Clause And Effect


December 23, 2009

"I'm closing the shop through New Year's Day. Starting now."

So much for his notion that Harry Potter has found a good, if unlikely, fit in retail management. Severus continues crushing the sampaguita petals between his fingers. He does not look up. "Is there some reason you've decided to close doors on the two biggest business days of the year?"

"I want to have a small dinner party on Christmas Day, and I need time to prepare. Besides, the Diagon Alley shop will be open." Harry touches his hair as if, were it unbound, he would run his fingers through it -- an unaccustomed sign of discomfort. Owning a successful business has given the man confidence he somehow never gained from destroying evil overlords. "It's a work thing, really. An employee dinner."

Severus looks up at this. "No Christmas with the Weasleys?"

Harry flinches. "It's . . . not comfortable since the divorce."

"They've been your friends since you were a child!" It's a measure of how much he's unbent that he speaks without thinking. Good lord, he's defending the man, as if Harry Potter needs his protection. Five years spent herding only one idiot has clearly turned him into a shadow of his former self. "It might be less strained if The Prophet hadn't printed a front page story claiming you're homosexual." The article smirked of sordid encounters, made vague allusions to past lovers, and detailed Ginny's tear-stained discovery.

That little stab in the back, he thought, was a bit extreme even for a scorned spouse, although he had to give her points for style. At the time, he'd been concerned that Harry might order him to eliminate the girl. People he once knew were murdered for less. In a few cases, he'd done the job himself.

He has no interest in ever doing it again.

The lurid story also stirred an unwelcome awareness in Severus that he's tried his damnedest to crush ever since. The night he read it, he awoke from the most exquisite experience of his life - which then became one of the loneliest - murmuring, "Harry. Harry." He'd wiped away the semen, banished the stained smalls, and gone sleepless the rest of the night, his eyelids pressed tightly together against the bare limbs and the yearning. The memory still burns.

It's also how Potter's given name crept into Severus' vocabulary. He doesn't seem to be able to stop that, or the fantasies that sneak under his guard. He can no longer think of Harry as "the boy." In his fantasies, there is nothing boyish about Harry except the mischief in his smile.

At least he knows Harry's never caught him staring at the curve of his arse. There's no way that would pass without comment.

Ill at ease, Harry turns aside, vacant eyes trained on a purple stain on the far wall. "I fed them that. I didn't want Ginny taking the blame in the press. Me being . . . liking men . . . was such a juicy idea, it kept them from prying further - into Ginny's affairs." His shoulders hunch, then straighten as he looks over at Severus. There's a bitter edge as he says, "I made Skeeter's year. And besides, it's true. I'm not ashamed of it." His words are defiant, but his voice falters.

Harry looks more like a child bracing for a clout than a poofter who's proud of it.

They've worked together for nearly five years; this is the closest they've come to a real conversation. Now he knows that Harry grew up in a cupboard, and he's been living in the closet ever since.

Secrets change a man. Severus understands that. He should . . . say something. Tell him.

Then he bats away the mawkish thought with a snort. He'll find some way to turn this to his advantage, instead. So Harry's trolled the streets, has he? Visions of the men Harry's fucked appear before his eyes, naked and come-spattered in Harry's bed. They've had what Severus wants, and he doesn't like it one bit. It's decided: he is going to be one of them. He will find a way to have a bit of that well-toned arse for himself.

Shoulders still squared, Harry is silent. His face has altered from anxious to opaque.

"So I'm to take myself away." One thing Severus does not need at the holidays is an added opportunity to stare out the window at packs of revelers and laughing families as they roam the streets in search of grog and gifts. "Fine. I'll be off to Martinique. It's about time I had a holiday."

"Oh!" Harry is visibly dismayed, but rebounds. "I'm sorry, Severus, but you're not off the clock just yet. I need your help to set up the party. And I want you to come to dinner! Besides, I can't afford all the overtime you've been putting in." This is undoubtedly meant in jest. At Severus' glare, he says, "It's not my fault you've never gone on holiday! You have four weeks a year. That's more than most wage slaves get."

"They're not working for their freedom." Every hour spent researching, experimenting, and pulverizing innocent blossoms means more profit from the line of perfumes that Harry insisted he develop. Harry'd been right about the demand for personal indulgences. In these years post-War, such fripperies fly off the shelves. The high price seems no deterrent. Even witches with little money spend their Galleons to entice a mate, and wizards buy treats for their lovers.

Severus has no such expenses. He's saved almost half the Galleons he'll need to buy the business. He could quit the moment his contract is through, if he wanted; he's been getting other employment offers for years. The end of his wand restriction is coming up shortly.

He won't, though. If he did, he'd still have nothing truly substantial.

He's even come to enjoy the work. After all, the creation of scent is equal parts precision and art. He doesn't stopper much death anymore, but he's known throughout Europe as a Master Perfumier. Finally, he has bottled fame.

"Really, I'm sorry, but it's just for a few days. It's in your Contract, remember?"

He forgets nothing.

Certainly not the afternoon the Savior of the Wizarding World knocked on the shabby, peeling door at Spinner's End.


January 30, 2004

Only desperation had led him back to that dunghill. The intertwined lives of a cruel man, his hapless wife, and an unhappy boy had for so long been nothing but a bad memory that using it as a place to hide wasn't the same as living there. He was a grown man. Things were different now. It was not really a house, certainly not a home -- not a place to lead his life, just a wayside stop.

He hadn't cared that Pettigrew and Bellatrix Black had been there. They were lower than the dirt under his feet. Even Narcissa was an object of pity. But with that knock, with The Great Harry Potter at his door, Severus had looked around his former home and actually seen it. Seen the filth, the cobwebs, felt once more the fear and rage of that pathetic child. He was twelve again. Red shame devoured his vision.

He strode into the kitchen and began to bang pots and smash cups as if the noise would scatter the ghosts of his past. He could not even drown out the knocking.

Driven to fury, he wrenched open the squealing door and snarled, "Go away. Leave me be!"

The boy stared steadily at him. "I have a proposition for you."

"The answer is no." He tried to slam the door in the boy's face. The door pushed him back easily enough despite his efforts, and Harry Potter walked in.

"I need your help."

"You have always needed my help. I, however, am no longer required to give it."

"You need money." The boy pointedly did not look around the room. "I need a man with talent. I can make you rich."

The War was over, the last of the celebratory confetti browning in gutters across the Wizarding World. They had gone from cheering victory to mourning their dead, from feting the heroes to punishing the villains. Potter and the remaining members of the Order of the Phoenix leapt into the social whirl as the last living Death Eaters were dispatched to Azkaban.

It could have been so much worse for him, a man who was a bit of each. He did not join either group. He still had this bolthole. Technically speaking, he could hold a job, should someone be willing to hire him. Only the Galleons mortared into the basement walls, safe from prying eyes and spells, had supported him these last months.

His supply was dwindling.

"Sit down."

Potter outlined an idea for an apothecary.

It was a solid plan. Hogsmeade, the only entirely wizarding village in the country, had none. This was of no consequence to him when he'd been at Hogwarts, but why should the local inhabitants go to London for a tisane or fever remedy if they could buy it down the street? A shop there would attract custom from a hundred miles around. His abilities would bring in business from even farther away.

Severus was not stupid enough to turn down an advantageous connection now, even one with this aggravating bastard.

"I will brew potions from eight to five, with double pay for overtime." He'd spent his adulthood tossing and turning at night, never knowing when he might be called from his warm bed to attend the horrors of Voldemort, the tea-sweetened demands of Dumbledore, or the banalities of a horde of snivelling children. "A month's paid holiday per year. No contact with customers. Sixty percent of the profit from any potions I invent. Living quarters. A guaranteed option, as long as I'm in your employ, to buy out the business at a price set by an independent evaluator."

Then Severus named a salary that should have provoked indignation, if not open laughter.

"All right."

It was all he could do to keep his mouth closed when his jaw went slack.

He'd known Potter would be a worthless negotiator. He hadn't expected a Wizarding Contract to pop into existence before his eyes, lifting a puff of dust from the kitchen table. "Surely you're not idiot enough to do this without professional help." He almost vibrated with contempt. "You obviously need all the help you can get." He wished he'd bitten his tongue instead. If Potter must be a fool, and apparently the condition was insurmountable by age or experience, it might as well be to Severus' advantage for a change.

"No. I'm fine with it as is."

For the first time, Severus studied the boy. His once-wild hair was tamed by length, making him appear older than he was and less like James than Severus remembered. At his temples was the very faint shimmer of a glamour that shouldn't have been visible. Concentrating on a point beyond Potter's ear, his peripheral vision caught what was beneath the disguise. He looked . . . worn, nearly as weary as Severus felt. There were fine lines around his eyes that ordinary young men of four and twenty didn't have.

Too many late nights carousing with his simpering wife and their brainless friends, he thought.

He bent to peruse the Contract, and found the lit fuse in its text.

" 'Other services as required'? You're joking!" Severus would have immolated the thing in Potter's face if he could, but he could not. One ill-advised use of his wand would have him rotting in prison for the rest of his miserable life. If he committed a crime under Potter's orders, would circumstances of the Contract earn him a stay of execution?

"Please, sir, I was only following the orders of The Boy Who Lived!"

This parchment was nothing more nor less than a deal with the devil.

"I need someone who can do more than stir a cauldron. You're the most ruthless and resourceful person I know. I have enemies; if you work for me, I want to know you're not one of them. I need to know you're on my side if something happens."

"Something? Happens?" Potter was the devil. "You never do know when you'll need someone poisoned, is that it, Potter? Or do you mean to go in for a spot of torture?"

His gut twisted. Whatever the orders, the Contract would leach his magic until he complied, or until Potter relented. A Wizarding Contract was not the basis of employment for ordinary jobs.

The boy sat in his kitchen offering to make him rich. He'd heard it all before, although not in connection with anything legal. The truth was, Contract or no, Potter could have Severus in Azkaban before sunset if he so chose. Harry Potter would not need a reason. Yet if he signed, Potter would own him. His gorge rose, choking him with bile.

"I . . ." Potter began, but Severus was on his feet in an instant.

"Get out of my house. GET OUT!" He reached for Potter, each finger a talon. Every fibre of his being vibrated with the need to shake the insolent cretin until that pale neck snapped.


One word, and the power behind it, froze Severus like a stone.

"You need this job. Without supervised employment, you can't use your wand for five years. You will be crippled. No one in his right mind would hire Dumbledore's murderer. Take it or leave it. I can find someone else to start a business with."

Dazed, Severus sank back into his chair. "Why . . . are you doing this?" Surely there was some kind of truth here that he could grasp.

The weariness in Potter's voice matched his true face. "I want something for myself. Is that so hard to understand?"

To one who had siphoned off his life to serve both sides in a battle of giants, and was about to sign away five more years of indentured servitude, 'something for himself' was as distant and tantalizing as the Holy Grail.


"And . . ." Potter eyed the mean kitchen with its worn linoleum, ground-in dirt and the scatter of broken cups, "even you deserve better than this." He scrawled his name with a fluorish at the bottom of the page.

Without speaking, Severus signed beneath it.

"Do you want to see your new lodgings tonight? You'll live over the shop."

The arrogance in those few words was staggering, even coming from Potter. "I can only be grateful you've not been at all presumptuous." Still, he'd take a mink-lined prison over the freedom of destitution. The decision was already made. He'd do well to reap the benefits as soon as possible. "Fine."

Potter held out his hand. "Good. Come with me."

Steeling himself against hope, Severus took the hand. He didn't know why he was so surprised to find the grip warm and strong.

December 23, 2009

Severus shakes the memories away. What -- oh, yes, his contractual obligations. His employer wants him to help put together a dinner party for his pack of rejects -- Severus, that scraggly werewolf, Draco Malfoy, Percy Weasley (who has become a damned fine accountant), and undoubtedly a few delivery boys. Naturally he does, since dinner parties are one of Severus' specialties.

No. They're one of the other services as required.

In all this time, the other shoe has never dropped. Severus has nursed many a firewhisky wondering when Harry would use his carte blanche, and what it would cost him. Wondering what, exactly, he would do when Harry demanded everything he had left.

This is it?

"You insult me," Severus snaps. He looks Harry up and down. A pity looks cannot kill.

"You really are an idiot, aren't you? Five years owning title to my soul and you use that lever to make me your party planner." He narrows his eyes. One fine day he will exact his revenge for this.

"I never wanted your soul!" Harry's eyes slide away, almost hopelessly. "I just wanted someone I could trust at my back."

"And so you chose to buy me."

"With Ron and Hermione both dead, and no one who could take their places, your rates were a bargain." Harry's short, humorless bark is nothing like laughter. "I needed someone who was smart, someone who was fearless, and I needed a friend. I was willing to take two out of three."

Severus should have demanded more.

He nods briefly. "As you wish. I am at your beck and call until five p.m."

"Good." Harry smiles. To Severus, those green eyes and flushed cheeks glow like no absurd holiday decorations ever could. He sees double, past and present, when Harry holds out a hand. "Then come with me."

He reaches out to Harry, even though he is on work time and could apparate himself. The hand is still strong and warm. It feels uncomfortably good.


Once they're in Wizarding London, Harry unrolls two feet of list. They place orders for delivery of standing rib roast, hothouse asparagus, new potatoes from God knows where. The Christmas menu includes his favorites. He wonders how Harry could have divined them, and why. It would have made more sense if he'd shopped to please Lupin instead. Aren't Lupin and Harry close?

Another thought struck him. Could it be that Harry'd been Lupin's lover? No, never. Severus wouldn't be in Diagon with Harry today if so. If they'd been shagging while Harry was still married, the werewolf wouldn't be fool enough to let go after the divorce. And if Harry could stay married to that clone of Molly for six years when he didn't even fancy women, he'd certainly stay with a man he cared for.

Severus finds that viewing Harry as a prospective fuck does wonders for his equanimity. Now it's interesting, instead of enough to drive him spare, to walk down the street at his side. Somehow, he would have expected the man to have gained at least a veneer of sophistication, but slutting his way through London hasn't dulled the childish enthusiasm. He's obviously excited, all but skipping from shop to shop, dashing a few steps to look in windows and then coming back.

Harry marks off items on his list, but always defers to Severus' advice and preferences. Parsnips, pecans and pastry flour. Garlic, whipping cream, shallots, his favorite brand of coffee. Bags of sugar, baking chocolate - as far as Severus knows, Harry cannot cook. Does he even know what shallots are? Who wrote this list, anyway?

"Fancy meals have wine, right?"

They're standing in front of Wettwhistle's Wizarding Wines (With Spirits). "They usually do."

As they enter, Harry gapes around him at the racks of bottles. "What kind?"

"If we are having roast beef, the traditional accompaniment is red wine."

"Is there anything you like?"

Severus remembers the last time he dined with the Malfoys, with the Dark Lord in attendance. The food was delicious, the wine excellent, the company appalling, the entertainment horrifying.

He won't recommend that label.

Harry buys a case of Aldo Conterno Barolo 1986.

"Pfft. That's enough to keep your handful of guests hung over for days."

"I don't want to run out, do I? Besides, if there's a bottle or two left over, I'll most likely eat beef again some day."

Beaming, Harry goes on to buy one bottle of Old Ogden's Fifty-Year Gold Blaze firewhiskey and two bottles of Roederer Cristal 1991.

They go on and on, ordering evergreen boughs, swags of garish bulbs, boxes of beeswax taper candles, and ugly ornaments by the cartload. They buy a tree that would never fit through Harry's door in the current state of either tree or door. They hire dozens of real fairies to light the tree, not those trashy fakes.

Was this to be a meal, or a circus? Severus would hardly turn a hair were he asked his studied opinion on the finest in lions, tigers and bears.

They purchase candy canes. For some reason, that seems the height of absurdity.

Sometimes Harry simply buys whatever catches his eye, like the working Holiday Edition model of the Hogwarts Express, chugging and hooting and billowing steam, laying track before itself as it goes. When he does that, his grin turns incandescent. That's when Severus wants to reach out and touch the clear skin of Harry's cheek, tip Harry's face toward his, and press a kiss to those lips just to feel their smile against his own.

He does nothing of the sort.

None of this is about Severus. There's no explaining why Harry dragged him along. It's an afternoon babysitting a giddy young twit who's tossing away Galleons to buy himself a Christmas - the first Christmas he'll spend alone.

It's not about Severus.

Still, he can't shake the curious notion that it is.

He's never done anything like this before, squandering a goblin's hoard for pure gratification. It's . . . nice, especially since it isn't his money being spent or his storage space that will house the ghastly collection. There's not enough shrinkage in the world for this.

"I've never done anything like this before," confides Harry, almost shyly. "It's . . . nice."

He feels his mouth twitch. "Shopping with you would seem to be much like having a puppy, only with less housebreaking."

Harry laughs, delighted. "I've even been trained to put the seat down. Come on, you can't tell me you never wanted a puppy."

"I did." I do.

"Me, too." The words are as wistful and fleeting as Severus' thoughts. "Oh, I forgot! What about you? I didn't see your list. Do you need to get anything while we're in London?"

A Christmas list is hardly necessary when he can't purchase the only thing he wants. Every choice he's made, as disastrous as they all were, was an attempt to gain his freedom. He kept trying and trying . . . until he simply ran out of choices. "No."

"Okay, then. We're done, and that's good, because it's got to be close on five."

It is. The shadows have congealed into greying pools, rising up the buildings and filling the streets. Streetlights and holiday decorations battle the encroaching darkness as best they can. Suddenly Severus is exhausted. It's been a long day.

"Will you come to my house at eight?" Harry's looking at him from under those long, dark eyelashes. His eyes are the only color Severus can see.

"In the morning? Why?"

"It's . . . there's a lot to do."

He's about to say something scathing when, instead of hammering on the terms of the Contract, Harry touches his arm. His pulse stutters.


Rather than answer, Severus draws his wand and apparates alone to his flat. It's not until he gets there that he realizes he might have taken Harry along with him by accident, and he's glad he didn't. He's not sure what effect a roomful of Harry would have on him right now. He throws back a shot of whiskey, then another, and goes to bed instead of eating dinner. He finds sleep only after a supremely unsatisfying wank. In his dreams, he hears Harry's laugh.

December 24, 2009

"We're not going to use magic, you say?" He didn't spend fifteen years perfecting that supercilious drawl for nothing.

"That's why I need you to work with me," explains Harry, rather more patiently than Severus can bear. "It's more fun to do it by hand." And then, as he catches the skeptical look, "Really! You'll see."

When Severus holds the ladder while Harry hangs a brace of boughs above the fireplace, and that fine bum is within licking distance, he understands that Harry is correct, and that very likely his own deduction is also correct. There's a physicality about doing this together that screams 'tease.'

He tests his theory with a palm on the small of Harry's wiry, muscular back as he descends from his precarious perch. "Careful." His hand wants to slide up, down.

"Thanks," Harry says with a shaky smile.

It's not a way Severus has ever been teased, but he thinks he can play this game.

He's watchful as he leans over Harry, who's crouched on the floor trying to unwind strings of singing lights. The faint heat of Harry's body rises toward him. He doesn't even try to think of an excuse for murmuring, very close to Harry's ear, "Let me help with that." The caterwauling of the lights can't disguise the catch of breath. He is close enough to see a bit of red along a high cheekbone. Severus tries to ignore the strands of dark hair that fly up near his face. It's only static electricity, but it feels as if even Harry's hair wants to touch him.

He'd never thought of what it would be like to be in Harry's home as if he belonged there, casually brushing against his employer-cum-owner as they both navigate, arms full, through a doorway, and watching Harry's soft lips part in what looks like pleasure. Of course, it could all just be unfamiliarity, simple surprise that makes Harry react as he does. After all, Severus neither touches nor invites touch. This dance is completely innocent, move along, nothing to see here.

Severus prefers to think not. Of the two of them, Harry is the one with more experience. Harry knows what he's doing better than Severus does.

Surely this must have a purpose.


He's hanging relatively attractive blown-glass gewgaws on the perfect, although somewhat resized, tree when there's an explosive crack. He's been so distracted by the spot at which Harry's neck meets his clavicle that his instinctive "grab for the wand" crushes the ornament in his hand. "Fuck!" His hand is now imbedded with fine glass fragments and bleeding sluggishly. It's that damned house elf, the one Harry freed from the Malfoys, but it's wearing a little black suit with a bow tie and cummerbund. Ears aside, it looks like an ugly child at a formal dance.

Now he knows where the information about his eating habits came from, at least, and he can be sanguine about who's making tomorrow's meal.

"Oh, Professor Snape, sir, I is so sorry!" The elf is whacking itself in the head.

"Severus!" Harry's at his side now, taking his hand, examining it. A wave extracts the glass shards, which hurt more coming out than going in. Then Harry's very carefully touching the tip of his index finger to the hand, drawing it along the wounds. He's completely concentrated on what he's doing, bottom lip pinned under a line of white teeth. The cuts seal with a faint blue light that sparks Severus from head to toe. For a wild second he thinks Harry's going to kiss his palm.


Something has disconnected Severus' vocal cords. Finally he gurgles, "Yes."

"Stop that, Dobby! What is it?"

"It's after one, Master Harry, sir. Is you sirs wanting to eat?"

On the way into the dining room, he jostles Harry hard enough so that he loses his balance, forcing the man to grab for anything . . . effectively, Severus himself, who tightens his arms around Harry. Harry's shoulders are more substantial than they look on his lean frame, and their bodies press together so sweetly. All Severus can think of is what this will feel like when they are naked. That's not Harry's hipbone nudging him. Harry pushes away instantly, but he can't hide the truth.

Harry Potter wants him.

Perhaps the man's gone without for too long. It doesn't matter why. Exultation streams in his veins as he considers how to make best use of this windfall. For once in his life, he's got the upper hand. For once in his life, being a wanted man will not lead him to prison. Courted. He's being courted.

He spends the rest of the afternoon tormenting Harry to mindless distraction over trays of sweets. Low-voiced comments about the consistency of the vanilla frosting as it drips from the spoon, the skimming of his hand across Harry's while reaching for the sugar - and he particularly enjoys the look on Harry's face when, after dipping a dozen dried apricots in melted chocolate, he sinks a fingertip into the remaining chocolate and licks it off slowly. Harry has a lean and hungry look right enough, but not for sweets.

His plotting works, of course - Harry's flustered, even a bit disheveled, as he takes his leave. He's been, to Severus' discerning eye, half-hard all afternoon. If he doesn't have Harry tomorrow, he'll have him soon. Still, he thinks, his brilliant plan would have worked better if its execution hadn't had much the same effect on him.

December 25, 2009

As it's a formal event, Severus apparates to Harry's door and finds himself led in by the elf. It's still dressed for a ball. How very appropriate. Harry greets him with a glass of Pernod.

Waving a hand at the elf, he asks, "Whyever is he in that - those clothes?"

"I got tired of the odd socks and stacks of hats. Fortunately he seems to like the change. Says it's got style."

As vile as some of the decorations are, together they give the house a look that's almost . . . charming. The strings of lights are singing something soft and melodious. Stands of candles glow warm and bright. Along with the cheery fire in the grate, they light Harry's eyes and tint his skin golden. Despite this beguiling sight, however, it doesn't take Severus long to notice that something's missing.

"When are the others arriving?" Draco's always fashionably late, but Lupin is a stickler for punctuality, and with a pack of brothers, Weasley grew up knowing never to be late for a meal.

"January first." At his raised brow, Harry shrugs. "I invited them over for New Year's Day. Today was really just for you." His hopeful look says he'd like Severus to be glad of that, but he wouldn't be too shocked if he turned and left.

That, of course, is something Severus has no intention of doing. If this meal was arranged just for him, it's plain he'll have the man himself for pudding. "I thought this was a work event."

"It is. I have some things I'd like to discuss with you." Harry all but shuffles his feet.

He'd tell Harry stop dissembling, but the pretence of shyness is quite appealing.

"Really?" He doesn't doubt that Harry has something to ask of him, verbally or not, but he can't honestly think rutting in a tangle of sheets goes well with what he knows of Harry's work ethic.

On the other hand, he'd certainly applaud the change.


He seems poised to offer more than this monosyllabic response, but the elf pops in.

"Dinner is served, sirs."

Severus has nothing against a discussion of erotic pastimes over a fine meal. In the end, he pays no attention to the food. How can he keep his mind on something like a slab of beef when what's across the table is so edible? He takes a sip of wine - really, it was a very good choice - and almost chokes on it when he hears Harry say, ". . . talking to Guglielmo Salvatore last week, and he told me his sister had sent you an offer."

Harry really wants to talk about work?

"Yes." It has nothing to do with anything, but he'll see what Harry's leading up to.

"I know you've probably got other offers, too, and are considering them."

He's going nowhere until he gets what he wants, and right now it's in the opposite chair. "Yes."

"I want to be competitive in my offer."

"You understand, then, that your company wouldn't survive without me." He'll have a pay rise out of this, as well as a comely young piece of arse.

"I know it won't. I'm not as stupid as you think. I lost my best friends. I lost my wife, and with her, the people I thought of as my family." Harry pinches the bridge of his nose, then takes a long swallow of wine. "If you leave, my business will go under. I won't have much left after that." He pauses, staring at his untouched pastry. "Soon you'll be free to go. I'm hoping there's something I can do to keep you here."

Harry swills the rest of his wine like it's pumpkin juice. "I'm asking you to be my partner."

Apparently it wasn't about the fucking.

A Contract appears on the table.

Oh, Merlin. Distant shouts of triumph ring in Severus' head, growing closer and closer. The man is desperate -- to have contrived all this, he must be a hair's breadth from breaking. It's far, far too good. Severus can take everything he wants, and have Harry under his knife as he's been under Harry's. This is the time, then, with the man at his lowest point, to strike.

It's too easy. He almost feels pity for him. Almost.

He takes a few minutes to scan the sheet of foolscap, ensuring that all is in order. It's for a second five years, and includes the buyout option; very nice. But there's one little thing he'll change. A small flare of red springs up, then fades into black and white on the page. Smiling, he hands it back.

"'Harry Potter will provide Severus Snape with other services as required.' What will that entail?" Harry looks calm, but there's a hint of nerves stretching.

He allows his smile to curl into a leer. "Oh, I think we both know what I want."

Harry's eyes widen as a flash of uncertainty - fear? - crosses his even features.

Oh, please. Harry's never been afraid of him even when he had reason to be. At this point, it's ridiculous. Harry should know he's been backed into a corner, and give up the act.

"Oh, don't be so missish. You've enjoyed my interest so far. You have no reason to think I'll be brutal, and I can't believe you were so very picky while you were whoring around London." Other men's faces, other men's bodies, men unscarred, young, beautiful.

"I . . . what?"

"What part of 'whoring' don't you understand?"

It was nice to know that Harry had such a capacious mouth, but it wasn't very attractive hanging open.

" 'Whoring'? I was married for years, when did I even have time?"

"Your coming-out party was in the national press!"

Harry laughs, choking out, "You - I -- you arsehole! You believed that?"

"You told me yourself that it was true!"

"The 'being gay' part. Everything else was more like wishful thinking."

"What, then? Do you mean to tell me you've not bedded a man?"

"Of course I have!" His pleasant tenor drips sarcasm worthy of Severus himself. "You saw the bloody queue as you came in the revolving door."

"I'm giving up reading the paper," Severus intoned piously. "When even The Great Harry Potter exaggerates his sex life to impress his public, who can one believe?"

"I had my very own Ben Nevis of hate mail - not to mention the offers."

"Perhaps you should've taken some of them up."

As much as he enjoys baiting Harry, that's not the point of this exercise. There's got to be a faster way to get Harry into bed than bickering across a pile of dirty dishes. "I have a suggestion. Since you're not familiar with my requirements, perhaps I can provide a practical demonstration."

It's the matter of a moment to round the table, pull Harry to his feet, and kiss him. The faint smell of soap makes his head swim, a mere whiff of cloves. It's Severus' own blend. He knows it's not an aphrodisiac, but in combination with Harry's skin, it becomes a potent one indeed.

He likes the way Harry stands tall enough so he only has to tilt his head to reach those full pink lips, and the way Harry's hair winds through his fingers after the silver clip falls to the floor. He likes the way the lines at the corners of his eyes smooth out at a touch and the way Harry wraps around him.

The delectable taste of Harry overwhelms him, and he's dropping kisses on cheeks, eyelids, even Harry's nose before moving on, nuzzling down to a vulnerable throat. He sucks at it until the vibrations of a long moan pull him back to reality.

He never wants to let go, but he must. If he doesn't, Harry will be under him right here, the Contract ignored. He can't afford to give him the opportunity to change his mind.

He releases Harry reluctantly. "What do you think?" He's trying to be sophisticated, worldly, detached. It comes out harsh and needy.

Harry's hands are still on his shoulders, as if he can't bear to let go either. "I think if you hated that Contract clause so much, you should have said something." The words tumble out in a rush. "Since when did you ever not say something? You're not exactly a poster child for suffering in silence."

"I would never discuss such a topic unless I knew I could force your hand." It hadn't even occurred to him that anyone who held his leash - least of all Harry Potter -- might simply, upon request, let go.

"I did that because I needed to, you know? I really didn't trust you, not at first." He meets Severus stare for stare. "You didn't make it easy! But I never used it against you, never wanted to. Later, when things were different . . . we could have renegotiated your Contract a long time ago."

"You didn't use it until now, you mean."

Red-faced, Harry drops his hands to his sides. Severus wants them back where they belong.

"Yeah. Until now."

Now, when Harry forces Severus to buy unsightly knickknacks, decorate the tree, and dress for dinner. With the whorls of Harry's fingers written in his flesh, "other services as required" doesn't look as much like a headsman's axe.

He steels himself for anything. "So you will sign."

"No -- I mean, yes, I will," says Harry, looking him in the eye and moving closer, close enough to breathe him in. "But it won't be because you're using my feelings against me."

Harry . . . has feelings.

"I'll do it because I trust you not to do anything that would really hurt me. Because you're closer to me than anyone else in the world. Maybe if I prove I trust you, in another five years you'll decide you trust me."

He wants to scream at Harry, rant at his idiocy, rail about foolish Gryffindors who act on impulse. He can't, because this is his idea, and it's a good idea. It's the only way he can conceive of being with someone like Harry - someone who has the power to hurt him in a way the Dark Lord never did.

And because Harry might be right.

Lifting his wand, he summons the parchment and leans over the sideboard, using it as a desk, scribbling his name on the proper line. The tiny flicker of red light is concealed by the fall of his robes.

Harry takes his place at the sideboard, signs beneath Severus without even glancing at the text, and steps back.

Oh, Harry, Severus thinks, you are far, far too trusting. But the fact remains: there's no one else he'd do this for, and that's the one reason why he will.

"I'm sorry," Harry says. "I could've said something. A long time ago."

"Do you have a vested interest in prattling nonsense, or would you like to kiss?"

Harry smiles. "Kiss."

It is breathtaking; almost heartbreaking. Severus fears he has lost already, but he reaches out anyway. He can't not. It would be impossible. "Come with me." When Harry takes his hand, he thinks maybe he hasn't lost anything after all.

Harry's bedroom might as well be in a different house. 'Minimalist' does not even come close.

The public rooms are full of comfortable furniture, their couches and armchairs as plump and welcoming as a storybook grandmother, with table lamps that are bright and cheerful. The walls are done in pleasing colors. On them hang several art pieces that look like unfortunate accidents involving a child's paintbox.

This cell belongs in a monastery . . . or a prison. He expects to see bars on the window. White walls glare back from under interrogation lighting. A plain wooden desk and chair occupy one wall. A narrow bed is along another, with its blankets stretched tight and tucked under. From a bedside table, small photographs of Ron Weasley and the Granger girl smile and wave. A lone Quidditch poster is tacked onto the closed cupboard door.

The zooming players, replaying the same moves over and over, only serve to make the rest of the room seem more barren.

He doesn't transfigure the bed. There's something about having Harry for the first time in this dormant room with its chaste bed that seems right.


11:59 p.m.

In the course of his life he's worked, sweated, bled, and killed in the attempt to gain his freedom. Tonight, in a monumental display of irony, that freedom is tucked into the pocket of his robes, and the man who provided it, once a despised pain in the arse, is hogging the bed. Harry Potter is sleeping off the best (and most athletic) shag that Severus has ever had.

Such a milestone deserves recognition, a celebration of its own.

He gets up from the bed and pads over to his robes, still lying on the floor where they were dropped. With a flick of his wand, a branch of burning candles and its decorative greenery appears on the desk, along with a few of the fragile glass ornaments. The singing lights, their glow softened and voices muted, twinkle from around the window frame.

In the multicolored midnight of Harry's bedroom, with only Harry's Quidditch heroes and the cold sickle moon looking on, Severus caresses the sweat-lank hair away from Harry's face. His eyelids flutter, but he doesn't wake up.

Some day, Severus thinks, he'll tell Harry that he'd removed the coercion clause from their Contract. But not tomorrow, and not in a week or a month. It's far too soon.

Perhaps . . . next Christmas.



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