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^o^

It was almost an afterthought to bring the invitation home, really. Spending the winter Solstice with the Malfoys had been a foregone conclusion in Severus' life for the past twenty years or more. It was as much an annual milestone as spending Christmas and Boxing day with Dumbledore, Hogmanay with Minerva, and his own birthday with the best bottle of single malt he could afford. One of the unspoken benefits to Potions mastery, after all, was that one could always count upon one's welcome at Holiday occasions, if for no other reason than to make up the punch.

And Severus' punch, he scrupled not to say, was peerless.

It was merely down to Narcissa's genteel upbringing that the Malfoy family even bothered to send Severus an invitation anymore, instead of just presuming upon his presence, making up the guest suite, and setting an extra plate at their breakfast table Solstice morning. Two extra plates, rather, this past couple of years since he'd moved house to live with Potter, and they could no longer politely ignore Severus' involvement with the Hero of the Wizarding World.

That was a triumph not nearly gone cold, and so of course Severus had told Draco they would attend again this year.

And so, of course, Harry dug his heels in and turned mulish over the matter when he found the invitation on the sideboard a few days later.

"You're kidding me. You told Draco Malfoy I'd go spend the week with his family?"

Severus looked up from his chopping board and smirked. "To be exact, I told him that we would love to attend, and celebrate the Solstice with them, and seeing as how I am no longer head of Slytherin House, and you are no longer in indentured servitude to the Aurory, we would gladly join them for a skiing trip in France afterward."

"Well I hate to break it to you, but unless you have a mouse in your pocket, we would bloody well not love anything of the kind," Harry ground out, stomping into the kitchen to thunk down the bottle of rum Severus had sent him out for, and slinging the invitation down beside it. The heavy card just missed landing in the flour tin. "Why the hell would you do this, Severus? I told you after what happened last year-"

Setting the knife and candied fruit aside, Severus gave his lover a quelling glare. "Generally, I have understood that when a couple of long standing emotional investment and stable relations undertakes to share living quarters, sharing holiday engagements is generally a foregone conclusion, Harry."

"And if I were sharing them with you, I'd agree," he whinged, and furthered the chaos of his hair with an angry, clawing hand. "But with the Malfoys? At that house? You must know they don't want me there!"

Which made the triumph of them having to invite Harry anyway all the more savory. Severus rolled his eyes, and poured rum over the raisins to soak. But Harry wasn't done whinging yet, apparently. "Look, the Malfoys made it pretty clear when I went with you last year that I wasn't actually welcome, so much as tolerated. If you can even call what that 'tolerance'."

Severus chuckled, and pulled Harry into a hug. "Is your ego still bruised about that? It was only a bit of fun." And a rather brilliant bit of charms-work and illusion as well. Severus hadn't even known the Malfoys owned a portrait of Sirius Black, and so to find the dead man reenacting the best rants of Jacob Marley from above the guest room mantlepiece at midnight on Solstice eve had been a moment of pure and high hilarity to Severus. Then as now, however, he elected to keep that opinion to himself, and becalm the hysterics of his excitable lover before he broke out in hives or parseltongue, as he was wont to since his 'accident'.

As though he suspected the cant of Severus' thoughts though, Harry stiffened, and turned in his arms to glower. "A bit of fun?" he asked, voice incredulous and brittle. "Where have I heard that phrase before?"

Somewhere in the shadowed halls of Severus' memories, something wary raised its head in alarm at the ominous echo of the past in his lover's voice. He shrugged it off for later consideration, and focused on the job at hand. "There was no real harm done, after all," he said, stroking Harry's shoulder as he might a fractious hippogriff from which he needed a handful of hackle feathers, "I rather thought it a good sign that they felt comfortable enough with you to joke."

Merlin, but those green eyes were beautiful when they flashed so. "Yeah, I remember," Harry said, gulping down the rest of his tea, and doing his level best to smash the countertop with his empty cup. "That's what you said last year. But in case you don't remember, their bit of fun gave me nightmares for months! As if I really needed any more fucked up memories of that place." He shivered, and Severus barely restrained the urge to roll his eyes at the melodrama.

"They apologized."

"When you ordered them to," Harry shot over his shoulder as he stomped out of the kitchen. "Doesn't mean they're actually sorry for a damned bit of it."

Severus followed, scowling as the man snatched his cloak – much too light for the early December chill, -- from the peg beside the back door. "Where do you think you're going?" he demanded in his best 'Detention-imminent' voice.

Potter, however, gave the warning no heed whatsoever. As usual. "Out," the brat snapped, hauling his broom savagely from the umbrella tree. "I need to go fly before I break something." And he was out the door before Severus had time to castigate his cowardly evasion of the discussion, or to scorn the fallacy of Gryffindor courage on his behalf, or even to warn the reckless idiot that he might very well break his fool neck if he took one of his spells and the broom's safety charms failed.

Damn it.

^o^

The fruitcake was baked and cooling before Harry came back to the apartment, and like the seasonal treat, Severus' temper had hardened from bemusement to impatience. He had every right to enjoy his welcome with the Malfoys, damn it, and Harry's as well! If Harry thought he'd spoil Severus' holiday with his missishness, he'd be very much mistaken!

"You truly mean to hold this grudge, don't you?" The words were out of Severus' mouth before the door had even closed. Harry paused in the act of shaking snow from his cloak, but didn't turn round as Severus loomed to block the vestibule's exit.

"What I mean to do," the brat replied in a parody of calm reason, "is avoid being treated like rubbish this Christmas, Severus. And as a part of that, I won't be going to Malfoy Manor for Solstice. Your cake smells really good," he finished with an icy kiss to Severus' cheek, and a sidelong slither past his elbow into the lounge. He was warming his wind-scoured, ruddy fingers at the fire, casual as you please, by the time Severus turned to follow.

Well, on his own head be it then. Severus brought out the big gun. "Harry, the Malfoys saved my life after the war," he said, and let his voice crack on the word life. "And you might remember they saved yours as well."

"I do remember," he replied, sitting to unlace his boots, and flicking melting snow from the creases as he went. "I remembered when I convinced the Wizengamot not to seize their lands and clap them all in gaol for playing host to Voldemort that last year of the war." He pried off one boot, and started on the second without looking up. "And I remembered it when Draco asked me for a letter of reference to get into the Aurory, for all the good he made of it afterwards." And here, the brat had the nerve to cast Severus a knowingly amused glance. "But as you know, having a life debt to someone doesn't mean you want to eat Christmas Dinner with them."

The bloody cheek! Bringing up James bloody Potter at a time like this! Severus folded his arms across his breast and glowered. "And so you expect me to snub their invitation in deference to your affronted dignity, I suppose?"

"No," he grunted, levering his boot off. In lieu of further explanation, however, Potter simply stretched his stocking foot out toward the flames and sighed as though contented. The little bastard.

"The Malfoys are the closest thing I have to family, I'll have you know," Severus fired his reserves, and expected an explosion, a denial, a flinch in response, at least. Infuriatingly he got only a level green stare instead.

"I understand that," he said after a moment, and flicked his wand to summon cups, and their ever-full teapot from the kitchen. "Which is why, if you'll remember, I've never said I expected you not to go. I only said I wasn't going with you."

Severus gave that transparent manipulation the sneer it deserved. "And you'll do what, instead? Mope about here and cherish your sense of martyrdom?" he asked, pouring both cups full with an angry flourish. "Make plans with your Gryffindor chums to extract your revenge in emotional coin from me at some later date? Don't imagine me unfamiliar with traditional Valentine's Day extortion."

Harry just lifted one shoulder and sipped his tea. "I don't know what I'll do yet. I'll think of something, I'm sure."

What nonsense! Severus was having none of it. "You shall go to the Burrow, of course, and wallow in the welcome of your surrogate family, where I am unwelcome, of course."

Another level look, this one sadder than before. "They've forgiven you. You know that. And anyway, the Weasleys don't celebrate Solstice."

Severus ignored the obvious attempt at diversion. "Forgiven me for murdering their son? For tormenting their daughter? Not even Molly's temper is so generous"

"For injuring their son. For playing a role you had to play in order to buy the time we needed to win the war. Yes, they have forgiven you. You might have worked that out when Molly invited you to Christmas for nearly six years before you and I dated."

Severus waved airily, and poured himself more tea. "I know an empty gesture when I see one."

Potter's stare implied contradiction, but aloud he only said, "And when you said you wouldn't come to Christmas at the Burrow, they respected that, and didn't push."

"And blamed me for keeping you away as well, no doubt!"

But Harry shook his head and sighed instead of rising properly to the bait. "Not where I could hear it, they didn't. They know the Burrow's uncomfortable for me, what with Ginny and Dean living there." And here, he set his teacup aside, and stretched his arms over his head, so his jumper rode up high, and showed a pale flash of butter-smooth belly above his trousers.

"Oh, do not imagine you can distract me with sex, you hooligan!" Severus spat, as much a warning to his thickening cock, as to his sneak of a lover. "You ought to know by now that I cannot be bribed."

But Harry only laughed at him, the very fond chuckle that always made Severus dizzy with conflicting urges to kiss the man silly and to shake him like a ragdoll. "Oh, trust. You're well known for a hard man, Severus Snape, and I'd be the last man alive to dream of trying to change your mind once it's made up." He climbed out of the chair, and invaded Severus' space with a kiss – decent enough, but still laden with promise and the ghost of tea.

Of course, he had to spoil the moment by talking... "But you see, Severus, I've had enough of suffering through holidays instead of enjoying them, just like I told you after last year. I've decided that I'm going to enjoy this one, that's all."

He shifted, but Severus caught his shoulders and pulled him close again before he could move away. "You're planning something, aren't you Potter?" he made the question a warning growl, secretly reveling in the way those green eyes went a little unfocused and glassy. One significant part of the Brat Who Lived could manage to pay him heed at least. "What are you up to?"

"Mm. About half staff just now," Harry murmured, and rutted his growing trouser-bulge against Severus' hip, "But I'm sure I'll be full on by the time the shower's hot. Care to come and time me?"

^o^

That set the pattern for the next two weeks. Severus would launch the topic, Harry would reiterate his pig-headed refusal in the most aggravatingly patient tones, and then refuse any vestige of civilized discussion on the matter.

Unimaginatively often, Potter's evasion strategy involved sex, or the promise of it, but although remarkably well shagged, Severus was not fooled for an instant. Nor was he disarmed; making love in lieu of war was a Hufflepuff notion, and not even the noblest Gryffindor alive could actually buy into it. Not even with that marvelous new ginger-based lubricant Potter had come up with...

Still, no matter how he tried, no matter how he scolded, cajoled, scathed, or demanded, when the trousers went back on, Severus couldn't budge his lover even so far as to engage in a proper row. It was unnerving. It was infuriating. It was insulting. He finally gave it up as a bad job when he caught himself considering sexual bribery as a viable option. By Merlin he'd more dignity than that!

And as currencies went, sex was a bit artificially inflated around the Snape/Potter household just then anyhow.

Equally maddening was the way Harry hid his sulking about Severus' impending holiday. No matter how often Severus called him out on his pretense, he simply would not be caught moping about the place in a funk, or slipping wistful sighs into opportune silences, or daydreaming aloud about alternate plans which Severus would then have been obligated to crush without pity. The infuriating brat did not even make a passing attempt to set out any holiday decorations about the apartment, as if guessing somehow, what a pitiful display of manipulation Severus would consider it.

When challenged on that transparent bit of passive-aggression, Harry had only laughed and said he got plenty of tinsel and fairy lights whenever he stepped foot out the door, between Muggle London and Diagon Alley, and he didn't feel he needed to bring it home with him. A hollow sentiment Severus greeted with triumphant derision, until Harry's expert handjob distracted him, and then once he'd recovered from that, there'd been bangers and mash for supper, so he'd never quite got back round to it.

It was difficult to take pride in resisting emotional blackmail on such a subtle level, but that didn't stop Severus from trying.

And in a rather severe blow to his spying skills, Severus was also manifestly unable to learn just what it was that Harry planned to do with himself, assuming he actually let Severus go away for a week's Continental holiday without him. As Harry had said, the Weasleys did not celebrate Solstice, nor did any of the family show the slightest expectation of seeing him at the Burrow barring an emergency of Voldemortian proportions. He finally let go of that suspicion when Mrs. Weasley-nee-Granger gave him an arch look across the worktop of his potions research station, and mused aloud on why it was Severus felt such a need to establish Holiday Dominance if things between him and Harry were so good as all that.

The various Ministry departments gave every appearance of believing that Potter's claims of health-related retirement meant he had no interest in attending any of their myriad holiday soirees, functions, or piss-ups. Several expressed regret that Harry had told them as much when they'd asked him to come, and could Severus not convince him to come round just for a bit all the same? (He'd be welcome as well, of course, dear me, yes.)

Severus gave them all to understand that Potter's health was far too delicate for such stress, and not remotely well-recovered enough from his curse damage to drag himself from his bed and be jolly for their entertainment. He didn't consider it relevant that his lover's only remaining symptom was a recurring nightmare featuring dancing mushrooms, the odd bout of narcolepsy, a missing right little toe, and an occasional tendency to slip into parseltongue mid-sentence when overwrought. Besides, if Harry wanted to attend a party, then he would do so at Malfoy Manor, and nowhere else!

Even Potter's favorite charities did not seem to have a claim on his time, given their rather constant appeals via owl post and floo for that very indulgence. He overheard Harry politely refusing public appearance after public appearance, and each time he heard the polite fiction of "I believe the holidays are a time to spend with one's loved ones, not on fundraising," out of those maddening lips, it bothered Severus just that much more.

Holiday with his loved ones, indeed! When the little bastard was purposefully abandoning Severus for the holidays entirely. The nerve!

Then there was the package that arrived the night before the Solstice. Larger than a troll's head, warded so thickly that not even Severus' best see-through charm could pierce it, no return address or invoice to be seen on the crate, and hand delivered to the apartment by a goblin, immune to legilimency as was all his species, damn him. He left it in Harry's chair once he'd exhausted his guile – at least insofar as not damaging the packaging went, -- and there it sat, smugly inscrutable until the brat emerged from his post-physical-therapy-session nap.

"What's that?" he had the gall to ask when he spotted the box.

Severus refused to look up from his book. "Well, if you don't know, then I expect it's most likely another bomb, seeing as how it's got your name on."

He almost regretted his quip when Harry pulled his wand on the thing, but was still too piqued at the secrecy to let on. After a quick barrage of spells though, Harry lowered his wand with a wry grin. "Oh. I hadn't expected that till next week," he said, and levitated the box with a swish and flick.

"Well, what is it then?" Severus snapped, patience at an end.

Harry only gave him a distracted smile as he shrunk the thing to the size of an acorn, and sent it bobbing into the damned moleskin bag Hagrid had given him all those years ago. Tacit implication that he did not trust Severus not to snoop, damn him! "Christmas present," he said, tying the strings shut and slipping the bag into his pocket. Then he smiled, and added, "Yours, that is."

"I shall be in the French Alps at Christmas," Severus reminded him, knowing he could not possibly have forgot. "With the Malfoys."

"Skiing, I know," Harry nodded. "I saw the new trunk, by the way, with the wizardspace toiletry rack and the featherlight charms? Very nice. And the yeti-hide hat looks really warm too." He mimed the earflaps with his hands, and grinned like a ninny. "Anyhow, the present will keep till you're back."

"Then you might just as well call it my birthday present," Severus grumbled.

But Harry only laughed. "No, that's ordered to come on your birthday. This is definitely your Christmas present. And it'll definitely keep until you're-" Harry gasped, his teasing words caught up behind a kiss as Severus lunged up from his chair to catch the man as he sauntered by.

"Come with me," he said into Harry's open, gasping mouth once they broke for air. "Come with me."

He felt that damnable, edible grin spread against the side of his mouth as Harry huffed a damp chuckle. "You don't have to ask me twice. Want to go right here, or take me upstairs to bed?"

With a growl, Severus thrust his lover from him, but only far enough to give him a bracing shake. "No, damn you, to France! Come with me this week! Come with me –" because I don't want to leave you here. Because I won't enjoy myself knowing you've stayed behind. Because even with my surrogate family, I want you beside me... But he couldn't bring himself to say such drivel, to lay open such targets for derision. Not even before Harry, whom he professed (in his own mind, at least,) to love.

He watched the ravens wing brows knit, no more able to let go Harry's shoulders, than to properly breathe as the storm brewed up in those canny green eyes. Severus had given so much away, and it was too late to unsay it, to take it back and pretend the advantage was still his. All he could do now was wait to see how Harry would exploit it.

"All right."

Severus blinked, and remembered to breathe all in a startled rush. "What?"

"I'll go with you-" Harry forestalled Severus' triumphant smirk with a finger across his lips, "to France. Because I know you love me too much to ask me to go where I do not feel safe, or welcome, and you know that I do not feel safe or welcome at Malfoy Manor. Because I know you respect me too much to ask me to betray the promise I made to myself when I retired from the Aurory, not to let myself be manipulated into horrible situations anymore, even by my friends and family." Severus' lips could not manage to press into a scowl under that finger as it swept the orbit 'round; top lip, bottom lip, top again, in gentle, persuasive caresses.

"But if you want me to go skiing with you in France for Christmas, then I'm happy to go."

Suspicious, Severus pushed a little. "The Malfoys will still be going as well..."

"And in public, they'll be too conscious of their image to act like complete arseholes to me," he shrugged in reply, "As long as you and I have our own room where I can ward the doors and windows when I need to sleep, I can handle their normal level of snobbery."

"But you cannot handle one night under their roof?" Severus challenged, sensing the possibility of a complete victory in the wind.

Harry only shook his head with a wry smile. "I choose not to," he said, and shrugged out of Severus' grip to head toward the kitchen. "Think of it this way; after all these years, you've finally taught me how to pick my battles. And anyway, I've already made plans for that night."

"You've done what?" Severus followed him into the kitchen, and snatched the slice of fruitcake from his fingers. "What plans? What are you up to?"

"Plans that involved a night to myself, while my lover was enjoying the Solstice with his friends," Harry shot back, finally -- finally -- ringing with that brat-prince tone Severus had failed to rouse for the past fortnight. "It's not like the rent-boys and exotic dancers will be staying over or anything." He snatched his morsel back, and stuffed the whole thing into his mouth, chewing furiously.

"I knew it," Severus snarled. Harry rolled his eyes, and shoved past, heading for the stairs. Severus followed, calling up after him, "I knew you resented my going! I knew you were playing the martyr, really! Well that's fine. You may have your own way. I shall floo call the Malfoys and tell them I shan't be-" Harry reappeared at the top of the stairs, Severus' new trunk in hand, and murder in his eye. "What the devil are you doing with that?"

"I'm putting it through the floo," Harry gritted, clumping downward with all the grace of a grounded bludger, "and you after it."

"The devil you are!" Severus replied, and accio'd the floo powder from the mantel. He kept his wand in hand as Harry came on, stalking across the lounge like an undersized but adamant tomcat. "You'll not put me out of my own home on Solstice eve, you ungracious little bastard!"

"You're going, Severus," Harry ground through his teeth, dropping his new trunk on the hearth without regard for ash or cinder. "They're your friends, your surrogate family, and this holiday is important to them," he said, pointing at the fireplace with one hand, and holding the other out imperiously for the floo powder can. "And their invitation is important to you, and I'm not having you sitting around here glowering at me when you should be nehehhlenssshrah sthhhhaaahrashht feeeelrheesssshhhh aaaaaahhhhrrrrshhh! Harry stomped his foot, and wound both hands in to clutch at his hair as he realized he'd slipped into Parseltongue again.

Severus managed not to smile at his lover's frustration, but it took some doing. It took even more restraint not to flinch when Harry wordlessly conjured a small, but obviously startled adder, and stared it in the eye while he spoke.

"If you stay, we'll both have a rotten time. Especially now. I don't want that-"

"And it's all about what you want, is it?"

Ah. That was apparently one push too far. Harry shot him a positively venomous glare, flicked a spell at the trunk with one hand, and seized Severus' wrist like a Snitch with the other. Then he turned them in place before Severus could manage the leverage to pry those Seeker-strong fingers loose and get away.

Unsurprisingly, they landed ankle deep in the snow outside Malfoy Manor.

Surprisingly, however, they landed in the snow just outside Malfoy Manor. Well inside the Enemy wards, the Stranger wards, and even inside the Guest wards. They'd come out close enough for Harry to drop the trunk, and ring the doorbell without taking a step. Then he used his hold on Severus' wrist to drag his dumbfounded lover down for a brusque peck on the cheek, stuffed a small, sealed envelope into his robe pocket, and disapparated again.

Fury made up for his lack of a winter cloak, but Severus' fingers still trembled as he ripped open the letter to read his bastardly lover's pitiful excuse for his behavior.

Dear Severus,
I know you want me to go along to France, and so I've decided I will. Just owl me the floo address of the hotel in the morning, and I'll meet you there.

The little brat! He'd clearly written the note some time before, meaning to go all along! And he'd made Severus all but crawl for it first!

As for tonight at the Malfoys, I'll make a bet with you. If you can get through dinner with them, and they haven't insulted or slighted me and my friends more than twenty times, then floo me when you go to bed, and I'll come through so we can sleep together tonight.

Oh, he'd floo the little bastard indeed! And there would be quite a reckoning before either of them got any sleep, either!

And I expect you to keep an honest count of the insults as well. Because if you lie about it, I'll find out – you know I will – and then I'll have no choice but to invite every one of the Weasleys along with us on the skiing trip. Every. One.

Beginning to feel the cold, Severus shuddered.

Can't wait to see you tomorrow, Love Harry.

The door opened, and stuffing the letter back into his pocket, Severus turned to find himself faced with Narcissa, beaming and insincere, with her hands full of mistletoe.

"Why Severus, how lovely to see you. Goodness but you're early, aren't you? We'd not thought to see you before supper, but do come in from the cold."

"Who's that?" Lucius voice echoed from the marble as Narcissa bustled Severus in through the door. "The caterers already?"

"It's Severus dear," she called in reply. Then, more intimately, "Is Mr. Potter not coming then? Tsk. Pity. Better things to do, I suppose? Soup kitchens and orphans, no doubt." She tinkled a laugh, and tossed the mistletoe into place above the stairs, where the waiting ribbons snatched it from the air like satin tentacles. "However will we manage to make merry without him?"

"Potter didn't come?" Draco called from the head of the stairs, the very picture of dissolute wealth in his elegant robes, and his careless hair. "Well that was damned inconsiderate of him after I'd had the dungbombs rush-delivered."

Narcissa's ivory brow clouded as she turned. "Draco..."

"I know, I know, not in the house," he replied with a negligent wave as he retreated back up the stairs. "That's what midnight Quidditch games are for. Did you know a dungbomb fits perfectly inside a Snitch?"

"Tsk," Narcissa shook her head fondly. "Boys. What can one do?"

Raise them with a sense of accountability and an understanding of consequence, perhaps. he thought, but did not say, as much because he was still rather longing to turn his own 'boy' over his knee as for any other reason.

Lucius appeared in the vestibule, resplendent in his peacock blue smoking jacket and matching fez (neither of which had ever seen so much as a waft of smoke since he'd commissioned their making, Severus knew.) His eyes lit at once on Severus' hands, and he beamed. "Oh Severus, you know you needn't have brought us anything. After all these years, you're practically family. Still," he went on, clapping Severus on the shoulder and drawing him along into the house, "dare I hope it's something... recreational, seeing as how you've gone so far as to leave the gooseberry behind?"

Severus gritted his teeth. That was three, and he'd not even unpacked his trunk yet! Could they not see how important this was? His first real fight with Potter since the two of them had moved house together, and they were losing it for him! And all for a few petty little bon mots he wouldn't even hear, as well! By Merlin's beard, Severus wanted nothing more than to turn them all over his knee just then, and not in remotely the same way he'd considered for Potter.

But he wasn't a spy for nothing, after all. He schooled his features as far toward pleasant as ever such features as his could manage, and put the floo powder can into Lucius' not-quite-reaching fingers. "Highly recreational, in fact," he smirked. "Especially when snorted through the nose."

"Mmm," Lucius all but purred as he steered them into the manor's grand library. "Good, is it?"

"The best," Severus agreed. "I daresay there's no trip quite like it."

^o^

At two in the morning, Severus flooed home in defeat from the guestroom fireplace. The Solstice night was a disaster, Lucius alternating between hallucinations, hiccup-prompted, short-range disapparation, and projectile vomiting, Draco so high he was all but rutting on the draperies and house elves, and Narcissa seething in icy rage at the lot while the rum-to-egg nog quotient of her cup crept higher and higher. The Ministry's prohibitions on Dark Magic at the Malfoy estate was probably the only thing that kept Severus' skin intact as the night wore on, and Narcissa reasoned out what had happened to turn her elegant holiday into a bacchanal.

He'd lost the fight with Harry, that much was clear. Taken on the terms of his note, Harry could claim the right never to clap eyes on the manor again, let alone consider setting foot in it, no matter how persuasive Severus' inducements. His name had been less than mud long about Lucius' second line of floo-powder, and Draco hadn't even waited that long to begin mocking Severus for his choice of lovers. Even Narcissa's sidelong, sugar-gilded barbs couldn't be called anything but insults by the time pudding hit the table.

What was more, Severus daren't even stay the night, for fear of some assault, either sexual, hexual, or murderous, upon his person. Protection wards might have held on a hotel room, but there was no chance the house would take his side against its native family, no matter how diminished their capacity. He'd no choice now but to choke down his pride, transfigure the spare pillows into a decoy, and slink home to face the insufferable, inevitable Gryffindor victory dance.

And even that started off on the wrong foot, when Severus found himself stumbling over a whopping great cardboard box on his first step out of the damned floo! He caught his balance by way of a well-placed fireside chair, and sent the offending box flying with a curse and a kick. Foam bits and paper swaddling went everywhere. He'd drawn his wand, intent upon incineration of the lot when he turned to find Harry Potter at their small table, face down in a pensieve Severus bloody well knew the wretch hadn't owned the day before.

The box, upturned in the corner, went over suddenly familiar. It was the very crate that had been delivered to the house that morning. The final straw that had spurred on their ill-starred argument. And there his lover lay in a headlong wallow, barely decent in his low-slung sleep pants and unbelted robe, leering, no doubt, at some vulgar memory or other, the like of which could be bought wholesale by the quart in certain Knockturn Alley shops. Other plans indeed!

Severus bared his teeth and growled. "I know you've heard me, wretch. You might as well come out and get it over with."

But Harry didn't twitch. And now Severus noted it, his wand lay on the table just shy of his lax fingers, more as if it had rolled free than as if he'd set it down before diving into his voyeuristic pastime. Bloody hell...

He jostled Harry's shoulder, noting that the memories that swirled around his face were rather a brighter silver than was usual for Secondhand Sex's wares. Harry didn't stir, and a thin, thready snore bubbled out through the pensieve's thick medium. He'd taken one of his turns then, while messing about with the so-called Christmas gift, and with no one around to cast the counter-curse...

"Another reason why you shouldn't have stayed home on your own," Severus murmured, stooping to work his arms around Harry's chest and lift him free of the basin, "Idiot. You'd better have remembered to banish that damned snake before you passed out." Harry's only reply was a bubble of silvery memory welling from his left nostril until it popped, and splattered Severus with a particularly rousing night they'd shared some months back, which had involved butterscotch sauce, tongues in unlikely places, and reckless use of shower fixtures afterward.

Severus licked away the phantom taste of musk and skin and spunk and sugar, and was momentarily glad Harry couldn't see his blush... or his sudden erection. So... not purchased memories then. He ought to have known Harry would prefer a home-made gift, excruciatingly personal gift. He eyed the silvery welter with heated speculation, thinking of all the encounters Harry could have set swirling there to rouse and surprise him. But then with a sigh, he set that tempting notion aside and cast a lightening spell so he could get his idiot lover safely up to bed.

Boneless as a dishrag, Harry didn't so much as murmur when Severus rolled him up to cradle him against his chest. His hair, black and fluffy as swan's down, tickled Severus' face as he climbed the stairs, and surrounded Severus with the smell of soap, tea, the anti-seizure potion Harry took every night, and the fruitcake his idiot had most likely eaten for his dinner. The rum-soaked fruitcake, which Severus had meant to bring to the Malfoys, instead of leaving about the apartment for his idiotic lover to poison himself with.

"How you lived to see twenty five, I shall never know," Severus grumbled, stooping to lay Harry on the bed. His back protested the angle and weight, even magically lightened, but he ignored it as always – he'd never liked levitation spells, -- and tucked his lover into bed by hand. Then he climbed in alongside, and braced himself on his elbow to do what had to be done.

If he was honest, the apartment was layered in so many protective spells that Harry would be hard pressed to actually injure himself there, even if he'd wanted to. And taking a seizure in a pensieve was far less perilous than doing so in the shower, or over a lit cooker, or headlong in the floo. But none of that stopped Severus' gut from tightening in panic whenever he saw that horrifyingly empty face where Harry's impish visage belonged, that taut body limp as a doll, those brilliant eyes flat and dull.

"You were right," he said to Harry's lax, unresponsive face, "They were horrid. The very epitome of spoilt entitlement, and you'd have been miserable if you'd let me nag you into going along." He smoothed the dark hair back, revealing the ghost of Harry's famous scar, so he could trace its jagged path with his fingertip. He never touched it outside these few, horrible times, made a concerted effort not to even look at it unless directed to, but when Harry was so very far lost within himself, Severus could not always resist the urge to try and use the scar as a touchstone to summon him back.

"I meant it when I said they were the closest thing I had to family," he murmured, leaning close to brush his lips across Harry's cool, damp forehead, "But upon reflection of my family, that might not be such a glowing recommendation after all."

He felt the subtle shift when, under his kiss, Harry slipped from seizure to proper sleep, and he breathed a laden sigh that set Harry's fringe fluttering, and won a mumble and twitch of response.

"Sev'rus? Mphts wrong?" He shifted away as Harry blinked owlishly in the gloom.

"You had a spell, but you're nearly through it now," he said, stroking the searching eyes closed again. "Rest a little now."

"Mm," Harry agreed, cuddling close. "But...France?"

"Sod France. We'll stay home this week. I don't know how to ski anyhow."

"Kay..." Against his thigh, Severus could feel the restless tap of Harry's cock filling as proper, healthy sleep whelmed him under again. Excellent. Assuming Harry kept to his pattern, he would now sleep quietly for another quarter of an hour before he'd waken, startlingly energized and inevitably horny.

That left Severus plenty of time to revisit the pensieve, and see what he could add to improve the brew. A rousing shag to help pass the longest night of the year would be just the thing. A new household tradition, even.

And sharing certain carefully edited memories of his wild night at the Malfoys might go far toward a peace offering if he played his cards right. Severus thought he might just be able to rely on Harry's Gryffindor sense of fair play to keep his knowledge of events mum. And if not... well, after their joke on Harry the previous year, the Malfoys certainly couldn't say they didn't have a bit of payback coming.

And assuming Lucius managed not to fatally splinch himself before the floo powder worked its way out of his bloodstream, Severus rather felt it unlikely that he and Narcissa were likely to invite him back to the Manor anytime soon anyway.

^ fin ^