily betray his own Father for the sake of our agenda. Draco may be an avenue to Lucius, but he will not be an easy one. This will take time."

"I agree with you, Severus," Lupin intoned, taking another sip of his drink. He swallowed, and added, "Which is why I am simply suggesting that you begin the journey now."

xxx

"Mr. Potter."

Dumbledore's bright blue eyes lingered smilingly on Harry for a brief moment, and then his gaze flickered to the left and right as he said warmly, "Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley. By the oath you have sworn before this council of witches and wizards, you have promised to faithfully uphold the terms of your membership to the Order of the Phoenix. Do you understand these provisions as they have been read to you?"

"Yes, sir," the addressed parties murmured in consent.

"Then we welcome you as official members of the Order of the Phoenix!" Dumbledore spoke with an air of finality, and his expression was as convivial as his words. It was with a familiar twinkle in his eye that the older man's gaze briefly connected with Harry's. He added, "And may you put this resource to the best and wisest use. Now, I believe we have several matters to attend to. Severus, please, take the floor."

Dumbledore gestured in Snape's direction, and Harry's gaze shifted to his Father, who was seated across the table at the Headmaster's side. He nodded curtly in acknowledgement of the Headmaster and then addressed the larger group.

"I believe we are all aware of the dilemma we have come to find ourselves facing this year, but allow me to reiterate for those who may not have as wide a breadth of understanding as myself and the Headmaster. You have all met Branson Kinnaird, and I have no doubt that everyone has formulated one's own opinion of him. The crux of the issue that we are now facing is that it is uncertain whether he is the most reliable source for information, and yet, and he remains one of the very few chances we have to gain insight into what the Dark Lord has planned for us.

"As you can imagine, this puts us in a very difficult position—one of vulnerability, if I am to be consulted on the matter. This past week, Lupin and I met with Mr. Kinnaird outside of Hogwarts, as he has taken brief leave of the castle in order to attend to the Dark Lord's most recent orders. To date, Lupin and I have taken all the information he has been able to offer us, and we have come to only one sound consensus.

"Kinnaird is the last person we should be placing our faith in. I say this not because I believe him to be perfectly contemptible and traitorous, but rather because I have reason to believe that the Dark Lord has placed him in our midst with very specific goals in mind. Kinnaird has informed us that the Dark Lord has come under the impression that Harry is gaining rapidly in strength—I was uncertain how he should come to such a conclusion, but it does seem obvious after sifting through a significant amount of Kinnaird's experiences that the Dark Lord is gaining his information from a source other than Kinnaird. Likewise, the information he appears to be feeding the boy is not helpful in nature, and I would venture to say that it is even purposely misleading.

"I bring you this information with one goal in mind. If any of you can offer me a viable solution to replacing Kinnaird—even if he is not aware that he has been replaced—then I welcome it. Otherwise, I believe there is only one goal left to pursue.

"Draco Malfoy appears to be our best candidate for the job. Regrettably, however, I fear that he will cooperate as willingly as Kinnaird. This is going to take a considerable amount of careful handling, and a great amount of help from those within this sphere of influence."

"This is simply foolishness. You mean to tell me," interjected McGonagall, "we are still pursuing this as an option?"

"We are pursuing every option, Professor, until we have reached a viable solution," Severus responded coldly, turning his eyes on her with an expression of disdain. "Have you a better suggestion?"

"I do indeed," McGonagall retorted, equally derisive. "Have the days passed when we've relied on our own resourcefulness as an advantage? Have strategy and strength escaped us entirely? You were a welcome advantage as a spy, certainly, Severus—but it is entirely possible that we won't find a candidate to fill your boots. I don't believe we have exhausted ourselves thoroughly enough to excuse the use of Draco Malfoy as our next secret weapon. A child, and that of Lucius Malfoy's, no less! It is ridiculous that such a thing should even be suggested!"

Severus was staring dead ahead at McGonagall, but Harry had both his Father and the Headmaster in his range of vision. It did not surprise him that a look of satisfaction had crossed Dumbledore's face at McGonagall's objection, nor that his Father looked positively murderous.

"We have one advantage." Severus' tones were calm, restrained. "We would be fools not to press it. Malfoy is close to us… and the Dark Lord has not realized how close. An opportunity such as this is rare… and I wonder at the increasing difficulty of retaining resources. How long has it been since our informants inside the ministry have turned up anything of consequence? How far reaching is the Dark Lord's grasp that we have lost the cooperation of departments there that once worked so closely with members of this Order, even if unwittingly?

"The Dark Lord is aware of us now—his followers, even more so. Trustworthy sources are rare in these times… and I cannot see a way of bypassing this problem without employing cunning as our weapon of choice. Some here would argue that it is best to uphold honor in our actions, but I will be the first to admit that my success in earlier years had very little to do with nobility… and perhaps there is more than a correlation between the ruthlessness of those actions and my relative success… I would go so far as to suggest causation. And I will not be disparaged for having found another avenue for success, even if it seems unethical at first glance.

"I guarantee that the Dark Lord will not hesitate to use the Malfoy boy against us; Kinnaird is a diversion, but Malfoy is our golden goose. If that is not clear to you by now, then chalk it up to a relative lack of inexperience in these matters, and thank me for being available to make up for that shortcoming."

A stiff silence descended over the room; Harry watched the ripple of witches and wizards shifting uncomfortably in their seats, covertly glancing from neighbor to neighbor to see who would respond first. McGonagall was breathing heavily through her nostrils, shaking her head ever so slightly. Lupin's head was resting in his hands, turning ever so slightly back and forth. Kingsley Shacklebolt looked as though he were withholding a laugh, his eyes shifting between the opposing professors. Harry, for his part, was primarily concerned with what Dumbledore would have to say.

Dumbledore appeared contemplative, his gaze moving from Severus to McGonagall to the wider audience surrounding them, and then shifting back to Severus again. At length, he inhaled deeply and rested his folded hands on the table in front of him. All eyes in the room slowly came to rest on him; the high anticipation of his response was evident. Graciously, as always, he obliged.

"Severus has made some true assertions about our current situation, as I think that Kingsley can attest to…" Dumbledore nodded in the man's direction. "And while we may not all agree with his method, we must at least consider that he has provided us with a possible option in the face of a war in which we have relatively few. Mr. Shacklebolt, perhaps you can shed some light on the situation at the ministry for us, so that we may proceed with an educated discussion about the possibility of a new strategy."

"Of course, Professor Dumbledore." Shacklebolt's voice was deep and smooth, commanding of the room's attention. "We have unfortunately encountered many roadblocks where the ministry is concerned; a general lack of cooperation coupled with information leading to absolute dead ends has been one of the greatest causes of our failure over the past several months. And it is true that the problem appears to be growing; even to this day, we have been unable to determine the reason that all of Kinnaird's records have appeared to disappear from the ministry, or why the paperwork for Lucius' release from Azkaban has never been processed, as though it never happened in the first place. All evidence points to the likelihood of criminal activity within the ministry itself; unfortunately, the degree of infiltration is almost as impossible to determine as the answers to these queries themselves."

Shacklebolt paused, seemingly contemplative, before stating, "With all considered, I do not disagree with Severus' method."

An elegant arched eyebrow and a sweeping gesture of the hand, as if in gratitude for Shacklebolt's support, and eyes were back on Severus.

"He did not expressly agree, either, Severus," McGonagall pointed out in irritation, as the dark man smirked and leaned back in his chair.

"I agree with Severus in that we may need to get our hands dirty if we are to be successful," Shacklebolt amended. "I am not certain that Draco Malfoy is the best route to said success. Your reasoning remains somewhat of a mystery to me, as I am sure many people in this room will agree."

"It is the simplest route to Lucius," Severus stated very simply. "That is the most you will hear from me on the matter, but aside from the access to the Dark Lord, it is Lucius that I believe needs to be watched most closely. He appears to be providing the Dark Lord with extensive information… and I intend to discover where it is coming from. I am starting with his son."

Severus' manner was rigid, businesslike, something not to be argued with. And yet, Harry could see that more than one person was considering doing just that. Harry's pace quickened as the option to speak entered his mind; he was a member of the Order now, was he not? But in an instant nerves gripped him, and he was unsure what he would say should they acknowledge his right to speak. Would he support his Father? Denounce him? Perhaps offer up a solution of his own conception?

A glance stolen to his right, and he could see that his friend had no intention of speaking. Hermione's hands were clasped tightly in her lap, and her chest barely rose and fell with the signs of breathing. It was as though she was willing herself invisible, instinctually wondering if the adults in the room might have a change of heart should they notice her presence.

Taking his cue from her, Harry remained silent and returned his attention to the discussion in the room. When he did, it was Lupin who was speaking.

"...after spending several weeks in the castle, I myself am coming to wonder at the possibility of using the Malfoy boy. He is at least predictable; in my time with Kinnaird, I have witnessed a pattern of mood swings and erratic behavior that makes me wonder first at his ability to handle pressure, secondly at his proficiency at hiding his emotions from the Dark Lord. Malfoy is consistently cooperative with Professor Snape; though he may be shy of others, I urge you to trust the judgment of the one man who may know what he is talking about."

"Perhaps we had better simply put this topic to rest until the next meeting and see what our informants can scare up in the form of other evidence to rely on before we make some important decisions." McGonagall's lips were pursed and she spoke in slightly elevated tones, a sure sign that she was becoming flustered at the amount of support Severus was receiving.

Across the room, Severus looked bored, and Dumbledore appeared to agree, as he spoke at once. "A wise decision, I believe, thank you Professor McGonagall," he nodded in her direction.

If the phrase palpable tension were ever applicable, the time had come to use it. It seemed that no one felt brave enough to contradict either Professor McGonagall or the Potions Master. Harry couldn't say he felt anymore courageous than the others.

Dumbledore clasped his hands together and surveyed the room. "I believe we have arrived at the natural conclusion of a meaningful debate. I would ask you all to carefully consider the issues as they have been presented here today. In the mean time, I believe Molly has prepared a lovely dinner for us all downstairs, and I fear she will have our heads if we are late enough to put her well spent efforts toward a hot meal to waste. Meeting adjourned!"

The formerly calm room erupted into a flurry of speech and movement; among the commotion, Harry could see his Father speaking quietly to the Headmaster and Professor McGonagall. McGonagall's expression was just as stern, if not more so, as it had been during the meeting.

While the other Order members were slowly drifting out of the door, including Ron and Hermione, Harry found himself inching closer to the trio of adults, straining to hear what they are saying. Almost as though he could sense Harry's curiosity, however, Severus turned his head slightly over his shoulder and frowned in his son's direction. When Harry did not immediately turn and scurry out the door, Severus waved his hand in a shooing motion and nodded towards the door.

Begrudgingly and somewhat embarrassed, Harry turned and left the room with no further argument.

"Wonder what all that was about," Ron remarked off-handedly, moving quickly downstairs with his nose leading the way to the kitchen.

"Not sure," Harry responded contemplatively, "But I sure as hell intend to find out."

xxx

"Oof!"

This was the sound that escaped the rather small Gryffindor first year Finley Aproot as he darted out from behind a group of older students just in time to collide rather abruptly with Harry, who was having some difficulty maneuvering through the busy corridors himself. Harry backed up and sidestepped the younger student, who muttered sheepishly, "Sorry, Harry," adjusting the glasses which had gone crooked on his nose and glancing around in embarrassment that someone might have seen.

"Don't get caught running in the hallways, Fin, we can't afford to lose anymore house points," Harry joked gently, bending down to gather the books the younger student had dropped. "And where are you hurrying off to anyway? Breakfast's in the other direction."

"Already ate," said the boy with a sniff, gratefully accepting his books from Harry. "But I've forgotten my Potions homework in the common room, and I can't be late one more time. Professor Snape's going to skin me alive…"

"Is that something he said?" inquired Harry dryly, fighting a smirk and shaking his head, "or something you've imagined on your own?"

"Something he said," Fin said with wide eyes, glancing around.

"Oh," said Harry seriously. He was suddenly assaulted by the memory of his own first-year self, quivering in fear as Professor Snape berated him for tardiness. Winking, he said, "Better hurry, then."

The boy nodded quickly and then was off again, leaving Harry to continue on his way.

"Excuse me," Harry said for what seemed like the hundredth time this morning, trying to make his way to the Great Hall in order to get some breakfast himself. It didn't seem fair, Harry pondered, that his classmates should seem so jovial at the end of term. Perhaps some of the more conscientious members of the student body were sequestered in some corner of the library, worrying over the final culmination of a year's learning. The overall impression Harry was gleaning from the giddy groups of students gathering in the hallways before the start of today's classes, however, was that a majority of his fellow classmates were consumed with the anticipation of summertime freedom from responsibility.

Not unlike previous years, Harry was not one of those students looking forward to the summer holidays. And yet this year, it had little to do with a return to the Dursleys (for this year, it would be a short one, most likely accompanied by his Father) and far more to do with the immensity of the barriers he would tackle over the coming months. While his induction into the Order the prior night may not have changed anything in actuality, it had enhanced his sense of control. It had reinforced the weight of the responsibility he was entrusted with. In truth, it made him feel incredibly important in a way he hadn't been before- not important as a pawn in a chess game, or the final piece of a puzzle that could otherwise never be finished, but rather as a player in the game.

Harry reminded himself that the responsibility he now felt for the masses around him was only a product of what he had asked for, and he was glad to have taken it on. His head seemed to hold itself higher of its own accord. His body felt stronger, his shoulders squared and his chest expanding wider with each breath. To himself, Harry smiled just slightly. He had been on this path for some time, but it wasn't until now that he understood what his path was. Now, he felt at least a sense of control.

It was with this same sense of calm confidence that Harry entered the Great Hall, glad to spot his friends at the Gryffindor table at once. Further ahead, his Father was seated at the head table; his expression today was one of intense concentration as he stared down at his breakfast. Harry snorted to himself and continued walking until he reached his friends.

What he found when he reached them, to his surprise, was the same expressions of intensity as they each clutched either side of the Daily Prophet—and as they looked up at him, their collective looks morphed into those of apprehension. Harry frowned and glanced back at his Father; as he suspected, now that he had come closer to where the man was sitting, he saw that he was not in fact attempting to consume his breakfast by staring at it, but was rather reading the paper in front of him as well. As though he could feel Harry watching him, he glanced up rather sharply. As their eyes met, Harry understood—something had happened. At once, he reached over and snatched the paper from his friends' grasps.

"What is it?" he inquired at once, his eyes searching the page. Hermione sighed deeply and reached upward, turning to the appropriate page.

"You're not going to like this," she said in a low voice, and glanced around the Great Hall as though to evaluate the impact the news had on the rest of the student population. A few students spoke quietly among themselves, but many of the others seemed largely unaware that there was any current news to discuss.

Spanning across the front page of the Prophet was a black and white photograph of Lucius Malfoy and Minister Fudge shaking hands and smiling. Almost as though he could stare right back at Harry from inside of the paper, Malfoy's smile widened and he gave an obnoxiously gracious nod. The headline read, "Lucius Malfoy Absolved of All Charges; Ministry Offers Public Apology".

"What in the hell—how?" Harry hissed.

"Just keep reading," instructed Hermione.

Harry pressed his lips together and shook his head, but read on.

In a lengthy trial involving numerous witnesses and a wide range of supporting evidence, the case against Lucius Malfoy relating to his involvement in the break-in at the Ministry last May has finally drawn to a close. Mr. Malfoy's presence at the Ministry on the unfortunate day of You-Know-Who's return has been determined as an unfortunate coincidence, in which Mr. Malfoy was swept into the mayhem while visiting the Ministry on official business. In a statement from Minister Fudge:

The Ministry of Magic deeply regrets the false allegations and brief stay in Azkaban Prison as a result of this unfortunate misunderstanding, and offers the most sincere of apologies to the noble and gracious Mr. Lucius Malfoy. It is our greatest concern that Mr. Malfoy and his family be allowed to return to the normality of the life they previously enjoyed as great contributors to the Ministry and the surrounding community. As a direct application of this absolution of guilt, we ask Mr. Malfoy to return to his position here at the Ministry, restore his rights as an upstanding citizen, and return to him any personal property confiscated during his trial for justice. We ask for the public's full cooperation in reinstating Mr. Malfoy to all of his former positions within the community, and to rest assured that everything possible is being done to bring the correct people to justice in this case.

The article continued on for some length, but Harry's patience had already come to its end. Crushing the paper in his hand in a furious gesture, his head whipped in Malfoy's direction, and he locked the other boy in an unfaltering stare. Malfoy's expression was defiant, but not strong. Harry's body quickly turned in suit, and he began to move in the direction of the Slytherin table. He had taken not two steps, however, when he felt a strong hand clench down on his shoulder. In an instant, he knew it was his Father who stood directly behind him, breathing heavily out of flared nostrils. Harry could see the rise and fall of his chest, and knew that he had practically flown from the Head table in order to put a stop to whatever Harry was planning.

"I just wanted to ask who his Father had to pay off to make this happen," Harry said through clenched teeth, answering his silent Father before the older man had an opportunity to reprimand him.

"Come with me," Severus said succinctly, releasing Harry's shoulder. He glanced back at Ron and Hermione, distain apparent in his expression. "You, too."

"I've not finished breakfast," Ron muttered, but quickly shut his mouth at Snape's challenging look.

"I cannot tell you who Malfoy has bribed to secure his place back at the Ministry," Snape said quietly once they were a safe distance away from any of the students, and nearing the Headmaster's office, "but I can tell you that my thoughts turned to the same immediate conclusion. Whatever trial," Snape spat the word as though it were a curse, "the Prophet alludes to was either heavily manipulated or never happened at all."

"I'd wager it's the second one," Harry said bitterly.

"As would I," agreed Snape, speaking the password to the stone gargoyle and ascending quickly up the stairs. "Had we any knowledge that such a thing was happening, I can assure you the Headmaster would have ensured a far different outcome. However, what's done is done," said Snape resolutely, turning to face Harry and his friends as his hand game to rest on the brass handle of the door to Dumbledore's office, "And now we can only deal with the consequences. Which does not mean harassing Lucius' son, but rather going to the source of this problem directly."

With no further ado, Severus entered Dumbledore's office. Gathered with the Headmaster were Professors McGonagall and Lupin. To the left of them, Kingsley Shacklebolt hovered near. Severus nodded his greeting to the other men and turned at once to Dumbledore. "I assume you have contacted the Minister about this debacle?"

"I am still awaiting a response," Dumbledore confirmed. "It seems he is quite caught up in the misappropriation of justice, as it were."

"I had thought that we had finally come to an agreement with Fudge," said Lupin. "After Voldemort showed up knocking at the door of the Ministry last year. Now, what happened?"

"I think that is currently far beyond any of our understanding, Lupin," McGonagall remarked irritably. "I am currently more concerned with his position on the school board. Can we be certain that the board of Governors will stand strong? Or must we fear that the "former positions within the community" also pertain to his involvement at Hogwarts? I can't say what I will do if I find that man striding pompously down our halls."

"He wouldn't dare," Harry ground out; everyone seemed suddenly surprised to see him standing there.

"He would, actually," Kingsley Shacklebolt said from his place at the Headmaster's shoulder. "The primary reason for my presence, actually."

"Kingsley here has agreed to escort Mr. Malfoy upon his arrival at the school today," Dumbledore stated grimly. "It seems that he wishes to meet with me, but I do not trust his intentions."

"He would not come here if not with the intention to boast, Headmaster," Lupin contributed, rolling his eyes and sitting forward. "I doubt the wisdom in allowing him to enter the school at all."

"If he is to enter, I would prefer it to be on my terms," Dumbledore responded evenly. "I won't have him strolling through these doors on a day when he knows I am not in attendance. I plan to lay down some very clear rules for his limited involvement in this school."

"Yes, Headmaster, we all know how well he follows rules," Severus muttered derisively. Harry resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"Well, as much as I hate to agree with Severus," McGonagall added, waving her wand in his direction and raising her eyebrows.

"With a clear name, Lucius Malfoy is once again free to take control of Draco Malfoy's life," Dumbledore stated firmly, staring fixedly at the space between Snape and McGonagall. "Do I need to explain why it may be ill-advised to start a war with his Father?"

Neither Professor responded, and Dumbledore leaned back in his chair, looking as though his patience was worn thin. "Mr. Shacklebolt, if you would kindly depart for the entrance hall, I believe Mr. Malfoy will be arriving soon. We shall see what he has to say for himself."

xxx End Chapter xxx

AN: I have been very busy, but I have not forgotten about you. My summer semester ended yesterday and here is a chapter!

I hope to post a few more before summer is out.

Hoping you enjoyed the chapter. Reviews are the best part of my day, lovely readers :)