And Then There Were Three
"What are you doing here?" Harry hissed at Malfoy, before allowing the maitre d' to seat him at his designated place.
Malfoy unfolded his napkin with an older, more refined version of the arrogance he'd always had, something that might become dignity in another year, or decade. "You made no effort to learn about this custom, did you?" he shot back, sounding disapproving and annoyingly self-righteous.
"No," said Harry bluntly, shaking out his own napkin and spreading the thick linen over his lap. "Professor Snape said he'd take care of all the details, and I didn't have to worry about it if I'd do him the favour of showing up today."
"I didn't see fit to inform him of your presence, as it doesn't affect his participation," said Snape, coming up behind them both to stand between their chairs. "I doubt Mr. Potter will wish to stay beyond this first stage of the Petitioner's Courtship. I would of course welcome both of you as long as you wish to participate, though I am aware that neither of you is likely to become my spouse." He said the last with distaste, glancing around the table at the dozen unoccupied settings there, each with its own placard.
"I'm sorry it came to this, Severus," said Malfoy, much to Harry's bemusement. Malfoy's face was soft and sympathetic, which didn't make sense to Harry at all.
Harry swallowed, then gave in to his curiosity and asked, "Why is it so terrible? I mean, he's got his pick of, what, thirteen witches and wizards?"
"It's not like that," said Malfoy, shooting Harry a glare that said clearly as words that he thought Harry was being an insensitive idiot. "He has to be sufficiently charming that enough people stay through each round, and someone at the end is willing to marry him so he can get his petition recognized by the Wizengamot. We're not wooing him, Harry, he's got to woo us."
Harry glanced involuntarily over at Snape, trying to imagine the irascible man wooing anyone, let alone himself. "So, at the end of dinner people will, what, cop out and say so long, and if enough of us don't stay, that's it?"
"In a nutshell, yes. I must sufficiently convince seven candidates tonight to allow my suit on a more serious level. There will be additional," he made a face, "culling, if you will, down to five, and then three, over the course of the Courtship."
"And all this is so... what?" asked Harry. The letter had been terribly vague, though Harry had to admit that the resulting curiosity was what had tempted him to accept the invitation in the first place.
Malfoy rolled his eyes, glancing toward the door where the maitre d' was speaking with two finely dressed witches. "He wants to be allowed to have an heir to the Prince line, rather than having to start over as Snapes. His mother, despite her unfortunate choice in husbands, held a small legacy for him in the form of her breeding, and her family's position in society, reduced though it was by generations of poor investments."
"Thank you, Mr. Malfoy, for that... succinct explanation," said Snape wryly; obviously he hadn't intended to tell Harry some or all of that, and Harry shot Malfoy a grateful look. Before Harry could ask any more questions, Snape turned away to greet the maitre d' and the two witches Harry had noted earlier, along with another wizard. "So good of you all to indulge me this way," said Snape, his tone almost welcoming, though there was a hint of chagrin in it, just enough to suggest a genuine regret for any inconvenience it might cause.
Harry had to forcibly restrain his jaw from dropping. Snape was being charming, making small talk and seating the women himself, while leaving the staff to show the wizard to his seat. Harry leaned over to Malfoy and asked, "Is he always like this when I'm not around?"
Malfoy snorted delicately and shook his head. "No, you've just never warranted proper handling. No use wasting manners on a Muggle, as they say," said Malfoy, a wicked twinkle in his eye daring Harry to take offence.
Harry looked down at the array of silverware around the stack of gilt-edged plates in front of him, and swallowed. "I'm totally out of my league, aren't I?"
"And is this Harry Potter I see?" came a voice to Harry's right, bringing Harry's head around fast enough that he thought the look of sympathy on Malfoy's face must have been an illusion born of whiplash.
"I, er, yes?" Harry replied, blinking owlishly up at a rather large witch in disturbingly diaphanous robes.
"Don't mind our Harry," said Malfoy warmly, "He's not used to civilization yet; did you know he spent last year in the wilds of Peru gathering totems for Gringotts?"
Harry winced as a rather sharp elbow hit him in the ribs, and he glanced down at the placard next to the imposing woman. "Ah, yes, please excuse my manners, Miss Frumple."
"Oh, please, do call me Frannie," she said, moving her bulk with surprising grace as Snape came around to seat her. "I'm surprised Snape managed to attract the likes of you two, honestly," she added in a conspiratorial tone, "You boys are quite a cut above the rest of us old maids, aren't you?"
Harry blushed at that, and was once again saved when Malfoy spoke. "Nonsense," he said, his usual aristocratic drawl just slightly exaggerated, "I'm sure you all come from the most impeccable backgrounds, and any one of us would be considered a catch."
"Except me," said Harry with a lopsided smile. "I've no manners to speak of, and not much else to offer besides."
Harry pretended he couldn't hear Malfoy's muttered, "You can say that again," over Frannie's tittering laugh.
It was easy to ignore in favour of the steady trickle of witches and wizards filling all the seats, until Snape himself finally got to stop hovering and take the empty fourteenth place. Most of the names meant nothing to Harry, though once in a while a surname would seem familiar from somewhere, and Malfoy seemed to approve of most of the candidates.
Once everyone had settled, Snape smiled without a single hint of a sneer and gave a short speech. "I'd like to thank you all for accepting my invitation tonight; I know most of you have eschewed marriage for one reason or another, though of course my youngest guests may simply not have gotten around to it yet." There was a chorus of titters, and Harry blushed while Malfoy simply looked smug; everyone else was Snape's age or older. "I appreciate you all considering my suit, and hopefully this first meeting will help to show you all that I have something to offer you and your households alike."
Harry managed not to jump when most of the plates in front of him disappeared, though he was confused when they were replaced not by a menu but a steaming bowl of soup, apparently a different kind for each of them. "I have taken the liberty of arranging tonight's menu according to your specific palates," said Snape, nodding at the plates. "I do hope you enjoy my hospitality."
Harry took a nervous sip of his unfamiliar-looking soup and found it was a warm, spicy pumpkin, a grown-up version of the juice he'd been drinking since his first year in school. The flavour brought with it a wave of nostalgia, and Harry realized that what had seemed like typical high-handedness was actually part of the Courting; Snape was showing that he was capable of catering to their individual preferences. "It's perfect, Pr- Severus, thank you," said Harry, hoping the use of Snape's first name wasn't out of order.
He got an approving glance from Malfoy, whose soup was a thick, creamy green that Harry could only hope was to his taste. "Yes, Severus, I'm surprised you remembered that cucumber and avocado soup is my favourite," said Malfoy, and Harry tried very hard not to turn a bit green himself.
The rest of the table began to chime in with their compliments, which Snape took with surprising grace, and conversation flowed from there around the table in little eddies, as Snape appeared to have made some effort to seat people near their acquaintances. "So," said Malfoy, once Frannie was distracted by her neighbour, and the man on Malfoy's other side equally engaged, "What did you end up with?" he asked, nodding toward Harry's mostly-empty bowl.
"It's pumpkin, want a taste?" said Harry, proffering the spoon to Malfoy, unaware of the eyes on them.
"Ah, sure," said Malfoy, looking faintly uncomfortable as he leaned in and took a delicate sip from the end of the spoon. He leaned back with a little smile on his face and said, "It tastes like Hogwarts."
Harry grinned. "Yes, that's what I thought -- like pumpkin juice and spiced cider and winter tea all in one."
"It's a good choice for you," said Malfoy, fidgeting with his own spoon. "You always were happiest at school."
Harry blinked, then shrugged and smiled sheepishly. "It's the first place I was ever happy, and I guess I just haven't found the right one since." Harry knew his career at Gringotts, first as Bill's apprentice and now as a Cursebreaker in his own right, was closely followed by the wizard press, and he also knew that the Daily Prophet thought he'd been turned into a thrill-seeker by his past, while Witch Weekly avowed that only the love of a good witch -- or wizard, they weren't that picky these days -- would cure Harry's wanderlust.
Malfoy chuckled. "I'd offer you a taste of mine, but I saw your face earlier," he said with a wink. "It's chilled, though, I mean... it's really quite refreshing."
Harry bit his lip, and then shrugged. It couldn't be worse than beetle paste. "Sure, what the heck," he said, leaning forward with his eyes half-lidded and mouth just a bit open.
Malfoy tipped a few dribbles of the creamy stuff into Harry's mouth, and Harry leaned back and licked his lips with a smile. "You're right, it's really pretty tasty," he said, pondering the crisp, sweet flavour. "I don't think it'd be my favourite, but I can see the appeal."
Malfoy laughed, putting his spoon back in the bowl just in time for them both to vanish, followed this time by a small salad. Harry glanced around and saw that everyone's food had changed over, and once again the plates held a wide variety of dishes, from a plate of what looked like mozzarella cheese and tomato slices in front of Frannie, to the bewildering variety of greens that Snape had ordered for himself. Harry had a fairly simple salad of lettuce and young dandelion greens, with apples, candied walnuts, chunks of cheese and a tangy dressing on top. "This looks good, too," said Harry, waiting for Malfoy to choose a fork before picking up his own and digging in.
"Don't let the act fool you," said Malfoy, delicately nibbling on an endive leaf, "Severus is a very astute man, who can learn a lot about a person from observing their habits."
"Makes sense, I guess," said Harry, though he wasn't quite gauche enough to mention Snape's career as a spy in mixed company. For all he knew, half these people had quietly supported Voldemort, though it was obvious that none were Death Eaters; after the end of the war, a fashion for short or open sleeves had come about, and all the forearms at the table were bare of both cloth and the Mark, except for Snape's. Snape was wearing his usual all-encompassing layers, though Harry noticed they were much finer than they had been in his teaching days, silk and velvet in a green so dark Harry had mistaken it for black at first.
Malfoy looked as though he was waiting for Harry to put his foot in his mouth, so Harry put in an apple slice instead, enjoying the bite of vinegar with the sweet-tart apple taste. He'd learned to appreciate food since his youth, travelling with Bill in exotic climes and eating whatever was on offer, whether it was delicious curries or, well, beetle paste. "He's got excellent taste, anyway," said Harry, watching as each person discovered this course to be just as much of a delight as the last.
"Yes, he does," said Malfoy, giving Harry a look that, were it not Malfoy, Harry would have interpreted as flirtatious. "This restaurant is known for its freshness of ingredients as well as its price tag; Severus has to be gambling everything on this Courtship."
"Well, why don't you marry him?" Harry asked curiously. "I mean, you obviously get along and all that."
Malfoy shrugged, something in the set of his shoulders telling Harry that he'd inadvertently stepped on a sensitive topic. "The Courtship would have to be carried out regardless," said Malfoy nonchalantly, taking a sip of the wine that had appeared with this course. There had been some for the last course as well, but Harry had no head for it, so he'd stuck to the iced, lemon-tinged water in his other glass.
Harry took a few bites of salad, feeling awkward and strangely regretful for having caused Malfoy discomfort, which was an entirely new sensation for him. After he washed down his chagrin and food with a single sip of his own dry, fruity wine, he said softly, "Told you I was bollocks at this."
Malfoy shot him a look of surprise, then laughed. "You couldn't have known," he said, shaking his head. "You don't have manners, but that sincere goofball thing seems to really work for you," he added teasingly.
"Well, we can't all grow up to be rich playboys," said Harry, smiling in relief. He wasn't sure why he cared if Malfoy kept liking him, but now that he wasn't exchanging insults and hexes with the prat, he found that the two of them had more in common than he'd imagined.
They made small talk about Quidditch for a while after that, the man to Malfoy's left joining in for a bit as he turned out to be one of the board members for the Chudley Cannons, a name that immediately brought to mind memories of Ron and his hopeless devotion to them.
"I'm sorry," said Harry, after they'd been speaking for a few minutes, "I didn't catch your name?"
"I don't think I introduced myself, my apologies," he replied, giving Harry a nod as it wouldn't have been polite to shake hands across Malfoy's food, currently in the form of a palate-cleansing tangerine ice; Harry's was mango. "I'm Manchester Nicholas III, and you of course are Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy."
Harry was amused that he knew them both, though these days Malfoy made the papers more often than Harry did. While Harry stayed out of the public eye whenever he could, Malfoy had chosen a more political career, working to bring the wizarding world back to its former glory by founding, funding and chairing the Diagon Alley Restoration Committee. "Harry, please," he said, smiling over at the thin, tweedy wizard.
"You may call me Manchester, of course," he replied excitedly, and Harry had a feeling that it was taking all of Malfoy's willpower not to say something cutting.
Instead, he said, "You're both welcome to call me Draco," then took an elegant bite of his ice.
"Thank you, Draco, Harry," said Manchester, digging into his own yellowish confection. There was a pause while they all ate, and then Manchester ventured, "Are you going to be staying in London for the duration of Severus' courting, Harry, or are you just filling seats, as it were?"
Harry glanced over at Snape, who was chatting in what appeared to be an amiable fashion with the two witches to his left. "I haven't received my new assignment from the bank yet," he prevaricated, eyes sidling past Malfoy guiltily to address Manchester. "But I'll stay for as long as I'm still being Courted, anyway."
Harry glanced back and found Snape staring at him, sending a prickling frisson of awareness over his skin. He took a sip of water to wet a mouth gone suddenly dry, and then glanced back at Malfoy. "How about you, Draco, how's the restoration going?"
Malfoy lit up and launched into an explanation of their progress that Harry had to admit was sort of fascinating, if only because Malfoy seemed to actually care about what he was doing. Apparently one of Fortescue's dozen illegitimate sons had come forward and used the seed money to restore the ice cream parlour, even doing a Petitioner's Courtship much like Snape's for the right to his father's legacy. Ollivander reappeared from hiding and borrowed the Malfoy house elves for a single day to set his shop to rights, the only assistance he required. Weasley's Wizard Wheezes had taken a small stipend and used it to paint their shop front, so it was as garish outside as in now.
That last got a laugh from Harry, who had said as much to the twins just yesterday, though not in such elegant words. "Yeah, but the kids seem to love the new look, so it's served its purpose, eh?" said Harry, finishing a last bite of his ice and wondering what was next.
"So, Harry dear," said Frannie, pulling Harry away from Malfoy's description of the renovations that were being done to Flourish & Blotts. "Will we be seeing you in the next round of Courtship, do you think?"
Harry looked over at Snape once again, and at the faces of the people around him. A few of them would stick around, but not, Harry thought, enough to make the requisite seven. "Oh, probably," he said, giving a half-hearted little smile. "I'm curious to see how Severus fulfils the requirements." That was vague enough, and didn't give away his own meagre knowledge of the whole situation.
He hoped, anyway.
Frannie didn't let him turn back, however. "Harry, dear, you must tell us where is it you've been off to this latest trip. Off to another continent, wasn't it?" She and the woman next to her, a surprisingly elderly witch named Eugenia Eggerston, kept him talking about his adventures in Peru until the main course showed up and he had an excuse to look away and examine this latest offering.
Apparently Snape felt nostalgia was the way to go with Harry, as he got a plate full of pasties arranged in an artful little spiral. Each one was a slightly different shape, from a simple half-circle and rectangle to ones shaped like a leaf, a heart, and even a star. They were smaller than a normal pasty as well, each perhaps two bites. Harry looked around the table and saw dishes as varied as one woman's bowl of shellfish in soup; Malfoy's tower of green beans, noodles, and some sort of fish on top, surrounded by a pool of sauce; Manchester's hearty plate of steak and lobster; and Snape's own rack of lamb, the sides crusted with herbs Harry could practically smell from across the table.
Harry's mouth was watering by the time his attention turned back to his plate, so he picked up a steaming diamond-shaped pasty and bit it in half. Inside there was a delicious blending of lamb, vegetables, and spices hinting more toward India than stolid old England, and Harry smiled as he chewed the unexpected treat.
His enjoyment was interrupted by a sharp kick to his left ankle. "We have utensils for a reason, Potty," hissed Malfoy, his voice holding all the contempt that Harry remembered from their youth and, strangely, intensifying the feeling of things left undone that had been growing slowly all evening. He'd left his youth behind rather abruptly, and all of a sudden he found himself eating at a table with two men he'd considered enemies in school, then allies, and now... what?
Harry rolled his eyes and ate the other half of his pasty defiantly, though he was becoming aware that his lack of manners could cause Snape difficulty later. He sipped the wine that came with his meal, a sweet, crisp drink that made him think of honey wine, then raised his glass to Snape with an ironic little smile.
"Did you wish to offer a toast, Mr. Potter?" asked Snape as the chatter around the table fell silent.
All eyes turned to Harry. "Er, yeah," said Harry, racking his brains for a suitable one. He raised his glass a little higher and said in a loud, clear voice, "To Severus, who has made a life of mended fences and, um, being more than he seems." Harry paused, getting another kick in the ankle, which spurred him to add, "May this be a new beginning for him."
"To Severus!" chorused the group, glasses of various vintages raised in Snape's direction before they all took a drink. Harry wondered if it was significant that some drank deeply while others barely let the liquid touch their lips, and made sure to have a decent sized sip of his own wine.
Snape returned Harry's raised glass finally and said, "Thank you, M- Harry," a glint to his eyes that boded ill for Harry.
As a concession, he used a fork to break open the star-shaped pasty, finding it filled with a tangy concoction of beef and sour cream that was very eastern European, and made him think inevitably of visiting Charlie two winters ago. The food had been heavy and rich, the perfect thing to ward off the bitter cold outside while Charlie, Bill, and Harry had sat inside, weathering a storm that was keeping everyone out of the dragon preserve.
Conversation quieted as everyone tucked in, and Harry couldn't help but wonder if there would be pudding after all this food. To that end he started eating just the first half of everything, wanting to see what was inside them all. The half-circle was a real Peruvian empanada, deep fried and filled with beef, onions and raisins, and Harry remembered the first time he'd had these, bought from a street vendor in Lima while they'd haggled with their guide. The circle proved to be a classic pumpkin pasty that could have come straight off the cart on the Hogwarts Express, which made Harry think of his bollixed relationship with Cho Chang and how he'd never been smooth in front of her, either. He tried not to wonder why this in turn reminded him of the toast he'd just given and moved on.
The one shaped like a leaf, complete with veins, turned out to be grilled rice flour with cheese inside, and reminded Harry of dining with clients in a little restaurant in Japan, back when he was first apprenticed and hadn't understood a word. Instead he'd nibbled the food and tried not to drink too much sake, and in the end Bill ruffled his hair and told him he'd done just fine. The next day they'd been permitted to enter a supposedly haunted shrine and, in exchange for removing the curse on the building, to take the largest of the gold statues inside.
Harry realized he was smiling like an idiot, lost in his own memories, and glanced up only to catch Snape looking at him with an expression that Harry might have called proprietary, coming from another man.
"What's putting that sort of a smile on Harry Potter's face, hm?" asked Malfoy, the sting of the words somewhat softened by the genuine curiosity in his tone.
"Just remembering," said Harry, using his fork to crack the rectangular pastry. This one turned out to be a classic Cornish pasty just the way he'd had them all his life, and it took all his willpower to hold back the goofy smile that tried to surface. "They're all different, and each one's from somewhere I've been."
Malfoy sent a speculative glance toward Snape, who had engaged the stoic wizard on his right in conversation and was rather pointedly ignoring them both. "This was the dish I had with Severus the night... well, anyway, we went to this fairly high-class Muggle restaurant that served Asian cuisine, and they had this on the menu. We go back every year we can, and I always get the same thing, because it reminds me that every day I walk free among wizards is a gift."
Harry blinked in surprise, and then let his smile out, soft and warm now that he'd heard Malfoy's story. "This one's just like the pasties at Hogwarts," said Harry, pointing to the one he'd just tried. When Malfoy looked interested, he explained each of them, leaving the heart for last -- it was the only one he hadn't yet tasted. "And we'll see what this is," said Harry, deliberately taking the point off the bottom of the heart rather than breaking it down the centre; that would have been too ill-omened, even for him.
"Well, what is it?" asked Malfoy curiously while Harry grinned and chewed.
Harry deliberately delayed with a sip of water, then nearly spoiled it by laughing at the impatient look on Malfoy's face. "It's Egyptian," he said, taking another bite of the flaky pastry. "Spiced lamb, I think, with raisins and stuff. We used to have these on the dig all the time."
"Left your heart in Egypt, did you?" said Malfoy, nearly earning his own kick to the ankle.
Harry shrugged and ate the other half of the leaf, enjoying the gooey tang of the cheese and the chewy, almost sweet dough. "No more than I left my leaf in Japan," he replied, his tone just as dry as Malfoy's.
That earned him a chuckle, and Malfoy went back to demolishing his tower of food. Harry was fascinated by the way the noodles were tied in little bundles that had to be eaten whole, each one the size of a large mouthful and easily dipped into the sauce. "You did say something about turning over a new leaf," he replied.
Harry chuckled back, sipping his wine before having the other half of his pumpkin pasty. "Well, my heart's still quite firmly with me, I'm afraid," said Harry around his mouthful.
He was saved from another lecture on manners when Frannie interjected herself into their conversation. "Surely the great Harry Potter has had some great romances in his time?"
Harry shook his head, flushing. "Nope, not really. I was a bit too busy breaking curses to go looking to pull."
This drew the attention of both Eugenia and Manchester, and suddenly nearly half the table was intently listening in. Malfoy's foot made a rather gentler connection with Harry's ankle, slipping up his calf distractingly as he tried to think of a way to come out of this with his skin, and his secrets, intact. "Besides," he added, taking a gulp of water to give him another moment to think, "A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell."
"We've all seen just how much of a gentleman you are, Harry," whispered Malfoy, and Harry gave in to the urge and kicked Malfoy in the ankle, getting back a bit of his own.
Fortunately, the whisper was lost to the rest of the table, drowned out by Frannie's girlish giggle. Eugenia whispered something to her and everyone else seemed to sense that the show was over, going back to their previous conversations. Harry leaned in and hissed at Malfoy, "I'm doing just fine at embarrassing myself, you don't need to help."
Harry found it amazingly gratifying to see Malfoy nearly snort his wine.
Malfoy's dignity was saved by the disappearance of everyone's plates, and though Harry was sad to see the last bites go uneaten, he was happy to still have room in his stomach when a single-serving treacle tart appeared in front of him, decorated with little pastry stars that were charmed to change shape and imitate twinkling. It took him a moment to recognize the constellation and when he did he nearly spoiled the whole thing by storming out; it was Canis Major, and its brightest star was Sirius.
"Truffles!" said Malfoy delightedly, distracting Harry from his own pudding, though he shot Snape a glare that promised later retribution. "Oh, I love these; they've got the most divine flavours and they're terribly hard to get in England this time of year." He looked, well, like a kid in a sweet shop, all the politician's artifice melting away finally, worn down by the parade of favourites and finally lost altogether.
Harry didn't know why Snape wanted them both so vulnerable, but Harry shored up his own defences, putting his fork right through the tart and breaking it apart so that the stars no longer reminded him of anything but the dozens of Hogwarts feasts he'd attended over the years. "What sort of flavours?" he asked politely, though his voice sounded flat and uninterested even to himself. He ate a bite of the tart, which annoyed him by being perfectly delicious, turning to watch as Malfoy tried to decide which to eat first.
"They're all these exotic things, to help us to appreciate the power of chocolate now that it's become so mundane," said Malfoy, warming to the subject readily, oblivious to Harry's change in mood. "This one's got curry in, and this one's got chilli from Mexico, and there's one that's rose and champagne, and this white one has olives in."
"Olives?" asked Harry, intrigued despite himself. The curry he could sort of understand; he'd had curried fruit before, and he supposed it might do for a chocolate flavour, but he couldn't imagine olives in chocolate.
"They're dried," said Malfoy. He took a sharp knife and cut the small sphere in half. "See? It's more about the essence of an olive's flavour than overwhelming you with them." He popped the half into his mouth and made an ecstatic face, obviously savouring every moment.
"I'll take your word for it," said Harry, eating another bite of tart. His wine had vanished again as well, replaced with thick Turkish coffee and a small glass of something that looked very alcoholic, probably the cognac he'd also discovered at Charlie's and grown giddy on very swiftly. He chose the coffee.
"They really are delicious," said Malfoy, undaunted.
He cut another of the truffles in half, one that had little black things on the outside, and Harry couldn't help but ask, "Those aren't ants or something, are they?"
"No," Malfoy replied, as though speaking with a dunce or possibly just Goyle, "They're black sesame seeds. It's spiced with ginger and wasabi." He ate half, making another ecstatic face as the chocolates melted on his tongue.
Harry smiled despite himself, then turned to Frannie. "What did you get?" he asked, eyeing her goo-smeared plate curiously.
"Oh, it's chocolate cake with hot fudge inside, and iceberry ice cream," she said, spooning up a bite that seemed to consist of a little of everything. "It's one of my favourites, though of course it's not really on my diet." Somehow, Harry found it fitting when she tittered.
At least this meant the meal was almost over, though Harry had all but committed himself to staying for another round. Well, Snape seemed to be making good at his end of the table, perhaps there'd be enough real candidates that Harry could bow out gracefully. "It sounds delicious," said Harry, fixing his attention back on his demolished tart, telling himself that he did not need any more conversation tonight.
Unfortunately, that just wasn't to be. Everyone's pudding vanished in a few minutes, and this time all the silverware went as well, leaving them with just their after-dinner drinks and napkins.
"I do hope you all have enjoyed this small display of my hospitality," said Snape, drawing the table's attention.
Harry wiped his mouth and took a sip of water, using the motions to watch how everyone else seemed to be taking the end of the elaborate meal. It seemed mostly smiles or satisfied looks, though not all of them were friendly; Harry could only count three he was reasonably sure would move on, and one of those was Frannie, whose giggling he wouldn't wish even on Snape.
"I would like to invite you all to share an after-dinner drink with me in the bar, which has been reserved for us this evening. I have a small token for each of you, and at that time you may indicate your willingness to entertain my suit." That last seemed to be directed at Harry and his ignorance, as the rest of them looked a bit surprised he'd mentioned it. There was a pause and a bit of rustling, and then Snape finished, "If you would care to join me?"
Snape stood, leaving his half-drunk tea and gesturing for them to precede him into the dimly lit space. It would be more intimate than the brightly-lit table, and out of the public eye. Harry nearly cried, as there would inevitably be mingling involved, and small talk, and he was bollocks at both in any language.
The rest of the group followed with varying amounts of reluctance, which made Harry wonder just what sort of private conversations they were supposed to be having in there. He hung back, snagging Malfoy's arm long enough to ask, "Is there something I should know about this bit?"
Malfoy shrugged, giving Harry that annoyingly superior look of his. "Undoubtedly," he said, brushing off Harry's lingering hand. "However, this is not the moment for me to explain."
Harry rolled his eyes and followed Malfoy into the smaller room, just managing not to jump when the door slid shut behind him, making the space a truly private one.
Well, private but for the dozen sets of eyes on them. There was a moment where it seemed the whole room was expectantly awaiting some cue that Harry didn't understand, and missed anyway because the next moment everyone was milling about, and Snape had taken up residence in one of the small, semicircular booths ringing the bar area.
"Now you can ask me stupid questions," said Malfoy, leading Harry up to the bar where a real human waited to take their orders. "I'll have a Brandy Alexander."
The bartender turned expectantly to Harry. "Oh! Um, I'll just have a butterbeer, thanks."
Harry could feel both of them inwardly rolling their eyes at him, but he stoically ignored it, instead following Malfoy's example and leaving a sickle in the small dish after accepting his mug.
The bartender moved off and Malfoy took a sip of his drink. "Here is where people really have to decide if they're willing to publicly ally themselves with Severus. Just coming to dinner tonight isn't considered a commitment, though I'm sure a few refused him before he got thirteen."
Harry nodded; he'd had the distinct impression that he wasn't a first or even second choice, himself. "All right. And what about the mingling? That seems, I don't know, dangerous somehow."
Malfoy chuckled. "Finally thinking past the next Snitch, are we?" he said teasingly. "There will be a certain amount of manoeuvring among the candidates while they feel each other out and try to figure out who's going to stick with Snape, and who's going to bail."
"Well, I don't really need to worry about that," said Harry wryly, sipping his butterbeer. "I've already made my declaration, sort of."
"You certainly did," replied Malfoy drolly, just as another wizard walked up, the thin man who'd been next to Snape at dinner. "Bartholomew Cubbins, so good to see you," said Malfoy smoothly, as though he hadn't just been about to berate Harry for whatever mistake he'd made this time.
"Mr. Malfoy," he said, giving an odd little bow. "Mr. Potter. I must admit I'm surprised to see two bachelors of your calibre here tonight."
Harry wasn't sure if he should be defending his own honour or Snape's, so he let Malfoy do the talking. "Severus worked very closely with both of us during the difficulties," said Malfoy, by far the most bland description of Voldemort's return that Harry had ever heard. "I was honoured that he would consider a closer alliance."
"Er, yeah," said Harry, when Malfoy's elbow made ungentle contact with his ribs. "Severus has always been more than he seems."
That got Harry a raised eyebrow that obviously invited elaboration, but Harry chose to ignore it in favour of taking a swig of his butterbeer. Malfoy stepped in smoothly and said, "How is your haberdashery doing, Mr. Cubbins?"
"Oh, very well, thank you," came the swift reply, a salesman's smile gracing Cubbins' thin features. "Thanks to the grant from the committee we were able to do some remodelling and get materials for a whole new summer line, and even lay in a few supplies for winter."
Harry was starting to see the usefulness of Malfoy's committee firsthand, not only in the improvements to Diagon Alley but the name it made for Malfoy, the favours that became obliquely owed as a result of his largesse. "Is yours the shop next to Madam Malkin's?" Harry asked curiously.
"Yes, Five Hundred Hats," said Cubbins with a slightly warmer smile. "Have you sampled our wares?"
Harry manfully ignored the thread of innuendo and said cheerfully, "Nope! I've never been in, though I always peek in at the display on my way to get respectable wizarding clothes when I get back into town."
"Dare I ask what happens to the previous wardrobe?" said Malfoy.
Harry was glad it was dark enough to hide his flush of embarrassment. "My owl nests with them."
"You go off on your ridiculous journeys and leave your owl home alone?" said Cubbins, affronted.
"No!" said Harry, "No, that's not it, I mean, I take her with me usually, unless it's too hot, and then she lives with friends. It's just that she's been flirting with this other owl for ages now, and so she shreds my robes because she thinks the fabric will make a great nest, and I haven't got the heart to yell at her really, so when the time comes to go on another job I just buy work clothes, and I come back and there's just the one forlorn winter robe left because she doesn't like the itchy wool any more than I do."
Harry could feel Malfoy next to him, shaking with the effort of holding in his laughter. "Go on," he said miserably, "laugh. You probably have an army of house elves to keep your wardrobe impeccable. I've still got to wash my own socks."
That did it, both Malfoy and Cubbins burst out laughing, though Malfoy's was much more sincere than Cubbins' little chuckle. "I had no idea the great Harry Potter had such an interesting domestic arrangement."
Harry resisted the urge to make a face at him and said instead, "Well, when you're home as little as I am, it's not worth the effort to do more than make yourself and your pets happy."
"Pets?" asked Malfoy curiously. "I thought you only had the owl."
Harry shrugged. "I got adopted by a kneazle, mostly it lives with a neighbour." Harry didn't mention that its method of showing its displeasure at this arrangement was the other reason Harry had to regularly replace his wardrobe. "Well, maybe if I'm in town for longer this time, I'll make an effort. I've been meaning to find a new flat for a while, anyway."
"Perhaps you ought to wait until you've decided if you'll be settling down to matrimony," said Cubbins unctuously.
Harry refrained from asking him if he'd been in Slytherin, and nodded. "I suppose that's true, Severus would no doubt run a much more orderly household."
"I doubt he'd allow your owl to make a nest of your clothing, at any rate," said Cubbins with a little sniff. He appeared to have found out whatever it was he'd slithered over for, and he took his leave with a distracted little, "Gentlemen," and another of those half-bows.
"Some Slytherins make the rest of us look bad," said Malfoy disdainfully. "You really let Hedwig nest in your wardrobe?"
"Naah, she steals strips off the bottom and takes them up to the owlery," said Harry with a shrug. "I can't fault her, it's not like I don't have the money. I just want her to be happy."
Malfoy gave Harry an odd look, then sipped his drink thoughtfully. "Most of the mingling will be like that, trying to figure out what everyone else is doing here and if they're considering accepting Severus' suit, without revealing their own intentions too soon. At some point Severus will signal to you, and then I'll tell you he's done so as you'll undoubtedly miss it," said Malfoy, continuing their earlier conversation as though they hadn't just been interrupted. "You'll go over there, he'll offer you something he's made with you in mind, likely a potion, as his first token. You'll accept it, and then you're supposed to chat awhile to see if he can't charm you into staying for another round, which obviously you'll agree to."
"I'm impressed you got that out in one breath," said Harry, letting the deluge of information sink in along with the warmth of his drink.
Malfoy smirked, "I'd say that I've got far more interesting uses for controlling my breathing, but you'd probably think I meant swimming." He glanced out over the crowd, which seemed like circling sharks to Harry, trying to figure out who was predator and who was prey. "But mostly I just wanted to get it out before our next visitor."
"Shouldn't we be out there?" asked Harry, though truthfully he preferred to stay as far away as possible from the rest of the candidates.
Malfoy shook his head. "We're the biggest fish here. Eventually the whole pond will come to us."
Harry chuckled. "Good to know you'll be here to keep me from putting my foot in it."
"Now, Mr. Potter," said a handsome wizard, sidling up to the bar next to Harry, "I doubt very much you're so bumbling as all that."
Malfoy snorted, and Harry pretended he hadn't heard it. "That's very nice of you to say so, Mr...."
"Terence Lenis," he replied, then to the bartender, "Whiskey sour, please."
"Mr. Lenis," finished Harry. "What brings you here?"
"Curiosity, I suppose," said Lenis, accepting the drink and ostentatiously dropping a Galleon into the tip dish. "It's not often that one gets to be courted by someone as infamous as Snape."
Harry allowed that this was the case, and Malfoy turned sideways so he was leaning on the bar and rather disconcertingly closer to Harry as well. "And how have you found it so far, Mr. Lenis?" said Malfoy, his voice holding just the slightest edge of danger.
"Fascinating," said Lenis, unaffected by Malfoy's smooth menace. "You can really see how he managed to be a spy, if his reputation is anything to go by. Not a single sign of his reputed antisocial demeanour."
Harry smirked. "When one is surrounded by idiots," he said, quoting one of Snape's more memorable lectures in school, "one finds one's temper strained past all reason."
Lenis' drink arrived, and he used that as an excuse to flee from Malfoy's evil chuckling. "You did pay attention in Potions after all," said Malfoy, giving Harry's arm a little nudge.
"He always did command my attention, if nothing else," said Harry, looking over at Snape, currently sequestered and apparently flirting with the redoubtable Frannie.
Malfoy's eyebrows went up. "Harbouring a bit of a secret crush, Potter? I didn't even know you had same-sex tendencies."
Harry coughed, then took a sip of his butterbeer to give him a moment to think. "Let's just say I'm not really sure where my tendencies lie, but I'm not completely averse to the idea of having Severus help me figure it out."
"Oh, this is just too good," said Malfoy, leaning in just a little closer. "Are you a virgin, Potter?" he murmured, too low to be heard by curious ears.
Harry was fairly sure even the low lighting couldn't cover up the shade of red he was turning. "I've been busy, all right?"
Malfoy surprised him by not laughing, instead looking very interested. "But you'll be in town a while this time, or so you keep saying."
"I'd bet there's something in the rules against candidates nipping off for a quick shag while they decide about the suitor," said Harry dryly, concentrating very hard on not picturing any possible variation of that. When that didn't work, he imagined Frannie and Cubbins in an embrace, and that took care of any problem before it could fully come up.
"A pity," said Malfoy, turning back around to face the bartender so he could signal for a refill. "Another mug of that plebeian swill?"
Harry glanced down, surprised to find he'd nearly emptied his drink while they'd been talking. "Er, yeah," he said, finding it oddly charming when Malfoy tipped for them both. "Is this your way of getting me into your debt like the rest of them?" Harry asked teasingly, giving Malfoy's shoulder a nudge as he finished off his butterbeer.
"Somehow," said Malfoy, handing Harry his fresh drink, "I think it would take more than a sickle."
This time they both watched as two witches came sashaying over to them, the youngest of the lot besides themselves. "Ms. Malkin, Ms. Flourish. You're looking lovely tonight," said Malfoy, stepping away from the bar and once again rescuing Harry, who was beginning to see that there was more than one way to become indebted.
"Ladies," said Harry tersely, saluting them with his mug.
They tittered. "Mr. Potter, Mr. Malfoy," they said in disturbing unison, smiling just a little too brightly for Harry's comfort.
"Are you related to the shop owners?" Harry asked curiously.
"Madam is my Aunt," said Ms. Malkin, giving a little sway to show off the excellent cut of her lavender robes.
"I'm just a cousin," said Ms. Flourish with a little giggle; obviously she hadn't come from the intellectual side of the family, Harry thought uncharitably.
"Are you enjoying the Courtship dinner?" asked Harry, glancing between them and trying to figure out what had kept them from being married before this, aside from the distressing tendency to titter like empty-headed birds.
"Oh, yes," said Malkin, getting a nod of agreement from Flourish. "Severus is ever so romantic, you know, just like the dark hero of a story!"
"You'd be the handsome heroes of a different story," added Flourish with an annoying little laugh. "We'd almost stay just to see more of you two!"
"I'm sure Severus would welcome any opportunity to pay Court to two such lovely ladies," said Malfoy with a smooth politician's smile that only faltered a little when they were treated to another round of shrill giggling.
"Are you staying, then?" asked Flourish bluntly, getting her a little glance of surprise from Harry, who couldn't tell if it was that she was smarter than she let on and tired of the games, or too dumb to play them properly.
Either way, Harry's answer was the same. "Of course," he said, plastering on his own smile. "I welcome the chance to renew my acquaintance with Severus, no matter who he ends up choosing, er, in the end."
"And I of course welcome any contact with Severus. He was my mentor in my youth, and it pleases me that he can now see me as a man," said Malfoy, sneaking a little flirty innuendo at the end of the sentence.
"Oh, splendid!" said Malkin. She looked as though she might have wanted to say something else, but at that moment Frannie pried herself out of the booth and all conversation froze, waiting to see who Snape signalled next.
"That's you," whispered Malfoy, and Harry jumped.
"Right, sorry, off I go," said Harry, wending his way through the crowd and sliding in next to Snape. "Er, how close should I be?" he asked quietly, feeling very nervous with all those eyes on him.
"If you wish to appear to be seriously considering marrying me," said Snape, his tone holding a note of disbelief, "then you ought to come a bit closer."
"Right," said Harry, sliding over until they were almost touching. "Close enough?"
"You aren't actually considering my suit, are you?" asked Snape, surprised.
Harry chuckled. "Somehow I think you'd kill me in a week, so I suppose not, but I'm happy if they all think so. Malfoy said it improved your credibility or something."
"Ah," said Snape, reaching into his robes and producing a small velvet pouch. "Well, regardless of the seriousness of your participation, it is appreciated for the cachet it lends my otherwise uninspiring Courtship." Snape slid the gift across the table, fingers brushing Harry's when he reached down to pick it up.
"What is it?" he asked, feeling the object inside; smooth and hard, and likely a phial, as Malfoy predicted.
"Insight Infusion," said Snape, and Harry tucked the precious concoction away in a pocket. "For your work."
"That'll come in very handy, thank you, Severus," said Harry, trying very hard to banish the unfortunate image of Snape as the dark, romantic hero. "You've shown remarkable thoughtfulness tonight, except perhaps the pudding."
"My apologies," said Snape, looking slightly abashed, though Harry wondered if it was an act. "I did not sufficiently consider how the gesture might seem, coming from me."
Harry nodded; he'd made enough thoughtless blunders tonight alone to allow Snape some leeway; perhaps it made them even for his inadvertent toast. "So, er, what are you planning, once you're married? Malfoy said something about heirs, but you've got an awful lot of wizards here for that."
"Still thinking like a Muggle," said Snape dryly. "I wish to have a legitimate heir so that my mother's line does not die out entirely, and of course would willingly provide one to my spouse, should he or she also wish to carry on the family name."
Harry swallowed. "So you'd... have babies, then?"
Snape smirked. "Or you. You're young and fit, you'd do well carrying a lively boy or two. The process requires a combination of potions and ritual sex magic, but I'm perfectly capable of both. I am only in want of a wife, as they say."
"Or husband," said Harry, feeling a bit shell shocked.
"Or a husband," agreed Snape. "You'd best put on your game face, or they'll wonder what I've said to shock you."
"Sorry," said Harry, looking down at his hands and trying to put the idea as far out of his mind as possible. It wasn't like he was really going to marry Snape anyway, so he didn't need to worry about sex magic or babies.
He was mortified when his brain chose to dwell on the sex as a second option. "So, ah, you're experienced with sex magic, then?" his mouth asked, before his brain got a say in the matter.
"I have participated in a few rites in my time," said Snape, his voice taking on a sensual tone Harry would definitely have remembered, had he even once used it in the classroom. "Most of my experience has been, shall we say, extracurricular."
Harry could feel his face heating, not to mention other things. "Do you, er, prefer blokes or birds, anyway? I saw you pulled almost the same number of each."
"I have not, as you say, pulled them yet," said Snape, toying with his tumbler of what looked like firewhisky. "My preference is slightly for men, though in truth I did not consider gender when handing out invitations, merely whether the person was in sufficient standing with the Ministry, and likely to accept."
"Well, I'm glad you asked me," said Harry, surprised to find it was true. "At any rate, I seem to have spent the evening amusing Malfoy for you."
"I did seat you together for a reason, though I admit surprise that you are getting along so... amiably."
Harry snickered. "Yeah, me, too. He's grown up well enough, I guess," he said with a shrug. "He doesn't try to hex me anymore, at any rate."
"A vast improvement over your usual social life, I expect," said Snape dryly.
"Now, now," said Harry, though he was smiling. Somehow it came out more like teasing now than it had when Harry was a student; perhaps it was just the idea that Snape thought of him, too, as a man rather than the boy he'd been. "Aren't you supposed to be wooing me with your charms?"
Snape's answering smirk was but a faint echo of the cruel smiles he'd directed at Harry in class. "Are you going to have me believe you'd be susceptible to them? Shall I hint that I'm particularly gifted in bed, or gifted by nature? Or perhaps I ought to lie to you, that we would have domestic bliss and I would never disagree or argue."
Harry couldn't help it, he laughed. "No, you're right, that would never have worked. Still, it's nice having you talk to me like I've got a brain in my head."
"It helps that I am not trying to stuff knowledge into it, merely innuendo," said Snape, smirk turning into a real smile that was almost flirty. Well, for Snape, anyway.
"And here I thought you were trying to stuff your innuendo somewhere else," said Harry, assailed by an image of Snape the very gifted, and Harry bent over the nearest available flat surface waiting to receive his gifts.
Snape actually laughed, which helped to flush away Harry's embarrassment. "Indeed, Harry, that would be my preference. Which do you prefer?"
That brought the blush right on back. "Er, well... whichever, really," he stammered, getting that same calculating look from Snape as he had from Malfoy earlier.
"Well, once you figure it out, do let me know," said Snape, running one warm finger over the back of Harry's hand. "Or if you'd like a bit of help with that, I'd be happy to demonstrate the pros and cons of both positions."
The mere thought of bending Snape over anything was nearly enough to make Harry's brain explode, or possibly other anatomy. "Er, that's all right, I'm really content to live in ignorance," he said, just managing not to jump when Snape's hand found his thigh. "Please tell me you never thought about this when I was a student."
Snape raised one eyebrow and gave Harry's leg a squeeze, then brought the errant hand back above the table's horizon. "I would never consider such a thing with a student, Harry, but you are no longer eleven, and I am no longer anyone's professor."
Harry swallowed, wondering how he'd allowed the conversation to get him in this very thorny place. "Yes, sir, I mean, Severus, I know that, I just..."
Snape smiled and shook his head. "You leave yourself far too open, Harry." He took a sip of his firewhisky, then asked idly, "Did you enjoy the rest of dinner, at least?"
Relieved, Harry nodded, taking a sip of his own warming butterbeer. "Yes, it was delicious. Very nostalgic, though I'm dying to know where you got so much information about my travels."
Snape chuckled. "Old issues of Witch Weekly, actually. They run a 'Where's Potter?' column, in the back with the horoscopes."
Harry shook his head slowly, grinning. "I'm still not used to it, you know. You always accused me of wanting the publicity, and I always hated it."
Snape's smile softened. "I was... made aware of my misconceptions about you after your victory. I had a very long talk with Albus' portrait, and he forced me to see that I had been hiding behind my own prejudices for far too long."
"Is that why you asked me here tonight?" Harry asked, finally voicing the question that had dogged him since he got the invitation.
"One of the reasons, yes," said Snape, the smile still hovering around the edges of his expression. "I am grateful that you accepted, and even more so that you're staying another round. I don't think I'd have had even five without your toast, let alone seven."
"As I didn't do it on purpose, I can't accept too much credit, but I'm glad it's helped you out. I never thought it was fair that they kept trying to treat you like a criminal, even after everything."
Snape shrugged, a world of meaning in the simple gesture. "One learns to live with inequity, or one becomes..."
"A cranky, misanthropic potions master?" Harry finished for him, not wanting to end the evening on so serious a note.
"Indeed," said Snape. He finished off his drink, then moved just a touch closer to Harry. "If I may ask a final favour of you?"
"Er, does it involve your... innuendo?" squeaked Harry as Snape's hand slid down his back, surprisingly warm and solid.
"No, simply a kiss. It is a sign of great favour to bestow a chaste kiss upon the suitor upon conclusion of the initial interview." His face was close, breath smelling of whisky and spices, and Harry couldn't think of any reason good enough to refuse.
"All right," whispered Harry, letting his eyes flutter closed just before their lips met.
Snape's lips were thin, and dry, but mobile and warm, and for a brief, insane moment Harry thought he might not mind being knocked up so much, if it meant a lot more of Snape's kisses. Fortunately the madness passed when Snape pulled away, and he blinked his eyes open, hoping he didn't look quite as dazed as he felt.
"Thank you, Harry," said Snape, looking insufferably smug.
Harry cleared his throat. "You're, um, quite welcome. So, we're done now?"
"Yes, we're done," said Snape, giving Harry's back one last pat before drawing away.
"Good. I mean, ah. Yes. Thanks." Harry slid out of the booth and made his way over to Malfoy.
"You look pleased," said Malfoy, handing Harry a third drink, as he'd abandoned the remains of his second with Snape.
"Pleased, or dazed?" asked Harry, taking a sip only to find it was simple iced water.
"Well, a little of both, not that that's a bad thing for Snape's reputation. After all, everyone but us thinks you've been shagging your way across continents, so anyone who can get a rise out of you with a little kiss..." Fortunately, Malfoy left the thought unspoken.
The water and sarcasm were both helping to clear Harry's head, and he looked over to find Lenis sliding in very close to Snape indeed. "It seems to have impressed him, anyway."
Malfoy chuckled. "I must admit my curiosity is piqued, not that I wasn't going to kiss him anyway. How'd you know?"
Harry blushed, then leaned in close to whisper, "He asked me, or I never would have."
"Thought so," said Malfoy. He took a sip of his drink, then asked just as quietly, "Was it really that good?"
Harry blushed, fidgeting with his glass. "Yeah, it really was."
Malfoy looked like he was going to ask another question when a cadaverous woman came up, giving them a disconcertingly frank once-over. "Hepsibeth Hungerford," she said, nodding briskly. "You two, of course, require no introduction."
"A pleasure," said Harry, smiling as sincerely as he could through the lingering confusion.
"Good to meet you," said Malfoy, returning the nod.
She smiled tightly, then turned to Harry. "What's he got on you, then?" she asked, one eyebrow going up as if to dare him to contradict her.
"Unfinished business and a really sexy voice," said Harry cryptically, taking an instant dislike to her. "Actually, I find your implication that he'd have to have some sort of hold over me to make me consider his suit to be insulting to everyone involved." Hermione would have been proud, considering the big words; he wouldn't tell Malfoy that it was paraphrased from a movie he'd seen last year.
"Not everyone is blinded by public opinion when it comes to Severus," said Malfoy, looking rather impressed at Harry's defence.
"I suppose you expect me to believe that you're only in it for, what, the sake of camaraderie?" she asked.
"No," said Malfoy, glancing over at Snape. "You're supposed to believe that we know something about him that you don't, that makes him worth considering."
She seemed distinctly unimpressed with this answer, and Harry couldn't help but snicker. "You could always try getting a kiss yourself, just to see if he lives up to his press," said Harry, drinking his water as though he'd had no doubts before or since about the quality of Snape's kisses.
"I don't think so," said Hepsibeth coldly. "I won't be involving myself in this farce of a Courtship any further." She spun and stalked off, expensive robes glittering in the candlelight.
"Well, I don't have to ask why she's not married yet," said Harry grimly, watching her go, "but I don't really get why the rest of them aren't. I mean, aren't you guys all about breeding more little wizards?"
Malfoy laughed. "You know, even if you weren't cute, I think I'd keep you around to remind me that not everyone grew up steeped in wizarding culture and politics the way I did," he said, eyes shining at Harry.
"Uh, does this mean we're friends, or are you trying to get in my robes?" asked Harry, edging away from Malfoy nervously. He could just about get his head around the idea that Snape was desperate enough to be allowed the family he wanted that he'd even be willing to trust Harry to help him achieve it, but he had a harder time understanding an amiable Malfoy. He'd been functioning under the assumption that Malfoy had been asked to keep an eye on him to prevent him from embarrassing them all.
"It means I'm trying to see past who we used to be," said Malfoy with a mysterious smile.
"That's helpful," said Harry grumpily. "And avoiding the question."
"It varies, but usually it's some scandal, or knowing the wrong people to make a good match," said Malfoy with a shrug. "If my parents were still around, I'd be married by now myself, but I've a little more freedom to spend my youth rebuilding the world in the name of commerce before I'm expected to settle down and produce an heir."
Harry bit his lip, then asked, "Are you really okay with the idea of, you know, having the child yourself?"
Malfoy chuckled. "Well, I'll admit it's not the most comfortable idea, but it's either that or marry a woman I'll never want or love, and look how well that did for my father."
"I guess that makes sense," said Harry with a sigh. "I wonder if I'll ever have a chance at a life like that."
"A life of misery and boring cocktail parties?" asked Malfoy pointedly.
Harry gave him a shove. "No, you dolt, a life with someone who loves me. I mean, being courted is nice and all, but I don't see Severus declaring his undying devotion to me any time soon."
Malfoy snorted. "No, I suppose not. Still, it's not like you're really..." he cut off abruptly as yet another pair of the candidates approached, a stuffy looking older gentlemen with a rakish thirtysomething man trailing behind him.
"Messrs. Malfoy and Potter, I am Secundus Trimble, of the Hogsmeade Trimbles," said the stuffy man, looking as though he might puff himself out of his dress robes if he wasn't careful. The other man passed them right on by and demanded a pint of bitter from the bartender, ignoring them all.
"There's that many Trimbles in wizarding Britain?" Harry blurted, barely managing to hold in an 'oof' when Malfoy elbowed him. He coughed instead. "Erm, I mean, good to meet you."
"There are several branches of our family doing business in various wizarding enclaves, including the Trimble and Trumble cloth manufacturers, and of course our business in Hogsmeade making and selling a wide array of shoes," said Trimble, apparently choosing to believe that Harry Potter could do no wrong and obviously hadn't meant to be insulting.
"Oh," said Harry, then before Malfoy could 'prompt' him again, he added, "Well, I hope you're doing well for yourselves."
"It's good to see so many old families represented in the Courtship," said Malfoy smoothly.
Trimble looked terribly excited to be considered from an old family by Malfoy. "Do you think so? Mums wasn't so sure I should consider accepting, but a good potions maker could be a real asset to our business, since we have to send out of the family for our potions currently. Oh, but you don't want to hear about that."
Harry managed to censor himself before he agreed that no, he really didn't, and instead plastered a smile on his face. "Well, I'm sure Severus would be a good addition to your household. He would love to ally himself with such a respected family," said Harry, though of course the man's very presence here bespoke some sort of ill repute about him.
Trimble fairly glowed, taking his leave and wandering off with a proud grin on his round face.
"If he gets any more full of himself, he'll explode," said the man to Harry's left, taking a long pull on his pint. "Gaerwn Guinness. Not those Guinnesses, though."
Harry couldn't help but chuckle. "D'you mean the world record people, or the beer people?"
Guinness raised an eyebrow. "Don't know anything about those. I meant the Knockturn shop, bastard's been giving our family a bad name for years now."
Harry snorted. "Sorry, I guess those are both Muggle. Anyway, what brings you to Severus' Courtship?"
"Got an invite," Guinness replied tersely, shrugging.
Malfoy smiled. "And now, are you going to consider his suit?"
Guinness shrugged again. "Like as not, though I'm not much for bottoming. Still, if his nose is any indication, a man'd be mad not to spread for him once in awhile."
Harry nearly snorted his water. "Erm, yes, I suppose that's one way of looking at it."
Malfoy and Guinness shared a moment of amusement at Harry's discomfiture, but their bonding was interrupted when Eugenia, looking slightly less elderly under the gentle light of the bar, escorted another middle-aged woman up to the two of them. "Don't be silly, Winifred," she was saying as they came into earshot, "they're perfectly nice young gentlemen."
"We definitely are that," said Malfoy smoothly; apparently he no longer trusted the introductions to Harry. "And who are you darling ladies?"
"I've already met Ms. Eggerston, isn't that right, Eugenia?" said Harry, just to annoy Malfoy.
"Yes, during dinner, though I was a bit too far around the table to properly meet Mr. Malfoy. This is my dear friend Winifred Grey, whom Severus was kind enough include as well," said Eugenia, bringing the quiet woman forward.
"How do you do," she said politely, standing awkwardly as if she had less idea than Harry of what to do in these situations.
"I'd say we're quite a bit better now you ladies have come to brighten our dark corner," said Malfoy, and Harry tried really hard not to roll his eyes. Guinness had a sudden coughing fit into his beer.
Winifred giggled. It was, Harry thought, only slightly less appealing on a woman of her age and stature than it had been on Flourish and Malkin. "Flatterer," she said, practically batting her eyelashes at Malfoy.
Fortunately for them all, Lenis chose that moment to bestow his kiss on Severus, and everyone's attention was drawn over to their corner and away from any need to manufacture a response. "Oh, my," said Eugenia, watching the kiss linger. "It looks like you've a bit of competition, Harry."
Harry grinned as Lenis emerged from the booth looking just as dazed as Harry had been earlier. "That's all right," he said amiably, taking a sip of his water. He thought about adding something modest, but really in this situation it was probably all right to be a bit cocky.
"He's always enjoyed a healthy competitive spirit," said Malfoy dryly, getting a snicker from Guinness.
"Oh, dear, it's my turn!" said Winifred, suddenly flustered. "What should I do, Genie?"
"You'll be fine, dear. Just go with your instincts, though if you do decide to go another round, make sure to get a kiss. I had no idea he had such strong lips..." said Eugenia, moving out of earshot with Winifred.
"Strong lips, that's a good way to put it," said Harry, getting a snicker from Malfoy.
"Huh. And now you've got me wondering if there'll even be a spot for me in the next go 'round," said Guinness. He shrugged. "It's never a bad thing for a man to have choices."
"What d'you mean?" asked Harry, unafraid to show his ignorance around Guinness, who reminded him a bit of Seamus, in a Welsh sort of way.
"If Severus has more than seven people accept, then he gets to choose which seven to keep. It shows he's a desirable match," explained Malfoy.
"Yep," said Guinness. "Well, at least I didn't have to miss a game for it."
Suddenly the light went on in Harry's mind. "You're that Guinness, the replacement Keeper for the Kenmare Kestrels," said Harry with a grin.
"Aye, and I can tell you me mam was livid when she found out. It's hell sometimes, being from a mixed family," said Guinness, sipping his pint.
"You're a halfblood?" asked Malfoy, surprised.
"Naah, not that. Mam's from Wales, and Da's Irish," said Guinness, grinning at them now. "Had you for a minute there, though."
Harry shrugged. "Doesn't bother me, my mum was Muggleborn herself," he said, though of course it was common knowledge like so much of his life these days.
"Yes, but you're Harry Potter. That's enough cachet to overcome a lot in the eyes of the Wizengamot," said Malfoy.
Harry shrugged. "I suppose," he said, eye drawn to where Winifred was heaving herself up out of the booth that hadn't seemed quite so small when Harry was sitting in it. "Did she kiss him?" Harry asked, hoping Malfoy had noticed.
"Nope. I think she was more of a filler invite anyway," said Malfoy with a shrug. "I expect she decided they've nothing in common."
"It's a little strange, thinking of Severus trying to build a life and a family with some of these people," said Harry, an odd sort of protectiveness coming over him. The more he knew of Snape beyond the appalling way he'd treated his students, the more Harry wanted to be sure that Snape had a chance at a good life, after everything he'd given up to make up for his youthful transgressions.
"I'd have to take a year off, I guess," said Guinness thoughtfully. "Unless Snape wanted to have the first one. I hear it's hard for men to do twins, so it's better one at a time."
Harry shuddered. "All right, that's enough about... that," he said, somehow more bothered by the matter-of-fact way Guinness talked about it than his earlier conversations with Snape and Malfoy. "Let's talk about the Kestrels instead."
Guinness laughed. "Or the competition. I hear you got scouted again," he said slyly.
Harry shook his head. "I'm not sure I'm cut out for the life of a professional Quidditch player," said Harry truthfully. He'd considered it once, and after spending a weekend with the team, he'd been so badly hung over that he had to refuse their generous offer by owl; his head had hurt too much to use the Floo.
"Ah, not all the teams are like the Bats. They're real party animals, out near every night," said Guinness. "But don't mind me, I'm not trying to recruit you or anything, just talking out my arse."
Harry laughed, and Malfoy moved closer, and the three of them spent the next while talking Quidditch and speculating on the rest of the candidates as Cubbins, Trimble, and both Flourish and Malkin spent their time in Snape's care. None of them took a kiss, but Snape certainly grew more and more satisfied as the interviews passed. Finally he signalled to Malfoy, who took his leave from Harry and Guinness, who had insisted they call him Gaerwn after another pint.
"You've known them both awhile, yeah?" asked Gaerwn, one of those sly little smiles on his face that Harry was beginning to learn meant that he'd seen more than he let on.
"Malfoy was in my year at Hogwarts, and Snape taught us both. We couldn't stand each other back then, of course," said Harry, nursing his third butterbeer.
Gaerwn raised an eyebrow, and said, "Seems like he fancies the pants off you now."
Harry snickered. "Well, you know, it's hard not to be curious. Plus, he promised Severus that he'd be nice to me tonight, I think. He hasn't said, but they certainly seemed to have had it all planned out from the start."
"He's a bit of a mystery. Snape, I mean. It's a surprise, isn't it, that he'd go through this whole deal just to have a family," said Gaerwn.
Harry shrugged; he'd wondered the same thing himself, but knew Snape well enough his own speculations were likely a bit more on the mark. "I suppose it's important to him, redeeming his mother's name after everything."
"Huh," came the reply, and they both fell silent, watching Snape laugh about something with Malfoy, their hands touching.
The whole tableau was intimate, their bodies turned toward one another rather than sitting back in the seat, heads close as if they talked in low tones, though the booth was spelled to keep them from being overheard. Harry felt a little pang of envy as Malfoy leaned up and kissed Snape warmly, an affection in both of their faces that Harry didn't know that he'd ever experienced. The worst part was, Harry didn't know who he was really jealous of, something that would have appalled the boy he'd been.
Harry swallowed the last of his drink and turned to find Guinness watching him speculatively. "Make a nice couple, don't they?" he said, and Harry suppressed the urge to make a rude gesture.
"I suppose," said Harry, knowing he sounded petulant and unable to help it; he'd never been able to hide a thing, not even at the end, not that it had mattered by that point.
Harry tried to swallow his jealousy as Malfoy strolled up to them looking insufferably smug. "You're it, Gaerwn," he said, reclaiming his spot beside Harry.
"Yep. You'll owl me about that drink, now?" asked Gaerwn, and Harry couldn't help but return his easy grin.
"Yeah, of course," said Harry, giving him a little nudge. "Go on, see what all the fuss is about."
Gaerwn laughed, eyes twinkling with mischief as he sauntered over to the booth.
"He's the last of us, I think," said Malfoy, not bothering to get his drink refilled. "Then Snape does a little speech, gives a proper toast, and we all go our separate ways."
Harry nodded, shuffling his feet a little and wishing he had proper pockets to stuff his hands into. "So, um, if I were to owl you to try and have tea or something, so you can tell me about the rest of this Courtship business...?"
Draco laughed. "I'll be terribly put out if you don't owl me, and I'll probably owl you first regardless. Severus should send his letters out in a few days, thanking those who aren't sticking around and inviting the lucky seven to the next round of manoeuvring."
"Will it always be these dinners?" asked Harry, not at all pleased by the prospect.
Malfoy shook his head. "No, that's just this first time. The rest of the courtship will be more individual, things that show Snape's personality as much as how well he can cater to our tastes. There's also more gifts, which will have to be a lot more creative than potions for everyone. I don't envy him."
Harry shook his head, looking around at the people in the room. "Me neither," he said, trying to imagine being shackled to Trimble's family business, or tormented by giggling for the rest of his days. "Why don't we have tea once the invites show? Assuming he doesn't get plenty of takers and cut me out altogether."
Malfoy chuckled. "He can't, actually. Any of the ones that kissed him are pretty much guaranteed a go; that's one reason why the kiss is part of the ritual. The only way he can push one of them out of the running is if he had more than seven kisses, which he hasn't."
"Nope, even with Gaerwn that's just four, all men. And Gaerwn's a solid enough bloke."
A waiter appeared from somewhere to Banish everyone's drinks, trading them for delicate champagne flutes, bubbles spiralling up through the golden drink in a way that reminded Harry of twining snakes. Gaerwn gave Snape a rather hearty-looking kiss and slid out of the booth, accepting the second-to-last glass off the tray. Snape stood on the other side of the table and took the final glass, then the waiter whisked himself away.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said Snape, his voice clear and confident even after what must have been a nerve-wracking thirteen interviews. "I wish to thank you for taking the time to consider my suit, and to further thank those who are allowing me to continue Courting them. Someday I hope to raise a family with one of those gathered here, and that is a thing I could not even dream of until the Order of the Phoenix finished the work that I had begun so long ago. It has taken me since then to remake the man I was into the man you see today, one whom I hope will make a good father and husband, one worthy of reclaiming the name Prince."
Harry found himself unexpectedly moved by Snape's words; he'd been so busy thinking of Voldemort's demise as the culmination of his own horrible youth that he'd never really considered how much of Snape's life had been occupied by the very same goal, longer than Harry had even been alive at the time.
Snape continued after a short pause, raising his glass. "To this end, I would like to toast our futures. Whether or not they are entwined, may they all be bright and fruitful."
"To the future!" came the chorus, and they all raised their glasses and drank. Snape drank along with the rest this time, emptying the small flute in one long swallow; Harry saw Malfoy doing the same, so he made an effort to gulp down the whole thing. When he looked around, only a few of the glasses still contained wine, which Harry hoped was a good sign.
"Very smart, obliquely bringing up his sacrifices as a spy," said Malfoy, leaning in to murmur to Harry, "and disguising it as a compliment to you lot."
"Wouldn't that be 'us lot'?" asked Harry pointedly, squinting a bit as the wall reopened and light flooded into the bar. People began milling out in ones and twos, glasses abandoned, while Snape looked on.
Malfoy smirked. "I suppose it would at that. At any rate, if you want a chat with him, wait until everyone else has gone."
Harry shot him a speculative glance. "How'd you know?" he asked.
"Slytherin intuition. Besides, I want to have a chat myself," said Malfoy.
Gaerwn made his way over to them, past the last few stragglers lingering over their conversation. "Well, I'll be seeing you blokes in the next round. It was good to meet you."
"You as well," said Harry, giving his hand a shake. "Don't be a stranger."
"Oh, don't worry, I'll be owling you," said Gaerwn with a wink. "And you're welcome to join us as well, if you'd like," he added, turning to Malfoy.
"Perhaps I shall," said Malfoy, shaking his hand in turn. "I've got to size up the competition, after all."
They all laughed, and by the time Gaerwn made his way out, only they and Snape were left, Snape already coming over to their little niche.
"Lagging as usual, I see," Snape said to Harry, his voice dry but lacking in the cold contempt it had once held whenever dealing with Harry as a student.
"You know me, always out after curfew," replied Harry teasingly. "Anyway, did you get enough acceptances? I know we're obligated to go the next round now, but Draco's promised to help keep me from making an arse of myself."
"Quite," said Snape, giving Malfoy a look whose significance completely passed Harry by. "Thanks to your... performances, I have nine candidates and may actually choose whom to court from the group, rather than having to beg favours to achieve seven."
"Excellent! Though too bad about having to keep Lenis on," said Harry, shuddering.
Snape laughed. "He wasn't so bad as all that," he said, though he was smiling as he did, warm and full of humour, "but he is definitely not my first choice."
"Oh?" asked Harry, giving Snape a coy look. "And who might that be?"
Malfoy elbowed Harry in the ribs, but Snape only chuckled. "That," he said, "would be telling."
"So, is there anything I'm supposed to do between now and your owl?" asked Harry, cutting to the heart of the matter. "I wouldn't want to bollix things up because I don't know the rules."
"Maturity at last," said Snape dryly. "A thank you note will be in order after my owl, reiterating your intention to continue in writing. Draco, can I entrust you with the task of showing him what to say?"
Draco smiled. "Yes, and I promise not to let him send it on Malfoy stationery, either."
Harry swallowed; he could see their easy camaraderie, the way Snape relaxed just a little when he was speaking with Malfoy, and the way Malfoy lit up under the warm weight of Snape's regard. There was that jealousy again, spiced with that feeling of being left out that had peppered his childhood. "I'll, ah, let you two talk, then," said Harry, feeling more awkward than ever.
"Expect my owl in three days," said Snape, which Harry supposed was his way of saying goodbye.
"Er, right, and yours too?" Harry asked Malfoy, edging away from them both and toward the light.
"Mine, too," said Malfoy, attention barely on Harry at all as he and Snape exchanged another of those significant looks.
"Er, right, then. Bye!" said Harry. He fled, more confused than ever about what was going on, and his role in it.
Draco watched Potter scampering away as if he'd been burned, then turned back to Snape with a glint in his eye. "Well, that was interesting," he said, his voice droll.
"Unexpected, certainly," said Snape, giving one last glance at the doorway. He looked tired now, the evening's stress finally showing on his face, and Draco surprised himself with how much he wanted to offer to take that stress away. Snape pinched the bridge of his nose, then continued, "I must admit I invited him as a last-ditch effort to make thirteen; I never expected him to be so accommodating, nor so..."
"Kissable?" supplied Draco, leaning back against the bar nonchalantly.
"Mature," Snape shot back, glaring ineffectually. He sighed and relented, "Or kissable. Somehow he's taken all the things that made him a terror to teach, and turned them into assets in his adult life."
"Just like me," said Draco with a smirk, looking over at Snape curiously. "I don't suppose you'd tell me who's really in the running?"
Snape snorted, moving to lean wearily next to Draco. "Hardly. For one thing, there's the little problem of having to convince them that I'm someone to share a life with." There was something sad in his tone, that said he didn't hardly believe it himself, and Draco's chest ached a little.
"Nonsense," said Draco, turning to lay a hand on Snape's arm. "You're a prize, Severus, and, well... I could think of a worse match to make for myself."
Snape looked as though he might say something kind in response, but his old defences sprang up and his eyes shuttered just a little as he replied, "Your father must be spinning in his grave."
Draco rolled his eyes. "It's a different world now, and if I want to marry my beloved teacher and raise smart, sarcastic, ambitious little snakes with him, then I can find a way to make that work for me."
"You'll stay until... until the end, then? Just in case," said Snape, and Draco wondered what it must have cost him to admit his own uncertainty, even obliquely.
"Of course I will, Severus," said Draco softly, moving closer until he could feel the heat from Snape's body. "I won't say I wasn't hoping for a few more years before I got married, because we both know that's not true, but if it comes to it I'll even be there at the very end."
Snape looked shocked when Draco brushed a soft kiss over his cheek. "I hope," said Snape softly, brushing his fingers over Draco's cheek, "that you never have cause to regret that."
Draco smiled and shook his head; Snape wasn't a looker by anyone's estimates, but he had something about him that invited one's mind to wander into dark and interesting places. A marriage to him might not be ideal, but it wouldn't by any means be boring. "I hope one of us gets into Potter's trousers before that Quidditch player does," said Draco, deliberately lightening the mood.
Snape laughed, though it was becoming obvious the evening had taken all he had to give and more. "You and I both, though if you tell him I said so, I'll deny it."
Draco snickered. "Go home, Severus. Have a nice wank in the bath thinking of one of us, and get some sleep. You've got people to choose tomorrow."
"You'll come for tea?" asked Snape.
Draco nodded. "As requested, I'll give you my impressions of everyone that's left. Personally, I'd pick Guinness if it looks like Potter won't come across, but I always did like a man with a big broomstick."
Snape shook his head, smiling wanly. "Go on, I've got to settle the bill. I'll have the Floo open, come by at four."
"Tomorrow, then," said Draco, taking pity on Snape's nerves and squeezing his shoulder rather than trying to steal another kiss. He left still thinking about Harry more than anything, and how pleasant it had been to move from pigtail pulling to a more adult form of discourse.
Title: And Then There Were Three