Actions

Work Header

With Eyes Wide Open

Work Text:

“I want you to marry Severus Snape.”

Harry Potter dropped his teacup.

Narcissa Malfoy waved her wand casually to banish the mess. She sighed.

“I must say I rather expected that reaction, but I knew no other way to convey my request.”

“How about in a letter?” said Harry. “Or in private?” He glanced around the crowded tearoom as the waitress replaced the broken cup. “Look—I hope this is a joke....”

Narcissa poured another cup of tea for Harry.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Potter, but I do not joke.” She looked into her own teacup disapprovingly, and Harry was reminded of the first time he saw her, in the top box at the Quidditch World Cup, looking as if she had something unpleasant stuck under her nose. He wondered if her cup was dirty—not likely in this establishment. He felt woefully underdressed and was trying very hard not to focus on the fact that he was the only male in the room.

“But…Snape?” he said, voice carefully low. He glanced around again to make sure no one was listening to them. He was relieved that the other patrons were paying them no mind.“He hates me! And I…I mean he….” He sighed and set his cup onto its saucer, rattling it. Despite Narcissa’s insistence that it wasn’t, he was convinced this had to be a colossal joke. Marriage had been the last thing on his mind. Marriage to Snape was so far from the realm of possibility that he was pretty sure he’d never have put the words “Snape” and “marriage” in the same paragraph, much less the same sentence. “I can’t marry Snape. Ask something else. Anything else!”

“May I remind you, Mr. Potter, that you have already committed to doing anything, and I repeat anything, I ask to repay the life debt you owe me? You made that statement during my trial, in the presence of the Minister of Magic and the Wizengamot. You can hardly go back on it now. It is a matter of honor.” She looked at him confidently. It was obvious she expected no argument from him.

Harry stared across the small table at her, eyes narrowed. “But why now?” he asked in the same low voice. “Almost a year later? I thought—well, I thought you wouldn’t hold me to the debt, after everything turned out like it did.” He felt like he was floundering. He was certainly out of his element here with her in this elegant tearoom.

Narcissa tilted her head slightly.

“I did not ask you to testify on our behalf. Nor did I ask you to testify at Severus’ trial. You did that of your own accord, and I trust you would have done so even had I begged you not to. Therefore, although you have done us a great favor, you have not done anything specifically at my request in return for the great favor I did you.”

“Fine.” He snapped a biscuit in half. Narcissa Malfoy glanced at the crumbs that scattered across the lace tablecloth. “All right. I owe you a favor. But marrying Snape? Honestly? Tell me this is a joke.” He felt queasy. He hoped it didn’t show in his face.

“I believe I already told you that I do not joke. Are you homosexual?” she asked.

Harry wanted to crawl under the table.

He raised his wand and quickly cast a Muffliato.“That isn’t the kind of question you ask someone over tea!” he hissed.

“It is if you are qualifying him as a husband for another man,” she responded primly.

They gazed at each other for a long moment.

“Well, are you?” she repeated.

“No!” he hissed, flustered. “Not totally. I mean, not all the time. I like girls. Women. Too.”

“You are bisexual, then?” Narcissa asked. She was regarding the chocolate biscuit in her fingers rather clinically.

“Yes. I mean no. Listen, could we talk about this somewhere else? Maybe at my place?”

Narcissa raised her eyebrows. “At Grimmauld Place? I think not.”

Harry sighed deeply. “Fine.” She smiled and he looked at her with alarm. “No, I mean fine, we can talk about it here. Not fine, I’ll marry Severus Snape.”

“Oh, I knew what you meant,” she said. “It will have to be soon—he doesn’t have much time left.”

Much time left? He might not like Snape much, but he didn’t want to hear that. "Is he ill? I thought he was getting better….”

“Is he ill? Of course he’s ill! He’s only been out of hospital for four months and out of bed for two. Did you see him at his trial, Mr. Potter? Of course not. He was tried in absentia as he was in a medically induced coma at the time!”

“Right. Sorry,” he muttered, looking at the table. But he wasn’t sorry. Not really. Severus Snape had caused him a lot of trouble over the years, playing along with Dumbledore’s game. And playing his own game, too. Why couldn’t he have told Harry the truth a lot earlier? The elaborate ruse had nearly cost them all their lives. He knew Dumbledore was as much to blame as Snape, but it was easier to be angry at Snape considering he was alive, and Dumbledore wasn’t.

“Severus Snape will be forty years old on January 9th of next year,” Narcissa continued after a significant pause. “If he is not married, he will lose the Prince Estate. It is a ridiculous clause in his grandfather’s will.”

“The Prince Estate? Is that where he’s living now?” Harry met Narcissa’s eyes. He was trying to take this conversation seriously, to let it play out naturally until Narcissa revealed her hand, but it was still utterly surreal to him.

“No. Severus is staying with us. At the Manor. The Ministry confiscated his father’s house and….”

“His father is alive?” Harry cut in, interrupting her.

She glared at him.

“No. His father is deceased. But he left Severus a house—a hovel, really—in Manchester. Severus has never actually been to Prince Manor, which belonged to his maternal grandfather, of course. It has been in the care of two extremely loyal house elves since his grandfather died eight years ago. Severus himself cannot claim it until he is married into an old wizarding family, which must occur before he reaches the age of forty.”

“An old wizarding family? Then why are you talking to me? My mother was Muggle-born. How about one of the Weasleys? Charlie likes blokes….” Charlie also might not appreciate him trying to hook him up with their former Potions professor.

Narcissa glared at him. He was pretty sure she had wrinkled her nose when he’d mentioned the Weasleys. “You carry the Potter name. That is enough.”

“What’s this really about?” asked Harry suspiciously. “Are you just trying to get rid of Snape? Get him out of your hair at Malfoy Manor?”

Narcissa’s carefully contrived expression did not change but she did blink. Ah ha.

“My motives are my own business, Mr. Potter,” she replied with an over-dignified air. “Suffice it to say that you owe me a debt, and I am calling it in. You are honor-bound to assist me.”

“Right. I assume you’ve discussed this with Snape then? You asked him who he wanted, and he said ‘Harry Potter,’ and you said ‘How convenient. He owes me a life debt.’”

“Yes. It went something like that,” she said, smiling vaguely as she took another sip of her tea.

“Wait a minute.” Harry stared at her, once again suspicious. “Is Snape even gay? I thought he was in love with my mum?”

“Oh, he has made his preferences for the male gender perfectly clear of late,” Narcissa answered, her voice frigid. “He has also agreed to marry whomever I choose for him, provided my candidate agrees to satisfy the terms of the will. One caveat is that he must live at Prince Manor for no less than a year with his spouse for the bequest to become binding.”

“You want me to marry Snape and live with him? This isn’t one of those ‘in name only’ arrangements?” A weight seemed to fall in his stomach. How in the hell was he going to get out of this one?

“For a year and a day. Is that such a very long time, Mr. Potter? You’ve been on camping trips longer than that.”

He counted silently to ten. He was pretty sure that slapping Narcissa Malfoy in public, despite the satisfaction it would give him, would be frowned upon. He stared into his teacup. He thought he could see the Grim if he squinted. He took a deep breath.

“Then what? We get divorced?”

“What you do after Severus has secured his inheritance is not my concern,” she said.

Harry stared at her. Something was beginning to occur to him. Something both troubling and intriguing.

“What did he do?” he asked, sitting back in his chair and folding his arms in front of him. He felt more confident now. He watched her carefully as she sipped her tea, feigning a nonchalance she obviously did not feel. “What did Snape do that made him agree to marry any old bloke you found for him?”

“You consider yourself just ‘any old bloke’?” she asked, eying him critically.

“What did he do?” he repeated, ignoring her question.

“If I tell you, you will agree to this? You will marry Severus Snape?”

“If I don’t agree, what will you do?” he replied.

She shrugged delicately. “You have admitted publicly that you owe me a debt, have you not?”

He sighed. Reluctantly nodded.

“Is this really so bad, Mr. Potter? A brief marriage to help a war hero secure an inheritance? To repay a debt and be free of that debt for the remainder of your life? You are what—nineteen years old?”

“Eighteen,” he admitted. “I’ll be nineteen in two weeks. So what did he do?”

“Ah. Back to that, are we?” she asked. She sniffed and lowered her voice. “Let us just say that I do not share my husband.”

Harry stared at her. He knew his mouth was hanging open but he couldn’t seem to close it. Did she just insinuate…?

“Yes, Mr. Potter,” she said. “The Headmaster desires my husband. Couple that with the fact that my son desires the Headmaster, and I am left with a situation that is simply intolerable. I offered to help secure his inheritance—an inheritance he had virtually no hope of securing on his own, I might add—in return for his agreement to keep his hands off the Malfoy men.”

“But…but….” Harry was incapable of speech. Snape wanted Lucius Malfoy? Draco Malfoy wanted Snape?

“Yes, Mr. Potter? Is there something you wanted to ask?”

He shook his head. No, definitely not. Except….

“Does he know?” he asked. “Does he know you’re here?”

“No.” She said the word in such a way that Harry knew Snape would definitely be surprised when he found out just exactly who she’d lined up to marry him.

Surprised—and not well pleased.

“Well, I’m not doing this unless he agrees,” said Harry stubbornly.

“He has already agreed to marry whomever I select for him,” Narcissa reminded him.

“Even if it’s me?” Harry was having a hard time reconciling all of this. It was too much, happening too fast. Marriage? He was too young. To a man? When no one—not really—even knew he was gay? Would they just assume he was doing it to help out Snape and clear up this pesky life debt to Narcissa Malfoy, and not make the leap that Harry Potter actually liked men? And if they DID make the leap? What then?

“Even if it is you,” said Narcissa definitively. “You are only eighteen years old, Mr. Potter. You have your entire life ahead of you. You can do this thing, this small thing, for Severus—and for myself—then get back on your intended course by the time you are twenty.”

He had to admit that, put like that, it didn’t sound all bad. Harry was the first to admit that he lacked a certain, well, direction in life. He had gone back to Hogwarts for his postponed seventh year, had earned the N.E.W.T.s required to enter the Aurors Academy and then, instead of entering the Academy in June after passing his N.E.W.T.s, and even though the Ministry held the door wide open for him for an early induction, he’d surprised the hell out of himself and everyone else in the wizarding world by taking the summer off.

To think. To travel. To relax, enjoy life, play some exhibition Quidditch games.

A summer that would officially end on September first when the new class of Aurors was admitted to the Academy.

And Harry had been admitted to that class.

Again.

“A year, Mr. Potter. Only a year.”

And suddenly, maybe because he was tired and his brain affected by the smell of perfume all around him, it didn’t really sound so terrible. Snape wasn’t all bad, not really. He was irritable, of course, and mean, but he had saved Harry’s arse several times. And he’d never come after Harry asking for anything in return, even though Harry knew he had every right to do so. Well, he probably just wanted to be done with me. Damn. That was another reason this plan of Narcissa’s had holes. Big gaping holes.

“Would I have to take his name? I can’t imagine being Harry Snape.” It was not the question he really wanted to ask, but it was something.

Narcissa laughed.

“Mr. Potter, Severus Snape is heir to the Prince estate as well as the Prince name. He will be known as Severus Prince and you, of course, as Harry Potter-Prince.”

“Of course,” he muttered.

“Old wizarding families such as the Blacks, the Malfoys, the Princes…all take great pride in their names.”

“And the Potters,” said Harry. “I can take my name back after the year—can’t I?”

“Of course. If Severus releases you from the contract, you are free to use the Potter name again.” She smirked. “Find a woman, get married, have babies.”

If he releases me?” Alarm bells went off in Harry’s head.

“Oh, I’m sorry. When he releases you,” she corrected, smiling coolly. She didn’t look at all sorry.

He changed direction.

“Why me?” he asked, trying not to sound petulant.

“Why you?” Narcissa Malfoy’s mouth curled into something resembling a sneer. “You owe me, and you owe him. And what are my choices, really, Mr. Potter? Do you know any other available wizards from old families who are likely to agree to marry an ugly, bad-tempered man who killed the wizarding world’s most beloved hero?”

Well, when she put it that way….

“This plan has failure written all over it, you know,” said Harry. He wasn’t going to get out of this by whinging so he tried a rational approach. “Snape is lusting after your husband.” Narcissa Malfoy’s eye twitched. He expected more of a reaction but her face remained otherwise impassive. “Your son is lusting after Snape.” A double twitch. That was more like it. “Yet you’re setting Snape up to marry someone else—someone he has a pretty unpleasant past with.”

The smile on her face now was almost creepy. “Someone young, fit, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a woman he once loved, but wrapped up in the masculine physique he obviously prefers. Someone with a stellar relationship with the Ministry of Magic, who can do no wrong even when he decides to take a summer off to ‘find himself’ after finishing school. And don’t for a second forget that by marrying you—by marrying anyone—he secures an inheritance he had all but given up. Oh, Severus Snape is not going to think twice about marrying you, Harry Potter.”

Well. That just made him feel dirty.

“Wait. You never answered my question. Do I have to actually sleep with him?”

“I don’t recall you asking that question,” Narcissa answered. She looked amused now, but like she was trying very hard not to look it.

“I said something about the marriage being ‘in name only,’” said Harry. “You act as if Snape will be happy to have me around. Like I’ll be more than just his means of laying claim to that estate.”

“You can negotiate your own terms in the marriage contract,” Narcissa answered. She had a manicured hand in the air now, signaling the waitress for the check.

“Marriage contract?”

Narcissa shook her head in what looked like mock pity. “Marriages are business arrangements, Mr. Potter, not romantic partnerships.”

“Yet I notice you aren’t interested in your business arrangement having a romantic interlude with Snape,” Harry muttered. He had always planned to marry for love. Was he being naïve to think that?

“The fidelity clause in our contract should keep us on the high road, Mr. Potter.” She said the word ‘should’ as if she suspected there might be ways to get around it. She studied the bill and shook her head as Harry reached into his pocket. “My treat. I invited you to tea and have dropped quite a surprise on you today.”

Harry nodded, rising to his feet. That was certainly true.

“Saturday evening, then?”

“What?” What was Saturday evening?

“Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t I say?” She laughed lightly. It was a false sound, utterly not heartfelt. “Dinner at seven. Bring your representative—we’ll be starting the negotiations.”

“Negotia….” He trailed off as she shook her head in exasperation.

“Arthur Weasley, Mr. Potter. Augusta Longbottom. Someone from an old family.”

He nodded and watched her leave, knowing then exactly who he would bring with him on Saturday. Not Mr. Weasley. Not Neville’s grandmother. Someone unexpected, and much more useful.

~*~

“Mr. Potter and Mrs. Tonks,” said Harry to the toga-clad house elf that answered the door when he knocked precisely at seven o’clock on Saturday evening.

The house elf stepped back just as Narcissa Malfoy appeared and, faltering only a moment at the sight of her sister, came forward to greet her guests.

“Well, this is certainly unexpected,” she said with artificial politeness. She extended her hand to Andromeda, who took it in her own, each of them offering such a light touch that they really did nothing more than brush fingers.

“My representative,” said Harry. He was much more sure of himself today than he had been when they met for tea. “You did suggest that I bring someone from an old family.”

He and Narcissa stared at each other for a long moment.

“You have done your homework then,” Narcissa acknowledged, her eyes on Andromeda as Andromeda looked curiously around the grand entryway, her eyes drawn upward to the crystal chandelier hanging over the stairway. “You could not have picked someone from a better family.”

Narcissa’s gaze moved from her sister to Harry, and she studied him from top to bottom, eyes moving slowly from polished glasses to polished boots before she nodded in stiff approval. The last time they had met, he’d been wearing casual robes over Muggle clothing. Today, at the insistence of Andromeda, he was wearing new dress robes and his hair had been cut and tamed. She had gone with him to help pick out the robes on Monday and insisted that he spend much more on them than he ever would have on his own. She had chosen a silk fabric with intricate embroidery and, after an embarrassing session of rather private measurements, had hauled him over to buy new boots, as trainers apparently were not an option for formal dinners at Malfoy Manor. Then, only this morning, he had been unceremoniously dragged to a hairdresser for a shampoo, cut and style followed by a massage and a facial. Andromeda had joined him at the salon and they had reclined side by side, faces covered in a gritty, slimy green substance. He was inordinately glad that the facial mask also disguised his identity.

He wondered now if all that preparation had been worth it. He’d taken the week to study wizard marriage contract customs. He’d spent an entire evening with Hermione and Ron, making lists of the pros and cons of marrying Severus Snape. The cons outnumbered the pros five to one, but the three glaring words, written in red at the top of the pro list—Fulfills Life Debt—won out over “he’s old, ugly, big-nosed, nasty, snarky, in love with Lucius Malfoy, a Slytherin, used to love your mother, smelly, bad teeth, unpleasant, you don’t love him, he doesn’t love you, treated you like shite at Hogwarts, killed Dumbledore even though Dumbledore made him and has a big nose.”

He had wondered once or twice during the week if this whole thing was some elaborate practical joke, despite Narcissa’s assurances. Andromeda, however, had grounded him. He’d gone to visit her on Sunday immediately after tea with Narcissa, and as he sat on the floor playing with Teddy and a bucket of wooden blocks, the story had spilled out of him.

“She can’t be serious—can she?” he asked at last.

“Narcissa does not joke,” answered Andromeda. She regarded Harry through kind, curious eyes as he restacked the tower of blocks for a delighted Teddy. “Harry, why are you even considering this? You could simply tell her you’re not gay—it won’t be a matter of wizarding honor if you refuse on the grounds of sexual orientation.”

Teddy’s reached out his small hand and knocked over a new tower, and he squealed in delight as Harry clapped his hands, apparently approving of the mess and the noise.

“Harry?”

“I’m gay,” he said, restacking the blocks as Teddy giggled. “Well, I think I am.” He sighed and risked a glance at Andromeda. She was watching him with an odd look on her face. “Who am I kidding? I am. Definitely. I don’t know how Narcissa knew, but she did.”

“Well,” she said after an awkward moment of silence, “you’re right. You can’t get out of this by claiming a different sexual orientation than Snape. But honestly, Harry, you could just walk away from it. You may lose face in some circles, but it’s senseless to condemn yourself to this if it’s not what you want. You’ve earned some special treatment, young man.”

“If I walk away from it, I still have the debt hanging over my head,” he said, smiling as Teddy clapped when he balanced a toy horse on top of the tower. “If I do this, I fulfill my debts to Narcissa and to Snape. I’m done then. I can go on with my life.”

“But Harry—you’re talking about Severus Snape. He could make it a very unpleasant year for you, especially after what you’ve told me about why Narcissa wants him out of her home.”

He shrugged. He didn’t want to bring up his rather confused feelings when it came to the Half-blood Prince. “We can manage to stay out of each other’s way. I’ll be in the Auror Academy. I doubt we’ll have to see much of each other.”

“The old families take these things seriously, Harry,” warned Andromeda.

“Right. That’s why I’m here, actually. Narcissa is having a dinner Saturday and told me to bring my representative.” He looked up at her now as Teddy gleefully knocked down the rebuilt tower. “She suggested I bring Arthur Weasley or Augusta Longbottom. I’d like to bring you instead.” He reached over and picked up Teddy, then stood and faced Andromeda expectantly, bouncing Teddy to keep him happy.

“Your representative?” she asked slowly.

“For the marriage contract negotiations,” he said, knowing she must understand what was involved. If she didn’t, he’d have a lot of homework to do this week.

“Of course,” she said. Her face, so careworn a year ago after losing nearly her entire family, had become lighter over the past months of life with Teddy, and now she positively glowed at the challenge. “Do you know anything about this, Harry?”

“Nothing,” he admitted. “I didn’t even know contracts were involved until Narcissa mentioned it. I’ve only ever been to one wedding, and no one ever mentioned a contract.”

“It’s generally only done in wealthy families, or for marriages that are part of brokered arrangements—you know, to join powerful or rich families together. The contracts can specify nearly anything and sometimes take months to negotiate.”

“Months would be good.” He looked wistful. “But I don’t think Narcissa will let this go for even weeks.” He sat down on the sofa beside her, and Teddy crawled off of his lap and onto his grandmother’s. “She wants him out of her house and into his own as soon as possible. She said I could be free of the marriage and the debt by the time I’m twenty.”

Andromeda whistled. “You hold the upper hand, Harry. Don’t forget that. She wants Snape out of her home and he wants the Prince estate. Your only point of weakness is the debt itself. But in agreeing to marry Snape, you’ve paid it off. You didn’t agree to any specific stipulations, did you?”

“Well…yes,” he said, rather sheepishly as she frowned at him. “The agreement has two requirements—to stay with him for a year and a day and to live at Prince Manor with him. He can live at the manor once he’s married but he doesn’t officially get the estate until he lives there for a year with his spouse.”

“Those are stipulations of the will, I suppose?” asked Andromeda, running a hand through Teddy’s fine, sandy hair. Harry thought she looked younger than her sister with the little boy curled up on her lap.

“Yes.” He looked around the cozy room at Teddy’s scattered toys and realized suddenly how much his life would change if he went through with this. It was ridiculous to even think about that now—he hadn’t even met with Snape yet. His former professor was likely to laugh in Narcissa’s face when he showed up, despite the woman’s assurances to the contrary. “So, you’ll do this with me? Help me with this contract?”

“Of course, Harry. Nothing would give me more pleasure than the look on my sister’s face when she realizes you chose me.” She grinned. “So, have you thought of anything you’d like to see in your marriage contract?”

“I’d like to keep my name, but Narcissa implied that wasn’t possible.” He considered, looking idly at Teddy’s little white trainers and leaning over to tie a loose lace. “I don’t know—something about mutual respect. That he treats me as an adult and as an equal.”

Andromeda’s face had turned up into a soft smile as she shook her head. “I assure you, Harry, contract negotiations will barely touch on those items, though they certainly can be included. They’ll be most interested in your claim on the estate should you not remain married past that first year.”

“Should we? Isn’t that a given?” he asked. “Can’t we specify that in the contract?”

“Very few arranged wizarding marriages end for any reason other than the death of one of the parties,” said Andromeda, holding up her hand as Harry began to protest. “That being said, some do, and as this one in particular seems headed that way, some care must be taken in the negotiations. Entering into a contract that is intended to be broken will likely void the terms of the will. We’ll have to be careful, Harry, and think out our terms before committing to them.”

“I don’t want his estate,” added Harry. “I have plenty of money – and property. He can keep it. That’s what this whole marriage is about after all, isn’t it? Snape being able to claim his grandfather’s estate, right?”

Andromeda held Teddy’s hands and clapped them together as she answered, to the delight of the little boy. “Oh, I think it’s about much more than that, really, or it wouldn’t have been Narcissa who sought you out. Narcissa couldn’t care less about Snape’s lot in life. This is all about her.” She sighed. “Just like always.” She had a faraway look in her eyes, and Harry wondered what ghosts still haunted her from her childhood as a privileged member of the Black family. “I think we’ll find a surprise or two when we go to Malfoy Manor this weekend.”

And now they were there—at Malfoy Manor, following Narcissa onto a formal terrace. Harry barely noticed his surroundings, though he had the general impression of opulence. He struggled against the weight in his stomach, the sense of dread. The last time he had seen Snape he had thought he was dead, torn and bleeding on the floor of the Shrieking Shack. He didn’t even know how Snape had survived—how he had ended up in St. Mungo’s instead of entombed with the rest of the war dead. He steeled himself, determined to focus his attention on Snape himself, on gauging his reaction to this plan of Narcissa’s, to marriage, to marriage with Harry Potter.

“The negotiating party,” announced Narcissa as she stepped out onto the terrace; the three men already there, all of them holding heavy crystal glasses, turned their heads toward her.

Lucius and Draco stared openly at Harry while Snape glanced at him only long enough to nod, then looked calculatingly at Andromeda.

Though Snape’s face remained neutral, Harry had the immediate sense that choosing Andromeda as his representative had somehow raised himself a notch or two in Snape’s estimation.

Snape looked as he ever did, at least on first glance. His hair was longer than before, but still black, and still with that oily sheen. It was pulled back and tied, now that it was longer, making his face look even more angular. Long nose, hard black eyes, intent expression bordering on sour, disapproving. He had the same presence he always had—there, but not there. You always knew he was in the room but he filled it quietly, putting Harry on edge. The one difference immediately evident was that Snape was wearing extremely formal robes, with green piping at the collar and cuffs. The scars from the snake’s attack were visible, raised but not horrible or disfiguring. Harry had wondered about them, about how damaged Snape might be, how disfigured. Oddly, that had not been the most disquieting of his fears.

Snape was obviously not surprised to see Harry. He would know, then, that Narcissa had called in her debt and would expect Harry to be here only because of his sense of honor. Because Harry did what was right.

And that was why Harry was here. Honor. Obligation. He’d made a promise and he would keep it, even—even if it did mean marrying the man he had despised until…well, until he had finally understood, back in Dumbledore’s office, when he thought Snape was dead.

While Harry stood there, watching the Malfoys and Snape, Andromeda went to Lucius, extended her hand and greeted him. She looked back significantly at Harry as she moved over to Draco, and he remembered that he, too, needed to greet his host.

“Mr. Malfoy.”

He extended his hand and Lucius Malfoy took it, staring intently at Harry.

“Mr. Potter. Welcome to Malfoy Manor.” His voice was polite and, despite his words, not welcoming. He gripped Harry’s hand too tightly, stared at him too long, too intimately.

Harry dropped his hand, wanting very much to wipe it on his robes. He refrained, remembering the protocol that Andromeda had rehearsed with him, and turned to Draco.

After Narcissa, Lucius first, Draco second, Snape last.

“Potter,” drawled Draco. He gave Harry an appraising glance and managed to look bored by what he found. While Lucius’ grip on his hand had been too tight, almost aggressive, Draco barely held his fingers for a second before he released them. His hands were surprisingly sweaty.

“Draco,” he returned in greeting. Andromeda had been insistent that he not refer to Malfoy by his last name and, since Harry was not about to call him Mr. Malfoy, Draco it was. Harry nodded to him, trying for friendly or at least casual. It was not yet a year and a half since he’d last been in Malfoy Manor, under very different circumstances, and though everything had changed since then, nothing had changed. Not really.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Andromeda talking with Snape and he noted that Draco’s eyes had moved to Snape too. He turned and felt Andromeda’s arm on his shoulder, drawing him closer to her.

He held out his hand. “Severus.”

There. He’d said it. He’d assured Andromeda that he’d never be able to call Snape by his given name. She assured him in turn that he could and he would. He had one chance to establish himself as Snape’s peer, and calling him Professor Snape or Snape would do nothing to position himself as Snape’s equal in this partnership.

Snape took his hand. Cool, dry fingers pressed his.

“Harry. We meet again.”

Harry, who had been looking at their joined hands, now looked up in surprise which he immediately tried to hide. Snape’s voice was low, hardly above a whisper, different in pitch than Harry remembered it, yet alike in cadence and tone. Recognizable yet not recognizable. Harry’s eyes moved quickly to the scarred neck, then just as quickly to Snape’s face.

Harry. He didn’t think he’d ever heard Snape call him by that name and it seemed so odd, so out of place, yet the obvious rejoinder to his own greeting.

“Indeed.” He took Andromeda’s advice and kept his comments brief and to the point. No need to waste words. Not yet, at least.

They didn’t have the chance to do so anyway, for Narcissa immediately led them into the dining room. The meal was formal and the conversation sparse. Draco spent half of his time staring at Snape, the other half staring at Harry. Harry tried to keep up polite conversation with Narcissa, one eye on Andromeda to make sure he was using the correct fork for the correct course. Lucius mirrored Draco’s behavior, staring at Snape, then at Harry, then back at Severus again. Snape, for his part, ate slowly and methodically and spoke little. It was an uncomfortable meal all around, and although Harry knew it had to be the most expensive meal he had ever eaten, a day later he wouldn’t be able to recall what had been served or how it had tasted.

After the meal, Lucius and Draco excused themselves, albeit rather reluctantly on Draco’s part. Narcissa regally led Harry, Severus and Andromeda to a private parlor and left them, closing the door softly behind her. Harry heard her footsteps recede down the corridor. A rectangular library table stood in the middle of the room and three chairs were tucked against it, one on the far side, two abreast on the near side. Parchment, quills and ink were arranged on the table along with several leather-bound books.

Snape immediately made for the chair on the far side of the table.

“The terms of the will first,” began Severus in that same low voice as soon as Harry had settled himself stiffly at the table beside Andromeda. He didn’t look at Harry as he spoke, didn’t make small talk, didn’t offer any preamble at all—no, “Well, isn’t this awkward,” or, “Never thought I’d be negotiating a marriage contract with you, Mr. Potter.” He simply opened a scroll and stretched it out on the table in front of him, quickly searched for and found the relevant clause, and read aloud. “Severus Snape must be legally wed to a legitimate member of an old family by the time he reaches the age of forty years. The estate will pass to him after he has resided, with his spouse, in Prince Manor for one year and one day. During that period, Prince Manor must be Severus Snape’s primary residence. He may begin his residence in Prince Manor at any time after my passing, but not until he is legally wed, and not without his spouse. It is therefore left to my loyal house elves, Edward and Victoria….”

“Edward and Victoria!” Harry couldn’t help himself. “What kind of names…?”

He shut his mouth when Andromeda’s foot came down—hard—on his own and Snape stopped and looked at him with narrowed eyes.

“The Prince family’s house elves have always had traditional English names,” he said. “Not all house elves are named Knobby and Blinky.”

Harry stared at Severus. Knobby and Blinky? How did…?

“Please continue, Severus,” said Andromeda. She nudged Harry’s foot again and he blinked then nodded at Snape.

“Yes, go on. I’m sorry for interrupting.”

Snape frowned and looked down at the document. “It is therefore left to my loyal house elves, Edward and Victoria, to ascertain the legitimacy of the marital arrangement and assure that Severus Snape and his spouse are living as man and wife.”

“Man and—ouch!”

“Oh. Yes. That.” Snape actually smiled. Smiled! His mouth barely turned up at the corners, but as it was unlike any expression Harry had ever seen on Snape’s face, he counted it as a smile. Harry thought that even such a small, reluctant smile improved Snape’s appearance dramatically. “Technically, you are the wife.”

He had barely opened his mouth when Andromeda’s foot pressed down on his toes—again. “It’s a technicality, Harry,” she said, her voice reassuring and calm. “Don’t get caught up in the language. In a traditional marriage, one party is the husband, the other is the wife. Since the Prince estate is the matter at hand, Severus’ role will be that of the husband and yours that of the wife.”

He nodded jerkily. Although Andromeda had done her best to prepare him, she had not mentioned this detail.

“That is all,” said Snape. He looked across the table at Harry and at Andromeda. “There is no provision that I stay married after my claim to the estate is secured. I am thus in need of a spouse only until that happy day. Then, as Narcissa has already explained, you, Mr. Potter, can get on with your life.”

He offered no words of thanks, no heartfelt appreciation, no acknowledgement at all that Harry was about to do something selfless and ridiculously foolhardy. Marriage. At eighteen. To his former professor, to a man who had once been in love with his mother. A spy in Voldemort’s ranks.

A man with an Order of Merlin First Class to match his own.

“Alright,” said Harry. “Let’s get on with it, then.”

“I will dispense with the most unpleasant necessity first,” said Snape. “You will have to delay your entry into the Auror Corps for a year.”

Andromeda’s hand squeezed Harry’s tightly and he managed not to stand up, yell out “What?” or laugh in Snape’s face. He stared at Snape, looking for any pleasure the man might have had in delivering that news. But Snape’s face remained impassive.

“Severus,” said Andromeda. Her nails were digging into Harry’s hand. “Harry has already delayed his entry by three months. An additional delay may jeopardize his application altogether.”

“I understand, and I apologize in advance for any interruption to Mr. Potter’s career,” answered Snape. His voice was still barely above a whisper. Harry had to lean forward slightly to hear it. “However, the house elves in question are quite traditional. A Prince wife might have her own vocation, but she would not be absent from the home all day, every day. They will not interpret Mr. Potter’s absence while in training as ‘living as husband and wife.’”

Harry shot a disbelieving glance at Andromeda. No. This was not the way things were meant to play out. He had counted on the Auror Academy as the distraction he would need to get through a year married to Snape.

Andromeda eyed Harry carefully, gave him a cautious nod, permission to speak. She looked apologetic. She had obviously not expected this.

“You’re sure about this? We can’t talk to the house elves? Convince them that this is just the modern way to do things?”

Beside him, Andromeda covered her mouth with her hand. Snape eyed him steadily, his own mouth curving up into that almost smile again.

“No, I do not believe we can,” he said. He looked past Harry. Harry thought he exchanged a glance with Andromeda. “These particular house elves have been in the Prince family for longer than I have been alive. Ultimately, they hold the keys to Prince Manor. They live under an oath of fealty to the Prince family. They will not understand your commitment to a job over your commitment to the family. Period. If you cannot delay entering the Aurors, you should go have a talk with Narcissa. Now.” He sat back and folded his arms. He appeared wholly calm. Could he be hoping that Harry would walk?

Maybe, thought Harry, maybe he wants this to fall apart.

“Unfortunately, Harry, I agree with Severus,” said Andromeda. “The will clearly states that the house elves testify to whether you two are living as husband and wife. I have not met these house elves but I cannot help but believe they will expect you to be home taking charge of the household.”

Harry sat up straighter in his chair, trying to grasp something—anything—that would get him back in the vicinity of what he and Andromeda had discussed before coming here tonight. A marriage contract. What were his alternatives? Agree to marry Snape or have Narcissa Malfoy publicly announce that he had reneged on his life debt. He had nightmares about what else she would ask of him if he backed out of this deal.

He was not ready to admit, not to Andromeda, not to anyone, that he wasn’t convinced he wanted to be an Auror after all. It was expected of him, wasn’t it? And if he didn’t become an Auror, what would he do with his life?

Besides being Snape’s wife for a year.

“I don’t need Narcissa,” he answered, forcing confidence in his voice that he did not feel. “I can live with those terms. But I’d like to get on with it and discuss the contract itself.”

Good answer. He could tell from their reactions that both Snape and Andromeda had expected that issue to be a huge stumbling block.

“The contract.” Snape eyed him for a moment, then rolled up the will and selected another scroll. He pushed it across the table toward Harry and Andromeda. “I used a standard contract and made a few minor amendments,” he explained. “I’ll give you time to review it.”

Harry reached for the scroll and unrolled it, positioning it on the table so that both he and Andromeda could read it.

He was relieved to find that the ‘standard contract’ was nearly identical to the one that Andromeda had shown him and that he had read and reread over the past week. She had taken the time to explain some of the terminology to him and he scanned it now, ignoring much of what would have caused him confusion (not to mention convulsions) a week ago.

“The heir clause hasn’t been removed,” he said.

“It cannot be,” said Snape. His face registered his surprise that Harry had come to this meeting well-prepared. “My grandfather’s will does not explicitly state that I must produce an heir, but to alter the clause in the contract might alarm the house elves…”

“The contract is vague enough, Harry,” said Andromeda, her voice a quiet anchor at his side. “As marriages are undertaken in part to continue the family line and, with it, the family name, neither party shall contrive to prevent the timely conception of a child or children….”

“Contrive to prevent?” Harry reread the clause.

“In the case of two wizards, we should have to contrive to achieve a conception, not prevent one,” said Snape. “We should leave the clause alone. Male conception is rare and never achieved without a difficult course of potions. I assure you, Harry, that you would notice the hormonal effects of such a series of potions even if I attempted to foist them on you without your knowledge.” He looked significantly at Harry’s chest and Harry felt himself blushing. They had read about powerful wizards conceiving children in History of Magic. It was practically the only thing he remembered from those warm, sleepy afternoons spent half-dozing in Binns’ classroom. He quickly looked back down at the contract. Andromeda was reading ahead.

“The fidelity clause has been struck out,” she said, looking first at Harry, then at Snape.

“Considering our circumstances—” began Snape.

“Leave the heir clause as is but strike out the fidelity clause?” Harry shook his head at the parchment as he read it, frowning. He looked up at Snape, stared directly at him. Andromeda shifted beside him but did not speak. “If you’re really worried about how the contract will hold up against your grandfather’s will, you wouldn’t be allowing infidelity.”

“Striking the clause would not allow infidelity,” began Snape after a brief pause in which he did nothing but stare at Harry, giving him a long, calculating look. Harry succeeded in meeting his gaze without flinching. He’d come to this meeting today with only one deal breaker, and Snape had just laid it on the table.

“Then why strike it?” asked Harry. “Fidelity is important to me. I can’t marry someone who can’t promise to be faithful.”

“Striking the clause simply removes the severe and archaic wizarding law penalties.” Snape’s gaze seemed to darken, and Harry realized then that remaining faithful to Harry was decidedly not in this man’s plans. His voice softened as he spoke again. “Mr. Potter—Harry—we are negotiating a marriage between two individuals who prior to a week ago had never considered the other as a potential mate. I was simply giving you leeway to disentangle yourself from any existing…commitments…you might have.”

Liar, thought Harry. “If I had any existing commitments—the kind of commitments that would potentially keep me from being faithful to my spouse, I wouldn’t be here,” stated Harry emphatically.

“I see.” Snape looked down at the contract and Harry knew that this was something unexpected. Snape had not thought we would insist on retaining the fidelity clause. This was causing a wrinkle in Snape’s plans—whatever those plans were.

“Well,” he said a moment later, after studying his copy of the document. Harry knew he was using the time to formulate a new plan. Harry glanced at his representative. She had a look on her face that bordered on a smirk. He looked down to hide his own. “Well, I had only thought to accommodate your needs.” Snape picked up a quill and jotted something on the contract. “The traditional fidelity clause will remain in the contract, then. However, I will be forced to remove another edit I made—to the section regarding marital relations.”

Harry swallowed but otherwise gave no sign of discomfort.

Andromeda spoke up then, her voice soft yet authoritative. She was scanning a paragraph in the document. “The contract states that the spouses shall ‘share the marital bed’ and yes, Severus has, indeed, struck out that clause as well.”

“‘Share the marital bed?’” repeated Harry, looking first at the contract, then at Snape. He didn’t remember reading that clause in the contract he had reviewed with Andromeda. “That doesn’t necessarily imply….”

“Oh, but it does,” answered Snape. He was staring at Harry again and Harry had the distinct impression that he was surprising Snape, by his reactions, by his demands. Snape hadn’t expected Harry Potter to sit across from him and demand fidelity, to not flinch—not much anyway—at the idea of ‘marital relations.’

“Although it isn’t explicitly stated in the document, there have been countless arguments before the Wizengamot and lesser courts relating to this very issue. The Wizengamot has consistently maintained that ‘the marital bed’ is not a bed at all, but a reference to sexual relations between the married parties. One spouse can bring suit against the other for denying access, so to speak.”

Harry bit back a retort and looked down at the parchment instead. Andromeda had her finger next to the relevant paragraph and he reread it, then looked up and voiced his question. “What about grounds?” he asked. “What if one party has a good reason to deny the other—access? Abuse? Infidelity? Illness?”

“Those caveats are generally written into the contract by the negotiating parties, Harry,” said Andromeda. Harry could tell by her tone that he was doing a good job at this, keeping a level head, thinking before reacting. “And you’ve mentioned the three that appear most often. One party can deny the other access to ‘the marital bed’ if the other party is suspected of infidelity or accused of abuse, or if one party is ill. That being said, you can certainly go beyond those as well. There are contracts that include poor hygiene and others that include explicit details around the types of, well, activities, that are allowed.”

Harry willed away the blush that threatened.

“I don’t think we need to go that far,” he said quickly. He looked up then, serious. “I’m sure that Severus and I can agree to a general clause of mutual respect and discuss any details in private.”

Snape’s mouth opened just a fraction, and Harry knew he had surprised him again.

Interestingly, the financial elements of the contract took almost no time to negotiate.

“These are the portions of the contract that can hang up negotiations for months,” Andromeda commented as they quickly went through the contract. Each would retain sole ownership of what was his coming into the marriage, and Severus would keep the Prince estate once he was able to claim it. The Prince estate would provide the basic living expenses—food, shelter, clothing and entertainment—for both parties while they resided together at the Manor. They added a clause to differentiate “needs” from “wants”—though Harry thought that was a can of worms just waiting to explode—and were about to sign the contract when Harry put down his quill.

“I’m sorry—I’ve forgotten something,” he said, looking apologetically over at Snape. “We haven’t discussed guests.”

“Guests? What do you mean?” Snape didn’t put down his quill. In fact, he seemed to grip it more tightly.

“Guests at the Manor. I have friends, family—the Weasleys, Andromeda and Teddy. If Prince Manor is going to be my home, I’d like to have visitors from time to time, and entertain guests there together.”

“Together?” Snape’s eyebrows rose. He put down the quill he was holding. Blinked. “Mr. Potter—”

“Harry.”

“Harry.” Snape looked at him and shook his head slowly. “You do understand, Harry, that the sole intent of this marriage is for me to satisfy the terms of my grandfather’s will and inherit his estate, do you not?”

Harry shook his own head slowly. “I understand that that’s your intent. But it’s not mine. Mine is to satisfy the terms of a couple of life debts—notably to Narcissa Malfoy. I’m also hoping it satisfies any debts you feel I owe you personally.”

“I had no intention of calling in any debts,” said Snape, bristling. “I owe enough of my own.”

Harry looked thoughtfully down at his hands. They were rough, still bearing scars from all that had happened at Gringotts—the break-in, the Lestrange vault, the escape on the dragon’s back. He looked back up at Snape. If what Snape said was true, he and Snape had something in common after all. Neither of them planned to call in the debts that wizarding tradition said they were owed.

“Narcissa Malfoy saved my life at the exact moment I needed a break. A big break. She delivered and I owe her. So I’m going to do what she asks and marry you. And you need to know this—I know what her motivations are. I asked and she told me. And I think I understand yours, too. But I refuse to go into this thing resigned to giving up a year of my life. A year is a long time and, frankly, I haven’t had enough enjoyable years in my life to make up for another miserable one.”

Andromeda was the first one to speak.

“So,” she said, picking up the quill that Harry had placed on the table. “How shall we word this?”

Snape was clearly having more difficulty holding on to the neutral, professional demeanor he had thus far successfully demonstrated.

“I cannot agree to open my home to constant intrusions from…from…” Snape stopped and took a breath, visibly trying to calm himself. Harry smiled.

“Hey, I get it,” he said. “You’re worried you’re going to be overrun by Gryffindors and former students and Weasleys.”

“Weasleys are both Gryffindors and former students,” Snape muttered.

“I’m not sure what kind of get-togethers you’re imagining, but I’m actually kind of boring. I meet up with Ron and Hermione pretty often. We watch a movie at her flat or play chess or have dinner. She’s at Uni now and Ron’s working with George at their shop. I play amateur Quidditch in a league, have Sunday dinner with the Weasleys and spend a lot of time over at Andromeda’s with my godson.”

“Godson?” Snape looked inquiringly at Andromeda.

“My daughter’s son—my grandson,” she explained. “Teddy Lupin.”

“Teddy Lupin,” repeated Snape slowly. There was an uncomfortable pause. Snape looked back at Harry. “Of course,” he said. “Your family is welcome.” He considered a moment, his mouth a thin line as he seemed to mentally compose his thoughts. “What do you plan to tell them about this arrangement?”

Harry and Andromeda exchanged a glance. Fortunately, they’d already had this discussion.

“The truth,” said Harry. “That I’m fulfilling my life debt to Narcissa Malfoy, and that this is what she asked me to do. That I’ll be married to you for at least a year and a day. That I’m planning to make the best of it. Of course, I thought I’d be in the Auror Academy, not running a household.” He shrugged. “I can adapt. And I’ve already told Ron and Hermione and, of course, Andromeda.”

“And how, may I ask, did they react?” asked Snape in that maddening quiet voice. It was becoming a bit raspy with use now.

Harry grinned. He could grin now, now that it was done. “Pretty well, actually, once I told them I’m gay.”

Snape’s eyes widened. “They did not know?”

“No.” He eyed Snape. “Why? Should they have? Did you?”

“Of course I knew,” snapped Snape. He didn’t say “you dolt” or “you idiot” but Harry heard it anyway. “Would I be sitting here negotiating a marriage with a straight man? How ludicrous would that be?”

Harry eyed Snape shrewdly. “Maybe as ludicrous as negotiating a marriage with me? We weren’t exactly mates, were we?”

“Ridiculous,” said Snape, but Harry thought he was a bit slow in his comeback. “You have every element that matters. You are single, gay, of an old family and most important, willing to enter this arrangement knowing the facts around it.”

“You forgot the part about owing someone a life debt,” said Harry.

“That’s encompassed in the ‘willing’ part,” said Snape sharply.

“You know, I am wondering something,” replied Harry, feeling a bit cheeky now that they were arguing. This felt much more like old times, like he was finally in the room with a Severus Snape he could understand. “There’s one thing that hasn’t been exactly clear from the beginning, despite all this talk about the ‘marital bed.’ Are we, or are we not, going to have sex once we’re married?”

Andromeda sputtered. Harry thought she was trying to suppress a bark of laughter. Harry glanced at her, but she was determinedly looking at the table.

“You, Mr. Potter, are not quite what I expected,” said Snape.

“Harry.”

“Harry,” repeated Severus, shaking his head slightly.

“Listen—I’ve had to do a lot of things in my life that weren’t my idea, and I know you have, too,” said Harry. “This can be just one more of those things—something to suffer through and hope it all turns out well in the end. Something fate seems to have predestined for us. But frankly, I’d rather go in with eyes wide open from now on, wouldn’t you? And that means you need to know that I’m not going to put up with Lucius Malfoy while we’re married.” He held up a hand as Snape tried to cut in. “But in saying that, I realize I can hardly ask you to be celibate for a year.”

“Did Narcissa put you up to this?” Snape’s low voice now held a sharp edge.

“I’m only here because of honor and duty,” he answered. “And if those things are important to me, do you think I’m going to stay home and play house at Prince Manor and get laughed at while you traipse around with Lucius Malfoy?”

“Traipse around?” Snape’s voice rose higher and he coughed. He coughed again, then again, but held Harry away with a hand when Harry started to rise out of his chair, alarmed. Andromeda quickly conjured a glass and filled it with an Aguamenti. She pushed it across the table and Severus immediately took it. His coughing fit eventually settled and he took several deep breaths, wheezing slightly.

Harry suddenly wondered if Snape would have the strength and endurance for sex. He shook the thought away as Snape cleared his throat. When he spoke, his voice was soft but steady.

“I do not traipse,” he said. “And what I do, or don’t do, with Lucius Malfoy is none of your concern, despite Narcissa’s inferences.”

Harry stood up.

“You’re right. It isn’t. Not yet anyway. But I’m not going to marry you with that hanging between us, so you’d better decide what you want more—the Prince estate or Lucius Malfoy.”

“Sit down, Pot…Harry.” Snape corrected himself but Harry remained on his feet. Andromeda spoke from beside him.

“Harry, it would be best if we settled this now. Sit. Please.”

He sat—slowly—staring at Snape as he settled back onto his chair.

“You are predisposed to believe Narcissa Malfoy?”

Harry glanced over at Andromeda. He couldn’t read the look on her face. But she knew her sister—he didn’t, not really.

“She is a proven liar,” continued Snape. “She lied to the Dark Lord about your death, did she not?”

“That has nothing to do with this,” said Harry. “Fine. You tell me. Are you having an affair with Lucius Malfoy or aren’t you?”

“No. I am not.”

That was too easy. There were dozens of questions he could have asked. Do you love him? Have you ever had sex with him? How do you define ‘affair’? Do you want to? Do you wish you were? But what came out of his mouth instead was “Why not?”

Snape and Andromeda both stared at him.

“Well? Why not?”

“Remember that Narcissa and Lucius have a fidelity clause in their marriage contract, Harry,” said Andromeda quietly. “She would take a good piece of the Malfoy fortune with her if she divorced him after proving him to be unfaithful.”

Severus’ face had clouded over. Harry turned back to Andromeda.

“I’m ready to sign. Can you check the clause on having friends and family over to visit and then read it through one more time for me?”

She pulled the contract over and began reviewing it, quill in hand. Harry tried to collect his thoughts. He knew what he wanted to say but didn’t quite know how to piece together the words. He’d shown a lot more of his hand than Snape had. They’d been at this for quite some time and he didn’t know anything about Snape that he hadn’t known when he got here, other than that his voice had been affected by his injuries and if he was to be believed, that he wasn’t having an affair with Lucius Malfoy. Snape, however, spoke before Harry had a chance.

“You have conducted yourself admirably, Harry.” He stressed the word Harry, emphasizing that he wasn’t accustomed to using that name when addressing or referring to Harry Potter. “You have been asked to fulfill a debt in a way that must be repugnant to you, yet you are approaching this maturely and intelligently. As much as I had hoped to influence the proceedings, I am nonetheless impressed by your presence of mind in bringing along a representative who has an innate ability to think like Narcissa Malfoy.”

Harry grinned. “That was rather brilliant, wasn’t it?” he said.

“I will not ask you to share your intimate secrets, and you should not expect me to share mine. I believe we need to look forward, not backward. You have my commitment to remain faithful to you while we remain married.”

“Actually,” said Andromeda, marking a line with her index finger, “the contract calls for fidelity from the time of commitment.”

“Commitment?” Harry leaned down to read the line she had marked.

“Signing the contract,” said Snape. Harry looked up quickly. There was something in Snape’s voice that was off. He rose to his feet.

“Forgive me. I need—a moment.”

“Of course, Severus. Harry and I will reread the contract and we’ll have it ready to sign when you return.”

Harry simply nodded, but he watched Severus as he made his way from the room and closed the door quietly behind him.

“He’s going to Lucius,” he said in a low voice. For some reason, the fact that Snape was seeking out Lucius Malfoy disturbed him in a way it wouldn’t have when he arrived here tonight with Andromeda. He got up.

“You knew coming into this that Lucius would be an issue,” she said. “We discussed this. I understand your desire for the fidelity clause, and for more than a sham of a marriage, but you can’t expect Severus’ feelings will change that quickly, or at all for that matter. And he certainly never thought you’d invoke the traditional fidelity clause. I’m sure he assumed you’d continue with whatever relationship or relationships you had going at the time.”

“But I’d be married,” said Harry, wandering around the room now. “I mean—I know it’s only temporary, and just so Snape can inherit his estate, but it will be a legal marriage, not a sham.”

“You don’t have to do this, Harry,” said Andromeda, watching Harry as he stopped to stare at a portrait.

But there was something in her voice. Harry knew she was looking out for him—for his best interests. She’d stick with him if he decided to back out. He sighed.

“I know. I don’t have to do this. But it’s Narcissa. She’s used to getting what she wants—and she has connections. I remember what you told me.” He sighed again and ran his fingers along the polished wood of a window ledge. “Besides, who’s to say what she’ll ask me next time? She’ll probably want me to wrestle an alligator or wait ‘til I’m an Auror and have me get Draco out of trouble or be her personal house elf for a year.”

“You’re on the right track, Harry,” said Andromeda. She was still scrutinizing the contract. “It’s unfortunate that it was Narcissa who saved you, because most people would have excused the debt, calling it even for what you did to save the wizarding world. But Narcissa—Narcissa is only about herself, Harry. My parents didn’t do her any favors by giving her that name. She stands to benefit in more ways than you can see by this arrangement—frankly, in more ways than I can see as well. It will certainly put her back in the public eye. Some will criticize her, others will praise the move, the joining of two of the old families.”

“People will think I’m ridiculously stupid, won’t they? Naïve?”

“Some will. Does that bother you?”

Harry shrugged and smiled. “No, not really.”

“What did Ron and Hermione say?”

He laughed. “They listed every reason they could think of that I shouldn’t do this—every negative thing they knew about Snape.” He smiled, turning from the window to face Andromeda again. “And still, when we were finished, we all agreed I had to do it.” He sat back down and rubbed his eyes, pushing up his glasses. “Hermione says it’s important that I do this—that I repay the debt. She says it will make a statement to the wizarding world, and that they’ll probably leave me alone to live my life afterward. But Ron—Ron couldn’t tell me why I had to do it, or why I should. He just said it was the right thing to do, no matter what, no matter if it were Snape or Fudge or Dolores Umbridge. And that—that—hit home with me. Because it’s Ron, and he has this feel for how things are supposed to be in wizarding life that I don’t have and Hermione doesn’t have.”

By the time Snape returned, Andromeda had the contract finalized. Snape nodded to them as he came into the room. His face was neutral and it remained so as he read the contract, then picked up a quill and signed it. He passed it to Harry, who signed it as well. Andromeda signed last, and then quickly made two copies. She passed one to Harry and one to Snape, rolling up the remaining one and tapping it with her wand. It disappeared with a pop.

“Well, that’s that, then,” she said. She leaned over and hugged Harry, then extended her hand across the table to Snape. “Congratulations, Harry, Severus. The contract will be processed and filed on Monday. My advice is to find someone to marry you tomorrow if you’d like to avoid the wedding Narcissa undoubtedly is planning.”

“We can discuss this in the morning,” said Snape. He stood, and Harry stood, and they reached across the table to shake hands.

It was absurd, this feeling of shaking hands with his future husband. A man twice his age, with vastly more world experience. There was a sea of history between them, and more than anything else it had felt, until this very moment, unequal. Unbalanced. Harry—younger than Severus. Less educated, less accomplished, less experienced.

But when they reached out and grasped hands, shaking over a marriage contract—not kissing, not hugging, not pouring champagne—Harry felt, for the first time, equal.

Neither one of them had ever gone down this particular road before.

~*~

It took a week to make the preparations, but they were married—relatively quietly, considering who they were—the following Sunday at noon.

Harry wore borrowed robes, light silver in a fine silk, the same ones Bill had worn on his own wedding day, carefully unpacked and laid out by Molly Weasley. Ron stood up for him in the small church in Godric’s Hollow where his parents had been married. Lucius Malfoy, looking finer and more resplendent than either Harry or Severus, stood up for Severus.

The guest list was limited, yet the little church seemed nearly full. The Weasleys alone managed to take up half of it, and Hagrid came, and Minerva, and Aberforth, and Filius Flitwick. Neville brought his grandmother, and Luna her father. The Malfoys were all there, and a few people Harry didn’t recognize sat near them. Andromeda and Teddy sat near the front so Teddy could see properly, and Teddy made faces at Harry and clapped when the ceremony began.

When they followed the minister in to sign the marriage certificate, Harry picked up the ornate eagle-feather quill and, though he had been calm so far, his hand began to shake. He stilled it with the force of will and signed his name—Harry James Potter—then handed the quill to Snape and stepped back. Ron took the quill from Snape and scratched his name out on the first line below then handed the quill to Lucius. With Lucius Malfoy’s signature, it was done.

They posed for photographs outside following the ceremony. Harry stood beside Severus, each of them looking as if he’d rather be almost anyplace else but here. Stiff and uncomfortable. Formal. Not quite touching despite the occasion. Harry’s stomach ached and he still had the formal wedding breakfast to endure.

Breakfast at one o’clock in the afternoon.

They had booked a local hall for the event and got through it as quickly as possible, suffering through the few "hear hear!"s from the gathered guests, the funny and warm toast from Ron, the formal and boring one from Lucius, and the obligatory hugs from Hermione, Mrs. Weasley and several others. The Malfoys, it turned out, did not hug.

All the better.

During the previous week, Harry and Severus had spent several evenings ironing out details of the wedding, but they had not yet spent more than ten minutes alone together. Narcissa Malfoy had interjected herself in every decision, to the extent that it was a minor miracle they had won out in the end and had not gotten married in the Malfoy rose garden with albino peacocks parading around and house elves fanning guests with commemorative paper fans. She had interrogated—interviewed was really too weak a word—the minister at the village church, personally selected the breakfast menu and sent a contingent of house elves over to prepare the small hall for the meal.

Although Harry was fuming by the end of the preparations, Snape seemed to take it all in stride, calmly ticking off one thing after another on his list. Harry hated lists.

Now, with hugs given—an extra one bestowed on Andromeda and Teddy—Harry stood next to Snape in the small hall. They were surrounded by their guests, and Luna was passing out little bags.

“Fairy dust!” she exclaimed and everyone threw a handful of the sparkling, glittery powder at the newly married couple. Everyone but the Malfoys, of course. Draco had reached in and dropped the sparkly flakes in horror. Narcissa and Lucius held their bags out in front of them as if they contained peacock droppings.

Harry was standing directly in front of Hermione. As the dust danced in front of him, settling on his hair and clothing, making patterns on the floor at his feet, his only thought was how beautiful it would look if it were covering Ron and Hermione, on their wedding day. How it would set off Hermione’s white dress, Ron’s wide smile.

He knew Luna had meant well, but today, under these circumstances, the fairy dust made the wedding seem like a farce.

Beside him, Severus took his arm.

Harry looked up at him quickly, then back at the friends and family who had come here today. He smiled, lifted his hand in a farewell wave, tried to look excited—or at least pleasantly expectant—and then took hold of Snape’s arm.

A moment later, with the whisper of a crack akin to Snape’s damaged voice, they were gone, fairy dust sparkling in the air where last they had stood.

~*~

“I thought you said the house elves were taking care of this place.” They stood just outside closed iron gates beyond which a wide drive led to a derelict mansion. The grounds were overgrown, the gates rusted.

“That is what I was told,” said Snape, his voice tight. “The goblins handling the estate assured me that the house elves had everything under control. Perhaps it is an illusion—a glamour of sorts…”

“Maybe they’re dead,” muttered Harry. He reached toward the gate.

“They are not dead,” said Snape. “Unfortunately.”

“Can you get in?” Harry looked back at Snape, but the other man made no sign of protest, so he pushed the gate. It squeaked open slowly, as if pulled inward by an invisible hand. Harry glanced at Snape.

Snape moved forward and with confidence—whether real or feigned Harry could not tell—stepped quickly through the gate. He took a few more steps then stopped and slowly turned to Harry.

“Yes.”

“Yes?”

“You asked if I can get in. I can. Come. We have house elves to meet.”

“You’re sure this is the right place?” asked Harry as they walked. “How long has your grandfather been dead anyway?”

“Eight years,” answered Snape. “And yes, I’m sure this is the right place.”

“Eight years? And you’re just now getting around to getting married?”

Snape stopped and glared at Harry.

“Oh. Right. Otherwise occupied.” Harry shrugged and continued up the drive beside Snape. He tried not to stare at the looming mansion. It wasn’t as large as Malfoy Manor, not by half, but it was still impressive in size. From this angle, it seemed to have two wings, one on either side of a turret-like structure reached by a set of wide, crumbling stairs that led to doors large enough to accommodate a small carriage. Despite the general air of neglect about the place, Harry could see that it had been a fine home in its day.

“I had hoped it would be more habitable,” said Snape. “However, we shall make do. The executor assured me that the home is being held in readiness for our arrival today.”

“What about our clothes?” said Harry. He had packed his bags and left them, as he had been instructed, in the entryway at Grimmauld Place.

“Taken care of,” said Snape dismissively. Harry didn’t pursue the matter. His feet were beginning to hurt—he’d been on them for hours now—and he just wanted to get inside and sit down for a while.

The front doors creaked open as they walked up the wide stairs. Harry took care to step only on the most solid looking of the treads and walked slightly behind Severus. Severus still managed to stride with confidence but Harry, tired, feeling out of place in this decidedly odd homecoming, felt anything but confident when two house elves, clad in faded white tea towels with elaborate ‘P’s embroidered on the front, appeared in the open doorway. They were dwarfed by the great wooden doors.

Severus stopped and Harry paused beside him.

The smaller of the house elves—and that was saying something as neither came up to Harry’s waist—held out her hand toward Snape. “We is to examine the documents, sirs.” Her voice was extremely high-pitched. She sounded something like a squeaky gate. Harry stared at her, transfixed by her wide amber eyes and the incongruous mop of curly grey hair on her head.

Severus’ hand dipped into his robe pocket and extracted a roll of parchment, which he offered to the elf. She unrolled it and the two small, grey heads bent over the documents. At one point, both heads rose again and together the elves stared at Harry, four large eyes seemingly wide with disbelief. They obviously recognized the name Harry Potter. They quickly refocused on the parchment, then Edward rolled it up again and handed it back to Snape.

“Master Prince, Master Potter-Prince, sirs, welcome to Prince Manor.” Edward’s voice was as deep and gruff as Victoria’s was high-pitched and squeaky. He bowed low to Severus first, then to Harry. Harry wondered how he could remain on his feet with his forehead nearly touching the ground. It was a feat of balance and dexterity unlike anything a human could achieve, especially a human as advanced in years as Edward.

“Thank you, Edward, Victoria.” Severus nodded to each of the elves but was otherwise all business. “Our bags have arrived?”

“Yes sir,” answered Victoria. “We is taken them to your rooms, sir.” She nodded gravely, as if she had successfully delivered the Crown Jewels to the Tower of London.

Rooms? Harry had definitely heard her say “rooms” and not “room.”

“We would like to wash up and change clothes,” Severus instructed, “and then be shown the rest of the house.” He was looking over their heads, gazing at the interior of the foyer.

A moment later, Harry and Severus, along with Edward, were standing in the center of the largest bedroom Harry had ever seen. The elf was now almost prostrate on the floor, forehead grazing the hearth rug.

Harry felt like the bottom had come out of his stomach. Severus looked slightly green but held himself together.

“Thank you, Edward. That will be all. Please give us one hour, then return to show us around the Manor.”

Edward stood up, knees creaking, and disappeared with a nod and a loud crack.

“Show off,” said Snape.

“Well, that was different,” said Harry. He felt like he’d grabbed hold of a Portkey in the middle of Apparating. He looked around the room, noting their bags piled neatly against the wall near a chest of drawers and wardrobe. “This is it, then?”

“Apparently,” answered Snape. He walked over to a door and opened it, then closed it again. “Corridor,” he said flatly. He moved across the room to a set of French-style doors and opened them to reveal a second room, smaller than the first. There was a narrow bed against the far wall, a child’s cot, a small sofa, a leather armchair, a rocking chair and some low tables with lamps. Severus scanned the room and left the doors open as he moved to the last door and pushed it open.

“En suite,” he said. “It appears to have been updated sometime in the last century.”

“Well, I suppose we should divide up the wardrobe and the drawers,” Harry said after a long moment in which Snape continued to stare into the en suite and he continued to stare at Snape’s back.

Severus glanced at his new husband, then at the chest of drawers and the wardrobe.

“I will take the left hand side of each,” he said, “leaving you the right. That is acceptable, I presume?”

“Of course,” answered Harry. He went to the luggage. His suitcases were a hodgepodge of bags he’d found stored at Grimmauld Place, some of them undoubtedly belonging to Walburga Black. He hadn’t needed Andromeda to tell him not to bring his Hogwarts trunk. Severus’ bags were all ageless and completely black.

Harry selected the largest suitcase, a deep purple monstrosity with old-fashioned brass buckles and a vague scent of lilacs. He hefted it up onto the bed on the opposite side from Severus, opened it, stacked the contents on the bed and put the suitcase against the wall.

Severus was still staring at him.

“Aren’t you going to unpack?” asked Harry as he picked up a smaller suitcase—this one a hideous green—hefted it up onto the bed and began to empty it.

Severus’ gaze moved from the pile of boxer shorts now stacked on the bed to the handful of Y-fronts in Harry’s hands.

“Most people…most men, that is…prefer one or the other,” Severus noted.

Harry looked down at the pants in his hands, frowning. He looked back at Severus, the puzzled look still on his face.

“Briefs or boxers,” explained Severus.

“Oh—oh. Right.” Harry placed the briefs on the bed and shrugged. “Depends on what I’m wearing them with I guess.” He laughed. “Or what’s clean.” He went back for another bag. When he turned around, Severus had opened the top drawer on the right side of the chest of drawers and was arranging Harry’s socks in it.

“I can do that,” said Harry, somehow embarrassed.

“I’m happy to help,” said Severus off-handedly. Harry stayed rooted to the spot, bag in hand, watching Severus arrange socks and briefs and boxers in the drawer. He closed the top drawer, opened the second, and reached back on the bed for a pile of neatly folded t-shirts. He arranged them in the drawer with near surgical precision, then opened the wardrobe, gathered up a handful of wooden hangers and held out his hand across the bed.

“Hand me the bag,” he said, neither snarky nor demanding. Harry hesitated, then held out the bag to Severus. Severus hung the robes in the wardrobe, arranging them from darkest color to lightest. Harry stared into the wardrobe, shaking his head. He shouldn’t be surprised—Snape had alphabetized his potions ingredients and arranged the cauldrons in the lab by size. Why wouldn’t he sort robes by color?

“Do you want something to change into now?” asked Severus as he hung up the last hanger.

“What? Oh, right. Sure. The grey ones, I suppose.” He was still wearing the borrowed silk robes. He unbuttoned them, then slipped them off and held out his hand for the others.

But Severus walked around the bed and held out the robes behind Harry, helping him slip his arms into them, then adjusting them over Harry’s shoulders. It was a casual gesture, but intimate, and Harry felt a shudder of apprehension move through him as Severus touched him.

They finished putting away the rest of the clothing together. Severus, it turned out, owned only one set of robes that was not black besides the formal robes he’d worn on this, his wedding day. He wore boxers, not briefs, and for him they came in only black and deep Slytherin green. He didn’t own jeans. His trousers were all of dark colors.

He had pajama bottoms but not tops. He had several old-fashioned dressing gowns. His socks were black. All of them. He had waistcoats to accompany his robes. The only thing that seemed to distinguish one from the other was the number of buttons.

He removed his own fine robe, leaving him in a curious old-fashioned undershirt and a pair of black boxers, and stood with his back to Harry in front of the wardrobe while he selected a robe.

Harry stared. Until this moment, the only skin he had seen of Snape’s was on his hands and his face. Severus’ arms were wiry, his shoulders surprisingly wide. He certainly hadn’t been hiding the body of an athlete beneath those robes, but neither was he as skinny and sallow as Harry had always pictured him. He was thin, that was apparent, but fairly fit as well. His legs—judging by the brief glimpse Harry allowed himself—were well-proportioned, muscular, lightly furred with dark hair.

But Harry spent most of the time staring at Severus’ arse.

Severus’ arse was well-shaped: narrow but with rounded, well-defined buttocks. Harry dropped his gaze as the familiar black robes fell around Severus’ hips. Severus turned to face him as he ran his hands from bottom to top, buttoning it so quickly and efficiently that Harry thought he must hold practice runs to improve his overall buttoning time.

Severus put on black trousers and boots, and Harry was once again faced with Severus Snape, Hogwarts Potions Professor.

Severus nodded at the door to the en suite.

“Perhaps you’d like to clean up before we tour the Manor? I’ll explore the bookshelves and find some bedtime reading.”

Harry gave Severus an uncertain smile and walked around the bed and past him into the en suite, closing the door softly behind him.

He stood with his back to the door for a long moment.

There. He’d gotten through the longest, most intimate time they had spent together to date without dying of embarrassment, blushing like a virgin or crying. And Severus—well, Severus had been downright decent. Matter-of-fact. Helpful.

He looked up and took in the bathroom. The fixtures were decidedly older, though the room had been equipped with a rather large walk-in shower with an intricate tile wall made from glazed ceramic in sea blues and greens. A vanity with two sinks, tiled in the same fashion, stood across from it, and a huge enamel tub, half sunken, filled up the end of the room. The toilet was walled off behind a door of its own, and Harry was amused to find that it was equipped with an elevated flush box and a long pull chain.

He used the facilities, washed his hands, then stood before the long mirror and stared at his reflection, at the way it was warped on the wide, beveled edges.

He didn’t look any different. Tired, perhaps, but still Harry. Still eighteen—for another four days, anyway. He took off his glasses and splashed water on his face, then dried it off with one of the white hand towels folded on the vanity top.

He glanced at the tub again, noting that it, too, was edged in the blue and green tiles. There were five taps at the end of the tub—this was no Muggle bathroom. He was suddenly thankful that the mirror wasn’t talking to him as the one at the Burrow was wont to do. “Well, what are you going to do with yourself now?” it might say, or “You call yourself married? You’re still dressing like a Hogwarts fourth year!”

His eyes drifted over to the comb and brush set that was laid out beside the sink, seeing that an identical set was laid out beside the other basin. He looked up again into the mirror. His hair, surprisingly, was behaving itself well. He rubbed his jaw and sighed. He had only been shaving daily for a couple months—he certainly didn’t expect to find stubble this early in the day.

Well, there was nothing for it. He couldn’t stay in here all day. He opened the door and, as he stepped out, Severus stood up from the chair he’d been sitting in across the room.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Harry as Severus approached him, obviously intending to take his turn in the loo. “I would have hurried if I knew you needed….”

“And I would have pounded on the door if it had been an emergency,” replied Severus. “Or used one of the other dozen or so loos in the house.” He brushed by Harry without another word.

Harry stared at the door as it closed between them, then sat on the bed and looked around the room again. His room. Their room. The bed seemed comfortable. It was higher than his bed at home—at Grimmauld Place—and softer, too. It was a four-poster but had neither canopy nor curtains. It was wide enough for three to sleep comfortably and was covered with a quilt embroidered with the Prince family crest.

Harry briefly wondered what side of the bed he’d sleep on. But he resolutely pushed the thought away, not quite ready to confront that reality. Especially when his own experience with men was so very narrow. How did one bring that up with one’s husband, anyway? That despite the fact that you are attracted to men, and have dated them, that you’d never actually had sex with anyone other than Ginny Weasley?

No, that wasn’t true. Not exactly. He’d dated guys. Well, maybe dated was a rather generous word. A part of him didn’t like to admit that his discovery of men as objects of physical, sexual desire had come as the result of an accidental encounter on the dance floor of a Muggle club after a tiff with Ginny, or that he’d been sucked off by a man fifteen years older in a nook in a dark alley, a nook made just for that kind of illicit activity. He could still feel the bricks in his back, the hands gripping his arse, feel the soft hair under his hands. He shifted.

“Harry?”

Harry looked up, blushing slightly. Severus was standing in front of him.

“Oh, I’m sorry. You ready?” He stood up, instinctively brushing the wrinkles out of his robes.

Severus had an odd look on his face, but he seemed to shake it off. “Yes. Let’s have the grand tour, then. Edward!”

The elf popped in directly between them. Harry, startled, nearly fell back onto the bed. Severus, however, kept his feet and his staid demeanor.

“We would like you to show us the Manor now, Edward,” he said.

Edward bowed. He took a long time to do it. Harry thought the act rather exaggerated and practiced, not at all the natural inclination to take a head dive into the floor of the house elves of his experience.

“This way, sirs.”

The elf disappeared into the dark passage. Harry and Severus followed.

“Lights?” Severus asked the elf.

The elf snapped his fingers and the passage was bathed in sunlight as heavy draperies on wide windows at one end of the corridor parted.

They were standing on one side of the passage against a fragile-looking spindled railing. A curved stairway led from the ground floor below to this level, entering the corridor in its center and continuing up. Harry looked down over the railing into a wide passage below. The floor of the passage caught his eye—it appeared to be set in tiles, like a mosaic.

“Follow me, sirs.” Edward lifted his head regally and proceeded from one end of the passage to the other, pointing out several more bedrooms and a smoking room.

“As you don’t smoke, we’ll convert it into a small library,” said Severus, looking around the darkly paneled room with mounted animal trophies on the walls.

Harry stepped into the room beside him, his eyes riveted on the fireplace on the far wall. Above it was mounted the head of an enormous buck with its many-pronged antlers.

Harry swallowed, feeling slightly sick. He stepped out into the hallway as Severus said, “You don’t smoke, do you, Harry?”

A man should know if his husband smokes before the wedding, Harry thought.

“Harry?”

Harry glanced at Severus. He knew he could not hide what he was feeling. But Severus, it seemed, had already connected the dots.

“I will have it removed with the rest of the trophies. We can put a painting over the fireplace—something appropriate. Perhaps Hogwarts?”

Harry nodded. He didn’t really want to stare at a painting of Hogwarts when he was in here, but said nothing and followed Severus and Edward down the corridor toward the stairway. Harry knew now that they were in one of the side wings of the Manor. The elf pointed up the stairway.

“More bedrooms, sirs, on the next floor, and the nursery—the children’s rooms, and the nanny’s. Shall we go up?” His round brown eyes looked at Harry, then at Severus. Harry could not read the look—was the house elf mocking them?

“We will explore upstairs on our own later,” Severus answered. “And above the nursery?”

“The attics,” answered Edward. “Storage.”

Severus nodded then glanced at Harry. Harry shrugged and followed them around the railing and onto the stairway. He counted the stairs leading down. Twenty-two.

If the floor above was the forest, full of dark wood and shadowy rooms, the floor below was the sea.

The paneled walls were gone, replaced by antique white paint with wood trim to match the wood of the stairway. The floor reminded Harry of the tiled en suite upstairs. It was set in stones, rectangular pieces of different sizes laid out in a random pattern, blues and greens and browns and tans reminding him of the sea and the sand. He was unaccountably mesmerized by it.

“The tiles are of natural stone, shaped and polished,” Edward drawled in that deep voice. He straightened his small shoulders, and nodded approvingly at Harry. He didn’t speak at all like any house elf Harry had ever known. Was there Uni for house elves? “The very late Master Prince, father of the late Master Prince, supervised their design and installation himself. He was a good master.” The elf glanced at Severus, then looked back at Harry. He paused. “A very good master….”

“Come. Show us the living areas and the kitchens,” interrupted Severus.

The elf bowed again, a shorter, curt bow, then set off down the corridor at a speed that belied his advanced age, stopping to point out the various parlors, game room and library on the wing. He led them into the castle-like structure that anchored the two wings. The space was open, crowned by another opulent central staircase, and tiled in the same style as the wing from which they’d just emerged. The floor here was lighter in color and the stones cut in more intricate patterns.

Severus walked around the room, gazing at the crystal chandelier high above and the tapestries on the walls. He ran one hand over the carving on one of the front doors before pulling it open and looking outside.

“Edward, I have a question for you,” he stated, his back to the elf. “With the outside of the house and the Manor grounds in such deplorable condition, I expected the house to be falling apart on the inside as well.” He turned to face Harry and the elf, arms folded across his chest. “Yet the interior of the house has been well-maintained and kept spotlessly clean.” He looked expectantly at the elf, who looked right back at Severus, just as expectantly.

“That wasn’t a question,” explained Harry as the stare-off lengthened. Severus frowned. “He’s waiting for your question.”

How was it that he seemed to know more about house elves than Severus? He smiled to himself, wondering if other witches and wizards had had elves like Dobby in their lives.

“My question? Isn’t it obvious?” asked Severus.

“Apparently not,” said Harry with a small smile, thinking that the power games between the two were deliberate.

“Why have you not maintained the exterior of the house and the grounds?” asked Severus, closing the door behind him.

“Master Prince did not require us to do so, sir,” answered Edward smoothly. “He did not leave the Manor often and when he did, he used the Floo or Apparated. The exterior holds no importance to a man of knowledge like our master….”

“Like your former master,” corrected Severus. “I am your master now.”

“Yes, Master. Of course, Master.” The elf, in a sudden show of house elf-like behavior, repeated his low bow, this time nearly prostrating himself on the floor. He struggled back to his feet a moment later, holding his back and panting slightly. Harry thought he was making a deliberate show of it, considering he had gotten up last time with only a creak of the knees. “You are the master, sir, and Mr. Harry Potter-Prince is the mistress.”

Harry had to physically bite back a half bark, half snort. Severus shot him a warning glance—Harry had seen that look countless times in Potions class—and turned back toward Edward.

“The exterior of the house and the outbuildings can no longer be neglected,” he stated. “I will be hiring a groundskeeper and a clean-up team, as well as a contractor to look at the external structure. The ivy needs to be controlled—I am sure it is damaging the brickwork. There are tree limbs overhanging the roof and the roof slates are surely in need of some repair. The shrubbery is overgrown….”

“Severus, he’s a house elf,” interjected Harry, keeping his voice low. “Note the ‘house’ part. I doubt he has any concept of what it takes to keep up the grounds of a manor or the masonry and roof.”

“The masonry and roof are parts of the house,” Severus grumbled. But he shook his head and looked up again at the chandelier, sighing. “Fine. Onward, Edward. Show us the kitchens.”

Harry was ready for a cool drink by the time they finished their tour. The kitchens were located behind the great entrance, down a half-flight of stairs and across a short passage. They were large, old-fashioned and drafty. Edward was on edge the entire time they were there—he clearly thought that the master of the home did not belong in the kitchen with the house elves. He led them to the informal and formal dining rooms next, then to the formal sitting rooms and parlors of the second wing. They didn’t go upstairs to see the guest quarters, nor to the floor above them to the house elves’ rooms. They did, however, go out onto a grand but crumbling terrace that led down to the derelict gardens behind the house. As Severus went to look into the herb garden, Harry sank down on a bench gratefully and nearly jumped out of his skin when a shrill voice in his ear chirped, “Lemonade, Master Potter-Prince.”

Harry automatically reached out for the glass that Victoria held balanced on a tray.

“Thank you. This looks good.” He nodded and she beamed.

“Madam…Sir…” She got control of herself. “Sir will wants to be reviewing the menus and making recommendations. The grocery orders is due on Tuesday and delivered on Wednesday. We—Edward and Victoria—do not touch the wines. You will be wishing to check the inventory, then order wines and spirits, ma’…sir.” She swayed from side to side. Harry had the distinct feeling that this house elf would have danced from foot to foot in her younger days, hopping sideways and perhaps doing an occasional spin with both feet off the ground. She seemed elated that someone was finally here to run the house as it should be run—and obviously that meant with plenty of alcohol. Harry had an inkling that her former masters had done more entertaining than he and Severus were likely to do.

“There is a wine cellar?” asked Severus. He had been standing at the low stone wall, studying the herb garden. The herbs were all grown wild now, though Harry could still smell a faint fragrance in the air.

“Below the kitchens, sir,” answered Edward. He was posed primly in the center of the wide terrace, squinting against the light even though he was standing in the shade.

Harry drank his lemonade as Severus grilled Edward and Victoria on the general workings of the Manor. The elves spent their days cleaning the Manor, doing small repairs and keeping it free from vermin. Vermin – magical vermin like doxies and plain old every day vermin such as mice and spiders – had become quite a problem of late

“The vermin will be easier to control once the grounds are cleaned up,” Severus pointed out. He accentuated the point by stepping on a shiny green beetle scurrying by. He picked it up by one mangled foot and inspected the carcass.

“A Tansy beetle,” he said. “Pretty, but only the wings are useful in potions and I’m not planning to brew up any anti-colic elixir this decade.” He flicked it over the wall and into the overgrown garden below. Harry, who at one time of his life might have felt sorry for the beetle, had seen so many beetle wings and beetle eyes that he now more or less looked at the creatures as walking potions ingredients.

Harry suddenly wondered what there was to do here besides work. Well, there was always reading. The Prince family seemed to have an affinity for books; one wing boasted a large library, and several of the sitting rooms were stuffed with bookshelves. And one of the parlors was more of a game room, with a billiard table, cards, chess and cribbage.

“There are stables out there,” said Severus. He was squinting into the distance.

“The late master kept horses in his youth,” supplied Edward with a disapproving look. “And dogs. For hunting.”

Hunting. So Severus’ grandfather was responsible for the trophies in the upstairs smoking room.

“That will be all, Edward, Victoria.” Severus nodded to them in turn. “Supper at eight. If that time is acceptable to you, Harry.”

“Eight is fine,” Harry answered automatically, privately thinking that eight was a long way away from the one o’clock wedding breakfast.

The two elves popped away. Harry thought that Edward at least appeared grateful to be dismissed—he probably hadn’t seen the sun for a decade. Severus held out a hand to Harry, clearly intending to pull him to his feet.

“Join me for a walk on the grounds?” Severus asked.

Harry shrugged. He was tired, but knew his exhaustion was more mental than physical. He was already missing his familiar, predictable home with its postage stamp of a garden and comfortable bed and cramped kitchen and screaming portrait of Walburga Black. He didn’t know how to run a household, or select wine, or even manage a simple grocery list.

Honestly, though, those were the least of his troubles.

He took Severus’ hand, allowing the other man to pull him to his feet. Severus’ fingers were warm and strong.

They walked side by side along an old lane that skirted the edge of the house and led back to a cluster of outbuildings a quarter mile behind it. Severus had already pointed out the stables, but there were several other buildings as well. One of them appeared to be a garage and held two Muggle cars, both of them seemingly intact, though they’d probably been sitting unused out here for fifty years.

They pulled back the wide wooden doors. “Do you drive?” Severus asked.

Harry looked at Severus. He had bitten back several sarcastic retorts today but this time he couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Of course. I had driving instructions with Hagrid and all the other seventh year Gryffindors on Wednesdays last term.”

Severus raised a foot and bounced the bumper of the car on the left. Harry thought he might be trying to hide a smile.

“I think I left Hogwarts at the right time, then,” he said. “Teenagers with wands are one thing; teenagers driving automobiles are quite a different kind of menace.”

Fortunately, the stables, unlike the garage, held no remnants of their former occupants except for the tack—bridles, saddles and even old saddle blankets, and other parts Harry couldn’t name. There were stalls on each side of the long, wide passage that ran from front to back, and on some of the stalls, name plates for the steeds they had once housed. He ran his fingers over one of them. Dark Wizard.

“Why is it you’ve never been here before?” Harry dared to ask as they stood together in front of a very old photograph in a tack room at the back. The man in the photograph was mounted on a dark horse, and waved tiredly at them, as if he’d been sitting on the horse for so long he’d become fused to it.

“My mother married a Muggle,” replied Severus, as if that was enough to explain everything.

Unfortunately, for Harry, it was.

His Aunt Petunia would have said, “My sister married a wizard.”

The tack room was by far the most interesting part of the stable.

In a dark corner, Harry found three brooms, hung one above the other on the wall.

He ran his hand over each, feeling the magic in them. They were of a make and style he didn’t know, but he did recognize the quality of the workmanship. Two of them had brass plates, marked with the name “Saturn Sweeper.” He smiled. No Firebolts and Comets in those days. The third was the most elaborate, even older in design, with a large, unwieldy tail and an odd saddle-like seat. He ran his hand over the “Equestrian.” It practically begged him to try it out. He turned toward Severus, gesturing at the brooms.

“May I?” he asked.

“This is your home, Harry,” Severus answered, distractedly. He was staring at the photographs on the wall and Harry remembered then that Severus’ mother had grown up here, even though Severus himself had never been allowed to visit.

“Are there Muggles nearby?” asked Harry as he lifted the broom off of its hooks and examined it more closely.

Severus shook his head. “There should be no danger—stay near the buildings and don’t fly too high until I can assess the wards.” He looked at the broom in Harry’s hands. “Interesting design.”

“I thought so, too,” answered Harry. He placed it carefully on the ground and held out his hand. The broom jumped up and hovered just below it.

Harry grinned, feeling better—more comfortable—in this moment than he had all day. “I’ve still got it.” He guided the broom out the back door of the building then mounted. He wiggled to accustom himself to the feel and to get his balance, then pulled back and soared forward and upward.

Well, soared was not exactly the right word. The broom didn’t accelerate quickly, but the ride was incredibly smooth and more comfortable than any broom he’d ever mounted. Despite having hung on the wall unused for years, it quickly seemed to shake out its stiffness. Harry tried a quick bank, which the broom handled fairly well, then set out back toward the house. He flew over it, noting that the tile roof looked remarkably good for not having been maintained in at least eight years and probably longer, then flew around the perimeter defined by the head-high stone wall.

The ride—the wind in his face, the sun on his back, the incredible sense of freedom and lightness flying gave him—made him feel almost normal again. He soared toward the rear wall, gazing down to see a large clearing with something circular in shape laid out in it, then over the wall to an open field crisscrossed by trails. The horses had obviously grazed here, and a wide path around the outskirts marked the riding trails that meandered back into the woods beyond the field. He flew over those, too, careful not to stray too far as neither he nor Severus knew how far the wards extended, and got glimpses of a creek wide enough to have a swimming hole or two. He dipped lower, skimmed the very top of tall pine trees, and then headed back toward the stables.

Severus was leaning against the building in the shade, watching him as Harry lit on the ground. “There are riding trails through the woods back there. The wall surrounds the entire property. Roof looks pretty good.”

Severus shook his head. “Three disjointed statements, yet I followed you. I have not been away from teaching long enough yet.” He pushed off the wall. “Come, tell me more about the roof on the way back.”

Harry put the broom back and rejoined Severus outside. Severus began to ask a question but stopped mid-word, eyes narrowed.

“What?” asked Harry. He followed Severus’ gaze toward another outbuilding.

“A cat—it just went in that building,” Severus said, moving to the building in question.

“Don’t you like cats?” asked Harry, following.

“They are adequate companions,” responded Severus. “Quiet and independent. This one, however, if I guess correctly, is pregnant.”

“Really?” Harry stopped abruptly. The door was open only a crack, just enough to allow small creatures access; Severus pulled and it opened with a long creak to reveal a dark room, full of shadows. Harry squinted, then stepped inside.

“This is where they worked on the tiles,” he said, intrigued. Severus was pushing the door back against the outside wall and more sunlight streamed in, illuminating the workshop. The walls were lined with stacks of flat stones and a large, sturdy table filled the center. Tiles of different sizes were stacked and scattered on the table as well, with a variety of files and tools Harry didn’t recognize. A thick layer of dust covered everything in the room.

Harry picked up a reddish brown square of stone, about the size of his hand, blew off the dust, then ran his thumb over the polished top.

“Do you suppose they used magic at all?” he asked Severus, still studying the stone. He picked up one of the tools and studied it.

Severus walked over to an old cluttered desk against the side wall and picked up a roll of parchment. “There are notes here,” he said. “And yes, I am sure magic was used. The Prince family would not have done things the Muggle way, no matter that there are Muggle automobiles in the carriage house. Quite a few wizards kept them. The Malfoys have a Bentley and a Rolls Royce. I think Lucius is competing with the Queen.”

Harry didn’t comment, though he did enjoy a private moment imagining Lucius Malfoy in a yellow suit dress with matching hat and handbag. He had moved several pieces of stone to a clear spot on the table and was idly trying to fit them together. He’d always loved puzzles as a child, putting together the ones Dudley rejected, most of them with missing pieces. He remembered completing them in his imagination. Puzzles seemed to come naturally to him, and he quickly had the rectangular pieces arranged so that they completed a square. He pulled in a few more pieces—longer and narrower than the first—and arranged them to form a border around the first group. He stared critically at the arrangement, disassembled it, then regrouped the pieces

“You have a natural eye for color and pattern,” said Severus. He was on the other side of the table, facing the open door. Harry thought he sounded surprised.

“Yeah, I’m not all about Quidditch and disarming spells,” Harry said off-handedly. He picked up another piece of stone and turned it in his hand, examining its shape.

When Harry looked up, Severus was staring at him, looking thoughtful.

“You said there was a cat?” Harry replaced the tile and glanced around.

Severus nodded to a back corner of the room.

“Footprints lead over there,” he said. “She’s probably made a bed in those old sand bags.”

Even with the door wide open and the sun streaming in, the corner was still in shadow. Harry crouched down and peered back into the darkness.

“I don’t see her,” he said. He reached out and pushed a box to the side, rustling the old bags. “I’ll bring something out later for her to eat.” He looked back at Severus, suddenly realizing that he probably shouldn’t be feeding strays without Severus’ consent. “If that’s all right with you, of course.”

Severus looked amused. “Not too much—I’m sure she has plenty of mice out here to keep under control.”

Harry looked at the table as they left, thinking that he’d like to come out here to play with the rock and tiles some more, perhaps read the notes Severus’ great-grandfather had left. Severus closed the workshop door and Harry pulled it back open a few inches. Severus didn’t comment, but left the door propped open.

“I do not like pets in the house,” warned Severus as they walked toward the Manor.

“They get hairs in your potions?” Harry found himself saying.

Severus glanced at him, a vague smile on his face again.

“A valid enough reason,” he answered. “Have you ever owned a pet?”

“An owl,” Harry answered, thinking nostalgically of Hedwig. He’d never replaced her. “I really should get another one. We’ll need one for post and such.”

Severus nodded. “We will need to ask the house elves where the owls roost here. I have been using one of the Malfoy’s owls—Aquila.”

“Aquila—doesn’t that mean eagle?” An eagle owl. He said nothing more, but made a mental note to buy an owl of his own the next time he visited Diagon Alley.

~*~

Severus and Harry dined in the formal dining room this first night. Harry felt incredibly small sitting with Severus at one end of the banquet-sized table in the large room. The elves had prepared the food and placed the serving dishes on the table but were nowhere in sight as Harry and Severus dined. Harry said and ate very little. He felt increasingly out of place and unsettled as the evening wore on. Given his choice, he would Apparate back to Grimmauld Place and crawl into bed, pull the covers over his head and give it up for the day. He wouldn’t sit here, toying with his food, thinking about tonight’s sleeping arrangements, wondering what kind of proof the house elves would demand to assure themselves that he and Severus were not only legitimately married but were acting as a legitimately married couple as well. As resolute as he had been about this whole arrangement, and as interested in sex as he had been these past couple of years, he didn’t know if he could do it—have sex with Severus—not tonight, anyway. He hadn’t even kissed him yet, had hardly even touched him.

And just how was he going to tell Severus that he was technically a virgin?

Maybe it wouldn’t come up. Maybe they’d just crawl into bed from opposite sides and Harry would curl up with his pillow, close his eyes and fall asleep. After all, it had been a long day.

He toyed with his peas and eventually gave it up. He put his fork down on his plate and picked up his water goblet.

“You aren’t hungry?” Severus had paused with a forkful of beef pie held in midair.

“Not really,” answered Harry. “It’s been a long day.”

Severus set his fork down. “This fare is heavy for so late in the evening,” he said. “You should talk to the elves tomorrow and let them know what foods you prefer.”

“I do my own cooking at home,” said Harry. At home. He hoped his voice didn’t sound too wistful.

“I thought you had a house elf—that old creature that was always lurking about Grimmauld Place.”

“Yeah—that would be Kreacher,” Harry said. “He helps around the place—gets rid of the doxies and such. But he spends most of his time at Hogwarts now. He’s taken a liking to Professor McGonagall. I’ve learned to make do in the kitchen.”

“You’ve only been out of Hogwarts a few months,” said Severus.

“They put the returning eighth-years in the guest quarters,” said Harry. “We actually had small suites and a shared kitchen. We didn’t have to eat in the Great Hall all the time.”

Severus picked up his fork again and ate a bite of pie. “And what did you cook there?” Harry could tell he was trying to make polite conversation.

“Indian, mostly. The Patil twins came back to repeat the year and taught us some great recipes. We made pasta too, and Mrs. Weasley’s dinner rolls.”

An odd expression came over Severus’ face then. When he spoke, Harry thought he was more interested than he let on. “Ah. Molly’s dinner rolls. You can make them?”

Harry shrugged. “Sure. Why? Have you ever had them?”

Severus took another bite of the savory pie. “She made them sometimes for Order meetings. I didn’t often stay for dinner, but she managed to lure me in a time or two with the smell of those rolls in the oven.”

What was that saying Aunt Petunia always said? The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? Harry always thought that Aunt Petunia must have really been worried about her hold on Uncle Vernon’s heart, given the amount of food he put away.

“I’ll make them this week,” said Harry. “I’ve got a taste for them anyway.”

“Perhaps with some angel hair pasta….”

Harry looked at Severus. “If I’m supposed to help with the grocery list, it would help to know what you like and don’t like. I’m guessing you like angel hair pasta.”

“I like nearly everything,” said Severus. “Except for Brussels sprouts.”

“I’ll remember that,” said Harry, not telling Severus that he hated them too. He made a mental note to watch what Severus ate—and didn’t eat.

They left the cleaning up for the elves and Harry followed Severus upstairs and into a small parlor for afters. Severus called Edward and asked for coffee. He looked expectantly at Harry.

“Coffee is fine,” said Harry. He had little experience with it, but thought he could force himself to drink it without too much fuss.

The coffee turned out to be more than fine when accompanied by a slice of chocolate cake and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Edward popped in a time more than was strictly needed and looked at Harry and Severus suspiciously, wondering, Harry guessed, why this newly married couple was sitting across from each other in near silence.

Nerves, thought Harry. Surely their decidedly unromantic behavior could be written off to excessive nerves. Fortunately, the Prince will did not require that Severus wait until he found his soul mate to marry.

Finally, Severus set his empty coffee mug down and looked up at Harry. Harry still held his nearly empty mug. He looked back at Severus, waiting.

“We are going to have to have sex tonight,” said Severus bluntly.

Harry looked down into his coffee, lips pressed together. Well, he couldn’t say it came as a surprise. Not exactly. He knew what he’d signed up for. But there had been no affection, no build up, no hand-holding, no kiss. Not a shard of romance, in fact. Wasn’t sex supposed to be more than just a physical act?

Severus seemed to read his thoughts. “It is just a physical act, Harry. It needn’t have any emotion attached to it.”

Needn’t. That was the word, wasn’t it? Of course sex could be nothing but a physical act. People paid prostitutes for sex, didn’t they? But that seemed such a waste to Harry. In his meager experience, he knew how good the physical act could feel, but he also suspected that those fumbles in the loo and the alley would have felt entirely different—and so much better—had he’d been with someone he truly cared about.

“It’s just—well, it’s just odd,” admitted Harry. He placed his cup on the tray next to Severus'. “I know we’re married, but we hardly know each other. We’ve hardly even touched….”

“Come here,” said Severus, a bit sharply.

Harry frowned. “Don’t order me around like that.”

Severus frowned in turn. “I am not ordering you. I am asking you.”

“It didn’t sound like a request.” But he stood nonetheless. He stayed on the other side of the table, looking down at Severus.

Severus held out his hand to him. “At least sit over here beside me.”

Harry ignored Severus’ hand. He walked around the table and settled onto the loveseat beside Severus. Severus leaned back. Their shoulders rubbed together.

“I am not…unaware…that I am not physically appealing,” began Severus. “But I assure you I am an experienced lover and the act will at least be pleasurable.”

What the…? Harry dropped his head back, shaking it in disbelief.

“This has nothing to do with how appealing either of us is,” he said. “If I want a meaningless fumble in a bar, I can do it with some bloke I’m not likely to ever see again.”

“You want a meaningless fumble?” asked Severus.

“No. You’re not getting this, are you?” He sighed, exasperated, not even sure himself how to explain what he was feeling. “We’re married….”

“Of that I am well aware,” cut in Severus dryly.

“Yeah, well we’re married and we’re going to be married for a year. We’ll be waking up in that bed together and if we don’t share more than that bed I figure it will be a pretty miserable year. Even roommates know more about each other than we do.”

“You want to live as roommates?”

“You’re being deliberately dense, aren’t you?”

“What do you want, then?” Severus looked as bewildered—and as annoyed—as Harry felt.

“Maybe to get to know each other better before we have sex!” hissed Harry, keeping his voice low.

“You want to get to know me?” Severus sounded surprised.

“Yes. I do.”

“Fine. What do you want to know about me?” Severus shot back.

“I don’t know. How about what you like for breakfast. Your favorite color. Your birthday. Maybe if you like to top or bottom!”

“Top,” answered Severus smoothly. “You?”

Harry glared at Severus but didn’t answer. He wasn’t amused. He was tired, and nervous, and wished he really had the bravado he’d displayed during the contract negotiations. It had seemed so much easier then, back when they were on the other side of the wedding. And Severus wasn’t making this any easier. He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands then pressed his fingers against his forehead. Beside him, Severus’ hand came down to rest on his thigh.

“What are you doing?” he asked without opening his eyes as the hand caressed his thigh lightly.

“Getting to know you better,” answered Severus. “Finding out where you’re ticklish.”

No. Severus Snape could not have just said that.

“I’m not ticklish there,” Harry answered. “And if you’re interested in getting to know me better by touching me, how about rubbing my feet?”

“Rubbing your feet? That does nothing for me,” responded Severus.

Harry let out a bark of laughter. Now that sounded like Snape! Severus did not join in. “Wait—you’re serious, aren’t you?” Harry said.

“Serious? Of course.”

Harry stood up suddenly, turning to face Severus. His instinctive Gryffindor bravery was rearing its head and beating tired, cranky and nervous Harry into submission.

He dropped to his knees.

“What are you…?”

He reached down for Severus' right boot, loosened the closure and quickly pulled it off, setting it to the side carefully and staring at the long and narrow foot still clad in a thin black sock.

He sighed.

“What? What is it?” Severus remained perfectly still, eyes locked on Harry. Harry glanced up at him then started on the other boot. He pulled it off, Severus obligingly arching his foot as he did so, and placed it next to the first, then pulled off the socks and draped them over the boots. He sat down cross-legged on the floor and took Severus’ feet in his lap.

“I fail to see how this…ahhh.”

Harry had grasped Severus’ left foot in his hands and began to knead it with nimble fingers. This was something he could do and do well. He couldn’t count the number of times he had sat on the floor in front of Ginny, or Hermione, rubbing the arches of their feet, massaging the soles, the heels. He’d learned early that girls loved foot rubs, melting—purring—with their feet in his lap. He almost—almost—grinned thinking of those days when he was fifteen and having a foot in his lap was the closest thing to sex he’d ever had.

Funny. He was almost nineteen now and he wasn’t a hell of a lot more experienced.

Severus, unlike Ginny and Hermione, quickly figured out to what do with his right foot while the left one was being massaged.

Harry shifted slightly as long, nimble toes pressed into his thigh near his groin.

“That is good,” said Severus, softly, a minute later as Harry’s hands worked up his foot to rub the ankle. “It has been a long day.”

Harry released Severus’ left foot and picked up the right, scooting it down and away from his groin and resting the heel on his thigh instead as he pressed his thumbs into the generous arch. He risked a glance up at his husband. Severus had relaxed into the loveseat and was watching Harry, an almost puzzled expression on his face.

“And I’m not getting into bed with you before you’ve at least kissed me,” said Harry, moving from instep to Severus’ big toe, pressing his thumb against the joint and pulling down and out. He glanced at Severus again. The puzzled expression looked more impassive now.

“You are a romantic, then?” asked Severus, tilting his head to the side just a fraction.

Harry continued pulling on Snape’s toes, working them each in turn, looking at Severus’ foot instead of at his face.

“I like to get to know a person before I sleep with them.”

“Oh?” Severus pressed the heel of his right foot down into the flesh of Harry’s thigh while Harry once again began to work the arch. “And with just how many ‘persons’ have you slept?”

Harry wished he could keep the blush off his face. He didn’t answer, shaking his head marginally as if brushing off the question.

“Perhaps you could give me a range, then?” Severus’ voice was low, as it always was, but almost artificially smooth. “Five to ten? Ten to twenty? More than twenty?”

Harry did not look up. He reminded himself not to be intimidated.

“Why don’t you go first?” answered Harry. He ran his finger lightly up the bottom of Severus’ foot from heel to toes and Severus shuddered.

“Five to ten. I am not a man given to casual fucks.”

“Oh.” Harry looked back down at the feet in his lap. Casual fucks. What was he expecting? That Severus was practically a virgin too? “Well, good.”

“And you?” Severus wiggled the toes of his left foot and dug the toes of his right into the crease between thigh and groin, as if prodding Harry for an answer.

“Me either. No casual…encounters,” answered Harry. He arranged Snape’s feet next to each other, heels touching, in the space between his knees and rubbed the pads of both feet simultaneously.

Snape stared at him. Waiting. He arched an eyebrow.

“You’re not….” Severus’ feet—his feet!—had gone tense in Harry’s lap.

Harry didn’t look up as he continued to massage the feet mechanically. He shrugged, reminding himself to be the Gryffindor he was. “I’ve never had intercourse with a man.” He said the words slowly and clearly, unapologetically.

“You’ve never had intercourse.” Snape repeated the words, just as slowly. He steepled his hands in front of his face, leaning on them as he regarded Harry. Harry stopped the pretense of the foot massage and scooted backward, staring at Severus in turn. “You were planning on telling me this before I took you to bed, were you not?”

“If it came up, yes.”

Courage. Honesty. He hadn’t meant to tell Severus. But he wasn’t going to lie when asked directly. Furthermore, he refused to feel embarrassed about it. He was almost nineteen now. Not all the teenagers he knew were shagging like rabbits.

“Why not?”

Snape’s voice held a certain tone. He was curious, not accusatory.

“Does it matter?” retorted Harry.

“Does what matter? That you hadn’t planned on telling me that you’re a virgin or that you are a virgin?”

“Not having had sex with a man doesn’t necessarily make me a virgin,” stated Harry. He was being obtuse and he knew it. But he didn’t really want to have this discussion, resigned as he’d been to having to address it at some point today.

“Yes it does!” Severus was beginning to lose his cool. Harry perked up a bit. This was a Snape he understood better than the calm, measured man who negotiated marriage contracts with poised neutrality and weathered a wedding reception without arrant cynicism.

“I’m not inexperienced—I’ve had sex with Gi—a woman,” Harry retorted, as calmly as he was able. “And I’m not naïve.” He stood and took a step closer to Severus. “And I’ve never been innocent.”

He met Severus’ eyes for a drawn-out moment, feeling as if he were being dared to do so, egged on by his Gryffindor friends in the common room to go knock on Professor Snape’s door and kiss him when he opened it. He shifted rather inelegantly to his knees and edged up against Severus, between his splayed legs, and reached out with hands he hoped were steady toward Severus’ face.

He gave Severus plenty of time to pull away, or to take the lead in the impending kiss, but Severus remained completely immobile. His eyes seemed to bore into Harry’s, all darkness and depth, remaining open even as Harry worked his hand to the back of Severus’ neck, lifting the fine black hair out of the way, then pulling him forward, just an inch, just enough that their noses brushed against each other.

Severus’ nose was unusually long.

Harry tilted his head and pressed his lips to Severus’.

He supposed he couldn’t call it a chaste kiss—not really. Not considering that he moved his lips across Snape’s after the initial press of flesh to flesh. That he took the bottom lip between both of his, sucking it then releasing it. That he brushed his tongue—just the tip of it—along the seam of Severus’ mouth and suddenly found himself somewhere he hadn’t quite expected to be—tongue on teeth, tongue on gums, tongue on tongue.

A hand, larger than his own, long-fingered and dexterous, was suddenly cupping the back of his head, fingers working up into his hair from his neck, massaging his scalp. His cheek rasped against another, slightly stubbled. Severus tasted of coffee, lips somehow still warm with it. He kissed as if he were unaccustomed to it, surprised at having to do it, leading and following with his brain instead of by instinct.

Yet, for Harry, it was not unpleasant. He’d gotten the noses sorted out easily enough, and Severus soon became more than a passive participant, pulling Harry toward him, tightening his legs around Harry’s waist, wrapping his other arm around Harry, fingers splayed over the small of his back. Harry felt every point of contact, intensely aware of fingers and lips and knees and stubbly cheek, of Severus’ long, scarred neck beneath his fingers, the fabric of his robes against his knuckles.

As he pulled away from Severus, released his neck, let his fingers slide out of the long, smooth hair, he thought that he’d never had a first kiss like this one. This was no awkward fumble, discolored by the haze of alcohol. Nor was it a passionate exploration of a potential lover’s heart and soul through a perfect kiss. This kiss, this kiss, was a toe over the line in the sand that he’d drawn. I won’t have sex with a stranger.

It was, better said, an introduction.

Harry didn’t quite know what to make of it. Severus Snape had kissed him…at first with reluctance. Almost…almost as if kissing Harry at all hadn’t been in his game plan.

Sex without kissing?

“You like to kiss?” Severus’ breath was in his ear, his head still close to Harry’s.

“Yeah. I like to kiss. Don’t you?” Harry was finding it difficult to keep this up. He was married to a man who didn’t like to kiss…or who didn’t like to kiss him. To a man who blithely announced that they would be having sex tonight, but who acted as if sex was nothing but a physical act, with no prelude—not even kissing—to make it more emotionally meaningful. His spouse—his husband—planned to take him to bed and have sex with him to complete the physical act, the conjugal requirement of marriage.

“No. Actually, no. I suppose I find it an unnecessary distraction. There are far better—far more interesting—activities for two men than wasting time with their tongues down each other’s throats. I’d much rather have my cock down your throat than my tongue.”

Harry, who had spent far more time kissing in his short life as a sexually active adult than in any other physical activity, found his own cock taking a sudden and unexpected interest in Severus’ talk of cocks and throats. He leaned forward a fraction, capturing Severus’ lips once more, tracing his bottom lip with the tip of his tongue as Severus’ thighs tightened around him. Vaguely, in some corner of his mind, he knew he should be offended by Severus’ statement, but in another corner a little voice whispered, “Show him.”

And Gryffindors were known for acting before thinking.

Truth be told, he’d never kissed anyone before while kneeling at their feet, had never before been wedged between thighs as strong as Severus'. Kissing Severus’ mouth seemed, despite his thoughts to the contrary, a mere distraction, a pastime to keep his brain operational while most of his blood rushed to his cock. His traitorous cock. He was tired. He was married to a virtual stranger. He was not supposed to be aroused, not supposed to be pressing in closer against the hard body behind those hard thighs, touching the angular face with his fingertips, slipping his hand behind the long neck, into the fine hair.

He shouldn’t have dropped his other hand to the curve of Severus’ arse, sliding it down over shoulders and back, gripping the arse cheek through the robes and pulling even as he moved closer still.

Severus groaned.

Harry could tell he had tried to suppress it, had tried to swallow the sound before it left him. But the soft groan, almost a moan, escaped nonetheless. Severus buried his head in the crook of Harry’s neck, breathing in deeply as he pulled Harry more tightly to him. He laughed, the sound half-throttled.

“I believe you said you were not getting in bed with me until I kissed you.” He moved his mouth up on Harry’s neck, his breath ghosting along his skin. “Now that that requirement has been fulfilled, shall we retire?”

“Don’t sound so smug,” answered Harry, even as he closed his eyes tightly, trying to will back the shudder as Severus’ lips moved up slightly to kiss behind his ear.

Severus surprised him then, standing up quickly, leaving Harry kneeling. He reached down and grasped Harry’s biceps, pulling him to his feet, steadying him as he wobbled. “Bed, then?”

“Bed,” agreed Harry. His arousal—and Severus’—was going a long way to block both rational thought and his intellectual reluctance to having sex with a man who, despite the marriage certificate and the kiss they had shared, was little more than an acquaintance to him. No matter that he’d been thinking about this night, this moment, since the marriage contract had been signed. No matter that he liked blokes and that he’d been obsessed with the Half-blood Prince and that he hadn’t been half as upset about Narcissa’s request than he should have been. In the end, this was Snape. Severus Snape.

Severus stepped back and gestured toward the door, letting Harry take the lead while he bent to pick up his boots. Harry unbuttoned his robes as he made his way toward the bedroom, Severus right behind him.

He stopped in his tracks. Severus nearly ran into him.

“What is it, Harry?” he asked.

Harry sighed, gestured into the room and stepped aside as Severus pushed past him.

Severus, too, came to a dead stop.

Edward was standing in the center of the room, head bowed, but not practically prostrate as he had nearly been earlier in the day. Candles—dozens of white tapers in ornate candelabra—illuminated the room, and the bed was turned down to reveal white sheets adorned with two long-stemmed roses, one white, one red. A bottle of champagne sat chilling on the bedside table.

“The marital chamber is prepared, Master,” rumbled Edward.

Harry stared at him, mouth slightly agape, while Severus nodded.

“Thank you, Edward. Your efforts are appreciated. That will be all.”

The elf bowed again, stared meaningfully at Harry, then popped out.

“This is…unexpected,” said Harry. He had followed Severus into the room. The candle flames flickered in the reflection of his glasses.

Severus’ mouth was tight as he strode quickly over to the bed and stared at the roses.

“Those are nice,” said Harry, voice soft. He had walked over beside Severus and stood there rather stiffly.

Severus picked up the two flowers. “Nice?” he repeated. “Do you know what these roses signify? A white and a red rose placed on the bed of a newly married couple?”

“No—I have no idea.” Harry assumed they signified love, or overcoming the thorny road ahead.

“Blood and semen,” Severus said, almost as if to himself, his voice not much more than a whisper. “The wedding bed.” His eyes met Harry’s. “Symbolic, of course, given that we are two men and there will be no hymen involved in the consummation of this marriage.” He looked down at the roses again. “Which is all the better. I abhor blood.”

The last statement was thoughtful, again as if Severus were speaking to himself. Harry glanced at the champagne on the table, then sat on the bed and bent to take off his boots.

“Champagne sounds good,” he said. He was lying. Champagne didn’t sound remotely appealing, but perhaps it would act as liquid courage. The arousal of the kiss, the press of bodies in the other room, had thoroughly faded.

Severus poured two flutes half-full and handed one to Harry. He held his glass out toward Harry and lifted it, and Harry did the same. They didn’t touch rims but looked at each other as they downed the contents.

Harry handed his empty glass back to Severus, then stood to remove his robes and trousers. He paused a moment, staring at the door of the en suite in front of him, then pulled his shirt over his head and glanced over at Severus as he sat back down on the bed.

Severus was watching Harry. When Harry removed his shirt and sat there, resigned, he set both empty champagne flutes on the night table and began unbuttoning his own robes. He draped them carefully over the wing chair in the corner, then stood in front of Harry and dropped to his knees.

Harry let his shirt fall to the bed beside him and met Severus’ eyes.

“We’re going to do this?”

“We’re going to do this,” answered Severus.

Without prelude, he pulled at the elastic of Harry’s pants with his thumbs, pulling down the garment, working it off, and discarding it on the floor. Then, placing one hand on Harry’s thigh, fingers splayed, and the other around the curve of his arse, he lowered his head and engulfed Harry’s cock.

Sweet Merlin!

If he had been only half-hard before they came into the bedroom, he was hard now, growing to full length so quickly that he knew he must be choking Severus. The heat, the pressure, the feel of Severus’ tongue, the head of his cock pressing up against the back of Severus’ throat, every little hum and vibration—he wanted to drive into the cavern of that mouth, that mouth that had kissed him earlier, that was working him now. He looked down at Severus and that was his undoing. That mouth—those lips—tight around his cock, his cock, sliding past those wet lips…

He came within five minutes, his hands tangled in Severus’ hair, nearly jerking as Severus ran his tongue around his sensitive flesh, then collapsed back on the bed as Severus crawled up and on him, rolling with him as they came to rest in the middle of the bed.

“That was…surprising,” murmured Harry. Severus’ weight on him was forgivingly comfortable. The other man was long and lean, and it didn’t feel at all awkward to have him there, his hips resting in the vee of Harry’s legs. Harry, sated and boneless, could feel the press of Severus’ cock against his thigh.

“Surprising that you liked it?” asked Severus, pushing himself up on his elbows and grinding slowly against Harry.

“You want me to return the favor?” asked Harry, ignoring Severus’ question and beginning to feel more than a little awkward. He couldn’t possibly pleasure Severus the way Severus had pleasured him. He wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Severus laughed and ground down against him again. “No—though I will certainly take you up on your offer another time. I’ve something else in mind.”

Something else involved Harry on his front, knees wide and forward, arse in the air. It involved Severus’ hands on his arse, kneading his cheeks, and his tongue…his tongue…fuck!…. It involved a lubricating oil that smelled slightly minty, pressed into him with Severus’ long, dexterous fingers, warming him, a pleasant tingle of arousal inside and out as Severus palmed his cock again, spreading the lubricant over bollocks and shaft and around the head. It involved time—more time than he had ever spent with any almost-lover—time to prepare him, to make him want it again, for Severus didn’t seem satisfied, didn’t decide that it was enough until Harry was pushing back against him, bearing down on his fingers, until his prick was no longer limp and sated but hard again, straining.

Something else involved Severus’ weight on his back, his hand on Harry’s cock, his cock in Harry’s arse. Pain mixed with pleasure, warring against each other as Severus pushed into him again and again, and it was worth the pain to hear him mutter so tight, sweet Merlin you’re so tight and to feel that—that jolt of pure pleasure when Severus’ cock brushed his prostate the first time, and the next, and the next.

He found himself coming again, into Severus’ hand, Severus still inside him, one arm around him, pulling him back and up, one hand on his cock, working it, pulling it. Slow, deep thrusts, quickening, the incongruous sound of Severus Snape grunting then collapsing on him as he came, biting his neck, falling to the side, spooning behind him.

All was quiet save the thudding of their hearts.

Harry was still. The pleasure had masked the pain, and until he came down from the waves of euphoria, he hadn’t known how sore he was, how uncomfortable. After a few minutes, when Severus hadn’t moved, Harry rolled over onto his back and sat up. The candles were still burning, the room aglow with their muted, flickering light.

He looked down at Severus. His eyes were closed but he didn’t appear to be asleep. Harry sat on the edge of the bed and found his pants on the floor. He stood and stepped into them, then went to the dresser and pulled out a pair of pajama pants. He glanced back at the bed then, but Severus hadn’t moved.

When he came out of the bathroom five minutes later, Severus was snoring softly. He got into bed beside Severus and was asleep within minutes. In those brief moments between closing his eyes and falling asleep, he thought about the act. It had been nice. He certainly couldn’t complain about having not one, but two really good orgasms. The stars behind his eyes when Severus hit his prostate had surprised him—he hadn’t realized how animalistic he could become when something felt that good. He was a bit embarrassed by that—by how he had rutted back against Severus, pushing back to take him deeper and harder, encouraging him to take him, to fuck him good and hard.

He’d enjoyed it. He could do it again—anytime. But there had been no surge of power, blending of souls, internalizing of the other.

It was sex. Just sex. It was good, but it hadn’t been magic.

*~*

Harry was alone in the big bed when he awoke the next morning. He lay there, eyes still closed, listening. There were no sounds of Severus—no movement in the room, nor in the loo. He waited a few more minutes then opened his eyes, fumbled on the table for his glasses and sat up.

His arse hurt. No surprises there. But the soreness would pass, he expected, and it wasn’t a crippling kind of pain.

The other side of the bed—the side Severus had slept on—was half made already. The pillow was plumped and aligned properly, the sheet pulled up and smoothed out. Harry shook his head. He vaguely remembered waking up in the middle of the night—it had been storming, he remembered now—and feeling Severus pressed up against his side. It had been strangely comforting at the time, and he had slipped back to sleep easily.

He took his time showering and dressing, hesitating in front of the wardrobe in shirt and trousers. If he were home—home at Grimmauld Place—he wouldn’t put on his robes until he was ready to leave the house. He sighed and looked down at himself. Andromeda had put him through the paces one afternoon last week in front of his wardrobe, after she’d moved everything he wouldn’t be taking with him to a chest of drawers in the guest room next to his master suite. Nothing worn, or torn, or too loose, or too tight, or adorned with pictures or words. He’d tried on nearly every piece of clothing he owned and she had rejected at least half of it. When he wanted to go out and buy more, she’d smirked and suggested that his new husband could take care of that once they were married. And finally, in a brief but very humiliating five minutes, she’d gone through all of his pants—briefs and boxers alike—and had finally thrown away all but three pair. She’d shaken her head then and had instructed him to go buy briefs in white and boxers in grey—a dozen pair of each—and no, it was not acceptable if the band was a different color than the pants themselves.

Robes next—his best everyday robes were the obvious choice. He looked longingly at his trainers but chose a pair of comfortably worn brown leather boots instead. He ran a hand through his damp hair and headed downstairs. Best to get this day going. Besides, he was hungry and past ready for breakfast. He glanced at the clock on the mantel. It was a still respectable 8:35.

He’d taken a Muggle analgesic after he showered. Despite the ability of a potion to clear away nearly all traces of pain, he wasn’t in the habit of carrying potions vials with him, and nothing beat ibuprofen for convenience. He smiled, thinking of what the house elves would think if they found a bottle of pills in the cabinet in the en suite. Forget the house elves—what would Severus think?

He found Severus soon enough—in the same little parlor they’d been in last night when Harry had kissed him. A tray on the low table held breakfast—he could tell that Severus had already eaten. He was sitting in a leather chair reading The Daily Prophet. He looked up as Harry stopped in the doorway, his eyes sweeping down and over him.

“I’ve kept breakfast warm for you,” he said, and then went back to reading the paper.

“Good morning to you too,” muttered Harry.

He walked in and settled on the loveseat across from Severus. He was thankful for the soft cushions—his arse hurt and the ibuprofen wasn’t doing much yet. He made his tea and examined the breakfast offerings, then served himself eggs and bacon and two pieces of toast and began to eat.

“Edward and Victoria are awaiting instructions,” said Severus a few minutes later. Harry had been staring at the newspaper and started when Severus folded it suddenly.

“Instructions?” Harry tore his eyes away from the three-inch headline screaming news of their wedding to the wizarding world and looked at Severus.

“If we did not have house elves, we would need to plan menus, shop, cook, clean and manage small repairs. We would, perhaps, decorate the home, rearrange furniture, work in the gardens. We are fortunate to have the house elves, but they require direction. They will look to you for that direction, of course.”

“Of course,” agreed Harry, trying to keep his voice neutral, wondering how the elves had managed to survive alone for eight years without his assistance. “I’ll meet with them after breakfast.” He took another long drink of tea. “What are your plans for the day?” he asked, trying to sound casual.

“I have a meeting at Gringotts,” Severus answered. “I will have only restricted access to the Prince estate this first year but am apparently allowed to know—finally—what the estate contains. There is a separate household account for our everyday needs this year. I am assured we will be comfortable enough with those funds.” His voice had an edge and Harry thought Severus didn’t quite trust those assurances.

“Right,” answered Harry. His eyes kept going back to the “Potter Settles on Snape” headline. He toyed with his eggs, piling them on a piece of toast. He’d stopped reading the Prophet in those weeks after the Battle of Hogwarts and hated that he wanted to grab it out of Severus’ hands and read it now. “Do house elves do the shopping?” he asked, frowning at his plate. “I’ve never seen them at the grocers’.”

“They can, yes. Though most traditional families still have accounts at grocers’ and simply owl in their orders.”

Harry shifted on the cushions. He abandoned the eggs altogether. Somehow, he hadn’t thought he’d be going from wedding night to running the household without a few days to get his bearings. “Where are Edward and Victoria?” he asked, standing up and smoothing out his robes.

“Probably in the kitchens,” said Severus. “But you needn’t go searching—just call for them.”

Business as usual then, thought Harry, as he nodded to Severus and went in search of the elves. No mention of the previous night, no offer to come with him, to help ease him into his new role. Maybe Severus wasn’t a morning person. Maybe he wasn’t accustomed to waking up with someone at his side either. Maybe he had the Gringotts meeting on his mind.

Harry had no idea. He simply didn’t know his husband.

He did find the elves in the kitchens, and they worked together for three hours, poring over account ledgers, grocery inventories, and old notebooks of yellowed parchment pages with handwritten notes detailing home repairs, building supplies, exterminator services, firewood deliveries and even professional re-warding. He realized that since Severus’ grandfather had died, the elves had been in a continuous loop, cooking only for themselves but cleaning the house as if it were inhabited. They dusted, swept, laundered sheets and bedclothes and curtains, scrubbed countertops and floors and toilets and showers. There were detailed lists of household chores, each marked with a frequency. The banister railings were dusted daily and polished weekly. Beds were stripped on Tuesdays. The foyer floors were mopped on Wednesdays and buffed on Thursdays. Candle-holders were polished on Fridays, the crystal chandeliers thoroughly dusted on Saturdays and mattresses turned on Sundays.

Harry stared at the ledgers.

“These chores—these tasks—you’ve been doing them all even though no one else lived here? You washed sheets and turned mattresses?”

The two elves, side by side on high stools, exchanged a look that clearly communicated what they thought of Harry’s question.

“Yes, Master Harry,” answered Edward. “These are our duties.” He nodded gravely and jabbed a long finger at the list in front of Harry. “They are here. They are written.”

“I see. And you have time for all of this? You get your jobs done and have time for rest?” He looked at them sternly as they exchanged another glance. He imagined they looked guilty. “For sleep?”

“We do our duties, Master Harry. We do what is needed.” Edward managed to seem both haughty and resigned.

“Fine,” said Harry. “Let’s start with cooking, then.” He pulled the kitchen ledger over and opened it, sighing as he squinted at the cramped handwriting that filled the pages. “There’ll be more cooking now, and more cleaning up afterward.” He looked up at them shrewdly. The two elves looked like they were on the opposite side of an investigator’s table. “How should we handle this, then? Perhaps Master Severus and I can do the cleaning up?”

The look of horror on the elves’ faces told him exactly what they thought of that suggestion.

“No?” Harry peered at them, narrowing his eyes. “A cook then? Someone to help with the meal preparations? Perhaps we could get a free elf from….”

“Nooooooo!”

The inner house elf had resurfaced. Edward had abandoned all pretense of stuffy formality and flung himself forward onto the table, pounding it with his fists. Harry jumped as the elf kicked and wailed.

“No free elf!” Victoria looked in horror from Harry to Edward and back to Harry again.

“But there’s too much work,” said Harry, trying very hard to ignore Edward’s moans and gyrations. He pretended to study the ledgers again as Edward finally scooted himself back off the table and onto the stool, looking warily at Harry. “Perhaps...” He glanced at the house elves, shook his head, then looked down at the ledgers. “No…well, maybe….”

Victoria was leaning forward, but Edward’s eyes were closed and he was swaying, still moaning softly.

“I have it! We’ll divide the house into two zones. You can keep your current schedule with Zone One—all the rooms we use frequently. But for Zone Two, we’ll change the daily chores to once a week and the weekly chores to once a month. That will allow you more time for cooking and the wash up afterwards…what?”

The elves looked absolutely flummoxed.

“What’s wrong? Here…look.” He turned a piece of parchment over and began a simple sketch that vaguely resembled the first-floor floor plan. He marked the master bedroom suite, the hallway and the small lounge with Ones and everything else with Twos.

“See? We don’t use most of the rooms. If you keep your current schedule in these three areas—” he touched the three Ones with the tip of his quill—“and just clean these other rooms once a month, you’ll save loads of time.”

“Loads of time?” Victoria squeaked.

“Loads,” repeated Harry.

Before the elves would accept the new rules, Harry had to rewrite the cleaning schedule from beginning to end. They then followed him from room to room as he sketched on a clean roll of parchment he’d dug out of a desk drawer. He declared each room a One or a Two when he entered it and made appropriate notes on the floor plan.

It was nearly two o’clock when they finished. Harry was mentally and physically exhausted, and he hadn’t yet worked out a menu for the week. He was relatively sure, however, by the end of the exercise, that the elves understood the new plan: daily and weekly cleaning of the common and private rooms used frequently; much less frequent and rigorous cleaning of the mansion’s formal rooms and guest bedrooms and baths.

After calming the elves once they realized they hadn’t prepared lunch, he grabbed a bite to eat and made his way up to the bedroom, his feet dragging. He was tired and sore and, after taking more ibuprofen from the bottle he’d left in the en suite, stretched out on the bed and drifted off to sleep.

He was disoriented when he awoke, unaccustomed to daytime naps, but full awareness of where he was came quickly, and he sat up and looked around, then fumbled for his glasses on the nightstand. He had slept on top of the covers, and he straightened them now. The clock showed five o’clock—had he really slept for three hours?

He didn’t see or hear Severus, though he looked into the room where they had eaten breakfast, and when he got down to the kitchen, it too was empty. He poured himself a glass of water and made his way to the gardens, feeling out of sorts, very much wanting to talk to someone—Ron, perhaps, or Andromeda—but reluctant to appear so pathetic to them on only his second day with Severus.

Severus was sitting at the small table on the wide stone-paved terrace. He had a pile of ledgers before him and Harry couldn’t help but smile, reminded as he was of his own adventures in the kitchens with the house elves that very morning.

“Sit here, if you would.” Severus indicated the chair beside him. He moved a pile of documents to make more room for Harry. “I’ve asked Edward to bring tea.”

Harry sat down and glanced at the ledgers.

“Everything in order?” he asked. He wasn’t really very curious about the Prince estate—it would never be his, after all—but he was fully aware that the Prince estate was the reason for this temporary marriage, and the reason Severus’ life, and his own, had taken this enormous detour. If the estate wasn’t what Severus had hoped….

Severus closed the ledger and leaned back. “Very much so,” he replied. “It’s more extensive than I had imagined.” He steepled his hands in front of himself and looked at Harry intently. “A second fund has been made available to me—to us.” He corrected himself. He didn’t seem too pleased about this second fund.

“Oh?” Harry took a sip of water. “You said we had a household account from the estate, enough to pay our living expenses this year….”

“There is a repair fund as well.” Severus chuckled. It was an odd sound coming from him, made even more odd by his low voice and the fact that he rarely laughed. “Quite a tidy sum. I believe the bank would like the manor in good repair if I forfeit the estate. Of course I had hoped to get the house and grounds in order—I told the house elves as much yesterday. However, Gringotts is requiring that we use the fund over the next twelve months to make repairs. They are sending a contracting consultant out the day after tomorrow to do a thorough examination of the house—inside and out.”

Harry frowned. The idea of the house being overrun with construction workers didn’t appeal to him at all. It was one thing to hire a gardener and a handyman, quite another to manage construction crews. “There’s a lot wrong with this house.” He looked over at the exterior wall in front of him, bricks crumbling from years of overgrown ivy digging into them. “Do we have any say in this at all?”

Severus rearranged the ledgers, straightening the edges of the stack so that they all aligned properly. He didn’t look at Harry at first as he responded.

“I will be going on a short trip—I will be leaving tomorrow, in fact. Since I will be away, you will have to oversee the meeting with the contracting consultant. He will, of course, prepare a full report after his visit, but I would like you to accompany him nonetheless and take notes. Do not leave him alone at any time.”

Harry stared at Severus, half disbelieving. When he didn’t say anything, Severus looked up.

“You have a question?”

“Where are you going?” he asked, A trip? A trip two days after getting married?

“Paris,” answered Severus after an uncomfortable pause. “I have a research opportunity with a hospital there.” Severus adjusted the stack of ledgers again. “I have been too long without employment already.”

“But…” Harry was going to point out that Severus was about to inherit a great deal of money, and that the inheritance was already paying enough for them to live comfortably, when Edward popped in with the tea tray.

“But?” said Severus a few minutes later, examining the rather dainty sandwich he had picked up off the tea tray, not making any move to eat it. Harry was already on his second sandwich.

Harry looked up, confused. “Oh.” He shook his head, changing his mind. He didn’t want to argue with Severus about anything, least of all careers…or money. “The contractor—couldn’t he come next week instead? When you’re back from Paris?”

“Apparently not,” answered Severus. “It was almost as if the goblin was more determined to do it on Tuesday after I told him I’d be out of town.” He sighed. “I suspect they’ll be testing you.”

“Testing me?” Harry swallowed and put his cup down on the table. “What do you mean? I don’t know anything about old manor houses and repairs….”

“You misunderstand,” said Severus. His voice was low and quiet, but forceful nonetheless. “They are not interested in testing your competency as a contractor or a mechanic. They are much more interested in your competency as a Prince spouse, in your ability to represent the Prince name and make appropriate decisions.”

“You’re talking about the goblins? That’s who you mean by ‘they’?” Harry stared at Severus, trying to piece together the message behind the words. “What’s their stake in this anyway? It’s not their money.”

Severus froze, teacup close to his mouth, then thoughtfully lowered it to the table.

“I forget that you know very little of goblins,” he began.

“I know quite a bit about goblins.” With effort, he kept his voice low and level. “I lived with one for more than a month.” He knew a lot more about them than what he’d learned that month at Shell Cottage with Griphook, too. During the Triwizard Tournament, he’d seen what they were capable of after Ludo Bagman lost a bet with them and didn’t pay up. And Bill—Bill had warned him too.

Severus stared at him, mouth dipping into a slight frown.

“What? You don’t believe me?”

“You lived with a goblin for a month?” He looked annoyed. “And when did this happen? One summer at the Dursleys’, perhaps?”

“How do you think we broke into Gringotts?” answered Harry, his voice losing the level calmness he had worked for earlier. “His name was Griphook. He was caught by the snatchers and taken to Malfoy Manor too.” Harry didn’t bother with all the details. “When Dobby helped us escape, he took Griphook and Ollivander out first. So we all ended up in the same place. We were there together for more than a month before we…well, before we went to Gringotts.”

“Who is Dobby?”

Severus managed to home in on the one thing Harry really didn’t want to talk about. The thing that had nothing at all to do with Harry’s experience with goblins.

“A house elf.” Harry looked down into his tea. “Gringotts is obviously managing the Prince estate,” he said, trying to get the conversation back on track. “But they won’t get it if you somehow don’t meet the terms. It will go to another relative, won’t it? A cousin or something?”

“Or something,” muttered Severus. He looked at Harry again, his gaze more puzzled now than annoyed. “In your dealings with goblins, you must have learned that they are, for want of a better word, greedy. One of the reasons they are so successful in financial management is that they treat their clients’ money as their own. They are quite reluctant to let it go. Currently, they are keeping fifty percent of all interest earned from investing Prince family funds as the estate has had no active head these past years. That share drops to ten percent once the estate is turned over to the heir. Although they will not attempt to sabotage my claim, they will keep a careful eye on us this next year and would be quite happy to prove I haven’t satisfied the terms of my grandfather’s will.”

“Which only required that you marry before you turn forty and stay married for a year, right?” Harry gazed earnestly at Severus.

“Essentially,” answered Severus. “Though it also stipulated that I marry someone from an ‘upstanding’ wizarding family and that the marriage be legitimate.”

“You mean consummated.”

“It means,” said Severus pointedly, “that we live together as a married couple. That we go about our days—and nights—as a married couple would.”

“I think,” responded Harry, holding Severus’ eyes with his own, “that most legitimate couples would have already discussed a trip one of them had arranged for two days after the wedding.”

Severus’ mouth tightened. From the look on his face, Harry expected to hear a stinging retort. My private life is just that—private. Or I didn’t think you cared, Mr. Potter. Or perhaps even Why are you complaining? You can have the bed to yourself and not worry about fulfilling your wifely duty.

But instead, after a pause where Severus nearly visibly restrained himself, he nodded curtly. “Noted,” he said in that just-above-a-whisper voice Harry was now accustomed to. “I will apprise you of any future travel plans when I make them.”

Harry stared at his husband a moment then nodded. It hadn’t gotten past him that Severus had not offered to discuss those plans with him.

They wandered about the perennial gardens after that, Severus bending down frequently to take note of one plant or another that was a potions ingredient or a household herb. Harry was more interested in the flowers and ground covers. He had tended his aunt’s garden for years, and despite her desire to be nothing but normal, Petunia Dursley had actually had an eye for variety and color in her flowerbeds. This late in the summer, the showy flowers were already past bloom, but a few varieties of daisies and coneflowers were still in flower, and the bellflowers and larkspur were about to show. The gardens were well arranged, if neglected and overgrown. Harry made a mental note to locate the garden tools. He would spend a couple hours out here each morning and, over time, at least the garden beds closest to the house would be in order. One person alone could never maintain the entire thing, not even with the help of magic to keep the weeds at bay. He wanted to give the roses up as lost. The once showy flowers were now small and wild, the branches tall and spindly. But he decided he could prune them back to near the ground in the fall and see what happened in the spring.

The spring.

He would still be here in the spring, wouldn’t he?

A mouse darted across the garden wall, and Harry was reminded of the cat in the garden shed and his promise to bring it something to eat. He found a tin of tuna in the kitchen and left Severus poking around in a bed of thyme gone wild while he took the offering down to the cat. He heard the mewling as soon as he stepped into the dark shed.

“You’ve gone and had your kittens already, haven’t you?” he asked softly. He quietly put the tin down on the ground near the pile of feed bags. “I’ll just leave this here for you, then. You’re going to have to show me those little ones, but you’ve probably had enough excitement today.”

He stopped at the big table near the front of the building and looked again at the tiles, pocketing a couple to examine more closely back at the house.

They ate a late supper and retired to the upstairs parlor, but Harry excused himself soon after. Even with the afternoon nap, he was tired. Mental exhaustion, he thought, along with the physical. He was asleep before Severus came in. He woke briefly as Severus’ weight settled in the bed, but quickly drifted off again. When he woke in the middle of the night and got up to use the loo, he had to slide out from under the weight of Severus’ arm around his middle. It was an intimate position, with Severus’ hand splayed out over his belly, under his shirt, and it was both comforting and disconcerting to find himself in such a position.

Severus left just after breakfast. It was Tuesday, and he said he would return sometime on the weekend. Harry didn’t bother telling him that his birthday was on Thursday.

And although at first Harry felt relieved to have him gone, he soon felt the near-emptiness of the house. He spent much of Tuesday doing his own survey, jotting down problems as well as questions to ask the contractor. He made notes on areas he would like to see modernized, and areas he would prefer to have left alone. He instinctively knew that the integrity of the mansion would be lost if too much was altered.

The stone tiled floors would stay.

He spent the last two hours of the evening in the gardens, working long-neglected earth with ancient wood-handled tools, finely crafted things that Victoria had found for him that fit his hands well.

He had a drink in the upstairs parlor before bed and sat for a long time paging through the book Severus had left on the end table beside the sofa. It was a listing of the old wizarding families of Great Britain. The Potters appeared on the page before the Princes, and he read the entry curiously, wondering what it would have been like to grow up knowing that his five-times great grandfather was killed in a flying accident and that another ancestor invented the self-leveling broom. When he finally collapsed into bed, he hugged one pillow in front of him and curled the other under his head. After only two nights, it smelled of Severus.

The contractor arrived just after lunch the next day and spent the entire afternoon at the manor. Harry followed him from room to room, taking notes and watching him carefully, even though the man assured him there was no need, that he would be fine on his own. He tsked and muttered frequently, poking his wand—and sometimes his finger—into nooks and crannies, pointing out loose mortar, uneven floorboards and weak stairs.

He roamed all around the house and out to the stables and the garages. A floating quill and parchment followed him, taking notes as he muttered and cursed and poked and prodded. In the end, Harry felt as if he himself had been through a grueling medical examination.

The contractor spent much too long in their bedroom and en suite. He opened the cabinets in the bathroom and suspiciously shook Harry’s bottle of ibuprofen. He opened the wardrobe, too, and peered inside.

Harry had had enough.

“Are you looking for something in particular?”

“Oh, just the usual: dry rot, termites, doxies,” answered the man, looking a bit flummoxed.

“Severus checked this furniture out thoroughly before we put our dress robes inside.” Harry lied, forcefully closing the wardrobe. He refrained from asking him if he’d like to check the indentations in the mattress next, for proof that Severus had slept there.

By evening, after the contractor left, he was happy to get out into the gardens again and had Edward bring sandwiches to the outdoor table for dinner. Edward brought a seafood bisque as well, and Harry let it go. Apparently, sandwiches didn’t count as a real meal. He made more progress that day, and the next, in the beds of perennial flowers that had just finished blooming. He also found time to organize the notes he had made before the contractor examined the house, as well as those he had taken while he followed the man around. He felt a bit like a hired man himself. This wasn’t really his home, nor were these his real worries. The only time he felt like he was doing something that mattered was when his hands were buried in the garden soil.

On Thursday, his nineteenth birthday, he invited Hermione and Ron over for dinner and to see the house.

He was inordinately glad to see them when they Floo’d in that evening, and he treated them to a full tour of the house and grounds, including the stables and the garage. Both Ron and Hermione were fascinated by the stone tiles, and Ron pieced a few of them together while Harry and Hermione poked into the stables.

They took a different path back to the house. A second, less-worn trail branched off to the left and seemed to lead to the lower gardens on the west end of the house. They walked quietly as the sun sunk lower in the sky.

“You going to be alright here, mate?” asked Ron, looking up at the looming mansion.

“Only three hundred and sixty-one more days,” quipped Harry. When Hermione turned worried eyes on him, he smiled. “It’s fine, Hermione. I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to marry him. I just…” They’d rounded a bend in the path and he paused, squinting ahead. “What is that?”

Ahead of them the dirt and gravel trail ended at a wide clearing. But the clearing was paved with stones—the same type of flat stone in the entryway and lower floor corridors of the house, the same kind they’d been playing with in the workshop. This was what he’d seen from the air that first day. He’d forgotten all about it.

Hermione smiled.

“I think—I think it’s a labyrinth,” she said. “I might have expected to find a hedge maze in a wizarding garden—but a labyrinth?”

Harry had walked ahead and stood now at the edge of the clearing. Ron came up beside him and whistled.

“It’s a mess, isn’t it?” he said. “Beautiful thing, once, though. What’s it for?”

Harry shrugged. “No idea—I’ve heard of them, though. See how the light grey path works its way around and about?”

“Oh, what a shame,” said Hermione. She’d caught up with them now and was studying the expanse of stone tiles, larger than the ones on the worktable in the shop, forming a round shape easily fifty feet in diameter with a meandering path weaving through it. The flat grey stones were of different shapes, knitted together like a puzzle, and the grey path was edged with stones of different colors and shapes. Broken now, completed but damaged. Tiles were missing, cracked and chipped and even crumbling in places. The outer edge, where it still existed, was made of larger, rougher stones, unsmoothed but beautiful nonetheless. The large clearing was square, and in the corners, where the round stone creation didn’t fill it, benches were set among the overgrown flowerbeds.

“What’s it for?” repeated Ron. He stepped onto the stones and kicked idly at a stray rock. It skittered across the labyrinth and off the edge. A bird flew up, startled, from where it landed.

“Oh, decoration,” said Hermione, walking onto it. “Or meditation, more often. They’re found all over the world, in churches and gardens—even the Romans used them. They favored mosaic patterns like this one.”

“Meditation?” asked Ron. He and Harry both looked at Hermione for a better explanation.

“You walk the path slowly,” she said softly. “There’s only one path through, and it begins and ends in the same place. You focus on a thought, or a problem, or on nothing at all. It can be soothing.”

“It’s beautiful,” said Harry. He walked a few more paces out onto the labyrinth, trying to stay on the path but having to hop some damaged parts here and there. “It’s a lovely space,” said Hermione. “And so peaceful, as I’m sure it was meant to be.” She looked back up toward the house. “They chose a perfect place for it, too. It’s nestled in below a rise—I imagine it’s hard to see from the house unless you’re looking out one of the upper floor windows.”

Harry had walked to the middle of the labyrinth and stood there now, looking down at the stones beneath his feet, admiring how they were cut, and set, their colors and textures. He had every intention of coming back here—later, though. When he was alone, when he could sit and think about it, perhaps on one of those corner benches. The labyrinth drew him, or the stonework did. But he only had his friends here for the evening, and ahead of him stretched countless hours to wander the grounds.

They headed back to the house for dinner, and laughed and talked through a wonderful meal and glasses of red wine. They were just finishing the meal when Victoria came in to announce the arrival of Narcissa Malfoy.

They exchanged looks and Harry got quickly to his feet. “I’ll be right back.” He followed Victoria to the receiving room.

Narcissa stood waiting in front of the long drapes covering the windows, dressed rather formally and standing stiffly.

“Where is Severus?” she asked as soon as she saw Harry. “I need to speak with him—immediately.”

“He’s on a trip. He’s coming back this weekend.” Harry stared at her, suspicious. “What’s going on?”

“A trip? When did he leave?” She straightened her shoulders above her already ramrod-straight back and took a step toward him.

“He left Tuesday.”

“Tuesday? Where did he go?” She was beginning to look agitated now, and Harry backed up a step.

“Paris. Job interview or something.”

She laughed. It was a sarcastic laugh that might have sounded musical had it not been edged with bitterness. “Job interview?” She shook her head. “It might interest you to know, Mr. Prince, that my husband and son left for Paris on Wednesday. They, too, had business there.”

Harry’s stomach clenched. He would have preferred not knowing that last bit.

“Paris is a big city,” he replied. He worked to keep any emotion out of his voice. “It’s probably just a coincidence.”

“Coincidence?” She nearly spat out the word. “Have you heard from your husband this past week, Mr. Prince?” The words came out like spun silk now, soft and light. “Perhaps given him a request for some fine chocolate or a bottle of champagne?”

He ignored the question. “I’ll let him know you dropped by,” he said. This was his home too. What was the appropriate protocol for kicking out an unwelcome visitor?

“Harry? Is something wrong?” It was Hermione’s voice, and Narcissa frowned.

Hermione appeared behind Harry in the doorway.

“Mrs. Malfoy came looking for Severus,” he said, without turning to look back at Hermione.

One of Narcissa’s eyebrows rose so high it disappeared into her hairline.

“Entertaining, are we?” she asked, looking suspiciously from Harry to Hermione.

Harry ignored her insinuation.

“Yes, I am. I have friends over for dinner. And I need to get back to them.”

“Mrs. Malfoy,” said Hermione, nodding politely. She turned to Harry. “We’ll wait for you then, Harry,” she said. He heard her footsteps recede down the corridor.

“I, for one, plan to ask my husband exactly what he was doing in Paris,” said Narcissa. “I suggest you do the same. I hate to think of Severus losing his fortune because of a pesky little fidelity clause.”

Without another word, she turned on the spot and Disapparated.

Harry stared at the empty spot. He had a feeling that it wasn’t polite to Disapparate in front of your host without a farewell.

But what she had said stayed with him. Fidelity clause. If Severus was unfaithful, Harry could invoke the fidelity clause in their contract and divorce him without penalty. Severus, unmarried, would lose his chance at the Prince estate. But could someone else—someone like Narcissa Malfoy, for instance, someone who wasn’t married to Severus—use that information to keep Severus from inheriting?

He shook his head. The idea was ridiculous. It was Narcissa Malfoy, after all, who had called in the debt, who had demanded, in fact, that he marry Severus.

But something was up. Or something was off. He wasn’t sure what he felt about Severus being in Paris at the same time as Lucius and Draco Malfoy. He had a hard time believing Severus would do something so blatant, especially so early. But admittedly, he didn’t know Severus very well, and Severus hadn’t informed him until Monday that he was leaving on Tuesday.

He frowned. He didn’t know what to feel anymore. About this place. About his marriage. Or about Severus Snape.

/

Severus didn’t get home until late Sunday morning.

A struggling owl, laden with a scroll the size of Harry’s forearm, arrived on Saturday morning with the report from the contractor. Harry spent a large part of the day reviewing it. The list was exhaustive, enormous, and, he thought, rather frivolous. Some of the problems the contractor had noted, Harry thought, spoke to the house’s character. Like the cant of the stairs being a degree or two off level, or the glass in the front windowpanes being wavy and distorted. Dry rot was one thing, as were carpenter ants, but Harry didn’t think Severus would let Gringotts make a case for replacing the ancient claw-footed bathtub upstairs with a more modern convenience with a non-slip surface.

He worked in the garden again in the late afternoon, then took some leftover chicken down for the cat. She had accepted all of his offerings so far, and he’d gotten a peek at the kittens. There were four of them, all different colors, though it was hard to tell where one ended and another began at this point. On the way back from the shed, he took another look at the stone labyrinth. He thought that as much as a quarter of it was damaged and in need of repair or reconstruction. He spent a good hour digging through the overgrown grass at the edges of the clearing and found a number of stones there. He piled them up near the labyrinth thoughtfully, separating them out by color.

Andromeda brought Teddy over on Sunday morning. They had scheduled the visit a week earlier, just before the wedding. They breakfasted in the garden, Harry holding Teddy on his lap and feeding him pieces of eggy bread as he and Andromeda talked.

“She just showed up Thursday night unannounced,” he said, explaining the unexpected visit by Narcissa. “She wanted to see Severus, and when I told her he went to Paris, she told me that Lucius and Draco were in Paris, too.”

“I thought her plan was to marry off Severus to keep him away from Lucius,” said Andromeda.

“Or to keep Lucius away from him,” said Harry. “She obviously figured that getting Severus married would change things.”

“She’s not that naïve,” said Andromeda. “Not by half. She was up to something, Harry. I suspect she knew he was gone and meant to check up on you when Severus wasn’t around—see if you were behaving yourself. In fact, I find it hard to believe that she wouldn’t have already known where he was. He lived with them up until the wedding—he must have made the plans for this trip well before. And if he really was visiting a hospital about a research position, well, that would have been exciting news. News he would have shared, don’t you think?”

Harry shrugged and bounced Teddy on his knee. The problem was that he didn’t know. He didn’t know much about Severus at all. In fact, all he knew about him to this point was that he wasn’t quite what Harry had expected. He had, of course, expected something like the professor who had verbally abused him through most of his time at Hogwarts. Instead, he was married to—and living with—a soft-spoken man who seemed to spend a great deal of time staring at him, as if trying to puzzle him out. A man who expected things to go his own way and was surprised to find that sometimes they didn’t.

“Harry?”

He looked up. He’d been staring down at the top of Teddy’s head thoughtfully.

“How are things going, really? With you and Severus?”

Harry smiled vaguely. “I’ve only spent two and a half days with him and one of those was our wedding day,” he answered.

“And your wedding night,” added Andromeda softly.

Harry felt the blush heat his face.

“It was all right, then?” asked Andromeda.

“It was fine,” said Harry quickly. “Really.” He slid his fork out of Teddy’s reach as the toddler grabbed for it, glad for the distraction.

“Fine as in good or fine as in tolerable?” She reached out and brushed a crumb off of Teddy’s cheek. “You don’t have to answer, Harry. I’m not being nosy. I’m just…concerned. That’s all.”

“I knew what I was getting in to,” said Harry. “And really, it was fine.” He laughed. “Fine. Enjoyable, but I just keep thinking how much better it would be if our hearts were in it, too.”

He looked up at her wistfully, and she reached across the table and took his hand. Teddy squealed and grabbed at her colorful bracelet.

“I want that for you, too, Harry. And you’ll get there—if not with Severus this year, then afterwards, with someone you love and who will love you right back. You’re so young still—there’s so much time ahead of you.”

She squeezed Harry’s hand, and Harry smiled. “I’ll get there,” he said. “Even if this is all just practice, I’ll have a lot more experience when the real thing does happen.”

Andromeda looked up over his shoulder as he spoke.

“Severus is here,” she said softly. “He just came outside.”

Harry turned his head. Severus was walking toward them across the terrace.

“Good morning,” he said as Severus approached. “We’re finishing up breakfast.”

“I can see that,” said Severus. He nodded to Andromeda. “Andromeda.” He pulled out a chair and sat down. Harry watched his eyes settle curiously on the child in his lap. Teddy waved a grubby hand at Severus. “Bye-bye,” he chanted.

“How was your trip?” Harry settled Teddy more comfortably on his knee.

“Bye-bye!” proclaimed Teddy once again, still waving at Severus.

“Is he trying to tell me something?” said Severus, looking slightly amused as he eyed the breakfast tray and picked out a poppy seed muffin.

“It’s an all-purpose bye-bye,” answered Andromeda. She relaxed in her chair, smiling indulgently at her grandson. “He uses it for hello, goodbye, give me a biscuit. He’s quite a resourceful child.”

Severus slowly turned his head to look at Andromeda, then moved his gaze back to the baby.

“Quite.” He took a bite of his muffin.

“Your trip?” asked Harry again. “Did you get the job?”

“I was offered a contract, yes,” said Severus, glancing at Andromeda as if trying to puzzle out exactly why she was there. “It is not a job, nor an offer of employment, but an opportunity to conduct some specific research for which they will pay me.” He brushed some crumbs off his hands. “It is a start.”

“Congratulations.” Harry thought he sounded rather formal and awkward. He tried again. “Will you have to go back to Paris often?”

Severus was watching Teddy brandish a spoon like a wand.

“Nox!” said Teddy, pointing the business end of the spoon at Severus.

Harry grinned. “He likes you, Severus.” He turned Teddy around in his lap, standing him on his knees. Teddy immediately reached out for his glasses.

“To answer your question, yes. I will have to visit the hospital monthly to discuss my progress and meet with the research team. The project is launching in two weeks, and I’ll have to make another visit then.”

Severus soon excused himself and went into the house. Teddy started fussing soon afterward, and Andromeda took her leave, disappearing through the Floo after hugging Harry and promising to visit him again soon.

“Bye-bye!” Teddy had called out before she stepped into the Floo. Harry kissed him and ruffled his hair.

Afterward, Harry stared at the fireplace for a long while, already missing Teddy and Andromeda. With nothing else to do, he finally wandered upstairs. He’d left the contractor’s report in the sitting room along with his own notes, and was not surprised to find Severus sitting on the loveseat, papers spread out before him on the low table. He watched for a few moments as Severus paged through the contractor’s report, frowning. Harry had guessed correctly that Severus would not like what the Gringotts official had had to say.

When Severus didn’t seem to notice him after a few minutes, Harry said, “If you don’t need me for anything, I’m going to go outside for a while and work in the gardens.”

Severus didn’t seem surprised to find Harry in the doorway. “Actually, perhaps you could explain a few things.” When Harry didn’t respond, or enter the room, he looked up. “It would be easier to do this with you in the room.” There was just a touch of sarcasm to his voice. He waited until Harry sat beside him before he turned back to the document.

They sat there together for nearly an hour, discussing the recommended repairs, consulting Harry’s notes frequently. Harry actually enjoyed the discussion. He knew he had surprised Severus with the thoroughness of his notes and the man seemed to be genuinely interested in his opinions and his interpretation of the rambling report and its many segues into frivolity.

“It would seem,” said Severus at last, dropping the report onto the table, “that it is Gringotts’ intent to have a work crew in our home disturbing our privacy for a good part of the next year.” He leaned back into the loveseat and stretched. His thigh pressed against Harry’s and Harry was suddenly very aware of how close they were.

Apparently, Severus was as well. He tensed, just a fraction, then seemed to force himself to relax as his hand slowly came down to rest on Harry’s leg, just above his knee. Casually, or not so casually. Harry couldn’t quite tell.

Merlin, Severus smelled good. He knew the smell was from the minty soap Severus used in the shower and thought the man might have been a lot more popular had he used that soap at Hogwarts.

“How was your week? How did you occupy yourself?” Severus’ hand moved against his trouser leg, his thumb pressing lightly in an almost-not-there caress. The sudden change of topic was disconcerting.

“I spent most of the time checking out the house before the contractor came, then following him around and trying to interpret his report. Worked in the gardens in the evenings. Hermione and Ron came over for dinner on Thursday. Oh, and I fed the cat. She’s had the kittens—four of them, I think. And yes, they’re all still out in the shop building.”

He didn’t mention his birthday. And he didn’t mention the labyrinth, though he couldn’t have said why not.

“When the kittens are weaned, I’ll prepare a contraceptive potion for the cat. It will keep her out of heat for a while. You can give it to her in her food.”

It seemed an odd statement to make, but Harry recognized it for what it was. An acknowledgment that the cat could stay—outside or not, it was still Severus’ home.

“I can find homes for the kittens. Andromeda said she’d take one for Teddy as long as they’re not wild.”

“We can keep one or two here for the mice as well,” said Severus. “Try to find a home for at least one more.”

“Are you really going to hire a gardener?” asked Harry. He was fairly relaxed now, resting comfortably on the sofa next to Severus. Severus’ hand was still on his leg, Severus’ thigh still pressed against his own. He shifted, feeling the beginning of arousal. Not that it took a lot to arouse him these days—it seemed like the shifting of the wind could make him hard. He’d had a couple of nice wanking sessions in the tub while Severus was away, and had decided that bathing was infinitely better than showering if you had access to a huge tub with five taps.

“A gardener?” Severus turned his head toward Harry. They really were sitting very close together. He eyed him curiously. “What do you mean?”

“I mean a gardener. Someone to work in the gardens, maybe?” he teased. “You know, you told Edward and Victoria that when we first got here last weekend.”

“Oh. Yes. I did say that, didn’t I?” Severus dropped his head back. Harry thought he seemed tired. “Well, there are funds to support it, so I suppose I will.”

“I like working in the gardens,” said Harry. “And it will mean more people here. Disturbing our privacy.”

Severus’ hand on his leg stilled. Harry’s breath caught. He hadn’t meant it to come out like that. Neither of them spoke for a moment, then Severus’ hand moved down to his knee and squeezed it.

“I enjoy working in the gardens as well,” he said. His hand traveled up above Harry’s knee now and massaged his leg lightly. Harry stared at the hand, watching the long, pale fingers. “But even with both of us working on it, we could hardly scratch the surface of what needs to be done. Why don’t we keep the terrace gardens for ourselves and hire a service to restore the remainder of the grounds?”

Harry’s heart skipped a beat.

“Why don’t we start with a gardener to work on the front lawns?” he suggested. “And see how far we can get in the back ourselves?”

“Fair enough.” Harry couldn’t say why he wasn’t telling Severus about the labyrinth yet. But he guarded the secret for another day.

“You could rub my feet again,” said Severus after another long pause. “Or kiss me.”

Harry felt that tingle of desire again and wished he understood it more. Severus had his eyes fixed on Harry. His expression was indecipherable. Harry leaned forward and placed a light kiss on the edge of Severus’ mouth. He was teasing, of course, but Severus surprised him by turning into the kiss, adjusting his position so that mouth met mouth full on. Severus’ hand on Harry’s leg tightened as his lips moved across Harry’s, not tentative like the first time they had kissed, but demanding, taking control. A tongue grazed his gums just as a hand settled on the back of his head, splayed out against his skull, pulled him closer.

Harry moaned into the kiss. His cock was doing more than stirring now, and he opened his mouth to Severus as the other man leaned into him. He soon found himself on his back on the loveseat, legs wrapped around Severus’ narrow hips, pushing up against Severus, hands wrapped around his neck and shoulders.

Merlin, this was good. He fit so well against Severus’ body, melded against the lean torso and long limbs, back pressed into the love seat, neck arched as Severus’ mouth moved off his lips and onto his jaw, his ear. He ground his pelvis up against Severus as Severus’ mouth fastened onto the side of his neck and one of his hands stroked across his chest. A frisson of pleasure arched through him as the fingers grazed a nipple then came back to play against it again. He moaned as he wrapped his legs more tightly around Severus. A remote part of his mind, buried somewhere inside the pleasure, wondered about this reaction. He hadn’t missed Severus while he was gone. He hadn’t tossed and turned in bed without him. He hadn’t even thought about sex with him at all. There was too much else filling his mind.

Severus had unbuttoned Harry’s shirt now and rolled his hips against Harry as he pushed the shirt out of the way and tongued a nipple, finally closing his mouth around it and sucking, pulling at it, then laving it with his tongue. Harry could feel Severus’ cock, as hard as his own, pressing against him. He reached down between them and squeezed it with his hand. Severus pressed against him with a grunt in response and then they were moving more in tandem, Harry thrusting up as Severus pressed down, cocks straining through the fabric of robes and trousers and pants, Severus’ hands on his neck, his shoulders, Harry’s hands pulling against Severus’ arse, folding him into him as he gasped into his orgasm, stifling the voice that wanted to scream out as he shuddered and came.

On top of him, Severus thrust against him still, a breathy fuck in every pant until he stiffened, cried out, and dropped against him, head buried in Harry’s neck. He was shaking even as he sagged and Harry, coming down, realized that Severus was laughing. Laughing!

“What’s so funny?” he asked. He hoped he didn’t sound petulant.

“I’m almost forty years old,” answered Severus, panting, his voice coming from just below Harry’s ear. Harry could feel his lips vibrating on the skin of his neck. “I haven’t done that in years.”

“Hmmm,” said Harry. He shifted under Severus’ weight, still boneless and content. “It’s messy.”

He felt the breath of Severus’ laughter this time. “It’s all messy,” he said. “There is an advantage to being a wizard, however.” A moment later Harry felt the Scourgify sweep over him. Non-verbal and wandless. He shifted, pulling himself up so that he was lying against the armrest of the sofa, no longer flat on his back. Severus still lay on top of him but shifted to accommodate the new position.

“Wandless?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“My wand is in my robes,” answered Severus. “It is close enough.”

Harry didn’t comment. Was he surprised that Severus could do wandless magic? He could do it himself, in certain circumstances anyway. He filed the fact away, and sat up as Severus got to his feet and straightened his clothing. Harry stood up as well.

“I usually eat dinner at the Burrow on Sundays,” Harry said to break the silence. Severus had been staring at him, staring at his neck, in fact. He didn’t mention that he went to the Burrow after afternoon Quidditch practice. He’d told the team he’d be gone at least two weeks and they really hadn’t expected him today anyway.

“The Burrow?” Severus looked puzzled for a moment, then nodded. “The Weasleys’. Of course. You plan to continue that practice, do you not?”

“I’d like to.”

Severus nodded. “Well, then, I had better….”

“You’re invited too,” said Harry, awkwardly. “Everyone is welcome. Bill brings Fleur, of course, and Hermione is nearly always there. George has taken up with Angelina Johnson…” He trailed off, awkward again, suddenly feeling as if he were giving intimate details of a private life he didn’t share with Severus.

“Perhaps another time,” said Severus, adding, almost as an afterthought, “but thank you.”

They walked into the corridor and Severus turned toward their room while Harry went toward the stairs. He suddenly remembered something. Something that made his stomach clench.

“Severus?”

Severus stopped and turned his head toward Harry.

“Narcissa Malfoy came by for you. Thursday night. She asked me to tell you….”

Severus’ face had taken on an odd look. Harry didn’t know him well enough to even begin to interpret it.

“Narcissa? She knew I was away—” He cut himself off abruptly. “Thank you. I’ll contact her after I unpack.”

He turned and disappeared into their room, leaving Harry staring after him.

Now that was odd. Narcissa Malfoy was up to something. But what? Why would she want him not to trust Severus? Maybe…maybe this was her way of warning him? Of letting him know that Severus might not be alone in his travels?

But Severus was interested in him…in sex. In him. He hadn’t come home from his trip sated and worn out. They’d just gotten off with each other on the sitting room love seat. It had been…good. Really good.

Whatever Narcissa was up to, Harry would wait for another day to puzzle it out. Hermione would help—she could put everything together in a neat matrix and they’d have their answer just like that.

He got a good look at the kittens when he took some leftover kidney pie down to the cat after lunch. The cat, in fact, was not there—she was probably out hunting. Harry placed the dish in its usual place and filled up her water bowl, then moved the boxes and bags until he saw the pile of sleeping kittens. There was a bright orange tabby. He instantly dubbed it Barney after the Weasley cousin he’d impersonated during Bill’s wedding. A second kitten had long white hair with a few patches of grey. It earned the name Albus, as one of its front paws was grey and Harry was reminded of his old mentor’s cursed hand. There was a calico, too, and an all-black kitten that he dubbed “Bat.” He left them be, and spent a peaceful ten minutes at the tile table.

He took the long way back to the house and stopped at the labyrinth.

He stood on the edge of the structure and looked back at the house. He couldn’t see much except the upper floors, but there was no obvious sign of activity. He walked around the outside of the circle and stopped at an area where the edge stone was in place, but many of the inside pieces were missing. He knelt and rubbed his hand over the stone surface. The stones were amazingly smooth, and he wondered how long they had been here, and how many feet had walked them. The stones were not mortared in place, but cut perfectly and set tight on a bed of hard-packed earth.

Harry wanted to understand this thing, this thing that intrigued him, that somehow pulled at him, made his fingers tingle with unspent magic. He knew that there was magic in it—in its construction, perhaps in its purpose as well. He reached for a piece of stone the size of his hand, brick-colored, polished smooth on top. The stone was lying amidst other loose stones in a damaged area of the labyrinth and he fitted it up against another loose stone of like color. It seemed to almost ease into place, nestling snugly against the other stone with a gentle, almost magnetic attraction.

Almost…almost as if it remembered where it used to be. As if it had some sort of sense memory.

Which was ridiculous, of course. It was a stone, not a person. But what if a person had imbued it with that memory…that magic?

What forces, then, had been able to break those intrinsic links? Rain and wind and ice and dusty drought? Tree roots? Burrowing creatures? Simple neglect? Harry sat back on his haunches, holding both stones. He placed them on the surface of the labyrinth carefully, then stood again, wiped his hands on his trousers and slowly, thoughtfully, began the trek back to the house.

~*~

When Harry Apparated into the entry hall of the manor later that evening after his visit to the Burrow, Severus was sitting on the stairs. He rose as Harry popped in.

“You didn’t tell me it was your birthday,” he said.

“It was Thursday. You were gone,” he said. Severus was staring at the cage he was carrying.

“My new owl,” said Harry with a crooked smile. “Molly and Arthur got her for me.”

“For your birthday,” said Severus. “I told you I had an owl you could use.”

“Well, you didn’t tell Molly and Arthur, did you?” Harry said. “They knew I’d been wanting one—never got around to getting one after I…after I lost Hedwig.” He had bristled a bit at the beginning, but ended on a melancholy note. He hadn’t expected to be accosted by Severus as soon as he got home. “How did you find out it was my birthday, anyway?”

“Narcissa said you were celebrating it when she stopped in on Thursday,” he said, frowning.

“Celebrating? What did she tell you?”

“That you had friends over for your birthday. What more is there to tell?”

“Nothing,” said Harry. “It’s just…” He trailed off, frowning himself. “How did she know it was my birthday? I met her in the room right over there. Hermione came in for just a minute when I didn’t come back right away. But we never mentioned my birthday, and there weren’t any decorations, or cake, or anything.”

“You must have said something.” He shook his head. “And that still doesn’t explain why you didn’t mention your birthday to me. We are married, Harry. We should know these things about each other. I would have….”

“What? Bought me a present? Not gone on the trip?” Harry sighed and walked past Severus up the stairs. “We’ve got a lot to learn about each other still, Severus. So here’s something about me—I don’t like to make a big deal out of things like my birthday. I figure I get enough attention already. That doesn’t mean I don’t like to celebrate it with my friends and family, because I do. But low-key. And second—I can’t believe you don’t know my birthday. They’re trying to make it a wizarding holiday, no matter what I have to say about it. On second thought, I’m sure Narcissa knew it was my birthday before she even came over here, which makes her visit even more weird. She came on a night when she knew you wouldn’t be here, and figured I would be. But she didn’t wish me a happy birthday. Just asked me where you were and when I told her, threw at me that Draco and Lucius were in Paris, too. I told her that Paris is a big place.” Harry climbed the stairs, and Severus followed.

“She told you that?” Severus asked. “That Draco and Lucius were in Paris as well?”

No, I just made that up, thought Harry, keeping the sarcasm inside. “Yes, she told me that. I’m not the most clever person in the world, Severus, but I figure she wants me to think you were all there together—for some reason or another. And really, I’m too tired to sort it all out now.” He stopped midway and faced Severus in the corridor.

“I think I’ll put her in the smoking room tonight. Do you mind if I leave the window open for her?”

“Does she have a name?” asked Severus.

Harry stared at him. That was not the answer he was expecting.

“Molly’s been calling her Mathilda. All right then? The smoking room? I can find the owl roost tomorrow. It’s probably up in the attic.”

“All right,” agreed Severus. He stood in the doorway of the room with the deer head and other hunting trophies on the wall, watching as Harry opened a window and arranged the open cage on a table. Harry reached into the cage and ruffled the cheek feathers of the creature. “Night, girl,” he soothed. “You’ll find tons of mice out there tonight. Just be back by morning.”

Severus led the way back to their room and the two got ready for bed.

“I brought you some of Molly’s rolls,” said Harry. He didn’t want to go to bed mad. Molly had warned him about that before the wedding. He extracted a package from one of his wide robe pockets. “They’ll keep ‘til the morning here, I suppose,” he said, placing the package on the dresser.

“Not if I get up for a midnight snack,” said Severus. He regarded the package, then turned to Harry. “Thank Molly for me, will you?”

“Sure,” said Harry. “But she says you’ll have to come to the Burrow next time if you want any more.”

Severus unwrapped the package and tore a roll in half. He sat on the edge of the bed and made a half-moaning sound as he bit into the bread.

“It has that effect on you too, eh?” said Harry.

“I’d consider marrying Molly Weasley just to get these every week,” said Severus.

Harry shook his head and disappeared into the en suite to brush his teeth.

Later, lying in bed next to Severus, both of them pretending to be asleep and neither doing a particularly good job of it, he realized that he hadn’t asked Severus if he had been with Lucius and Draco in Paris. Nor had Severus offered any explanation—not denying it, not acknowledging it. His focus had been solely on Narcissa.

And that was another puzzle for another day. It was perfectly plausible, wasn’t it, that they had all gone there together on business. Perhaps Lucius was sponsoring this research work at the Paris hospital.

He turned on his side, away from Severus, and bundled his pillow up under his head. He was just drifting off to sleep when he felt Severus shift beside him, turning on his side as well. It seemed more natural to spoon together than to try to sleep apart, and when Harry finally did drift off to sleep, Severus’ arm was around his middle, and the pillow Harry’s head rested on smelled comfortably of Severus.

~*~

By mid-August, they were well on their way to a total lack of daytime privacy.

Severus had met at length with Gringotts, and they had finally come to an agreement. The exterior issues would be addressed first, and some of the larger interior issues after. Wizarding masons came on the heels of a gardening crew that pulled the ivy off the brickwork. Harry thought the house lacked character without the English ivy, but he couldn’t deny, once it was off, that the brick beneath the vines was crumbling. While the masons worked, Ben, the gardener Severus had hired, began the slow process of restoring the front lawn and gardens. He’d been working on the hedges for most of the week, and from the progress Harry could see, would be at it for weeks to come. The gardener was a happy soul, and he worked consistently, though he was never in a hurry. Everything he did was at the same measured pace, from snipping branches off the overgrown hedge, to piling them into a lawn cart, to trundling them off to the composting area. He was a Squib who had grown up around magic, though he’d never been able to use it himself, and he seemed intent on proving that a good job could be done with nothing but one’s own two hands.

And because Severus wanted to hurry the repairs along, the roofers came while the masons were still working. As soon as the masons were finished, the carpenters were to come to restore the shutters.

Harry had succeeded, finally, in befriending the mother cat. She brought the kittens out for him now when he visited with offerings of food, and he laughed at their antics, at how they chased their own tails and pounced on each other and slept in a pile. He spent hours reading the logs and journals in the craft shop—that was what he called the shed now—and hours more sitting on the stone labyrinth, counting it a good day if he fitted a dozen pieces back into place.

And still, more than three weeks into August, he hadn’t mentioned the labyrinth to Severus.

Severus had gone to Paris again for three days, had come back on a mission, all business, and spent two days setting up the library as his research facility, including a small potions laboratory in a protected corner. He disappeared there after breakfast, which they generally shared in the parlor upstairs, and Harry didn’t seen him again until time for tea, which they also took together on the terrace. They worked together outside in the gardens after tea, breaking up the hard-packed earth, working mulch into the soil, trimming back overgrown flowers and herbs.

“The mint has invaded everything,” groused Severus one evening. “Even the oregano tastes of mint.”

“Mint will do that,” Harry said. He had been working with the teacup roses and pulled off a glove to examine the wound made by a thorn that had gone through into one of his fingers. “Aunt Petunia had me put brick edging around the mint beds. I had to bury the bricks longways so just the tops were above ground—she thought the bricks would contain the roots but it always managed to spread anyway.”

“There are spells for that.” Severus sat back on his heels. “They can be complex, and must be renewed regularly. They are best and most frequently used by specialists. And as our gardener is a Squib…”

“No,” said Harry immediately. “I like Ben. He’s perfect. He stays busy all day, doesn’t need direction or supervision and stays out of our way. He also doesn’t make noise, pound on the roof or look in the upper floor windows while I’m getting dressed in the morning. He stays.” He had been utterly surprised early one morning to find one of the tuck pointers staring in their window from the magical scaffolding.

Harry saw the smile flit across Severus’ face as he leaned forward again to pull at the errant mint.

“A wizarding gardening book, then,” he said. “And you can be responsible for learning the spells. I have quite enough on my plate.”

“Hey! At least you don’t have to deal with the house elves all the time. Whoever made up the rule that they report to the ‘mistress’ of the house should be put in Azkaban for life.” He put his glove back on and sat back cross-legged on the ground in front of the rose bush. “They did for themselves for eight years but now that I’m here they can’t decide what tea to order without my input.”

“They are house elves, Harry. They want to please you. They do not want to make a mistake and then have to pay for it.”

“Pay for it?” Harry pulled off his other glove and frowned at the thorn-prick. “I’m not going to punish them. I don’t even yell at them.”

“Ah—you misunderstand. It is not your punishment they fear but their own.”

“Goblins and house elves,” muttered Harry. “I suppose I’ll never really understand how their minds work.”

Severus stood and stretched his back, then picked up his trowel.

“I’m going to go clean up. I have a bit of reading I’d like to get done before dinner.”

Harry watched him walk back into the house. He stopped at the cushioned lounge chairs near the railing around the terrace and picked up his robes, which he usually draped over the chair before he set to work in the gardens. He slipped the robes back on as he disappeared inside.

Sometimes, he didn’t know exactly what to make of Severus. They got along well enough. Each was doing his utmost to respect the other and frankly, it was almost too polite, too surreal. The man with whom he was living resembled his Potions professor only in appearance. That persona, Harry thought, had vanished along with Voldemort. They made small talk over dinner, said please and thank you, were respectful of each other’s belongings and personal space. In fact, Harry thought, they treated each other as if each was the host to the other and was doing his best to make his guest comfortable.

But at night….

They didn’t talk much in bed. There were no casual pleasantries, no polite requests and cordial reminders. They’d lie there quietly side by side sometimes, neither willing—or able—to ask for what he wanted. It was as if different rules applied here, as if neither one was fully comfortable with giving in to what their bodies wanted. Well, that was the way Harry saw it anyway, which couldn’t be exactly true. After all, it had been Severus who had so blatantly stated that they would be having sex that first night.

On those nights, every second or third, one of them would stretch, or turn on his side, brushing hip against thigh, or repositioning an arm and draping it over a belly. And if Severus’ hand fell on his stomach, and Harry put his hand atop Severus', perhaps squeezing his fingertips lightly, perhaps just resting it there unmoving, then Severus would snuggle more firmly against his back, and Harry would press his arse back just a bit, spooning into the warm comfort. There would be a quiet moment, each breathing out of sync with the other, then the hand around his middle would tighten, lips would press against his nape, and Harry would turn in the arms, turn toward Severus. All pretense ended there, when lips met lips. They found common ground in their bodies, in pleasuring each other, and seemed to speak each other’s bedroom language. Few words were spoken during the act itself. Once, when Harry was lying on his back with Severus between his legs, swallowing his cock and fingering his arse, he slowly maneuvered himself, turning until Severus got the idea and suddenly they were doing sixty-nine, Severus atop Harry, still sucking his cock but now thrusting his own deep into Harry’s throat as well.

And sometimes, more lately than at the beginning, they’d lie together after sex, sweaty, panting, heartbeats ebbing back to normal, comfortably wrapped around each other. And Severus would give that breathy, harsh laugh, wrap his arms more tightly around Harry, and whisper something unexpected. You will be the death of me, Harry Potter, or, A man my age should have no claim to a body like yours, and once, just as they were drifting off to sleep, so softly Harry almost didn’t hear, There will never be enough nights with you in my bed.

Severus left again at the end of August, for an entire week this time, on a Sunday afternoon. The Malfoys had come to visit the day before, ostensibly to see the progress of the repairs.

On Saturday morning, before their guests arrived, Harry had walked with Severus down to the manor gates, then turned with him to look back up at the house.

“It’s better,” said Harry immediately. The grounds were far from restored, and the shutters and woodwork were not yet repaired and painted, but the entire effect was one of restoration and no longer of decay.

“It is better,” sighed Severus. “Though I doubt it is close to Lucius and Narcissa’s idea of acceptable yet.”

“It’s only been a month,” said Harry with a shrug. He wondered whether Severus cared what Lucius and Narcissa thought. He obviously wished the repairs and restoration were further along.

But that evening, Narcissa, at least, praised the progress. She stood beside Severus on the wide walk leading to the house from the carriage circle, walking ahead of Lucius. Lucius had the serpent-headed cane in his hand, though he used it only to poke at things and once, when he wanted Harry’s attention, to tap him—hard—on the back of his calf.

“No slats on the shutters, Severus. White would look best—yes, really.” She laughed, a high-pitched, tinkling laugh that made Harry cringe. “And have that gardener pull out these azaleas. They’ll never come back after being neglected so long. Holly will look good here, or some dwarf yews. Besides, they’ll probably bloom pink if they bloom at all. And I abhor pink.”

Then maybe you shouldn’t come here in the spring and offend your eyes, Harry thought.

They had made their way through the house and onto the terrace where Edward and Victoria had prepared the table. The all-weather cushions had been replaced by more formal chair pads tied on with satin ribbons. The table was covered with a starched white linen tablecloth. Harry took his seat across from Severus and sipped his tea while Narcissa exclaimed over Severus’ appearance (You look wonderful Severus. Married life must agree with you.) and Lucius took up his old game of staring alternately at Harry and Severus.

“You have a wine cellar, Severus?”

Lucius’ voice startled Harry. He sounded very much like Draco, though his voice was more commanding and less petulant.

“Quite a good one,” answered Severus. “Would you like to pick something out?” He pushed back his chair as if to stand up.

“Perhaps Harry can escort Lucius,” suggested Narcissa quickly. She glanced over at Harry and he did not miss her intent. “You stay here with me and tell me about this Dragon Pox research. You do remember that Lucius’ father died of Dragon Pox ….”

Severus slowly relaxed into his chair again, but he did not look pleased.

He would have liked some time alone with Lucius, Harry thought. Lucius had set the stage handily.

Lucius, for his part, stared coldly at his wife. She, in turn, turned to Harry.

“Go on, now, Harry. Take Lucius to the wine cellar. And do let Lucius take his time choosing one, will you? We want the perfect vintage to toast your marriage.”

Harry stood up slowly. He glanced at Severus, but Severus was staring at Lucius, his face carefully—purposely, Harry thought—blank.

“Do look after Narcissa for me, won’t you, Severus?” Lucius stood, then pushed his chair in and stood behind it, still looking at Severus.

“Of course, Lucius,” answered Severus dryly. “I’m about to tell her everything I know about Dragon Pox.”

“Come, Harry.” Lucius nodded at Severus and spun on his heel, heading toward the house. Harry shot Severus a final look, but Severus’ expression was still unreadable. He hurried off after Lucius and led the way to the cellar stairs. He lit the wall sconces with a quiet Lumos and stopped at the bottom of the stairway, stepping aside to let Lucius pass him.

“This is all?” asked Lucius, eying the small, low-ceilinged room.

“Severus says the selection is good,” answered Harry. His voice, like Lucius’, sounded too loud in the small room. He watched Lucius wander around, taking bottles off the shelves, studying them and replacing them.

“I shall have to gift him something rare,” commented Lucius. He had been studying a particular bottle for some time now and Harry could tell the bottle surprised him.

“He plans to start purchasing his own soon,” said Harry. “All of this was here when we moved in. We’ve hardly touched it.”

“The organizational system here is unusual,” said Lucius. He almost appeared to be talking to himself. He replaced the bottle he had studied for so long and stood in front of a shelf on the back wall of the room.

“It’s geographic,” said Harry. “We spent two days down here last week setting it up. Severus said there are a number of ways to organize a wine cellar….”

“Severus said, you say? You don’t know much about wines, do you, Harry?” He stressed the word ‘Harry,’ as if he enjoyed using Harry’s first name.

“No, I don’t,” said Harry, suppressing his annoyance. He couldn’t help but add, “I’m learning from Severus, though.”

Lucius turned toward him, looking up from the bottle of wine he held. “Teaching you?” He smiled silkily. “Oh, I imagine you’re learning all manner of things, Harry.” He tossed the wine bottle to his other hand, placed it almost carelessly back on the shelf, and selected another. “This one will do. It’s fairly young, full-bodied.” He looked down at the bottle, then back up at Harry, speaking through Harry, as if there were someone else standing behind him in the room. “Cloying.” He paused, raking Harry with his eyes. “Heady.

The man’s voice had dropped to a low murmur, almost a whisper. Harry took a deep breath, let it out, then looked up at Lucius, resolved not to let the older man get to him.

“Can’t wait to taste it then,” he said innocently. He took a step backward onto the lowest stair. “Ready, then?”

“Almost.” Lucius approached him and deliberately, very deliberately, let his gaze travel slowly down Harry’s body. He leaned onto his cane and spoke in that same low voice, so like Severus’ in pitch and volume but so unlike it in every other way. “The last time we were alone together, you stole my house elf, Mr. Potter. How is dear Dobby doing, anyway?”

They stared at each other and Harry knew, he knew, that Lucius Malfoy knew about Dobby. And although he couldn’t keep the stricken look from his face, he looked Lucius in the eyes as he answered.

“Last time I saw him, he was resting by the sea.”

He turned and made his way upstairs.

He didn’t understand the Malfoys and he couldn’t—wouldn’t—ask Severus what was going on. It was the elephant in the room. They had addressed the question of Lucius on the day they signed the marriage contract. He had it from Severus’ own mouth that he was not having an affair with the other man. But Narcissa—Narcissa had called in a life debt to get Severus out of her home and away from her husband. And now, they were checking up on him. Anxious to keep an eye on him, Harry thought, but what were they protecting? And for whom?

Over the past month, he’d been surprised to find that Severus Snape was not quite what he’d expected.

But Lucius—Lucius Malfoy—was no surprise. No surprise at all.

~*~

By the time Severus returned from his third trip to Paris, September had come and Harry started digging up the spring-blooming bulbs to separate and replant them. There were daffodils, tulips, crocuses, jonquils, hyacinths—he wasn’t sure he could tell one bulb from the other, and he had no idea which colors were which—but he separated them by shape and size and replanted them as he had done at the Dursleys’, hoping the colors would work together but knowing that no matter what, there would be surprises in store for them in the spring.

The repairs on the house were going well. The exterior shutters and trim would be completed before the end of the month, if all went well and the rain held off a bit longer. Ben continued making progress in the front and had spent the past week working on the hedges that bordered the carriage path. He was nothing but methodical, and Harry liked seeing the very gradual—and very visible—progress.

He himself operated more in bursts and starts and was frequently interrupted by other household tasks. He spent more time than he liked reviewing and paying the contractor’s invoices, or paying off their suppliers after making sure that the goods had been delivered and were being used. But when he had an hour or two to spare, he made his way down to the shop to feed the cat and her brood and to play with the little rascals. He’d have to find homes for one of them soon—Andromeda had picked out the fluffy orange tabby for Teddy and Harry was working on George to take one to keep the mice out of his shop. After he spent time with the kittens, he’d make his way up the back path toward the labyrinth.

Some days he did nothing but walk back and forth around the clearing, picking up any stones he found and piling them along the edges near the rougher stones that defined the outside circle of the labyrinth. He sorted by color only, having learned that like colors always went together. Other days he fitted stones together, exhibiting a patience he hadn’t known he possessed as he rejected combination after combination for every true pairing he found. He sat on the fitted stones of the labyrinth path with loose stones arranged around him and his wand at hand. His wand itself seemed to have an affinity to these stones, and if he found the stone that fit where he was working, he used his wand to set the magic. He worked by instinct, fueled by the notes he had read in the journals he found in the workshop. The notes were not a “how to” technical manual but instead true journals filled with musings and descriptions of the day’s work by the man that had orchestrated the construction of the labyrinth and those that had maintained it over the years.

The labyrinth, it turned out, had a name. Wide Open. A curious name, Harry thought, for a construction with a diameter of fifty feet that seemed to Harry as closed as it could be. The Prince men, from the great-great-great grandfather who had constructed it down to Severus’ mother’s father, had tended the thing through the years. And while Harry absorbed the writings on the magical art of constructing the labyrinth, he pored over the pages that spoke of actually walking it.

He’d done it in pieces himself, walking the narrow pathway with its twists and turns, but he could never focus his mind entirely on the path. Instead, he noticed the missing pieces, the flaws, the brokenness of it. Finally, he resolved to repair it before he tried again—or at least to repair the grey pathway in its entirety, if not the edging and filler pieces.

But the notes—the journals—spoke of visions. Of epiphanies. Of clarity of thought. How troubles seemed to fall away at the end of the path, at least for a time, and the way, the direction, seemed clear.

And although the writings were done by the Prince men, they wrote of the Prince women as well. For walking the labyrinth seemed an activity for all, and was done in silence, often at the close of the day.

There were sketches: details of the fit of stones on a particular section that Harry took with him when he worked, landscapes from afar of the flat expanse with two or three figures walking in old-fashioned clothing, a sketch of the thing done from above. In the back of one journal, Harry found drawings of other labyrinths, labeled with names like “The Way,” and “Path to the Sun,” and “Opus.”

In London, the new class of Auror trainees started.

Some days, Harry Potter-Prince forgot that he had wanted to be an Auror at all.

On his return from Paris on the tenth of September, Severus buried himself more deeply in his research. He had an early November deadline for this project, and another one in the offing if this one turned out well.

When they sat together outside one Sunday morning in late September, Severus apologized for not helping as often with the terrace gardens.

“You helped enough early on,” said Harry, sipping his coffee. “And don’t worry about it—I enjoy doing it and need something to do besides overseeing house elves and contractors and old Ben.”

“Ben doesn’t need overseeing,” said Severus with a low chuckle. “And I’d like to see you even try. He’d nod at you and say, ‘Aye, Mr. Prince’ and then continue on with whatever he had planned.”

Harry smiled. Severus was, of course, right. “Well, I’m forever ordering something new for him. I now know who to call for horse manure and where to get pine bark mulch. And river gravel.” He pushed a lock of hair behind one ear. He really needed a haircut, but Hermione had gone on so long about how nice and distinguished his hair was looking at this length—how wizardlike —that he put up with it and kept trying to grow it out. “Who would have thought that there are wizarding supply houses for horse manure?”

“Perhaps we would save money by purchasing a horse,” suggested Severus, rolling his eyes and taking a final bite of his Eggs Benedict.

“Speaking of animals, Teddy and Andromeda are coming today for the kitten. I’m taking another one to the Burrow this afternoon for George to take to the shop. He’s taking the calico—says they’re good mousers. That leaves two to stay here, so you might want to start on that contraceptive potion you mentioned.”

“Perhaps we should have kept the good mouser,” said Severus idly.

“Albus and Bat will have it covered,” said Harry. Severus raised an eyebrow and Harry laughed. “I haven’t named their mother yet—maybe you’d like naming rights on her?”

Severus looked at Harry over his mug of tea. “We had a cat when I was a boy. Her name was Selma.” The expression on his face was pained, as if the memory was not an entirely good one.

“Selma?” Harry tried out the name. “That will work.”

“My mother named her. She was a stray that came to us one winter. My father allowed us to keep her because she kept the mice down.”

“Selma it is, then,” said Harry. “I’ll let her know when I go pick up Barney and Fred.”

“Barney and Fred? I thought you said George was taking the calico. Calicos are always females.”

“George insisted,” sighed Harry. “Angelina is already calling her Fredwina.”

“That’s horrid,” said Severus.

Harry shrugged. “She’ll have a good home. That’s what matters.”

Andromeda and Teddy came by just after lunch and Harry met them with Barney all packaged up in a box with air holes. Teddy pressed his little face against the box, peeking into the holes and laughing when a tiny orange paw poked out against his nose. Fred went into a separate box and disappeared with Harry an hour later when he Floo’d to the Burrow for his regular Sunday dinner.

Severus had never accompanied him. And frankly, Harry was fine with that. All of the Weasleys knew why Harry had married Severus Snape, and that the marriage was not a permanent one. There would be a certain level of discomfort associated with bringing Severus to the Burrow, to sit among the spouses and significant others, with Fleur and Hermione and Angelina. After the first few weeks, no one asked him where Severus was any more, though Harry did speak of him, and his research, and the work on the house and in the gardens.

“Are you still working on the maze?” asked Ron that Sunday as Harry stood beside the pond with him and Hermione, skipping stones across at Ginny and Luna on the other side. Hermione was sitting cross-legged on the ground toying with a ragged cattail.

“Labyrinth,” corrected Hermione and Harry at the same time. They all laughed at that, and Ron repeated. “Well, are you?”

“Nearly every day, for an hour or so,” answered Harry. “It’s slow work, but I’m getting better with the magic and getting more done each time. I’ve pretty much given up on finding all the old pieces and putting them back together exactly how they were. Sometimes I just shave off an edge here or there and get them to fit right again.” He shrugged, then smiled as the flat rock he had just side-armed skittered across the pond and landed at Ginny’s feet. She hopped backward quickly and picked up the same rock to skip back at them.

“Have you read that chapter on stabilization spells?” asked Hermione. She had given him a book on structural magic and he had read it cover to cover, twice.

“I read the whole book,” he answered. “I can’t believe how much I don’t know about magic—all sorts of things they don’t teach you at Hogwarts.”

“Stuff you learn for your career,” said Ron. He turned a stone in his hand, looking for the perfect grip before setting it dancing across the pond. “I thought I wanted to be an Auror, but working with George is great.” He grinned. “Mum thought it would be safer too, but she forgot that George was involved.”

“Maybe you need to read something about elemental magic next,” suggested Hermione. “The stones and the earth seem to have some sort of symbiotic relationship in this labyrinth. I’ve looked but haven’t found anything specific about labyrinths and magic or labyrinths made by wizards.”

Harry had turned his head to stare at her. “Hermione, has anyone ever told you that you’re brilliant?”

Ron gave a loud snort and Hermione hit him on the calf with the cattail.

Harry grinned. Now that he, Ron and Hermione all had lives that took them in separate directions, getting together for a few hours on Sundays was even more of a treat than it once had been.

“I bet the Prince library has books on elemental magic,” he said. “Of course, Severus has taken over the library with his research, but I can poke around in there and see what I can find.”

But he had plenty to keep his mind occupied, and didn’t think about the books until the middle of October, on a cold and rainy Thursday afternoon. He had told Ben he could go home, but the old gardener had holed up in the tool shed instead, sharpening and cleaning the tools and giving the wheelbarrow an overhaul. Severus was just back from a three-day trip to Paris and, with his deadline approaching, was closed up in the library.

Harry knocked on the library door. Knocked again. Finally, he pushed the door open and stepped inside.

Severus was in the corner brewing, back to Harry. Harry hesitated. He didn’t want to startle Severus, but he didn’t want to start nosing around unless Severus knew he was in the room. The room had a strong smell, medicinal and minty, evidently from whatever Severus was brewing. Harry watched Severus for a few minutes. He was obviously concentrating deeply, stirring the potion—slowly, if the movement of his elbows was any indication. Harry gazed around the library. Shelves lined the exterior walls, floor to ceiling, and comfortable reading chairs and study tables were grouped on dark green rugs over the hardwood floors. A group of tables in the middle of the room was covered with stacks of books and parchment rolls and one table, more cleared than the others, was clearly where Severus did his writing. Ink bottles and quills were added to the clutter on this particular table, and a chair was pulled up to it. Harry looked back toward Severus.

Severus stretched his back as Harry watched him, then set the stirring rod down and waved his hand to cut the flame beneath the cauldron. He then leaned forward, resting his hands on the edge of the table. He stretched his neck back, then forward, dropping his chin against his chest.

“Severus?”

Severus turned.

“Harry. Is something wrong?”

“No—just wondered if I could look around a bit for something to read. It’s pouring outside.” Harry walked over toward the table where Severus was brewing, glancing down at it curiously.

“Of course.” Severus was staring at the potion and Harry stood beside him, watching the clear liquid become opaque as a sheen rose to cover the surface. As soon as the entire surface of the potion was covered, Severus incanted a stasis spell.

“There. That will hold. Is there something I can help you find?”

“Hermione suggested a book on elemental magic—to learn more about how the earth interacts with the plants and trees and rocks and such here,” he said softly, still holding back the complete truth. He had it in his mind to surprise Severus with the restored labyrinth, and not bring him into another project while Severus’ mind was wrapped around this one. He knew this wasn’t the real reason he was keeping the labyrinth to himself, but it assuaged his guilt.

“Elemental magic? Earth magic, specifically, then?” Severus scanned the shelves. “I think you might benefit from something on botanical magic as well. Start with the shelf in the far corner, midway up.”

“Thanks, Severus. Go on with your work—I’ll get my book and get out of here.”

Severus nodded and began cleaning up his workspace, and Harry wandered off to the shelf he’d indicated and within a few minutes had found two books that looked promising. One was a general guide to the magic of the earth and the second a primer on botanical magic. He turned from the shelves, books in hand, to find Severus staring at him.

“Harry—you have had Dragon Pox, haven’t you?” Severus asked.

“I had Chicken Pox.” Harry smiled and shook his head. “I’m not sure what Aunt Petunia would have done if I’d gotten Dragon Pox. Can you imagine if I’d begun shooting sparks out my nose?”

Severus took a step toward Harry. “You grew up in a Muggle household. Of course you wouldn’t have had it. I thought that perhaps at Hogwarts….”

“What’s wrong?”

“My research….” He trailed off again.

“You’re working on a cure, aren’t you?” Harry shifted the two weighty books against his chest, beginning to worry.

“A cure? No. I’m working on a preventative—an immunization, if you will.” He straightened, drew himself up taller. “I was working with a strain of the disease itself—a weakened version of the virus is often used to create a vaccine. It is transmitted through respiration—Harry, there is a good chance you have been infected.”

“Infected?” Harry suddenly felt the desire to wash his hands. And his arms up to the elbows and maybe past them. “Is it anything like Chicken Pox? Will I break out with sores and itch? Have a fever? Look—I’ve got a game on Sunday. Isn’t there something you can give me?”

“The vaccine isn’t quite ready to test and even if it were, it would be too late for it to help you.”

Harry stared at Severus. “I might not get it, right? You did say it was a weakened version of the virus, didn’t you?”

“A weakened strain dispersed into the air for an hour before you entered. Dragon Pox is a highly communicable disease. But one never knows—you are the Boy Who Lived.” He took Harry’s arm and ushered him out of the room.

“Yeah, let’s just hope that holds true this time,” muttered Harry. “Alright then. Tell me what I’m in for.”

As it turned out, he was in for two weeks of waiting in near quarantine for symptoms to appear. And two weeks was a lot of time. Time for Ron to tell him that Dragon Pox was nothing—no worse than a cold, in fact. Time for Andromeda to tell him (through the Floo, so he wouldn’t infect Teddy) that he should stock up on oatmeal and add it to the bathwater to relieve the severe itching and burning. Time for Molly to teach him the fire retardant charm for his bed sheets. Time for Edward and Victoria to open up one of the guest bedrooms for his use while he was ill—if he became ill.

Time for Severus to concoct all manner of potential treatments and home in on the dozen or more tests he could perform on Harry, all in the name of his immunization research.

Harry, for his part, spent as much time as he could outside, wrapped in a lightweight cloak against the growing autumn wind. He had made significant progress on the labyrinth, and when the wind wasn’t too strong and the sun was shining, he sat on one of the corner benches reading the books he’d taken from the library the day he’d been (presumably) infected with the Dragon Pox virus. Though he had taken the book on botanical magic only so that Severus would think he was interested in how the earth magic worked on plants and not just on stones, he found in it the basic spells he would need to determine the color a tulip bulb would take when it bloomed, to contain the roots of a spreading plant, and to save a budding plant from a spring frost.

The book on earth magic was full of concepts he had never considered, and made him more aware of the innate magic around him, the magic in the stones and in the earth, magic he could learn to use to bind stone to stone and stone to earth. He drew his feet up on the bench and his knees against his chest, wrapped his cloak more tightly around him.

Harry woke up on the morning of October 31st shivering in bed beside Severus. It was too early to be up and moving, but he rolled out of the bed to use the loo and crawled back in a few minutes later, shivering even harder. He curled up against Severus’ back, seeking warmth, and promptly fell back asleep.

When he woke up again, he was being carried down the corridor. He was settled into the bed the elves had prepared in the event he did get sick, and Severus piled two quilts on him and made him drink a bitter-tasting potion. He awoke some time later with a cool cloth on his forehead. His throat hurt now, and he gratefully drank water through a straw from the cup that Severus offered, then swallowed another bitter potion.

Severus helped him settle back on the pillows and tucked the covers tightly around him.

The next time he awoke, he was alone. He was overly hot now instead of chilled, and he kicked off the covers and, when that wasn’t enough, managed to pull off his sleep pants and t-shirt.

An hour later, the pox appeared on his torso.

He had very few memories of the following days, other than the pervasive itchiness and headache, the heat of his skin, the covers tucked back around him no matter how many times he kicked them off. And always, Severus was there. Plying him with potions, wiping his forehead, covering the itchy pustules with a viscous cream. He gave him sips of water, then spoonfuls of ice cream or applesauce or yogurt. Harry woke once to Severus pressing a finger tightly over the crook of his elbow and he vaguely understood that Severus had taken his blood, but he couldn’t be bothered to care.

The fever seemed to plague him forever. Feverish dreams of dragons and basilisks, of musty tents and frozen ponds, of green spell light and giant snakes and burning chalices and blood and death.

He remembered the morning he woke, pleasantly warm instead of burning hot, his head clear, his body weak and sore. He had to use the loo and he tried to sit up on his own, but his tired body wouldn’t cooperate.

“Feeling better at last?”

Severus’ voice came to him from the door leading to the corridor, and he turned his head and smiled weakly.

“Better,” he managed to croak out. “Need to use the loo.”

Severus helped him sit on the edge of the bed, put his slippers on his feet, and helped him into the en suite. He made him sit to use the loo then helped him back into bed, held a potion vial to his lips and covered him back up yet again.

Severus fed him lunch several hours later, thin porridge and watery applesauce and weak tea. Harry tried to hold the cup, but his hand shook, and Severus steadied it with his own.

That evening, after Severus helped him down the passage back to their room, and settled him in bed, he crawled in behind him and wrapped his arms around Harry, sighing into his neck. Harry slept peacefully that night, and did not recall if he dreamed.

The next day, Severus collected more blood, and urine, weighed him, took scrapings from the healing pox scabs and counted—actually counted—the pox on his body. Harry lay there quietly as he tallied up the count then rechecked him, running fingers over his scalp, raising his arms, turning him over and parting his arse cheeks and running a finger over the nasty pox mark at the top of his crack.

“You lost a stone and were disabled nearly ten days,” said Severus. He had been straddling Harry and rested back now, arse on Harry’s thighs. “The disease should not have been so severe in someone as young as you, and as healthy.” Fingers idly caressed Harry’s arse cheeks then began to massage his lower back. Harry relaxed into the unaccustomed pleasure. “You could not have known it when you unwittingly infected yourself, but you have helped advance my research exponentially.”

“Good,” said Harry, half-jokingly. “I’m glad I could be of help.”

There was a long, quiet pause as Severus continued to massage Harry’s lower back, working his dexterous fingers up along his spine and onto his shoulders.

“You need to get up today and start getting your strength back,” said Severus. “I have delayed my visit to Paris and will need to leave tomorrow now that you are recuperating. Molly Weasley has offered to come stay with you while I am away.”

Harry’s tired, relaxed brain tried to process that statement.

“You talked with Molly?”

“And Miss Granger. And Andromeda Tonks. They have now been alerted that you are on the road to recovery. Andromeda and Molly have spent some time here with you while I slept.”

Harry struggled to turn over and Severus lifted his body up and off Harry’s legs, settling on the edge of the bed.

“They were here while I was sick? I don’t remember….”

“No, I expect you do not. The Dragon Pox gave you an unusually high fever. You were incoherent most of the time.”

“Hermione didn’t come?” He didn’t quite know why his brain focused on that thought.

“Ronald sat with you on several occasions. Miss Granger, however, has never had Dragon Pox. She has agreed to be my first test subject for the vaccine. If it goes well with her, Andromeda would like me to test the children’s version on your godson.”

Harry felt his weary face try to smile. “Well, at least something good came of all this. It’s helped your research along, hasn’t it?”

“In more ways than you know,” answered Severus enigmatically. But Harry was too tired—and too pleased—to pursue the statement. His friends had been here, his family. They had spoken with Severus, interacted with him. It was a small piece of normal, he knew, but for now, it was enough.

~*~

By the time Harry felt well enough to go outside again, another week had passed. Severus himself was back from Paris but had left again for Brussels, to visit another hospital about another research opportunity. Molly had come and gone as well. She had been good company, tempting him with tasty meals and sitting quietly with him knitting or reading while he read or puttered around the house or gazed out the windows at the grey skies and bare trees, wishing he could visit the labyrinth.

Two days before Severus was due home, Harry wrapped his winter cloak around himself and set out for the workshop, tin of tuna in hand. The fresh air, cold as it was, felt good on his face as he walked the familiar path from the rear gardens to the outbuildings and stables. He left the tuna for the cats and played with Albus and Bat. They were gently wild animals, willing to come when food was laid out for them, and allowing him to scratch their ears, but cautious too, not quite willing to trust him all the way. Harry thought that was fine for cats meant to keep the barns free of mice.

He walked through the stables and eyed the brooms, deciding that Severus would have his head if he got sick again after a broom ride in this weather. He peeked in at the old automobiles, breathing the smell of old machinery and quiet air, and finally made his way up the path to the labyrinth.

He’d finished the book on botanical magic as well as the primer on elemental magic, and had gone on to find a second book that delved more deeply into the relationship between earth and stone. He thought this might be a good time to explore the concept more fully, on this cold November day when the life in the gardens was quieted, when he had nothing and no one waiting inside for him. When the magic here felt newer, louder, after his three-week absence.

He stepped onto the labyrinth and walked slowly along the straight, grey path that led directly to the center, to the heart of the thing. His mind was not roiling today, not focused on the work in the gardens, or the contractors on the roof. He was not distracted by the sun, nor the sound of the birds in the trees, nor a pleasant wind on his face. The wind, in fact, had stilled, and for a moment, as he stood at the center of the labyrinth, it was utterly quiet.

Wand in his right hand, he sat down, placing his hands at his sides, palms flat against the smooth surface. His wand he let rest on the surface of the labyrinth, between the stones and his fingers.

The book had spoken of the concept of entropy, the tendency of the universe to move from order to disorder. All he did now, as he sat there on the labyrinth’s surface, was try to feel the earth alive beneath him: beneath the rocks and stones and earth he had always thought of as unmoving, ungrowing, spiritless. Beyond the roots of trees and the heartbeats of burrowing creatures. He sat for a long while, long enough to know that he was feeling something, something he could not name.

When he stood, the hand holding his wand seemed more alive than the other, thrumming with sensation, and he realized that his wand was the conduit, the tie between the magic inside him and the magic in the earth. But still, he didn’t know what to do with it, didn’t know how to use that innate magic, how to coax it to the surface and into these stones.

But one thing he did know—that he somehow needed to meld his own magic and the earth’s magic in these stones, in this creation. The journals talked around the subject and he thought, perhaps, that Severus’ forefathers had done this thing without really understanding what it was they were doing. And when they died, the magic in the thing had started to unravel as well.

Did magic, too, return to a state of entropy?

Harry spent the next day indoors. It rained most of the day, and he was still feeling moderately achy. He’d developed a cough and a runny nose, so he dosed himself with a Pepper-up Potion and spent the day wandering about the house, peeking into rooms not often used, studying portraits and tapestries and cabinets jammed full of family heirlooms. He was taking tea in the cozy little parlor downstairs that Severus favored when Victoria came in and announced that Narcissa Malfoy had arrived for a visit.

“She says she is to check up on Master Harry Potter-Prince. She says Master Prince has told her to come.”

“Check up on me?” Harry repeated. He straightened himself out, untucking his feet and placing them back on the floor. “He didn’t say anything about….”

“Of course he didn’t.” Narcissa didn’t wait for Harry to invite her in. “That will be all, Victoria,” she said in a proper and authoritative voice. Victoria bowed low and backed out of the room, not even looking at Harry to second Narcissa’s instruction.

Narcissa removed her heavy cloak and draped it over the back of a chair. She stood, staring at Harry. “The pox marks are quite extensive,” she said, scrutinizing him closely. She took a few steps closer, coming close enough to brush his fringe aside. “However, they are fading as they should. Perhaps they will not scar. Severus must have taken proper care while you were ill to keep you from scratching them.” She sounded almost disappointed.

“Severus asked you to look in on me?”

“Severus stopped by the manor when he left here on his way to Brussels.” Her voice was cold and businesslike. “He mentioned that you had recently recovered from Dragon Pox.” She stared at him again, cocking her head as if assessing the lingering blemishes on his face. “I of course asked after you, and wondered aloud why he was leaving with you so…ill.” She said the word as if she didn’t really believe it.

“I’m not sure why you’re here,” said Harry. “Didn’t you believe I had Dragon Pox?”

“Severus is growing fond of you.” She didn’t seem to have heard his question, or was deliberately ignoring it. “He is pleased with this marriage.”

Harry stared at her, bewildered. “Is that a problem with you? Don’t you want him to be happy?”

“Happy?” Narcissa scoffed. It was a wholly unpleasant sound. “I want Severus Snape to be independent and self-sustaining. I want him to have a home other than Malfoy Manor and interests other than my husband. But happy? His happiness is not my concern, nor am I interested in it in the least.”

“Then why are you here?” asked Harry. She stared at him without answering and he could not interpret the look in her eyes. Calculating, he would say, if pressed. “Look, I’ve done what you asked me to do. I’ve married him, and I’m living here with him. He’s gone a lot, and his research keeps him pretty tied up while he’s here. He’s busy, and he’s making a life for himself that’s not got anything to do with Hogwarts and frankly, nothing to do with you either.” He paused, wondering, then almost under his breath added, “Unless you’re here to tell me that Draco and Lucius just happen to be on a trip to Brussels, too.”

“That would bother you, would it not?” Narcissa answered. She took a seat across from him, transfigured a spoon into a teacup and poured for herself. He watched her add a touch of milk and stir it.

“Oh, I don’t know,” answered Harry, understanding that there was a game going on here and playing even though he didn’t know the rules, “I think it might bother you more. Where are Draco and Lucius anyway?”

She stared at him coldly. “I know exactly where Draco and Lucius are and they are nowhere near Severus.” She sipped her tea. “I doubt he’d give either a second glance anymore, now that he has the Boy Who Lived warming his bed.”

Harry let his cup clunk down onto the table. Tea sloshed over the sides and he stared at the mess on the table. What was she playing at, anyway?

“You were the one who set this whole thing up,” he said, reaching for a calmness he certainly didn’t feel. “You arranged this—called in a debt to get me here, in fact. Now you’re unhappy because we actually like each other? Because we get along?”

“Get along?” Narcissa feigned a laugh. “Severus hardly had eyes for Lucius when he visited. He is quite enamored of you, at least for now. Lucius, it seems, is old news, and that is precisely as I’d hoped it would be.”

“Then what’s the problem?” asked Harry, exasperated.

“The problem, Mr. Potter, is that we all know that your marriage is bound to end when the year is out. You have a career to get back to, and money of your own. You won’t want to be burdened with a forty-year-old husband and a crumbling old estate. You, Mr. Potter, will go your own way and Severus will be left with a certain taste in his mouth—a taste for youth, for an inexperienced partner willing to try new things….”

“What do you mean? What did Sev…?” He cut himself off, recognizing the trap for what it was. She was baiting him. She didn’t know anything. Severus hadn’t told her anything. And what was there to tell, anyway?

Narcissa was smiling. “Oh, Harry, why wouldn’t Severus brag about his virile young husband? He’s missed you these past weeks when you’ve been ill and recuperating.” She was looking at him shrewdly now. “I can’t tell you how many times he thanked me for this quite unexpected boon. I think he rather thought you’d be…well…uncooperative seems as good a word as any. But to find someone not only willing to help him fulfill the terms of the will but to be his plaything as well….”

“He didn’t say that,” Harry stated emphatically. “He wouldn’t say that.” He stood up quickly and his vision blurred, though he was able to quickly steady himself. “And now that you’ve seen that I’m fine, and almost back to normal, I’ll let you get on your way.”

“Let me get on my way?” The laugh again, cold and smooth. “I have nowhere I have to be, Mr. Potter. Do you not yet see the unexpected problem I am facing?”

“No.” He didn’t see. He was tired of this game and wanted her gone from his home.

“You have ruined him, Mr. Potter. Ruined Severus. Now that he has had you, his eyes will always stray to the young men, won’t they? To the boys just out of Hogwarts. To my son, Mr. Potter. And my son—my son—despite his proclivities, has a responsibility. To pass on the Malfoy name to a legitimate heir.”

Harry stared at her as she ranted on, mouth open in disbelief.

“Wait a minute.” He sank back down onto his chair. His throat was beginning to hurt. Narcissa sipped her tea as if she hadn’t just been insinuating…insinuating that… “You think that as soon as the year is up I’ll run off and Severus will go after Draco?”

“That is precisely what I am saying,” she answered. “My son has already shown an interest in Severus. Fortunately, up to this point, Severus had shown no interest in him. But if he is able to form such an attachment to you, think of the obsession he could have with Draco. Draco has the breeding, the culture, the family that you do not.”

Harry knew he should feel insulted. But this situation—this conversation—was so surreal that he almost laughed. Narcissa had engineered this entire thing, calling in the life debt he owed her, asking him to marry Severus so that she’d have him out of her house and away from her husband and son. And now she was worried that Severus would have a taste for young men still in their teens and come after Draco?

“Why are you telling me all this? I’ve married Severus. I’m living with him for a year. What do you want me to do next? Stay with him until you can get Draco married to someone else?”

“While that would be nice, we cannot depend on your doing so. We have begun negotiations with the family of a potential wife, in fact, and if things go well, Draco should be married by early next summer.”

“You’re marrying off Draco just in case Severus comes after him once we’re through?” He didn’t like the sound of that word—through. It sounded so final and here he was, four months into the marriage, feeling like he was just getting to know the man.

“We are finding an appropriate spouse for Draco, not ‘marrying him off.’” Narcissa sounded a trifle snippy. “And the timing is not coincidental.”

“How does Draco feel about this?” asked Harry. “Does he get a say in it?”

“Draco has known from the time he was a small child that an appropriate wife would be chosen for him when the time was right. He will have no objection. My own marriage was arranged in a similar way. He knows that arranged marriages have a greater chance of success than….”

She trailed off, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Oh? Is that right?” Harry smiled tiredly at her. “I’ll be sure to tell Severus tomorrow when he returns, maybe when I’m warming up those sheets for him.”

“You misunderstand, Mr. Potter.” The cool voice was icy now. “Severus is growing fond of you. It may be more difficult than you thought to part ways after a year. You may want to consider beginning to cool things off sooner rather than later.”

She stood and picked up her cloak.

“I’ll see myself out—don’t bother getting up,” she said and without further comment turned and left the room.

What the hell was that about? She’d come here with a ridiculous story about Severus asking her to check in on him and had seemed more interested in his scars than in anything else. That had quickly morphed into a treatise on Severus’ attraction to him—and to young men in general. She was bothered by it—he could tell that. But he had no idea why. Was it really about Draco? Her worry that Severus would seek him out next?

What was he missing? Why was Narcissa Malfoy so visibly upset that the marriage she had arranged was not as painful to both parties as she had clearly expected it to be? If her goal really had been to get Severus out of Malfoy Manor and away from Lucius and Draco, what could she possibly have to complain about now?

Had Severus really gone to Malfoy Manor before he went to Brussels? Had he told them about Harry’s Dragon Pox? Revealed details of their life together? Somehow made Narcissa think that he was growing fond of Harry?

He considered asking Severus when he returned home. If he had learned anything through these long weeks and months, it was that Narcissa Malfoy was not to be trusted.

~*~

As November waned and December arrived, Harry could no longer ignore the question of what to do about Christmas.

The new project in Brussels wouldn’t start until after the holidays, but Severus had additional work on the Dragon Pox research and was lining up test subjects for the first version of the vaccine. He was busy now from morning ‘til evening, but seemed to thrive on the progress he had made and the promise of the upcoming trial. And while Harry, half stir-crazy with the loss of summer and autumn, practiced his imperturbable and warming charms, and went outside whenever the rain wasn’t too heavy or the wind too strong, Severus seemed to ease into an even more permanent residence in the library. When Harry wasn’t dealing with the ongoing household needs, or sitting outside on the center of the labyrinth, striving to open himself to the magic of the earth, he would frequently wander into the library and read in a chair by the window or sit on the floor in front of one of the shelves exploring its contents. He was always quiet when he shared the space with Severus, and they seldom interacted there beyond a nod of greeting or farewell.

Harry was of the opinion that managing the manor was not a full-time occupation. It might have been had they entertained frequently, or had they been of a mind to redecorate or modernize the place. He had never before in his life had so little to do with his time, so few responsibilities. This new state came at a time when his friends were busier than ever with jobs and Uni and relationships. He still saw them, of course, and looked forward to the time spent with Ron and Hermione, with the Weasleys, with Neville and Luna and Andromeda and Teddy, but he looked forward just as much to the cold, windy afternoons of quiet introspection, of listening to the wind and feeling the earth, of learning to anchor himself to the ground, to center himself on the hub of the labyrinth, to plant himself there, eyes on the unmoving horizon, while the world spun around him in slow motion circles.

He came inside one day near the beginning of December, head clear, thoughts focused, and went directly to the kitchen to find Edward and Victoria.

“Christmas?” squeaked Victoria while Edward intoned “Christmas?” in a voice an octave above usual.

Harry held his ground.

“Surely there are decorations?” he asked. “Fairy lights?” The elves looked at each other, then stared wide-eyed back at Harry. “Garlands? Tinsel? Mistletoe?”

“There is decorations, Master Harry,” exclaimed Victoria. It seemed she finally believed—with exuberance—that the new master was serious about decorating for Christmas. “They is old, and they has not been used since the mistress asked us to store them away in the attic. But they is fine decorations, red and silver and green and gold….”

He tried to be measured, applying an even hand in the distribution of the decorations about the house. Garlands on the mantels to start, with tall, dark red tapers to replace the white, and silver bells and golden baubles intermixed with the wreaths on the front doors. Garlands on the banisters, and the railings. Strings of jingle bells on the doors, so they tinkled when opened. Red bows and mistletoe hanging down from the chandeliers.

Severus raised his eyebrows at Harry as a strand of bells jingled when he walked into the library.

“The elves are getting a bit carried away with this Yule decoration, wouldn’t you say?” he commented. Harry could tell Severus was frustrated, and likely looking for a distraction.

Harry smiled. “It’s festive. I think they enjoy seeing the house decked out again.” He looked out the window over the rear grounds, then back at Severus. “Edward asked if we were going to pick out a Christmas tree.”

“A tree?” Severus glanced around as if thinking Where would we put a tree? “I suppose houses like this should have a tree,” he conceded with a sigh. “Can’t they just order one in?”

The tree was, of course, Harry’s idea. He had no intention of ‘ordering one in.’ “Edward said there’s a stand of evergreens just past the creek on the path in the woods behind the stables.” That was, in fact, the truth. Edward had said that, when Harry had asked where the trees had come from in the past. “I’ll go get one. I can cut it down and levitate it back to the house.” He smiled. “Maybe Ron can come out and help me with it if you’re too busy.” He eyed the bay window in the center of the long wall in the library. The area was filled with comfortable chairs now, and the ceiling there was easily twelve feet high.

“A modest tree,” Severus cut in quickly. “In the parlor where we take afternoon tea. It will be more suitable there than here.”

“And you’re all right with me picking it out?” Harry did not actually expect Severus would volunteer to go on a tree-finding expedition with him. He was pleased enough that Severus had fallen into the whole tree idea without protest.

Severus glanced out the windows, then back at his work table, then turned back to Harry.

“I expect you will need assistance, and as it is the first Christmas tree Prince Manor has seen in some years, I suppose I should have a hand in selecting it. Were you planning on going out today?”

“Today or tomorrow,” answered Harry, trying not to look too pleased at Severus’ offer. “It’s been getting colder and Hermione says it’s supposed to snow later this week. May as well do it while we can.”

An hour later found Harry and Severus walking side by side through the field behind the stables, following the path the horses had undoubtedly made over many years. They headed into the woods at the edge of the field and were still able to walk shoulder to shoulder on the wide path, following it down to the creek where they found the evergreens Edward had described and that Harry now recalled having seen on the broom ride over this area back in July.

Severus laughed at the sight of the big pine trees towering over their heads.

“Edward remembered these from his childhood days, I suspect,” he said.

“We’ll just have to look around more,” said Harry, wondering just how many years had passed since there had been a Christmas tree in the manor house. “There are bound to be some smaller ones around here, too.” They crossed the creek on stepping stones and set off up the hill along the path. It took some time, but they eventually found a growth of younger trees, Scots pine if Severus knew his trees as well as he thought he did, and Harry selected one that was eight or nine feet tall and well-shaped. Severus felled it with a cutting spell and Harry lifted it upright and examined it. He had absolutely no experience with Christmas trees. The Dursleys had always put up an artificial one, and he’d never been allowed near it anyway. He had, of course, enjoyed the trees Hagrid brought in each year to the Great Hall, but he’d never actually decorated one nor picked one out himself. But, inexperienced at trees as he was, this particular tree seemed perfectly right to him.

“It is fine,” said Severus, watching Harry examine the tree. “No tree is perfect. A tree with a flaw or two has more character.”

Harry filed that statement for future consideration, understanding that it applied to much more than just trees.

Although it was easy to levitate the tree behind them as they walked back to the house, getting it inside was something else altogether. They ended up forgoing magic and struggling with the tree by hand, shoving it inside backward so that the cut end of the trunk went in first and the branches folded naturally inward. It was large and awkward, and when they finally got it into the parlor and heaved it into the antique stand Edward produced, they were both panting and gasping and their hands were full of scratches and coated with sticky sap.

Severus collapsed into a chair but Harry stood up and admired the tree again.

“My first Christmas tree,” he said. He turned to face Severus. “Want to help decorate it?”

Severus let out a chuckle – a sound Harry hadn’t known he was capable of producing.

“Decorate it? It looks absolutely fine as it is. Lovely. Very natural.”

“You’re impossible. If I didn’t plan on decorating it I’d have left it in the woods.” He added, “Thanks for helping out. I didn’t think it would be such an adventure.”

Severus was resting his head against the back of the chair, eyes closed. “I suppose it is the responsibility of the man of the house to help the mistress in manly pursuits such as these.” He opened his eyes and examined his hands, then used a quick spell to clean them.

“That mistress stuff is ridiculous,” said Harry. He had resorted to using his wand now to straighten the tree in its stand, changing the angle marginally, then stepping back to examine the effect.

“Yes, it is.” Severus was watching Harry now. “But you are adjusting, yes? Not too terribly bored without Aurors Academy or Hogwarts classes? You have found other interests, have you not?”

“Oh, there’s plenty to do around here. When it warms up again I’ll probably be out in the gardens all day trying to sort out the bulbs, since I probably planted them upside down and mixed up the colors.”

“And until then, you have your reading,” said Severus. “Have you read every book in the library on elemental magic yet?” Harry pretended to work on straightening the tree some more, his stomach knotting up suddenly.

“It would be easier to straighten the trunk, Harry,” said Severus with a vague smile. “The trunk has a slight bend in it about midway up.”

“Oh.” Harry examined the trunk. He shrugged. “I like it this way. With its original flaws.” He dropped into the chair across from Severus. “And no, I’m not through all the books on elemental magic yet.” He let it go at that, but Severus continued to look at him thoughtfully.

“It is difficult, sometimes, to not think of myself as your teacher,” he said. “I have tried, throughout these past months, to look at you with new eyes—different eyes. You are doing me a favor....” He laughed here and shook his head. “An enormous favor, and putting your own life on hold to do so. I admit to taking advantage of you and the debt you owed Narcissa, and I did not intend to make this any easier for you, no matter that you had already paid a high price for your part in the war.” He held up a hand as Harry opened his mouth. “You have lost a lot. Suffice it to say that no one has escaped unscathed. However, in this instance, perhaps I can be of some assistance to you. You are obviously interested in earth magic, and have taken a great interest—and liking—to the gardens and the grounds. I am willing to instruct you in some basics…in some techniques I have learned by being around this world twice as long as you have.”

Harry gazed across at Severus. Severus was interested. Intrigued. He could see it in his eyes, hear it in the tone of his voice. He swallowed. How to voice his question? Make his need known? With Severus, these past few months, he had found that words usually did not suffice. He could not believe how few words they exchanged through the course of a day, yet how much they communicated.

Yet words seemed to be required now. He groped for something analogous to the labyrinth to explain his need.

“I want…I want to understand how a castle like Hogwarts can stand for centuries. How are the stones put together? How does the maker’s magic bind them together? And is there magic in the stones themselves?” He faltered, trying to express the present but unvoiced knowledge he had acquired by reading and by sitting at the center of the stone labyrinth, quietly breathing and feeling and observing. He felt young, speaking here like this to Severus, naïve, eager for knowledge. “Sometimes I could feel it, Severus. I put my hands on the castle walls and I knew it was more than stones. It was the stones, and the mortar, and the workmanship that put it all together, and…well, and something else. Magic—knitted around the stones but in them too.”

Severus was looking at him with intense, thoughtful eyes now. “I have always thought that Hogwarts should teach the fundamental theory of magic,” said Severus. “It is touched on in some of the classes, but the Board of Governors would never consent—mainly because no one has been able to actually prove the theory and quite a number of alternative theories still exist.”

By his voice, Harry knew Severus didn’t give much credence to any of those alternate theories. And in the next hour, sitting there in the front parlor with the freshly cut Christmas tree sitting cock-eyed in its stand, Harry had the best lesson he’d ever had on magic. It was an hour of questions, and answers, and practical demonstrations. A lively hour that left Harry’s mind reeling, that filled it with possibilities. Maybe, maybe, there were other options for him in life. His heart embraced the idea immediately even as his head said, “But everyone expects you to be an Auror.”

~*~

The sudden arrival of winter and with it a significant snow accumulation kept both Harry and Severus inside for the next week. Harry spent an entire day decorating the tree, then took to reading in the front parlor instead of the library, sitting curled up on the sofa with the fire blazing and the fairy lights dancing. He started his Christmas shopping, taking a day to go from store to store in Diagon Alley, making his purchases and meeting Ginny and Luna for an early dinner at the end of the long day. When he Apparated back to the manor, he hung his cloak up in the coat cupboard and ducked into the library to let Severus know he was home.

But he heard voices coming from the front parlor and went in that direction instead, curious.

“You have to come, Sev. Mother will be devastated if you don’t. She takes this Christmas Ball very seriously.”

The voice was whiney, petulant. Draco Malfoy.

“I did not say I would not attend. I said I would discuss it with Harry.”

“He won’t go and you know it. You’re just using him as an excuse not to come yourself.”

“And why are you so eager for me to attend? You will hardly have time to spend with me now that you are practically engaged.”

Harry took a step closer to the door. Engaged? Wow. That had happened fast.

“You’ve been talking to Mother, haven’t you?”

“Speaking of your mother, thank her for the invitation and let her know I will answer formally by owl.”

“She asked me to bring back your response.” There was a long pause. Harry imagined that Severus was staring Draco down. “Come on, Sev! If you think you have to show up with Potter, just tell him he’s going with you and if you don’t want him to go, don’t even tell him about the invitation and just go yourself. Tell him you have to go to Paris again….”

“Two days before Christmas? I hardly think so.”

“What is it with you, Sev? This is Potter you’re talking about. You know—Harry Potter? Raised by Muggles? Hangs around with blood traitors? He’d have no idea how to behave at a party at Malfoy Manor. He’d probably try curtsying to Mother or thank a house elf or say the Dark Lord’s name…”

“Enough.”

Harry backed up and stood closer to the wall. That had sounded suspiciously like Professor Snape.

“Fine.”

A long silence followed.

“Draco, go home. I’ve had a long day and Harry will be home soon.”

Harry pushed open the parlor door. “Severus? Oh.” Severus sat on the small loveseat. Draco stood behind him, hands on his shoulders. Draco looked at Harry over Severus’ head and shook his head fractionally, squeezing Severus’ shoulders then slowly dropping his hands.

“Potter.” Draco sounded bored.

Harry ignored Malfoy. Severus looked both embarrassed and irritated.

“I’m going upstairs.” He managed to keep his voice even and to not sound hurt or upset. He turned quickly and left the room.

Fuck Malfoy! The little twit!

And Severus. What the fuck was he doing letting Malfoy touch him like that?

He dropped his shopping bags into a chair in the corner of the bedroom and toed off his shoes. He went directly into the bathroom and started to fill the tub, then stripped down. He was starting to seethe, which was ridiculous. He let other people touch him. Ginny sometimes gave him back rubs, and so did Hermione. It was just…just…Malfoy. Why did it have to be Malfoy?

He stepped into the tub and sank down, lying back against the tiles.

“Harry?”

He heard Severus in the bedroom but didn’t bother to answer. He’d figure out soon enough where Harry was.

The door cracked open.

“Harry?”

Harry closed his eyes and didn’t answer.

“Would you like an explanation?”

Harry answered without opening his eyes. “Not really. I let my friends touch me, too. Rub my shoulders and back. I shouldn’t complain if your friends….”

“Draco Malfoy is not my friend.”

Harry slowly opened his eyes.

“Not your friend.” He digested that for a moment. “Then what is he?”

Severus walked over closer to Harry. “It is difficult to explain.”

Harry closed his eyes again and sighed. “I’m sure it is. Let’s just forget it, then.”

“I have tried to protect him.” There was such a long gap before Severus spoke that Harry thought he might have given up and left. Severus’ voice was so low it was difficult to hear it with the water lapping near his ears. “At Albus’ request. When we…when we left Hogwarts, he stayed with me for some time that summer. He developed an attachment to me—an attraction, if I am honest. I think—I think he would have done anything so as not to go back to the manor that summer. I protected him. I kept him away as long as I was able. But in the end, the Dark Lord demanded his presence. There was nothing for it.”

“So were you lovers, then?” Harry had scooted back and was sitting cross-legged now, resting his shoulders on the curved back of the tub. He really didn’t want to think about Severus and Malfoy—any Malfoy—together, but there was just something about his adolescent nemesis that still made his fists curl.

“No.” Severus said that part easily. “I turned down his advances. I said he was too young. I said I was not attracted to boys so young, that I preferred a partner closer to my own age.”

Harry closed his eyes. He knew where this was going.

“And now two years later you’re married to someone his age.”

“Precisely.”

“I overheard some of your conversation.” Harry reached for the flannel and held it distractedly.

Severus sat on the edge of the tub. “And?”

“Draco’s getting married? His parents are arranging it?” He didn’t admit that Narcissa had already let that news drop when she had visited him when he was recovering a few weeks ago.

“Lucius and Narcissa have a single focus—preserving the Malfoy name and the Malfoy fortune. Draco must marry legitimately and produce an heir. He seems disinclined to find an appropriate partner on his own, so they have stepped in.”

“Appropriate?” Harry dropped the flannel into the water in front of him and watched it float on the foamy surface. “Appropriate as in female?”

Severus shook his head. “Female, yes. A body equipped with the right equipment to conceive and carry a child—and not just any child. The Malfoy heir. But also a female of impeccable lineage, with a good name and money behind it.”

“But Malfoy is gay.”

Severus sighed. “Draco is an equal-opportunity playboy. He will do his duty. He will marry the Greengrass girl.”

Harry looked up. “Greengrass? He’s marrying Daphne Greengrass? But she’s….”

“Gay. Yes, I know. And no, he is not marrying Daphne. He is marrying her sister—Astoria.”

“Astoria? But she’s still at Hogwarts, isn’t she?”

“They’ll be married over the summer, after she finishes in June.”

They were silent for a few minutes after that. Harry played idly with the flannel, and Severus sat awkwardly on the edge of the tub, watching him with sharp, dark eyes.

“Are you going to that party at the Malfoys’?” asked Harry after a quiet moment.

Severus glanced over at Harry. “I can hardly not go. The Malfoys took me under their roof for my long convalescence. Narcissa then helped me secure my inheritance. Everyone knows that much. It would be a slap in her face for me to be invited and not go. You, on the other hand, are under no obligation….”

“Oh, I’m going if you’re going,” said Harry. “I’m sure they’ll have plenty to eat and drink. I can rub elbows with the rich and famous, set a few house elves free, ask Narcissa what bedroom Voldemort used when he was her house guest.”

“That isn’t funny,” said Severus, but Harry could tell by the shine in his eyes that he was amused.

“Maybe we can visit the room where they had you laid out while you were unconscious. I can sit on the chair Draco pulled up to your bed when he held your hand while you slept.”

Severus rolled his eyes.

“Draco was at Hogwarts with you last year.”

“He went home every weekend—now I know why.” Harry was on a roll. The knot in his stomach had loosened and he was enjoying the one-sided banter.

“I can compare notes with Narcissa. Was she the one who gave you sponge baths? She probably got a look at what you keep under those robes and started fearing for her son’s life.”

Severus took out his wand. “One more ridiculous statement like that and I am going to turn this water ice cold.”

“Are you?” Harry grinned, balled up the flannel and tossed it at Severus.

And Severus, when he tried to catch it before it hit him in the chest, turned inward a fraction too far, lost his balance and splashed ingloriously into the water at Harry’s feet. He slid down and came to rest, face up, in the vee of Harry’s legs.

They stared at each other—Severus looking up, Harry looking down—then Harry laughed.

Severus struggled to turn over in his wet robes and finally raised himself up to his knees. Harry laughed as Severus slid forward, lowered his body to rest on top of Harry’s, moved his face until his lips were inches from Harry’s.

Harry wasn’t laughing as the lips came down to claim his own. He wasn’t laughing as the tongue moved against his mouth, as a hand came up to graze his cheek, as the fingers moved to clutch his hair. He wasn’t laughing as he ground up against Severus, as the mouth traveled down, as the tongue flicked against his bared nipple.

“Your boots are wet,” he said, rather breathlessly.

Severus fished around in the water for the flannel, located it and brought it up in the air and squeezed it out over Harry’s face.

“So are your glasses,” he said.

An hour later, as Harry and Severus lay sleeping, tangled together on the bed, they did not see Edward and Victoria come in to stoke the fire. They missed Edward’s nod of modest approval at them as they slept. They were oblivious to the odd look that came across Victoria’s face as she noticed the water spreading out from beneath the bathroom door. And they slept right through the moan of the house elves as they opened the bathroom door to find a veritable flood, drying suds, discarded clothing and boots full of water.

The elves didn’t know that the towels laid over the edge of the tub had cushioned Harry as he knelt there with arse in the air, Severus pushing into him from above, breathing his name out as he came. And when Victoria righted a bottle of bath oil, she never realized that the oil had been used for quite another purpose, slicked over Severus’ cock, poured into his hands as he pounded into Harry, and stroked him to completion.

~*~

“Hagrid sent one for you too,” said Harry. He was sitting on the parlor floor, at the foot of the Christmas tree, arranging presents beneath it. He’d gone to Hogwarts today to deliver his gifts and had come back with an armful.

“Both Minerva and Hagrid,” mused Severus. “I hope Hagrid did not send those horrid rock cakes.”

“Hey! They’re a tradition!” protested Harry. He picked up one of the gifts and gave it a shake, grinning. “Oh, no. These aren’t rock cakes. Not at all. Probably antique potions vials or something.”

He stood and stretched. “I can’t believe I hadn’t seen Hagrid since the wedding.” He smiled to himself. Hagrid had been such a fixture in his life for so long that it seemed impossible that nearly five months had gone by since last he’d seen him. They’d wandered the grounds together today for several hours, had shared tea and rock cakes in Hagrid’s restored cabin, had watched the Ministry repair teams work on one of the exterior walls. It had been a pleasant Friday—much more pleasant, Harry thought, than what was in store for him tomorrow at the Malfoys’.

“It will only take me a few minutes to get dressed,” said Severus the next evening as Harry paced in the library, already dressed in the robes he had purchased just for this occasion. He had gone to a formalwear store in the high-rent section of Diagon Alley and had asked for something in a modern style that still had a traditional look.

Strike that. Hermione had told the clerk that Harry wanted something in a modern cut, but suitable for a traditional wizarding event. Harry had simply said, “Green” when asked what he was looking for in robes.

Harry continued to pace as Severus went upstairs to get ready. Deciding he wanted to go to this party to show Malfoy that he could hold his own among a bunch of stuck-up purebloods was one thing; actually going to the party was quite another. He had no idea how to behave in such a group, despite Severus’ advice to just be himself, and was convinced he was going to make a faux pas of such magnitude that it would be on the front page of The Daily Prophet the next morning along with a full-page photo of himself using the wrong fork at the dinner table.

He shouldn’t have worried.

There were so many people in the ballroom at Malfoy Manor when he and Severus arrived that he wondered if he would even be seeing the Malfoys that evening. Harry recognized some people—classmates from Hogwarts, a few Ministry officials—but Severus seemed to know most everyone. His greetings were brief. A nod, followed by the person’s name. A hand on Harry’s elbow. “My husband, Harry.” Damned if Harry hadn’t asked if he should offer his hand. The first few times he was poised to do so, but soon realized that the other witches and wizards did not extend their own. Quick, not-quite busses on the cheek seemed to be more acceptable in this crowd, but only the women kissed Severus’ cheek and no one kissed his own. They seemed unsure, somehow, of the social norm of greeting the mistress of Prince Manor when she was so very obviously a man.

He snagged a glass of something that turned out to be champagne from a tray that appeared to be floating, but was actually balanced above the heads of two house elves, and stepped back against the wall beside Severus as the doors opened—again—and a new press of people crowded into the room.

“I didn’t know there were this many wizards in Britain,” said Harry.

“Oh, the Malfoys don’t limit themselves to Britain,” said Severus. He nodded politely—but coldly—at a wizard who was staring at them from several feet away.

“What do we do all night?” asked Harry a few minutes later. “My neck is getting sore from all this nodding.” He’d worked his way through most of the champagne and now had a plate of assorted tidbits of food including shrimp on a skewer and a collection of very tiny meatballs sprinkled with green and red…something. Parsley and paprika, perhaps?

“We eat. We drink. We mingle. We converse with strangers.”

“Oh.” Harry shrugged. He tried a meatball. “Well, the food’s good anyway.”

At that moment, music from an orchestra he hadn’t even seen through the crowd started up from the far end of the room. Most of the crowd in the middle of the room pressed back toward the sides, crowding them further, but not everyone cleared out of the space. Quite a few couples, led by Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy themselves, began to dance.

“And we dance,” said Severus. He took two more champagne glasses from a hovering tray and presented one of them to Harry. “The host and hostess have opened the dance floor.”

“I’ll need more than two glasses if you expect me to dance,” said Harry, accepting the glass and taking a drink. “This is good, by the way,” he added. “Not that I have any experience with champagne, but I’m betting it’s the good stuff.”

Severus raised his own glass and drank.

“Oh, it’s the good stuff alright,” he said. He frowned. “And Harry, I am afraid you will have to dance. I suppose I should have covered this with you earlier. You do know how to dance, don’t you? There have been balls at Hogwarts—I assumed…”

Have to dance?” Harry looked at Severus with alarm. “It’s not an option at these things?”

Severus shook his head. “It’s not about the event—it’s about your social standing. You’re a Potter—despite the unfortunate result of your sorting into Gryffindor, you come from an old wizarding family. And you’ve married into an even older one.” Severus leaned his shoulders and upper body against the wall, took a drink of champagne, and gazed thoughtfully out onto the dance floor. Harry noticed for the first time that Draco Malfoy was dancing with a girl he recognized from Hogwarts. Astoria Greengrass, obviously. He watched Draco as he danced—he was obviously trained and skilled in the art, yet paired with Astoria, obviously a stranger or near stranger to him, the result was a mixture of awkward and mechanical.

“So we have to dance because of our social standing? That makes no sense at all.”

“Ah, you misunderstand,” said Severus. “We don’t have to dance together. But we will be asked to dance—you, more than myself, I believe—and it would be considered rude to decline all offers.”

“Men or women?” asked Harry.

“What do you mean?”

“Who will ask me to dance—men or women?”

“Women, mostly,” answered Severus. “Though do not be surprised if you have an occasional request from a man.”

Harry wiped sweaty hands together. “Would this be a good time to tell you that the only time I ever danced was at the Yule Ball during the Triwizard Tournament fourth year? I mean—danced formally, with a partner. And the only lessons we ever had were from McGonagall?”

Severus nearly choked on his champagne. “Oh my,” he said. “Minerva, you say?”

Harry nodded. He was watching the dozen or so couples on the floor. They all appeared to know what they were doing. The all had their hands and arms positioned similarly around their partners and were moving rather elegantly with the music.

Beside him, Severus sighed. “The floor will be more crowded for the next dance. I’ll take you out then and show you how it’s done.”

“You know I’m going to step on your feet, right?”

“Better my feet than our photograph on the front page of The Prophet,” muttered Severus. The number ended and he clapped politely along with the crowd around them as Lucius led Narcissa off the dance floor and headed directly for Harry and Severus.

“I’m reserving a dance for you tonight, Harry,” said Narcissa as she leaned in to barely brush cool, dry lips over his cheek in greeting.

“I’ve promised Severus the first dance,” answered Harry. “But I’m open after that.”

“I’ll be sure to keep Severus entertained while you and my wife have a go at it,” said Lucius, directing the statement to Harry in a low voice as he leaned in slightly. Harry heard him clearly, as did Severus and Narcissa. The statement hung amongst them, cold and uncomfortable, until Severus took Harry by the upper arm.

“The dancing is starting again,” he said.

Harry followed him onto the dance floor, weaving through the dancing couples until they were in a rather tight knot of people doing little more than turning in small circles. Severus put one hand on Harry’s waist and took his hand with the other. Harry caught on quickly enough and placed his own free hand on Severus’ shoulder. Severus tightened his grip on Harry’s waist, pulling him in closer.

“You should know,” Severus said as he began moving slowly, pulling Harry into the steps as he moved, “that I am not an accomplished dancer. I know enough only for social functions such as these. And I only know how to lead.”

Harry had been looking at his feet, trying to catch the pattern of the steps. He had quickly become fascinated with the shoes of the women who were dancing near them. High-heeled, jeweled, flowery, in every color of the rainbow, peeking out from then disappearing under dress robes just as lavishly decorated.

“Don’t look at your feet,” said Severus. “It will make it worse. Just follow.”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” asked Harry as they somehow managed to glide between two couples and break into a fairly open area. “Am I supposed to ask Narcissa to lead, too?”

“We’ll stay on the floor after this dance so she doesn’t have the chance to nab you quite yet,” Severus answered. “And I will attempt to teach you to lead. I make no promises, however.

“Your best recourse is to simply admit to your partners that you are not an experienced dancer,” said Severus toward the end of the second dance. “But you are adequate. You haven’t stepped on my feet at all since you began to lead.”

“Will you have to stay out here and keep dancing?” asked Harry. Even though he was distracted with having to learn how to dance, he was still enjoying the time in Severus’ arms. It felt surprisingly natural, and in this press of people, even knowing that they were being scrutinized—he could hear the whispers, closed his eyes against the occasional camera flash—he felt, for a change, almost normal. Just another couple enjoying a dance at the Malfoys' Christmas ball.

“I am old news at these parties,” Severus answered. “The only thing interesting about me is that I am married to you. I can slip out and hole up in one of the smoking rooms and leave you to the curious witches.”

Harry wanted to point out that there was quite a bit more interesting about Severus than his spouse. He had been a spy in the ranks of Voldemort’s Death Eaters. He had been Headmaster of Hogwarts. He had survived—barely—Nagini ripping out his throat. He had just inherited his grandfather’s extensive estate. But if Harry had learned nothing else since the fall of Voldemort and the recovery that followed, he had learned that ex-Death Eaters did not discuss Voldemort or the war. Most were still in prison, anyway, and the ones like the Malfoys that had escaped incarceration simply shifted their social circles slightly to accommodate both the old ways and the politically correct associates.

He didn’t have a chance to argue with Severus anyway. Narcissa was suddenly there, Lucius behind her, and the song was starting and she had her hand on his shoulder and was taking his other hand in hers. He watched Lucius put his arm through Severus’ and lead him toward the open double doors that led to the entry hall. He had to force himself to look back at Narcissa once Severus was out of sight.

Fortunately, she wasn’t in a talkative mood. She held herself erect and though she smiled when he told her he was new at dancing, the smile didn’t reach her eyes. She seemed, he thought, more interested in making sure others saw them dancing together than engaging in any sort of small talk, especially talk that might be overheard by other guests. Even though he was leading—or doing the best he could with it—she managed to maneuver them into close brushes with any number of couples, some of whom he recognized as Ministry officials, healers from St. Mungo’s, professional Quidditch players and students he had known at Hogwarts. Dancing etiquette seemed to be—if Narcissa’s example was to be counted—to give a false little smile, greet the person by name, compliment their dress or hair or jewelry or robes, and move on.

The dance ended and another one began, and when Harry, following the lead of the other males around him, bowed slightly and thanked Narcissa for the dance, she smiled over his shoulder and put a hand on his arm.

“Draco! Astoria! Come—let’s switch partners. I’ll dance with my son now, get that out of the way, so the two of you can go off and have fun with your classmates.”

Before he knew it, Harry was making the same excuse to Astoria Greengrass that he had just made to Narcissa Malfoy. But unlike Narcissa, Astoria wanted to talk. She seemed utterly surprised to find herself in Harry Potter’s arms but once there, she took immediate advantage of the situation.

“I can hardly believe you actually married Professor Snape!” She had nothing of the practiced, polished and cold exterior of her future mother-in-law and acted much more like the teenage girl she was. “Tell me about him.” She leaned in as he dutifully led her in small circles near the center of the dance floor. “Does he have battle scars? What does that body look like under those robes?”

“Wait.” Harry nearly stumbled as he tried to stop. “You want to know…?”

“Keep dancing,” hissed Astoria, smiling over his shoulder and lifting her hand there to wave at someone.

Harry kept moving. “You want to know what Severus looks like under his robes?”

“Oh my god…you called him Severus!” Astoria nearly squealed. She was not acting at all as he would have expected.

“So—you and Draco...”

“We’re talking about Professor Snape,” she reminded him.

“Severus,” said Harry. “He’s not our professor anymore.”

She grinned at him. He almost felt like grinning back. It was rather refreshing feeling like he was the older, more mature one for a change.

“No, he’s not,” she whispered conspiratorially. “Come on, Harry. We’re all dying to know. What’s he like?”

Suddenly—finally—Harry understood. Again, he almost stopped in his tracks but Astoria deftly kept him moving. “You think he’s hot? You Slytherin girls like him?”

She rolled her eyes. “You are daft, aren’t you? Girls? Slytherins?” She laughed lightly. “I forget you were kind of distracted while you were at Hogwarts. Everyone thought he was hot—dark, mysterious, and that voice! Thank Merlin you married him or I’d never have had a chance with Draco. He’s been mooning over Professor Snape for years!”

Harry’s head was spinning. Oh, he agreed with her. Now he agreed with her. But at Hogwarts? He’d never have been able to get past the nose, greasy hair and totally shite personality to even think about what was under those form-fitting robes.

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking.” Astoria’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Daphne said he was horrid to you. Worse to you in class and all than to anyone else in that school. But I bet you think differently now, don’t you?” She was holding him tightly by the hand and shoulder, looking up into his face with earnest hazel eyes. “Please, Harry! Give me something…anything!”

“He has incredibly long toes,” said Harry after a moment’s thought. And he smells like a comfortable old house. And he has a scar on his shoulder blade from a curse, shaped like a crescent moon. And he has almost no feeling on his neck where Nagini bit him. And he’s long, and lean, and he gives the most magnificent blow jobs.

It wasn’t much to know that Professor Snape had long toes, but it was something, and Harry was relatively sure she would find a way to embellish the tidbit with erotic details. He finished a third and a fourth glass of champagne as he sat out the next dance, then danced three more rounds with three more women Narcissa led over to him, had another glass of champagne, and was pulled onto the dance floor again by Pansy Parkinson, who asked even more intrusive questions than Astoria had. When the music broke at last, Harry set off in search of Severus. Though he was making it through the evening with less distress than he had imagined, he was far out of his element and felt a great deal more comfortable with Severus at his side.

He was feeling pleasantly tipsy thanks to the champagne as he wandered down the wide corridor that led back from the entry hall. He could hear men’s voices coming from this general direction and assumed he would find Severus in one of the smoking rooms he had mentioned earlier.

There were several parlor-style rooms on the left side of the corridor, connected together by double French doors that were all standing open now. He could see the doors as he glanced into each room in turn, looking for Severus.

He found him in the third room, standing with two other men, both quite a bit older. Severus had a glass in his hand filled with an amber-colored liquid. Harry did not recognize either of the men, but they had no trouble recognizing him.

“And here’s the young wizard who saved our Severus!” exclaimed one. “Hear, Hear!”

“Mr. Harry Potter,” slurred the other. “The Boy Who Lived to marry a Prince!” Only “Prince” came out something like “Puh-rins” and the man grabbed hold of Severus’ shoulder to steady himself.

Harry knew almost immediately that both men were drunk. And Severus—he could tell from Severus’ eyes that he was not too far behind them.

“Do you know how mush money—how many galleons—old Ezra was worth?” The first man pointed a meaty finger and waved it in Harry’s face.

Harry shrugged. He knew the man was talking about Severus’ grandfather Ezra Prince. The man’s portrait was in the long corridor in the east wing of the house, surrounded by portraits of his wife, his father, and his father’s father. It was obvious from those portraits that Severus did not inherit his looks from the Prince side of the family. The men seemed all to be balding and portly.

“Ezra was quite the old bastard,” said the second man. He glanced at Severus, whose face remained glassy-eyed yet inscrutable, and continued in an over-loud voice. “With apologies to you, Severus, of course, but your grandfather was a miser and an eccentric. It’s a miracle he managed to save any money at all to pass along down to you with what he spent on rocks! Rocks, I say! Wooden floors are good enough for most folk but Ezra had to outfit that place like it was Westminster Abbey!”

Harry smiled vaguely at the man, who seemed to expect some sort of reaction from him, and moved in closer to Severus. Severus wrinkled his nose and looked quickly down at him.

“My grandfather is dead, gentlemen. Let us not speak ill of the dead.” His voice was serious but Harry could tell he was taking great care with his words, concentrating on them more than was normal. “And now, gentlemen, we must be off.”

“You let me know as soon as those funds are clear,” said the second man. “I can help you find a way or two to spend them.”

Severus was already leading Harry out of the room, guiding him by the arm. They made a left once they reached the corridor, away from the main activity in the ballroom, but Severus seemed to know where he was going. He led Harry into a smaller side corridor and pushed open the first door on the right. The room was lit only by the faded starlight that came in through a single large window. It was another sitting room—Harry imagined there were dozens of them in the mansion. He could make out nothing except a fireplace on the wall opposite the window and a sofa facing it.

He didn’t have time to study the room any more as he suddenly found himself pressed against the back of the door, Severus tight and hard up against him. He closed his eyes and groaned. Merlin it felt good to be pressed up against Severus! His head spun as his cock hardened, as he thrust up against Severus and buried his fingers in his hair.

“You smell of women,” said Severus as he thrust his leg between Harry’s, pushing against him. He buried his face in Harry’s neck and Harry wondered with the small part of his mind that was still capable of thought if Severus liked the smell of perfume.

“You left me out there to dance,” said Harry. His hands were around Severus now, but Severus grabbed them and pressed them up against the door, one on either side of Harry’s head. “With women….”

Severus laughed into Harry’s neck even as he kissed it, working his mouth up to Harry’s ear, pulling on the lobe with his teeth, then finally moving his way over to his lips and kissing his mouth. Harry struggled against the hands holding his own, wanting to pull Severus even tighter against him. Merlin, this was better than dancing, than making small talk with people he didn’t know and mechanically escorting them around a dance floor—step-two-three, step-two-three—until the music ended and the next piece started. But Severus didn’t release his hands so he ground his pelvis against him again.

“Don’t you like how I smell?” Harry asked and Severus laughed again.

“I like when you smell like you and not Narcissa Malfoy’s French perfume.”

“You recognize it?” Harry’s brain refused to keep the question unvoiced. How would Severus know that perfume from all others? He had to have had five or six bodies pressed up to him, five or six different perfumes.

“She was my nursemaid,” Severus reminded him, sucking on Harry’s bottom lip then releasing it, then kissing him forcefully, working his lips until he was a moaning mess. “She and that contingent of elves.” He bit Harry’s shoulder lightly through his robes. “The smell of that perfume was infused in the air of my sick room, and in the bed clothes. When I smell it now, I think of hospitals.” He was speaking low, as he always did, but even lower than normal, nearly guttural, and his words had the slightest slur. If Severus was drunk, he was showing it more in his loss of inhibitions than in his speech. Harry had already been feeling tipsy before he went to find Severus, and now, now any qualms he might have had about having sex in a dark room on the ground floor of Malfoy Manor during the crowded Christmas Ball had flown with the first press of Severus’ prick against him, with the imprisonment of his hands in Severus’ against the door.

“Do not move,” cautioned Severus, releasing his lips after another long and demanding kiss that left him panting, breathless. He released one of Harry’s hands, and Harry, without thought, obediently kept it where it had been pressed above his head, against the door. Severus was unbuttoning his robes now, reaching in to undo his trousers, pushing them aside and down along with his pants. He grazed his hand over Harry’s cock, then grasped it and squeezed.

“Remain still,” he warned again in a voice that brooked no argument. He released Harry’s other hand and dropped quickly to his knees, then engulfed Harry’s cock in his mouth.

“Oh, fuck, Severus….” Harry pushed into him even as he felt one of Severus’ hands wrap around his arse, the other cup his bollocks. Pleasure shot through him as Severus fondled him, as the head of his cock pressed into the back of Severus’ throat, as Severus’ fingers moved over his crease, across his entrance, as a forefinger pressed into him slowly, just the tip. “Want my hands in your hair, want to fuck your mouth….” It was the champagne; it had to be the champagne making him say these things, making him vocalize the thoughts he never vocalized during their horizontal love-making on their bed at the Manor. “Want to come down your throat, Severus, want you in me….”

The finger that had been teasing him pushed in farther and he instinctively spread his legs more, grunting at the new pressure, pushing his cock deeper into the delicious heat and welcome pressure of Severus’ mouth. He didn’t think—could not wonder—how Severus got so good at this, at this act. All that mattered was that he was the one Severus was sucking, he was the one pinned here to this door, hands and head pressed against the wood, eyes closed, cock engulfed, arse breached.

“Wish you could fuck me, Severus. Here, against the door….” The pressure on his cock increased as Severus took him in even deeper, squeezed his bollocks a bit harder, worked the finger out then in again, harder, faster, deeper, crooking it, searching, grazing his prostate and making lights dance behind his still-closed eyes.

He knew he was close. His bollocks were drawing up, the pleasure was centering, cresting, pulsing, beginning to spiral. With a shout he came, spurting into Severus’ mouth, down his throat, and Severus milked him, sucking him dry as Harry began to slide down the door, opening his eyes and seeing, in the dark room now filled with the glow of a rising moon, Lucius Malfoy—recognizable by the mane of near-white hair—sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, staring at him, robes hiked up, cock in one hand, glass of champagne in the other, unbridled lust in his eyes.

And then Harry was on the floor and Severus was on him, positioning him on his knees, preparing him with a spell he had never seen or heard before, wand tip to his arse and he was ready, and slick, and the cock—Severus’ cock—was pushing into him. He couldn’t be arsed to care about Lucius Malfoy now as he was breached so fully, so mercifully, as Severus pulled out then pistoned back in, grunting as he worked, hands all over Harry, pinching through his loosened robes at his nipples, mouth caressing the skin of his neck. Harry only thought of staying upright for Severus, of seeing this through, of the way Severus’ cock teased his prostate again, of the pleasure that spiked out from his cock as Severus’ hand pulled it awake again, so soon, too soon. But it was hardening, lengthening. Fuck! Who knew he could get hard again so fast?

His second orgasm came on the heels of Severus’ first, and they collapsed to the floor together, Severus kissing the back of his neck, pulling him back against him, muttering his name.

And Harry finally, finally dared to open his eyes. To look into the corner and face the voyeur.

But Lucius was gone.

But it hadn’t been an illusion. It hadn’t been his imagination. He had been drinking—his head was light and fuzzy from the champagne—but he couldn’t have dreamed up that.

For lying across the chair was a very familiar serpent-headed cane. And sitting on the arm, balanced precariously, was an empty champagne glass.

Had Severus known? Had he led him in here to put on a show for Lucius? Or had Lucius followed them? Come in through the connecting French doors he could see now, outlined behind the sofa, as he and Severus kissed?

“Did you know?” asked Harry. He rolled on his other side, facing Severus. Severus was still breathing heavily.

Severus reached out a hand and straightened Harry’s glasses.

“Know what?” he asked. Severus looked sated, relaxed, unconcerned.

“Lucius was in here,” said Harry quietly. “Sitting over in that chair. Watching us. Did you know he was here?”

“You saw Lucius in here? Just now?” Severus pushed himself up to a seated position and glanced around the room, adjusting his robes as he did so. Harry saw his eyes home in on the cane on the chair and a look cross his face—a look Harry wanted to believe was outrage. Severus got to his feet, and, a trifle unsteady, moved over to the chair.

“Did you know he was in here?” asked Harry again, getting to his feet and following Severus.

French doors in the wall opposite them, leading into the connecting room, stood slightly ajar. Severus moved to them and closed them, drawing the curtain over the doorway. His movements were slower than normal.

“No,” he said curtly. “I did not.” That look again—the one Harry could not interpret. “Why didn’t you say something? There was no reason to give him a show—we could have stopped at any time.”

“I thought….” Harry’s voice trailed off. He did not want to admit that he could have thought that Severus had planned this, that he had deliberately pulled him into a room where Lucius was waiting. He dropped his head, embarrassed.

“You don’t trust me,” stated Severus. “After all this time, you do not trust me.”

“I don’t trust the Malfoys!” protested Harry. “And you’ve been drinking—and so have I.”

“I can hold my own against the Malfoys,” said Severus. “And I am not drunk.”

Harry looked up as Severus walked toward him. Severus’ fingers caressed his cheek. “I am not interested in Lucius Malfoy, Harry.” Severus’ voice was a gentle caress and Harry leaned into his touch. His hand moved down over Harry’s chin, ghosted over his neck.

“But he’s interested in you—he wants you,” said Harry, looking up at Severus, intent.

Severus stared at Harry. “Lucius does not want me like you think he wants me,” he said. “Come, Harry. One more dance and we will go home.”

“I’ve had enough dances,” protested Harry. “I’d rather go home now.”

Severus smiled at him. “I was hoping you’d dance once more with me, Harry.”

And five minutes later, unbelievably, on the heels of lovemaking, they were on the dance floor, Harry in Severus’ arms, moving around to the music. The dance floor was crowded, and it was inevitable that they would brush up against other couples from time to time.

But when they glided by Narcissa in Lucius’ arms, Harry stiffened.

“Lovely arse, Potter,” whispered Lucius into his ear as they danced past him.

Severus turned him away just then, and they moved to the edge of the dance floor, then disappeared into the crowd and into the night.

~*~

Harry spent Christmas Eve with Andromeda and Teddy, Christmas Day at the Burrow and finally, Boxing Day at home with Severus.

They had arranged it that way, and Severus, despite the growing closeness between them, had opted out of accompanying Harry on either visit and had insisted that he go on with the plans he would have made had he been Harry Potter still, living at Grimmauld Place by himself.

Harry wanted to ask Andromeda about Lucius Malfoy, but how does one tell his godson’s grandmother that Lucius Malfoy had been a voyeur on some very hot wall sex in a small parlor at Malfoy Manor?

There was time, early Christmas morning, to exchange gifts with Severus.

Warm socks for Severus, who was forever warming his cold feet on Harry at night and complaining about the cold floors during the day. Harry thought it was a very Dumbledore kind of gift, and when Severus opened the package, his smile was nostalgic and warm, and Harry knew that he, too, was reminded of Albus. And because socks was just not enough of a gift for one’s husband at Christmas, no matter the circumstances of the marriage, Harry also gave Severus a leather travel case packed with duplicates of his personal items and a modern guidebook of Brussels. “You’ll be in Brussels a lot this year,” he said by way of explanation as Severus examined the well-crafted case. “You can just grab it and go.”

Harry’s gift was a book. A heavy tome, and old, titled Working the Stones: Magical Architecture of the World. Harry stared at the book on his lap, then looked at Severus with a blossoming smile.

“It attempts to explain the magic used to construct certain edifices,” explained Severus. “The pyramids are there, and Stonehenge, and….”

“It’s perfect,” said Harry as he carefully opened the book. His offerings to Severus seemed inadequate now.

“It’s just a book,” said Severus, as if in apology.

But it was more than a book, and Harry knew it. It was a recognition of his interests, an acknowledgment that he merited Severus’ time and attention, that Severus noticed him. And though he thought his own gifts to Severus paltry, he knew that his, too, were given in the same spirit.

They ate breakfast together in the parlor with the Christmas tree, and opened the rest of their gifts. The Malfoys sent three bottles of wine for their wine cellar, all of them rare, the package carefully packed in wood shavings. Andromeda and Molly and Arthur sent similar gifts, gifts meant for a couple but impersonal, consumable items both could enjoy. Molly and Arthur’s package was of homemade breads and treats, and Severus sampled a piece of pumpkin bread while Harry opened a selection of teas and coffees from Andromeda. She had given him a personal gift the night before, but he understood that this offering was for both of them, and he puzzled over that even as he exclaimed over the wide variety of teas and coffees and biscuits.

There were a few other gifts—a bottle of scotch for Severus from Professor McGonagall that Severus did not explain to Harry, a pair of gloves from Hagrid that Harry knew were meant to protect his hands while he worked with the heavy stones. They were perfect for the task, but Harry folded them away without comment to Severus. As Harry examined the fingernail clippers from the Dursleys—they had certainly gone all out this year—Severus opened a package from Draco and extracted travel robes of such obvious quality that both he and Harry stared at them for a protracted moment. Harry looked away, self-consciously fiddling with the cheap nail clippers.

And Severus, without a word, folded the robes back into the box, put the lid on, and placed it back under the tree.

“Here’s yours from Hagrid,” said Harry, pushing a package over to Severus. They didn’t discuss the robes, and Harry never saw them again.

It was late when he arrived home from the Burrow; he took his packages directly upstairs, but didn’t find Severus in the bedroom or either of the parlors they used on that level. He changed into his pajamas, pulled on thick socks and his winter robe, then went downstairs again.

Severus was sitting in the wide wingback chair in the parlor with the Christmas tree.

His black-socked feet were resting on an ottoman and he, too, was wearing his pajamas and a robe. The fairy lights shed a warm glow on the room, which was lit only by the fairy lights and the fire. The bottle from Minerva was on the table, and he held a glass in one hand. The guidebook was on the table beside him.

Severus looked up and regarded him steadily, then beckoned to him with a finger, not saying a word of greeting.

Harry glanced at the bottle, wondering how much Severus had had to drink. It was impossible to tell in the dim light.

“Come here, Harry,” said Severus in that low, seductive voice. “Sit with me a while.”

But when Harry started to sit on the sofa, Severus reached out for his hand and tugged him closer, pulling him down onto his lap in an awkward tangle of limbs. The chair was wide, but not wide enough for two of them to sit side by side, and sitting across his lap felt odd and awkward, so Harry positioned himself so that he was straddling Severus, knees on either side of Severus’ thighs.

Severus wrapped his arms around him. His breath smelled of scotch, but it was a pleasant smell. Harry had had a cup or two of eggnog himself and was relaxed and warm.

“Happy Christmas,” said Severus softly as he kissed Harry, sucking in his bottom lip then moving his mouth to press on Harry’s chin and jaw.

“Happy Christmas, Severus,” returned Harry softly. He sighed as he dropped his head back and Severus’ lips obligingly moved to his throat.

He didn’t try to analyze it then. It was Christmas, after all, and the lights were low, and they were both warm and relaxed. He felt Severus’ hand on his arse, pulling him closer, felt the hand move around, palm his hardening cock. He grunted softly as fingers surrounded him, squeezed and pulled. He moved unapologetically, pushing into Severus’ hand, cooperated fully in pulling off his pajama bottoms, kissed Severus’ neck hungrily as Severus’ fingers loosened and stretched him.

Lowered himself on Severus’ cock to ride him, wrapped up like a Christmas gift in the chair with Severus, with fairy lights and firelight flickering in the round lenses of his spectacles. Severus’ hands on his hips were warm and strong, and when one of those hands moved in to wrap around Harry’s cock, Harry nearly keened as he pressed down onto the hard prick filling him and pressed out into Severus’ warm, strong hand.

Severus took his time, methodical, deliberate, as he thrust upward, pulled out and back, intent on Harry’s face, dark eyes heavy-lidded with need. Harry, in turn, lifted up and thrust back down, working his own need, seeking his own pleasure, lost in the crackles of pleasure from Severus’ cock nudging his prostate, from the slippery hand fisting the head of his cock and sliding down the shaft, fingers tickling his bollocks.

Need and want in the perfect Christmas package, wrapped tightly with ribbons, straining against the bindings until they were bigger than the constraints, bursting forth in a shuddering orgasm so intense that he slumped forward, gasping for air even as Severus’ fingers dug into his hips and lifted him upward a few inches, holding him there while Severus’ cock thrust up again and again and again until Severus, too, shuddered and dropped him and the arms, the hands, the fingers so tight on his hips wrapped around his back instead, pulling him down until they were chest to chest and there was nothing between them but the thrum of their heartbeats. Nothing save the thrum of their hearts, and the unvoiced things, hiding just below the surface. The words neither spoke aloud in this odd dance of mind versus body, of what the organized mind set forth, what the unrestrained body sought, what the soaring heart demanded.

~*~

Severus left for Brussels in mid-January, just after his fortieth birthday, returned for two weeks, left again in early February. The pattern continued—a week away, two home, sometimes only one.

Harry visited Hagrid on the weekends when Severus was away, saw Ron and Hermione for a pint on Fridays, had dinner at the Burrow with the family on Sundays. Bill and Fleur’s first child, baby Victoire, had arrived with the new millennium, and George was getting married in May, and Percy in June. Time would not stand still, not for him, not for anyone, and as the winter waned and spring approached, Harry wondered what would happen on July 28th, a day after their anniversary, when the contract would be fulfilled and the Prince inheritance Severus’ to keep.

They did not speak of it. They did not speak of much, really, though they had settled into a comfortable existence together. When Severus left for his trips to Brussels, there was no fanfare. He’d remind Harry that he was leaving in the morning, and Harry would go about his business, and Severus would not be there for tea.

And when he returned, they would run into each other in the house, neither admitting they were looking for the other, and after a week of sleeping alone in a bed, they would succumb to the need so easily that they seldom made it to bedtime without having each other. And while it was always Severus who caught Harry’s hand and pulled him into a dark, unused room, or Apparated them back to their bedroom, it was Harry who prowled the house, restless, looking for a chance, an opportunity. One week Severus took Harry over the desk in the library. The next found Harry sucking Severus off in the wine cellar and the next, Severus, arriving home after Harry was already in bed, managed to maneuver him into position and press fingers into him while Harry was still groggy with sleep, relaxed and boneless.

On a trip to Hogwarts near the end of February, Harry and Hagrid watched the reconstruction team work on a circular wall in the North Tower for hours. Harry had a million questions, and the magical foreman, in no hurry to finish a job that paid well and kept him out of the Scottish wind, humored Harry with answers, describing the spells that worked between the stones and the mortar, and how that magic worked into the heart of Hogwarts herself.

Hagrid had been hired to provide the brute strength needed to help hold stones in place while the magic was called up and tested, but Harry held back, watching, absorbing. He’d read his book from Severus twice already, and on sunny wintry days when the wind was not blowing too hard, he worked on the labyrinth, progressing now at a much greater pace and worrying less if the stone he was working had been in this exact place before. He knew how to shape the stones now, with tools and magic, and how to set them in place, and seal them. But while he could feel the magic of the device, he couldn’t yet manipulate it, or more precisely, meld his own to it.

In mid March, when the crocuses were beginning to bloom, he was working on the labyrinth one Friday afternoon, on the northwest corner, the last part to fit back together before all that would be left was the hardest part—the melding magic, as the book called it. Albus and Bat were with him, as they often were now, though their mother had gone back to being the near-wild thing she had been before they were born. They were nearly grown now, but still played like kittens, and jumped and wrestled on the stones, chasing leaves across the paths.

He was sitting cross-legged, as he had been for two hours now, when he looked up toward the manor and saw Severus walking toward him on the narrow path—the path that led more directly to the labyrinth, not the one they usually took together that cut over to the stables and barns and then turned and made for the labyrinth.

He knew the labyrinth was not visible from the terrace. There were trees in front of it, and the ground rose a bit before it so it seemed to settle into the landscape. But Severus had already rounded the last turn and could clearly see him, and just as clearly, was coming for him.

Harry stood slowly, feeling awkward and chagrinned, shaking the stiffness from his legs. Severus had been in Brussels all week. He was due home tomorrow—Saturday—not today.

Severus stopped at the edge of the stones and looked at Harry gravely. His face was lined, worried. He did not comment on the labyrinth, nor on finding Harry here.

“There has been an accident at Hogwarts,” he said.

Harry froze and his stomach dropped to his feet.

“A wall under repair fell on Hagrid. He will not survive, Harry. You need to go now if you wish to see him.”

Harry stared at Severus, mouth open. Hagrid? Hagrid. He looked around him dumbly, at the cats who had slunk down in the winter-bare beds on the edge of the labyrinth, regarding Severus suspiciously, at the small pile of stones at his side, at his gloved hands. He stared at his hands a moment, then pulled off the gloves and shoved them in his pockets. He swallowed.

Not Hagrid.

His eyes burned with hot, unshed tears.

Severus was still ignoring everything but Harry and Harry suddenly realized that Severus was not surprised to find him here. That he had known where to come. The elves, perhaps?

“Harry?” Severus stepped up onto the labyrinth, and Harry nodded stiffly.

“I’m going,” he said. He closed his eyes and a few tears spilled down his cheeks. Without another thought, he turned on the spot and vanished.

As he ran across the grounds from the gates of Hogwarts, he prayed he was not too late. It was a pleasant day, and students were out, but they were sober and made way for him. A boy near the castle door quickly opened it and held it as he approached, and he ran through without acknowledging the help. Up the stairs, again, down the corridor, through the doors to where Hagrid was lying, on the floor, too big for a cot. Harry pushed through, between Professor McGonagall and Professor Sprout, and took one of the great, meaty hands, holding it with both of his own, before looking to Madam Pomfrey.

There was no hope in her eyes.

He looked at Hagrid’s face next, at his blood-matted hair, his still face.

“He never knew what happened,” said Professor McGonagall, squeezing Harry’s shoulder. “He was just lending a hand, as he always did.”

Harry bit his bottom lip and watched, silently, as Rubeus Hagrid took his last breath. The room seemed to shudder in anticipation of the next breath, which never came. Harry released the hand and buried his head on Hagrid’s chest, and wept.

And it was Severus, arriving just after Hagrid died, who gently pulled him away five minutes later, who turned Harry toward him instead so that Poppy could cover Hagrid and spend her own grief. Harry clung to Severus and did not know, could not know, what it had cost Severus to come here, to this place, amid these people, to a life he had left behind when he flew away in the night on that day, that last day.

Harry found himself in the Headmistress’ office some time later, sitting on a chair beside Severus, a mug of tea in his hands. And he found, to his utter surprise, that Minerva McGonagall and Severus Snape were friends of a sort, cautious friends, and that it was Minerva who had alerted Severus in Brussels. And he was glad that Dumbledore’s portrait snoozed through the entire meeting, because he did not want to see those sparkling blue eyes on this day.

Harry wanted to tell Hermione and Ron in person, and Severus went with him to the Burrow. He stood behind Harry, hand on his shoulder, while he delivered the sad news, then stepped back, out of the way, as Harry was enveloped in the arms of his friends. Later, he sat at the kitchen table with Molly and Arthur and Harry and a roomful of other Weasleys and their spouses and spouses-to-be and drank firewhisky and listened to their stories, and Harry caught him hiding a smile more than once and toasting to Hagrid’s memory, and his rock cakes, and his kind and gentle heart.

That night, Harry slept in the middle of the bed, snuggled tightly against Severus. There was no pretense of accidentally entangling themselves during the middle of the night, no invisible line between them to force them to sleep parallel to each other, each on his own side of the bed. Severus did not spoon against Harry’s back and Harry did not press himself into Severus. Instead, they lay in each other’s arms, embracing each other in a horizontal slow dance.

And the demons stayed at bay that night and were easier to face in the morning, when Harry awoke before Severus and brushed hair that was not his own out of his eyes.

They didn’t speak of the labyrinth until Hagrid was buried, down by the lake near Dumbledore’s tomb, and the memorial service was over, and Harry returned home and made his way straight out to the terrace and down the path to the labyrinth.

And he walked it this time, taking his time as he stepped north, then west, then south, then north again, calming his tired heart, his weary soul, looking for something, something, to fill the emptiness that was Hagrid and his rock cakes and his hands as large as rubbish bin lids and the egg in his beard and his kind, trusting heart. And when he finished the path, he started it again. As he walked it more slowly this time, he looked up from his feet and saw Severus on one of the corner benches, watching him.

“How long have you known?” asked Harry. He reached up to his throat and unbuttoned the dress cloak he still wore, removing it and draping it over his arm, but remained where he was.

“I’ve known about the labyrinth since I was a child,” Severus answered. “My mother spoke of it often when she reminisced about days spent at her grandparents’ home.”

“How long have you known I was working out here?” asked Harry, embarrassed at his own secrecy even as he was angered at Severus spying on him.

“I saw you heading out here in October,” answered Severus. “I watched you carefully after you were exposed to the Dragon Pox virus. I realized then where you were going, and why you were reading what you were reading.”

“You didn’t say anything,” said Harry, almost accusingly.

“Nor did you,” returned Severus. “I assumed you were not ready to share it.”

Harry looked down. “No, I wasn’t. I don’t know why I wasn’t, though. I suppose it never felt like the right time.”

“I have read about labyrinths,” said Severus, “since I understood what you were doing out here. This one was built not too terribly long ago, not more than one hundred years, in any event. A labyrinth walker loses himself in the twists and turns and the outside world disappears. The mind is quieted.” He looked up at Harry then. “Does it work for you?”

Harry shook his head. “Not really.” He sighed. “Not today, anyway.”

“Your fascination with this place is not about the labyrinth itself,” guessed Severus. “It’s about the stones, and the magic. The construction.”

“This one is named ‘Wide Open,’” said Harry, almost cautiously, drawn into the discussion, but somehow still reluctant to give it all away, the knowledge, the secrets, his experiences here these last months. But he had forgiven Severus already, if there was anything to forgive, really, and walked over to sit beside him. “The name was in the notes in the shop. It’s an odd name for a labyrinth, don’t you think? Since the labyrinth is a closed thing that turns in on itself over and over again?” It felt remarkably good—right—to finally, finally, share this with Severus.

Harry felt Severus’ arm go around him and he leaned against him. He was tired. His head hurt. He was drained, from the emotional loss of an old friend, from the way he had died amid those stones, from the eulogies so many had given of the boundless love of Hagrid, his simplicity, his selflessness.

“Everything is different now,” he said a moment later.

“Since Hagrid died?”

“No.” Harry dropped his head onto Severus’ shoulder. “Since I came here. I didn’t expect to fall in love with it. I don’t think I want to leave.”

It was the closest they had come to discussing the future. Severus’ arm tightened around him. He chuckled.

“It would surprise the hell out of quite a few people if you stay,” he said.

“You wouldn’t mind, then?” asked Harry. A weight was slowly leaving him, the weight of all the unsaid things, giving voice to his as yet unvoiced hope.

“Mind? No, I don’t think I would mind at all if you decided a year with me was not long enough.”

“What about the Malfoys?” asked Harry a few minutes later. He didn’t know how Severus would react to the question, but as long as they were getting things off their chests, he couldn’t help but dispense with the greatest weight of all.

Severus didn’t answer for a few minutes. He drummed his fingers on Harry’s forearm, then finally spoke.

“I could not explain this adequately if I had an entire day. It is complicated and there are parts I still do not understand. They took me on—took me in, I should say—for reasons I am only now beginning to understand. We are acquaintances more than friends, or we were, and as I convalesced there, I had no idea what my position or status in the wizarding world would be when I recovered. I assumed I would be ostracized, if not imprisoned. I am learning, slowly, since I have come here anyway, that this is not the case. Not wholly, anyway. Yes, there are many who despise me, but there are many others who believe the story you have told, and who are ready to forgive me. While I lived at Malfoy Manor, I felt that I was being protected, sheltered. Indeed, that they were my protectors. When I spoke of leaving, finding a job, Narcissa convinced me that it was too early, that I was essentially unemployable. It was then that she asked me about the Prince inheritance.” He paused, shook his head. “I wondered later how she knew about it, but at the time it did not occur to me that this may have been her motivation for taking me in. Anyway, I told her it was too late—that I had lost it already.”

“Only you hadn’t lost it,” said Harry, with a small smile.

Severus gave a wry smile in return. “Obviously not. And she soon determined that there was time enough. And told me that she would find an appropriate spouse for me, one who would stay with me long enough for me to fulfill the terms of the will. She told me she had some favors to call in. Naturally, I was skeptical—both of her tactics and of the intentions of any person who would agree to marry me under those terms. When she came to me and told me that you had agreed to her terms, and when I insisted, disclosed the life debt, I gave it some thought before agreeing. I admit I thought you young enough that being inconvenienced for a year would do you no lasting harm, and I convinced myself that Narcissa could ask you to do a much more difficult thing than this, as I was resolved to more or less leave you to your own devices during our marriage.”

“My own devices?” repeated Harry. “So why did you insist on having sex?”

“You insisted on the fidelity clause,” answered Severus. “I thought a year a long time to go without.”

“I thought you were having an affair with Lucius,” said Harry. “Narcissa….”

Severus sighed. “Cardinal rule is ‘Never trust a Malfoy.’ I was never interested in Lucius and had I been, I would never have shown that interest while living under that roof. As for Lucius, you saw what he is capable of while we were there for the Christmas ball. He is more interested in watching, Harry, than in meeting his wife’s needs, which puts Narcissa in a difficult position. And Draco…well, Draco is young and accustomed to getting what he wants.”

Harry opened his mouth, then closed it again. Was Severus saying that Lucius didn’t…didn’t share the marital bed with his wife? He shook his head. “Then why would Narcissa tell me that she didn’t want to share her husband—and that’s why she wanted you out?”

Severus was quiet for a moment, seeming to reflect before he spoke. When he did, Harry instinctively thought he was being vague. “She would love to catch Lucius in a tryst with another man. She could invoke the fidelity clause in their marriage contract and walk away with half of the Malfoy estate. There is no real love between those two.”

“Wait.” Harry sat up, an idea occurring to him. “Would she keep the money if she married again?”

“Yes,” answered Severus. “Why do you ask?”

Harry couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen this before. It was nearly impossible to believe it, but he remembered Narcissa’s visit to him when he was recuperating from the Dragon Pox. “Did it ever occur to you that she might want you?” he asked.

Severus looked uncomfortable. “She cannot have me,” he answered. He laughed, but the laugh sounded forced. “Don’t you think it more likely that she wants my money?”

“Fine. Your money, then. Look, I’m serious, Severus. She thought you’d go off and marry me, and she could trap you and Lucius in an affair. She’d divorce Lucius and keep half the estate. Then she’d wait for our marriage to end after a year and then start on you—seduce you, go after your money.”

“That’s a bit contrived, isn’t it?” Severus said. He pulled Harry against him then and chuckled. Harry liked the way it reverberated inside him, how he was able to feel his laughter as well as hear it. “A lot of pieces would have to fall in exactly the right place for a plan like that to succeed.”

“She didn’t like that we were getting along so well,” continued Harry, “when she visited me after I had the Dragon Pox. She claimed you’d be after Draco as soon as the year was up, now that you had a taste for youth.”

“A taste for youth?” Severus scoffed. “We could try to puzzle out the Malfoys all day and into the next. But now, we should go inside. You could use something to eat, I expect, and it is getting cold.”

As they returned to the house, Harry was glad for Severus’ arm around him, for the added warmth, and for the company on this melancholy day. And if the puzzle of the Malfoys was not solved, and if Severus was not telling him the whole truth, perhaps the whole truth was not important.

After that day, Severus sometimes came out to the labyrinth with a thermos of coffee or tea and they would drink a cup together and discuss the progress of the day. By April, when the daffodils and tulips were beginning to show their colors, Harry had finished the restoration, and spent most of his time now working with the magic of the device, and in the stones, and in himself. The key, he knew, was to tie it all together, using his magic to cement the binding of the new stones to the old, to the whole of the device itself. And now there were new stones, stones that had to be fitted into the whole of this thing. Not just their physical forms—he’d already accomplished that part—but their essence as well.

“Did it bother you, when you were young, to hear stories about Prince Manor from your mum, and never get to come here?”

Harry was working in one of the corner flower beds around the labyrinth, and Severus was sitting on the bench, drinking coffee and watching the kittens chase grasshoppers. Harry looked up at Severus, wondering if he had asked too much, if the question had ventured across that invisible line, into the realm of too personal.

Severus turned his head slowly and stared at Harry for a long moment, then looked back again at the kittens. Their tails bounced and waved in the grass. He smiled, his look far away.

“No. I loved hearing her stories. I had very little magic in my life until I went to Hogwarts, and this place—even though I experienced it only through my mum—was like a fairytale. I had a picture of it in my mind from the time I was a small child.” He faced Harry, the far-off look in his eyes fading. “I admit that my childhood visions were crushed when I saw the Manor for the first time. I had expected magic and it looked, at first glance, quite a bit like the decay in which I had grown up.”

“I’m sorry, Severus.” Harry stood up and brushed his hands off on his robes.

“Do not be sorry, Harry.” Severus said, his voice fond. “Look what you have done here. The place is coming back to life and is more than I ever imagined it could be. Magic is at work here, colored by your efforts.”

Harry looked around and sighed. “It is beautiful—it’s worth the effort.” He paused. He wanted to say something, to acknowledge Severus’ childhood, the childhood he had glimpsed in the Pensieve memories, the childhood Severus had now mentioned, almost casually. He looked out over the labyrinth, at the greening fields beyond the stables, then back at Severus. “Will you tell me how you imagined it? How your mum described it?”

He thought Severus was going to say no. To shake his head, to finish his coffee and stand up, go back into the house, into the library. But Severus surprised him.

“There was a swing—a rope swing with a knot to sit on—over the swimming hole down at the creek. There were bullfrogs down there, and tadpoles, and the deer would come there to drink at dusk…”

Harry settled on the bench beside him, and listened.

~*~

Hermione and Ron sat with him one Saturday morning in late April, when Severus was in Brussels.

He told them that he was happy here, that he and Severus were forging something of their own, a relationship he thought could work. And this time they didn’t spend hours listing pros and cons. Instead, Ron and Hermione exchanged a look—one of those kinds of looks—and Ron said that they all knew something had changed the day Hagrid died, when Severus came with Harry to the Burrow, and Hermione said that she knew Harry would need someone older, that with all he’d been through he’d grown up too fast.

“He’s so different, Harry,” she said. “When you were sick—back in November—it was like the Professor Snape who taught us at Hogwarts didn’t exist anymore.”

“He called me Ron,” added Ron. “Ron! I didn’t even realize he was talking to me.”

“You’re alright with this, then?” asked Harry. “If I decide to stay here, with Severus, when the year is over?”

“Whatever you want, mate,” said Ron.

“Whatever makes you happy,” added Hermione.

And then he told them he didn’t really want to be an Auror.

And they exchanged another one of those looks, and he laughed.

“Been talking about that too, I see,” he said.

“We have,” admitted Hermione. “You’ve found your place, Harry. Here. With the earth and the stones and the magic. You’re so much more at peace than you were. You’re not restless at all. Everyone’s noticed.”

“And Mum said Severus is good for you, and if Mum says it, it must be true,” said Ron. “She said this place is perfect for you.”

“It is,” agreed Hermione. “I’m envious, Harry. Really. You have plenty of space for you, and Severus has plenty for himself, and there’s plenty left over for the two of you together.”

“And for a couple of cats,” added Ron. He had been playing with Albus, and the little grey and white cat was currently tangled up with the laces of his trainer.

Harry smiled. No one seemed surprised, or upset, that his life was taking him in an unexpected direction. He figured Kingsley would accept it well enough as well, and that there would be other recruits to fill the spot they’d reserved for him.

“What will you do, though, Harry?” asked Hermione. “I mean—do you want to repair buildings? Or make new ones? I know what architects do—I suppose a magical architect is something similar.”

“I want to start at Hogwarts,” answered Harry. Speaking about Hogwarts, and what had happened there to Hagrid, still made him emotional. “I don’t want something like that to happen again. I want to practice here, and figure out how to knit the stones into something…well…something more…then see what I can do at Hogwarts, starting in the places they’ve already repaired.”

“I think the term you’re looking for may be ‘synergy,’” said Hermione. “The total is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Harry stared at her. That was what he’d been trying to express.

“What?” asked Ron, looking from Hermione to Harry.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” Harry turned to Ron. “Think of it like this. Say there are ten thousand stones in this labyrinth. When they’re all put together, they create something that’s more than ten thousand stones. That’s the labyrinth itself. But when you use magic to bind it, to link it, it can be something else altogether, or certainly something that lasts longer than a structure Muggles might make.”

He sat there, on the center stone of the great labyrinth, long after Hermione and Ron had gone. And it came to him, finally, that the binding must be inherent to the structure of the thing itself, or to its purpose, and that to bind the magic of the labyrinth, he’d have to walk it, and to walk it with purpose.

~*~

He was in the same spot the next afternoon, lying on his back with his knees bent, breathing heavily. He had done it. He had woven the magic through the labyrinth as he walked its path, weaving it as he went, step by step, with purpose and conviction, until he had tied it together where beginning and end met and started all over again. He’d walked it with his wand in his hand, pointed down to the stones, the spell spoken with his posture, and his concentration, and the feel of magic beneath his feet. Exhilarated and exhausted, he lay there, feeling the thrum of the earth through the stones beneath him, feeling the life of the creation even through the soles of his shoes. His wand was still in his hand, and the heartbeat of the stones felt even stronger through his wand hand. He stared at the clouds above, dizzy with their gentle movement. He was spent. Utterly exhausted. Even his magic felt weak and he wondered if he should have attempted something so large when he was still so new, untrained at this. While he was alone here. While Severus was in Brussels.

He was startled by a noise, a high-pitched gasp, and again by Victoria’s face appearing above his.

“Master Harry Potter-Prince, sir!” she squeaked. “You is hurt?”

“What is going on?” Someone pushed her out of the way and her face was replaced by that of Lucius Malfoy.

“What is wrong with you?” Lucius’ voice was cold.

“You is hurt, Master Harry!” Victoria’s squeal hurt his head.

“I’m fine, Victoria.” Harry struggled to sit up, resting on his elbows. “I’ve been working on the stones. I just overdid it.”

Lucius’ gaze swept over the labyrinth critically, dismissing it, then rested on Harry.

“Tea, I think, Victoria,” he said. “On the terrace. And be sure to bring some chocolate for Mr. Potter.”

Victoria looked at Harry for permission to leave.

“That’s a good idea, Victoria,” he said, trying to sound confident. “Tea for myself and Mr. Malfoy, please.”

Victoria, looking relieved to have orders, popped out and Lucius looked down at Harry with disapproval.

“You should not attempt such feats of magic when you are alone, Mr. Potter. You have drained yourself. I should have thought Severus would have taught you better.”

“He’s my husband, not my teacher,” said Harry, his voice sharp.

Lucius stretched out his hand. “Come. I’ll help you back to the terrace.”

~*~

“Why are you here?” asked Harry. He had downed a cup of tea and an entire chocolate bar and a second cup of tea was warming his hands. Lucius sat across from him, looking relaxed and somehow in command of the situation.

“I thought it time I had a chat with you—just the two of us.”

“Oh?” Harry wished Severus would step out onto the terrace and save him from whatever Lucius was on about.

"Severus made a promise to Narcissa, and has not delivered on it,” said Lucius. “You have discussed this with him, of course?”

Harry stared at him. “No. We haven’t discussed any promise.”

Lucius smiled coldly. He leaned back in his chair. “Then it is time to discuss it, Mr. Potter.”

“A promise, you say?” Harry put down his cup. “What sort of promise?”

“A Slytherin Vow,” said Lucius. “Though I encouraged her to call in her life debt—Narcissa saved his life after the…accident.” He stared at Harry. “Narcissa was the one who found him nearly lifeless on the floor of the Shrieking Shack. You do understand life debts, do you not, Mr. Potter?”

Harry ignored the question, and the implication that he knew very well where Severus had been found. “Go on.” He had a sinking feeling in his stomach. Severus hadn’t mentioned any promises when they had talked the day of Hagrid’s funeral.

“My wife is rather fond of collecting them, actually,” said Lucius. He smiled coldly. “However, they ultimately decided to call it even—Severus did save our son, after all, so Narcissa was just…returning the favor.” He reached for a biscuit. “You are aware that we brought Severus to our home to convalesce after he was released from St. Mungo’s. As he was kept in a magical coma for some time while his vocal cords were regrown and his other injuries healed, he required a great deal of care. We were happy to provide it—we had the room and the financial resources. Slytherins take care of their own, Mr. Potter.”

Harry didn’t comment. He could have said that about any of the houses, but it wasn’t worth the argument.

“Narcissa oversaw Severus’ care. I can understand why they became…fond of each other. My wife, Mr. Potter, is a beautiful woman, is she not? Men have difficulty resisting her…charms.”

Harry thought he could resist her charms with little effort. He wondered, then, if the real problem was that Severus had resisted them as well. Narcissa wouldn’t like that. Not at all.

”In June,” continued Lucius, “Severus began talking of leaving, of finding employment as he knew he could not impose upon us indefinitely. It was then that Narcissa recalled—quite fortunately—that Severus could claim the Prince inheritance. She approached him about it but he said it was too late. He claimed to have had no time for a wife during the war, and no hopes of surviving it besides.”

Harry nodded fractionally. Severus had told him as much.

“While Severus thought it too late to fulfill the terms of the will, Narcissa did not. She offered to find Severus a bride—or a groom, as the case may be—and asked only one thing in return of him. That Severus grant her a single night—with her, in bed.”

Harry’s mouth dropped open.

“You have a fidelity clause in your marriage contract. Andromeda told me—she couldn’t do that!”

“Oh—I’m sorry.” Lucius refilled his teacup. “According to wizarding law, the fidelity requirement is not breached if both parties participate in the…adultery.” He laughed. “Which makes the act something less than adultery, actually.” He stirred a splash of milk into the cup. “I, of course, would be there as well. On the sidelines. Watching. I do enjoy watching, Mr. Potter.”

He said it casually, smoothly, and Harry shuddered.

“Are you saying…? Severus wouldn’t make that kind of promise…he wouldn’t.”

“He would and he did, Mr. Potter. I was present when Narcissa made the request and when he subsequently agreed.”

“But…but you said Severus hasn’t delivered….”

“You, Mr. Potter, insisted on a fidelity clause in your marriage contract. Severus hardly had time to spend a night with us between you delivering that demand and the signing of the contract a short time later.”

Harry remembered Severus’ face then, when they had been negotiating the contract all those months ago. Remembered how Severus had excused himself, had left the room.

“That’s why he left—to tell you,” he said slowly.

“Needless to say, we were sorely disappointed,” said Lucius. “We do not have many opportunities to indulge our…proclivities. And Severus….ah, Severus intrigues me. To see him with my wife, to watch them together, to instruct him…” He laughed, then, and the laugh was cold and hollow, the gleam in his eye frightening. “A year and a day was a long time to wait, Mr. Potter, but we agreed, because frankly, we thought it was worth the wait.” He paused. “It being Severus, of course. He is the perfect third, don’t you see? No family, no friends, yet of adequate social standing and wealthy in his own right. And since then, we have been waiting, Mr. Potter, waiting and watching.”

Harry bit his lip to keep himself from saying something flippant. He was tired of this—of these word games, of Lucius sitting across from him feeding him these lies.

But something told him these weren’t lies. Not really. Despite the spin Lucius gave it, underneath there was truth.

“When Narcissa sat down with Severus to inquire about his preferences in a spouse, he said, and I quote, ‘Bring me Harry Potter and we’ll both sleep with you.’ Unfortunately, that commitment was not a contingency of the promise he made.”

“Get out.” Harry stood up slowly, one hand on the table to steady himself. “I’ve heard enough. I’ll speak to Severus myself when he gets back.”

“Oh, but Mr. Potter, you haven’t heard quite everything yet.” Lucius motioned to him to sit but Harry remained on his feet.

“I’ll hear the rest from Severus,” said Harry. His head was beginning to spin and he grabbed onto the table with his other hand.

“Sit down and quit being stubborn,” said Lucius, nodding with approval as Harry sat again, unable to stand any longer with the dizziness threatening to overcome him. “Tell me—will your marriage be ending after you fulfill the terms of the will?”

“That’s none of your business,” answered Harry. “It doesn’t concern you.”

“Oh, it does concern me. Severus and Narcissa have invoked the Slytherin Vow. While not an Unbreakable Vow, no Slytherin would ever—and I repeat, ever—break a vow of this sort. It is a matter of honor, a matter which other Slytherins would take very seriously. He has committed to spend a night pleasing my wife, with me…directing, so to speak. Yet he himself is married, and has a fidelity clause in his marriage contract. He may have intended to divorce you after a year and a day, but I do not believe that is his intention still.” He settled back in his chair and rested his cane across the arms, rolling it beneath the palm. “He loves you Mr. Potter—or thinks he does. And that is quite an unexpected wrinkle. And quite a dilemma for our Severus, don’t you think? He is committed by honor to fulfill the promise he made to Narcissa, yet to do so will break his marital contract with you. Fortunately, we believe we have found a way around this problem.” He smiled then, a slow, appraising smile. “Fortunately, we Slytherins can amend our Slytherin vows, change them to suit the changing…circumstances.”

Harry’s stomach clenched. “What? Just say it.” He knew his voice exposed the emotion he felt, the sense of disbelief, even betrayal. He did not want to hear what else Lucius had to say. He wanted to go upstairs, get in bed, and sleep through tomorrow.

“I believe I already told you that a fidelity clause cannot be challenged if both parties engage in the…affair?”

Harry stared at Lucius. He stood up again, still shaky.

“Get out.”

“Sit down, Mr. Potter.” Lucius waved at him with his cane. “While I understand your maidenly indignation, this is not a matter to be trifled with.” Harry remained standing, clutching the edge of the table, trying to get his balance so he could storm off the terrace and leave Lucius to his tea and his cane and his maddening games. “Sit down, Mr. Potter. I have an alternative to offer. After all, I have already had the privilege of witnessing your…ardor.”

Harry turned his back and took a careful step away from the table, then another.

“The Prince seat on the Wizengamot, Mr. Potter. The seat is part of the inheritance. You might recall that the Malfoy seat was reassigned to one of the newer families, part of the so-called reparations. I miss it, Mr. Potter.”

Harry turned around slowly. Severus would have a seat on the Wizengamot? He’d never said…never mentioned it. Did he even know? He couldn’t let Lucius know that he hadn’t known the Princes had a seat.

“You can’t just hand over a seat. They’re not transferable.” He said it with conviction, as if he had studied the old law, even though he had not and knew almost nothing about the Wizengamot other than it was made up of stern witches and wizards, some of whom rivaled Albus Dumbledore in age. But Lucius laughed.

“There are forty family seats on the Wizengamot, Mr. Potter. Forty. Each seat is held by the heir or his or her designate. The seat of a family without a current legitimate heir is held empty until an heir claims it. Furthermore, the seats are indeed transferable. They are offered as dowries, bribes, repayments of loans and sometimes even gifts. They must stay within wizarding families, and only one may be held by a given family. Severus can indeed hand over the Prince seat to the Malfoys as soon as it is his to claim.”

“No. He can’t give that up. It’s too important….”

“The Prince seat in exchange for the night together, Mr. Potter. Do discuss it with Severus. I, of course, have already had this discussion with my dear wife. She’s quite amenable to altering the terms of the vow, exchanging a single night of pleasurable debauchery for the opportunity to regain the lost Malfoy seat.” He tapped his fingers on the table. “She, of course, has delivered on her end of the promise. She was looking forward to spending…time…with Severus. I believe she is confused—quite confused over what exactly he sees in you since she herself has so much more to offer.” He stared at Harry, his gaze almost a leer. He laughed, prodding Harry’s thigh with his cane. “And of course, there is always the first promise to fall back on. The addition of an additional person would not be…unwelcome.”

Harry stared at him, feeling even more ill than he had before. “I’ll discuss it with my husband,” he said, as levelly as possible. He turned then and made his way slowly to the door, fists clenched as behind him Lucius laughed.

“Do that, Mr. Potter. Indeed, do that.”

~*~

Somehow, he made it up to the bedroom.

Victoria fretted behind him as he climbed the twenty-two stairs, clutching the railing. She was still behind him when he lowered himself carefully onto the bed, but he dismissed her, forcing a smile.

“Go on, Victoria. I’m just worn out. Wake me in an hour, please?”

Having a task to complete seemed to calm her, and she nodded her tiny head. “I will wakes you, sir.” But she still looked nervous when she popped out. Harry couldn’t be arsed to care, though. His body was too worn, his energy sapped and his mind…his mind could not keep from spinning around the tale Lucius Malfoy had spun. Where was the truth amid the lies? What was a threat…and what was a promise?

He managed to get his boots off, and to unbutton his robes, but he collapsed back onto the pillows after that. And although his legs and arms felt leaden, dead, his brain still raced. Severus had made a wizard’s vow—a Slytherin vow Lucius had called it—with Narcissa Malfoy. Of that he was fairly certain. That would be easy to verify; Severus would not deny it if it were true. To sleep with her…with Lucius watching. He told himself that Severus had made that promise before Harry, and had certainly meant to fulfill it before he was married. Except for the contract. And the fidelity clause he had certainly not anticipated.

He tried to remember what Severus’ face had looked like that evening, when he sat there with Andromeda, before Severus had left the room. Was he upset? Disappointed? Gobsmacked? Could he have been relieved—even the smallest bit?

And what was the bit about ‘Bring me Harry Potter?’ Was that even true? Had Severus wanted him then? Not knowing about the life debt Harry had owned Narcissa? Or had it been some flippant statement, something he thought impossible? Like “Bring me Queen Victoria on a polo pony” or “Bring me the Dark Lord on a bicycle.”

He turned with difficulty onto his side and clutched a pillow against his chest. Fuck! Things had been going so well with Severus. They seemed to fit so well together, had eased into this impossible situation somehow, and had found that they liked it. They liked each other. Liked living here…together. And Lucius had said…had said that Severus loved Harry.

But Severus had never said that to Harry. Nor had Harry, he realized, ever said that to Severus.

Did he love him? Could he love him?

Or was this all castles in the air? Each of them making the best of the situation? Escaping life’s problems and challenges by holing up here together? Conducting their own lives around each other, meeting in the middle, eating dinner, having sex…

They didn’t do things together. Didn’t spend holidays at Andromeda’s or the Burrow. Didn’t go to dinner, or the theater, or on holidays to the continent. Things normal people did—normal couples.

Except…except they weren’t normal, were they?

Harry buried his head into the pillow, trying to still the pounding in his temples.

What would happen if Severus simply ignored the promise he had made to Narcissa?

He already knew that answer—she could ruin his reputation—and demand something even more ridiculous, difficult or humiliating. And Narcissa helped Severus fulfill the terms of his grandfather’s will. Had even used the debt Harry owed her—for Severus. Why had she done that? If Severus was right and Lucius didn’t touch her, was her only way of finding fulfillment finding someone else to share her bed that Lucius approved of? Or was there more going on here?

And what would happen if Severus did fulfill the promise?

That would seem the easiest, really. The fidelity clause would be broken, and Harry could divorce for cause, and likely walk away with half of the Prince estate.

Except…except that he couldn’t. Because Severus wouldn’t inherit until after he was married for a year and a day. But did he have to end the marriage and expose the adultery? Why couldn’t he just look away, eyes closed, ignoring the transgression? Would some alarm bells go off in the Ministry because there was a fidelity clause in their contract? A fidelity clause he had insisted on?

And Severus didn’t have to fulfill the vow before the year—did he? He could wait until the Prince estate was secure and then…then…

No. He could not just let that happen. Could he? And even if he could, even if he looked away and pretended the transgression did not happen, he would not be the only one who knew about it.

Narcissa. Could Narcissa—or Lucius—make a claim? Expose the adultery and put him on the spot? Would they? Knowing that in doing so, their own participation in the…event…would be exposed? What did they really want? Was this about sex, or love, or power, or something totally different and unexpected?

If he went along with it, though, if all four of them were in the room, it wouldn’t break the fidelity clause. Not according to Lucius, anyway. That was the way—the only way—Severus could keep the Prince Seat on the Wizengamot.

He licked his dry lips, sucking the bottom one into his mouth and biting it as he often did when he was worried. Could he witness something like that? He didn’t think he would have to do anything, anything except sit there…and watch. Consensual all the way around, both couples, all four of them, he and Lucius on the sidelines. Watch Narcissa and Severus. He tried—only for a moment—to imagine what it would be like. Severus’ pale flesh, Narcissa’s thin, pale form. Her cold eyes. Her breasts, her hips…

It did nothing for him.

But Severus had consented. He, at least, obviously thought he could go through with it. Did he want Narcissa then, when he had made that promise?

It still didn’t make sense. Why would the Malfoys go through this ruse to get a single night of sex with Severus? Why would Narcissa make it her business to watch them so closely? To visit Harry while Severus was gone? To lead him down so many different and confusing paths?

What did they want if not to fill their prurient need?

First, Narcissa had insisted that Severus wanted Lucius. Severus had later denied that.

Then, she had insinuated that Severus was in Paris that first time with Draco and Lucius. She had made a point of dropping in on Harry when she knew Severus would be gone. Did she want Harry to accuse Severus of infidelity? Or find Harry in a compromising position of his own?

When he was recovering from the Dragon Pox, she had shown up and accused Severus of being too fond of Harry. That he had developed a fondness for youth—that Harry would leave him and he would go after Draco next.

It all pointed to Narcissa being…jealous. Jealous?

Lucius had mentioned the Prince family seat in the Wizengamot almost too casually.

The Malfoy seat being rescinded as part of the family’s reparations to the wizarding world had been fodder for The Daily Prophet for an entire week. As Lucius had said, forty seats on the governing body were given to the old families. Not only was it an honor, and a share of power, but it was a responsibility, and the chance to affect the law in a positive way.

Could the Malfoys have been after that seat the entire time? If they kept Severus in their control, could they possibly have gotten the night with him and the coveted seat?

He couldn’t give up that seat. He wouldn’t let Severus.

He needed more information.

With difficulty, he sat up again and, leaving his boots on the floor, began to make his way out of the room, down to the library.

Books would help. And Hermione.

He needed Hermione.

~*~

He managed to pull three books off the shelves and get settled in a comfortable reading chair in front of a low table before he sent his Patronus to Hermione. She appeared a short time later, standing in the doorway frowning.

“I was just getting ready to head over to the Burrow, Harry,” she said. She stepped into the room, looking around curiously, eyes resting on the corner area where Severus conducted his research before coming back to focus on Harry. “Are you feeling all right, Harry? You look pale.”

“I’m just tired—haven’t been sleeping well these last few days,” he lied. “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Hermione sat down across from him and glanced at the books on the table. “Wondering About Wizarding Vows? ?” She edged that book off the one below it and read out loud again. “The Confused Wizard’s Guide to Marriage Law.” She reached out for the third book after giving Harry an appraising look. “So You’re Having Second Thoughts: How to Back-pedal, Negotiate or Cheat Your Way Out of a Deal.”

The book dropped heavily onto the table. Hermione gave an exaggerated sigh.

“I’m not sure I want to know what’s going on, Harry,” she said. She stacked the books back up carefully, regarding them as if they were the keys to a puzzle she was afraid to solve. She looked at him and her gaze softened. “You look miserable, Harry. What’s wrong? Did Severus do something?”

Harry rubbed tired eyes beneath his glasses. “Yeah. You could say that. Narcissa wasn’t exactly helping Severus out for free. Turns out she asked for something in return.”

“Something in return?” She stared at Harry, then sighed. “What did she ask for?”

Harry swallowed. He could tell her. “He promised Narcissa Malfoy he’d sleep with her….”

Sleep with her? As in have sex with her?” Hermione looked both horrified and amused.

“Of course have sex with her!” Harry hissed. “With Lucius watching. That’s how they planned to get around the Malfoys' fidelity clause.”

Hermione’s face took on an interesting color. Pink and green did not go well together.

“But he couldn’t do it before we got married because I left the fidelity clause in our own marriage contract, and the contract became valid as soon as we signed it. So they agreed to wait until the year and a day had passed, assuming that our marriage would be over then. But now it looks like that might not happen, so they’re offering to change the terms….”

“Change the terms?”

“Yes—but what they’re asking is impossible!” Harry’s voice was getting louder, nearly frantic. “So what I need to know is this—what happens if Severus doesn’t honor his promise? How does this Slytherin Vow thing work, anyway? Can Narcissa take legal action of some sort?”

“I believe I can help Harry with his problem.” Severus’ soft voice surprised them. Hermione pulled her hand back as if caught in the act of stealing candy, and Harry felt his face flame.

“Severus—you’re home.”

Hermione quickly got to her feet.

“I’ll make your excuses at the Burrow,” she said, bending to kiss him on the cheek. “And you’d better fill me in when I see you again,” she whispered.

“Thanks, Hermione. Tell Molly I’m sorry.”

She nodded. “Hello, Severus. I’ll leave you two alone now.”

She turned and Disapparated. Severus walked slowly into the room, eyes on Harry, and took the seat Hermione had vacated.

“What has happened?” he asked, glancing at the stack of books, then back at Harry. He frowned, reaching out to brush his hand against Harry’s face, resting it on his forehead. “You are ill. What is going on here, Harry?”

Merlin that hand felt good. Cool, dry, soothing. He wanted to lean into it, to close his eyes and admit to Severus that he’d probably ruptured his magical core or something worse and let him carry him up to bed and tuck him in, lie next to him and cradle him in his arms. But even more than that vision of comfort, he wanted Severus’ version of the story Lucius had told him. With effort, he pulled back from Severus’ hand.

“Lucius was here today.” He tried to judge Severus’ reaction but Severus did not react. “He’s concerned you won’t live up to the promise you made Narcissa. He wanted to…negotiate.”

Now Severus’ face had changed, hardened. His mouth set into a thin line.

“Negotiate? What exactly did Lucius tell you, Harry?”

Harry laughed. “I’m sure you were going to tell me some day, but he beat you to it.” He dropped his head into his hands and pressed his eyes tightly shut for a long moment. He was still dizzy when he opened his eyes and lifted his head, fixing his gaze on Severus.

“He has no business coming here,” said Severus, softly, before Harry could speak. A hand touched the side of his face. “What is wrong with you, Harry? You should be in bed.”

“I’m not going to bed until I understand this thing with the Malfoys,” said Harry, frustrated. “Lucius said you made a Slytherin Vow with Narcissa. He said you agreed to go to bed with her after she found you someone acceptable to marry. That you agreed that he could watch!” He was watching Severus as he spoke, challenging him to deny the story.

Severus paled.

“It’s true then,” said Harry. He felt even more ill now. “You did promise her.”

Severus’ face was hard to read as he answered. “I never expected her to find someone who would marry me! And if she did, I never expected the marriage would last more than the minimum number of days required to secure my inheritance! How was I to know—how could I know—that I could grow to…to….” He looked down at his hands, steeled himself, and started over, his voice low. “I never expected to love you.” He lowered his voice even more, barely above a whisper. “I did not think myself capable of love.”

His voice was uneven. The rawness of it startled Harry. He almost forgot his anger.

“You mean again,” Harry added. “You gave me those memories, Severus. I know you’ve loved before.”

Severus regarded him, searching his eyes this time, so that Harry felt like he was slowly being turned inside out, exposing everything he kept inside, quiet and unsaid. “But this time—this time, I think, it is returned,” said Severus at last. “And that is something wholly new to me. Loving—and being loved in return.”

“But—but I never said it,” said Harry, fumbling for the words, feeling a sudden lightness—and rightness—that felt both foreign and welcome. “How did you know?”

Severus laughed. “We are a pair of fools, Harry. Each of us studying the other, learning the other, and neither of us speaking his piece. I know we have much left to discuss, and I owe you the full story about the Malfoys, but perhaps we could do so after a nap. I’m tired from traveling and frankly, you look exhausted. Are you ill?”

Harry ignored the question. The weight of the situation—this situation, with the Malfoys, and the thing Severus had promised, off the cuff or not—was too heavy for him to leave it until after he slept.

“Tell me all of it,” he said. “What exactly did you promise? What can they hold you to?”

Severus shifted in his chair. He did that a lot when he was uncomfortable, Harry realized. “Two things only. To spend a night—to have sex—with Narcissa, with Lucius present, if she succeeded in finding a spouse for me who agreed to marry me before my fortieth birthday and to live with me for a year and a day.”

“Why would you promise that?” Harry could not help himself from asking.

“It was impossible!” said Severus. “How could she find someone who’d agree to marry me that quickly? It seemed a ridiculously easy thing to do for what she offered.” He looked out the window, his face showing his frustration. “I don’t know, Harry! I’d been in hospital and then convalescing for a year. I had never expected to survive the war to begin with.”

“Do you think she is in love with you?” asked Harry, tentatively.

Severus looked up at him quickly, then shook his head. Smiled. “No. I think she was doing what Lucius asked of her—and hoped to gain something else as well by the time it was all said and done,” he answered. “Do not underestimate a Slytherin, Harry.”

“Did you say when you would do it?” asked Harry. Could the timing be a loophole?

“Yes—I would fulfill the commitment before I married.” He held up a hand as Harry opened his mouth. “We of course amended the terms once already—during our contract negotiations, in fact. We agreed that we would delay the fulfillment of the promise until the terms of the Prince will were fully met—until a year and two days following the wedding.”

“You didn’t leave much wiggle room there.”

“Did you intend to stay with me more than the required time period?” asked Severus, raising an eyebrow. “When we sat down together with Andromeda Tonks, did you have any intention of remaining married to me?”

Harry looked down, chagrinned. No, he hadn’t. He had been resolved to make the best of it, to make it a real marriage, but if he were perfectly honest with himself, he had not meant to go on with it after a year. He had a career to get on with, friends, family in the Weasleys and the Tonkses, a home of his own at Grimmauld Place.

“No, I didn’t,” he admitted. “You said there were two things. In the vow,” he explained, when Severus looked puzzled. “The sex…and?”

“To continue the association if we all felt so inclined,” said Severus. He caught Harry’s eyes and smiled. “I do not feel so inclined.” He glanced again at the books on the table. “Why was Miss Granger here? What exactly did you want from her?”

Harry sighed. “I wanted to know if there was a way around a Slytherin Vow,” he said. “And I also wanted to know about fidelity clauses in marriage contracts. Is one spouse forced to do something if he catches the other cheating? Could he—maybe—just look the other way?” He was beginning to ramble, but it was all boiling up now, out of that pit in his stomach, out of that hole in his heart, and he couldn’t stop. “I mean, if I just pretended I didn’t know about it, would the magic in the contract tell me? Would it alert anyone—I mean officially? And can anyone else make it public if they know about it? Why couldn’t I just go out with Ron that night? Go to the Leaky Cauldron or the Three Broomsticks and have a few pints and get pissed and stay over at his place? Then I wouldn’t even know that you’re gone, right?”

“Harry.” Severus reached out for his hand. “I couldn’t….”

“You might have to,” said Harry, flustered. “He said…he said it wouldn’t be infidelity if we both were there, because it would make it legally consensual, but I don’t think I….”

“Harry—no.” Severus squeezed his hand. It was shaking, and Harry knew Severus was angry. “Lucius is bending this, or trying to, to his own devices. It is not his decision—Narcissa and I made the vow—not Lucius.”

“This is really all about sex?” asked Harry, incredulous.

“Harry—you do not understand Narcissa Malfoy. She had set her eyes on me because Lucius wanted me, because he approved. She could turn that to her advantage, but only by elevating my social position first. She would like me to be dependent on them, Harry, but instead she has found that I have become rather attached to you. She is jealous, Harry. Of your youth, of our happiness.

Harry stared at Severus, then broke his gaze, looking down at his hands. “Lucius is right—isn’t he? If I were there, it would be consensual—both couples knowing and participating, right? No one could claim we were being unfaithful.”

“Wizarding law is complex, old-fashioned and in many cases, obscure.”

Harry watched Severus’ thumb caress his palm. He was shaking. He was running on pure adrenaline now, his very soul so full of this mess that he knew he wouldn’t be able to function, to think of anything else, until they waded through.

“Harry—you said Lucius came here to bargain, to negotiate. And his terms were that you avoid the fidelity clause by…participating?”

Harry shook his head. “No. Well, yes. He did suggest that. But he also offered something else. He…he said Narcissa would accept the Prince seat on the Wizengamot instead.”

Severus let out a harsh bark of laughter so incongruous with his normal, soft voice that Harry jumped.

“In the end, it is all about power, is it not?” He laughed again. “I told him about that seat in Paris, that first trip. He and Draco were there and we met for dinner one night. I had just been to Gringotts the day before—had just found out about it. From that point on, I’d wager that the entire game changed. They wanted us to stay together—or at the very least, they wanted me to find a way around that ridiculous promise.” He stood up. “So, the Malfoys regain their lost seat on the Wizengamot and we…” He smiled broadly and reached out with a second hand to squeeze one of Harry’s. “…we lose nothing.”

He pulled Harry up to his feet, intent, it seemed, on hugging him. Hugging him! Harry swayed, dizzy, and nearly crashed forward onto the table before Severus caught him, alarmed.

“What is wrong with you?”

Harry rested his head against Severus’ chest.

“The labyrinth. I managed to bind the magic. I think…I think I overdid it. Lucius made me drink tea and eat chocolate but…”

“Idiot,” said Severus, as he settled Harry on the comfortable sofa in his study nook instead of on the reading chair. But his voice was fond and he spoke as if a great weight had been lifted from him, as if he had feared incarceration and had been granted a reprieve. “Tea and chocolate might be a good start, but you need rest.” He sat back on his heels on the floor by the sofa, dark eyes bright. “You’ve done it, then? You completed the labyrinth? You should not have attempted that while you were alone—it could have undone you, Harry.” Despite the admonition, he sounded proud.

“I wasn’t exactly alone. Well, not for long. Lucius came by right afterward.” He sank into the sofa, finding it hard to keep his eyes open. “Severus?”

Severus had settled onto the end of the sofa, and lifted Harry’s feet so that they rested on his lap.

“Yes?”

“I don’t want you to give up that seat on the Wizengamot. Think what you could do with that power—and what the Malfoys would do with it.”

“Nothing different than what they’ve been doing with it until now,” said Severus.

“But you could make a difference—you could change things.” His voice was beginning to slur as weariness pushed into the edge of his consciousness.

“Things are already changing,” said Severus. He sounded unaccountably content, and Harry realized, just before losing his battle to stay awake, that Severus didn’t care a whit for power, or for putting the wizarding world to rights again after the long war. Severus wanted it behind him, and didn’t seem inclined to look over his shoulder to see how everyone was getting along now that Voldemort was dead.

But then again, he’d served his time. He’d played his part.

And so, he would say, had Harry.

But Harry still couldn’t see that seat going to the Malfoys. He just couldn’t.

~*~

In the end, it was Andromeda who helped Harry put the whole situation in perspective.

He had gone to Hogwarts for the anniversary celebration, though he hadn’t been able to convince Severus to even consider the trip. Kingsley, who was midway through his first term as Minister of Magic, announced a design competition for a permanent war memorial at Hogwarts.

Harry had held Teddy during the ceremony—the reading of the names, the tolling of the bells. The little boy had fallen asleep, tousled head on Harry’s shoulder, baby breath warm on the skin of his neck, and did not hear his parents’ names as they were read. Beside them, Arthur and Molly stood on either side of Andromeda, three parents with children who had not come home that night.

They all went to the Burrow afterwards, then Harry escorted Andromeda and Teddy home, tucking Teddy in his little cot in the nursery beside Andromeda’s room, then settling on the rocker across from Andromeda and pouring them each a measure of firewhiskey, remembering the bracing quality of the liquor when he had stood with the Weasleys the night Mad Eye was lost.

“I’m so glad I have you and Teddy,” said Harry, placing his empty glass down on the table and smiling at Andromeda. “I’ve always wanted a family and I don’t think Severus and I are quite equipped to have one of our own.”

Andromeda smiled and pushed a lock of dark hair behind an ear. “You could always adopt, Harry. If you wanted to go that route, anyway. But Teddy is yours—you’re the only father-figure he’s ever going to have—and now that he’s two, you can start taking him for longer visits.”

Harry smiled. “I’d like that. You know I love him, Andromeda.” He poured another measure of firewhiskey and picked up the glass, staring into it. “I can’t imagine losing a child. Seeing you there today, with Molly and Arthur, all the others who lost family members. And you—you only had the one child. At least Molly and Arthur had….”

“No, Harry. I don’t think having more blunts the pain.” She toed off her shoes and tucked her feet up under herself on the sofa. “I wouldn’t have minded having a brood like the Weasleys, though Nymphadora was quite a handful all by herself. You don’t know this, Harry, and I’m telling you this only to help you understand what you are, and could be, to Teddy, but Dora wasn’t my biological child.”

Harry lifted his head in surprise, met her eyes. “Tonks wasn’t…?”

Andromeda shook her head. “Ted and I couldn’t have children. We tried just about everything but sometimes even magic isn’t enough, Harry. We were awfully young when we married, and my family had cut me off as soon as I turned my eyes toward a Muggle man. Imagine my surprise, then, when my baby sister appeared on my doorstep one evening, barely eighteen years old and very obviously pregnant.”

“Wait—Narcissa? Narcissa is Tonks’ biological mother?” Harry nearly dropped his firewhiskey.

“You’re jumping ahead, Harry,” said Andromeda, but she nodded. “She was still at Hogwarts and she’d been hiding the pregnancy with a glamour charm. She didn’t mince words. She asked me if I would take the baby and raise it as my own and never tell a soul about his or her true parentage. I agreed, with the caveat that Ted, of course, be told. She had a good friend at Hogwarts who sealed the Unbreakable Vow for us and two months later she delivered Nymphadora to my arms.”

Harry slowly placed his glass on the table. “But you just told me. I thought you made an Unbreakable Vow not to ever tell anyone?”

Andromeda smiled and shrugged. “When Teddy was very small, I used to rock him to sleep right there in the chair you’re sitting in. When he kept me up at night, I’d rock him and tell him tales. I found myself telling him that tale out loud one night, and telling him how that day, the day I held his mother in my arms for the first time, was the best one of my life.” She smiled again, but this time the smile was to herself, a nostalgic reminiscing of days gone by. “I realized then that the vow had somehow changed, that I could talk about it. I tried writing it down, and I was able to recount the tale on parchment as well. I suppose—I suppose that when Nymphadora died…” She trailed off, sighing as she considered her words. “Well, I suppose that when she died it was as if that vow was never made. Silly, really, but who really understands the vagaries of magic?”

“Who was her father—I mean her biological father?” asked Harry.

“Narcissa would never tell, though I would imagine he wouldn’t be too hard to track down. I’d start by looking at registered metamorphmagi, wouldn’t you?” She smiled, then shook her head. “I was too happy to have the baby, Harry. I didn’t want the father showing up and demanding to be part of her life. And now…well, now I assume he has a life of his own, or just as likely, lost it during the war.”

“She was Draco’s sister,” said Harry. “And he’s Teddy’s uncle.”

“They would never accept him, Harry. Put that thought away now. He’s a half-blood, the son of a werewolf.”

“Oh—I would never…. I’m sorry, Andromeda. Really. It’s just—well, family means so much, doesn’t it? And look how they throw it all away.”

“Family means a great deal to Narcissa as well, Harry. Legitimate family. Look what she dared to do for her son—lying to the Dark Lord, Harry. Telling him you were dead…even as, across the castle grounds, her sister Bellatrix was killing her daughter.”

Harry took that thought with him as he went home that evening, as he dropped a kiss on little Teddy’s sweaty forehead, as he hugged Andromeda goodbye, as he Apparated to the front stairs of the manor, hung up his formal robes, walked through the house in search of Severus.

Severus wasn’t in the library, nor in any of the sitting rooms they occasionally used, nor in bed. He wasn’t in the kitchens either, so Harry pushed open the door that led to the terrace and walked outside into the moonlit night.

The terrace was deserted, but he thought he was on the right path. He walked through the gardens, around the hidden bend in the path that brought him to the old perennial gardens, and made his way over the derelict stone walkway that led to the labyrinth.

And Severus was there, his thin form straight and tall as he moved slowly along the labyrinth’s path, arms at his sides.

Harry went to the start of the path and began walking.

At one point, his path paralleled Severus’ and they brushed fingers lightly as they passed. It happened again when he was a quarter of the way through, and once again near the end. Severus finished before Harry, quietly stepping back onto the path leading in then walking to the central stone, waiting.

As Harry walked, he remembered the night two years ago. How tired he was of fighting, of searching. How ready he was to end it all. To end the war, to end his life; most especially, to end Voldemort’s.

His life was like the labyrinth. A twisted path but a path that didn’t branch. It hadn’t allowed him true options. Didn’t allow him to make decisions—not until the end, when the decisions he made could only be one decision, could only have one outcome.

And then, when it seemed like all of life was laid out there before him, every option, every choice, every freedom, Narcissa had invited him to tea.

And suddenly he was on that path again, the twisted path that turned back on itself before moving around a corner, but that always took the same course, that always led to the same conclusion, but that took its time getting there.

For the shortest route was not always the best. And the best route let you see the scenery along the way.

As he finished the path he realized he was facing the house, facing home.

He turned toward Severus.

“Did you have a good walk?”

“I had an excellent walk,” responded Severus. “This is a work of art, Harry. Even I can say that completing this thing was worth you spending a day and a half in bed.”

“What did you think about—when you walked?”

“My life. What a jumble it was before now. How every turn seemed to point me in the wrong direction.” He reached out a hand and Harry took it and pulled him close. “How many times I have brushed up against you without realizing what was passing me by.”

“Like two ships that pass in the night,” said Harry.

“Longfellow,” said Severus. He pulled Harry even more tightly against him, whispering in his ear.

“Ships that pass in the night and speak each other in passing;

Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;

So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,

Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.”

“I didn’t know you quoted poetry,” said Harry.

“American poetry no less.” Severus laughed softly. “But really, it’s not an appropriate metaphor. There was never anything quiet about our passings; they were more like collisions than unseen comings and goings.”

“We didn’t understand each other back then,” said Harry, pressing his lips to the pulse point on Severus’ scarred throat. “We didn’t realize we were on the same road the whole time.”

“That’s one of the problems with a labyrinth,” said Severus, pulling Harry down to sit in front of him on the wide center stone. He wrapped his long legs around him and pulled him back so that Harry was sitting between his knees, leaning back against him. “The path never crosses. You can brush by each other but there are never any head-on collisions.”

“Some people wouldn’t call that a problem,” said Harry.

The hands around his middle began unbuttoning his shirt, then slid inside and ran over his chest, down his stomach, dipped under the waistband of his trousers.

“I found out something tonight,” said Harry quietly as those lithe fingers slid down lower, then pulled back and began unbuttoning his trousers. “Something we could use against Narcissa.”

The hands stilled a moment, then moved again, pulling open the placket of his trousers and delving deeper, into the loose curls at the base of his cock. Harry shifted, lifting his arse a bit to give Severus more room.

“Oh?”

“Andromeda told me…fuck, Severus…” Severus’ hand had moved lower, lifting and caressing his bollocks.

“Shhh….what did she tell you?”

“Tonks...Tonks wasn’t Andromeda’s biological daughter. She was Narcissa’s….”

The hand on his cock gripped tighter, moved upward, twisted, moved down again oh so slowly. The motion continued, the arm around Harry’s chest tightened.

“That is a piece of information that could disrupt a great many lives,” Severus said. “And undoubtedly one that Narcissa hopes Andromeda carries to the grave. What are you hoping to do with it?”

“Nothing,” said Harry, resting his head back onto Severus’ shoulder, looking up through his hair at the moon above. “Narcissa gave that baby to her sister to raise as her own, and Tonks had Teddy and Teddy is doing just fine as he is. I admit, at first, I thought I could force her to leave us alone, and to leave you the Prince seat on the Wizengamot too. But I couldn’t do it—couldn’t do it to Tonks, or to Teddy.”

“Think of it this way,” said Severus as he pressed his own hardness against Harry, pushing against him through his clothing. “Narcissa brought you to me, and so far has gotten nothing in return. I think you’re worth more than a night in the Malfoys’ bed. More even than a seat on the Wizengamot. I think we are done with Narcissa Malfoy, Harry.” He squeezed, sliding his hand up the quickly hardening shaft. “Unless you really wish to share me?”

“I…I just hate you giving up…” Harry groaned as Severus slid his pants and trousers down past his hips.

“I’m not giving up anything that matters to me, Harry,” breathed Severus. “One vote on the Wizengamot, one vote in a hundred, means little in the grand scheme of things.”

“I hate Narcissa winning,” Harry said, sighing as Severus caressed him.

“She didn’t win,” said Severus. “You are forgetting something very important.”

“What am I forgetting?” With Severus caressing him like this, in the gentle evening air, under the warm moonlight, he could forget almost everything.

“That you—you—are the heir to the Black estate, Mr. Potter. And that in another short year or two, you will be twenty-one years old and eligible to take the Black family seat on the Wizengamot.”

Harry turned to stare at Severus. A slow smile crept across his face.

“Fuck, I am, aren’t I?”

“You are.”

Harry smiled, the expression fond, tender, and pressed his lips against Severus', wrapping his hands around his neck. Severus must have cast a cushioning charm as they rolled together on the stones, for they were a soft tangle of limbs, a crescendo of beating hearts, a graze of fingers over sensitive skin. Skillful fingers prepared him, working him open slowly, purposefully, and he keened for it as he pressed back against them, and then Severus finally was in him, pressing into him with a claiming rhythm as he knelt on stones that beat their own heartbeat, their own song, into his veins, into his soul, into what he was and what Severus was, and had been, and were to be.

“You are mine, mine,” breathed Severus with every thrust of his cock into Harry, with every breath panted on the nape of his neck. “You belong to me, to this place, to the magic here, that you forged. You have left your magic here, Harry…in these stones, in this labyrinth.” His breathing quickened, his thrusts grew harder, shorter. “In me. In me…in me…in me…”

And by the end, they were both chanting it, a mantra of sorts, to the magic of this place that roiled beneath them, two more pieces themselves, fixed into a whole.

And Harry, when he came, spilled onto the stones beneath them, the stones of the labyrinth that held his magic, and now his essence. And Severus in turn spilled within him, and he wondered, even as his arms collapsed and they fell together onto the magically softened floor, and held each other—Harry’s head buried in Severus’ neck, the raised scars of his neck a badge of honor beneath Harry’s cheek—if their magic, too, would fuse like this, creating something other, something larger than Harry and Severus, two solitary men going about their business—their labors, their research, their visits to family—and brushing by each other to share a meal, or share a bed.

It, it needed to be said.

Harry lifted his head and looked at Severus, pale skin opaque in the moonlight.

“I want more for us,” he said, pushing a lank strand of dark hair behind Severus’ ear, brushing fingers along the stubbly jaw.

And it wasn’t exactly I love you.

But it meant just as much, and perhaps a great deal more.

~*~

“I thought I might find you here.”

Harry looked up from the stone he was considering.

“You know, that used to be funny—the first six or seven times you said it after you knew you’d find me here.”

Severus walked across the labyrinth carefully, avoiding the loose stones and holes. He stopped a respectful distance from Harry, seated cross-legged on the ground.

“You’ve been looking at that one for quite some time. May I ask who it is?”

Harry turned the stone toward Severus so he could read it. It was irregular in shape, roughly five-sided, and as large as a dinner platter.

“Rubeus Hagrid,” said Severus. He glanced around him, at the other names already in place, and then looked back at Harry. “I would put him with the creatures he loved, Harry. Perhaps a few paces from Fang? The dog was nearly always at his heels anyway.”

“That’s brilliant,” said Harry with a smile. He stood and hefted the stone, then walked toward the lake, setting the stone beside the path.

“It would have been better to have had all the memorial stones in the beginning, and to fit them in as I went,” said Harry.

“Speaking of tired phrases—you’ve said that more times than I can count,” said Severus. “Are you almost ready?”

Harry nodded. “I just want to finish this one.” He nodded at the stone he had just moved, then looked back at Severus. “Give me a minute?”

Severus nodded and Harry knelt down beside the stone with Hagrid’s name. He eyed it, then eyed the space where it would sit, melded into the magic of the labyrinth. All of the memorial stones were natural, taken, like the rest of the stones that made up this structure, from the rubble around Hogwarts, the pieces too small, too broken, to go back into its walls during reconstruction. The stones engraved with the names of the fallen were all similar in size, and the spaces left for them in the labyrinth would accommodate any of them. Harry simply had to choose where each would rest, and work in smaller pieces around them.

It had been a labor of love occupying nearly two years of his life and had involved the skills and talents and labor of many.

His concept for the war memorial, submitted anonymously, had captured the attention of nearly everyone on the selection committee. It would be different from the typical labyrinth, larger, built into the gentle slope of the grounds near the lake, near Albus’ tomb, and reaching into the lake, so that to complete the entire thing, one would have to either wade through a section, or charm the water off the labyrinth.

Harry had been surprised that merpeople had died in the Battle of Hogwarts, and wanted the memorial to touch them as well.

He tracked down a Spanish wizard who was known for his complex designs to create the memorial on paper, and spent several months moving rubble stone by stone, seeking the stones he wanted, the pieces he needed. Engineers with the restoration team prepared the ground itself, leveling and smoothing it, laying the footings, marking out the cardinal directions.

His shoulders were broader now, his legs stronger, his biceps thick. He had given up on his fingernails, and Severus had developed a special cream for the bruises and scrapes on his hands. He spent warm, dry days in jeans and pullovers, and cool days in hand-knitted jumpers from Molly Weasley and a warm close-fitting jacket Severus found for him in Muggle London.

The memorial stones, set into the intricate path of the labyrinth, each engraved with the name of one who had died during the war, were laid in no particular order. Harry placed them himself, where he felt best. He set them, and smoothed them, and laid them to rest, blessing them in his own way—with his magic, with the magic of the earth, with the heat of the sun and the tears of the rain—then always, always, if he knew the name, the person, the being, bringing to his mind their image before he moved on to the next, leaving behind a trace of his memories, a ghost of an image, something for the next generation.

Fred with the white beard after crossing Dumbledore’s age line.

Hagrid watching Norbert hatch from the fire-warmed egg.

Dobby with six knit hats balanced over his pointy ears.

Dumbledore staring up at him, but not at him. Please, Severus…

He left even more images for Teddy.

Tonks tripping over the umbrella stand in the foyer of Grimmauld Place, changing her nose to make Ginny laugh, sending her wolf Patronus to the castle.

Remus sleeping on the Hogwarts Express in his threadbare robes, teaching Harry to cast a Patronus, bursting into Shell Cottage with the news that his son had been born.

“It is nearly completed,” said Severus as Harry returned to him, pulling off the gloves Hagrid had given him for Christmas.

“I’ve got two dozen more stones to set, and then I have to bind it,” said Harry. “You will be here for that, won’t you?”

“You have already assigned me the East compass point. Of course I will be here. Along with the others—Miss Granger, Filius, Minerva. Still, I am not yet convinced it is enough. These stones are old, Harry, and the magic here is….”

“Even older. I know, Severus.” Harry smiled as he took Severus’ arm and walked with him toward the gates. “You worry too much. I’ve learned a lot since that first time, and I’ve already asked for help.”

“I worry because I love you,” said Severus. “It’s my job.”

“It goes both ways,” said Harry, smiling to himself as he tightened his arm around Severus’ waist and leaned into him. It was hard now to recall the days before, the days when he walked alone, both hands in his pockets, the days before Severus came to the Burrow for Christmas, the days before Teddy called out to “Uncle Sev’rus” when he stepped out of the Floo. Had there really been days when Edward and Victoria watched them closely, looking for signs of affection? Proof that they were living fully as married spouses, really sharing the marital bed?

“What are you going to do after the dedication?” asked Severus as they walked to Hogsmeade where they were meeting Ron and Hermione for dinner. “You will have more time on your hands than you know what to do with.”

“I’m turning twenty-one in a few months,” Harry answered. “I can claim the Black seat on the Wizengamot.”

Severus laughed. “And…?”

“Oh, I’m going to claim it all right,” said Harry. “And I’m going to tell Hermione tonight that it’s hers for the asking.”

“Good,” said Severus softly. “She can give Narcissa a run for her money. You have more important things to do.”

“Like build that play house for Teddy,” said Harry. “He wants a castle, with a moat, and a moat monster.”

“A moat monster?”

“I think some goldfish will do for a start.”

“You spoil him,” said Severus.

“Says the man who cut his sandwich into triangles for him last week and removed the crusts.”

“He’s important to you,” said Severus.

“He’s important to you, too.”

“He shows great promise as an academic,” said Severus. “I am simply encouraging him.”

“Yeah, right.” Harry smiled, dropped his arm from Severus’ waist and took his hand and they walked hand in hand down the streets of Hogsmeade.

~Epilogue~

One last time, one last time before he left for the summer—mornings spent with Uncle Sev in the lab in London, afternoons with Uncle Harry at the excavation site, evenings at home with Gran, weekends on the beach with Victoire at Shell Cottage. Then on to Uni in the autumn, to a new life, a new start.

One last time with the shadows of their faces, the almost-memories of their touch.

He was not the only one here, but he didn’t need to be alone. Not here. Not on the labyrinth.

He began to walk the familiar path, hardly needing to look at his feet to follow its course.

His parents were together, on the west side of the labyrinth, so that if he came here at the right time in the evening, and stopped just before the first stone, he’d look up into the sunset, then take a step forward, and feel.

How could you feel the spirit of a man you had never known? Of a woman who had birthed you then lost you?

He liked to stand with one foot on each stone and feel the memories spin around him, try to catch their elusive threads, weave them into the fabric of his life before they escaped to dance above him, seeking the stars.

Sometimes he felt this part of the labyrinth was a special gift from his godfather, just for him. If anyone knew about love, it was Uncle Harry.

He thought he loved Victoire, and he wanted for them the kind of love Uncle Harry and Uncle Sev had. The kind of love that moved mountains, but quietly, working into them until they crumbled softly into stones, imbuing the stones with magic, sealing them with memories, and skipping them lightly over the silver surface of the moonlit lake.

Gran had told him once, when she found him staring at a picture of his parents, a wistful, far-away look in his eyes, that his father had chosen Harry as his godfather because Harry himself had grown up fatherless, and he knew every little piece of a life that needed a father. He knew it because he had lived it, and he would never let Teddy go through what he had gone through.

Harry didn’t do anything by halves.

Teddy smiled. He was old enough now to understand the irony of his godfather’s marriage, how it had been arranged by Narcissa Malfoy, to elevate her own position in society, to give her power. But ultimately, she had lost.

Because she in turn arranged a marriage for her son, to the youngest daughter of another rich Slytherin family. But this girl, her son’s new wife, saw right through Narcissa Malfoy.

And slowly started to turn her family inside out.

And Draco and Astoria had a son of their own, a boy who would be starting at Hogwarts next year. A little boy who called Severus Gran’pa, who skipped the path of the labyrinth at Prince Manor, chased kittens in the workshop and begged broom rides from his Uncle Harry.

It turned out that a seat on the Wizengamot didn’t give the Malfoys the keys to the kingdom after all.

Ghosts flitted beneath his feet as he finished the path. He turned and looked back at the labyrinth.

In History of Magic, they were taught about the Great War Against Voldemort, and about the Boy Who Lived. About the power this boy had that the Dark Lord did not.

Love.

Oh, they learned about Headmaster Snape as well, of his part in the outcome, of how he bestowed the Sword of Gryffindor on Harry Potter, and in the end, gave him his memories, and sent him off to die, and went off to die himself.

Only they didn’t. They lived.

That part was taught in History of Magic. The rest of it wasn’t. The part about how Harry and Severus ended up married, and each of them forged ahead in new and unexpected directions. How Severus went on to become a renowned specialist in magical infectious disease control (Uncle Harry always said that was so romantic) and Harry became a stone crafter, and one of the world’s greatest practitioners of elemental magic.

His childhood was filled with the smells of Severus’ lab, of the stables where Harry kept the pony they bought him when he was six, of the herb gardens, and the perennials, and the pink azaleas Harry planted around the front steps just to spite Narcissa Malfoy. He remembered walking the labyrinth with Victoire marching behind him with soldier steps when he was five and she a little girl of three, waking at night in the little room off of Harry and Severus’ bedroom, afraid in the dark, crawling in between them, warm and safe.

Teddy Lupin had never known his father, but he had certainly known paternal love.

“They’re waiting for you, Teddy.”

Teddy turned and squared his shoulders. He looked past the man who had spoken and up toward the castle, at the bustle of activity on its stairs, the carriages starting to leave.

“Coming, Uncle Sev.”

And he made his way back up the lawn toward the castle.

One last time.

-The End-