On the third Saturday in December, Oliver and Miranda Ollivander held their annual "Yuletide Yell," which was a party with dancing, drink, and song. Severus attended it as his second social obligation of the Presentation. Taking a page from Susan's book, or so he told himself, he didn't avail himself of an escort of either sex and spent the evening in uncharacteristic good cheer socialising with most of his Eligibles—paying particular attention to Miss Lorelai Lovegood. Attempting to appear charmingly aloof as he watched those who elected to sing, he refrained from sneering at them when Draco tried to engage him in doing so.
"Well," Harry said, joining Neville and Blaise on the lawn behind the house, "Snape seems to be handling himself all right, doesn't he?"
Blaise said nothing, continuing to puff dispiritedly on the pipe of home-grown tobacco that Neville had brought.
"He does," Neville agreed, "and I think he's made Luna's cousin fall in love with him."
"Bastard," Blaise muttered.
"Lucky bastard," Neville replied. "I spoke to Luna when I was last at Snape Manor, and she seems to think that Lorelai is too shy to want to marry someone as infamous as Snape—but who knows?"
"Who, indeed?" Blaise asked, passing the pipe to Harry.
"Blaise, you know he was just trying to rattle your cage."
"Consider it rattled."
Harry sighed. There's no talking to him when he's in a mood, he thought, turning to Neville. "So, how're things going with Laura?"
"She's here, isn't she?" he replied, grinning. "Give me that," he said, taking the pipe from Harry when he began to choke. "You're not supposed to drag on it like a fag."
"Show . . . off," Harry said, as Neville began to puff out fat rings of smoke. "Why does . . . it smell like grapes?"
"Because unadulterated tobacco smells fruity, and this stuff," Neville said proudly, gesturing with his pipe, "has been spelled to be innocuous."
"You could make a fortune selling it to Muggles."
"No, I couldn't. It's not addictive because of the spell."
"Oh," Harry said, glancing worriedly at Blaise who was glaring at Severus and Hermione, who were having an animated conversation.
"Excuse me," Blaise said abruptly, striding off into the garden.
"Shite," Neville remarked.
"Is he behaving himself?"
"He's been spouting gloomy poetry and moping," Harry replied, grinning ruefully.
"I'm not, what?"
"Moping. Is that because you counted the letters?"
Harry bit his lip and flushed.
Neville snorted. "No, he doesn't hate you. In light of this, do you think you might ask the man to dance?"
"As soon as I can catch him without Hermione or a reporter hanging about, I will. Why'd the Ollivanders invite so many, anyway?"
"They invite everyone, being quite the democratic couple. Have you noticed that Skeeter isn't here, though?" Neville asked, smiling slyly.
"So she isn't. Why is that?"
"Well, you are an Auror. I'm not sure I should tell you."
"I'm an Auror on holiday, of course."
"Point. It seems Skeeter ran afoul of Ginny at the gala, and she's since checked herself into St Mungo's."
"What did Ginny do to her?"
"Nothing Skeeter wouldn't do, herself. It's just that now she can't stop doing it."
"Please tell me that we're talking about writing."
Neville chuckled. "We are, and Skeeter can't stop doing it."
Smirking, Harry replied, "I suppose it's a good thing that I'm not on duty. Otherwise, I'd be forced to report this violation of the Magical Code to my superiors."
"Your conscientiousness is to be commended. When are you going back to work?"
"I couldn't say," Harry answered, and then he and Neville burst out laughing. "Oh . . . oh, that's too funny, Nev. But I think I'm going to have to do something about it, anyway. I can't stand that woman, but it's not right to leave her like that—not for much longer, at any rate."
"That reminds me, did Blaise ever remove the curse from Marazelle?"
"Good question. I don't think he did, but she's a Spellcraftre. I'm sure if he didn't, she's found a way to lift it. I'll look into that, as well."
"You're very good, Auror Potter."
"I try to be."
"Right, I'm off to find my increasingly less reluctant vicar. Try not to do yourself a harm," Neville told Harry, passing him his pipe and blowing out a last stream of smoke rings.
"Show off," Harry said again, though he didn't mean the exhalations. I'm glad our talk helped Nev along, but I wish—
"No one's ever taught you to blow properly, Potter?"
—that I would pay more attention. Damn, the Ollivanders really do invite everyone. "Good evening, Malfoy," Harry said, and was pleased to note how nearly sincere he sounded.
"What's this? You're not rising to the bait? How mature of you, and how boring."
"If you're finding the evening tedious, why don't you leave?"
"I'm working on it. Have you seen Morgan Moody?"
How is it possible for someone to leer like that and still appear so . . . polished? "You're feeling brave tonight. Master Moody's got to be around here somewhere. He'll kill you if you actually make a play for his grandson."
"Wouldn't be sport without the risk."
"Risk, right. That's why you spent the war in hiding."
Draco's expression darkened. "Careful, Potter. It wouldn't do to—"
"Stuff it—or stuff him—I don't care," Harry interrupted, extinguishing Neville's pipe and placing it in his robes. "Just go away. We're not friends, so I can't be arsed to care about your potential shags."
"At least be consistent."
"You just assumed that I'd be doing the 'stuffing' in almost the same breath as you implied my 'work ethic' was lacking. Consistency, Potter, is—"
"A hobgoblin in Chelsea, and not well-liked," Severus interrupted, approaching them.
Harry felt both careless and stupid then; he'd been too irritated by Draco to pay much attention to his surroundings, and he felt it was a bad lapse on his part. Perhaps taking a holiday wasn't a good idea.
"Good evening, Severus. Harry and I were just discussing the . . . intricacies of love."
"Of course you were. I believe your true object is somewhere towards the front of the house enduring the attentions of Junior Minister Argyle."
"Then I'd best see to his rescue," Draco replied smoothly, moving dangerously close to Harry as he sailed by him.
Harry glared in his wake, more than a little irritated, and started when he felt a warmth enfold his closed right hand and pull his fingers out of the fist he'd made of them. He looked up to find Severus staring tenebrously at him, his face impassive, as he began to massage the blood back into Harry's whitened fingers.
Hell, yes, it's better. "Er, yeah. Th—thanks."
"You spend too much time with your wand in that hand to mistreat it."
"Don't misunderstand me, Mr Potter," Severus continued, stepping a bit closer to him without relinquishing his hand. "I don't mean to imply that your skills are . . . lacking in any way, but I do believe that Mr Malfoy flusters you more than is," he said, pausing as if to think, "wise to allow."
"Co—constant vigilance, right," Harry stammered, feeling the blood from his extremities begin to draw towards the centre of his body. He really doesn't hate me.
"That's the waltz beginning," Severus said, abruptly dropping Harry's hand as the sound of music filtered towards them.
He's going to ask me to dance! Harry thought excitedly.
Instead, Severus asked, "If you'd excuse me?"
"But . . . ."
You definitely affect him, Severus exulted, forcing his legs to carry him forward when all he truly desired to do was seize Harry into a fierce embrace, public exposure and prudence be damned. He'd heard the strangled protest, and it had inflamed him. But I must be cautious. I must give Harry the opportunity to adjust to my interest and to the change in our interaction.
He also, he knew, needed to find a suitable way in which to thank Luna for inadvertently illustrating for him that his object was likely to be as unused to valuing himself highly as he, himself, had always been. Luna's drawings of Harry at the gala had revealed a rather shy and humble young man, a man who appeared unsettled to be the focus of so much amorous attention. The drawings had given Severus much to contemplate.
Perhaps I can find Luna a later portrait of Verrio. Thanking Draco for his provocation of Harry will be all too easy—and I wonder what he wants the animation potion for? I can't imagine that any of his lovers have child—oh, he thought, as it suddenly occurred to him one use for the potion that Draco might enjoy.
Blaise looked up to see Mary Millblossom pass a flushed Severus on the path leading to where he was sitting in the back garden, and then looked down, hoping Millblossom would leave him be.
"That's a hard look for such a thoughtful young man," she remarked, as she drew nearer. "What could possibly be so disturbing?"
"I did ask you to call me Mary, dear," she corrected, sitting down next to him.
"Of course. And I'm—"
"Blaise," she said firmly, in an aggressively friendly tone.
"I'm afraid I'm not good company this evening, Mary."
"No. It's probably the lingering illicit potion constituents in your system. That was an unprofitable thing to do, I imagine."
"How did you—oh. You're a Spellcraftre."
"That's what the licence book says. Now then, have you been arguing with your young lady?"
"My—you mean Hermione?"
"I'm afraid she's not mine, Mary."
"Why ever not?"
"Tell me, are you enjoying your visit?" Blaise asked, unwilling to be rude to Harry's friend but anxious to change the subject.
"Ah, polite chit-chat. How I hate it. Gossip is far more interesting."
Blaise smiled politely and remarked, "You're far too young to be one of those 'interested' ladies who tend the 'wounded hearts of youth'."
"Ah, Whingely! 'The wounded hearts of youth, did I perchance to see, the love-ruffled feathers of those, too blind to grieve with me'. Yes, I do think William Whingely is a worthy poet for such a time."
"What time would that be?" Blaise asked, charmed in spite of himself that Mary knew the work of one of his favourite poets.
"The time for you to take what is yours, boy. What other?" Mary asked, patting his right thigh and rising to leave Blaise alone with his thoughts.
Odd woman, he decided. But well-intentioned, I suppose.
The Scroll in his robes began to twirl, and Blaise lifted it out and unrolled it to see the name of Morgan Moody disappearing from it.
Hmm, I wonder why? he thought, though he wasn't surprised. There's something furtive about Morgan that Severus could never find pleasing.
Blaise sighed and wondered about his own hesitancy with regard to Hermione. His love for Susan hadn't made him cautious—or jealous.
It doesn't matter. I can't allow my heart to pull me apart. Without control, I'm little better than a monster, he thought, remembering with chagrin how he'd slaughtered his family. The memories of his acts that day never fully left him. I can't allow my passions to ever rule me like that again.
Losing Susan had almost destroyed him. The idea that he might destroy someone who got in between himself and Hermione was too much to contemplate.
"I have to let her go."
"Ah, but to do that would mean to condemn yourself to a loneliness not easily borne, either, Mr Zabini."
"Professor Dumbledore! I didn't see—"
"Forgive my intrusion, dear boy. I had no intention of startling you, but I fear my worries for you have caused me to be rude."
"It's not that I don't appreciate your concern, sir, but—"
"Tell me, do you remember all of Whingely's 'Bereft Cycle'?"
"What? Yes, of course I do. What does that have to do with anything?"
"The persona of the poem, I've always felt, is terribly selfish and short-sighted. He desires the love of someone who cannot bestow it upon him, and he crushes the life from his beloved so that no one else might receive it."
"And he taxes the other lovers around him for their happiness in his time of grief," Blaise added, not understanding what Dumbledore was implying.
"Exactly. The irony of the piece, of course, is that the hatred of the persona is such that he fails to notice there is one in his life who does love him. Truly, the poem isn't analogous to your situation with Miss Granger in any way other than that one."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because she loves you, Mr Zabini, and it's a poor thing, indeed, to allow one's fears of the past to interfere in one's future joys. You're not a monster, nor are you as weak as you pretend to be. You're just a man who's seen much to pain him, who's lost much, and you're afraid. Is it appropriate, do you think, to permit fear to rule your heart?"
"I'm just being cau—"
"It isn't caution that keeps you from Hermione. Don't lie to yourself, and don't permit yourself to act or fail to act out of fear," Dumbledore said, suddenly stern. "If Severus has learnt this lesson, it's surely one that you can master, for love isn't a stranger to you."
"I suppose you're right, sir," Blaise said, though he wasn't entirely convinced.
"Well, I suppose I've done enough meddling for one evening, but I would ask you to consider one thing more."
"And that would be?"
"Find yourself a new favourite poet. Whingely is certainly not what I'd call a master of his craft."
Blaise snorted. "Too romantic?"
What a subtle way of telling someone he's an idiot, Blaise thought, smiling slightly as Dumbledore left him. Perhaps he's right. . . . I know that Susan certainly wouldn't approve of my recent behaviour. She despised cowardice.
Susan Bones Zabini had been a brilliant Auror but a better wife, for she had refused to allow her husband to hide from himself. Finding someone who would accept him—all of him—and encourage him to speak freely on any topic rather than brood, had been an education for Blaise. He knew that Susan had never hidden from anything, and that he should do so, that he should hide from himself in potions and poetry, was not the best way to honour Susan's memory.
With this in mind, Blaise Disapparated to the Hall of Monuments and walked slowly towards the wing in which the members of his family were interred.
"Hello, Susan," he whispered, running his hand over the cool, smooth stone of the marble behind which lay her body. "It's been awhile, hasn't it, love? I've come to . . . to say I'm sorry. I know you didn't approve of revenge, but . . . but I couldn't help it. I've . . . I've never," he stopped as his eyes began to burn, continuing when he'd collected himself somewhat, "I've never truly forgiven myself for it, you know? But perhaps it's time I did."
Blaise leant his head against Susan's tomb then and allowed himself to cry; he didn't stop until he felt he'd exorcised the worst of his grief.
He'd just composed himself when a goblin, for the goblins had in their keeping the maintenance of the Hall, approached him and made a respectful bow. "Would Sir care to view the Keeping Book?"
"Oh, has someone been to visit?"
In answer, the goblin handed Blaise a tan leather book and moved away to give him his privacy. The book, which kept the thoughts of those who visited the dead, flipped open to the last entry. It read:
I have known few people whom I esteemed to be of worth and loved fewer still, but you I keep in my thoughts as the most dearly departed of all my kin. Rest well, Mrs Zabini, and know that you have not left your husband alone.Even without the signature under the entry, Blaise would have known who'd made it.
"Oh," he whispered, overwhelmed once again, but this time, not by grief.