After Tippy's third, lunch-related interruption that morning, Severus reluctantly left his work in the hothouse to join the Eligibles on the back lawn in the afternoon. They were situated by one of the manor's broken fountains, just where Tippy had said they'd be, and they took the news of Denton and Dellwood's departure in stride.
"Well, pairing off's to be expected," Charteris remarked. "My brother, Quentin, met his wife during his own Eligible days."
"You mean your brother and his intended were both Eligibles of the same Supplicant?" asked Lovegood.
"I do. A Supplicant can only select one person, of course, and it stands to reason that, when so many attractive, accomplished people are thrown together, other friendships will form."
"But isn't that considered rude?" asked Harry.
Evessa made a disgruntled clucking sound. "To some, perhaps, but I expect that my brother is relieved."
There was an awkward silence which Severus realised it fell to him to break. "On the contrary, Mr Potter, it's something of a tradition for a Supplicant to arrange matches among those Eligibles he doesn't Choose, or so my Advocate informs me."
We're back to surnames, are we? Harry thought at Severus in an accusatory way, wondering if he could hear him.
Severus showed no sign of having done so, much to Harry's disappointment.
"And where is Mr Zabini?" asked Tolkien.
Solstella raised an eyebrow. "Yes, and Miss Granger?"
"Mr Potter?" asked Llewellyn, "might you know?"
Walden laughed. "I think he does. Well?"
"It's possible that they're er, finishing a conversation we began at breakfast."
"Oh? And what were you so helpfully persuading them to discuss?"
His irritation at Severus forgotten, Harry cast a nervous glance at Walden. He had no desire to speak of the earlier conversation, but he was sure it wasn't right to allow the others to assume that Blaise and Hermione were "pairing off."
"I believe," Severus supplied for Harry, at last looking at him, "that it is clear to us all that my cousin and Miss Granger have . . . much to discuss."
Charteris chuckled. "Is that what we're calling it, these days?"
Calling what, you great pillock? thought Harry, who didn't care for the proprietorial manner in which he'd arranged himself next to Severus, wishing that someone would change the subject.
"The fountain's odd, isn't it?" Lovegood asked. "The cherubim seem frozen."
"I noticed that, myself," said Llewellyn. "In fact, I believe the figures have been cursed into stillness, for such sculptures are crafted to move. With your permission?" he asked Severus, who nodded.
Llewellyn rose to his feet and approached the fountain, his wand drawn. He pointed it at each marble cherub in the basin in turn and declared, "Yes, there is a spell. I could easily break it, Supplicant Snape."
"Then by all means, do—and let's dispense with the unnecessary formalities, Lucien, now that the party has become so intimate."
Lucien, taking Severus' words as a compliment meant for himself alone, apparently, preened as he proceeded to cast a rather ostentatious counter-curse.
"Show off," muttered William in a low voice to Harry, who was thinking, I could've done that, too.
Keeping his tone light, Harry replied, "Well, that's what we're here for, isn't it?"
William shrugged. "Sure, but that doesn't mean I have to like it."
"Severus, why do you suppose someone stopped them from having their fun?" Lucien asked.
"I can answer that," Mrs Parkinson said. "It was Father. He didn't approve of angels amusing themselves—or children."
Harry heard the bitterness in Mrs Parkinson's voice. I'll bet childhood at the Dursleys' was loads easier than it was here. The thought made him want to know more about Severus. But how am I supposed to learn anything with so many people around?
"How awful," Seraphina remarked. "Forgive me," she continued, as if realising that her comment might have been taken badly. "I meant no disrespect, but it must have been a sad thing to grow up with such a father."
"Quite right, but then Severus and I cannot be alone in having had such a . . . strict upbringing."
"True," Seraphina responded. "My own parents had to be strict—there were ten of us."
William whistled at that intelligence. "Ten? I was an only child, and I've always regretted not having brothers and sisters, but—"
"You'd have felt differently had you grown up with so many as I did—but here's a charming topic! How many children do you wish to have, yourself, William?"
Nice manoeuvre, thought Harry.
"Transfigurative pregnancy has come a long way, I'll have you know," William replied, appearing undaunted by the turn in the conversation. "And I'm healthy enough to bear as many children as my spouse might wish."
Seraphina smiled. "That may be, but there's something to be said for tradition."
"Witches sometimes have difficulties during pregnancy."
"Yes, Lorelai, but witches are made to be pregnant."
"Seraphina," Lucien said, scowling, "you know very well that most bearing wizards handle their pregnancies quite well."
"But their babies often suffer problems they would not if born to a witch."
"Perhaps, but with a potions master for a spouse . . . ."
A rather vivid image of a little girl with red hair appeared in Harry's mind, then, and he knew at once it wasn't his memory. Glancing at Severus, he saw that he appeared lost in thought, and it was gratifying to note how he didn't say anything in response to Lucien's comment—or barely noticed that Crispin had just handed him a glass of wine. Harry felt certain that the pretty girl was important to Severus, that he must be thinking about her, and that the fact that he could see something of Severus' thoughts was related to the way in which they'd so intimately communicated following Frasier's ambush of him.
I need to know more about why we can—
Crispin cleared his throat. "Well, as we're all determined to show ourselves off, allow me to say that I'd be prepared to bear at least two babies."
"Only two?" asked Lucien. "How good of you, old man."
"It is, isn't it? For with too large a family, the children might suffer from a lack of parental attention—or over-strictness."
Harry tried not to laugh as Seraphina's countenance soured.
"So," Crispin continued, looking at Edward, "how many children are you willing to bear?"
Edward sat back, clearly startled. "None, but I'd be more than willing to father several," he said, leering at Severus.
Harry saw how Severus stiffened at his words, and then William leant down to whisper, "And the Scroll grows smaller."
"What was that?" Severus asked William, for he didn't like the way in which he was sharing secrets with Harry.
"I was merely wondering how many children you desired."
And how I planned to get them, no doubt, Severus thought, repressing the immediate and vivid image of Harry gasping beneath him and responding cooly, "I believe that topic would be best discussed with my Choice."
"I'll look forward to it."
"Too far!" exclaimed Crispin. "You presume a great deal, William!"
"Confidence is not a defect, Charteris."
In spite of himself, Severus smirked at William's comment. It didn't please him to see Harry do the same.
Lorelai spoke. "Oh, let's not quarrel. I suppose we all want children, or we wouldn't be here."
"Who can say why any of us is here?" asked Seraphina with a philosophical shrug of her elegant shoulders, "but I believe that one of us has not yet commented on the matter at hand," she said, slyly looking at Harry.
I should have expected that, shouldn't I have? Harry thought, determined not to blush. Instead, he took a page from William's book and smiled at Seraphina, saying, "I suppose I agree with Severus."
"It's not something I'd care to discuss with anyone other than my partner." There. That wasn't such a bad answer.
"Faugh! You English and your sense of fairness! Only an arranged marriage is a business transaction—there is no passion in partnership. When I wed, I will know my place."
"And what place will that be, my dear?" asked Crispin.
"Locked in the arms of my husband, my strong, commanding husband," Seraphina replied, favouring Severus with a seductive look that Harry didn't like.
He didn't fancy witches, but even he felt the draw of Seraphina's charisma. Especially when it's all pushed up nearly to her neck, which even Severus seems to have noticed, he thought, his earlier irritation returning.
"You don't think two people can come together in marriage as equals?"
That's a good question, Lorelai.
"Oh, don't look so shocked. Of course there is no equality in marriage. Someone always dominates. It's the way of things."
Harry frowned. Do people really think like that? Guess so, but . . . but there's a difference between bed-play and real life, and I wouldn't . . . . He abruptly forced himself to stop thinking about anything remotely like dominance games as he realised that Severus was staring at him again.
For some odd reason, he found that there was a taste of chocolate on his tongue, chocolate, and something . . . muskier. In confusion, he allowed his gaze to wander again.
Edward drained his glass and reached for the bottle hovering over the large blanket on which they all sat, filling it with a flourish and saying, "Seraphina's quite right, of course, although perhaps a tad unfashionable to speak such a thought aloud. Only think of the disorder there would be in a marriage with no clear master. Someone must make decisions. Someone must lead."
"And who is it who decides who leads?" Mrs Parkinson demanded.
"Ah, well, that's the easiest thing in the world to answer: the stronger of the two."
"There are many kinds of strength," Lorelai interjected, "and I've always thought that two people might support one another, making up for each other's weaknesses and becoming stronger by doing so."
"And that's a lovely, romantic thought, too," Lucien told her, his eyes moving jealously between Severus and Lorelai as Severus raised his glass to toast her. "Perhaps you should have been a poet, Miss Lovegood, for I expect there's nothing like your sentiments on marriage to be found in bones and burial mounds."
"I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with you there," Crispin said, "for much truth lies buried in the earth's hidden treasures, and Lorelai must have uncovered a great deal of it. Indeed, I know she has, for I've funded three of her expeditions."
"Have you, Crispin?"
"Yes, Severus, and I'm afraid it would be an insult to art collectors and historians everywhere were Dr Lovegood to be removed from her field—a great waste of talent, that would be."
Lorelai blushed, but Harry could see that she wasn't sure if she'd been complimented or not.
"Well, I'll drink to that," Hermione said, appearing on the blanket's edge and Summoning a glass of wine for herself. "To Dr Lovegood, archaeologist and artist."
The others laughed and repeated her toast, shifting their positions a bit to allow Hermione to sit down.
"Where's Blaise?" Harry asked, before anyone else could.
"He's fire-calling the Ministry in response to an owl he just received. So what have I missed? I'm afraid I only heard a little of your conversation as I approached."
"Hermione," Seraphina said, her eyes gleaming wickedly, "what are your thoughts on marriage?"
"Quite my own, thank you," she replied tartly, taking a long swallow of her wine, which caused her head to fall back.
Harry found himself admiring the long smooth whiteness of her neck and shook himself. Right—no more dwelling on a "strong, commanding husband" I don't have. He looked up and saw Severus still staring at him intently, and it made him shiver. And what are you thinking about?
In answer, he found his mind filled with a bedroom scene in which Severus was pinning his wrists into the pillows above his head and gazing into his eyes with such a naked expression of hunger and need that Harry had to feign a coughing fit to cover his unbidden gasp. The vision abruptly ended as William began to pound his back, and Harry could only chastise himself silently for having taken a Gothic romance novel—centred on the lives of two inventive male Spellcraftres—with him to his makeshift bed the previous evening.
But it couldn't be the . . . bond, could it be? he wondered, waving William away and looking at Severus in amazement. Did you do that on purpose? he hoped more than asked, suddenly realising that he was shaking a bit and that William was rubbing his back in slow, soothing circles with one palm.
Severus didn't answer his silent question, but he did notice William touching him.
"Yes," Crispin remarked airily, "pairing off's to be expected."
"I believe the weather charm must be wearing off," Severus remarked coldly, looking away. "Lucien, if you would refresh it?"
"With pleasure," he replied, flashing a triumphant glance in Harry's direction.
Great, he thought. Trust me to cock things up without even trying. Stiffening, he moved himself out of William's companionable reach and glanced at Hermione, who appeared concerned.
"Sorry. I was just trying to—"
"Help. Yeah, I know," Harry told him, as dessert appeared. "Where's Blaise again?"
"Here," Blaise answered, purposefully settling himself in between Harry and William. "What have I missed?"
Nothing, it seems.
"We were speaking of partnership," Seraphina replied archly, "a topic on which you surely must have much to contribute."
"Oh, indeed I do."
"Really? Enlighten us then, do."
"By 'partnership' you mean marriage, yes?" Blaise asked, and smiled when Seraphina nodded. "Well, having been married once, I can tell you that it's a state I enjoyed very much, and could again, with the right person."
"Don't be sly, now. We all of us know you've someone in mind," Seraphina teased.
Blaise grinned. "And here I thought we'd got rid of our haruspex."
"So we did, boy," Mrs Parkinson rebuked.
"Cousin, you mustn't scowl at me like that because I've a surprise for you all."
"I am not fond of surprises."
"No, Severus, of course you aren't, but this one is relevant to our happy party," Blaise replied, completely unmoved by Severus' disapproving glare. "I think it's time for a formal Courtship game."
Seraphina giggled. "Oh? And what, exactly, do you propose?"
"A little game of Guess the Future."
"'Guess the Future'?" asked Harry.
Edward Tolkien snorted. "That's right. You're not as . . . familiar with wizarding culture as you might be."
"No, he's just spent most of his life saving the wizarding world," Hermione snapped.
Tolkien had the good grace to look abashed.
"Harry, Guess the Future is a game in which the object is to posit what married life would be like with one's Supplicant. It takes many forms, but I think it would be best if everyone wrote out their guesses and shared them with us tonight after dinner."
"Tonight," Lorelai said. "So soon?"
"Is it?" Seraphina asked. "My brain is buzzing with possibilities."
Hermione murmured to Harry, "Those are probably just the eggs hatching."
Harry had to swallow his wine quickly to avoid choking on it as he laughed, even though he wasn't aware of any magical creature that would do as Hermione had suggested. I'll have to remember to ask Luna about it, he decided.
"So, are we agreed?" asked Blaise. "A little game to help us all become better acquainted?"
Severus sighed. As indelicate as he found Blaise's suggestion, he was eager to know what Harry would think of their future together. Our would-be future, he told himself, annoyed by how friendly Harry and William had become. I still don't know why I can't leave off imagining—
"Sure," said Harry. "Why not? But only if Severus agrees not to give us marks. I saw enough of his red ink in school to last me a lifetime."
"A lifetime," he says, Severus thought sadly, though he rallied and asked, "And whose fault was that?"
Harry chuckled. "I never thought I'd laugh about my dreadful Potions essays."
"No?" Severus asked lightly. "I often did."
"Oooah!" exclaimed Lucien. "Not a writer, eh, Harry?"
"Apparently not," Harry replied, blushing.
Severus forced himself to look away from him.
"So, no marking—but what of a reward?" Seraphina asked.
"Why, I should think that the prize is easy enough to guess," Edward told her, favouring Severus with a roguish grin.
You'd be wrong, Severus thought, rising to leave them to it.
Harry sighed as the teasing moment ended. He hated watching how Severus' smile had become brittle as he'd risen to leave them, hated how his eyes had slid regretfully from his own. There really are too many people here. I need to do something about that. I need to be alone with him. He wants me to be alone with him, I'm sure of it.
In Severus' place, sheaves of parchment, ink pots, and quills materialised upon the blanket.
"Show off," Blaise called after Severus' hastily retreating form, offering his arm to Hermione and helping her up.
A low murmur of amusement rippled through the company as the couple stepped beyond the warded warmed air to take a turn on the grounds.
William handed Harry an ink pot, whispering, "And that's the Scroll grown smaller again."
"So," Lorelai said, before Harry could respond, "do we just imagine what we want our future to be like, or is it that we try to guess what Severus would wish?"
"My dear girl," Mrs Parkinson replied, "you'd best stick to your own wishes and hope for the best. There's no telling what my brother wants."
"Now there's a challenge worth meeting," William replied, his expression merry.
"Harry?" Mrs Parkinson asked, as the others began their compositions.
"See me to the house?"
"Is that fair?"
"Is what fair, Edward?"
"Why, that he should have occasion to speak to you alone. Surely that's a most unfair advantage."
"Are you so worried?" Mrs Parkinson asked, as Harry rose and offered her his arm.
"Not at all."
"Then why protest?"
"Don't worry," Harry said. "I'm not going to cheat." I don't have to, he thought, reviewing the afternoon in his mind. I think I've already won.
But as he escorted Mrs Parkinson back to the house, he realised that although he wanted Severus in his bed and Severus obviously wouldn't mind being there, it wasn't enough upon which to found a future.
Shagging isn't loving. If my relationship with Bill taught me anything, it was that. . . . Do I love Severus?
All Harry knew then was that he wanted to love Severus, and that, he decided, was an excellent position from which to manoeuvre.