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The Betrothal Contract

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I. July 31, 2005

"I am not using a blood quill," Harry said, crossing his arms over his chest.

"It is a requirement of the Prosapia Sceptrum."

Harry frowned. "You keep saying that. What does it mean?"

"The compact or rules that have governed the Black family for centuries." Molnok coughed. "As I was saying, if you refuse to or are unable to fulfil any term set out in the Prosapia Sceptrum, you cannot inherit. Sirius Black's estate and the honour of being Head of the House of Black will pass to—" Molnok shuffled through the rolls of parchment on his oversized desk and tapped a long, thin finger on one of them "—Bellatrix Black Lestrange."

"She murdered him!" Harry yelled. And for the first time, he found himself wishing that Molly Weasley was capable of the hate required to Avada Kedavra someone.

The goblin bared two rows of pointed, yellow teeth at Harry. "The Prosapia Sceptrum does not consider that circumstance to be a bar to inheritance."

"What?" Harry glared at the goblin. "Why the hell not?"

"You would have to consult the Prosapia Sceptrum," Molnok said for the fifth time since Harry had entered the goblin's tiny, overcrowded office to claim his inheritance.

"Pack of bloody—" Cutting himself off, Harry tried again. "Does the Prosapia Sceptrum consider a life sentence in Azkaban without parole for murder and treason to be a bar to inheritance?"

A murmur from Molnok and a finger-tap on the flat, black, leather scroll case — at least Harry hoped it was leather — that lay on a table next to his desk caused a red light to shine above the case and the goblin to shake his head.

"So either I use that fucking quill or Bellatrix," he spat the name, "inherits everything Sirius left to me?"

The goblin grunted and held out the quill again.

Black and sleek, its pointed tip gleamed like yellowed ivory in the candlelight. The quill was the epitome of everything Harry knew about the Blacks.

"What will it carve in my skin?"

"Pardon?" Consternation crossed Molnok's stoic features.

Clenching his right hand into a fist, Harry resisted the urge to hide it in the pocket of his formal robes. "What words will this quill engrave into my hand as a reminder of this day?"

"I do not know where you humans get your ideas. Carving words into skin is highly uncivilised, and I assure you that goblins are very civilised beings."

When he could speak, Harry bit out, "Of course you are."

"This quill," Molnok brandished it at Harry, "is part of the spell that tests your blood and your magic to ensure that you are the true heir. It will ensure that you sign the Black family ledger in blood. It will not leave any mark, temporary or permanent, on your skin or otherwise damage you."

Convinced that the goblin had wanted to say more, Harry was grateful for the restraint and even more grateful for the reassurance. With a great deal of trepidation, he reached out and took the quill. It was unexpectedly light, far lighter than a normal quill, and nestled into his hand as if it had been made for him.

"Good." Molnok nodded and made a notation in one of the many ledgers on his desk.

One test down, Harry thought, as he moved to the table bearing the long roll of parchment that Harry, his solicitor, and Molnok had reviewed earlier. For a moment, he wished his solicitor hadn't had to leave, but it was a requirement that the heir and a representative of Gringotts be the only ones in the room when he did this. But then he remembered the warnings hidden in the fine print halfway down the scroll and was relieved that no one else could be hurt if the Prosapia Sceptrum decided he was not the true heir.

"One moment," Molnok said. He slid the scroll case under the ledger, directly below where Harry needed to sign.

Hand trembling, gritting his teeth against the anticipated pain, Harry bent over the parchment and placed the tip above the thick, black line. Heat sparked in his forefinger and spread up his arm, across his chest, and up his neck to his brain. Threads of black snaked across his vision, obscuring his sight. His heart squeezed painfully. A trip-thud of sensation in his chest. And then he was released. A splotch of red blossomed on the thick parchment, and Harry scrawled his signature.

As soon as he lifted the quill off the parchment, the red mark began to spin. It rose up into the air, thickened, and then sank back down. The Black family crest glistened with Harry's blood.

Harry straightened up and turned to the goblin.

"Congratulations, Mr Potter. You are now a very rich man indeed." Molnok's voice was oily with satisfaction. "Gringotts Wizarding Bank is at your service. Shall I get you—"

A bell pealed.

"Knuts and sickles," Molnok muttered. "This is highly irregular."

Green lightning forked through the room, grounding itself on the table next to the parchment, which rolled itself up with a satisfied-sounding snap. Where the lightning had struck, another scroll of parchment had appeared.

"Dramatic, much?" Harry snorted.

After a moment or two of silence, Molnok announced, "I believe, Mr Potter, that it's for you."

Thanks for stating the bloody obvious, Harry thought. Resting his hand on his wand holster, just in case, he took a step towards the table. Then, stepped right back again when the parchment unrolled itself and green-grey smoke formed a blurry face above it.

"To Harry James Black Potter." A voice that reminded Harry of Sirius emerged from the 'mouth'. "On this, the anniversary of your twenty-fifth year, the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black offers its felicitations and reminds you that with the power and wealth you gain as Head of Family also come obligations."

"I didn't agree to—"

"You are granted six months to complete the betrothal contract between the Head of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black and the current Head of the Prince family, Severus Tobias Adrastus Prince Snape. Failure to uphold the honour of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black will not be tolerated. Failure to approach him within one month will result in—" the voice became gleeful "—appropriate punishment."

The parchment rolled itself back up with a snap.

"Fucking hell," Harry swore. "How can I do that? The man's dead."

"Impossible," the goblin said. "Or you'd be betrothed to his heir."

o0O0o

Severus Snape was having afternoon tea on the flagstone terrace of Prince Hall. The initial glee of being the master of a house from which he'd been summarily ejected as a teenager had worn off months ago. In fact, if he allowed himself to be honest about the situation, he'd be forced to admit that he found the house and his continued seclusion within its peaceful environs rather...

Enough of that, he decided, rousing himself out of his maudlin thoughts. Appreciate what you do have: a lovely, if not over-large, Elizabethan house; well-kept grounds with enough roses to please even your mother; and sufficient funds to keep you in the manner to which you have become accustomed for the rest of your life.

As for the other, maybe it was time he focussed on the unexpected benefit of surviving the Dark Lord's fall, rather than dwelling on the consequences of Nagini's attack. Pressing his lips into a thin line, he shifted in his chair and attempted to find a more comfortable position.

"Everything all right, then, Mr Snape?" His housekeeper stood on the other side of the table, arms folded over her chest. Gemma was tall and heavy-set, with cropped brown hair. She was dressed in battered canvas trousers and a t-shirt, and looked more like a mechanic or construction worker than a housekeeper. Not that Severus would consider trading her for her more traditional predecessor.

Severus snorted. "Just marvellous."

"Must be bad," she said, "if you're resorting to sarcasm."

"Leave it be, Gemma."

Head cocked, she examined him carefully, then nodded. "Will you be needing anything else?"

"No," he responded and then, to show how much he appreciated her forbearance, added, "The food looks lovely."

"And how would you be knowing that? Not having spared it so much as a glance."

Releasing an exaggerated sigh, he inspected the food laid out to his right. A charmed teapot stayed warm underneath a knitted cosy, keeping the tea at precisely the correct strength and temperature. A toasted teacake slathered with butter sat on his plate. Triangular sandwiches made with his favourite potted salmon sat on a nearby plate. Within easy reach were a selection of cream cakes and biscuits on a two-tiered stand, a bowl of perfectly ripe mixed berries, and a jug of cream.

"The food looks lovely," he repeated. Then, he smirked. "My compliments to the cook."

She smirked back at him. "Why don't you tell her? In those exact words."

"I think not. I value my skin a little too much for that."

"About time." Gemma reached into one of the capacious pockets that covered her trousers and tossed the day's newspapers at him. "Cam and I'll be in our quarters if you need anything.

With a harrumph to show her that he knew exactly what they'd be up to, Severus unfolded The Daily Prophet and The Quibbler and laid them out on the empty space at his left. As usual, their front pages were littered with articles about the rampaging antics of his former students or the imaginary sightings of mythical beasts. Some days, Severus was hard-pressed to differentiate between the two.

He was partway through the Prophet's ungrammatical dissertation on the possibility of love for Ginevra Weasley trumping Harry Potter's sexual orientation when a bell pealed above his head. Grasping his wand and shoving his chair back from the table - it never hurt to be cautious, even so many years after the war - Severus looked up.

A scroll materialised in mid-air and dropped onto Severus's toasted teacake.

"I was looking forward to that," Severus snarled. With a flick of his wand, he cleansed the parchment and banished the contaminated remnants of his teacake. The parchment unrolled itself on top of the Prophet and his great-grandfather Prince's voice emerged. "To Severus Tobias Adrastus Prince Snape. On this, the anniversary of the Black heir's twenty-fifth year and his elevation to Head of Family, the Honourable House of Prince offers its felicitations upon your betrothal and upcoming nuptials. The Honourable House of Prince trusts that punishment for failure to approach the Black heir within one month or to complete the contract and bond within six months will not be required."

The Blacks had actually accepted a half-blood. It was utterly unexpected. Then again, perhaps not. The Prince family, after all, had accepted him. And Potter was the only Black heir since Orion to reach twenty-five without being disinherited or murdered. Not to mention that Bellatrix was the next in line to inherit. Apparently, whatever governed the Black family's Prosapia Sceptrum wasn't that insane.

Severus blinked at the parchment. He needed to think, to plan, but all his brain would provide was an image of Potter's reaction on receiving this news.

Lips twitching with amusement, Severus considered the possibility that his seclusion would end a little more dramatically than he'd planned.

o0O0o

"Severus Snape?" Arthur frowned at the betrothal contract, which lay on the coffee table in the Burrow's overcrowded sitting room. "I must say, it's nice to be reassured that he's alive."

"Yeah," Harry snarled, "happy fucking birthday to me."

"It could be worse, Harry dear," Molly said, in the same soothing tone she used on her grandchildren when they were teething. "At least Severus is an honourable man."

"If your definition of honourable is twisted right around the bend." Ron leant on the back of the sofa and passed Harry another bottle of Merlin's Dark Ale. "I'm sorry, mate. They could at least have waited until after your birthday to drop the bad news on you."

"It's really quite remarkable," Percy said, from where he was bent over the contract, squinting at the fine print. Everyone looked at him expectantly, but he didn't raise his head.

Harry knew he was going to regret it, but he asked anyway, "What's remarkable?"

"This." Percy waved his hand at the parchment.

After another long pause that had Harry grinding his teeth, he prompted, "This what?"

"Well, all of it, really."

"Percy," Harry ground out. "Explain or I'll—"

Ron clapped a hand over Harry's mouth, and Hermione cut in smoothly, "I'm sure they're all very grateful for your help, Percy, but I think Harry's looking for a little more information about the contract and what he can do to get out of it."

"It's perfect, and nothing."

"You're serious?" Hermione slipped out of her seat and went to read over Percy's shoulder.

Shoving Ron's hand off his mouth, Harry whinged, "But every contract has a loophole. You said so."

"Not this one. Every clause is air-tight," Percy said, his voice tinged with awe.

"I didn't think it was possible, but he's right. This contract is a work of art." Hermione ran a finger down the coffee table, paralleling the edge of the parchment.

"It's incredible," Percy murmured.

"Brilliant." Harry huffed. "Just fucking brilliant."

"What is?" Bill walked into the sitting room and sprawled onto the other end of the sofa from Harry. Crossing his booted feet at the ankle, he snagged Ron's beer and took a long drink.

"Our Harry's betrothed to Severus," Molly said, and with a self-satisfied swish of her wand, her knitting needles rose into the air, trailing bright blue wool, and got to work with a clack.

Bill sat up, choking and spluttering beer all over his jeans, the sofa, and the coffee table.

"My thoughts exactly," Harry muttered, snatching the contract out from under Percy and Hermione's noses. He dabbed at the damp, beery spots with his shirt, unsure what casting a spell would do to a magical contract. At first he was cautious, but then rubbed harder at one spot in the lower right corner that wouldn't dry.

"Harry?" Ron's voice came from behind him. "What is that thing?"

Everyone crowded around, staring at the spot as it expanded and gained shape.

"It's an hourglass," Arthur finally said. He pointed at the shape as it flipped on end. "Harry, you have to find Severus."

Fear, resentment, and something else, something that he resolutely ignored, swirled in Harry's stomach and caught in his throat. He swallowed hard, groped for his wand, and gathered his resolve. "It's still my life. I will not be forced to marry someone—" he cleared his throat "—someone who doesn't like me, never mind love me."

Commotion erupted around him. They all yelled at him, telling him that he didn't understand, that he couldn't flout the contract. Harry kept his mouth shut. Times like this, he missed the Dursleys. There was something reassuring about people who didn't care what happened to you. At least they didn't smother a person in expectations, love, and concern.

It wasn't until later, after they'd all calmed down and started eating the chocolate cake Molly had made for Harry's birthday, that Harry realised Bill had not said a word during it all. He'd have to talk to Bill and find out what he knew, but not before the contract forced him to do something. Harry had fought too hard for his independence. He wasn't going to give it up that easily.

o0O0o

II. August 2005

The library at Prince Hall was the largest room in the house. The windows had been replaced with walls to protect the books from the destructive effects of sunlight or, in a few rare cases, moonlight. Ornate crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, two storeys above, a legacy of the time when the room had served as a ballroom. Oak bookcases lined the walls from floor to ceiling. Wards shimmered in front of several alcoves, warning off unwary visitors.

As he paced around the room, Bill Weasley tried to work out what he was going to say to Severus. He had to say something. He couldn't let things go on the way they were.

Over Harry's vociferous objections, Mum had tacked the contract to the sitting room wall next to the family clock. Seeing his family watch the ink drain from the top of the hourglass into the bottom had become unbearable.

With August almost over, Mum had begun spending all of her time in the sitting room. She sat in her armchair, knitting and staring at the contract, or darning socks and staring at the contract, or listening to the wireless and staring at that thrice-damned contract. She'd burnt dinner two nights ago, because she couldn't drag herself away, and Dad said she hadn't gone to bed last night at all. It was bad enough that he'd considered packing up the kids, moving out of the Burrow, maybe even leaving the country.

Scrubbing a hand across the back of his neck, Bill stalked over to his favourite section at the far end of the room. These shelves held the books on dark curses: how to cast them and how to break them. He'd borrowed most of them from Severus at one time or another when he'd worked for Gringotts. They'd spent years exchanging letters by owl; Bill sending exotic potions ingredients to Severus, and Severus sharing his knowledge about Dark curses and how to fight them, before Bill had learnt that he was to be Severus's liaison with the Order during that last, awful year of the war. It was an odd and difficult friendship in so many ways, but worth it for all Severus's prickly, acerbic, demanding ways.

These days, he read the books here in the library or waited until the kids were in France, visiting Fleur's parents, to borrow them. Victoire had a bad habit of taking books off his shelves to read, and he wasn't taking any chances. He didn't want to discourage her from reading; he just wanted to limit her choices for another few years. Once she started Hogwarts, he'd decided, she could read whatever she wanted as long as she discussed anything that bothered her with an adult, preferably him, one of her aunts or uncles, or one of her professors.

He was leaning against the bookcase, deep in a treatise on the best way to handle Mesopotamian burial curses when he heard the thud of Severus's cane on the wooden floor. Bill took his time reshelving the book, placing his marker in front of it so that he could easily find it again. When Severus's deliberate footsteps stopped, he turned around.

Severus stood a few feet away, his right hand on the head of his cane and his left hand resting on the back of his favourite leather chair. That he wasn't wearing protective robes over his black trousers and dark green shirt showed how much he trusted Bill. "Gemma said you wished to speak with me."

Despite everything, Bill couldn't help but smile at Severus. "I don't always come just to read your books, you know."

"You haven't visited at all for the past two months."

"Yeah, sorry about that. Dominique caught the yellow measles a couple of months ago, which had the whole family quarantined, and then well..." He blew out a sigh. "That's what I want to talk to you about."

"I presumed as much." Severus lowered himself into his chair.

As soon as Bill was seated, a carved wooden tray appeared on the table between them. With a tap of Severus's wand, the decanter rose in the air and poured a generous amount of amber liquid into each glass.

Severus picked up the glass closest to him and contemplated the liquid flames that stirred the firewhisky. When the silence had stretched nearly to the breaking point, he commented, "You've come about Potter."

"Yes."

"I cannot alter the contract," Severus said, "even if I wished to do so."

Taken aback, Bill stared at him. "You want to marry him?"

"You make it sound as if we have a choice, Potter and I."

"There's always a choice."

"Of course." Severus tipped his head back against the chair, making it difficult for Bill to see his expression. "We can choose to suffer whatever punishments our ever-so-compassionate families have deemed appropriate for disobedience, up to and including our deaths, or we can choose to marry."

"If marriage to each other is so abhorrent, you could abdicate your positions as Head of Family."

Severus's head snapped up. His eyes burned into Bill's with something between amusement and anger. His brief laugh was harsh, scraping against Bill's sensitive eardrums. "You think that is a choice? That Harry Potter could conceive of handing his godfather's precious inheritance over to the madwoman who murdered him? That I would hand Potter over to the tender mercies of my cousin, Verres Carrow?"

"No."

"Then what choice do we have?"

"None," Bill admitted.

They were silent for a while. Bill sipped his firewhisky, enjoying the warmth that spread through him, and sought another way to make Severus understand that he had to make the first move. Finally, he said, "Harry believed you were dead."

"He shouldn't take it personally. I wanted everyone to believe I was dead."

"Not everyone."

"Agreed." Tossing back the last of his firewhisky, Severus poured himself another, even more generous portion. "Your point?"

"My point, Severus, is that Harry is the only one who matters here. He..."

"Hated me," Severus interjected when Bill paused.

"He arranged for your memorial. He fought for you and had you exonerated. He commissioned your portrait and forced the Ministry to hang it in the headmaster's office." Bill put his glass down on the table with a thunk. "He didn't hate you. He fucking mourned you."

"You forget that I knew him. I spent years teaching the brat, endangering my life to prevent him from throwing his own away, enduring... nay encouraging his taunts, his insults, his disrespect. Nurturing his hatred so that I might help him."

Shifting forward in his seat, Bill reached out and laid a hand on Severus's knee. "Then you failed, because Harry does not hate you."

His expression bleak, pain and exhaustion carved in the lines of his face, Severus said, "I could have done worse, I suppose."

"You could have succeeded."

Mouth quirking up to the left, Severus saluted Bill with his glass. "Quite."

Bill smiled with relief and relaxed into his chair. "Will you talk to him?"

"I assume you have not told him how to find me."

The implication annoyed Bill. "I'm your secret keeper and bound by that damn vow. You know I can't tell anyone anything without your express permission. Bloody hell, Severus, haven't we gone through this often enough since I found you in that shack?"

When Severus didn't respond, Bill sighed and went back to his original subject. "Will you approach him? Because Harry's obstinate enough — hell, he's angry enough about this whole thing to do something stupid."

"Potter specialises in doing something stupid."

"Severus!"

"Oh please, he not only survives, he thrives in those situations."

Sighing, Bill rubbed at the knot of scars beneath his right eye. The stubborn sod was almost as bad as Harry. "Will you talk to him?"

A cynical smirk twisted Severus's lips. "Do I have a choice?"

"Only the usual kind."

Refilling both of their glasses, Severus held Bill's out to him. "Stay over, tonight. Tell me about your family, and what Potter's really up to. I'm not even sure the Prophet has the right story, never mind half of it."

Bill laughed, as he accepted the glass. "There's always some truth in those stories."

"The most effective misdirection contains a fragment of truth."

"Well, you would know," Bill said, and then wished he could take his words back when the humour vanished from Severus's face. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Bill stretched out his legs, crossed them at the ankle, and offered, "You remember that article from a couple of weeks ago? About Harry and his fifteen illegitimate children?"

Severus arched an eyebrow and then nodded, accepting the olive branch. "If I remember correctly, he would have been twelve when the eldest was born. Potter wasn't that precocious."

"Hardly." Bill snickered and then started telling Severus what had really happened the day Rita Skeeter caught Harry Potter visiting the orphaned and abandoned children who lived at the Regulus Black House.

When the decanter was almost empty, they helped each other up the stairs to bed. Severus hadn't promised to talk to Harry, but Bill was convinced that he would. He just wished he knew how long it would take Severus to get around to it.

o0O0o

"Bloody high-handed wizards just won't leave me alone. Always telling me what to do." Harry skidded his broom into a tight turn, flipping over the tree branch that was in his way. "You'd think killing Voldemort would have been enough, but oh no, not for them."

Reaching the other end of the paddock, he looped around, flying upside down for a while. "Attend this opening. Swan around that benefit. Visit the sick, the orphans, the poor, the rich. Next thing you know, they'll want me to visit the fucking Death Eaters in prison."

A faint sound from the ground far below caught his attention, but he ignored it. Instead, he grasped the handle of his broom, angled it up, and zoomed up into the sky. "God, they have a nerve. As if I wanted to do any of that. I mean, who the hell wants to risk his life chasing down the scattered bits of a maniac?"

Another sound, and then another, but it wasn't until the dampness of the grey clouds had him shivering that Harry looked down. A figure stood in the middle of the paddock and waved. Ron, he was pretty sure, from the shagginess of the bright red hair.

With a loud sigh, he aimed his broom at Ron and dropped from the sky.

"I'm not marrying the bastard," he announced, as he got off his broom. It was a lie, and Harry knew it. He'd have to in the end, because he couldn't let Bellatrix Lestrange inherit, no matter how amusing the idea of Snape being forced to marry her might be. Still, he had one more night, before the family whats-it began enforcing the contract, and he was damn well going to enjoy it. Resting his broom on one shoulder, Harry started walking. "Doesn't matter anyway. I'm going to Whizz Bang. You coming or not?"

The look on Ron's face told Harry that he'd rather not, but Ron said, "Sure. Why not? I haven't been to a club in a couple of months."

"Then it's past time." Harry grinned at him. "Think we can persuade the others to join us?"

In the end, Hermione, George, Angelina, Lee, and Bill agreed to go with them. Although Bill said he had an errand to run first, and would meet them there. Harry kept his suspicions to himself and went to get changed. If his estimate of the ink remaining in the hourglass was right, August 31st was his last night as a free man. The next day would bring whatever the Blacks considered 'appropriate punishment' for his disobedience.

o0O0o

Whizz Bang was loud and crowded. Ribbons of bright colours snaked through the air. Occasionally, one twirled itself into a ball and exploded, showering colours and sounds on everyone beneath it. Wizards and witches chatted and laughed, danced and drank, men with men, women with women, and women with men.

A ball popped overhead, scattering psychedelic glitter over Severus's hair, black shirt, and black trousers. He reached for his wand and then halted the movement, as a woman bumped into him and continued on her way with a smiling apology. Using his wand in the club was a damn bad idea. It could only lead to him hexing someone. And all the Polyjuice potion in the world wouldn't save him from being exposed if that happened.

"There you are."

The voice had Severus swinging around and grabbing the man beside him, hauling his arm behind his back and putting his own arm around the man's neck before he could begin to think.

His voice laced with amusement, Bill asked, "Is this how you always greet your friends?"

Placing his lips next to Bill's ear, Severus purred, "Only the ones I really like." And then he released him.

Bill looked him up and down, making Severus feel almost exposed in this strange body with its short brown hair and stocky build. "Interesting choice," he finally said. "Italian ambassador's assistant?"

Severus's lips twitched. "He comes with diplomatic immunity. How could I resist?"

Bill straightened his t-shirt, adjusting it until a diamond-shaped cut-out exposed his navel and a triangular cut-out exposed one nipple, and grinned. "At least you made it before midnight."

"What happens at midnight?" Severus arched an eyebrow and surveyed the room. "Turning this place into a pumpkin could be an improvement."

"Whatever you say." Bill cocked his head at the packed dance floor. "He's over there, dancing with anyone who'll have him."

Severus gritted his teeth, felt a muscle in his cheek twitch. "Show me," he ground out.

They wound their way through the club, collecting drinks as they passed one of the bars, until Bill stopped in an alcove near the stage. The tables in front of them were full, but they had a clear view of the back corner of the floor, where Harry Potter writhed between two men.

"That man hasn't got the sense God gave a goose," Severus snarled. "Does he want to suffer?"

Bill smirked, but didn't respond.

The beat changed, slowing down, becoming more sensual, and Potter turned. One of his companions left and the other, a tall, dark-skinned man wearing dragonhide trousers, an array of piercings that flashed in the light, and an impressive set of tattoos moved behind him, shifting forwards until his front was against Potter's back, sliding his hands down Potter 's skin-tight silver and black shirt and over his low-slung black trousers until they rested on his hipbones. Potter leant his head back, resting against the man's shoulder, and reached up to link his hands around the man's neck. They undulated to the beat.

A growl started in Severus's chest. It was one thing to believe that Potter didn't want him, but to be confronted with proof, to see Potter with that man, someone he didn't know — a desire to do something, to change that, to claim rose inside Severus. The contract, he told himself, but then his gaze returned to Potter whose dance partner's hand was inching closer to Potter's obviously erect cock. As Severus took a step forward, Potter slid out from under the man's grasp.

Severus made it to the table next to the dance floor before the music stopped. He halted, keeping his eye on Potter and his companion. Voice rose to fill the sudden silence. Chanting. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Midnight.

The ribbons of light streaked over his head, swirling around each other, gathering above the stage, and blowing apart with a flare of multi-coloured light. When the light died away, a woman with ankle-length blonde hair wearing a dress that showed more skin than fabric stood at the front of the stage. The witches and wizards on the dance floor and at the tables applauded and she began to sing.

As Severus watched, Potter fell to the floor. His scream was lost in the noise of the crowd and the music. His dance partner backed away, an expression somewhere between horror and terror on his face, as he disappeared into the crowd.

Severus moved. He was at Potter's side in an instant. Years of experience at Voldemort's bidding enabled Severus to grit his teeth and ignore the pain that was starting to flare at the base of his own skull.

"Snape," Potter rasped, and then dug his teeth into his lower lip. His head flung back, and his spine bowed.

Putting aside the shock of being recognised in this strange body for later consideration, Severus flicked his wand and muttered the spell that created a barrier between them and everyone else. He reached out, brushed the sweat-soaked hair out of Potter's eyes, his fingers gliding over Potter's skin. Merely a whisper of a touch, but it was enough to end the punishment. For both of them.

Potter released a harsh breath. "Can't—"

But whatever he was going to say was lost beneath the snap of Severus's wards falling.

"Fuck," Bill swore as he knelt on the other side of Harry from Severus. "Bloody stubborn fool. Mum's going to kill the whole lot of us."

"Get him out of here," Severus ordered. Over Bill's shoulder, he could see the other Weasleys heading towards them. With one last stroke over Potter's forehead, he pushed himself to his feet and stepped back.

The Weasleys gathered around, filling the space that Severus had left. Bill stood up, Potter cradled in his arms and, with a loud crack, they all Disapparated.

It's reminiscent of Cruciatus, Severus thought, comparing Potter's reactions and his own pain, as he headed as quickly as possible towards the exit. He contemplated a list of the potions that could ease the after-effects, trying to determine which would be most effective, forcing his mind back to them when images of Potter spun through his memory. Better to contemplate potions, rather than whether Potter had been about to spurn him. Or how Potter had known it was him inside this stranger's body.

o0O0o

III. September 2005

The ceiling above Harry's head bore the familiar pattern of cracks and stains left by the twins and their experiments. He didn't remember how he'd got there, but he was back in his bedroom at the Burrow. He squirmed experimentally, then gasped at the ache in his muscles and the thudding at his temples.

"Harry?" Someone whispered.

Ron's voice, Harry decided. Lifting his head up, he squinted at Bill and Ron. "Just AK me, all right? Put me out of my misery."

"Now, why would we do that?" Bill asked. "When you worked so hard to earn that punishment."

"Bastard," Harry hissed. "I thought you were my friends."

"We're better than that, mate." Ron patted his shoulder gently. "We're family."

Harry groaned and flopped back down. "Remind me why I ever wanted one of those."

"Because you hadn't a clue what it meant," Bill said, holding out a vial. "Here drink this. It'll help."

"It can't hurt. At least not much more than it does already." With an effort, Harry pushed himself all the way up into a sitting position. Every muscle in his body felt as if a troll had trampled it. He took the vial and tossed back its contents. He licked his lips. "Not bad, actually. Almost palatable."

"So," Ron began, leaning back in his chair with his feet propped on the bed, his arms crossed over his chest. His rumpled shirt and messy hair were in complete contrast to the serious expression on his face.

When he didn't continue, Harry prompted, "So?"

However, Ron didn't say anything more. Instead, he and Bill exchanged a look that Harry couldn't interpret, and Bill asked, "Are you quite done, Harry?"

Done? Harry stared down at the potion vial in his hands, watching it spin and roll and fly through the air as he toyed with it. With the aches and pain fading from his body, and that odd memory of the stranger who was Snape and how his fingers brushed across Harry's forehead, giving in didn't seem like such a terrible option any longer. Since he didn't know how to admit any of it, he just shrugged.

"Don't be a bloody idiot, Harry," Ron snapped. "It's not worth all of that."

"It wasn't that bad," Harry said, knowing that Ron would misunderstand and get upset. He wanted a chance to think before discussing the betrothal again.

"Not that bad!" Ron jumped to his feet and dragged a hand through his hair. "Not that bad?"

Harry looked to see if Bill was going to say anything, but Bill only shook his head.

"Have you lost your mind? It was worse than those dreams Voldemort used to send you, worse than Umbridge, worse than what Bellatrix did to Hermione."

"Oh, come on. Now you're exaggerating." And, honestly, Harry thought, Ron really was going a bit far.

"Exaggerating? How could you... " Anger flamed in Ron's face. "We had to watch, you bloody selfish..."

"Enough!" Bill snapped, cutting Ron off. "Harry, it was that bad. Stop kidding yourself. You knew it before you took that potion, and you'll know it again, when that potion wears off."

Caught somewhere between guilt over distracting them this way and a desire to be left alone, Harry lifted his chin and gave them his best scowl.

"We're leaving." Bill said, his voice cold and hard in a way that Harry didn't remember ever hearing before. He suddenly looked tired, worn out. The circles under his eyes seemed darker than they had been a moment ago, the scars on his face more livid.

"Fine," Harry muttered, at the same time Ron snarled, "I'm not done."

"Yes, you are." Snagging Ron's collar, Bill shoved him towards the door and turned to Harry. "Try thinking about what we've said, about how it really felt last night. Then think about how Mum felt when she saw you like that, when she looked after you. Is your pride worth that? Worth making her suffer every time that hourglass runs out of ink?"

Before Harry could respond, Bill had propelled Ron out the door and banged it closed behind them.

"Fuck." Harry slammed his fist onto the counterpane. He didn't necessarily not want Snape. He was just beyond tired of having his life chosen for him. Why couldn't they understand that?

o0O0o

Bill kept a hand on Ron's collar, guiding him down the stairs and into the kitchen where Molly sat at the table with her hands wrapped around a mug of tea. A steaming teapot sat on the table in front of her, with milk, sugar, and two more mugs next to it.

"Did the potion work?" Molly asked as soon as they sat down. She looked as tired as he felt. Her greying red hair was falling out of its plait and the lines in her face seemed deeper.

"Looks like it, yes." Bill took the mug that Ron handed him with a nod of thanks.

Ron snorted. "It's not doing a damn thing for his fat head."

"Ronald," Molly reproved him.

"Sorry, Mum."

She sighed. "I assume that means Harry hasn't changed his mind after last night."

"We should be so lucky," Ron muttered. "Knowing him, he's lying up there, moaning on about how rough he's had it."

"He hasn't had the easiest life," Molly said.

"I know that, Mum, but he's not helping himself either, is he?"

"No, he's not," she agreed, "which means we've got to do it for him."

A creak caught Bill's attention. He tried to shut them both out and listen, but the sound didn't repeat itself. Still, it could have been that stair just below the third floor landing, he thought. Harry was just stubborn enough to refuse to stay in bed.

He shushed them, ignoring their glares, pulled out his wand and cast silencing and privacy charms on the kitchen. A quick alarm spell on the doors ensured that they'd have warning if anyone tried to enter.

"Now, we can talk," he told them.

"Good." Molly pinned him with the look, the one that always made him feel as if he was five years old again. "Why don't you tell us how Severus feels about Harry?"

Shite! With an effort, Bill managed to keep the shock off his face. "How would I know?"

"William Arthur Weasley," Molly snapped. "If you've got a good reason for not telling us, just say so but don't you dare lie to me."

Bill clenched his hands around his mug and fought the urge to wipe the smirk off Ron's face. He raised his head and looked at his mum. "I can't tell you anything about Severus."

She nodded, as if he'd confirmed something for her. "But you'll talk to him."

"Wait," Ron interrupted them. "You knew Snape was alive?"

Molly answered for him, "If he did, Ron, he'd hardly be able to tell us."

"Why not?"

"Because I can't," Bill said, "and you should know enough about magic by now to know why."

"Yeah, all right." Ron reached for the teapot. "More tea, then? To give you enough strength to pass Mum's message on to the nameless git."

"Sure." Bill held out his mug, accepting the peace offering for what it was. After he'd added milk and sugar, he held out an olive branch of his own. "So, if you knew someone who was in this situation, how would you recommend handling it?"

His face screwed up in distaste, Ron tapped his fingers on the table. "What I wouldn't do, I'll tell you this much, is expect Harry to take the first step. He's got himself so wound up that he might just let this thing kill him before accepting that he doesn't have a choice." Molly rapped his fingers with her wand, and he stopped tapping them. "Ow! Mum! That hurt."

"Then you won't be so quick to do it again, will you," she said. "Make all the noises you want in that tip you call a flat, but not on my kitchen table."

Silence fell as Ron made a production of nursing his knuckles, and Bill contemplated what Ron had said about Harry. It was all about choice. Severus had said it as well. In fact, Severus understood what was upsetting Harry even without laying eyes on him.

"So, choice is important to him?" Bill asked.

"Of course it is. Where have you been for the last few years?" Ron snorted.

Bill was just about to retort with "mourning my wife and raising my kids" when their mum interrupted with, "What about the appearance of choice?"

" How can you do that?" Ron asked. "Either you have a choice or you don't, and Harry definitely doesn't."

"Not always," she said, a faraway look on her face. "In the old days, even with an arranged marriage, there were customs and rituals designed to let the couple get to know each other before their betrothal was formalised."

"What?" Ron looked bewildered.

Remembering stories told by their Grandma Prewett when he was a kid, Bill mused, "You really think Harry would be willing to court Severus?"

"Not bloody likely," Ron said.

"I wasn't talking about Harry," Molly replied.

A sinking feeling in his stomach, Bill tried to respond, but the vow Severus had imposed upon him bound his tongue.

"Well, that's settled then," she continued, the satisfied smile on her face letting Bill know that he'd been played. "Your dad and George are taking all of the kids today. They're off to a Muggle movie and then out for fish and chips. So, you've got all day and night to get this sorted."

"I can't—"

"You can and you will. If I have to watch Harry go through that... torture again, marrying Harry will be the least of Severus's worries." She pushed her chair back from the table and dusted her hands together. "Now, if you'll lift your wards, I can get the breakfast going. I wouldn't want to send you out on an empty stomach."

Great, Bill thought, that's just what I need. But he got to his feet and started dismantling his wards, adamantly ignoring the looks that Ron was throwing his way.

o0O0o

Alone in his bedroom, Harry stared at his hands, watching his fingers move as he fiddled with the hem on the counterpane. It's a stupid idea, he told himself. You've done it hundreds of times over the years and received the same result every single time.

Except it had been Snape at that club. Harry was absolutely sure it had been him in a Polyjuiced body. And Snape had touched him at that club. Gently.

Taking a deep breath, Harry reached for his wand and balanced it across his palm. "Point Me to Severus Snape, he whispered.

His wand vibrated, sending an odd sensation down his forearm. After a quarter turn to the right, it hesitated before revolving a half turn back to the left. It hesitated again, long seconds while Harry held his breath, and then it spun around and around and around, faster and faster, until it fell off his palm and onto the bed.

"Fuck," Harry muttered, screwing his eyes shut and flopping back on the bed. "How'm I supposed to approach him if I can't find him?"

He lay like that until the burgeoning ache from his abused muscles had him scrabbling for the potion vial he'd tossed aside earlier. Pushing himself up, he squinted at the vial, trying to determine if there was enough potion left to be worth taking or whether he needed to force himself out of bed to look for Bill.

A tiny imperfection caught his eye — a frosted area in the otherwise clear glass. Without looking away, he retrieved his wand and aimed it at the spot on the vial. "Amplio Imago."

As if under a microscope, the vial appeared to expand although its size in his hand remained the same. He examined it, noting the bar sinister, the fleur-de-lis, the diamonds, and the entwined wyverns. It was an image he'd never forget. The very same one was sealed in blood-red wax on the betrothal contract right next to Adrastus Prince's signature.

Thoughtful, Harry traced the outline of the crest with the edge of his thumbnail. The contract had known Snape was still alive long before last night. Maybe...

Harry heaved himself out of bed and hobbled over to his wardrobe. The scroll case that held the Prosapia Sceptrum, he'd found, did not like being Summoned. With a minimum of protest from his sore muscles — thanks to the potion — he retrieved the case from its hiding place and returned to bed.

He stroked the cover with his hand, enjoying the bumpiness of the ornate scrollwork and the way the magic tickled his palm. The cover felt more like basilisk skin than leather, although he wasn't sure that there was such a thing as a black basilisk.

Eventually, he laid the case on the bed in front of him, tapped his wand on the Black family crest and, as Molnok had taught him, intoned, "Paterfamilias Consulto."

A bolt of red light emerged from the tip of the sword in the crest, travelled up Harry's wand, and lanced into his hand. He jerked his hand back and yelled, "Fuck."

"Do mind your language."

Startled, Harry looked in the direction of the voice. A vaguely blurry image of a man with long black hair and a goatee sat at the end of the bed, leaning against one of the posts with his legs extended. His ornate robes were short enough to display embroidered stockings and shoes with jewelled buckles.

"Who are you?" Harry asked.

The figure inclined his head and smoothed a finger over his goatee. "Rigel Sirius Black at your service." His glance swept Harry from head to foot. "Or not, as the case may be."

"Harry Potter."

"Of course you are." Rigel turned his head to survey the room, disdain clear in his voice and expression. "Might I ask how on earth our family was reduced to these circumstances?"

"At least it's not a doxy-infested, harpy-haunted hell-hole, like Grimmauld Place." You supercilious bastard, Harry added silently.

"Hmmm." Rigel tapped a finger on his pursed lips. "You are aware that the head of family is not limited to that one property."

"I happen to like it here. At least for now." Before Rigel could respond, Harry changed the subject. "What made you show yourself? You didn't appear the last time, with Molnok?"

"In front of a goblin? I should think not. While I am required to provide advice to the head of family, my curse does not extend to creatures or anyone deemed unworthy."

"Curse?"

"Father had a rather... unique idea about how I could redeem the honour that he believed my actions cost the family."

Sacrificed on the altar of family honour. The idea made Harry more than a bit queasy. "For how long?"

"Irrelevant." Rigel made a gesture of dismissal. "Now either ask your question or permit me to return to my... rest, such as it is."

Swallowing hard, Harry nodded. "The betrothal contract... with the Prince heir."

"Is ironclad."

"So, I discovered," Harry said, "but that's not my question. The announcement said I had to "approach" the Prince heir within a month."

"Which you did not even attempt."

"Irrelevant," Harry said and was pleased to see Rigel smile. "Define approach."

"Oh, I am impressed. No one's ever asked that question."

When he didn't continue, Harry prompted him, "And?"

Rigel straightened up and assumed a serious expression. "Approach requires physical proximity, communication, and the negotiation of a date for bonding."

"How long do I have until the next punishment?"

"Until the sands run out in your hourglass."

"We'll that's useful," Harry said, putting as much sarcasm into the words as he could.

"Since you and your betrothed touched, thus meeting one of the criteria, your punishment will not be repeated until the last day of this month. Consider it... encouragement." Rigel smiled.

"A month? I hope he wants to be found."

When Rigel smirked and smoothed a hand over his goatee, Harry held up his hand. "Never mind. I know. Irrelevant."

"Someone who learns? Even better. I could grow to like you. Even if you are a half-blood."

"Yeah, I wondered about that. I thought the Black family only allowed pure-bloods."

"Have you met what's left of the family? I've been introduced to every single one of them. The family needed an influx of magical power and sanity."

Harry laughed. "You wanted me? To bring sanity?"

"There were worse options," Rigel said, his voice haughty. "And now, if you don't mind, I shall take my leave. Don't hesitate to request an audience next time you have a question." And then Rigel swirled into a wisp of coloured smoke and disappeared into the case.

A smile on his face, Harry rubbed his thumb over the seal on the vial. It was high time he had a chat with Bill.

o0O0o

"Damn it." Severus dropped the knife on his worktable and tried, once again, to massage the cramping muscles in his right hand. A glance at the clock above the hearth confirmed that it was too early to take another dose of potion. Cursing every Prince ancestor whose name he could remember, he cast a stasis spell on his cauldron and doused the flame.

Utter disbelief filled him as he contemplated what he'd done to the Ashwinder tongues. He hadn't mangled an ingredient that badly since he was seven, and never anything quite that expensive. With a disgruntled slash of his wand, he Banished the entire useless mess.

Severus stomped out of his lab, slamming the heavy wooden door shut behind him. The resulting loud bang was ferociously satisfying, but did nothing to ease the leaden feeling in his stomach or to erase the memories of Potter's contorting body.

He clenched his right hand into a fist, gritting his teeth against the pain it caused. Potter was a stubborn fool. There was no telling how many months he'd let the situation drag on before he finally capitulated. And capitulate he would, Severus was sure of that. Neither of them had any choice. They had to fulfil the betrothal contract. The alternative was unthinkable.

"The issue is one of choice," he muttered as he strode into the library and over to the desk. He tapped his wand on the ancient book that lay in the centre and whispered the keyword that identified him as the head of the Prince family. The crest burnt into the leather cover flared green and then the book opened, the pages flipping slowly until it reached the ritual for courting the head of another family.

"My choice to do this. Harry's choice to accept it. Perhaps it will suffice."

Retrieving a self-inking quill and a roll of parchment from the desk drawer, Severus settled into the chair and started making notes.

o0O0o

"He's been in there all day," Gemma whispered to Bill. "He didn't even come out for lunch. Just growled at Cam when she tried to make him eat."

"And you want me to go in there?" Bill asked. "Do you think I'm mad?"

"No, I think you're his friend."

"That's a low blow," Bill said, adding silently, one worthy of Mum.

"But you'll do it anyway." She thrust a tray into his hands and directed him towards the library door. "And you'll make sure he eats at least one of these sandwiches or you'll have to explain yourself to Cam."

"Me? As if I can get Severus to do anything he doesn't want to do." Bill gave her a wry smile. "Does Cam know that you use her to scare people?"

"Whose idea do you think it was?" Gemma grinned as she opened the door for him. "Now, in with you."

"Yes ma'am." Giving her a crisp nod, he walked into the library and over towards Severus. He stood in front of the desk for a few moments, waiting for Severus to acknowledge him. When that didn't happen, Bill placed the tray on the desk with a thud and a rattle of porcelain and sat down in a chair.

"Sent you, did they?" Severus asked without looking up from what he was writing. Ink was spattered over the fingers of his right hand. From the stains that were visible through the fine, white cotton, he'd apparently waited too long to roll up his shirtsleeves.

"There are sandwiches and tea," Bill said, helping himself to both. "You're to eat them or else."

Severus snorted in amusement, then turned the page in one of the four books open in front of him, traced his finger from that book to the one next to it, and resumed making notes.

After finishing a cup of tea and two sandwiches, one ham and cheese and one roast beef, Bill relaxed and watched Severus read and write. When his patience ran out after a few minutes, he announced, "Harry's fine, in case you were wondering. A bit sore and a lot out of sorts, but the potion worked a treat."

Without looking up, Severus made a sound that could only be interpreted as as if there were any doubt. So, Bill gave him another minute before pulling out his ace. "Mum wants you to court Harry."

Severus's quill stopped mid-word, a blotch of ink slowly expanding across his notes. Then he shook his head, lifted his quill, and smirked. "Oh, she does, does she?"

"You bastard. You're already on it, aren't you?" Bill growled. A chest-deep rumble that he hadn't been able to make before Greyback mauled him.

Pushing his notes across the table, Severus fixed himself a cup of tea and selected a sandwich. Relaxing back into his chair, he said, "The ritual for the head of the Prince family to court the head of another family that is equal in status is appropriate, I believe."

Skimming the pages of closely written, spiky script, Bill was impressed. "Looks as if you've already come up with appropriate gifts for some of these steps. You want me to be your emissary, I suppose."

"You'll probably have to coach Harry through the appropriate responses."

"Not a problem."

"Pansy Parkinson has agreed to help me with some of the more... traditional requirements, but your input would also be welcome, especially when it comes to your parents. Despite our," Severus hesitated briefly before continuing, "interactions during the two wars, I do not know them as well as is apparently needed."

"Mum will be over the moon, so you don't have any worries on that front." Bill frowned as a thought came to him. "You'll have to release me from the vow, at least as far as my family and Harry are concerned, or I won't be able to do anything."

"I'll take care of the Fidelius at the same time." The smile that twisted Severus's lips could only be described as predatory. "It's time the Wizarding World discovered that Severus Snape not only survived but thrived after the war."

o0O0o

Harry had been willing to be sensible. He had even thought he could accept his fate with grace and style. But then Molly had gone on and on and on at breakfast, trying to cheer him up and persuade him to make the best of what she said wasn't really a bad situation. And that pretty much took care of his not-terribly bad mood.

However, he didn't want to upset her, or tell her what he thought of her attempts to make him look on the bright side. So, he took his rotten mood out to the paddock.

Hovering a few feet above the ground, Harry lay back on his broom. He braced his legs on the footrests and grasped the handle beneath his head. The occasional adjustment to avoid being blown away by the wind was the only indication to others that he was awake. He'd been watching the clouds scud past overhead, but had closed his eyes when the bright sunlight and constant movement had threatened to give him a headache.

"Harry?"

Dropping an arm down, Harry gave Bill a languid wave, to show that he'd heard him.

"Mum said you were looking for me."

Been looking for you for a couple of days, Harry thought, but he simply waved again and executed a roll and twist on his broom that brought him to a sitting position. Carefully, he cracked open his eyes, only to find that the brightness had eased. The sun was hidden behind a bank of clouds with an ominous dark grey band.

Peering down, he could see Bill standing below him. The formality of his stance, hands clasped behind his back and legs slightly apart, made Harry's heart beat a little faster. Yet, he delayed, guiding his broom down slowly, to give himself a chance to examine Bill.

His robes were in a green so dark that it was almost black, cut away at the waist to end in formal tails. His red hair was neatly tied back in a long queue, and a sapphire stud had replaced his fang earring.

When Harry landed and got off his broom, Bill indicated the path into the orchard and asked, "Walk with me?"

"Why should I?" Before Bill could respond, Harry reached into his pocket and threw the potion vial at him. "I swore I'd never let anyone lie to me again"

The vial missed Bill and bounced away, disappearing into the long grass at the side of the paddock. "I never lied."

"You certainly didn't tell me the truth," Harry snarled, finally releasing the frustration that he'd hidden from Molly. "I could have crossed one person off my list. One fucking person who made it, who didn't have to be on that long list of my failures, and you just stood there and let me believe he was dead."

"Come on, Harry. Do you really believe that rot?"

Harry dragged a hand through his hair, combing his fingers through the wind-blown tangles. He really wanted to hold onto his rage, take out all his frustration on Bill, but he couldn't. "I guess not," he admitted. "So, Fidelius?"

"And an unbreakable vow."

"Paranoid bastard."

"With good reason. More than one person would have liked to hex him in his sleep that first year."

"Yeah," Harry agreed. "I might have done the same thing myself if you and the goblins hadn't offered me that job."

They stood quietly for a while.

Eventually, Harry swung his broom in an arc. The swish of its twigs on the grass broke the silence.

"I can't do this right now," Harry said, making a gesture with his free hand that encompassed Bill's clothing. "This whatever it is."

"All right." Bill nodded. "Don't wait too long."

"I won't. I promise. Thanks." Swinging a leg over his broom, Harry took off into the sky.

o0O0o

"Well, that went well." Bill scrubbed a hand over his jaw as he watched Harry soar towards the Burrow. With a sigh, he considered how best to stay out of Harry's way for a few hours.

His kids were what he needed, he decided. And after a couple of hours with their uncle George, Dominique would be bouncing off the walls, and Victoire should be tired of hiding in a book. The perfect antidote to his crummy mood.

Grasping his wand, he focussed on George's store and Disapparated.

o0O0o

"Do you mind," Severus snapped, moving his parchment out of Pansy Parkinson's reach and glaring at her.

"Not at all." Leaning back in her chair, she patted her carefully coiffed, shoulder-length hair and struck a pose. "In fact, I mind very little."

With a snort of amusement, he shook his head. The chit's attitude hadn't changed one iota since Hogwarts. If he hadn't seen her with Potter after he'd testified at her trial or known that she lived and worked with the children at Regulus Black House, he might have believed that she was as shallow as she wanted people to believe.

"If you want my help, you'll have to show me your ideas."

"You've read the rules of this particular courtship?"

She rolled her eyes. "I was raised on these traditions. Do you want me to quote the ritual to you? With my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back?"

Red and warm and familiar, anger and resentment flared inside him. He was the head of the family, he reminded himself. Not a mere half-blood to be mocked and spurned. "Never mind," he grated out, pushing himself to his feet and reaching for his cane. "I'll manage on my own."

When she didn't respond, he picked up his wand and started to secure his notes and books. "Gemma will show you out."

He was almost to the door of the library when her hand touched his arm. The unexpected contact sent a shiver down his spine, but he stifled his reaction and shook her off.

"You don't make things easy, do you?"

"Indeed."

"I was a stupid, foolish, frightened child, and Harry was just about the only one willing to give me so much as a fraction of a chance. Never mind that I was exonerated." She paused, and then seemed to come to some decision. "You're going to let me help you, so I can balance the scales a bit."

Examining her more closely, he could see the difficulties of the past few years to a girl raised to expect wealth and privilege. They showed in her short, unpolished nails, and in the chapped lips and dark circles under her eyes that were carefully disguised by makeup. She had survived — he expected no less of his Slytherins — however, the cost had clearly been higher than she'd expected.

I should have been there for them, he thought. Peace was a luxury I should have denied myself.

"I know him," Pansy said, bringing Severus's attention back to her. "I've watched him with the kids."

When she didn't continue, he arched an eyebrow and gave her his best Head of House expectant glare.

"No." She shook her head. "You'll just have to trust me. If you can't do that, then there's no point in doing this."

Pansy Parkinson protecting Harry Potter from him — the very notion rocked Severus's equanimity. He tried to catch her eyes, but she avoided his gaze as if expecting him to attempt Legilimency. And yet she stood there, waiting for him to decide, her head held high, defiant. She didn't cringe away, or hide behind her usual flippant sarcasm.

Allowing the corners of his mouth to twitch into an almost-smile and the edges of his eyes to soften, he held out his hand. "We should get to work. There's a great deal to be done and only a few months to do it in."

The brilliance of her smile reassured him, made him glad that he'd reached out.

o0O0o

Harry stashed his broom in the shed, hanging it between Ron's and Bill's. He trailed his hand against the rough stone wall, pulling it away when he encountered an old spider web. Muttering a curse, he shook and scraped his fingers free of the sticky threads.

Sitting on the stone floor, Harry drew up his legs, wrapped his arms around them, and rested his head on his knees. He was just so fucking tired of it all. Maybe he should just give it all up and go someplace where nobody knew him, where nobody was going to want anything from him. Although he'd have to make sure the insane bitch couldn't get any of Sirius's things...

Maybe he could make Teddy the Black heir. He'd already left him the Potter money in his will, after all. He could ask Rigel if the Prosapia Sceptrum would accept him, despite his father and grandfather.

Cursing again, Harry closed his eyes against the realisation that had gripped his insides in freezing cold talons. He couldn't do that to Teddy; or, if he were being honest, to Snape.

The dim, quiet, reeking dustiness of the shed wrapped around him. Not quite peaceful or private, it was still a balm to the ever-present ache that had grown inside him since that day at Gringotts.

After long minutes with only the scrabbling and scratching of something he didn't want to identify to interrupt his thoughts, Harry raised his head and watched the dust motes dance in the criss-crossing shafts of sunlight.

There's an advantage in everything, young Potter. The trick is in the finding of it. That's what Bogrod had told him, repeatedly. A bigger trick, Harry thought, was accepting that something was an advantage, instead of resenting the hell out of it.

Or hiding from it, he admitted to himself. With a sigh, he got to his feet and used his wand to Scourgify the dust and cobwebs from his clothes and skin. Time to go back to the Burrow and find out what Bill and Snape were up to.

o0O0o

Harry sighed happily as he reached for another biscuit. He should go to Molly every time he had a question about wizarding rituals and customs. Apparently, he learnt much faster when the information was served up with tea, apple pie, and his favourite shortbread with dark chocolate. Much better than a quick reference to Hogwarts: A History or some other equally weighty and incomprehensible tome, although he'd never tell Hermione that.

A light knock drew his attention to the back door where Bill was standing, once again dressed in his finery. "Mum said you were ready to listen."

Harry nodded and indicated the chair next to him. "C'mon in. There are even a couple of biscuits left."

"Can't." Bill opened the door wider. "It has to be outside, not in your parents' house."

Parents. The word was dizzying, especially coming from Bill. It meant acceptance, family, everything, because they'd never been friends. Lurching to his feet, Harry ran his fingers through his hair, trying to bring it into some kind of order. Then, at a sudden thought, he checked his hands for chocolate. Clean, thank God.

He glanced down at his t-shirt and worn jeans. "Should I change?"

Bill considered him and then shook his head. "You're fine... for this."

They walked side by side through the garden, down the path and into the orchard. The twilight and the combined scents of damp loam, apples, and growing plants calmed Harry, helped him remain silent until Bill was ready to speak. There was a sense of formality, of ritual, about this moment that Harry had rarely experienced in his life, and he wanted to enjoy it.

When they entered a small clearing, Bill stopped and turned to Harry. The expectant look on his face had Harry pulling his hands out of his pocket and shifting into what his brief foray into Auror training had told him was a parade-rest stance. Unsure what to say, he waited for Bill.

Drawing a box out of his robes, Bill used his wand to enlarge it. Made of wood from a Whomping Willow, the box was decorated with snakes, wyverns, lions, and basilisks.

Representing two families and two Hogwarts houses, Harry realised. He raised his head and looked Bill in the eyes, but said nothing. From what Molly had said about this part of the ritual, it wasn't yet his time to speak.

The slight upward curve to Bill's lips told Harry that he was right.

Gracefully, Bill went down onto one knee. He balanced the box on his hands, palms upward, and held it out to Harry. "I approach you as emissary for Severus Tobias Adrastus Prince Snape, Head of the Honourable House of Prince."

Still not time for him to respond, Harry was sure, so he nodded.

"Severus Tobias Adrastus Prince Snape seeks permission to court you, Head of Family to Head of Family, and offers these gifts as a token of his intent."

Even knowing what was coming hadn't prepared Harry for how much of a shock this would be. He clenched his jaw. His hands shook a little as he accepted the box from Bill, gripping it so tightly that the edges bit into his fingers.

As he stood there with Bill looking at him encouragingly, Molly's words came back to him. Not really a choice, dearie, but... he's offering you a chance for respect and possibly even love.

Harry closed his eyes briefly, thankful that Molly had insisted on telling him what she knew about courtship rituals before he spoke to Bill. Then, feeling more confident, he looked directly into Bill's eyes and repeated the words she'd taught him, "I, Harry James Black Potter, accept this token from Severus Tobias Adrastus Prince Snape. Tell him that..." Harry cleared his throat and started again, "Tell him to look for my response in Hogsmeade, where the water meets the memorial garden."

Bill's hug was warm and welcoming. Clutching the box in one hand, not minding that it was trapped between them, Harry wrapped his free arm around Bill's waist and leant into the embrace.

o0O0o

The stele stood in the long grass, equidistant from the stream and the part of the gardens that held potions ingredients. Three feet tall and a foot wide, it had been formed from a single piece of black marble. On the side facing the water, the Black family crest had been carved in bas-relief. Their motto twined up both of the narrower sides. Runes of acceptance and promise were inscribed on the side facing the garden. And, most importantly to Severus, the jade scarab that he'd sent with Bill for Harry was nestled into the concave top. The scarab shimmered with green and red, warnings for those who would touch without permission.

Under cover of a Disillusionment Charm, Severus watched and waited. Reporters and gawkers came and went throughout the afternoon, their cameras flashing as they took pictures of this one piece of evidence that Harry Potter had given someone permission to court him. When night fell, the park cleared out. No one with any sense stayed in this haunted place after dark.

When the moon finally rose, its three-quarter phase barely providing enough light to see, Severus stepped out from beneath the trees. He walked slowly towards the stele. The charms he had cast confirmed that the strangers had left, and yet he couldn't help listening, looking, sniffing the air.

He was alone.

Severus dropped to his knees before the stele, reached out his hand, and touched the scarab. Black and gold flared and swirled around his fingers, enveloping his hand up to the wrist. Potter's magic welcomed him.

His head bowed, Severus stayed there for long minutes, enjoying the sensation. Eventually, however, he had to withdraw his hand and stand up. He took one step back and then another. Grasping his wand, he cast his own set of wards on and around the stele. The green and silver ribbons of spell-light spun around and then settled into place, intertwined with the black and gold of Potter's wards.

Severus blinked. The books had never said anything about that happening. Throat tightening, he Apparated home.

o0O0o

"I've accepted his courtship invitation," Harry grumbled. "There's a time limit on how long it can take, which implies a date for the bonding. Isn't that enough?"

"Implied isn't the same as agreed," Rigel said, buffing his nails on his sleeve, "but you don't need me to tell you that."

"Picky, aren't you?" Harry sighed. "What a mess. You want a date, but the courtship rules don't allow the bonding to be discussed until after the second round of gifts. Maybe I should have turned him down."

"That would have been a very bad idea." Rigel fluffed his hair.

"Why?" Harry demanded, resisting the urge to hex him.

"If you'd refused him, you'd be punished tonight rather than at the end of the month."

"Bloody twisted fucks."

"But of course. We are Blacks, after all."

o0O0o

"Have you found a way to move this presentation of gifts earlier, preferably before the end of this month? I'd rather not wait until October 2nd," Severus said.

Pansy pointed at a line in the book she was consulting. "No. The presentation of gifts to the family must take place no less than two weeks and no more than four weeks after the acceptance."

"That's absurd."

"These days? Yeah," Bill agreed. "But like most of these rules, it's an artefact of a time when most pure-blood families were at least as large as ours. These presentations required a lot of gifts and a great deal of planning and travel."

"What about the possibility of claiming that the proposed marriage is part of a settlement of grievances or other violent dispute between two formerly opposed families. I thought that provided us with a loophole."

"The spell ribbons at the stele would have been different if that were the case." Bill slammed his own tome closed and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Apparently, you can't fool your family magic."

"You could hardly claim we were allies, given the events of that last year of the war," Severus said. "I allowed the Carrows to Crucio your sister, for Merlin's sake."

Bill and Pansy exchanged a look — since when did they have looks, Severus wondered — and Bill rose to his feet, claiming to need the loo of all things, and left Severus alone in the room with her.

When the door closed behind Bill, she looked Severus directly in the eyes, and said, "They're not Slytherins."

"Of course, they're not Slytherins," Severus snapped. "I'd hardly have forgotten a single one of them if I'd had to endure them in my house."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it."

Severus harrumphed, refusing to rise to the bait and make this easy for her.

"You need to deliver these gifts yourself and on the required schedule," she said. "Not just because the ritual demands it—" when he started to protest, she held up her hand and didn't continue until he stopped. "As I said, not only because you're supposed to, but because you'll never forgive yourself if something goes wrong and Harry suffers even more as a result."

"And if I were to admit that there's the slightest possibility that you might be correct?"

"Then, we could finish our plans for the presentation, and no hint of your possible feelings would be brought up again."

Severus was trapped. Hoist by his own petard. And he knew it. He gave her a curt nod, and said, "So be it."

For the rest of the evening, Pansy was relentless. She barely allowed them to stop for dinner, as she planned out every single detail, grilling Bill for everything he could tell her about his parents, his siblings, and Andromeda and Teddy. By the time Severus collapsed into bed, early the next morning, he felt as if she'd gone so far as to schedule every breath he would take during the presentation.

o0O0o

Harry was still awake at midnight on September 30th. He was sitting on the bed in his bedroom at the Burrow, propped up against a mound of pillows, contemplating Severus's invitation to the presentation of gifts to his son-of-the-heart, Teddy, and his parents-of-the-heart, Molly and Arthur, that would take place at the Burrow on October 2nd. He'd cast locking spells on the door and Muffliato on the room. Now he waited, his heart pounding.

Almost two weeks had passed since he'd knelt in the grass to place the jade scarab on the Black family stele and perform the ceremony to accept Severus's offer of a courtship. The night after that, he'd been at Ron and Hermione's house, when he felt Severus acknowledge his acceptance, and the courtship had officially begun. Somehow Hermione's incessant questions about how he knew and what it felt like had made it easier, distracted him from the reality of what he was doing.

When he got home that night, he removed Severus's personal gift from its box. The platinum ring had cuts alternating top and bottom, creating channels. A sapphire was set into the end of each channel. It fit perfectly on the ring finger of his right hand.

At dinner, when Molly talked about how happy she was that he had accepted Severus's offer to court him, how relieved she was that he wouldn't have to suffer again, Harry had remained silent. She didn't need him to point out that the hourglass was still emptying itself, or that the inky grains had almost completely finished dripping from the top to the bottom.

His Tempus charm counted down the seconds. Five... four... three... two... one.

At midnight, the unfulfilled contract exacted punishment. Vertigo sent his stomach swirling, had him grasping the covers as he tried to stay upright. Spikes of pain fried his nervous system and sent him into convulsions.

An hour later, Harry cursed Rigel and every other Black as he spent an eternity persuading his trembling hand that it could reach for the vial on his bedside table, and another convincing his throat muscles that they could allow him to swallow the potion Severus had included in the package with his invitation.

This would be the last time, he vowed, if he had to drag Severus Snape to the altar himself.

o0O0o

IV. October 2005

Magical shutters covered every window and door of the Burrow. They permitted slats of sunlight to enter, but didn't allow anyone to see out. Every room, even the sitting room, the biggest in the house, reminded Harry of the constricted space in his cupboard.

Except that his cupboard had never been crowded or noisy. Everyone was there, except Ginny and Charlie — they hadn't been able to reach Ginny, and Charlie hadn't been able to get an international Portkey at such short notice. Ron had brought Hermione, and George had shown up with Lee and Angelina. Plus, Snape had sent invitations to Andromeda and Teddy (although they'd read more like summons to appear before the Wizengamot).

Harry wandered out of the crowded kitchen and into the over-crowded sitting room. He'd had more than enough of Molly and Andromeda. They just wouldn't stop talking about how great he looked in his dress robes, and getting him to show them and everyone else the ring that Snape had given him as his first gift. Over and over again. As if Hermione hadn't already given him a lecture on how sapphire signified hope and the fulfilment of dreams as well as tranquillity, peace, and amiability. Merlin knew he and Snape were going to need the last three if they were to have a hope in hell of surviving a marriage.

"Oi," Harry snapped at Teddy, jumping to one side to avoid being run down and almost colliding with the Weasley family clock. The sudden movement wrenched muscles that were still stressed and aching from the punishment two nights earlier. Since it was too soon to take more painkilling potion, Harry gritted his teeth and waited for the pain to die back down again.

"Sorry, Uncle Harry," Dominique yelled, as she ran past him in pursuit of Teddy.

"Auntie Molly and Grandma have fairy cakes," Teddy called back, sending a lamp teetering when he grabbed the edge of a table as he spun himself around and launched himself through the kitchen door.

Harry shook his head even as he smiled after them. One of the things he usually loved about the Burrow was how no one told the kids they had to be seen and not heard. Unfortunately, he didn't have the patience for them today, not while he was stuck in here waiting. Feelings as if they were all better off if he stayed out of their way, he went to find an uninhabited spot.

Twisting the sapphire ring on his right ring finger, and once again refusing to consider why he'd worn it every day since he'd put it on, Harry looked for a safe place to wait while Snape and Bill finished whatever they were doing in the back garden.

A corner protected by the fireplace, two walls, and a sofa was the only place that wasn't already taken. It wasn't completely out of the way, but once he sat down, he'd be at least partially hidden. They'd have to peer over the back of the sofa, stand on the hearth or the stairs, or take the same twisty journey through the room that he had, if they wanted to see him. The biggest problem, really, was the dust and the soot. He briefly contemplated the damage they would do to his dress robes, but they were black and he was a dab-hand at banishing the soot from Floo journeys.

A shout of laughter from Lee, followed by a "Prophet's upped its offer to 10,000 galleons" from George helped make up his mind. The last thing he wanted was to get into another argument over whether they could take a picture of him and Snape and send it to the Prophet for the "Who's Courting Harry Potter" reward. Not even if they donated all the proceeds to the orphanage.

Hearing them, Harry gave the stairs a longing look. Unfortunately, Percy hadn't left his station at the bottom, and he was taking his job of keeping them all on the ground floor very seriously. On his last attempt, Harry had claimed he needed to go to the loo, and Percy wouldn't let him up until Ron agreed to escort him and bring him right back down. Which left him with this spot.

If they didn't open this place up soon, Harry didn't know what he was going to do. Although he was starting to understand why Voldemort and his Death Eaters had been so fond of the Unforgivables.

"You could play with the kids," Ron said, joining him on the floor.

"You could be over in the corner with Hermione, studying up on courtship rituals," Harry pointed out.

"True," Ron agreed, grinning, "but we're too young to become homicidal maniacs."

Harry grinned back at him.

They sat and talked quietly about the Cannons latest valiant but doomed attempt to win a game until Teddy and Dominique came around the sofa. His eyes on the plate of fairy cakes he was carrying, Teddy tripped over Ron's outstretched legs and ended up with his elbow in Harry's groin and Dominique's weight on top of him. They'd given and needed so many hugs and apologies and kisses of reassurance that Harry was still casting cleaning spells to banish crumbs and cream off his robes when the shutters vanished and light flooded into the room.

o0O0o

At Severus's nod, Bill flicked his wand to banish the magical covers they'd placed on the windows and doors. Another spell released the seals on the back door and his family streamed out into the garden.

"Daddy," Dominique cried and held up her arms to be picked up. Victoire was right behind her, as was a suspiciously subdued Teddy, whose hand was being held by a limping Harry.

Bill looked down at his youngest daughter and asked, "What did you do to Harry?"

"We fell. Teddy and me, we was taking them fairy cakes from Grandma and we fell."

"On top of Harry?"

"Directly," Harry answered for her, having come up beside him. "It's a good thing I'm not planning to have children any time soon."

Bill winced, but Harry waved him off with a half-smile. "I'm all right, really. Although, you could make it up to me by telling me what this is all about."

"It's not my show," Bill said, directing Harry's attention to Severus.

If he hadn't been standing so close, Bill wouldn't have heard Harry's sharp intake of breath or seen the hastily hidden surprise on his face when he saw Severus. For the first time, Bill found himself thinking that this relationship might just work.

He was about to say something, when Dominique started bouncing in his arms, waving her arms, and calling out, "Hi, Uncle Sev'rus!"

And then everyone in his family was looking at him. Everyone except Harry, who hadn't taken his eyes off Severus.

"Oi, Bill," George said, "Something you forgot to tell us?"

"Yeah, Bill," Ron chimed in. "Maybe a big something."

"Boys, behave yourself," their dad said, and Bill started to relax until he added, "Although they do have a point."

o0O0o

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Severus was aware that the Weasleys were peppering Bill with questions and that possibly he should intervene and make sure they knew that Bill could not have told them anything about his survival. However, Harry Potter was staring at him, and the intensity in Potter's green eyes, the lack of hatred or rejection or disgust, took Severus's breath away and left him speechless.

When Potter blinked, Severus was able to look away from his eyes, to notice that the man had dressed appropriately for the occasion. He'd forgone the Muggle suits and loose, casual clothing that he'd worn in every picture Severus had seen over the past two years. Instead, he was in proper Wizarding formal wear: black dress robes with dark red piping, black trousers, and a shirt in the same dark red as the piping on the robes.

Respect, Severus decided, Potter was trying to show respect. His improved appearance was merely a... side effect. His confidence bolstered, feeling hopeful that their future could be something other than a miserable co-existence, Severus flexed his hand to try to work out some of the ache remaining from the last round of punishment. Then, he thumped his cane on the ground and cleared his throat to gain the Weasleys' attention.

As they'd arranged, Bill guided Molly and Arthur to stand before Severus. Rather than following them, as Severus had expected, Potter moved to one side, taking up a position slightly apart from the others and giving himself a clear view of the proceedings.

When everyone was in place and had quieted down, Severus began. "Arthur Septimus Weasley. Molly Prewett Weasley." Severus swept a bow to each of them, as he said their names. "I, Severus Tobias Adrastus Prince Snape, Head of the Honourable House of Prince, hereby announce my intention to court your son-of-the-heart, Harry James Black Potter, Head of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black."

Severus paused, but Molly and Arthur remained silent, merely nodding their acknowledgement of his words.

"As a token of the sincerity of my intentions, I offer the following gift." With a dramatic flourish that set the wide sleeves of his shirt billowing — and made Severus wish he'd taken an extra dose of painkilling potion before leaving for the Burrow — Severus swished his wand to remove the Disillusionment Charm from the carving that stood between two ancient oak trees and stepped out of the way.

The gasp that followed his actions reassured Severus that he'd chosen correctly. Resembling the trees that flanked it, the family tree had been created from a single piece of oak and the names magically engraved by Dean Thomas, who knew and loved so many of the Weasleys. Magic hummed down the trunk and along every branch and leaf. From the narrow top of the carving to the wide bottom, each branch represented a different generation of the ever-expanding Weasley family. The intertwining twigs and leaves on each branch shone green and gold with the names of that generation, the living and the dead.

"A family tree," Molly murmured, reaching up and stroking the names of her dead brothers and son. "Can you believe it, my dearest?"

"It's perfect," Arthur said, placing one arm around her shoulders.

Before the situation got too mawkish — they were Gryffindors, after all — Severus redirected their attention to the tiny bud that was growing in the axil between Hermione's leaf and Ron's twig.

Molly dashed away the tears that brimmed in her eyes and a huge smile lit up her face. She hugged Ron and Hermione in turn.

"Oh, hell," Ron muttered. "She's going to kill me."

"You'll have to be careful, my dear," she said to Hermione. "No champagne for you tonight."

"No... what?" Hermione looked from the bud to Molly to Ron and back to the bud. "I don't understand. What is it?"

"It's a family tree, love," Molly said, taking Hermione's hand and placed it on the bud "and this is your baby."

"My...?" Hermione looked around wildly. "You mean this thing knows? I haven't even... how is that possible? Where does it get the information?"

To Severus's intense relief, Ron's kiss cut off Hermione's spate of questions and Arthur offered to explain the magic behind family trees when the ceremony was completed.

Molly walked over to Severus and grasped his hands. "Thank you, Severus. You have no idea how much this means to us."

Inclining his head over their clasped hands, Severus responded, "You're welcome. I am—" he paused, seeking words that would neither insult nor sound as horrendously pompous as those suggested by the ritual, "delighted that my gift brings joy to you and your family."

"Oh, you ridiculous man." Molly shook her head, released his hands, and pulled him into a tight embrace. "You are more than welcome to court our son-of-the-heart. Just make sure you treat him well."

Unused to receiving such intimacies, Severus stiffened at her touch and then forced himself to relax. He could endure this, he told himself. After all, he'd have no choice but to endure this when he and Potter bonded.

o0O0o

The expression on Snape's face when Molly hugged him made Harry want to laugh. The man looked like he had no clue what he was letting himself in for, as if he hadn't known Molly and Arthur for years. He'd learn, just like Harry had, and he'd have to get used to the intense closeness of the Weasley family.

While Snape was distracted, Harry examined him again. He looked much the same as he had when he'd been the Potions Master at Hogwarts, and at the same time, he looked so very different. He was still tall. His skin was still sallow, with stains on his hands from decades of working with potions. His black hair, tied back in a neat queue that reached to the middle of his shoulder blades, looked a bit greasy near the scalp.

But then there was the black cane that appeared to have been custom-made for Snape, and the fact that he wasn't hiding beneath black robes. His black trousers had snakes embroidered in black and a green so dark that it was almost black down the outside seam, drawing attention to the length of his legs. His white cotton shirt was fastened with many tiny pearl buttons and had sleeves that widened from the shoulders and ended in oversized cuffs with even more pearl buttons. But the item that caught Harry's attention was the brocade vest, in the same colours as the embroidered snakes on Snape's trousers. If asked, Harry couldn't have explained what it was about that vest. Only that it tempted him to grasp the lapels and pull Snape closer.

And how weird was that?

A welcome distraction came in the form of a tug on Harry's sleeve and a whispered, "Uncle Harry?"

Realising that Teddy was trying to pull Harry's hand out of his pocket, he asked, "What's up?"

Clutching Harry's sleeve, Teddy murmured so quietly that Harry had to crouch down to hear him, "Grandma says that man wants to talk to me about you."

"His name is Severus Snape," Harry explained, "and he doesn't just want to talk to you, he wants to give you a present."

"But it's not my birthday or Christmas, and he's a stranger."

Biting his lip to stop himself from smiling, Harry tried to reassure Teddy, "He's not a stranger to me, your grandma, or any of the other adults here. We've known Snape a long time."

"But he doesn't know me," Teddy insisted.

Harry ruffled Teddy's hair, which was currently fluctuating between a dull brown and a bright turquoise, and pulled him closer. "He's giving you a present for the same reason that he gave one to Molly and Arthur. He wants to court me, and the rules say that he has to give a present to my family members."

Teddy's eyes lit up and he poked himself in the chest. "That's me. I'm your godson."

"Exactly." Harry turned Teddy around and pointed out Snape, who was standing patiently near the family tree, one hand resting on his cane. "So, you'll go talk to him?"

"If you come with me."

"All right," Harry agreed, getting to his feet and taking Teddy's hand. "Let's go, then."

By the time they reached Snape, Andromeda had joined them and Teddy had let go of Harry and was clutching Andromeda. The Weasleys moved away from the family tree and formed a loose semi-circle behind them. Ron and Hermione had their arms around each other, smiles on their faces. Harry snuck a glance over Teddy's head at Andromeda. Her air of anticipation and knowing smile made him stop worrying about whether Snape's gift would be appropriate for a seven-year-old boy.

"Ted Remus Lupin." Severus bowed to Teddy. "I, Severus Tobias Adrastus Prince Snape, Head of the Honourable House of Prince, hereby announce my intention to court your godfather, the Head of the Black Family, Harry James Black Potter."

"Uh huh." Teddy giggled and sidled closer to his grandmother.

Snape straightened up, his expression taking on a blankness that reminded Harry of his Potions Professor. He was about to protest, to intervene and protect Teddy, when he noticed how white-knuckled Snape's grip on his cane had become.

Something's wrong rapidly turned into the man's in pain, and then became he needs help when Harry realised that Snape was preparing to kneel before Teddy. Following his instincts, Harry stepped forward and held an arm out.

After a brief pause, Snape acknowledged the offer with a nod and grasped Harry's forearm. The touch reverberated through Harry, sending tendrils of warmth through his body and easing the lingering ache in his muscles from the punishment. Snape's only reaction was a raised eyebrow and a tightening of his grip on Harry's arm, but that was enough for Harry to know that the other man had experienced the same sensations.

"Now," Snape murmured, and Harry clenched his fist and concentrated on supporting Snape as he lowered himself down on one knee.

When Teddy's lower lip wobbled nervously, Harry gave him a reassuring smile and took up a position next to Snape.

"Teddy," Snape said, reaching into the pocket of his waistcoat. "I have two presents for you."

"'Okay," Teddy responded. "Uncle Harry says that you can give me presents, even though you're a stranger."

"Indeed." Amusement laced Snape's voice. "You should not accept any gifts from people of whom your Uncle Harry or your Grandmother do not approve."

Nodding his head vigorously, Teddy agreed with an, "Uh huh."

"Your grandmother assures me that you will be a good boy and that you won't abuse this."

Teddy's eyes grew huge when a quiet spell enlarged the child's broomstick in Severus's hand. "For me? Grandma," he said, tugging on her sleeve.

"For you," Andromeda agreed.

The corners of Snape's mouth curved upwards as Teddy clutched the broom to his chest.

"Thank you," Teddy said, remaining solemn for a moment before he bounced on his toes. "And Uncle Harry will teach me how to fly, won't you?"

"Of course, I will," promised Harry.

"Soon?" Teddy asked.

"How about tomorrow?"

"'In the morning?"

"All right," Harry agreed.

When Snape's balance faltered, Harry moved closer, strangely relieved when he leant against Harry's leg. "Why don't you let your Grandma hold onto that while Mr Snape gives you your other present?"

Teddy hugged the broom to him a little tighter, but eventually released it when Andromeda, after exchanging an amused smile with Harry, pried it from his hands. "Okay, I'm ready, Mr Snape."

"Accio," Snape said, and a moment later, a box flew into his hand. The walnut box was carved with wolves, dogs, and badgers. Releasing his grip on his cane and giving more of his weight to Harry, Snape rested the box on his upraised palms.

"Before I give you this gift," he said, "you need to know that a lot of people helped me with it, including your grandmother and your Uncle Bill."

"Okay," Teddy said, his hair flaring pink. After receiving a nod of encouragement from Andromeda, leaving the box on Snape's palms, he carefully opened it.

Piano music poured out. Eyes prickling, Harry recognised it as music that he'd heard both Remus and Tonks play. After a few bars, dancers rose into the air and began twirling. The man, Remus, threw back his head and laughed as Tonks stumbled over his feet. The scene changed and Remus became the boy that Harry recognised from Snape's memories, then Remus faded and a younger Tonks took centre stage.

Harry could hear everyone whispering, but his attention was on Teddy and Snape.

"It's my mummy and daddy," Teddy exclaimed. He flung his arms around Snape's neck, jarring the music box so that the lid fell closed and cut off the music and the figures.

After a moment of hesitation, Snape awkwardly put his arms around Teddy, still holding the box in one hand, and held him as he cried.

His heart full, Harry felt as if he'd been given a gift, not just Teddy. To create that music box for Teddy... Harry had no idea how Snape had done it, but he knew how much it meant to a boy who'd never known his parents.

When Snape lifted his head, a request in his dark eyes, Harry bent down. Careful not to hurt Teddy, Harry pulled him away from Snape and handed him and the music box over to a teary-eyed Andromeda. Then, he helped Snape get to his feet.

"Thank you," Harry whispered. Raising himself onto his toes, he pressed a kiss on Snape's cheek.

Harry couldn't for the life of him interpret Snape's expression or the odd tone of voice in which he said, "It was my pleasure."

But before Harry could say anything further Molly and Andromeda came over to talk to Snape. After watching Snape for a long, unthinkable moment, Harry spun on his heel and walked over to distract himself with the family tree.

"Everything all right, mate?" Ron placed a hand on Harry's shoulder.

Caressing Fred's offshoot from the twins' twig one last time, Harry said, "It just might be."

o0O0o

Moving quietly, Bill leant against the jamb of Harry's bedroom door and reassured himself that things were going as well as they seemed to be.

Harry was sitting cross-legged in the middle of his bed, engrossed in the book on his lap. Tanned skin peeked out through a tear in the knee of his jeans. The neck of his oversized Gryffindors Dare t-shirt sagged shapelessly, displaying a hint of the tattooed wing that covered his shoulder.

"See something you like?" Harry's amused tone pulled Bill from his reverie.

Faking nonchalance, while inwardly cursing himself for getting caught, Bill shrugged. A liquid lift of one shoulder that he'd picked up from Fleur. "Just making sure you're still in one piece after babysitting the kids for me."

In a gesture that reeked of tiredness, Harry dragged a hand through his hair. The sapphire on his finger flashed in the candlelight. "Don't know how you do it, to be honest. Victoire's no trouble at all, but Dominique ran me ragged."

"She knows better than to push me," Bill said. He moved into the room and went to sit on the edge of the bed. A glance at the book he lifted out of the way showed that it was the handwritten journal Severus had given Harry for that week's courting gift. Protective charms blurred the spidery writing as Bill glanced at the open page, preventing him from seeing what Severus had wanted to tell Harry.

"I'll let you read it when I'm done. It's not exactly vital any more, but it's information that I've always wanted to know."

"About the war?"

"Yeah, some of the information I was begging to know and some I didn't have a clue about. There's also," Harry paused, clearly working out how to phrase something, "other stuff, too. More personal." He grinned. "I probably won't lift the charms on those pages. You never know how Snape will react."

After a moment of silence, Harry tapped the book in his lap and said, "So I've been reading this book about the courtship. Thought it was better to work it out for myself."

"Got tired of listening to Percy blither on about the rules?"

"Hermione's just as bad," Harry replied. " Anyway, I'm trying to work out when it's my turn."

"Your turn to what?" Bill frowned.

Bending his head so that Bill couldn't see his face, Harry began to toy with the edges of his book. "I... erm... well, Snape keeps giving me things."

"Yes," Bill prompted. When Harry didn't continue, Bill noted, "That's what he's supposed to do. One gift a week for a minimum of four weeks and no more than eight weeks."

"It's just weird, that's all." Harry kept his head down, riffling the pages. "Reminds me of all those strangers sending me stuff after I killed Voldemort. Even if I'd wanted to, I couldn't have sent them something in return." He mumbled something under his breath that even Bill, with his sensitive ears, couldn't hear.

Bill placed a hand under Harry's chin and tipped his head up, so he could see Harry's eyes. "Why don't you tell me what's going on in that head of yours? And speak loudly enough for me to hear you."

"Snape's given me a lot. The scarab, although I'm not sure I get to keep that when it's all over. This ring." Harry twisted his sapphire ring, a habit Bill had noticed him falling into more and more over the past few weeks. "That journal, which is almost like giving me a bit of himself. And that book on being a head of family with all the etiquette and how to deal with all the rules and stuff, that's brilliant."

"I know what he's given you, Harry," Bill reminded him.

"Oh, yeah, right." Harry flushed again. "It's just that you're not supposed to keep taking things from people and not giving them anything in return. You should have heard Uncle Vernon ranting on about ungrateful sods." His expression became troubled. "I don't want Snape to think I'm greedy like that."

He cares what Severus thinks! Bill smothered the grin that was threatening to erupt and said, "He's not going to think that. He knows you can't give him anything until you meet in person."

"But we did that already. Almost a month ago. When he brought the family tree and Teddy's music box."

"Not that kind of meeting." Bill reached over and tugged the book from Harry's grasp. Finding the right page, he turned it around and directed Harry's attention to the rule about the private dinner. "This is the private meeting. Just you and Severus... and the chaperones, of course. Got to make sure you don't get up to anything before your bonding."

Harry snorted. "As if that's likely."

Bill let Harry talk for a while about the kind of gift he thought Severus might like, hoping that it wasn't all about the gifts and that it meant Harry cared a little bit for Severus. He was beginning to think that Severus and Harry would be good for each other. He just wished he knew of a way to make them realise it.

o0O0o

Harry almost fell to his knees as he Apparated into the front garden of the Burrow. That bloody bitch Skeeter. Chasing him up and down the length of Diagon Alley. Following him to Hogsmeade and even to fucking Harrods. He could have happily strangled her with his bare hands. Much more satisfactory than hexing her, that's for sure.

"Don't you think you owe it to your readers, Mr Potter," she'd screeched. "Everyone wants to share in the joy of your courtship."

He'd tried walking away. He'd tried just saying no. He'd even tried setting George and Ron on her as a diversion. Nothing had stopped the bint.

Well, not quite nothing. He snickered as he pushed open the door and walked into the Burrow. Conjuring an expensive ring with a Harrods security tag into her handbag had finally done the trick. He'd found the Harrods security guards quite dedicated in their attempts to prevent shoplifting. And the anti-apparition and other wards that their Wizarding department had placed on the building had trapped Skeeter quite handily.

At least he'd managed to get Snape's gift, despite her best efforts to derail him. He'd have felt like a complete arse if he'd had to go to dinner empty-handed, or with something that he didn't pick out himself. Even if Snape didn't like it, at least Harry would know he'd done his best.

In the sitting room, he walked over to where the betrothal contract still hung next to the family clock. Nothing had changed. Sand still flowed into the bottom bulb, marking off the days until he was punished once again.

One way or another, they were going to set a date for the bonding tonight. That hourglass was going to stop. Maybe he'd even kiss Snape properly, just to make sure. With a smile on his face, he turned and started up the stairs to his room.

o0O0o

Severus had lost count of how many times he'd circled the long table with its four place settings: two at the head for Severus and Harry, two at the foot for their chaperones, Pansy and Bill.

Chaperones. Severus snorted with amusement. Just what he needed at forty-five years old: yet more proof that the world didn't trust him.

Severus focussed on his steps and on ignoring the click of his cane on the marble floor. Left foot, right foot. A mantra that he'd used time and again over the years to regain control of his emotions. He worked at locking away everything that could disturb his equilibrium, including his anger at once again being forced into a position where a Potter could judge him. In his home, no less. His only consolation was that this Potter in these circumstances couldn't reject him.

After another circuit of the room, he was no longer remembering the sensation of lips pressed against his cheek.

When Bill ushered Harry into the formal dining room at Prince Hall, precisely on time, Severus was coldly in control of his emotions.

"Severus."

He swung around, feeling his robes swirl into a satisfactory billow. Unable to conjure up a smile, he inclined his head in greeting as he walked towards Bill and Potter. "Welcome to Prince Hall."

"Thanks." Potter stood just inside the door. He'd forgone robes in favour of the latest Zabini creation: a navy blue, form-fitting version of a Muggle suit. The jacket had oddly shaped lapels and ornate cloak clasps instead of buttons. "It's... erm... really nice. Much better than the Black family place. I'm sure you remember that."

"Indeed." Severus smirked. "Although Grimmauld Place did have it uses. Collecting doxy eggs and boggart droppings, for example."

Potter didn't even try to hide his shudder. "Er... yeah, well, some of us don't have quite so many fond memories of the place."

Breezing in through the side door, Pansy disrupted the oh-so-scintillating conversation. "Wonderful, you're all here. Gemma and Cam are just about ready to serve the starters. Can I get anyone a drink? There's a wonderful iceberry vodka or if you'd prefer to stick with the usual," she looked pointedly at Severus, "there's Old Ogden's."

While she dragged Bill over to the sideboard and fussed over drinks, Potter walked over to one of the floor to ceiling windows that looked out over the back terrace. As he stared out, Severus appreciated his own view of the way Potter's jacket curved over his arse. The messy black hair was longer, falling in wave to his shoulders, but remained untamed.

There were worse things than becoming accustomed to that body, Severus decided.

At that moment, Potter turned around and Severus found himself stepping closer. Potter's voice when he spoke again was wistful, rather than nervous. "It's beautiful here. So peaceful. I can see why you would want to stay here and not let the rest of the world stick their noses in."

Before Severus could formulate a response, Pansy was back and handing out drinks. He'd expected her to usher them into the small parlour. However, she merely flashed them all a brilliant smile, the one that always made him want to count the silverware and asked, "Did anyone see the Prophet today?"

"Just the sports section," Bill said. "Gnomes got the rest."

"Is that like saying the kneazle ate my homework?" she said, a teasing note in her voice.

To Severus's surprise, Bill gave Potter an unreadable look and tipped his glass in that direction, before saying, "Not quite."

"I take it we missed something of importance?" Potter hid his expression by taking a sip of his vodka, but the tightening of his grip on the goblet gave away his sudden increase in tension.

"Only Rita Skeeter finally getting her own," Pansy crowed. "Seems she's been arrested for breaking the Statute of Secrecy. Apparently, she didn't appreciate getting caught shoplifting from Harrods and hexed the Muggle security people before either the guards from the Wizarding department or the Aurors could get there. They're expecting her to get the maximum sentence in Azkaban. Probably because she's done her so-called exposes on one too many members of the Wizengamot."

"Really?" Potter's voice sounded very odd, indeed. Almost as if someone were strangling him. Or he was trying to choke back laughter. "Couldn't have happened to a nicer witch."

Severus raised an eyebrow, realisation hitting him at about the same time as Bill asked, "Harry, what did you do?"

"Me? Nothing." Potter took another very suspiciously timed sip of his drink. "Why would you think I had anything to do with it?"

"Because I know you," Bill said.

"Harry," Pansy wheedled. "You can tell us."

Potter smirked. "Because you never gossip, right?"

Pansy was just drawing herself up to respond when Gemma announced, "Dinner is served."

"Saved in the nick of time," Severus murmured as he walked past Potter. The conspiratorial smile he received in response was not the least bit attractive. Of that, he was absolutely sure.

o0O0o

Dinner had been damned uncomfortable. Bill hadn't expected much from Harry and Severus. It was their first chance to spend any time together and get to know each other. But the veiled insults and stilted discussions of the weather and Ministry policies that he'd heard from the other end of the table had been far worse than he'd expected. It might have been an improvement if they'd remained silent throughout the meal.

Both of them had kept looking down the table to where he and Pansy had been sitting and talking about all sorts of things from raising children to curse breaking to the latest advances in magical medicine.

An oddly heavy silence accompanied the four of them from the dining room and onto the terrace, where they lounged in comfortable chairs, drank brandy and coffee, and picked at the glorious treacle tart with raspberry puree.

When the sweet course had finally been cleared away, and Gemma left them alone with a drinks cart and coffee urn, he gave Harry the signal that they'd arranged to let him know that it was time to present his gift.

With a murmured Accio, Harry summoned the box wrapped in silver paper from where it had been stowed with his cloak. Then, he sat with it balanced in his lap, chewing on his lip and staring down at it.

After a few seconds, Pansy hissed in Bill's ear. "Do something. Before Severus does."

Bill shook his head and whispered back, "Give him a second, all right. He's spent a lot of time worrying about this gift."

"It's on your head if Severus's patience runs out."

At that point, Harry seemed to realise that he'd been keeping everyone waiting. With a chagrined quirk of his lips, he got out of his chair and presented the gift to Severus. There was a pause, a moment when they both had their hands on the box, fingers almost touching, before Harry said, "I, Harry James Black Potter, Head of the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, offer this gift in appreciation and acceptance of—" Harry stumbled over the prescribed words, then released a breath and continued, "the culmination of this second stage of our courtship."

Severus gave him a curt nod, lips pressed together in a way that Bill knew hid nervousness or some other emotion that Severus deemed a weakness. There was no required response and it was clear that Severus didn't intend to offer any thanks. At least not before seeing what he had been given.

"All right, then," Harry finally muttered, dragging a hand through his hair and returning to perch on the edge of his chair.

Restraining the urge to reassure him, since that would accomplish absolutely nothing useful, Bill gave Severus a warning glance that was completely ignored.

At a tap of Severus's finger, the paper swirled off the gift in a curl of silver dust and vanished. The box inside was ivory-coloured and very plain, its slick surface undecorated. When Severus reached out to lift the lid, it slid back. Unfortunately, for Bill and Pansy, the position of the lid prevented them from seeing what was inside.

Whatever it was had to be very special, Bill thought, given the blankness that fell over Severus's features. A blankness that Harry clearly didn't understand and seemed to be interpreting in the worst way possible, given his sudden agitation.

Before Bill could stop him, Harry blurted out, "It's a sea-glass knife. From the Pacific Ocean merpeople. It's supposed to be dead useful for potions."

Severus's nostrils flared. The arch of his eyebrows seemed to become sharper. Disdain wrapped around him like a shield spell. Finally, as Harry seemed about to bolt from his chair, Severus sneered, "I know what it is, you stupid boy."

Bill could hear Pansy's sharp inhalation. If he turned around, he was sure he'd see a reflection of his own anger and concern on her face.

"You ungrateful son-of-a-bitch." Harry jumped to his feet.

A strange delight flashed through Severus's eyes as he opened his mouth to speak.

"Don't you dare, Severus Snape." Pansy's voice sliced through the tension and caused Severus to shut his mouth with an audible snap. "You've been viciously polite all night and I, for one, am damn tired of it. I can't even imagine how Harry feels."

"I can—" Harry started to say, but stopped when she glared at him.

"And don't even think about claiming innocence, Harry Potter."

Fuck, she was amazing when she was angry. Bill could have watched her all day. Instead, he let her haul him to his feet.

"As for this chaperone business." She made a gesture of dismissal. "It's a load of rubbish, and we all know it. Just try not to kill each other while we're gone. Neither of us want to have to explain it to your families."

After opening the doors, Pansy turned around and snarled, "Accio wands." She plucked Severus and Harry's wands out of the air and tossed them to Bill. Then, she glared at the two men who had neither moved nor spoken since she'd started yelling at them. "We'll be in the library. Don't even think about leaving or coming to find us until you've fixed this."

When the door slammed behind them, Bill caught Pansy's hand, bowed, and dropped a kiss on the palm. "That," he said, "was amazing... and exactly the kick in the arse they needed."

Buffing her nails on the filmy sleeve of her dress, she gave him an impish grin. "Of course, it was."

He laughed and spun their wands.

"Now," she said, curling her hand into the crook of his elbow and pressing close to him, "why don't you escort me somewhere nice and treat me to a very large drink."

o0O0o

As soon as the door banged shut, leaving them alone on the terrace, Harry leapt to his feet. "She's right, you know. You've been a real piece of work tonight. As for that," he flung a hand in the direction of the gift that still sat on Snape's knee, "if you didn't like it, you only had to say so."

Snape frowned. The first honest expression Harry could remember seeing from him all night. "What on earth gave you the impression that I didn't like it?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe the fact that you didn't so much as crack a smile or mutter a thank you when you got it."

Harry jumped at the clanking noise the box made when Snape dropped it onto the metal table beside him. Harry found himself backing up as Snape rose to his feet, all looming dark robes and severe expression.

It's just Professor bloody Snape, he told himself, but Harry didn't quite believe it. Snape was tall, forbidding, and yet something made him different from the teacher who'd made Harry's life hell. He seemed human in ways that Professor Snape never had.

They kept moving. Snape taking a step forwards. Harry taking one back. Until Harry found himself up against the terrace wall, unable to go any farther without turning his back on Snape to scramble over. A quick vision of being caught by the ankle and dragged down to a sneering lecture on rule-breaking brats had Harry lifting his chin and facing Snape down.

"Do you give me any credit at all in that undersized brain of yours? Or do you always jump to conclusions without any evidence?" Snape asked, his voice silky and smooth.

"Undersized!" Harry spluttered.

"Mmm... perhaps I mis-spoke." Snape stepped closer, until he was mere inches away, close enough for Harry to feel the gust of Snape's breath across his cheekbone, to smell the brandy and coffee on his breath. "Undersized may be the wrong word. Underutilised, perhaps?"

"You can be such a fucking arse, you know that?" Harry winced when the insult spilt from his mouth. It sounded so uncouth, so childish, next to the ones that Snape threw like spears.

Snape leant forwards and placed his mouth against Harry's right ear. "Your gift," he murmured, "was overwhelming in its perfection. Do you know how few of those knives exist? How rare it is that the merpeople allow one to be released from their realm?"

Reaching back, clutching for handholds in the rough stone, Harry rested his weight against the wall. He struggled for a moment, trying to find words that could match the ones Snape used, and then gave up the effort. "So," he licked his suddenly dry lips, "you like it then?"

"Like it?" Harry shivered as Snape's lips brushed against the shell of his ear. "Like is an understatement. I have owned that knife for mere minutes and already am intensely possessive of it."

"Oh."

Snape withdrew enough that Harry could see his face. He rested a hand on the wall above Harry's left shoulder, trapping some of Harry's hair.

This close, Harry was forced to tip his head back to meet Snape's eyes. They weren't completely black. A finely feathered line of golden brown edged his irises, making the pupils seem an even inkier black. His hair pulled but Snape didn't release it.

"You consented to my courtship," Snape murmured.

Words about having no choice died before Harry could speak them, smothered by the intensity of that black gaze, by an unconscionable yearning to know how that devastatingly sharp tongue felt when it was wielded on him instead of against him. He whispered, "Yes."

"You accepted my gifts." Snape placed his other hand on the wall above Harry's right shoulder.

"They're great." Harry widened his stance and locked his knees.

"You presented me with a gift that took great thought and required consideration of who I am and what I like." Snape moved until their chests were close enough that Harry could not have slid his hand between them.

Pressing his teeth into his lower lip, Harry drew it into his mouth and bit down before releasing it. "It... it seemed appropriate," he stuttered.

"You understand what the end of the second stage of our courtship signifies?"

"We're committed. Our..." Harry hesitated, feeling as if every cell in his body was aware of Snape. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. There were things he needed to know, to confirm, before they completed the last two, woefully short, stages. He gathered his courage and said, "You hate me."

"I hardly know you."

An image of a memory rose before Harry. "You loved my mother."

"As you love Hermione Granger."

"But you told Dumbledore—"

"The complete truth?" The corners of Severus's mouth curved into a predatory smile. "Do you think me a fool?"

Harry smiled back. "Nah. Not most of the time anyway."

"How... reassuring."

Snickering, Harry admitted, "You're not what I expected."

"I presume this is a good thing." Snape seemed to lean even closer, although Harry had not thought that would be possible without them touching.

"It's not a bad thing." Giving into an impulse, Harry went up on his toes. Just enough to reach Snape's mouth with his own. Instead of kissing him, he swept his tongue across those thin, soft lips.

His own were captured in a kiss. Snape's tongue thrust into his mouth. Harry's bottom lip was drawn into Snape's mouth.

Pressed into the wall by Snape's body, Harry could barely move but he needed to touch, to feel, to remind himself that this man was not his untouchable professor. Raising his arms, he wound them around Snape's neck, slid his fingers into the silky, slightly oily hair, tilted his head, and deepened the kiss.

He wanted this. Wanted this man. Wanted Snape. The realisation stole Harry's breath away. Sent blood rushing to his cock. He ground his erection into Snape's thigh.

As he nipped, sucked, and kissed Harry, Snape shifted sideways and slipped a leg between Harry's.

Harry allowed himself to be shoved into the wall. He relished the sound of his expensive jacket tearing on the wall, the feel of the rough stone through the thin cotton of his shirt. He bucked against Snape's leg, clung to his hair. He felt Snape's erection thrust against his hipbone, hard and thick and big enough to get Harry sucking Snape's tongue, nibbling on his lips, clawing at the fabric of his robes.

"Fucking need," Harry said. And there were hands under his bum, lifting him up, lining up their cocks.

Harry's head fell forward onto Snape's shoulder. He wrapped his legs around Snape's hips and they moved together. Hard. Fast. Nearly vicious in their urgency. Until Harry was lost, his cock pulsing against Snape's even as Snape thrust one last time and came with a groan.

Panting, they slumped back against the wall. Harry's feet dropped to the ground, he hung onto Snape, waiting to get his equilibrium back, as a cleansing charm washed over him.

At last, Snape ran a hand down Harry's cheek. The gentleness of that gesture was almost too much for Harry.

"That was—" Harry floundered into silence, unable to put into words what he was feeling.

"Yes," Snape agreed. "There may be hope for us yet."

Harry smiled and then nipped the skin at Snape's jaw line. "Indeed."

Snape's chuckle, dark and rich and unexpected, was enough to make Harry kiss him again before saying, "We need to set a date for the bonding. I'm damned if I'm going to be punished again after this."

"We have until January 31st." Snape paused before adding "Harry" his voice caressing the syllables.

"Do you want to wait that long," Harry took a deep breath, "Severus?"

"Our wishes don't really matter. Molly will want time to plan."

"January 30th, it is then."

o0O0o

Harry sat on the floor of the sitting room in front of the contract. The Tempus charm hovering in the air next to him showed that it was just past one o'clock in the morning. He had not been punished.

The hourglass had flipped over at midnight and was poised with the top bulb full, as if waiting for him to make a mistake.

He'd firecall Severus in a few hours and make sure he was safe as well.

In the meantime... Harry cast a few privacy wards and summoned Rigel.

"Well," Harry said, when Rigel appeared, "I take it you're satisfied."

"For now," Rigel said, then he looked wistful. "Although I shall miss our little chats every month."

"I don't have to suffer for us to talk, you know," Harry said, and then laughed at the gobsmacked expression on Rigel's face.

o0O0o

V. November 2005

"You and Harry Potter," the pudgy witch in a hideous, neon yellow dress gushed, "it's like a fairy tale come true. Utterly scrumptious. Our readers are going to adore this, you mark my words."

"Your... readers?" Severus arched an eyebrow and assumed his most forbidding expression. Which she failed to notice.

"Oh, yes, they'll eat you two up." She twitched her wand and a flash from the camera hovering at her shoulder almost blinded him. "Witch Weekly's most popular bachelor and the darkly mysterious and incredibly brave spy who almost died trying to help our Harry win the war involved in an intensely romantic traditional courtship. You'll be on our covers for years to come, I assure you."

"And if I don't wish to—"

"Severus," Harry interrupted him, clamping a hand down on Severus's forearm. "There you are. I've been looking for you forever. Kingsley is most insistent that he talk to you."

"Mr Potter," the witch said with a little bounce. "Nettie Callister, Witch Weekly. Could you just—"

"Oh, I'm sorry, Miss Callister." Harry leant into Severus, who did his best not to flinch away or grab the annoying man. "Perhaps another time. The Minister, you see, and it's just impossible to say no."

And with that, Harry barely gave Severus a chance to slip his hand into the pocket that held his wand before ushering him away from the woman who'd had him trapped for endless minutes.

"You all right?" Harry asked, a note of genuine concern in his voice.

Severus straightened his green velvet robes with a practiced twitch before replying. "I shall be just fine. Miss Callister, however, will need a few days to recover from a sudden case of diarrhoea."

To his surprise, instead of berating him, Harry threw back his head and laughed, capturing the attention of everyone around them. "Oh, you'll have to teach me that one. I've been trying to get rid of that limpet for years."

"If we ever escape from this nest of... dunderheaded, viperous doxies, I would be happy to do so." Severus lowered his voice and whispered in Harry's ear, having learnt over the past couple of weeks just how sensitive that cartilage was, "It's enough to give a wizard fond memories of the Dark Lord's festivities."

Harry choked.

With a pleased smirk, Severus held out his hand to the man in front of him and said, "Kingsley, it's good to see you again."

"Likewise, Severus." Kingsley cocked his head towards Harry. "I understand some things about your life have improved over the years."

"An improvement." Severus pursed his lips. "I suppose one could call it that."

"Bastard," Harry hissed. "I'll get you for that."

"I look forward to it," Severus murmured.

A broad smile lit up Kingsley's face. "Oh, I do believe this is going to be fun," he said. "You will invite me to the bonding, won't you?"

"I thought we had to," Harry said, wrinkling his forehead. "What with you acting as our promulgator and all."

Severus was startled enough that he raised both eyebrows. "You asked the Minister for Magic to announce our bonding?"

"No, I asked our friend Kingsley to do it." Harry shrugged. "It's not as if the list of people both of us trust is that long. Especially when it can't include our families or anyone who's been involved in the courtship."

"True." Severus considered for a moment, bowed to Kingsley. "Shall we get it over with then?"

"Brief and to the point, right? You promised," Harry reminded Kingsley. "And contributions to Regulus Black House in lieu of bonding gifts."

Kingsley clapped Harry on the back. "Don't worry so much."

As Kingsley made his way to the podium, Severus tapped Harry on the shoulder. "You do realise that there's nothing in the courtship rules or the contract that requires us to be present when our upcoming bonding is announced. We are simply required to greet everyone who attends."

Mischief lit Harry's eyes and tugged his mouth into a quirky smile. "Really?"

"Absolutely," Severus assured him.

As their guests pressed forward to get closer to Kingsley and the podium, Severus guided Harry towards the back of the ballroom. As he tapped Harry's head to cast the Disillusionment Charm, Ron Weasley looked back. Severus waited for him to say something, to direct attention towards them, but Weasley simply sent a tiny wave in their direction and mouthed, "Take care of him."

"Bloody idiot." Harry snorted. "As if I can't take care of myself."

As Severus tapped his own head, sending a flood of obscuring cold running down his spine, he couldn't help but think that Harry was an eternal optimist.

o0O0o

"She's got plans," Harry whined. "Heaps of parchment and more people on the invitation list than I've met in my entire life. And it's only November. She's got months left."

"I don't quite understand the problem," Rigel commented. "You're the head of the Black family. He's the head of the Prince family. Your bonding will be the social event of the season."

Unable to come up with an appropriate response, Harry stuck out his tongue.

"Oh my." Rigel snickered. "You thought this was about you."

"Well, it is my bonding," Harry said, unable to hide his defensiveness. "The only one I'm ever likely to get."

"And you want it to be special." Rigel sighed. He bent his right knee and draped his right arm over it, shaking his hand until the lace fell just so.

"Well, I don't want it to be a bloody circus, do I?"

"Family honour requires that your bonding be celebrated publicly."

Something in Rigel's expression caught Harry's attention. The git was being awfully cagey. "What's the catch, then?"

"Catch?" Rigel arched an eyebrow.

"Yeah." Harry grinned. "What aren't you telling me?"

"You mean you haven't worked it out?"

"Just tell me, all right."

"If I must," Rigel said. "You really do know how to spoil a fellow's fun."

"Rigel!"

"Fine. Fine." Leaning forward and looking conspiratorial, Rigel murmured, "Tradition requires a public celebration, not a public bonding."

"I think," Harry said with a grin, "that you are the most brilliant family archivist ever."

Rigel sniffed. "As if there was ever any doubt."

o0O0o

"You just let Harry leave. With Severus." Molly screeched at Ron. "Why didn't you stop them?"

"But I—" Ron started to say, only to be cut off by Molly.

"There's still planning to do for their bonding ceremony. Do you want to explain to me just how that's supposed to happen without them?"

"Is it always like this?" Pansy whispered to Bill from their barely safe haven at the far end of the kitchen table.

"Nah," Bill said with a smile. "Sometimes she gets angry."

Unfortunately, Pansy's sputter of laughter brought Molly's attention their way.

"As for you two," she said. "You're supposed to be their emissaries, chaperoning them, not hiding out in an alcove."

"You do realise you're talking about Severus Snape and Harry Potter, yeah?" Pansy said.

Bill groaned and resisted the urge to crawl under the table.

"Don't you try to turn this around, young lady. You had a job to do."

"And we did it," Pansy retorted. "We watched over them for as long as the rules required and not one moment longer."

When his mum's frown reached danger levels, Bill pushed his chair back with a scrape of legs against the floor. The other three turned to look at him.

"She's right, Mum," he explained. "The rules state that the courting couple must be chaperoned until they either consummate the betrothal or the public announcement of their bonding. When Harry and Severus told us that our services were no longer needed, we had no choice but to leave them alone."

Hands on her hips, Molly harrumphed. "Ungrateful sods."

"They are, really, aren't they?" Pansy walked over to her and pulled out a chair. "Why don't you sit down and let the... Ron make you a cup of tea. And maybe Bill can get out some more of those wonderful biscuits you served us yesterday."

"That sounds lovely," Molly said.

Pansy gave Bill a meaningful look over his mum's head and then sat down next to her. "You know, as heads of family, tradition requires them to have a public celebration, even if they choose to perform their actual bonding in private."

"Oh, it does, does it?" Molly's smile had a positively Slytherin gleam, as she summoned the large pile of parchments that was teetering on the edge of the counter. "Well, I'm sure we can give them a wonderful party..."

Impressed by Pansy's manoeuvring and the way she'd calmed Mum down, Bill smiled at her. Then, he got to his feet and gave Ron a shove towards the kettle.

If he could just work out how to keep Pansy around now that Severus and Harry were sorted, he thought, his life might just manage not to be boring again.

o0O0o

Early morning at Prince Hall was something Harry could get used to. Warming charms made breakfast on the terrace possible all year round. And, although he'd never admit it to Molly, Cam's pancakes were the best he'd ever tasted.

When he'd eaten his fill, he picked up his mug of coffee and wandered over to the front of the terrace where the wall was low. Leaning on the cool stone, he watched the rain fall on the gardens. Warming charms and rain protection charms, he couldn't help thinking, were wonderful things.

The click of a cane on the flagstones brought Harry out of his reverie. He turned and waited while Severus helped himself to coffee. His light wool robes seemed more appropriate to Spring weather than the current chilly rain.

"Do you miss being able to walk silently?" Harry asked the least intrusive of the questions that had haunted him since he'd helped Severus that day at the Burrow.

Most of his weight on one leg, Severus considered his cane. "This," he finally said, "is an annoyance, but only a necessity on bad days."

"And is today a bad day?"

Harry recognised the way that Severus drank his coffee and moved to the low wall as delaying tactics, not avoidance of his question. "That depends."

"On what?"

Taking Harry's coffee mug, Severus deposited it on a nearby table with his own and asked, "Do you trust me?"

With a frown and a conscious decision to forget all of those years at Hogwarts, Harry replied, "At least as far as I can throw you."

"Good enough." Severus held out his hand.

Confident in a way that hadn't been possible even two months earlier, Harry moved forward and allowed Severus to draw him into a one-handed embrace.

"Hold on," Severus warned him and pushed a piece of metal into his hand.

Harry slipped an arm around that slim waist just as something hooked him behind his navel.

When they landed, Harry's eyes were squeezed closed and his nose was buried in Severus's robes. He took a couple of deep breaths and tried to shake off the effects of the unplanned Portkey trip.

"You can look now." Severus sounded amused.

The bright sunlight made Harry squint. They were on another balcony, but in this place the water rhythm sounded more like the sea than rain. Laughing, he ran to the balustrade and looked down.

Waves crashed against the rocks and cliffs below. The warm breeze was redolent of salt and seaweed.

"It's perfect," he said when Severus joined him. "Absolutely perfect."

"Don't you want to know where we are?"

"Not really. Not today at least." He twisted around, leant back on his elbows, and admired the small white cottage in front of them. "Today, I just want to enjoy the fact that I'm not in England where it's cold and damp and raining, and where Molly Weasley is planning the kind of bonding ceremony that makes me want to run screaming into the night."

The look of satisfaction on Severus's face made Harry wary enough to ask, "What have you done?"

"It's my understanding that we can bond privately. Without consequences."

Harry nodded, a grin spreading across his face as he realised what Severus had in mind. "I was given the same advice."

"Why not here and now? No Weasleys. No witnesses. No reporters. Just you and me and the ocean."

"You're serious?"

"Deadly," Severus assured him. "If I have to listen to one more discussion about dishware patterns, or flower arrangements, or the most tasteful combination of colours for a merging of the Prince, Black, and Potter families, I will be sorely tempted to hex the woman and risk spending the next twenty years in Azkaban, suffering the torments of that damned contract."

"And I would have been in the next cell." Harry raked a hand through his hair. "It was like we created a monster."

"And when Andromeda tried to get the children involved."

They both shuddered.

o0O0o

Clear water, a ceremonial goblet, bonding rings, promises, and magic to seal the bond was all they required. That the sky was clear and the moon and stars gave them sufficient light to dispense with the candles was serendipity.

Both of them dressed in off-white cotton robes with runes embroidered at cuffs, collars and hems, Severus took Harry's hand and they walked the few steps from the cottage to the area they'd set aside on the balcony. With as much grace as he could muster, he allowed Harry to support him as he sat down on stone still warm from the day's sun. He bent his good leg. Harry sat cross-legged beside him. Holding their wands together, they murmured the spell on the back of the betrothal contract and activated their family stele to bear witness.

Spell-light spun from the stele of the Prince and Black families. The jade scarab rose above their heads, supported by an arc of black and gold, green and silver. Fine threads of light swirled down and twined around Severus and Harry, binding them together before dissolving into their skin with a sizzle and the prickle of goosebumps.

After they'd watched the ribbons of spell-light fade back into the stele, after they'd caught the scarab and placed it on the stone between the goblet and the tiny ceremonial fire, Severus turned to Harry. Still caught in the solemnity of their bonding, he framed Harry's face with his hands and kissed him.

The cushioning spell that Harry cast rose beneath them, as Severus banished their robes. They lay down on their sides, facing each other, and Severus kissed him again. The first shock of them touching, bare skin to bare skin, sent electricity skimming through Severus.

"Yes," Harry moaned into Severus's mouth. Severus thrust his tongue into Harry's mouth, nipped and sucked his lips.

Eventually, kissing and the mere touch of skin was not enough. Severus began to explore Harry's body. The winged lion tattooed across Harry's back and shoulders quivered and preened under the brush of Severus's fingers, the sweep of his tongue.

His nipples were equally responsive, as Severus suckled, pinched, and rolled them. Harry arched his back when Severus drew away, a pleading motion that brought his nipples closer to Severus's mouth.

That movement, the wordless groan, had Severus's cock hard and aching. Capturing Harry's sparse chest hair between his teeth, tugging and letting go, Severus moved down, following the trail of hair until his mouth hovered above Harry's cock. Harry's scent was in his nostrils as he touched the tip of his tongue to the slit of Harry's cock.

A hand clutching his head distracted Severus, made him look up, and Harry moved. A gentle push rolled Severus onto his back, and Harry straddled his hips. The feeling of Harry's bollocks resting on the head of his cock, of Harry's cleft and hole at the base, had Severus grasping Harry's hips and bucking upwards.

"So good," he said. "You feel so good."

"You too," Harry said, rising up on his knees until they barely touched, then dropping back down with a twist of his hips that jolted through Severus.

"Tease," Severus accused.

"Don't tell me you don't like it."

"I would never dream of... oh... that." Severus thrust his cock along Harry's cleft, pushing the tip into Harry's perineum.

"Fuck." Harry panted. "Can't go slow tonight. Spells?"

"Oh, I think not." Severus could feel satisfaction curving his lips, even as he scrabbled for the lube. "Lift up."

Bending his knees, Severus waited for Harry to arrange himself. He could feel Harry's leg muscles tremble against his hips as Harry braced himself. Severus traced a slick finger backwards, from perineum to cleft, rubbing around the pucker and then pressing inwards.

Severus set a slow pace from one finger to two and then to three, stretching and twisting and playing with Harry's prostate until both of their cocks were jerking with the need to thrust.

"Now, you bastard, now." Harry twitched his hips when Severus pulled out his fingers and lubed up his cock.

Then Severus was inside Harry, stretching him further, grazing his prostate with every stroke. Harry rocked, his left hand interlaced with Severus's right for support, his right hand fisting his own cock. Vaguely, as if from a distance, Severus could hear him babbling.

But Severus was lost in the feeling. Up and down. In and out. Tight warmth enveloping him, squeezing him. And as Harry called out his name, Severus pulled him downwards as he thrust up, losing himself as he came inside Harry.

They lay for a while afterwards. Harry's head nestled in the curve of Severus's shoulder. For the first time in his life, Severus found himself enjoying this quiet time. He rubbed Harry's back, kissed the crown of his head, and was quite bewildered by it all.

"You know what," Harry said, shifting positions until he was up on one elbow, looking into Severus's eyes.

"I know many things," Severus responded, an odd softness expanding inside his chest at Harry's smile.

"Not this. Not yet." Harry kissed Severus's sternum.

"Then why don't you tell me?"

"It's an odd thing really," Harry said, "but I think I could like you some day."

Severus hummed in agreement, as Harry settled back down into his arms. Just before Severus drifted into sleep, he confessed, "Our thoughts do not run along completely dissimilar lines."

o0O0o

Harry lay awake. When he was sure that Severus was asleep, he whispered, "Tempus."

It was after midnight. November had become December. Celebrating their bonding in private before the agreed-upon date was not cause for punishment.

His lips curved into a smile, and he closed his eyes. The sound of the waves and the soft rasp of Severus's breathing followed him into sleep.

~fin~