The idea of Hermione being untouched when he wanted to touch her so badly sent Blaise to the loo; it didn't take him long to explore the notion pressing upon his mind, and then, panting and leaning over the sink, he realised that he was still hungry—but for food. Returning to the kitchen, he was chagrined to find Ron still there. He was confident in his cleaning and grooming spells, but seeing Ron after wanking to Hermione wasn't conducive to maintaining a post-orgasmic buzz.
With nothing else for it, Blaise casually asked, "Got your son settled so quickly, did you?"
"Nah," Ron said, taking a bite out of a stuffed mushroom, "Sna' 'id I'."
"What?" Ron asked, as Blaise removed the Scroll from his robes. "Something wrong?"
Examining it, he discovered that only Harry's name remained. Damn it, Severus! "Severus is being an ar—impatient."
"Don't start, Weasley."
Holding up his hands in a placating gesture, Ron asked, "Who'd he get rid of? That's his Scroll, right?"
"I'm not at liberty to tell you the contents of the Scroll, but let's just say that he's going to have to slow down his elimination process."
Ron grinned. "Snape's always seemed pretty decisive to me. Good luck with that."
"Thanks," Blaise muttered, popping a mushroom into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. How close are you two, really? Swallowing, he asked, "How do you know she's still a virgin?"
"Hermione and I still talk from time to time. We're still friends, in spite of . . . ," Ron said, waving his hand in a vague gesture. "I just know. That's all I'm at liberty to say."
"Right. Well, this is awkward."
"Why? You like her, don't you?"
"You know that I do."
"And I think it's mostly clear that she likes you."
"'Mostly'?" Blaise asked, raising an eyebrow in irritation.
"God, sometimes you look like him."
"Severus and I spend a great deal of time toge—what do you mean, 'mostly'?"
"Relax, I was just having you on. She likes you, so I don't see a problem."
"I've never courted a virgin before."
"Having done it myself, I can tell you it's frustrating, but not hard."
Ron coloured. "Right, it was frequently hard."
"You said she wasn't a prude."
"She isn't, but you remember what Hermione was like in school. We were always studying, truly studying."
"She's still like that—dedicated, I mean."
"I know, but I think that—no, I know—being a Muggle-born, she's got some strange ideas about shagging and marriage."
Blaise looked at Ron quizzically.
"She believes you ought to be married before you shag," Ron told him, giving him an apologetic look. "I proposed to her early, mate."
"Clearly, it didn't do you any good."
"Well, I er, I didn't bring her a ring, so she said it didn't count. I just don't understand some of the more bizarre Muggle customs."
"An 'engagement ring', they call it. A bloke's supposed to bring it with him when he proposes. It's usually a diamond ring."
"I know about engagement rings, actually, but I've always wondered: why diamonds? They're so common."
"Not to Muggles. They don't know how to Transfigure things, remember, and they don't have dealings with goblins."
"Ah, so the ring is supposed to indicate the ability of the man to support the woman?"
"Something like that. Weird, huh?"
"I don't know. It shows good sense to me."
"It's weird. It's like that thing with the penguins."
"You know, a male penguin who wants to mate has to bring his lady penguin a perfectly round stone to show her that he'll make a good nest."
"Because rough stones would hurt to sit on? But I thought that penguin males sat on the eggs."
"Beats me. I know less about penguins than I do about Muggles."
"I'm not surprised, Mr Weasley," came Severus' arch reply from the doorway.
"Thanks a lot, Mr Personality—you get Ronnie tucked in all right?"
"Yes, and you're welcome. Avoiding your wife, are you?"
"What? No. Oh! You said she was looking for me. Good luck, mate," Ron said, extending his hand to Blaise for a quick shake before leaving.
When Ron had gone, Severus took his chair and asked, "Why do you need good luck?"
"Don't trouble yourself about it, but do tell me why you've given up on the Courtship Ritual."
"I haven't, but—"
"Severus, you can't continue it with no one on the Scroll. Put them back. It's early days, yet."
"Put them back. I don't know what happened to make you remove all the names but Harry's, but—"
"It's not necessary to put them back," Severus said, crossing his arms.
Blaise leant back in his chair and considered him. "If you proposed to him right now, would Harry accept you?"
"It's too early to—"
"Put them back, Severus."
"I despise this charade!"
"Be that as it may, you could scare him off if you don't take things slowly."
Severus snorted. "That may, perhaps, be a concern in your own courtship, but—"
"What did you just say?"
"I am aware of Hermione's . . . condition."
In answer, Severus picked up the little pitcher of cream that was part of the tea service sitting on the table in between them and saluted Blaise with it.
"Big ears. Wonderful."
"And there never was a truer axiom."
"Well, be that as it may, you need to put the other names back. You can't court Harry without appearing to court him without the other Eligibles."
Severus sighed. "I suppose you're right."
The Scroll twirled several times in Blaise's pocket, and he smiled through a wince.
"Don't look so smug," Severus said, glaring. "Your own courtship isn't going as planned, either."
"First, your courtship is going as planned. Second, mine was unplanned, and everything's fine."
"Yes. I think so. Yes, it is."
Severus raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
"Well, it was, but honestly? I've no idea how to court, er, a lady."
"I believe that statement to be a lie."
"Don't look at me like that! You know what I mean. Susan . . . Susan was—I loved Susan," Blaise said defensively.
"I didn't mean to imply other—"
"But Susan was—"
"More experienced in some matters than Miss Granger."
"Yes, much more so, apparently. She wasn't one to deny herself. The entire time she was rejecting me publicly, she was also—"
"Wont to pull you into dark corners and snog you senseless. Yes, I know."
"And then she'd cast you from her, leaving you wanting more. At the time, I remember admiring her technique. It certainly kept you focussed."
Blaise gave a rueful, embarrassed chuckle. "Yes, it did at that. I miss her, Severus."
"Of course you do."
"But I want to move on. She wouldn't like what I've been doing with myself."
"No. She wouldn't."
"And she always did like Hermione," Blaise said, wondering if Severus might throw a few more syllables into his next response.
"I believe that's true."
"Do you think you might say something a little more—"
"Blaise, you don't need my permission to court Hermione. You already have hers, I think. Don't make me set Evessa on you."
"You know I would," Severus replied, smirking.
Arsehole. "So, what do you know about Muggle wedding customs?"
Grinning, Blaise replied, "Aha! It seems Harry isn't the only one who needs to do research."
"What is it?" Severus demanded.
"There's something about penguins it might behoove you to know."
"—and the investigation is going well?" Arthur asked Kingsley, as the two men watched the other guests decorating the Christmas tree.
"As well as can be expected. Harry tells me that there was no evidence of importation of the creatures to Anegada, but it's unusual for so many of them to have been in one place at a time. A shroud of Lethifolds is usually only found during mating season."
"Was it mating season?"
"Disturbing, that," Arthur said, scratching his chin. "What do you think it means?"
"What are you talking about? Work? Arthur, you promised!"
"I know, Molly, but—"
"It's Christmas, and there's dancing, and you're not married to your job, Arthur Weasley," Molly insisted, taking his arm.
Arthur beamed at her. "You're quite right, my dear. Shall we?"
After kissing his cheek, Molly replied, "We'd better," and winked at Kingsley.
Arthur turned and shot Kingsley a look that said, "We'll talk about this later," before allowing Molly to lead him into the other room, and that left Kingsley to search the room for the person he'd come to the party to meet. Ah, there you are, he thought, as he spied her and moved in her direction.
"Ms, actually. And you are?"
"My name is Kingsley Shackle—"
"Ah! I know you from the paperwork. Good evening. Lovely party, isn't it? So many . . . friends in one place."
"You'll be wanting to talk about the unpleasantness, I expect."
"Forgive me for—"
"You needn't apologise, but I doubt there's anything more I can tell you that I didn't already include in my report to the Ministry. There've always been a few of the damned things on Anegada, but never, apparently, so many as recently. The long-time inhabitants are all quite distressed. They've been led to believe that the disappearances are due to a serial killer, and they can't be easy, even though the attacks have stopped, because no such person's been apprehended. It's a right mess, I tell you!"
"I'm told that the recent heavy hurricane season could have driven the crea—"
"I'm no expert, but I have my doubts about that theory, Auror Shacklebolt. Lethifolds don't travel over the water."
"Someone had to have brought more of them to the island."
"That's what I suspect, as well. Have you any—"
"No, and that's a source of some vexation, I assure you. With fewer than twenty three thousand people living on the island, it's difficult for strangers to avoid notice. Someone would know if anyone odd were about and doing unusual things. It's not an easy place to hide. And when one assumes that a wizard would—"
"Or a witch."
"Of course—or a witch—would have to have been responsible for bringing the 'extra' Lethifolds to the island, it becomes very much a mystery, indeed. Our magical population is quite small, and I'm positive that I know everyone."
"What about people on holiday?"
"Oh, we get a few of our own visiting, but no one new has visited for some time. At least, no one new's come 'round to the only wizarding pub, and everyone finds that."
"I see. Thank you for the information, Ms Millblossom. You've been a huge help. I appreciate—"
"I'd appreciate a dance," Mary interrupted.
Kingsley offered Mary his arm and led her into the other room.
Harry watched them go, having overheard their conversation, and thought, I should have known Kingsley was only coming to pick Mary's brain, but he wasn't disturbed.
He expected that sort of behaviour from his superior.
He's almost as suspicious as Moody—or Severus, come to think of it.
Hermione, still a bit embarrassed, stood chatting with Lavender as Mary Millblossom and Kingsley Shacklebolt took to the dance floor. That's odd. I thought she didn't care for dancing, she thought, watching how intently the witch was peering at the Auror. Well, he is striking, isn't he? I suppose I don't blame her.
"Harry's friend seems like a nice woman," Lavender opined.
"Hmm? Oh, yes. I suppose she does."
"You don't sound convinced."
"I don't have any reason to dislike her, but . . . ."
"She's become close to Harry rather quickly, and you're suspicious of that."
"Am I so obvious?"
"No, Hermione, just predictable. You and Ron have always looked out for Harry," Lavender said, her tone that of grudging acceptance.
"He loves you, you know."
"You don't need to tell me that."
"Sorry, I shouldn't have snapped. It's just that sometimes I feel as though the two of you come first, and I don't like it."
Hermione didn't know what to say to that; she wasn't entirely certain that Lavender was wrong. "He married you, not me," she said, at last.
"Yes, he did—after you—oh, never mind. It's Christmas, and I don't want to fight."
"Lavender . . . . Ron loves you and the children—he'd give his life for yours—and he chose you over me. You know that I'd never do anything to . . . interfere, right?"
Lavender's eyes were shimmering a bit as she murmured, "I think I do."
Hermione reached out and squeezed Lavender's arm reassuringly. "Our friendship is intimidating, but you're Ron's wife, and I think . . . I think that you and I might try to be better friends, ourselves."
"I'd like that."
Oh, I really wouldn't. "Good," Hermione said, bracingly. Mum was right, wasn't she?
When Ron had proposed to Lavender, Hermione had been distraught. She'd gone home to visit her parents, and her mother had told her, "You've made your decision. He's made his. Now you'll have to be a good friend and accept his choice, or you'll lose him entirely." At the time, Hermione had disagreed, and since Ron's wedding—which "Auror business" had kept her from attending—she'd gone out of her way to avoid Lavender, even after the Weasleys had made her godmother to their sons, seeing Ron only when he went out with Harry, or for the occasional lunch. The lunches always made her feel slightly guilty because she had the feeling that Ron wasn't telling Lavender about them.
But of course she knows. I would, and Lavender's not an idiot. I've been unfair to her. Mum's right. I have to try.
"I'm the co-chair of the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Garden Gnomes, did you know?" Lavender asked, interrupting Hermione's thoughts.
"No, I didn't."
"We're having a meeting on Tuesday next. Would you like to attend? I'm certain you'd find it interesting."
"I'm sure she would," Ron said, coming up to them from behind Hermione and moving to embrace Lavender. "You remember the SPEW business."
Harry, moving amongst his guests, overheard Ron's comment and smiled at Hermione's expression of annoyance. Everything was as it should be, and it pleased him to hear Lavender defend SPEW to Ron because it made Hermione smile.
It's good to see them getting along, he thought, looking about for Severus. He was going to kiss me, I'm sure of it. I'd have liked that.
Warming to the thought, a delicious tension steeling his body, he wished he'd caught Dobby taking down the mistletoe that he'd hung in spite of the presence of the other Eligibles. Still, he supposed that if removing decorations was all Dobby did, it was a good thing.
The party was going well. People seemed to be enjoying themselves, and nothing had occurred to ruin the happy atmosphere. Grimmauld was even beginning to feel like home to him. That made him glad, but it also made him think about the direction of his life. Harry had never truly considered settling down before, but he couldn't deny that it had a certain appeal. He craved family and friends and love and stability the way Neville's plants craved water and sunlight and food. True, he'd always been worried about making any long-term plans because of his fear that one of his un-captured enemies—like Bellatrix Lestrange—would resurface to interfere with them, but standing in good company and feeling cheerful made him believe that it might be possible to make a life for himself, one not entirely defined by his scar and his reputation. Severus' interest had given him hope.
I'm just not sure how to live with it, he thought, smiling at Neville, who was standing across the room and talking to his vicar, or how to build on it.
"You seem deep in thought."
"Oh, there you are," Harry said to Severus, grinning.
"You were looking for me, were you?"
"I'm looking for a lot of things," Harry replied, feeling bold.
Severus' mouth twitched, and he moved almost imperceptibly closer. "And are these things for which you're searching within view?" he asked, his voice low and promising.
"Well, Father Christmas does come tonight, doesn't he?"
"So you've said."
"So I have. I wonder what he'll bring?"
"That depends on how good you've been, doesn't it?"
"I try to be—good, I mean."
"I've no doubt."
Looking into Severus' eyes, Harry decided that he didn't, either.