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Path of Most Resistance

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“Welcome to Alkar’s Potions Emporium,” Severus uttered from behind the counter when the bells chimed, signalling a customer. He placed the jar of beaver eyes back in its rightful place—two shelves down, third slot from the right. “Emporium” was putting it generously, and saying it never settled well with him. The shop was bare-bones and hadn’t been in the black when he’d come on board.

He peered above the counter, and found himself straightening his stance, smoothing out his sleeves and work apron. The new customer was an arresting sight—handsome (unfairly so, Severus thought, but let his gaze linger anyway), blue-eyed, dark-haired, finely-dressed. Pale, but with a healthy pink flush in the right places. Very unlike his own uniform chalky complexion.

And young. Well, younger than Severus anticipated. The people that tended to visit the shop were of Old Alkar’s age, and came mostly to either ask for a loan or a repayment of one.

“May I help you?” Severus prompted, when the stranger merely stood in the centre of the shop.

Those shapely lips quirked, as if Severus had said something amusing. “Alex in?”

Severus took an embarrassingly long moment to realise that Alexander was his employer’s first name. Some apprentice he was. “Out for the foreseeable future,” he replied. Likely avoiding responsibility while spending the meagre profits of the shop on the brothel two towns over. “Care to leave a message?”

“That won’t be necessary,” the stranger said, his eyes coasting over the nearly-empty shelves and settling on the brewing station—Severus’s brewing station—at the east corner behind the counter. “Social visit. That layabout refuses to tie his shoelaces on a good day, imagine my surprise when I hear he’s taken on an apprentice.”

Severus wondered if he should take offence on behalf of his Mentor. Too much effort, he decided. He was fairly certain his own competence was being judged by mere association with said layabout, but there was little else he could do when literally every competent Potions Mentor in the country had his name blacklisted from apprenticeship and higher study. But that’s what happened when you pissed off Lucius Malfoy and his friends. Although he and Lucius may be talking again now, it said quite a bit when the blacklisting remained in place.

His face burned when he realised the man was staring at the poor state of the table and counters he’d claimed for himself. He’d not been given his own brewing station (had been told "grab a corner, I don’t care" when he’d brought it up), so he’d made one for himself, cleaning out all the disgusting, expired ingredients and organizing the remaining ones to clear some space.

He was normally good at keeping it pristine, but he’d left it messy that morning, thinking it to be another inauspicious day.

Before he could further humiliate himself by uttering the first vapid excuse that came to mind, the man said, sounding curious, “What offence did the dung beetles cause you?”

Severus stared, uncomprehending. “Offence?” he repeated.

“They are lying pulverised on the table.”

“Oh.” He stared back at the strewn beetle parts and gave an awkward shrug. "You can extract about twenty percent more from them if you crush rather than slice them."

There was that quirk in his lips again. "So you’re saying slicing dung beetles for their fluids, a method popularised by Brewer Bragan and taught the world over, has been incorrect for half a century?"

Severus frowned, not quite liking the feeling that he was being laughed at. "I’m saying I’ve been crushing them and getting twenty percent more than when I slice the buggers." He tilted his chin at the apparatus beside the chopping board. "There’s a filtering step I do that does the trick. It’s an extra few minutes, but easy enough and ensures the results are pure."

"Show me."

Severus fixed him with a flat stare. "Will you be paying for the ingredients?"

The man approached and dropped five galleons on the counter. When Severus made to retrieve some change, he was stopped with a hand on his arm. "Consider the rest payment for your time."

"...Three galleons and five sickles to give you a dung beetle extraction demo?" he asked, voice dripping with sarcasm. He was being impolite, but he didn’t care. Merlin, pull the other one, why don’t you. "Would you also happen to be interested in a bridge I’m selling?"

He received a full-blown smile for his cheek this time. It was utterly lovely, but didn’t quite meet the man’s cool eyes. Severus found it unnerving. "Call it professional curiosity."

"You don’t look like a Brewer," he hazarded.

"And how should a proper Brewer look like, as per the standards of one—" the man leaned over to read his name tag, resting askew on the front of his apron, "—Severus Snape?"

"Like someone who isn’t you," Severus snapped back. Lips firmed, he held the entrance to the register open. "Come behind the counter then, if you want to see."

The man remained silent while he performed the slicing method taught in schools, and then the crushing and filtering method he preferred. After ten minutes, the results lay in beakers, the indicators showing the amounts Severus expected to see.

"Intriguing," the man said, and gestured towards his filter. "That looks very Muggle."

"I suppose," Severus murmured.

He thankfully didn’t press the observation. "And you devised this on your own?"

"Third year. A way to cut costs. Necessity being the mother of invention, and all that."

"I see." The man tapped a finger on the table, his gaze suddenly boring into him. "Alex uses this as well?"

"He...has his own methods, I’m sure." Not that Severus would know. The man had yet to teach him anything, except maybe how to piss away money on the most asinine things. Uncomfortable with the line of questioning, he continued in a more professional tone while retreating towards the till, depositing the cost of the dung beetles and pocketing the rest, "Anything else I can do for you?”

Severus felt eyes on him and tried not to fidget. There was a distinct feeling that he was undergoing some sort of evaluation, but for what, he couldn’t say. The other man didn’t seem dangerous—merely nosy and curious. There was an unearthly quality to how handsome he was as well, his sky-blue eyes reminding him oddly enough of Dumbledore’s, though they looked nothing alike.

He hadn’t learnt his lesson yet about handsome men, he supposed. Fate must have been laughing pretty hard when he came out queer, but Severus had stopped keeping track of his ill luck ages ago.

“I hear there’s a bridge for sale," the man eventually said, sounding playful. Severus couldn’t have stopped the small smile it drew from him if he tried. "Perhaps you can tell me more about it tomorrow."

"Perhaps," he prevaricated, though based on the look on the man’s face he might as well have said yes, noting how that polite little smile curved into a genuine, pleased one.

As the stranger made to leave, Severus called in a hurry, "A name, sir? You have me at a disadvantage."

"Of course. Apologies for the lapse," he said, inclining his head. "My name is Thomas."

"Thomas," Severus repeated, trying it out on his tongue. "Tomorrow, then."

---

“There’s a regular customer at the shop recently.”

Severus had kept his voice casual while he rolled a pair of white socks, but Lily looked up with great interest from the blanket she was folding. “He’s young," he continued, "but he talks about Alkar like they’re old friends.”

“How young?” Lily asked.

“Somewhere close to Lucius’s age, I think. Probably same as Cissy.”

She made a humming, thoughtful sound. When Severus threw the last pair of socks into the right hamper, she nudged a pile of shirts his way. “Older apprentice, maybe? Brewer?”

“Maybe,” he muttered non-committally. “He talks like they’re colleagues.”

“That is odd.” Blankets done, she moved on to pillowcases. How a family of two adults and one tiny baby could use up so much clothing and bedding in one week, Severus didn’t know. But it felt like the load always doubled whenever he came over to help her with the laundry. “And he chooses to shop there?”

“That’s even odder. He buys a thing or two, but he mostly drops by to, um...”

“To...?” Lily prompted, when his indecision stretched to an uncomfortable silence.

“He makes conversation.” His brows furrowed as he was struck again by how strange it all was. “That’s really all he does. He makes a token purchase now and then, but he mostly just drops by to talk.”

Lily smiled. “Maybe he’s chatting you up.” At Severus’s disbelieving snort, she continued, “I’m serious. From what you said, it sounds like he might be interested in you.”

“Or he’s planning a robbery.”

“Come on. Alkar’s? There are better shops to rob from.”

“Given that much thought, have you?” Severus teased.

“You won’t believe the criminal notions I entertain whenever Harry decides half an hour is sufficient nap time.” As the last pillowcase hit the hamper, she began grabbing from the reduced pile of shirts she’d foisted on him. “Handsome?”

“Yes. Very. It’s why this is all so suspicious.” He glared at the knowing grin blooming on Lily’s face. “You’re getting excited over nothing. People that handsome don’t just wander in to ‘chat up’ people like me.”

“I like your face.”

“You’re my friend. You damn well better like my face.”

"Other people are allowed to like your face. Or your voice. Or your company." Folding done and hamper full, she grabbed the large basket by the handles and gave him a peck on the cheek on her way out. "You never believe me when I tell you how wonderful you are, anyway. Maybe you’ll believe this bloke."

---

"Assuming that I heard you correctly," Thomas said, in between bites of the fish and chips they were sharing, "and you’re now banned from all fifteen respectable Potions apprenticeships in the entirety of the British Isles, how exactly do you plan on getting your license?"

It should look ridiculous, Thomas with all the fairness of a Gladrags model, eating streetfare with him in the dingiest shop in Leicester. But the man looked quite comfortable with the whole thing, so Severus gave a mental shrug and chose to enjoy moments like this one. "I can take the exam if I fulfil all the technical requirements," he replied after swallowing his mouthful. "Apprentice to Old Alkar for three years. That doesn’t amount to much since he hasn’t renewed his Proof of Competence in decades, but there’s an institute in Romania willing to overlook that if I put in the hours here, submit my scores, then take their practical. Six months training with them, a record of good performance, and they’ll advance me to a Recruit. Recruits get to try for a specialized license after eight months of field work, including Potions."

"The Care and Preservation of Dragons and Wyverns Institute?" At Severus’s nod, he continued, gesturing with the chip in his hand, "I’m rather certain they require a full year for that first part."

Severus bit his lower lip. Normally, he’d take the word of an institute representative over a shop customer, but Thomas had proved to be both well-informed and well-connected thus far. "I was told six months."

Nearly two years in Romania...and that was on top of the three he needed to spend under Alkar’s employ. Severus’s spirit sank a little further.

"It’s never just six months," Thomas was still explaining. "It’s a year, and they’ll try to make you stay for much longer if you’re not careful. They’re rather desperate for Brewers over there, licensed or otherwise."

"Then I’ll be careful." He dusted off his hands, declining when Thomas offered him the last remaining bits. "It won’t be as good as a sponsored introduction from the Society, but it’s the only remaining avenue I have."

"I can count...four, maybe five current Potions Mentors who aren’t Purebloods," Thomas said after a moment’s thought.

"Four," Severus confirmed. He let a wry smile curve his lips. "Rejection letters. Oddly enough, they care a great deal if you’re from Slytherin."

"Ah. Of course." Blue eyes warmed with sympathy. "Quite a game plan. Meanwhile, your peers will have attained their licenses in a third of that time."

Severus shrugged one shoulder. "Life isn’t fair."

"What I’d like to know," he said, wiping his hands and dropping the wrappers of their small meal into the shop bin, "is how a young man of your intellect managed to cause this pickle you’re in by royally pissing off every Pureblood connection you had from school."

"I have a specialized skillset." Severus smiled when that drew out a chuckle. "They gave me an ultimatum. I made my choice."

"Do you think you made the correct one, considering the difficulties you face now?"

"Depends on what you consider ‘correct’. I don’t regret it, if that’s what you mean."

Thomas gave a thoughtful hum. "And the nature of this ultimatum?"

Severus had been on the verge of answering, when a thought struck him and he gave a frustrated glare at the other man instead. "You know, this conversation started with me asking you about your job."

The answering smile Thomas wore was unrepentant. "That will reveal itself in due time, I think. For now, I’m enjoying being another bloke off the street, as it were."

And that’s when this association would end, Severus guessed. There was likely a good reason the man was so dodgy about the details of his life—his primary guesses at the moment were a prominent Ministry official or one of the wealthier, more glamorous titled Purebloods that the Prophet liked to celebrate. He certainly looked the part.

One thing Severus was sure of was that he was unattainable. Part of him wished these visits would end sooner and spare himself the heartache—for he was sure his shrivelled heart was nudging itself in that direction, despite every other voice telling it not to.

---

"There’s apparently a charm for folding the freshly-laundered."

Lily cursed, loudly and with great emphasis. Severus’s heart swelled—she’d learnt that one from him. The flickering of the Floo’s green flames lent a menacing air to her irritated face. "You’d think they’d teach it at Hogwarts. Send it over?"

Severus charmed a quill and parchment to duplicate the page, then sent it sailing through his fireplace.

"Where’d you get this from?" Lily asked after skimming.

"Some old textbooks." One of his discussions with Thomas had yielded a great wealth of knowledge regarding how Hogwarts’s education had been shaped throughout the years. Where the man had acquired the old textbooks, he didn’t say, but Severus was happy enough to ignore that part if he got to read them. Thomas purportedly had access to every major revision since seven centuries ago. The Hogwarts Library only kept up to three, and was barred from students. "It had been part of the Charms curriculum, but they removed it in 1508 for ‘redundancy’."

"Wankers. They removed it assuming every magical household already knows about it, didn’t they?"

"Likely."

"I should pick someone’s brain some time. Mary wouldn’t know either, I guess. Maybe Alice?" She made a moue of annoyance. "I don’t really have a good reason to visit the Longbottoms, though."

"Tell them you have a lead on the Dark Lord. Once you’re in, you know what to do."

"Har-bloody-har. I’ll think of something." He could hear her rolling the parchment through the connection. "Thanks. If you find any more, bring it when you come over this Sunday, will you?"

---

That Sunday, his distraction was remarked upon when he sliced rather than diced and minced rather than chopped, and basically made a whole mess of Lily’s meal preparations. "Tell me what’s wrong," she demanded while taking over the chopping board.

Severus sighed, annoyed with himself. "Nothing. I’m being paranoid. You really should get a House Elf for all this, with the baby and all."

"They creep me out," she said, with a shake of her head. "Not how they look or anything, just...the whole situation. You don’t feel the same?"

He gave a shrug. "Got used to them at Lucius’s, I guess."

Predictably, Lily’s lips firmed at the mere mention of Lucius’s name, but she’d lost the right to pick a fight about his continued association with him long ago. Severus just wished she’d get used to it the way he’d had to tolerate James’s presence now and then. Not to mention the rest of the so-called Marauders, who apparently had traipsing rights throughout the house whenever they pleased. James was easier to ignore on sheer frequency of contact, neither man enjoying the continued run-ins but willing to attempt some semblance of civility for Lily’s sake. Lupin often faded into the background anyway, and Pettigrew barely registered on his radar. Black, though…

He bit back the unconscious snarl starting to curl his lips and steered his thoughts away from the dispossessed Black heir. "What’s bothering you, then?" he heard Lily say, mooring him back to the present. "You’ve been off all afternoon."

The reason for his unease returned to the forefront of his mind. He rested his chin on his folded arms, watching her from the kitchen table. "Last Thursday, Old Alkar returned while Thomas was there. First time I saw them in the same room." During his pause, Lily made a sound for him to continue. He took his time, mentally reviewing the exchange. "It sounds foolish, but Old Alkar seemed a little afraid of him."

"In a ‘give me my money!’ way, or…?"

"No...like Thomas was an explosive that needed careful handling, or some such."

The slicing paused. Lily threw him an anxious look. "Severus...are you sure he’s not—"

“He’s not Marked,” he replied quickly. “I’ve seen both his arms. They’re bare.”

"All right," she said, though the worried look remained. After a while, the slicing resumed. She broke the silence again with a more teasing note: “There’s really no reason to check the right arm—”

“He has really nice arms.”

“Mm. I bet.” The smile she wore was radiant, but brief. Severus could see his own disquiet echoed on her face. "What did the old codger say, after?"

He released a short, frustrated sigh. "Didn’t. Just left. Or fled, more like. Yesterday, he wouldn’t hear my questions. Said since I’ve been keeping the shop afloat, I can keep doing business with whom I please, but not to bother him at all with it."

"Sounds like some dodgy history there."

He uttered a non-committal sound. Asking Thomas himself was an option of course, but the man was like an oil-rubbed serpent on personal details. Little chance he’d find clarification with him.

"Do you get any bad feeling at all, when you two talk?" Lily asked.

"Not a whit. He’s been wonderful."

"Wonderful, is it?" The teasing smile was back, though something serious lurked in her eyes. She tapped the edge of the knife on the cutting board and placed a hand on her hip. "So when are you introducing us?"

Severus’s brows furrowed. "Sorry?"

"Someone sweeps you off your feet, I want to know what he’s like."

"You’re being daft," he said, scowling, "and you’re making me regret this whole conversation."

Anything else Lily had been about to say was interrupted by a distressed cry and a baby on the verge of toppling over from the nearby bassinet. The mixing bowl shattered on the ground when Severus quickly stood to reach over, but Lily was closer, catching Harry around the waist before his head could hit the wooden floor.

"Merlin!" His heart lodged in his throat and refused to budge. Shaking his head, he righted the fallen chair and began picking up the pieces of the bowl he’d broken. Helping Lily out with Harry now and then, and occasionally having to watch over Draco, firmly convinced him he’d never survive having a child of his own. "He was asleep just a moment ago."

"Yeah, he’s quiet." Lily didn’t seem too concerned, checking the babe over and cuddling him when she saw no injuries. "Until he’s about to fall off or roll into the fireplace. Some warning’s better than none, I suppose."

After placing the ruins of the bowl back on the table, Severus gave her a flat stare. "House. Elf."

"No. My parents managed fine without one, and so will I."

A teasing smile curved a corner of Severus’s lips. "I suppose if you consider one of two a success…"

They shared a laugh, though Lily looked a bit guilty after. "I shouldn’t find that so funny. But Tuney wrote to me again recently, and I’m just...ugh. Oh, take him, will you? He wants his godfather, apparently."

Seventeen pounds of baby was carefully poured into Severus’s arms. He suffered through the initial bout of grabbing, and drooling, and drooly-grabbing, before Harry settled somewhat, mollified by a grip on Severus’s ear and a tiny fist in his mouth.

"I love that he likes you," Lily said with a contented grin. She leaned over and tapped Harry’s nose. "Just like Mummy does, yeah? You sweet little boy."

"Gwou-ay!" Harry squealed.

"I know," she said, taking on a mock-lamenting tone, "but he doesn’t believe us."

"You’re both ridiculous," Severus groused, while bouncing Harry to the babe’s delight.