Chapter Two: The Gatecrasher

"Professor Slughorn," wheezed Filch, "I discovered this boy lurking in an upstairs corridor. He claims to have been invited to your party and to have been delayed in setting out. Did you issue him an invitation?"

Draco pulled himself free of Filch's grip, looking furious.

"All right, I wasn't invited!" he said angrily. "I was trying to gatecrash, happy?"

Severus prided himself on knowing a lie when he heard one, and Draco was definitely lying now. It was not likely that a Malfoy would be caught trying to gatecrash a party, and even less likely that he would admit to it. Stangely enough, Severus had once told a similar lie, though he had not been towed in by his ear. However, Draco did not look embarrassed; he looked angry. Severus was prepared to grab Draco and pull him out of the door when he heard Slughorn quiet Filch.

"That's all right, Argus, that's all right," he said, waving a hand, "It's Christmas, and it's not a crime to want to come to a party. Just this once, we'll forget any punishment; you may stay, Draco."

Filch was outraged, of course, and Severus' suspicions were confirmed when Draco did not look happy either. He looked like he would much rather be somewhere else. He must be hatching another idiotic plan to kill the headmaster! What had the boy done? Severus felt icy dread grip him when he considered what might be required of him that night if Draco had done something particularly foolish. Severus was not ready. He would never be ready, but surely it was too soon. He had to get Draco alone; he had to buy Dumbledore more time.

Severus composed himself quickly and made sure his face did not betray a hint of emotion.

"I'd like a word with you, Draco," he said abruptly, interrupting the boy while he was shamelessly flattering Slughorn.

"Oh, now, Severus," said Slughorn, "it's Christmas, don't be too hard-"

"I'm his Head of House, and I shall decide how hard, or otherwise, to be," said Severus curtly. "Follow me, Draco."

Severus walked out of the party with Draco following reluctantly. As soon as they were out of sight, Severus grabbed Draco's arm and pulled him down the corridor and into the last classroom, shutting the door quietly behind them. He did not speak right away, but weighed his options before deciding how best to start.

"Gatecrashing, Draco?" he inquired softly. The boy only raised his chin in defiance.

"Why don't you tell me what you were really doing tonight?" Severus held the boy's gaze with stern intensity.

Draco only narrowed his eyes.

"I've not been playing pranks on first years, if that's what you mean," he said, then looked at Severus significantly, "If you weren't wasting time pretending to punish me, I might be accomplishing something tonight!"

Severus restrained his temper, though not very successfully.

"You mean, besides getting caught sneaking about the corridors – by Argus Filch, no less? If you can't even manage to avoid him, you have no hope of succeeding. Furthermore, if the incident with Katie Bell is an indicator of what sort of plans you are making, you are wasting your time!"

Severus paused to collect himself. He must be careful; Draco had been avoiding him like the plague since school began, and Severus needed to get some information out of him. He suspected that the boy was angry with his mother for involving Severus in his task. Or perhaps he was afraid that Severus would report every mistake to the Dark Lord. If he could get Draco to trust him, even to want his help . . .

"You cannot afford mistakes, Draco, because if you are expelled-"

"I didn't have anything to do with it, all right?" Draco looked self-consciously angry.

"I hope you are telling the truth," Severus replied, "because it was both clumsy and foolish. Already you are suspected of having a hand in it."

"Who suspects me?" said Draco, this time with more convincing anger. "For the last time, I didn't do it, okay? That Bell girl must've had an enemy no one knows about – don't look at me like that! I know what you're doing, I'm not stupid, but it won't work – I can stop you!"

Severus did not need to use Legilimency to know that Draco was lying. He had been staring intensely at Draco anyway, but now he decided to test the boy's claim. He was surprised to find it true; the boy effectively blocked Severus from his mind. This was not the time to see just how strong those mental walls were, but Severus was curious.

"Ah . . . Aunt Bellatrix has been teaching you Occlumency, I see. What thoughts are you trying to conceal from your master, Draco?"

"I'm not trying to conceal anything from him-"

Of course not, thought Severus, only the fact that your mother is nearly a deserter, as well as every doubt and disloyal thought that you have floating around in your head.

"-I just don't want you butting in!"

Severus decided to try a different tactic. He forced himself to appear calm and concerned.

"So, that is why you have been avoiding me this term? You have feared my interference? You realize that, had anybody else failed to come to my office when I had told them repeatedly to be there, Draco-"

"So put me in detention! Report me to Dumbledore!" jeered Draco. Severus took another moment to restrain himself.

"You know perfectly well that I do not wish to do either of those things." Severus was lying. He wished very much that he could fill every free minute the boy had with detention to keep him from making another attempt on Dumbledore's life. As for reporting him to Dumbledore, Severus already had. Everything was going according to Dumbledore's plan – which was not necessarily a comforting thought.

"You'd better stop telling me to come to your office then!"

Severus literally bit his tongue to hold back the various scathing rebukes he would have liked to make use of. He had to make the most of this opportunity.

"Listen to me," he said, speaking in a low tone to control his voice, "I am trying to help you. I swore to your mother I would protect you. I made the Unbreakable Vow, Draco-"

"Looks like you'll have to break it, then, because I don't need your protection! It's my job, he gave it to me and I'm doing it, I've got a plan and it's going to work, it's just taking a bit longer than I thought it would!"

Ah, now they were getting somewhere.

"What is your plan?" Severus asked as calmly as he could.

"It's none of your business!"

"If you tell me what you are trying to do, I can assist you-"

"I've got all the assistance I need, thanks, I'm not alone!"

"You were certainly alone tonight, which was foolish in the extreme, wandering the corridors without lookout or backup, these are elementary mistakes-" Severus began to let his frustration show.

"I would've had Crabbe and Goyle with me it you hadn't put them in detention!"

"Keep your voice down!" Severus spat, realizing just how loudly Draco was speaking. He had started giving Crabbe and Goyle the detentions they had always deserved when he'd realized they were sneaking off with Draco at night. He had hoped Draco might finally come to his office to complain about it. "If your friends Crabbe and Goyle intend to pass their Defense Against the Dark Arts O.W.L. this time around, they will need to work a little harder than they are doing at pres-"

"What does it matter?" said Draco. "Defense Against the Dark Art – it's all just a joke, isn't it, an act? Like any of us need protecting against the Dark Arts-"

"It is an act that is crucial to success, Draco!" said Severus. If the boy only knew! "Where do you think I would have been all these years, if I had not known how to act? Now, listen to me! You are being incautious, wandering around at night, getting yourself caught, and if you are placing your reliance in assistants like Crabbe and

Goyle-"

"They're not the only ones, I've got other people on my side, better people!"

Severus wondered just what Draco might mean by "better people", but did not miss a beat in his reply.

"Then why not confide in me, and I can-"

"I know what you're up to! You want to steal my glory!"

The irony of those words hit Severus full force. I have never wanted anything less, he thought bitterly. His voice became cold.

"You are speaking like a child. I quite understand that your father's capture and imprisonment has upset you, but-"

Severus didn't get a chance to finish, this time because Draco turned and fled the room. Severus stood in the classroom for a few minutes, angry with himself for failing. He would rather deal with a handful of Death Eaters at once than try to wheedle information out of one teenage boy. He had to indulge Draco, protect him, and appear to help him, when each day the boy had to plan his task brought Severus one day closer to fulfilling the Vow, and one day closer to finding out just what it might do to his soul.

Severus sighed and left the classroom. He went back to the party, this time successfully avoiding Slughorn and securing his lonely corner. He stayed only until Worple and the vampire left and was a few feet behind them out of the door. Severus walked to his office, sat at his desk, and rested his head in his hands. Most days, he was able to forget about that small favor Dumbledore wanted from him. Tonight, he could not push it from his thoughts, so he dwelt instead on another unpleasant memory: Lily, radiant and laughing, walking to Slughorn's party so many years ago with James Potter. Here, at least, there was no wondering what the future would bring.