Neville was in his cellar garden tweaking the intensity of the light that shone on his plants from the enchanted ceiling above when he heard Harry call to him.
"Nev? You down there?"
"Hello, Harry! Dippy send you down?"
"Yeah, she seemed . . . nervous."
"I've been experimenting with fertiliser," Neville explained, grinning sheepishly.
"That would explain why your house elf is covered in dirt. Where did the explosion happen?" Harry asked, taking a stool near the raised bed that dominated the centre of the room.
"Greenhouse out back. I never work with potions and such in the house."
"How'd your party go?"
"You've seen the Prophet, surely. You tell me."
Neville flushed. "Lots of idle speculation—and what happened to Rita Skeeter? There was no society column today."
"You read 'Social Notables and Notorious Doings'?"
"Yes, purely for the humour, of course."
"Of course," Harry replied, smirking. "I don't know. I didn't see her last night. Hermione mentioned something about Ginny and Colin having a plan for her if she got out of line, though. Know anything about—agh!" Harry yelped, as the room suddenly grew terribly bright.
"Sorry about that. Plaguey Sun Charm! Finite Incantatem!"
Harry chuckled. "You ought to be better with that charm, given how often you've had to use it."
"You'd think so. I can't believe Gran never mentioned the vampire in the sub-cellar," Neville said, taking the stool next to Harry and Summoning two butterbeers.
"Thanks. Wasn't it actually a nest you were dealing with?"
Longbottom House was situated near a graveyard, and shortly after Neville had returned to it upon his grandmother's death, he'd discovered he had unwelcome visitors.
"Sort of. They seemed to be intermittently using the mausoleum that's connected to the sub-cellar. Thanks for the tip about the Holy water balloons, by the way. I suspended about a hundred of them from the ceiling and set a time-delayed bursting spell. It worked on all but two of the buggers."
"Why not all of them?"
"Because they weren't all superstitious," Neville replied, snorting. "Anyway, the smell was awful for a bit, but the vicar told the locals that there was a bat infestation."
"Good that you're on such friendly terms with your vicar."
Neville blushed. "Laura is . . . very understanding. She won't let me help in her garden, though."
"That is a tragedy," Harry intoned, his voice taking on an air of mock solemnity.
"Stop—it's not like that between us."
"Oh, no? Then why's the only thing you ever write to me about this vicar of yours?"
"Because I haven't got up the nerve to tell her everything."
"You should, Nev. There's more to life than vamp vanquishing and digging in the dirt."
"Spoken by one who would know," Neville replied pointedly.
"There's been a lot to do."
Sure there has been. "Right. There's always a lot to do if one goes looking to do it."
"The thought of settling down has occurred to me, I'm just not sure how to, yet."
"Buy a house. Root out the dangerous creatures in it. Plant a garden."
"I've got a house."
"Nor any dangerous creatures—anymore."
"You should let me come 'round and help you put in a garden, Harry. The backyard's narrow, but the soil's decent."
"And you would know this because?"
"Where do you think I went when Hermione and Ron were being so 'polite' at your disastrous Christmas party that one year?"
"Ah. I thought you and Ginny—"
"No! Merlin, no. Ginny's a sweet girl, but she's . . . too hyper for my tastes. Give me a reluctant vicar any day."
A rude suggestion emanated from a box in the corner; Harry started and drew his wand.
"Easy there—that's just some gnomes I took off of a client's property. I haven't yet had a moment to relocate them because of my new contract."
"What new contract?" Harry asked, pocketing his wand.
"I'm doing the Ministry gardens, now. I've had to hire new staff," Neville said proudly.
"Congratulations. It's good to know Longbottom's Landscaping's doing so well. You can hardly have time to worry about my pitiful excuse for a garden."
"Aw, Harry, you know I'd make time for it. Besides, you might as well make the place nice, seeing as how you'll no doubt soon be having, er, company."
The tips of Harry's ears reddened. "What do you mean?"
"You tell me, Eligible Potter," Neville replied, feeling a bit nervous; he hadn't been looking forward to having this conversation with Harry. You've lost your mind, mate.
"Nev, you don't . . . it's not—"
"You don't have to explain. I can't say that I understand your choice, but—"
"It's not my choice."
"Accio Daily Prophet!" Neville cast, plucking the newspaper out of the air and handing it to Harry.
The picture on the front page was under the headline, "Supplicant Snape Shares a Dance with His Most Eligible Eligible," and it showed Harry swaying against Severus, his eyes closed.
Harry flushed as he said, "He looks happy."
"So you do."
"I know what you meant. So, when can I come 'round?" Neville asked, grinning in satisfaction.
"You're a very stubborn man, Longbottom."
"Yes, and you seem very pleased with your new dance partner."
Ever since Harry had told Neville about the prophecy in their sixth year, the two of them had shared confidences easily, and while Neville knew that Harry might deny his feelings for Snape to himself, he wouldn't deny them to him. He stared at Harry expectantly and wasn't disappointed.
"Yeah, I guess I am, Nev, but I'm not sure that he feels the same. Besides, it was just one dance, just one night. There's no guarantee that Severus and I would actually suit. I'm not even sure he really likes me."
"Do me a favour, would you?"
"Go home and count the letters."
"The ones from Professor Snape that you're always mentioning in yours to me."
"Just do it, Harry."
"Okay, but I don't know what that's supposed to—"
"Wizards! Wizards in love!" sang out a rough set of squeaking voices from the crate.
"Quiet, you lot!" Neville ordered, casting a Freezing Charm at the box.
"Wizard! Mean wizard in love! Brr!"
"Oi! I didn't cast that at you!" Harry protested, turning to Neville and remarking, "You can come 'round any time—but don't bring the gnomes."
Neville didn't make any promises; his business was still relatively new, and hiring human staff was an expensive proposition. Gnomes took anything shiny in payment.
Harry took his leave of Neville and returned to Twelve, Grimmauld Place, stepping outside into his unkempt garden and looking around. Gnomes would probably be an improvement.
He didn't often stay at "his" house because it felt too much like someone else's, and he'd also kept himself too busy. The idea of wanting to truly live at Grimmauld and make it a proper home had never occurred to him.
But it would be great to feel at home somewhere—somewhere other than Hogwarts, he thought, mentally shoving aside Dumbledore's suggestion that he come back to the castle to teach. Harry enjoyed teaching, but even though he loved Hogwarts, he didn't believe he'd relish the requisite isolation of being its youngest professor. And I certainly couldn't bring dates there, could I? Not that I may have any. Look how easily Bi—
The pop! of Dobby appearing interrupted his observations.
"Harry Potter has a visitor," he said, in what could only be described as a disapproving tone of voice.
"Who is it, Dobby?" Harry asked, again wondering how it was that Dobby always knew when he was in the house despite continuing to work and live at Hogwarts.
"It is the Supplicant wizard."
"The Se—Severus? Why should his coming bother you?"
"Dobby has seen the pictures in the wizarding paper. Dobby knows about the Supplicant. His is dancing with other wizards!"
There were other pictures? Of course there were. "But he's supposed to dance with other wizards, Dobby."
"No, the Severus is not supposed to dance with other wizards, Harry Potter."
"Have you let him in?" Harry asked, now no longer surprised by Dobby's irritation despite feeling a bit embarrassed and confused by it. Why does everyone seem to think that Severus and I should be a couple?
"Well, go make tea," Harry said, somewhat annoyed and returning to the house to let Severus in. "Hello. Sorry about that."
"What have I done to offend your house elf?"
"Um, don't know, really, but hopefully he won't poison the tea," Harry said, taking Severus' cloak from him and hanging it up on the rack before leading him into the sitting room. "Have a seat," he offered, taking one of the stuffed chairs by the hearth.
Severus took the other one. "Thank you."
"So," Harry said, "I'm surprised you're even awake yet. We didn't get back here until almost dawn."
"I require few hours of sleep, as, apparently, do you."
"Ah." Well, this is awkward, Harry thought, not able to think of anything to say. It wasn't like this earlier.
At the gala, he and Severus had said goodbye to Hermione, whom Blaise had escorted home, and then Severus had Disapparated with Harry to his door. Harry had initially felt uneasy about the consideration, but Severus had put him at ease.
"Thank you for escorting me this evening, Harry. I'm certain that the gala would have been . . . far less a success for me had you not done so."
Harry chuckled. "It was Hermione who kept you—I mean, who—"
"Kept me in line, yes. I agree," Severus had said, smirking. "But appearing with you, as with Hermione, had its equal advantages."
"Certainly. One is always looked upon with favour when on the arm of an attractive and charming companion."
Oh. "Thank you, Severus."
"You're welcome," he'd said, making a slight bow. "Goodnight, Harry."
Severus' words had been better than a goodnight kiss.
Well, almost, Harry thought, forcing himself not to fidget under Severus' gaze.
Severus watched Harry's face as the emotions produced by his unknown thoughts travelled over it. Say something, you idiot. He's clearly uncomfortable. Oh. Perhaps you've already said too much.
He feared that he'd been too effusive in his earlier compliment to Harry, and that now Harry was nervous in his presence for reasons other than those that Albus had implied. Dobby's bringing in of the tea things was a welcome interruption to this line of thought.
"Dobby has made tea," he said perfunctorily, before disappearing at once.
"Thank you," both men replied, too late to be acknowledged.
Harry poured the tea, handing Severus his cup and deliberately not starting as their fingers touched. He'd dreamt of those fingers during his few hours of sleep in rather a different context.
But those dreams were absurd, weren't they? "Well, I suppose even house elves have moods. So, were you able to, um, pare down your list? Hermione says that's customary."
"Yes. You will not be surprised, I think, to learn that I've excluded Marazelle Zabini."
"In addition, I've also decided not to pursue Miss Tonks, or Messrs. Argyle, Ollivander, Spenser, and Weasley."
"No surprises there, really, except perhaps that Spenser bloke. Isn't he a novelist, or something?"
"Indeed. A novelist with a penchant for dragon biologists."
"Oh. Well, I guess that makes it easier for you—sixteen, now."
Severus frowned. "Six subtracted from twenty-four is eighteen, Harry."
"Yes, but you're not really considering Hermione or me, right?"
"Miss Granger is a compelling young woman."
But Blaise fancies her! "You're actually considering everyone on the Scroll?"
"Of course I am."
Harry flushed. He doesn't mean me. He's just being . . . polite. "Wow. I mean, sure, I suppose that I'd consider Hermione, as well, were I in your position."
He's deliberately misunderstanding me, Severus thought. "Mr Potter, I am, in fact, considering everyone."
Harry swallowed. "Oh. Oh, I just thought . . . ."
"One does not undertake the Courtship Ritual without taking it seriously. Of course, should I find that one of my Eligibles does not appear to . . . desire my suit, I would remove her—or his—name from the Scroll. . . . Do you wish that, Mr Potter?"
"I . . . I wouldn't want to . . . interfere with the Courtship Ritual, sir, but I know that I can't escort you if I'm not on the list, and I did agree to do that."
"How kind of you to be so concerned with protocol," Severus said, unable to keep himself from sounding cold, so disappointed he was by Harry's "sir." He gulped down the rest of his tea and rose. "Forgive me for arriving so early. It's customary to visit one's dance partners after such an affair."
"I didn't mind the visit, sir. I . . . I had a good time, last night. Thank you for the dance. It was . . . a nice dance."
Severus felt his chest tighten. I thought it was—no, no, of course not. "You're most welcome, Ha—Mr Potter. Good day."
With nothing else planned for the day, Severus decided that he'd best follow "protocol" and visit his other dance partners. He found Hermione in the Novitiate kitchen, nibbling on a piece of toast and humming to herself.
"Is it? You don't look at all good, Severus."
Mr Potter has made it clear that he doesn't— "I don't care to make the required social rounds, but Blaise insists it must be done."
"And you've begun with me?" Hermione asked, smiling slightly into her teacup. "Oh, please sit down. Are you hungry?"
"I ate many hours ago, but thank you."
"Ah, so you didn't begin with me."
"Is Mr Potter still enamoured with Bill Weasley?" Severus asked abruptly, cursing himself for his impatience to know the answer.
"Not at all."
"I see." Then it's just me. He doesn't want me.
"I doubt," Hermione said, handing him the Daily Prophet, "that he was thinking of Bill during your dance."
Severus took the paper and saw the image of himself and Harry dancing. His expression is . . . it's—
"I've never seen Harry look so dreamy before."
"Indeed. It's a good picture of him."
"That's not what I meant, and you know it—or don't you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Forgive me for saying so, Severus, but sometimes you can be the worst kind of arse."
Too surprised by Hermione's comment to be offended, he asked, "Pardon me?"
"I don't believe I will. I know that you . . . care for Harry. Why is it so difficult for you to believe that he—"
"Mr Potter made it quite clear to me this morning that he is only participating in the Courtship Ritual out of a sense of duty."
"Did he. Trust Harry to make a hash out of things. Tell me what happened."
"Enough to demonstrate that I was mistaken in assuming that he might be interested in pursuing matters in earnest."
"Accio letter box!"
"What are you doing?"
"Just wait," she insisted, sounding exasperated.
After the lovely late evening—or early morning, depending upon one's point of view—that Hermione had spent in conversation with Blaise, she felt ill-disposed to see two other people whom she cared about persist in believing that neither esteemed the other in any way. When the small wooden box came floating into the kitchen and set itself down on the table, she opened it at once to search it, and then pulled out of it a fat packet of letters.
"Hmm, let's see . . . ah, here it is." Clearing her throat, she began to read, "'And I'm not certain what would have happened if Professor Snape hadn't have sent me that antidote for the poison. I could never have brewed it, and I didn't trust anyone in the village to sell me something that wasn't tainted'. Harry sent that two years ago from—"
"Romania, yes. I remember the incident, but what—"
Hermione opened another letter and interrupted Severus to read, "'I'm glad Professor Snape reminded me about agrimony. Poor Benson was sick for days until'—that was last year. Ah, but there's also this one, 'Professor Snape was really quite funny in his last letter. He told me this joke that I know you wouldn't appreciate, but it cheered me up straight away. Let's just say that I'll never think of the vibration of the harpy's scream in quite the same way again. Who knew he was funny?' That one was sent just before he left for Anegada," Hermione said, tucking Harry's letters away. "I don't think I've received a letter from him in years that didn't mention you in some way at least once."
"I see," was Severus' stiff reply.
"No, I don't think that you do. You're in Harry's thoughts, Severus, as much as Ron or Neville or Luna or I am. He respects you. He appreciates you. I know he relies upon you, and I'm fairly certain that he likes you."
"In . . . what respect?"
"I suppose that's between you and Harry, isn't it?"
"There is nothing between Harry and—"
"Right, in much the same way," Hermione asserted, "that there's nothing between Blaise and me."
It was at this inopportune moment that Blaise entered the kitchen, his face grim. He barely acknowledged Severus or Hermione beyond a grunt and a nod, which was in striking counterpoint to his usual polite manner.
Oh, no! Hermione thought, glancing worriedly at Severus—who winked at her.
"Thank you, Hermione," he said, his voice suddenly and unexpectedly heated, "for the reassurance. I'll think on what you've told me. With. Very. Great. Interest." Turning to Blaise, he asked, "Do you require Pepper Up? You look dreadful."
"No. Thank you. You were just leaving, were you?"
"Yes. I've Eligibles to visit—as you insisted—though I feel it's all now largely a matter of ceremony," Severus said, nodding to Hermione and then walking smartly from the room.
Hermione, surprised by how easily Severus played the flirt and quick enough to understand his reason for it, rallied, remarking, "I do like a decisive man."
Blaise dropped the mug he'd been holding; it shattered across the floor.
"Perhaps you do need that Pepper Up," Hermione said, hastily rising to help Blaise pick up the shards.
"Leave it!" he demanded, brushing away her hands.
Her eyes stinging, Hermione snapped, "Well, pardon me for trying to be helpful."
"It seems you've been 'helpful' enough."
This is bad. I shouldn't have teased him. "Blaise, I—"
"You're very decisive, yourself. I'll give you that," he muttered, standing up with the broken bits of mug cupped in his hands and tossing them with some force into the rubbish bin. "All that talk about being grateful to Severus for making his 'statement'—who knew you were intent on becoming part of it?"
"What are you talking about?" Hermione demanded, placing her hands on her hips and glaring in astonishment at Blaise.
"I'm surprised no one got a picture, to tell you the truth. Severus disappeared last night at the same time you did. That must have been some conversation."
"Don't sound so scandalised, Hermione. I don't blame you for being ambitious. He's certainly a catch—name, fortune, social position. You'll do a lot of good as Mrs Snape, won't you?" Blaise accused more than asked, as he advanced on her. "But I'm curious. Just how did you manage to give Severus such copious 'reassurance' in so short a time?"
The smacking sound of Hermione's hand striking Blaise's cheek echoed more loudly in the kitchen than had the shattering of the mug, and Hermione, her letters forgotten, fled from the room before she could hex the arse.