As they arrived at the Ministry of Magic's heavily warded special events entrance—a large set of double doors leading into the building behind where the phone box usually stood—several photographers began calling to them.
"Mr Snape! Mr Snape! Turn this way, please? One picture, sir!"
"Harry Potter! That's the Boy Who Lived with Snape!"
"Auror Granger! Are you with Snape or Potter?"
"Whoa! He's got himself a harem!"
Harry, who'd pinned a polite smile on his face and was trying not to squint in reaction to the flashes, stopped abruptly. He didn't need his wand to repel any real threats, but he wanted it.
"No, Harry," Hermione said, smiling widely.
"There are working Aurors present," Severus said, tightening his arm against Harry's and increasing his speed.
They entered the hall and were greeted by a short, portly, pleasant-faced man. "Ah, Master Snape and Aurors Granger and Potter, welcome to the Ministry of Magic. May I take your cloaks?"
The sounds of the crowd just over the threshold were muted inside, and Harry realised that there was a charm at work. He felt other magics and knew that they were detection spells.
"Thank you," Severus told the man, stepping away from Harry and Hermione and removing his cloak.
He then turned to help Hermione out of hers. Harry had already removed his by the time Severus turned towards him, and Harry flushed in embarrassment to realise that Severus had intended to take his cloak, as well.
Mucking up already, he chastised himself, telling Severus, "I didn't like that, outside."
"Nor did I, but it wasn't unexpected."
"If you say so," Harry replied doubtfully.
"They've outdone themselves, haven't they?" Hermione asked, taking Severus' arm again as Harry did the same and leading them down the garlanded corridor towards the Reception Hall. "Oh, look! There's Arthur's Father Christmas!"
Harry followed Severus' gaze to the fat laughing man in the red suit who stood before the doors to the hall and smiled wistfully. "A Muggle myth—Father Christmas visits children on Christmas Eve by flying down their chimneys. He leaves gifts."
"Muggles leave their Floos open?"
Harry and Hermione laughed, although Harry had to force himself to.
"It's not a bad thing, Severus," Hermione said. "Father Christmas is a jolly old elf. Little children leave him treats to tempt him, and he visits them if they've been good. I used to write him a letter every year—until I received my Hogwarts' letter, that is."
"It seems an unwise practice to encourage any sort of unbound elf to enter one's home," Severus replied, clearly disturbed by the tradition. "Wouldn't you agree, Harry?"
Harry felt his smile fade in spite of his desire to appear cheerful. "I wouldn't really know," he said sadly.
"Oh, Harry," said Hermione. "I'm sorry. I forgot."
"What did you forget?"
"Don't worry about it, Severus," Harry said quickly. "Let's get in there."
"Not so fast, young man!" the "elf" said, stepping in front of them. "Have you been a good boy this year? Of course you have! Ho, ho, ho!"
"Mr Weasley?" Harry asked, smiling again.
The man winked. "Never heard of him—probably too wicked to make it onto my list. Here you are."
Harry took the small package he was offered and opened it to reveal a chocolate Golden Snitch. "Brilliant! Thanks, Mr Wea—Father Christmas. What did you get, Hermione?"
"Oh, a hair brooch!" she said delightedly, taking a moment to pin it into her curls. "Severus?"
Severus was looking askance at his package.
"Well, go on," encouraged "Father Christmas."
Severus' present was a tiny cauldron pin that bubbled and smoked.
As Mr Weasley turned away to greet other guests, Hermione told them, "Mrs Weasley says that he's been planning this for months. His packages are all spelled to produce appropriate gifts."
"This is . . . odd."
"No, it's fun, Severus. Here, allow me," Hermione told him, pinning the object to his robes.
"I feel ridiculous wearing this. I'm not a child."
"No, but you are human," Hermione said pointedly.
Harry swallowed the remains of his candy and said, "I like it."
"Yes," Harry replied, licking his lips. Is he staring at my mouth?
"Well, you are my escort, so I'll keep it on if you like."
Hermione laughed. "Yes, I believe that Harry does. Shall we go in?"
They entered the hall arm in arm, and Harry saw that Minister Marchbanks was standing on a dais at the head of the room. "I think we've arrived just in time."
"Witches and wizards, ladies and gentlemen, gentlebeings and honoured guests, if I may have your attention," the diminutive witch said, her voice carrying over the noise of the guests, who fell silent. "It is my privilege to welcome you to this year's Recognition of Excellence Gala. Several of our distinguished peers have done much this year to advance magical scholarship, the Ministry, and the greater good of all citizens of Wizarding Britain, and it is my pleasure to be able to acknowledge their contributions this evening—but don't worry," she added, winking, "it won't take long."
A good-natured laugh rolled through the crowd.
"The presentations will begin after dinner. For now, please mingle and enjoy the company."
"Right. Mingle," Harry said. "I expect we should find Blaise and—"
"I'm here," Blaise said, approaching them. "Well, don't you all look wonderful."
"Thank you," Harry said, starting as Blaise casually reached out and brushed the corner of his mouth with a thumb.
"Chocolate," Blaise said, after licking his thumb. "You saw Mr Weasley, I take it."
"We did," Severus said flatly.
Damn it, Blaise! Harry thought, frowning.
"Smile, Severus. You're trying to make a good impression, remember?" Blaise asked, winking at Harry. "If I could borrow him?"
Blaise was already leading Severus away before Harry or Hermione could respond.
"There are a lot of people here, Hermione. I wonder who the other honorees are—and where Mary is? I can't wait for you to meet her."
"What's she like, besides being 'very bookish and proper and efficient'?" asked Hermione, scanning the room.
"She makes a mean lemon biscuit, and she knows more about magic than anyone I've ever met."
"Really? That's saying a lot."
"Yeah, sometimes I felt like I was back in school, listening to her."
"Poor dear," came a feminine voice from behind them. "I didn't mean to lecture you."
"Mary!" Harry exclaimed, turning around to hug her. "It's so good to see you!"
She doesn't really look the grandmotherly type, does she? Hermione thought, watching how cordially Harry greeted the witch.
Mary Millblossom had neatly cut brown hair that swung just above her straightened shoulders in a bob reminiscent of Pansy Parkinson's, but her face was not scrunched up in an expression of permanent disapproval as was the other witch's. She had wide, sparkling brown eyes, clear skin with few wrinkles, and she appeared quite fit. Hermione wanted to like her at once for Harry's sake, but something wouldn't let her.
"You must be the remarkable Miss Granger of whom Harry's told me so much."
Hermione couldn't ignore the hairs prickling on the back of her neck and bowed her head in greeting to Millblossom, unwilling to offer her hand. "Spellcraftre Millblossom, it's lovely to meet you. Harry's told me how helpful you were in destroying the Lethifolds."
"Oh, I didn't destroy any Lethifolds, that was all the boy's doing," Millblossom said heartily. "Harry was the one who got close enough to the creatures to cast my spell. He's very daring."
"Yes, he is, Spellcraftre Millblossom," Hermione acknowledged, smiling politely. What is it about you?
She was always sceptical about people with whom Harry developed rapid relationships.
As if she understood something of what Hermione was feeling, Millblossom said, "You must be a remarkable Auror, Miss Granger, if what Harry's told me is true."
"That was kind of you, Harry," Hermione replied, without taking her eyes off Millblossom.
"I'm certain he wouldn't exaggerate, dear, and do call me Mary. I'm not one for ceremony."
"Well," said Harry, "I'm glad you're here, and surprised, too. I thought you said nothing could make you leave Anegada."
"Oh, well, a retired lady needs some excitement in her life."
Harry snorted. "Lethifolds are exciting enough, I'd say."
"Agreed," Hermione added.
"Where is this Potions master of yours?" Mary asked, looking past Harry. "I'm very anxious to meet him. That repellent of his was inspired stuff!"
"He's not mine, Mary. I'm just—"
"Don't be modest, dear. You're escorting him, aren't you?"
Harry blushed. "Hermione and I are both escorting him."
"Yes, so you are. It must be plenty exciting being a Potions master, too," Millblossom said, winking at Hermione.
The hairs on the back of Hermione's neck practically vibrating, she hastily glanced around the room. "There Severus is," she said, inclining her head towards where Severus, Blaise, and a striking witch were standing near the dais. "I believe he and Blaise are with Marazelle Zabini."
"Those golden robes of hers must have cost a fortune," Millblossom said. "Oh, dear. I really shouldn't comment on things like that, should I? Been out of society too long, I fear."
"Don't worry, Mary. Hermione and I don't stand on ceremony, either."
Perhaps we should, Hermione thought sharply.
"Would you introduce me?" Millblossom asked, sliding her arm through Harry's, who offered his other one to Hermione.
She took it and allowed herself to be led, fighting the desire to rub the back of her neck.
"—and it seems odd, don't you know, but you must know what you're doing," the witch with Severus was saying as they approached.
"Ah," said Severus, "my escorts have come to claim me. Miss Granger, Mr Potter, may I present Marazelle Zabini?"
"Charmed," Marazelle said, though it was obvious to Harry that she was not.
"Let me introduce you to Ms Mary Millblossom," Harry replied, watching something flash in Severus' eyes. Yeah, talented witches everywhere.
"It's a very great pleasure to meet you, Ms Millblossom," Severus said, "and this is Blaise Zabini, my Advocate in the Courtship Ritual."
Shite. I should have done that, Harry thought.
"Your accomplishments are all very well," Marazelle said to Mary, "but I think I'll allow you to discuss them with Severus in peace. Miss Granger," she continued icily, "would you be so kind as to take a turn with me?"
Harry saw Hermione's lips press into a line of disapproval as she answered, "Of course," and followed Marazelle.
"What was that about?" Harry asked Severus.
"Your Potions master's relation isn't at all content to see him escorting a Muggle-born," Mary answered.
"Unfortunately, that's true," Severus replied.
Blaise coughed. "I'd best go rescue Hermione."
"Don't trouble yourself, dear. That one, I think, can handle herself."
"That's true, Mary," Harry said, looking pleased. I knew they'd like each other.
"In any case, I was happy to receive your invitation, Mr Snape. Your Lethifold repellent had several components I never would have thought to include."
"Come on, Harry," Blaise said. "If you'll excuse us, I think we'll leave you to talk shop in peace."
"Of course," Severus said, turning at once to Mary.
"Well, I guess we won't be missed," Harry said, as they followed Hermione and Marazelle.
"Don't worry about it, mate."
"Who says I'm worried? I just don't want to do anything wrong tonight."
"Should we really go after Hermione? I don't like Marazelle, but Hermione can look after—oh, sorry. Marazelle's your relative, too."
"It's all right, truly. Marazelle's a snob—and a blood purist. I don't think it's necessary to save Auror Granger, either, but I would love to hear her put my 'relation' in her place."
They walked towards the hall's main doors, through which the witches had passed, and leant casually against the wall. By silent agreement, they allowed themselves to appear engrossed in conversation so that no one would disturb them.
Through the doors, Harry could hear snatches of a heated conversation.
"—it isn't done! What can you be thinking? Surely . . . him?"
"What did she say?"
"Shh, Harry. Listening, here."
"—knows his own mind. If you can't be happy . . . why . . . here?"
"—speak to me that way!"
"I'll speak to you however I like, you impertinent, uncouth . . . ."
"Now can we go after her?" Blaise asked, not waiting for Harry to answer.
Hermione appeared furious but controlled when Harry entered the corridor after Blaise. Marazalle looked haughty and remote.
"Ah, here come your rescuers."
"Marazelle, I'm certain that you learnt better manners than you're displaying," said Blaise. "But if you can't behave better, I'll—"
"Don't you dare threaten me, you useless excuse for a wizard!"
"Don't involve yourself, Harry," Hermione said. "She's not worth it."
"And my manners are bad?" Marazelle demanded of Blaise.
"Yes," Hermione told her. "They are. Like I said, Severus is a grown man who knows his own mind. It's none of your business with whom he elects to spend time. If you're that disturbed, then go home."
"The day I allow a Mud—"
Blaise hissed an Italian curse—at least, Harry was fairly certain it was a curse—before Marazelle could complete her insult.
"That's enough out of you. Go home, 'cousin', before I forget that we're family. I'll be along later to remove the spell—after I've seen your written apology to Auror Granger."
The outraged witch stormed off, and Blaise turned to Hermione. "I'm truly sorry for that. I had no idea she would object so vociferously."
"But you said you knew that she's a blood purist," said Harry. "Why put her on the Scroll at all?"
Blaise sighed. "Because it's traditional to include distant relations. I felt I had to—and even though Severus has never actually exercised his magical authority over the Family, I knew he'd be safe enough with Marazelle because he could."
"Well, I suppose Severus' choice just got easier by one," Hermione said, rubbing the back of her neck and looking around. "Thank God there were no photographers out here."
"Oh, I don't know. I would have loved a picture of you remonstrating with Marazelle. It would have been one for the scrapbook," Blaise told her, smiling. "And let me say again that you are looking particularly formidable this evening, Auror Granger."
Harry snorted. Good one, you prat. That's just the sort of compliment a woman wants to hear.
"Thank you, Auror Zabini. I try. But you're not really going to make that woman write me a letter of apology, are you?"
"If she wants to speak again, yes. Shall we?" Blaise asked, beginning to raise his arm as if offering it to Hermione.
"Yes. I expect Severus will be missing us by now, won't he?" she asked.
"Well," Harry said, noticing how Blaise narrowed his eyes and retracted his arm at Hermione's words, "I hope that's all the unpleasantness for tonight."
"The evening's still young, Harry," Blaise replied dourly.
"He's not mingling," Harry noted, glancing through the doorway.
"Too fascinated by his new friend, I expect," Blaise said. "I'd best go see to it that he does."
"I'll go," Hermione told Blaise, walking into the hall.
"Nice to see them getting along."
"You mean Severus and Mary?" Harry asked innocently.
"Of course I do."
"It certainly is," Harry replied, his tone just as grim, though he laughed as he caught Blaise's eye.
"And you're concerned, I suppose, only as Severus' escort?"
"Of course," Harry said. Not.
"It's only natural, given what's between you, that you would want to look out for Severus," Blaise continued, his tone almost teasing.
"And if you were to, say, notice how very fit Severus is in the course of your duties towards him, why, that would only be natural, as well."
"I'd say so," Harry replied, fighting to keep his tone serious. "Very."
"'Very'," Blaise said, indicating Severus' arse with a dip of his head.
"Don't encourage me. You know that he isn't really interested, and I don't think it would be a good idea to let myself forget that."
"We're just looking here, Harry, just looking."
"Should you even be looking?"
"I'm a healthy wizard with a discriminating eye. Why shouldn't I?"
Harry cleared his throat. "Yes, your 'eye' is the issue here. Just don't let Hermione catch you looking. She wouldn't approve."
Blaise snorted. "She barely approves of me as it is."
"Did you really tell her you took birds to the Hog's Head?"
"She mentioned that?" Blaise asked, furrowing his brow.
"I'm an idiot."
"I'd say so."
"Thanks for the support."
"Anytime," Harry replied, smirking. "If it's any consolation, I doubt she'd be bothered by it if she didn't care about you."
"You raise an excellent and cheering point, my friend," Blaise replied, brightening as he turned to look back into the hall. "But she worries about Severus, as well."
"That witch by the refreshments keeps staring our way," Harry said, pointing out the woman in question. "Should you go talk to her or something?"
"Advocate duties. That's one of the mothers. Will you be all right on your own?"
"Of course," Harry said, watching Blaise go. I always am.