The entire world had gone mad - completely and utterly - so why had he been surprised to discover that Harry Potter had apparently gone mad right along with it?
That the world had gone mad was evident in the fact that he, Severus Snape, was not only still alive, but was, in fact, a free man. For more than two decades, he had been certain that if, somehow, he happened to dodge every metaphoric bullet in whatever conflagration the Dark Lord finally brought the wizarding world to, the very best he could hope for was a lengthy, if not permanent stay in Azkaban. Yet here he was, three years after Potter's defeat of Voldemort, and not only free, but in possession of an Order of Merlin (First Class), an unexpectedly generous Ministry stipend, and frequent mentions in Witch Weekly's "Wizards We Love" column.
Only to himself would Severus admit that, once upon a time, he had envied Harry Potter's unearned celebrity status, back when the boy was still in school, but he had. A bit, at least. All right, a very large bit. However, now that he'd had a taste of what it was like to be constantly in the spotlight and hounded by the press whenever he stuck his distinctive nose out of doors, Severus had come around to the opinion that it was he who had been the dunderhead.
Who would choose to live like this? Certainly not any halfway sane individual. At least once a week, Severus found himself vowing (silently and without any compulsions, as he'd more than learned his lesson about magical vows) to wash his hands of anything to do with the old family house and the Wizarding world, and find a flat in an obscure, non-magical section of London or Manchester or Bristol where he'd never be bothered again.
He hadn't done it yet, of course, for a variety of reasons (for one thing, washing up every day after tea was bloody tedious if one had to do it without magic, as he remembered well from childhood), but that didn't mean he might not find it necessary to just up and disappear into some Muggle neighbourhood one day, never to return. In fact, Severus had taken to spending at least a bit of time every fortnight navigating the Muggle world, just in case magical society finally became too much to bear.
However, even the Muggle world didn't remain a potential refuge for long, and like so many things in Severus' life, it was all Potter's fault.
He had been sitting in The White Hart in Islington, having a quiet drink and reading the Evening Standard, when a hand pushed the newspaper away from his face and a smiling man, with blue eyes and smooth, sleek blond hair, appeared.
"Severus? What a coincidence! How have you been keeping?"
He was so surprised to find some stranger addressing him by his first name in this, of all places, that for a moment he merely frowned, but when the man pulled a chair over from a nearby table and sat down beside him, his eyes widened and it was all he could do to keep his mouth from gaping.
"A little flummoxed by my hair, I'll wager," the stranger said, with a small, embarrassed laugh. "I understand exactly how you feel. It's my own fault I was in a rush, trying to get to a meeting at the Ministry, and I could have sworn the label on Hermione's shelf said Sleekeazy: Original Formula, but of course it said Sleekeazy: New and Improved With Added Colourising!, although what that was doing on her shelf, I really have no idea, since she..."
The man stopped mid-sentence and frowned. "Yes?"
"Well, of course I am." He frowned and lifted his hand to touch his hair. "I didn't think it made me look that different.
"Your eyes are blue."
"Muggle contact lenses, actually," Potter said. "Um . . . you're all right, aren't you?"
"Of course I'm all right," Severus snapped.
Potter looked relieved. "Good, because I wanted to ask a favour of you, but if you were under the weather, I'd find a more convenient time."
"I am not 'under the weather.'" Severus said with a sneer. "You, however, appear to be suffering from some sort of malady which manifests as believing that I would find any time convenient for doing you a favour."
He wasn't sure what response he had expected from the young man (although stomping off in a huff had been high on his list of possibilities), but shaking his head and sighing wasn't it.
"You know," Potter said. "You might want to listen to what I have to say instead of rejecting it out of hand. What I'm about to ask might be beneficial to both of us."
Severus was almost entirely certain that continuing the conversation would be a bad idea, but he had to admit that he was intrigued, despite himself. What in the world could there possibly be that would help both Potter and himself?
"Well?" Severus said, after he'd taken what he'd considered to be a reasonable length of time to stare down his nose at Potter. "I'm waiting."
"Oh! Oh, right," Potter replied, his expression stating plainly that he had never really expected Severus to let him have his say. "It's actually more of a proposition, to be honest."
He waited, but the young man said nothing more, just chewed on one ragged fingernail and looked down at the table.
"Ah, if only you had been so reluctant to speak up when you were a child," Severus said snidely, but even that didn't get much of a response. Potter took a deep breath and opened his mouth once or twice as if he were going to speak, but not a sound came out.
"Potter, what in the name of heaven is it about the table top that you're finding so bloody fascinating?"
"A drink," was the muttered reply.
"Could I buy you a drink?" Potter said, then pushed his chair back so quickly, it toppled over onto the floor. "You're drinking Guiness, right? I'll just..."
"Now speak. Say whatever it is you thought so bloody important that you had to track me down in Muggle London."
"I didn't . . . ."
"Don't insult my intelligence by insisting that this was purely a coincidental meeting."
Potter looked down and scowled at his fingernails, and Severus was almost entirely certain that any minute Potter would disappear, deciding that whatever he'd come to propose simply wasn't worth it. However, Potter had always been damned stubborn.
"It's like this," Potter finally said, still refusing to meet Severus' gaze. "Just this morning, I received fourteen marriage proposals by owl post, including one from Vincent Crabbe's gran. I had to shut down the Floo yesterday because a very persistent group of twelve-year-old girls kept finding ways into my flat. The Men's Auxiliary Section of the Boy Who Lived Appreciation Society have been camped outside my door for the past week. The . . . ."
"And so you've taken it into your head that it might be a good idea to spend the day with me, whinging about the burden of your continued popularity?"
"Yes! I mean, no!" Potter scowled again. "It's not like that, not exactly."
Severus folded his newspaper neatly and set it down on the table, then leaned forward. "Perhaps you'd like to tell me what it is like. Exactly."
"Look," Potter said, huffing with frustration. "I happen to know you called MLE just last week to get a restraining order against Heath Lebecks, who's been singing love songs on your doorstep each morning and that someone named Sarah Minton transfigured herself into a house-elf just so she could offer herself to you on a permanent basis."
"My point, dammit, is that we should be going out!"
Severus snorted and shook his head. "Your solution to my having far too many annoying people latching themselves onto me is that I should have an even more annoying person latching himself onto me instead?"
"That's not what . . . . "
"You're the more annoying person, just in case the reference was too subtle for you."
"Oh, thank you," Potter said, scowling a bit. "I never would have guessed otherwise."
Severus snorted, then lifted up his glass and took another drink, before returning to his newspaper. After five minutes, he put the paper back down on the table.
"I would have thought even you would have been able to take my hint, Potter. Leave."
"Not yet! You didn't tell me what you thought of my plan."
"Your plan?" Severus looked at Potter in amazement. "You mean the idiotic one that would involve spending more time in your company than I have already?"
"It's not an idiotic - - "
"It's absolutely idiotic! We don't even like each other, for God's sake."
"We don't have to like each other," Harry said, leaning in conspiratorially. "That's the beauty of the plan!"
Severus frowned. "Exactly how much have you had to drink."
"Not a drop," Harry said, then laughed. "Well, I did have quite a lot last night, but - - "
"And that's when you came up with this brilliant idea of yours?"
"That explains it then," Severus said, folding his paper into thirds. "You clearly still have alcohol in your system. I'd recommend going to Wilson's Apothecary and purchasing a sobriety potion. "
Potter shook his head, then snatched the paper out of Severus' hand. "I'm not drunk," he said. "Look, I'm not suggesting we really go out, like . . . as if we like each other or anything. Just that we make it look that way."
"You're suggesting we create the illusion that we're . . . involved?" Severus said, frowning across the table.
"Right!" Potter said. "Just long enough until everybody else loses interest in us."
"The flaw in your plan," said Severus, "is that I would have to pretend to feel something for you other than antipathy, which, I must tell you, would require far more acting talent than I possess."
"You pretended to be loyal to a power-hungry sociopath for years, but pretending to like me would stretch your acting abilities beyond their capabilities?"
Severus took another drink of Guinness. "Well, the one was far more plausible than the other, wasn't it?"
Potter crossed his arms over his chest. "You really are an arse, aren't you?"
"Guilty as charged." Severus leaned forward. "Run along, Potter, and find someone else with whom to play these ridiculous games. I'm far too old to find any of this at all amusing."
Potter, looking annoyed, pushed his chair back from the table, then shook his head. "Look, if you change your mind, just owl me, all right?"
"I am not going to change my mind."
It took less than a week for Severus to change his mind..
Five and a half days after being subjected to Potter's ridiculous proposition, Severus was stopped in Diagon Alley by Emma Flounce - Witch Weekly's answer to Rita Skeeter - who asked him what he thought about being selected as the first recipient of the magazine's Most Beautiful Honeymoon award.
"You . . . what?"
Clearly it had been far too long since Severus had been called on to engage in any kind of verbal exchange more complicated that asking the price of a block of Stilton cheese.
"Oh, yes," said Miss Flounce, brushing her long strawberry-blonde hair back from her face. "I'm sure you're terribly excited about it, as are all our readers."
"Why should they be excited about something that . . . I've received?"
"Well, you can't go on a honeymoon alone, you silly man!" she said, patting Severus' cheek as if he were a Pomeranian. "We've already had forty-seven official entrants."
Miss Flounce nodded. "In our Most Beautiful Bride sweepstakes. I think you'll be quite interested in the various competitions we're arranging for the participants, but of course, there can only be one winner - 'forsaking all others' and 'cleaving only unto each other' and all that."
"Your subscribers are competing to marry me?" Severus glowered at the woman in what he remembered as being his most dangerous manner. "I absolutely refuse, and you can tell your readers - -"
But instead of drawing back a step as he had expected her to do, the damned woman seemed to be amused by his words. She patted him once more and shook her head. "Oh, I think you'll soon find our readers can be quite enthusiastic when there's something they've got their hearts set on. Now . . . if you'll step over here and stand beneath the bouquet of Everlasting Love Blossoms, my photographer will . . . "
If Severus could have Disapparated more quickly than instantaneously, he would have done so.
"Now remember," Severus muttered under his breath, as they walked into the ballroom. "There will be no pet names, no dancing, no sharing food off the same fork, no audible declarations of love, and most certainly no public displays of affection."
"Am I allowed to call you by your first name, or should I just say Professor Snape."
Severus glared at his companion. "Do not think that just because I chose to make use of you for the time being in this foolish charade that I will hesitate even for a moment to hex you if you force my hand, Potter."
"Call me Harry," said Harry, softly as he gazed into Severus' eyes.
"There will be no gazing into each other's eyes, either!"
Potter had assured Severus that as long as the two of them stayed in reasonably close proximity for the entire evening, neither of them would be bothered by the unwelcome advances of strangers.
Severus should have known better than to believe anything Potter said.
The moment the two of them took their seats, they were surrounded by legions of admirers - male, female, and everything in between - none of whom seemed at all affected by the Notice-Me-Not charms Severus had been casting since he had arrived. He even went so far as to draw his chair close enough to Potter to make it look as though they were involved in an intimate conversation, but it did little to dampen the enthusiasm of his most ardent fans, some of whom even pursued him into the restroom later in the evening.
"I don't know, Severus," said Potter with a smile. "That's a pretty attractive honeymoon package Witch Weekly is offering. I can see why there'd be so much interest."
"It was the men's room!"
"Five women followed me in there," Severus said. "Two of them attempted to slip under the door and join me in my cubicle."
"Are you sure you haven't been dousing yourself with a lust potion?" Potter said, trying hard not to laugh. "Because rumor has it those things are illegal. I wouldn't want to have to contact the Aurors."
"Nymphadora Tonks was one of the ones who followed me in the damned men's room."
Potter's eyes widened. "Honestly?"
"Of course not, you idiot," Severus snapped. "But she might as well have been, there have been so many . . . oh God!"
"What is it, Severus?"
"Emma Flounce is heading this way, and she has that bloody photographer with her again." Instinctively, Severus drew closer to Potter and reached for the nearest drink. "What is that woman playing at?"
"No idea," Potter said. "Maybe she's interested in you, too?"
"Don't be an idiot."
"Stranger things have happened, you know. By the way, did you know that's my glass you're drinking from? I thought you didn't want us sharing our . . . ."
"Why are you bringing up such inconsequential matters at a time like this?" Severus hissed. "And while we're discussing the horror my life has become, I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that you haven't been bothered by anybody apart from the wait staff this evening. Nobody followed you into the restroom. Nobody crawled under the table and attached himself to your leg. Nobody . . . ."
"You had somebody attached to your leg this evening? How could they even . . . . They would have had to have been crawling up underneath your robes."
"Oh, God! You had somebody crawling up under your robes!" Potter laughed. "I don't suppose you forgot to wear underpants."
"I didn't forget to wear underpants. I simply . . . oh, shut up, Potter."
"Fine. Shut up, Harry!" Severus said angrily. "Now do something about this Flounce woman!"
"What can I do about her? The only way she's going to stop this campaign is if . . . ."
Severus frowned. "What? What were you going to say?"
"Never mind. You probably wouldn't like it anyway."
"For God's sake, I'll like it. Just do it!"
And so Potter did. In the middle of the Ministry ballroom, in full sight of almost everybody he'd ever met, Harry Potter wrapped his arms around Severus Snape and kissed him.
And it wasn't just the kind of collegial kiss the staff at Beauxbatons share on a regular basis or the friendly kiss one gives when meeting an old friend after many years apart or the kind of kiss shared by brothers at family reunions or the awkward kisses traded by adolescents in the first flush of sexual blossoming, but the kind of kiss that only someone with experience enough to distinguish between what he wanted and what he didn't want could give. It was a kiss from someone who knew exactly what he wanted. A kiss that started out soft and slow and ended hot and hard. A kiss that couldn't be ignored, that had to be answered with another kiss. And once given, those two kisses weren't enough either, not for Potter and not for Severus.
A thousand kisses wouldn't have been enough.
The Fairy lights in the Ministry ballroom had been sent home for the night, and the only illumination that remained was a single candle, burning dimly (some might say 'atmospherically') on their table.
Severus leaned back against Potter's chest and shook his head. "There's no Emma Flounce either, is there?"
"Nope," said Potter. "Just Hermione and a little Polyjuice Potion."
Potter sighed. "If I'd just asked you out on a date in the first place, would you have agreed to go?
"Of course not."
Potter didn't say a word, but Severus could almost feel a smile playing at the corners of Potter's damned seductive mouth.
"And so, you played me," Severus said, shaking his head. 'You bloody well played me."
"Yeah. I'm afraid so. Sorry about that," Potter said, not sounding even the least bit sorry.
For a moment, neither of them said a word.
"So," Potter said finally. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to go on another date."
Severus snorted. "This, Potter, does not count as a first date."
"But it was . . . ."
"I do not date."
"Okay," Potter said slowly, still holding Severus in his arms. "So, what about . . . um . . . you know."
"Perfectly acceptable," Severus said. "Although perhaps not here."
"Well then," Potter said quietly. "Would you come home with me? Um . . . for sex, not for a date."
"I thought you'd never ask."