It was a gathering of the most trusted Death Eaters. As Snape entered the room, he couldn't help but feel a twinge of nervousness. Tonight would be different. There would be no Order behind him to draw him out if something went wrong. There were just too many variables. Too many people. Anything could happen.
Beside him, Draco shifted slightly and tugged at his robes. Snape glared at him and was gratified to see Draco stiffen. Obviously that particular lesson had managed to get into the boy's head.
They took positions at the back of the small group. It was a good vantage point to observe everybody else without being observed themselves. Snape could see the Dark Lord standing at the front of the room. As he watched, the crowd parted.
"Severus," the Dark Lord said, ignoring Draco completely. "It's good of you to finally arrive." There was a dark note in his voice.
Snape bowed his head. "I'm sorry, my lord," he said. "We had to arrive on Muggle transport which is unreliable at best."
The Dark Lord stared at him for a moment and seemed to accept the excuse. He then turned around to face the rest of the Death Eaters. "My most loyal followers," he began. "I am aware that some of you are still celebrating the death of Albus Dumbledore. His death has benefited our cause greatly but we must not forget that we are in the middle of a war. This war will not end until the boy is killed." There was no doubt in anybody's mind which boy he was talking about. "We are here today to decide upon a solution to this problem."
Snape suddenly had an idea. He cast a sidelong glance in Draco's direction and could see that the boy had an impassive expression. He hoped that Draco would be able to keep it that way. "My lord," Snape said, kneeling.
The Dark Lord turned around in surprise. "Stand, Severus," he ordered.
As Snape stood, he looked up and found himself staring into the blood-red eyes of the Dark Lord. "My lord," he said carefully, hoping that his shields would remain steady, "as you already know, I have taken Draco Malfoy as my protégé." There was a surprised murmur around the room. Out of the corner of his eye, Snape could see the dark glittering eyes of Bellatrix staring at him. "He has expressed deep regrets over his recent actions and would like to prove that he is worthy of this organisation. Draco has asked that he be given the chance to capture Harry Potter before the beginning of school term. He feels that he is the most appropriate person for the job and that this will prove his loyalty to you, my lord."
Snape dared not glance to the side to see what Draco's expression was. There was no sound from the boy, which was a good sign. As he watched, the Dark Lord scrutinised Draco.
"Very well," the Dark Lord finally said slowly. "I will give you this chance. I hope you prove better than your father." He turned his gaze to Snape. "I expect you to assist Malfoy."
"I will do my best, my lord," Snape said, feeling relieved. "We will not fail you."
"I will not fail you," Draco suddenly said. His voice had a determined edge to it and he suddenly sounded older than his seventeen years.
"See that you do not." The Dark Lord turned away from them and was about to walk away when a voice spoke up.
"My lord, is this wise?" It was Bellatrix.
Snape couldn't help but smile faintly. She was the only one in the room who would have spoken up to question the Dark Lord's decision.
"You called this meeting today to discuss the Potter issue. Instead you give the task to a boy who has already failed you once already," Bellatrix said, sounding angry.
"You forget," the Dark Lord said coldly, "that the task also goes to one of my most loyal of servants, Severus Snape. He has completed the task that none of you were able to do. He will ensure that this does not fail. Do you question my decision?"
It was obvious Bellatrix was rethinking her decision to speak up. "No, my lord," she said. She seemed to visibly steel herself.
To Snape's surprise, the Dark Lord gave a high laugh. "This is a joyous occasion, not a time for punishment. I will let this one slide, Bella. But do not presume to question me again."
"No my lord," Bellatrix said quickly. "Thank you, my lord." She sank down and kissed the bottom of his robes.
The Dark Lord looked around at the rest of the Death Eaters. "There is a feast in the next room prepared by the house-elves. It is a fitting meal for my most loyal of followers." With those words, he walked over to a door in the side of the room and opened it.
The smell of cooked food wafted through the door to Snape's nose. He would have followed the rest of the Death Eaters through the door immediately – there was only so much of Wormtail's cooking he could stand – if Draco had not clutched at his robes.
"What is it?" Snape asked quietly.
Draco's steely grey eyes were hard. "You will explain what just happened when we go back."
Snape wrenched the fabric of his robe away from Draco's fingers. "Think about it, you stupid boy." He stalked away, not looking back if Draco followed.
When he entered the other room, he found himself face-to-face with Bellatrix. She had a grim expression on her face. Her hooded eyes showed nothing. Automatically, Snape clamped down on any possible thoughts that could be read off his mind. He was never positive whether she knew Legilimency but her instincts were usually unerringly accurate. It was possible she was a natural Legilimens.
"You may have fooled our lord," she said quietly, "but you'll never fool me." She spun around and seated herself near the head of the table near the Dark Lord. There was obviously suppressed anger in her step and Snape wondered whether she was annoyed that she was no longer the Dark Lord's favourite servant.
As Snape looked around the table for a seat, he was surprised to see Fenrir Greyback sitting by himself holding a goblet of a suspiciously red liquid. He walked over to the werewolf and sat down two seats down.
"I wasn't aware that you had turned vampire," he commented blandly.
Greyback turned towards him and gave a red-stained smile. "The Dark Lord said he would be displeased if I ate any of his followers." He wrinkled his nose. "Not that you look particularly appetising."
Snape found he had nothing to say to that. He heard the chair to the other side of him being pulled out and saw that Draco was sitting down.
Greyback stared at Draco until the boy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "You'll have some trouble training this one, Severus," he said.
"I didn't ask for your advice, Fenrir," Snape said coldly.
"But you may need it some day." Greyback didn't sound fazed by Snape's tone of voice. Snape couldn't help but feel grudging respect for the werewolf because of this. It was the brave – or stupid – person who did not fear Severus Snape.
"I doubt it." Snape turned away.
Snape could tell immediately that Draco was furious. The boy was pacing back and forth on his living room carpet. "Stop that," he ordered. "You will wear a hole in the carpet."
Draco glared at him. "Don't you dare call me a stupid little boy again," he spat.
Snape sneered. "If the label fits. You seem to forget yourself, my little protégé." The sound of Draco's grinding teeth was clear. "Perhaps," Snape continued coldly, "if you thought about it for a while, you would realise why I offered your assistance."
Draco's eyes narrowed at him. "Why don't you just tell me?"
"Very well then," Snape said, making a mental note to teach the boy how to make connections in his mind. He didn't think that it was that difficult to come to his conclusion. "You have shown yourself to be unwilling to take the necessary actions of a Death Eater. Potter, being the foolish, trusting, child he is, would easily be swayed into believing that you were no longer a willing servant of the Dark Lord."
Draco gaped at him.
"It is obvious that this job cannot be done without me," Snape said. "However, it is equally obvious that Potter is very unlikely to ever trust me again. Therefore, it is up to you to get Potter to trust you. Get close enough to him, past the guards, and slip him a Portkey."
"You make it sound so simple," Draco muttered. "Potter will never believe me."
"It is a simple plan," Snape said. "But don't be fooled that the execution will be straightforward. The Order has Legilimens' other than Dumbledore. You must learn how to hide your thoughts. You must get close enough to Potter to convince him that you have re-thought your loyalties. You must get him to trust you." He paused. "No, Draco, it is not an easy task at all."
"It sounds impossible," Draco said flatly.
Snape couldn't help but smile wryly. "Nothing is impossible, Draco. With my help, we will succeed."
Draco still looked dubious but he nodded anyway.
Snape was rather unsure himself. He knew how carefully Potter was guarded during the holidays. Once in Grimmauld Place, the boy would be almost impossible to get out. The only chance they would have would be to find the boy at his relatives' house. It would be unlikely that those wizard-hating Muggles would have anti-Portkey wards up. What he would do with Potter once they had him, Snape wasn't sure yet. He suspected that Potter would attack first and ask questions later.
Still, Snape focused his mind on the task at hand. He had to prepare Draco first. Perhaps if he could get Draco on his side then this would all become easier.
Not for the first time since Albus's death, Snape wished that he still had the help of the Order.