Chapter Twenty-Three: The Entertainments Commence
Hermione woke early and wandered down to breakfast to find Blaise already up, as well. Pausing at the door, she watched him as he underlined passages in the Daily Prophet and muttered obscenities to himself, entranced by the way the sun burnished his long, auburn hair. She'd never seen a more magnificent wizard than Blaise Alessandro Patrizio Zabini and often wondered how she could have overlooked him while at Hogwarts. Now that he was one of her most trusted friends, however, she found that she was afraid to speak of her increasingly warmer feelings for him, lest she lose him for doing so.
But I have to speak of them. I can't keep up this pretence of disinterest. It's maddening to be so near him all the time without—
"Good morning, Miss Granger. An early riser, are you? I might have expected that," Mrs Parkinson greeted her, before gliding past Hermione to enter the breakfast room. Just over the threshold, she turned to whisper, "Did Miss Endicott's noticeable interest in our Blaise last evening have anything to do with your wanting to see him alone, I wonder?"
Hermione blushed furiously, damned Elladina Endicott as a hardened flirt, and hastily moved into the room to take her place at the table. To her relief, Blaise didn't appear to have heard the exchange.
"Ahem," Evessa said, and Blaise, who'd been very much enjoying Hermione's unabashed examination of him, looked up in feigned surprise.
"Ladies, how good to see you this morning! Forgive my distraction. That wretched Elton Tattle at the Prophet is doing his best to discredit Severus' conduct in the Courtship Ritual."
"How?" asked Hermione.
"He's questioning Severus' adherence to tradition due to the fact that we elected to forego the Reception."
"Why did you?"
"He's damnably stubborn, that's why," Mrs Parkinson said. "'Security matters', indeed."
Blaise smiled, as Hermione hid hers behind her serviette, and replied, "And he was quite right, too. Having so many unknown—"
"Stuff! The majority of his guests would have been descendants of the Founding Fifty, or from decent, old Families. How much more known could they have been?"
"—personages in one's home, when one is Severus Snape, is not a wise idea," Blaise completed, as if Evessa hadn't spoken. "Only think of Frasier."
"Be that as it may, I'm sorry for the loss of so much company."
"Didn't Severus tell me that you were planning to return home after the renovations were complete?"
"Yes, well, I can hardly leave until he's married, and Parkinson is much engaged at present."
And not with you, Blaise thought, wondering which of Evessa's husband's mistresses was currently engaging him and smiling at Evessa warmly. "We're certainly pleased to have your company."
"Dear boy," she said, turning to Tippy and ordering her breakfast as Hermione had just done.
"I thought that the stages were more guidelines than anything else, except for the Presentation, the Testing, the Negotiation, and the Binding, of course."
"That's true, Hermione, but Tattle must be working with someone to discredit Severus," Blaise replied, disgusted by the thought.
"Oh, really! You Aurors see plots everywhere. Cannot the man simply be doing his best to promote the sales of his newspaper? Journalists are all horrid creatures in that way."
Hermione cleared her throat.
"Oh, I see. Have you friends in the journalistic line, dear?"
"One or two."
"I'm certain that they can't all be salacious, rumour-mongering fiends," Evessa replied, before tucking into her meal.
Blaise smirked and toasted Hermione with his tea cup as Elladina Endicott entered on the arm of Lucien Llewellyn.
"Good morning," he said, assisting Endicott to her seat. "We were just taking a stroll around the grounds. It seems as though the entertainments are about to commence from the looks of things."
"Yes," Endicott added. "There is the most wonderful tent set up on the lawn—very colourful with beaded streamers hanging from it—that puts me quite in mind of the gypsy tents I used to see on holidays from school."
"German gypsies?" asked Hermione.
"Oh, yes! They often came to give readings and perform tricks for us as a reward at the end of testing periods."
"And to pick your pockets and curse those of you who failed to tip them for their services," Llewellyn remarked.
"Oh, so what? I love gypsies!" Endicott exclaimed, before snapping, "watch yourself," to Tippy, who'd inadvertently got in the way of her gesticulating arm as she'd levitated by her.
"Tippy is sorry!" Tippy replied, her ears drooping.
"So you are. I'll have dry toast and tea. Do try not to burn my toast."
"Are you all right?" Hermione asked Tippy, glaring Endicott.
"By Merlin's toes! You speak to them?"
"Are you?" Hermione pressed.
"Is Hermione Granger wishing something from Tippy?"
"Just to know—yes, thank you. I'd like another boiled egg, please. This egg," she continued, gesturing at the half-eaten one in the cup on her plate, "is perfect, and one isn't enough."
Blaise was happy to see that Tippy's ears straightened and her expression brightened before she popped out of the room.
"How odd you are, Miss Granger. First we must respect garden gnomes, and now house elves! Don't you find it an odd way of thinking, Advocate Zabini?"
"On the contrary, Miss Endicott, I find Hermione's social conscience to be quite charming."
Llewellyn chuckled as three "perfect" boiled eggs in shining cups appeared on Hermione's plate at the same time that one rather small piece of dry toast appeared on Endicott's.
"Perhaps I'll save one or two of these for Harry," Hermione said.
"Save him two. 'Eggs' go best in pairs, I should think," Evessa opined.
Blaise almost spat tea then for laughing so hard.
Harry moaned and shifted a bit as he awoke to the demands of morning upon his body. He was just trailing a hand down his chest towards his prick to answer them when he heard the sounds of light snoring to his right. Instantly alert, he turned to take up his glasses and wand.
"Severus?" he murmured, surprised to find him sleeping by his bed.
Severus didn't wake.
Harry smiled to note that mornings seemed to be the same for everyone, and then snuggled against his pillows in happy frustration, determined not to miss an opportunity to observe Severus at his most unguarded.
Severus' face had always intrigued him; he could find something new in it every time he examined it. Contentment, or so Harry hoped, had softened the lines around Severus' relaxed mouth and his darkly lashed eyes.
He looks rather handsome at rest. Strong-looking. Stubborn, even now, and—oh, he thought, as he found himself gazing into Severus' now-opened eyes. And alert at once, of course. "'Lo, Severus," he said sleepily, favouring him with an embarrassed half-smile.
The sensuous way in which Severus' lips curled into a full smile sent a pulse of need through Harry's demanding bits, and he shifted onto his stomach.
"Good morning, Harry."
And that's not helping, Harry thought, as his body reacted to the throbbing masculine hoarseness of Severus' voice.
"How are you feeling?"
Like I could use a good— "Quite well, actually, but I . . . I don't think I'm ready to get out of this lovely bed."
Would you care for company? Bearing chocolate? "I'm pleased to hear it."
"What?" Harry asked, chuckling. "That you've a lazy guest?"
"No," Severus replied, stretching out his legs and laying his hands in his lap. "I'm pleased that you're feeling well. Yesterday's incident was particularly gruelling for you, I believe."
"Is that why you sat up with me?"
"Forgive me. I had—"
"There's nothing to forgive. It's . . . nice. It was nice to . . . it was nice."
"You should know that I . . . I want you . . . to be well, Harry."
"Thank you. That means a lot to me . . . Severus."
Severus stared at Harry, feeling somewhat abashed to have been caught nurse-maiding him. There was so much he wished he could say, but he wasn't sure how to say it, and then the tension apparently became too much for both of them as he and Harry spoke at once.
"I expect—oh, sorry. What were you going to say?" Harry asked.
"I think that you'll enjoy this morning's entertainment. I've arranged for a friend of yours to come paint caricatures of the company."
"Really? That sounds like fun. Which friend? Not Luna."
"Is that a problem?"
"Of course not. It would be brilliant!"
"Excellent, for it is Luna," Severus replied, relieved. "Ah," he continued, as the clock on the mantle struck eight. "I expect I should change and go down to breakfast. Will you be joining us?"
"Sure. I'll um, be up—I mean down—in a little," Harry replied, a delicious blush spreading from his cheeks and down his throat.
Mornings, thought Severus, are the same for us all. Picking up Harry's borrowed copy of Hamlet, he asked, "Shall I return this to the library for you? Or have you not yet had enough of ghosts?"
Very smooth, indeed, Severus, Harry thought, as Severus rose from the chair, using the book as a shield. "I think I have, thanks."
"Then I'll see you shortly," Severus said, leaving the room rather more hastily than was polite.
The idea that Severus might be going off to wank to him was too arousing to ignore, and Harry promptly turned over onto his back, jerked up his nightshirt, and grasped his prick. Stroking himself rapidly, one hand manipulating his bollocks, it didn't take him long to come.
Severus was shaking with repressed desire as he achieved his rooms and made short work of it, indeed, as he imagined Harry's swollen mouth attending to needs he'd not felt so strongly in years. The demands of his body then somewhat satisfied, he changed and went to the breakfast room at once, where he noticed the cold way in which Endicott was glaring at Blaise; her expression, however, did nothing to freeze the warmth of his spirits.
"Good morning, everyone."
"Ah, we have a host. How nice," Evessa said tartly. "We've just been discussing the tent on the lawn. When will we see what it's about?"
"Would after breakfast suit you?"
"It would, Supplicant Snape," Endicott simpered at him.
Curtly nodding at her, he turned to address Blaise. "What are you writing?"
"A letter to the Prophet's editors about the lack of their journalistic standards."
"The usual," Hermione added, smiling at Blaise, who laughed.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"You're always firing off letters to the Prophet. By now, I expect they've hired someone solely to deal with your tirades."
"Oh, and you never write any letters, I suppose," Blaise teased.
"There are two people to deal with me."
Blaise set his quill aside and looked at Hermione intently. "Oh, I hope not, Miss Granger. That would be most disappointing."
Hermione flushed and looked down at her plate, her lips curved into a slight smile, and this pleased Severus a great deal. Things are finally going on as they should.
Harry came in then and greeted everyone before taking a seat to the right of Severus, and the assembled Eligibles immediately began vying for his attention.
"Well, Mr Potter, you certainly know how to make an entrance," Edward Tolkien said, in a good-natured way. "It's certainly a relief to see that mere spectres cannot harm you."
"Of course they can't," Walden replied, slapping Harry on the back. "Our boy Harry here's a Lethifold killer. Not to mention a—well, we all know what we owe him, I think."
Severus, annoyed at Walden for bringing up the Dark Lord, pointedly changed the subject. "Mr Tolkien, tell us more about the new children's wing at St Mungo's."
"Ah, yes. My family has long been a champion of educating Muggle parents about the maladies their magical children contract. This is a problematic enterprise, given the current state of the law, but one well worth promoting, I feel. Towards that end, we've been working with the Ministry and St Mungo's to found a clinic where Muggle-borns may be treated without breaking the International Code of Wizarding Secrecy."
"A waste of time and dangerous, if you ask me," Endicott said nastily.
"Oh?" Severus asked. "Why is that?"
"We should take our own away from the Muggles, lest they become . . . corrupted in the same way He Who Must—"
"No one did ask you," Walden interrupted.
"Supplicant Snape did."
"And I regret that because I'd not thought to turn the conversation political," Severus replied, noting Blaise's wince as he no doubt felt the Scroll spin.
Endicott, a peevish expression marring her features, demanded, "What's political about protecting our own?"
Before Severus could reply, however, Hermione was speaking.
"By 'our own', you certainly can't only mean pure-bloods? Muggle-borns aren't—"
"Oh, really, I'm not a blood purist—but magical children belong in magical households where they can be taught to understand their gifts and how society works without . . . getting ahead of themselves in disruptive and unproductive ways."
Hermione smiled tightly and remarked, "Yes, one wouldn't want to encourage magical children to grow up feeling that a life free of responsibility was all that was expected of them—especially as these Muggle-born children will no doubt not be wealthy."
"You dare speak to me about responsibility? I'll have you know that my Family have been part of Parliament since—"
"Edgar Endicott purchased his third cousin's seat in the High Chamber by buying that wizard's debts and forcing the man to adopt him. Yes, I believe this. Is. Common. Knowledge," Evessa interrupted, with a sadistic grace that Severus found charming. "Really, you ridiculous little harpy, if you must open your mouth, do try to avoid spewing filth from it when you speak. We are all of us eating, you see."
Appearing overwhelmed by fury and mortification, Endicott rushed sobbing from the room.
Good, Severus thought, wondering how to deal with the resultant, shocked silence of the others.
Evessa then almost purred, "I am resolved. I shall henceforth respect all house elves with a vengeance."
The others burst into riotous laughter, and Severus—and Harry, too, he noted—looked on in confusion before Blaise explained what had occurred before they'd come down.
"Perhaps you should tell Mrs Parkinson about the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare," Harry suggested to Hermione.
Evessa worked out the acronym and smiled at Hermione, saying, "Oh, my little reformer, there's been quite enough SPEW here this morning. Perhaps some other time."