By the time the students had returned to the school the news of what had occurred at the Grangers' residence had been the lead story in The Daily Prophet for four days. Severus watched with thinly veiled disgust as the less compassionate students craned their necks towards the Gryffindor table to catch a glimpse of Hermione Granger. His own Slytherins, with one or two exceptions, even appeared to be gloating. He sought out young Malfoy's face with keen interest and noted that the usually obnoxious boy did not appear willing to join his companions in their barbs and jibes. Perhaps there was hope for him after all.
As Poppy had predicted, Hermione did start to eat again, though sparingly. Virginia and Ronald Weasley had arrived within hours of her return to Hogwarts and, along with Potter, had taken up the task to watch over their friend. Hermione was always seated between the two boys and Virginia was present whenever possible. He also noted expressions of guilt among the students at the Gryffindor table, something that confused him at first. He brought up the subject with Poppy over breakfast.
"I had noticed that, too, but Lavender Brown came to the hospital wing in near hysterics. She thought perhaps something was wrong with her because when she found out about the attacks her first thought was to wonder if Hermione was safe."
"Why would that mean something was wrong?"
"Because she completely discounted the rest of the family as though they were nothing. The students were primarily concerned for their housemate and feel that they didn't have enough compassion for the lives that were lost. I'm still trying to convince them that they aren't a lot of prejudiced snots."
Potions class was an interesting change. As so often happened when Severus was removed from the classroom during the exams, the most unlikely students passed their OWLs. Longbottom actually managed an O, which Snape hoped was indication that the clever brain that excelled in Herbology had finally kicked in and realized that Potions was simply an extension of that class. What surprised Snape even more was that the boy had actually signed up for Advanced Potions. Apparently he had dreams of becoming an Auror like his mother and father before him. This thought would frighten him if he hadn't seen the boy begin to come into his own over the past year.
Longbottom was also one of those who would more clearly understand what had befallen his classmate. Just as the Headmaster had expected, it was long after the return of the students that others who had lost most or all of their families were approaching Hermione. There was strength in numbers, and this eclectic gathering of students lent their strength to helping one another heal. Many were Muggleborns who, like Hermione, had been relocated. Aurors were famous for taking in war orphans, as were higher ranking Ministry officials and the higher ranking Healers at St. Mungo's. After his own debriefing by Nymphadora Tonks, Severus had been shocked to learn that along with Minerva and Molly, Alastor Moody had volunteered for guardianship of his girl as well. Thank Merlin that petition hadn't been accepted!
All these observations played over in his mind as he watched Hermione duel with a practice dummy. "Stop!" Both she and the dummy froze in response of the barked command. Severus walked forward and tapped Hermione's shoulder with the flat of his blade. "You're doing it again, Miss Granger. By holding your blade that low you are allowing your shoulder to become a target. I assure you that you would find fencing a great deal more difficult if you received injury to that particular body part." He used his saber to bring up her blade. "You are also dangerously close to missing your own target. With the exception of the very petite, the hearts of most of your enemies will be slightly higher than your own chest height. Come at it from slightly to the left and at an upward angle, and you will have a better chance of slipping between the ribs and into the heart muscle itself."
Severus gave a curt nod and stepped back. "Resume!" The duelist picked up where they had left off immediately. Within three moves Hermione had dispatched her opponent. "Excellent improvement, Miss Granger." He surveyed his pupil with sharp eyes. Her skin was quickly loosing that mottled look from bruising, but not as quickly as he would have liked. "You have run out of salve." It was not a question.
"You should have said something." He pulled out his wand and gave it a flick. The swords and the dummies were restored. "Go through the exercise again. I will be back shortly." He stayed only long enough to square off with the first dummy before sweeping out of the room.
All in all, he was quite pleased with her progress. She was still adhering to the polite rules of engagement at this time, but she was becoming better able to anticipate her opponent's attack. This was more easily done if the opponent had eyes, because the eyes would almost always give away the next move. If she could learn to do it without the boon of other duelist's expression, all the better. Still, eventually he would have to shake her to her very foundations and remind her that not all opponents played by the gentlemanly rules of combat. She was going to have to learn to fight dirty if this was going to work.
The stack of tins was exactly where he had left them when they had made them together. It was noticeably shorter now, but Hermione was becoming good enough that she needed less and less of it. Yes, all in all he was very pleased with her progress. He took up one of the tins and made his way back towards the practice room. As he rounded the corner, however, he spotted a familiar form edging its way to the door.
Severus paused as Draco peered into the room. He waited until the boy dared to enter before moving forward with a light, stealthy pace. He looked around the corner of the door jamb and made sure that Draco and Hermione were both facing the opposite direction for slipping into the room. He stayed flush with the wall so that the dark shadows made by torchlight hid him from sight.
Draco stood in silence, his hands thrust into the pockets of his trousers as he watched Hermione. From this angle Severus could see that the boy's mouth was slightly open as though dumbstruck. He stared at his classmate as she dispatched dummy after dummy until the seventh (and last) one fell. "Blood Hell, Granger. Where did you learn that?"
Hermione turned sharply, her sword at the ready. Severus watched as her eyes narrowed. "Malfoy? What are you doing in here?"
Draco ignored her and walked towards one of the downed dummies. "They're Death Eaters. They all look like Death Eaters."
"They're only dummies." Snape noted the almost cat-like grace Hermione moved with as she circled out and around from Draco, her sword still up. The boy was too busy studying the dummies to note that she was putting herself between him and the exit. "I don't think the Headmaster would approve if I brought in real Death Eaters to practice on."
"Merlin's Balls, Granger! They're not going to come after with swords! You should be studying hexes and curses, not this stuff." He turned to where she had been standing, noted that she was no longer there, and then found her directly behind him. Severus smirked as he watched the silver-blue eyes widen in shock. "What are you doing? Point that thing somewhere else."
"Choose your blade."
"I happen to have it on good authority that Lucius Malfoy knows his way around a fencing match. Surely he took the time to teach you. After all that would be the pompous, arrogant, elitist, pureblood thing to do. Choose your blade."
Snape reached slowly in his robes for his wand, just in case. Hermione couldn't really harm the boy, not in this room, but that may not keep her from trying. A witch in mourning was often an unpredictable creature, and Draco was currently too frightened to hold his own against this particular witch. The boy's face had gone even paler than usual and Severus could detect a slight tremor in his stance.
"Don't be ridiculous, Granger. I haven't held a sword since I was twelve!"
"Then you have been sloppy and remiss. There are swords in that case over on the wall."
"Are you mad? I'm no match for you!"
Hermione moved forward with a speed Severus had seldom seen before. She rested the tip of her sword at Draco's throat, her voice a deadly whisper. "Choose. Your. Blade."
Draco backed away from the sword point, hardly daring to take his eyes off the girl. She had been practicing for a while, long enough that vapor from her heated skin rose in the cold air of the dungeons. The effect gave the impression of an avenging demon freshly summoned out of the Abyss. The pure intimidation factor wasn't lost on Severus, and he felt a stab of pride that his girl had mastered the use of it so quickly.
Draco returned timidly to the spot before Hermione with an epee to match her own. She had been trying for speed this session and had forgone the heavier sabers. Satisfied that her opponent was now properly armed, she brought her sword up in a salute.
"Wait? We don't have any masks or padding?"
"Scared, Malfoy?" There was a teasing quality in her voice. Draco swallowed hard and returned her salute. Severus' fingers tightened around his wand and he pulled it out to let his arm hang loose and ready at his side.
Draco was too uncertain of his current predicament to make the first move, although Hermione gave him ample opportunity to do so. When she finally attacked the boy was put on the defensive. Snape's eyes quickly monitored every movement executed by the girl. In short time it became apparent that she was holding back and he allowed himself to relax. Hermione clearly did not intend any permanent harm against Draco, but she was determined to give him the beating of his life.
Severus returned his wand to his pocket and leaned against the wall, folding his arms over his chest. Draco was hideously outmatched. Lucius had attempted to teach the boy how to fence because it was the 'genteel' thing to do, but his son's heart had never been in it. Right now Draco's lax behavior in lessons was painfully clear. Hermione found her way through his weak defenses without trouble and twice she managed to knock the sword from his hand, pausing only long enough to let him pick it back up. It was almost laughable.
Eventually, Hermione grew tired with playing with her 'toy'. She made an unexpected attack that caused Draco to fall in his attempt to escape her. His epee was forgotten as he crab-walked backwards. Severus arched a brow as he watched Hermione press forward. She took the tip of her blade and touched it to Draco's throat. The boy was frozen with fear, unable to utter so much as a squeak. She brought up her other hand and placed it over the one holding the sword as though she meant to plunge it into her opponent with all her strength, her movements slow and deliberate.
"Stop!" Severus detached himself from the shadows. As she had been trained, Hermione froze instantly. Draco let out a sigh of relief as his Head of House approached the insane Gryffindor. "Miss Granger, you are being unnecessarily dramatic. If Mr. Malfoy here had been a Death Eater then he would have likely had allies with him, any one of whom could have killed you while you wasted your time playing with him. Dispatch your targets quickly and efficiently. This is not a game of cat and mouse."
"Now back off of him and clean up this mess. That will be enough for tonight." Hermione stepped back, letting Draco scramble to his feet. "Come with me, Mr. Malfoy." He waited for the boy to skirt around Hermione; as if afraid she would lunge at him again, and walk towards the door. Once there was no danger of his being seen, Severus gave the girl an approving nod before turning to follow, tossing the tin of salve on her neatly folded robes on his way out of the room.
"My office, Mr. Malfoy, and do try to pull yourself together."
"Pull myself together?" Draco whirled around to gape at Severus. "She was going to kill me!"
"Of course she wasn't, dunderhead. She was just trying to scare you." He reached out, grabbed the boy by his shoulder, and turned him back around. With a firm shove between the shoulders he sent Draco moving forward again. "Besides, it wouldn't be possible for her to kill you with a blade in that room. If she truly wanted to kill you she would have gone for her wand when your back was turned. Or she may have throttled you; she's certainly strong enough to do so."
Once they were inside his office, Severus set a silencing spell and locked the door magically to prevent unwanted intrusion. "Sit down, Mr. Malfoy." He reached towards a small bell pull near his desk and tugged it. In seconds a house elf appeared dressed in a Hogwarts pillowcase. The elf bowed low. "Tea, strong, and none of those silly biscuits and cakes you lot insist on putting on the trays." The elf nodded and vanished as Severus leaned back in his chair and studied the boy on the other side of his desk.
"Professor, what was all that? Why's Granger down here in the dungeons slicing up make-believe Death Eaters?"
"I would have thought that was obvious, Mr. Malfoy. The recent events in Miss Granger's life have left her deeply hurt and angry. She's merely taking her aggressions out on inanimate objects rather than barging into the Slytherin common room and cursing everything that moves. I would think you would be grateful for her restraint."
"Do the other teachers know about this? Does McGonagall?"
"Yes, Minerva McGonagall is very much aware of her ward's extracurricular activities. She doesn't entirely approve of them, but she is choosing to remain silent regarding the matter."
Draco's face was a study in different levels of shock and confusion. Severus watched the boy shake his head to clear his thoughts before running pale hands through his hair. "How long have you known about this, Professor?"
"I have been aware of Miss Granger's love for fencing for a few months now. She only recently moved her activities to the dungeons." The elf reappeared with a small silver tray holding a pot of tea and two cups. There was no milk, no sugar and no biscuits. Severus poured them each a cup of tea after the elf had left. He offered one to Draco and did not comment at the expression on the boy's face when he took his first sip of bitter tea.
"Why did you approach Miss Granger tonight, Draco?" Snape's eyes watched as the young Slytherin gave a non-committal shrug. "Come now, Draco. You come across a room where a girl whom you have tormented and ridiculed for six years is practicing with razor sharp blades, and yet you still entered. Why?"
Draco didn't answer. Instead he stared into his dark tea. Severus set down his own tea and folded his arms atop his desk to lean forward.
"Mr. Malfoy, you have my word of honor as a Slytherin, as your Head of House and as your Teacher, nothing you say to me within this room will find its way back to your father. You may speak your mind here and I will not hold it against you or think any less of you for it."
Draco looked up, his eyes wary but his expression mildly hopeful. "I… I wanted to see if she was all right. Stupid, I know. I mean, how can she be all right? Her whole bloody family was slaughtered and… and it was my fault."
"No." Severus kept his voice firm and solid. "That is where you are wrong. What happened over the holidays was not your fault, Mr. Malfoy. You did not hold the wand that ended the lives of those people and you did not instigate those attacks. As I recall it was your father who came up with that particular entertainment."
Draco shook his head. "But he did it because of me, because I wasn't better than Granger. He's always been after me to bring pride to the Malfoy name, reminding me that we are the best, but I could never beat her."
"So you're blaming yourself for your father's stubborn arrogance and idiotic pride? That has nothing to do with you, boy. Lucius Malfoy was that way long before you were born. And don't look at me like that. I've known your father since before I came to Hogwarts as a student and I know him better than anyone, probably even better than your mother. If anyone can point out his faults, it's me."
A small smile tugged at one corner of Draco's mouth. "Do you ever say things like that to his face?"
"Occasionally, when he becomes too much to bear. He'll give me one of his most scathing looks and then storm off, but he calms down once he sees that I'm right."
"Sounds like an old married couple. Not that I'm saying there's anything between you and Father!" Draco added this last bit hastily as Severus glared at him with a look usually reserved for Gryffindors. "I mean, I know Father experiments from time to time, but everyone knows that you stick to women."
"Then I will endeavor to forget you said such a thing." Severus took up his cup again, watching Draco over the rim as he took a drink. "Is there anything else that has been troubling you of late, Draco?"
He looked as though he was going to answer, then shook his head. "It's nothing, sir."
"Nothing? Concerns are rarely nothing. They may be small, but they are still something. We cannot be certain when you and I will have another opportunity to sit down and talk with one another in this fashion. You might as well take advantage of the situation. Is there a problem with your schoolwork or your classmates, perhaps? Something you feel you cannot speak to your parents about but would like to have an adult's opinion, perhaps."
Draco toyed with his cup in silence, and then put it back onto the desk with shaking hands. "I'm… I'm starting to have doubts, sir."
Severus' interest snared immediately. "Doubts? About what?"
"About… about everything, sir. Everything I've ever been taught by my father."
Draco got up from his chair and shoved his hands into his pockets as he walked towards the fireplace. "All my life Father has told me that to be a Malfoy was to be the best. That to be a Pureblood was to be better than everything and everyone. Half-bloods were inferior, Muggleborns are just barely above house elves and Muggles are lower than dirt. I have had those lessons drummed into my head over and over again since I was in the cradle."
Severus leaned back in his chair. "And now?"
"Look at this place!" Draco turned his expression wide-eyed and torn. "Look at the purebloods in my generation. The majority of us are… off in some way. Either they're physically repulsive in some way or mentally challenged. And I'm not just talking about the others in Slytherin; I'm talking about all four houses. But then I look at the half-bloods and the muggleborns, and it's all together different. Name one muggleborn in this school who's in the bottom half of his class. And Granger… " Draco trailed off with a sigh. "Granger is the best of all of us. Top of the class and with the power to back up her learning."
Snape nodded. "And this makes you doubt the importance of being a pureblood."
"How can it not? I look around at the students here and I honest cannot find one shred of proof that says I'm better than anyone else."
Severus smirked, a knot uncoiling in his belly. "Congratulations, Mr. Malfoy. You've learned to think for yourself. I believe this calls for a bit of a celebration." He rose from his chair and went into his private storeroom. Tucked away in the back corner of the tallest shelf was a dusty glass bottle. He retrieved it, wiping the cobwebs away with his hand as he returned to the room. "You'll enjoy this; 1857 Chateau de Malfoy, from your family's vineyards in the south of France."
"1857? Where did you get that? How did you get that?"
Severus smirked as he uncorked the wine and set it on his desk to breathe while he procured glasses more befitting the vintage. "It's the last bottle from that year. Your father lost it to me in a bet just after I graduated from Hogwarts."
"I've heard Father talk about that year. I've heard him complain about how nothing made from those vineyards since has measured up."
"He's right. They've gotten close a couple of times, but they've never been equal. Just imagine how jealous your father would be if he knew you got to partake in the last of it."
Draco's face split into a grin. The sight of it struck something in Severus' heart as he realized it was the first genuine smile he'd ever seen the boy give.
"Why do you say I've learned to think for myself, sir?"
"Because until now you've merely been parroting back whatever your father has told. Before now you've never bothered to open your eyes and look around you. The benefit of being sent away for your schooling is that it gets young children out from under the direct influence of their parents during the time when minds mature. While parental guidance is good, it is also good for a young man to be allowed to make his own decisions."
"And what do you think about it? About purebloods and muggleborns and all that?"
"What do I think?" Severus set two crystal wine glasses next to the bottle and reclaimed his chair. "I think that we have been blinded by our own hatred. Like you I have noticed what appears to be a steady decline in the wizarding bloodlines and it concerns me. I have also seen how wizards tend to forget all the accomplishments and conveniences in our world that are the creations and contributions of muggleborn wizards."
"So you don't think that purebloods are any better than muggleborns?"
They were treading on dangerous ground here. If Draco was stringing him along, anything he said now would find its way back to Lucius. On the other hand, he doubted that Draco had the finesse and skill required to deceive him. "I think that we should not judge one another by bloodlines, but by personal merits. I think that by discounting a witch or wizard because of a circumstance of birth is akin to hexing off your foot with your own wand."
The boy grinned again. "You're right. I could never talk to my father like this. He would have cursed me a good five minutes back."
"One of the benefits of being without children of your own is that you can say anything you wish to them and you don't have to worry about the aftermath." Severus picked up the bottle and began to pour the wine. "You can also do things with them you wouldn't do with your own children. For example, I would never give a sixteen-year-old son of mine wine, but I have no such qualms with you."
Draco accepted the glass, holding it up to the firelight to watch how the glow shone through the crimson fluid before sniffing it delicately and finally taking a tentative sip. Severus watched as the boy rolled that first taste on his tongue and smiled as he swallowed. "Even better than I've heard. No wonder Father misses it."
"Now, we come to a rather sticky question, Mr. Malfoy. What are you going to do with your newfound intellectual freedom?"
Draco fell silent again, looking down at his glass. "I… I don't know, sir."
"Have you given no thought to what you want out of life? Do you plan to be a man of leisure or find a career? Do you have dreams of a quiet little cottage or to boot your parents out of Malfoy Manor and take it over?"
"I... I just know that I don't want to be a Death Eater."
Severus studied Draco closely. The boy had yet to look up from his glass. "And why not, Mr. Malfoy?" He didn't look up, nor did he answer. "I gave you my word, Draco, and I stand by it. Nothing you say to me in this room will be held against your or find its way to your father. Why don't you wish to take the Dark Mark?"
"Because… because I don't want to be reduced to a servant. I see my father strut and crow about being this proud, powerful wizard and how being a Pureblood is all important, and yet he crawls on his belly to kiss the feet of a half-blood wizard who's warped himself into something more monster than man." The boy rose suddenly to his feet, his glass clutched in his hand. "I hear them get together, hear them laughing about the tortures and the rapes and the murders, and it all sickens me. They go on and on about how great they are, how 'civilized', and yet they behave like animals!"
"And you do not wish to be brought down to their level." The boy fell silent, his skin going paler than normal. Severus reckoned that Draco had finally remembered the he, Severus, was believed to be a loyal Death Eater as well. "It's all right, Draco. You and I are alike, even as we are different. You have become disillusioned with the reality that has been woven about you, as I was. The difference is that for me the realization came far too late. I had already taken the mark, and once you cross that line you cannot go back. The only way to leave the Dark Lord's service is in a coffin.
"But you, you are still unblemished. You can still walk away from all of this, though it would cost you dearly. If you choose to refuse the mark your father will most likely disown you. You will be cut off from his wealth and his influence. Doubtless you will be forbidden to communicate with your mother and your housemates will probably turn against you. You would be as poor as a Weasley, with no power or influence except that which you earn for yourself. You'll actually have to put for an effort in life."
"I… I don't know if I could do that, sir."
"Oh, you are more than capable. The question is do you have the determination to do it? Unlike the purebloods that have caused this crisis of faith, you are intelligent. You have the brains, but you've never had to use them, everything has always been handed to you. I'm not here to spare your feelings, Draco. You are a spoiled little brat and always have been. Now you have the chance to become a man, but you're not likely to accomplish that in the shadow of your father."
"And if you had realized it sooner, when you were my age, what would you have done?"
Severus drained the last of his wine and set his glass down. "I would have turned my back on the Death Eaters and made my own path. I will not think any less of you if you choose to do so. In fact, I would think even more."
Draco finished his wine and crossed back to the desk to return the glass. "What do I do now? Where do I go from here?"
"That is your choice, Mr. Malfoy. I would recommend that you think things over, weigh your options carefully. I am serious about the likelihood of your being disowned. I cannot help you in this. I am still bound to answer whenever the Dark Lord calls me, and if you come to me to help you escape your father and his plans for you, I may be forced to drag you back to the Manor. There is only one person in this castle who has a chance of keeping you safe."
"You mean Dumbledore."
Severus nodded. "I may not agree with the man and I may be here to report everything he does, but he is the only one who gives the Dark Lord pause. He has kept Harry Potter safe for fifteen years; he can help you reclaim your life. If you do not want to throw your lot in with the Death Eaters, then Albus Dumbledore is your best gamble at freedom."
Draco sighed and nodded. "So it's either become a bleating sheep or walk the path of a martyr. Bloody hell, that makes me sound like a Gryffindor."
"You're too intelligent to be a Gryffindor."
"Then explain Hermione Granger."
"Temporary insanity on the part of the Sorting Hat." The tension eased up a little, enough that both Severus and Draco could give a slight grin. "Consider all that you know and all that you think you know, Draco. Consider everything, and determine where you want to be. We Slytherins are supposed to be clever, cunning and ambitious. You need to decide if you have enough of each of those traits to build a life for yourself if you walk away from this one."
"I understand, sir. I'll think it over carefully." Draco offered a lop-sided smile. "Thank you, sir."
"Feeling a bit less confused?"
"More so, actually, but at least you've given me a map to help sort things out."
"Then you at least have a start. It's getting close to curfew, Mr. Malfoy. You'd best head back to your dormitory."
"Yes, sir. Good night." The boy turned and walked towards the door. Severus dismissed the locking charm to let Draco out, then sat back to pour another glass of wine.
He had played a dangerous hand this night. He felt it was unlikely that Draco was trying to trap him, but that wouldn't stop the boy from balking out of fear and reporting to his father anyway. The future hinged on whether or not Draco was far enough along the path of doubts to push him away from the Death Eaters entirely. He hadn't lied to the boy when he had said that he had also been disillusioned, but far too late in life. Severus would have given almost any price to turn back the hands of time and undo his mistakes in life, to have never taken the Dark Mark. He would have dearly loved to have what Draco had now, the intelligence to see past the lies and the prejudices before he had gone too far to back out.
Now it was up to Draco. Severus only hoped that the boy would make better choices than he had.