"Draco!" Bellatrix cooed, turning from her somber-faced sister to the entering boy. "Where have you been lurking? I've been dying to see you . . ." She walked over and gave him a quick, maternal peck on the forehead. Draco's face flushed, remembering her tongue and hands. He was only glad he had stopped to put his clothes back on before he entered the room. He felt his skin crawl under his shirt and jacket.

Lucius laughed uproariously. "Look at that, will you? He's blushing like a little girl. Fancy your own aunt, do you, boy? That's dangerous stuff, even for us."

Bellatrix shrieked a laugh, joining her brother-in-law. Draco turned to leave the room, but Lucius called him back, banging the foot of his cane on the floor. "Draco, come back here. You were not excused. Auntie Bella has something to tell you. Good news, wonderful news. Sit down, my dear son, and hear her out."

My dear son? The bruise on Draco's face, inflicted the night before, began stinging faintly. Since when had he been Lucius's dear son? Something was up. Doing as he was instructed, Draco took a chair by the fire, sliding deep into its cushiony depths and sitting on his spine, long legs sprawled on the hearthstone. "What?" he croaked, folding his arms.

"You," Bellatrix began, slithering over to him and bending over so he could see not only her face but an ample amount of her exposed breasts. They were the wormy white color of old powder and looked hard as rocks. A black amulet hung between them, swinging back and forth, tapping her flesh like a mortician would inspect a dead body. He averted his eyes and pinned them on her face.

"You," she said again, "have been commissioned by the Dark Lord himself. He himself asks for you. Draco, you will be a Death Eater."

There was a small gasp and the crack of an invisible whip, and Draco glanced sideways just in time to see a distraught looking Roach disappear from the doorway.

"There!" Lucius cried, exultant. "There! My son a Death Eater, under the command of the Dark Lord himself. Your hard work has paid off, my only – my beloved son." Striding forward, Lucius pushed Bellatrix out of the way and pulled Draco into an embrace. There was a whimper in the background as Narcissa clapped her hand to her mouth.

Draco froze as his father's arms went around him. For the moment, he was too stunned to think. A Death Eater. Him. The highest position a wizard or witch could receive from the Dark Lord. He was free. And his father was hugging him. Draco half expected a wand to be dug into his back in some kind of horrible drunken prank his father would play sometimes. It didn't come.

"A Death Eater," Draco whispered.

"Yes," Lucius hissed through teeth clenched over triumphal emotion.

"Me," Draco continued.

"Yes," his father drew away and shook Draco in his excitement. "You are to be apprenticed to a master Death Eater for a year, after which time you will receive your own mask." Before Draco could ask the questions that instantly sprang to mind. Apprenticeship?, Lucius grasped Draco's arm and began shoving up the sleeve on his son's right arm.

"What . . ." Draco tried to pull his arm away, but Lucius held on.

"No, no," his father insisted, squeezing his wrist and all but ripping the sleeve off in his attempt to get it rolled above the elbow. "We must make the Dark Mark right now, seal this agreement with magic. Bella . . ." he beckoned to Bellatrix, who drew her wand with a smirk that said she was going to enjoy this.

Narcissa stepped forward. "Right away, Lucius? Can't we wait for . . ."

"Get out of the room, woman," Lucius cuffed her across the face and gripped Draco's arm tighter. Narcissa fled the room as Bellatrix positioned her wand against the vein running along Draco's exposed wrist.

Draco's ensnared hand curled instinctively into a tense fist. "Will it hurt?" he found himself blurting.

Lucius and Bellatrix both stared at him. Finally, the witch burst out laughing, throwing her head back and walking away several steps, shrieking to the rafters. Lucius was not nearly as humorous.

"Hurt?" he hissed, twisting Draco's wrist to an odd and painful angle. "Will it hurt? Tell me you didn't say that, that I heard wrong, that you did not just express hesitance to receive the Dark Mark." Wrist now twisted nearly full around, Draco's knees buckled as his father continued, his previously eager voice gone emotionless and cold. "To do so would be tantamount to a refusal of the post the Dark Lord has offered you. To do so would be treason. Tell me now . . . is that what you said?"

Draco shook his head. "Good." Lucius relaxed his grip, pulling his son back into an upright position. "Now, Bella. And spare him nothing."

"I wasn't going to," Bellatrix said innocently, and plunged the tip of her wand into the underside of Draco's right arm.

The notes were slow and mournful, halting in the wrong places and then skimming along too quickly to the next stanza. There were several different reasons to explain the poorness of the playing. The room was almost completely dark, except for the blue light coming through the half-open window. The room was cold, and the short, sallow fingers that ran along the keys were stiff from the chill and from inexperience. Yet still the melody was a haunting one, beautiful in it a rough-hewn way.

Severus Snape sat at the large dilapidated piano, sprawled uncomfortably on the bench, bending over the keys. He hit another wrong note and hissed a curse, retraced his steps with his fingers, and began the ruined part of the piece again.

A knock on the door silenced him instantly. He slammed the cover down on the keys, placed the usual concealing spell over it, and swept across the room to the desk at the other end. "Come in," he drawled once he had a quill firmly between his fingers and a look of bored studiousness re-plastered on his long face.

The door opened and Minerva McGonagall entered the room, her face worried, as per usual. "I heard music," she said after a moment's silence.

Snape let his eyes roll around the dim chamber. "Really."

"Yes, I did." McGonagall seemed bent on discovering the source.

"Well there is obviously no music playing in here. But such occurrences are not unheard of in the elderly; I would suggest you have your hearing checked." Snape bent back over his work, satisfied that the age card would put her off her persistency.

"Severus," snapped McGonagall, wounded. But she changed the subject. "I wanted to know, have you had any word from the Malfoy boy?"

Snape blinked lazily. "No. Why?"

"The Department of Admissions has informed me that this year's payment of tuition for the boy has not been paid. The deadline is nearly past."

"The Malfoys usually leave the payment of tuition until the last second," Snape offered. Then, "And why, pray, do you believe that I would have any word from the young Mr. Malfoy?"

"Well, I thought he might have taken you into his confidence. At any rate, you seem to have taken a liking to the boy," McGonagall defended herself.

"Have I."

"Don't deny it, Severus, I know you better than you think," McGonagall said. Perhaps she was attempting to retaliate for the age crack, but Snape did not like it.

"Do you."

"Yes, I do," McGonagall was getting heated up. "And don't think that it's such a crime to like a student, either, Severus. I myself am extremely fond of some in my house, I think it's only healthy and natural for you to take an interest in yours."

"Thank you for your prescription, Professor. However, much as I enjoy these heart-to-heart discussions, I have work I must finish this side of the school year." Snape bent lower over his desk to discourage any further conversation. "Please close the door on your way out."

"Tell me if you hear from the boy," McGonagall snapped, and turned on her heel to click indignantly from his office. Snape watched the slamming door with a smirk on his pale face. But it was wiped off very quickly as he got back up from his desk.

In reality, he was rather concerned about the Malfoy boy. He had sent an owl to the ancestral manor with a list of some recommended reading, and with it the subtle hint that Hogwarts was waiting for an absentee student. He had received no reply. Not that he had expected one.

A sudden persistent knocking on the pane of his window caused the wizard to turn around. A black owl was flapping crazily at the window, scoring the bubbled glass with its talons. Snape raised his eyebrows. He recognized the bird – it was Narcissa Malfoy's. Going to the window, he threw it open and the bird dove inside, landing on the back of his chair and flapping several times before settling.

"What have we here," Snape muttered, extracting the message tied to the owl's leg. Unfolding it and reading it by the light of the window, he frowned at the words and the obviously frantic pace at which they were written. "Well, well," he muttered once he had finished.

Draco a Death Eater. The boy was cruel, but he was no killer, of that Snape was certain. And he was a coward. He had witnessed – often unnoticed by anyone – several of Malfoy's escapades and the outcomes, which usually ended with him turning tail and running away. And while Death Eaters had never been known for their courage or valiancy – here Snape laughed bitterly – there was a definitive degree of bravery that was needed for that post. A degree which Draco Malfoy most certainly did not have.

Snape pulled the black fabric of his sleeve away from his right arm and looked at the Dark Mark, which had been growing bolder and more discernable every day for the past two years. It was a terrible thing to be a Death Eater. Something no boy should have to endure, whatever his parentage.

At least I shall have the occasion to watch him, he thought to himself. Help him, if I can. It was the perfect scheme, Snape had to admit that to himself. Make the boy a Death Eater just before the school year began, then send him to be apprentice to the Death Eater in the school itself. The only thing Snape had to worry about now was how to find the time to teach him what he needed to know without getting caught . . .