Narcissa handed the delicate cup of tea to Severus before sitting across from him in her parlor. "We're so thrilled you're here," she said, a gentle smile on her lips.
Severus, wearing casual denims and a long-sleeved Henley, his black hair pulled back in a simple tail, rolled his eyes as he took a sip. "What are you scheming now, woman?"
Narcissa's expression didn't falter. "I don't scheme, Severus. I'm simply pleased for our dear friend's good fortune."
"I've had art in galleries before. I didn't get this treatment then." His eyes narrowed. "What's going on, dear friend?"
A brief expression of smugness moved over her face before her features settled into their usual, gentile calm. "I've opened a new business, did you know?"
"What kind of business?" Severus sounded appropriately wary.
She smoothed her already pristine skirt. "Well, it seems there are a number of young folks who can't find significant others these days. I've decided to extend my talents in that direction."
"I thought Draco was settled happily with the Greengrass girl --"
"Oh, I'm not referring to Draco, Severus. Draco has always known his own mind, and he realized from a young age the best path to follow for our family and his future." Narcissa's voice gained a note of steel, and Severus wisely let it go, even though he recalled quite clearly that his godson had waffled a fair amount before Lucius and Narcissa had pushed him toward one of the more prestigious families in Wiltshire. "No, I'm talking about other young folks, those who don't have the benefit of experienced parents or guardians to guide them."
"Orphans?" Severus asked, truly confused.
Narcissa's lips tightened for just a second. "No, Severus," she said. "Must I spell it out for you?"
"Apparently, yes," he remarked, taking another sip and beginning to enjoy himself.
"I'm opening a matchmaking business. And I want you to take part."
Severus spat his tea all over the saucer. "You what?"
Narcissa's butler moved quickly from the corner of the room, ready with a cloth to pat the tea splotches. Severus and Narcissa ignored him. "I actually have someone in mind for you, Severus. He's an impressive young man, and he needs someone to care for him."
"I'm not interested," Severus said flatly. "I don't need your help in finding dates."
"You've been alone for far too long, dear friend," she said quietly. "And so has Harry Potter."
Severus was already shaking his head. "No. Just no."
"He's not like his father, Severus. Remember, he hardly knew him. He's spent far too much time with the Weasleys, and he needs someone who can see him, not the footballer or his parents."
"Then I'm definitely not the person. I don't even like sport, for God's sake."
Narcissa smiled gently. "Please, Severus. I've sent out a brochure advertising my business. If I'm correct, he'll respond."
"He was married to a woman!" Severus looked at her, aghast.
"He's definitely into blokes. Draco knew him briefly, if you recall."
"And hated him," Severus muttered under his breath.
"And was envious of him," Narcissa corrected.
Severus scowled, irritated at her superior hearing. "How could Draco have any idea what Potter wanted. They weren't even in the same house."
"They played sport together for a bit before we switched Draco over to Harrow for his final two years. Draco was confused about his own interests at that age --"
Severus snorted into his tea.
" -- and he said he'd seen Harry watching a couple of the other boys just as avidly as he did." She gave Severus a look. "Harry's not like most other young men, Severus, and he's only thirteen years your junior. You could use a bit of freshness in your life, and your passion and willingness to embrace the unique would be good for him."
Severus sighed in resignation. Narcissa had known him far too long. Even though she was more of an age with Harry's dead parents -- especially his mum, Lily, who had taken Severus under her wing all those years ago when Severus first started at Eton on scholarship. She'd been at Cheltenham, but the two came from the same neighborhood, and she understood his nerves almost better than he had. Severus had watched Lily as she completed her schooling when he still had four years to go, and he'd been bitterly disappointed when she married James Potter, one of the outstanding Eton men who had made Severus's life rather difficult his first two years.
"Why would you think he'd ever look at someone like me?" Severus asked quietly. "I'm hardly athletic, and my looks are eccentric, at best."
"Oh, Severus." Narcissa reached over and put her hand on his knee lightly. "Harry doesn't care about the trappings. He's spent his life being touted for things that barely matter to him, and what he needs more than anything else is a man who's willing to just enjoy him. Besides, I believe he'll find your eccentric looks intriguing."
"I'll give you one date, Narcissa. And it has to be completely private. I don't need the papers coming after me for any reason other than my art."
Narcissa's grey eyes gleamed. "I'll set it up, and we'll see where it goes from there. By the way, what are planning to wear for your opening?"
Severus's brows rose. "Since when do you concern yourself with my clothing choices?"
"I always pay attention," she said simply. "And I love your more flamboyant outfits."
"I will wear my usual 'artist-at-the-opening' frock," Severus said, frowning at her. Although he dressed in a very mundane manner most days, he'd long since perfected his artist persona at gallery openings and showcases. The public had its ideas on what a successful artist was like, after all, and Severus knew how to play a crowd.
Narcissa simply smiled. "Good."
** (Across town)
"Are you going to the opening tonight?" Ron asked as he glanced through the brochure sitting on Harry's worktop.
Harry shrugged. "Doubt it."
Ron frowned. "Ginny has the kids --"
"You know I don't really understand art. It's not my first choice to spend a free evening."
"Oh, because you'd rather go on a date?" Ron smirked, now going through Harry's post.
Harry grabbed the envelopes from Ron's hands. "Privacy, mate!" Then he sighed, running his hands through his curly and somewhat out-of-control black hair. "I can't date. It's a waste of time and energy to go out with a woman, and you know I can't be seen with men."
"I don't know that." Ron rolled his eyes. "You're the only one who seems to think that way, mate. No one else would care --"
"Other than my ex-wife, you mean?" He gave Ron a pointed look, and Ron shrugged.
"Yeah, okay. So about this exhibit -- it's Dean's first show. Plus, I guess there's some kind of bigwig artist being showcased too. It's good exposure for Dean, and we did tell him we'd support him."
Harry fiddled with the post he'd taken from Ron without actually reading it, his gaze on some distant point. "I just don't understand art. I hate feeling stupid," he finally admitted.
Ron put his hand on Harry's arm, stilling the restless motion. "No one will think you're stupid. We're just there to support a friend. No one will ask you for critique."
"Really? When was the last time I went out in public and didn't get asked my opinions on things?" Harry rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses, which he only wore when he was already tired. Ginny had taken the kids that morning, but before that, the care and entertainment of the three young and energetic kids had fallen to him. Even though they supposedly shared custody, Harry actually ended up with the bulk of it. Ginny, among other things, had turned out not to be overly motherly, and even when they were married, Harry had been the main parent.
Ron gave him a sympathetic glance. "I know you don't like the attention," he said quietly. "And I know it's been worse since -- you know." He waved a hand to indicate the mess with Ginny.
They'd married right out of uni, even though Harry had wanted to wait. But Ginny had insisted, and Harry, as he had pretty much since they'd met through Ron, gave in. She'd fallen pregnant right off, and after Jamie, they'd had Albus and Lily in quick succession. Just around Lily's first birthday, Ginny had decided it was 'her turn' to have a career. For almost a year, Ron's and Ginny's parents had taken care of the three young children while Harry continued his football career and Ginny began moving up at the London Daily News. By the time she was promoted to their foreign correspondent, Harry realized he could no longer let his in-laws take on the bulk of the parenting -- and he had to do something about the problems between him and Ginny.
He'd flown to meet up with her at her current assignment, only to surprise her at a romantic dinner with a fellow reporter. The fallout was swift and very public. Harry's fame as a footballer was almost unprecedented, his talent during his school days at Eton well documented. But he had little choice, especially when Ginny threw a rather hysterical tantrum, insisting Harry's neglect of her had predicated her lapse in judgment.
In the end, Harry had tried to settle everything quickly to protect their children as much as possible. The result: supposed shared custody that meant Harry watched the kids all but five days a month (unless Ginny wanted more, of course). He'd taken leave from football, using his savings to keep them afloat. He also had his parents' trust, but he didn't want to touch that. Thankfully, Ginny's father had encouraged Harry to sign a prenuptial agreement that precluded Ginny from ever having access to Harry's inheritance. Harry wondered if Arthur had somehow suspected Ginny's fickleness even then.
Now, with Jamie at 6, Al almost 5, and Lily 3, Harry finally admitted to himself that he was lonely and had been for some time. He'd long known he liked blokes, as well, but after the turbulence with Ginny, he now thought he might be gay rather than bi. He certainly had no interest in another woman. Of course, Ginny would freak out if he admitted that -- he'd never even told her about the couple of boys he'd fooled around with at Eton. She'd always been very conscious of her public persona (probably why she married him in the first place), and she regularly reminded Harry that their custody agreement could change if he did anything she didn't support.
Ron, the only person he'd told about his sexual preferences, insisted that Ginny wouldn't be so petty, but he also admitted he couldn't promise that. Thus, Harry continued on alone, even though Ginny was often seen in the company of various high-profile men.
"So," Ron began, and Harry realized he'd nodded out for a bit, "what do you think about this matchmaking thing?" He held out a brochure, one of the envelopes Harry had been fingering.
Harry glanced at it, frowning. "Matchmaking? What are you on about?"
Ron waved the paper in the air. "You didn't ask for it? It says right on the front, 'Here's the information you requested.'"
"Why would I request something about matchmaking? It's not like I can date, now is it?"
Ron shook his head. "You need to stop catering to her ridiculous demands, Harry. I know she's my sister and all, but she's a selfish bint, and you're just letting her control your life."
"You know the courts always favour the mum," Harry quietly reminded him.
But Ron snorted. "Like she'd ever follow through on that. Come on, mate. She doesn't even want the kids that much. She likes swooping in and playing the fun parent, but she has no interest in the day-to-day thing."
"She could send them off --"
"Not for years yet. Come on, Harry. This is your best chance! Look, it says right here that this Narcissa Black uses all sorts of scientific research to prepare your best possible matches. You deserve someone who appreciates and loves you. I'm tired of seeing you so alone." Ron's voice dropped on that last part, and Harry's breath hitched.
He, too, was tired of being alone. "How do I know she'll be discreet?" he asked, mostly to himself. He took the flyer from Ron's hands, glancing over it. "Ginny can't know that I'm seeing a man."
Ron beamed. "She's the soul of discretion -- it says so in bold right here," he added, pointing to the flowery print at the bottom. "I have a good feeling about this, mate, I really do." He pulled out his mobile and punched in the numbers listed on the back.
But it was too late, and Ron grinned as a feminine voice said, "Welcome to Narcissa's Nuanced Nostalgia. How can we make your romantic dreams come true?"
** (That night)
Harry stood before a dark, gothic painting filled with swirls of color and turbulent overtones. Ron had wandered off when Harry had found himself stuck, almost as though the painting held him hostage. He couldn't even pinpoint what it was that drew him in -- it wasn't particularly lovely, it certainly didn't make him smile, and it definitely wasn't one of Dean's gentle watercolors. He'd taken notice of the artist's name -- Severus Snape, apparently the 'bigwig' Ron had mentioned -- but then his eyes had just moved back to the implied movement, and he couldn't look away.
Really, he told himself, it's just stress. That's why he couldn't make himself walk away, why he stood here staring, why he ignored the whispers of other guests who recognized him.
Then a hand dropped on his shoulder, and Harry just about jumped out of his skin. "Wha --?"
"Pardon," a deep, velvety voice said, "but you look utterly horrified, and if I'm being honest -- which I always am -- I'd prefer it if you moved on and allowed someone with a happier disposition to take your place."
Harry blinked and pulled his gaze from the painting to fall on -- a man? The person before him had an Adam's apple, without a doubt, but he also wore a long, dress-like garment that swirled in waves around him, almost as if he was in the water. His high-heeled, chunky black boots disappeared beneath the hem of the red, purple, and royal blue swatches of color. Harry slowly moved his eyes back up, taking in the fuschia nail polish and long, gauzy scarf artistically knotted around the man's neck. His lips were dark red, though thin, and his black-as-coal eyes were framed in long, silky lashes.
Harry gulped as he realized those eyes were looking him over just as appraisingly. "I -- I beg your pardon," he stuttered. "I didn't mean any harm."
One of his black eyebrows rose, and he tossed his hair over his shoulder -- his slightly wavy though somewhat fine hair. "Oh? So I should be grateful you're standing here like a lump, staring at my painting as if it ate your favorite cat?"
"My -- I don't have a cat," Harry said, bemused.
"Oh, for -- just move along, all right?" And the man swept off, his chunky boots somehow tapping out an irritated rhythm on the smooth tiles, even as his frock danced around long, slender legs.
"Oh, my God," Dean's voice came. "Was that Severus Snape? How on earth did you get him to talk to you?"
Harry blinked. "Um, by standing in front of his painting with an 'utterly horrified' look on my face?" Harry replied, mimicking the strange man.
Dean shook his head, his teeth flashing against his dark skin. "Only you, Harry."
** (Narcissa's Business)
Two days later, Harry sat on a settee covered in green velvet, a delicate cup of tea in one hand, his other trying to still his bouncing leg. Across from him, on a luxurious silver chair, Narcissa Black watched him, obvious amusement in her grey eyes. "So Mr. Potter, will you allow me to match you up with the love of your life?"
Harry gulped. "I -- I don't date much, you know, Mrs. Black --"
"Narcissa," she said smoothly. "As I've said a few times during our afternoon together."
"Erm, right. Anyway," he rushed on, avoiding using her name at all, "I just don't know how comfortable I am being seen in public with a man. My ex --"
She waved a delicate hand, cutting him off. "Yes, yes, so you've said." She leaned forward, those piercing eyes moving over his face. "But you also want love, do you not?"
Harry chewed his lip, wishing he could set down the teacup before he dropped it. As if she read his mind, one graceful foot nudged the tea service tray closer to his hand. He placed it there, looking at his lap while he gathered his thoughts.
Mrs. Black -- Narcissa -- had spent the past hour somehow coaxing his deepest longings for love from him, and he felt a bit shattered now. The more he'd spilled, the more her expression had intensified, her slender body practically vibrating. Now, she reached over and stilled his knee herself. "I have the perfect person for you, dear Mr. Potter. I know he will be your soulmate."
Harry looked up, somewhat alarmed. "My soulmate? How could you possibly know that?"
"He's a friend of the family," she said calmly, not seeming to notice his panic. "He's passionate yet logical, brave yet cautious. He's exactly what you need."
Harry swallowed. "I just -- remember, Mrs. -- Narcissa -- I'm not out yet. I don't want people following me or taking pictures or writing articles. I just want to be a good dad and give them a normal and calm life."
"But you don't you also want to be happy? Don't you think they should see you being happy?" She tilted her head, her blonde hair flowing over her shoulders. "Plus, they should have another parent."
He bristled. "They have a mum. She might not be around much, but she's still theirs." He folded his arms across his chest, suddenly wishing he'd never agreed to come here. It was no one's business but his own if he was happy or not, and his kids would be just fine with him -- just as they already had been. He didn't want pity, and he definitely didn't want someone judging him for not making his kids happy.
"Mr. -- Harry. Forgive me," Narcissa said gently. "I didn't mean to imply that you aren't already a wonderful dad. Clearly, you love your children. And it's obvious to anyone who pays attention that you've done everything in your power to give them a steady, secure childhood. I wasn't criticizing you, I promise you that. I have nothing but admiration for your position, and I only want to see your burden diminished, if I can."
Harry blinked against sudden tears. It had been a long time since anyone had complimented him, and even though he wondered if she was simply manipulating him, her kind voice and thoughtful words soothed him in unexpected ways. As his mum had died when he was a baby -- and his aunt certainly didn't spoil him -- Harry wasn't really sure what it felt like to have a mother-like figure in his life. Molly, bless her heart, did everything she could, but even though she wasn't happy with Ginny, she was still Ginny's mum first -- and a granny before that, even.
He sighed. "One meeting. I'll try it once, but it needs to be completely private."
He didn't need to look to know she was smiling. "Oh, no worries there, dear. Your date also greatly values his privacy."
** (The next weekend)
And that's how Harry found himself sitting in the back room of a busy pub two Tube stops away from his neighborhood, waiting nervously for his date. The room was small but very private, something that surprised him, as the outside advertised your typical pub. He shifted restlessly, trying not to look as nervous as he felt. He wished he'd never agreed to this. Even one date seemed risky at the moment, private room or not.
"Good evening!" a deep voice called. "I'm Sev -- oh, for God's sake."
Harry had already looked up, his eyes widening at the sight before him. It was the artist, though he wasn't wearing a dress this time but rather tight black denims that hugged his slender though muscular thighs. Harry couldn't stop his gaze from traveling up, lingering over the nice bulge in front, taking in the well-fitted black button-down with the sleeves rolled up. The man had also foregone the scarf this time, instead simply keeping his collar open and highlighting a hint of collar bone. Harry gulped.
"You're my date?" he blurted, finally meeting the man's coal-black eyes.
"It would appear so, yes," the man said, yanking out the chair opposite Harry and sinking into it. "She didn't tell me, of course, that my date had abysmal taste in art," he muttered.
Something about his voice, his looks -- his everything -- had the knot in Harry's stomach loosening, and he quirked his lips. "How do you know?"
"Pardon?" the man asked.
Harry held out his hand as he repeated, "How do you know my taste in art is terrible? I'm Harry Potter, by the way."
He stared at the outstretched hand for a moment before grasping it briefly with his own slender fingers. "Severus Snape. And certainly your undisguised disgust at the sight of my painting --"
"It wasn't disgust. It wasn't even horror. It was...fascination," Harry admitted. "I've never seen anything like that -- or any of your paintings -- before."
Severus's mouth snapped shut, and he regarded Harry through narrowed eyes for a moment. "Well, I suppose that's the best I can hope for." He gave a dramatic sigh. "Shall we begin anew, then? Narcissa tells me you're a footballer." He barely held back a sneer as he said the word, and Harry's heart sank, the knot reappearing in his stomach.
"You don't have to stay," he said quietly. "I'll tell Narcissa we tried, and we can leave it at that."
Severus's brows shot up. "You want me to go?"
Harry frowned. "No, but you clearly aren't interested --"
"For fuck's sake," Severus muttered. "And they say I'm temperamental." He leaned forward, his elbows on the table, and looked Harry right in the eye.
"I'm interested, even though I don't normally follow football. It's been a while for me, and although I wouldn't necessarily agree with Narcissa's assessment that I'm about to meet my grave alone, I do concede that it wouldn't hurt to try something new."
Harry blinked. "You don't know who I am, then?"
"You just stated your name," Severus said, a note of irritation in his voice. "Of course, I know who you are."
"You've never seen me play," Harry pressed. "That's what I meant."
Severus paused, seeming to consider. "As I just said, I don't follow the sport."
Harry couldn't hold back a grin, even though Severus's answer had a touch of evasion. "Okay. This is good."
Severus's brows rose again, and they simply stared at each other for a few moments. Then Severus said, "Can I take it that you're also interested, even though you know nothing about art?"
"I know plenty about art -- what I like, that is. My friend Dean is an artist. Oh, you'd know that. He's the bloke I was there to see the other night. And yes, I'm interested," Harry added, hoping he wasn't too fervent.
Severus gave him an enigmatic look. "Well, we have ourselves a date, then."
The waiter appeared just then, hovering in a manner that made Harry wonder if he'd been waiting for an appropriate time and finally just gave up. "What can I get you gentlemen to drink?" he asked, and their date began.
For Harry, it was surprisingly pleasant and almost terrifyingly…good. He and Severus talked about anything and everything, discovering they agreed in most ways about politics, privacy, the need for quiet -- and just about nothing else. Severus liked drama and passion and bold statements. He was an actor, of sorts, Harry guessed. But he seemed to realize that acting with Harry wasn't a clever plan if he wanted a second date, and although he made a couple of ridiculous statements -- purely to get a rise, Harry thought -- their conversation was mostly thoughtful and easy.
The time flew by, and before Harry knew it, their dishes had been cleared, the bill paid -- split, this time -- and they'd been nursing a final beer for over an hour. He looked at Severus, the unusual looks and intense stare already creating arousal low in his belly, and he blurted out, "Would you like to go out again?"
"Yes." The answer was immediate, though Severus hesitated after, looking wary. "I should probably tell you, however --"
"You don't like kids?" Harry asked. "I mean, you do know I have kids, right? Narcissa pointed that out?" The knots had returned. He liked Severus much more than he'd expected to, but his kids were his life.
"I don't spend much time with children, but I'm not opposed to them. No, that's not -- I believe I knew your parents," he said abruptly. "I think you should know that."
Harry stared at him, stunned. "My parents?" he finally managed to say. "H-how?"
"Your mum and I came from the same area. She was a few years ahead of me, but when she heard I got into Eton on scholarship --"
"You were an Eton man?" Harry interrupted. "I went there too."
"Yes, I know."
Harry sat back in his chair, suddenly wary. "I thought you didn't know who I was? I thought you didn't follow sport?"
"I don't. And I didn't know more than your name, really." Severus sighed. "I wasn't trying to deceive you, Harry. Narcissa is an old friend of mine. We met at university, actually, during my first week in art class. When she started this business of hers, she asked me to participate. And yes, she told me that you were the one she'd chosen for me."
"How does she know me? What is she trying to do?" Harry suddenly felt panicked. He should never have agreed to this.
Severus reached over the table and wrapped his long fingers around Harry's wrist. "Please, give me a moment to explain. I too value my privacy, and I have no intention of bringing any harm your way. That's why I wanted to clarify before we continue with this. Assuming you'll still want to see me again after you hear, of course," he added awkwardly.
Harry stilled at the underlying vulnerability in Severus's voice, looking at his wrist, which tingled in Severus's firm though soft grip. "All right. Clarify."
"Your mum -- Lily -- watched over me a few times in our neighborhood. I was often running about, as my parents were...less than observant or concerned about my care." He cleared the roughness from his throat. "When I told her I got into Eton on scholarship, she gave me tips. She looked out for me as best she could until she finished Cheltenham. She was a special person, your mum."
"I don't really remember her," Harry admitted. "My aunt talked of her fondly -- when she mentioned her at all. But mostly they didn't bring her up. And they hated my dad, so I grew up not knowing much about them until I also went to Eton. I reckon my dad was well known there?"
Severus sighed. "Yes. He was quite popular."
The silence grew. Harry turned his wrist to take Severus's hand, despite the awkward angle. "He wasn't nice to you, was he?"
Severus shrugged. "I was the queer, strange-looking scholarship boy. I didn't fit in with his group."
"I heard some stories while I was there. I never wanted to believe them, but when not just one or two students but over a dozen bring up the same tales, you begin to realize there has to be truth there. I'm sorry he was so horrid to you."
"You needn't be sorry. He may not have treated me well, but he was enough older that once he left, I found my own way. And your mum was always kind to me."
"Did you agree to meet with me here because of her? Did you have a crush on her?"
Severus's brows rose. "I'm gay, Harry. I've always known that I preferred men. I never had any feelings beyond gratitude -- and maybe a bit of awe -- towards your mum. But yes, she is part of the reason I met with you tonight."
"You've met Narcissa, correct? Did you know her married name is Malfoy?"
Harry's jaw dropped. "What? She called herself 'Narcissa Black' -- I called her Mrs. Black!"
"Well, that's part of her business persona."
"She's related to that git Draco Malfoy? Oh, God, is she his mother?" Harry couldn't decide which was worse, and he pulled his hand away.
Harry realized he'd been half out of his seat. He sank back down, his eyes on Severus's face. "Why should I stay?"
"Yes, Narcissa is Draco's mother. But you met her. She's not unkind. In fact, she has a good heart. She heard of you from Draco, and although he may not have been overly exuberant regarding you, she found something she liked. She's always looked out for the underdog -- it's how we became friends."
Harry chewed his lip. He didn't know what to think. This entire evening had been so bizarre. And it didn't help that he still felt quite attracted to the man before him, even after hearing that he'd lied to him. Well, maybe not out-and-out lied, but certainly Severus hadn't been upfront. "Why didn't you tell me this at the beginning?"
"Because I like you," Severus admitted, his gaze dropped to the table. "I liked you from the moment I saw you standing before my painting. I couldn't get you out of my mind, and I worried that if you heard all the messy background before I got a chance to...to…"
"Sweep me off my feet?" Harry whispered.
Severus's cheeks pinked as he met Harry's eyes. "Did I?"
Harry hesitated then nodded. "Yeah. A bit."
Severus smiled then, a slow curl of his mouth. "Indeed. Perhaps you'd allow me to cook for you then?"
Harry made a noise low in his throat. Ginny hated cooking, and after being saddled with the majority of the cooking as a child for his aunt and uncle, anyone who offered to make him food automatically softened his heart. "Yes. I'd love that," he said hoarsely, setting aside the swirling thoughts. He wanted to see if this could be something, and just like on the football pitch, that meant he'd have to take a risk.
Severus's eyes darkened, and for a second, Harry wondered if he'd invite him back to his flat -- but then he sat back with a soft sigh. "I'm meeting with my agent tomorrow morning, far earlier than is good for me. But she'll be gone by noon. Four o'clock?"
Harry's heart rate shot up -- he'd get to see Severus again tomorrow. "Yes."
** (Six months later)
Harry rolled onto his back, his heart still pounding and his limbs heavy. "Severus," he murmured, smiling at the man next to him. As was his practice, Severus caressed Harry's face before moving to fetch a warm cloth. He came back quickly, already having ditched the condom, and gently cleaned Harry off before tossing the cloth into a basket he kept just for that purpose. Then he lay down and pulled Harry onto his chest, his hand automatically smoothing down Harry's damp back.
The past six months had been the best of Harry's life. After that first home-cooked meal, Severus had opened up even more about his experiences with Harry's mum, his struggles with Harry's dad, and his early friendship with Narcissa. He even admitted he was that prat Draco Malfoy's godfather, something that made Harry cringe. But Harry had come to terms with it all, realizing that Severus couldn't help his past any more than Harry could. And they fit together so well -- both in and out of the bedroom -- that he'd fallen hard and fast. Which was why he knew he had to take the next step. Taking a deep breath and steeling himself, he said, "I'm going to tell Ginny."
Severus's hand stilled for a moment. "Oh? What exactly will you tell her?"
"That I'm in love. With you. A brilliant artist." Harry smiled into Severus's skin. Even though he still didn't really understand Severus's work, it continued to fascinate him.
"Harry," Severus breathed. "Are you certain? What about the kids?"
"They love you too." And they did. Severus had been obviously nervous when he first met them, about four months earlier, but all three kids had quickly latched onto him -- especially Lily, who adored him.
"Obviously," Severus said drily. "You know what I mean."
Harry did, but it was time to stake his faith in Ginny's underlying goodness. He knew it was there -- and he knew Molly and Arthur would support him. Ron, of course, already did. "I've talked to my solicitor, and he's pretty confident that she wouldn't have a leg to stand on. But more than that, I truly don't believe she'll try. Her career is still taking off, and any hint of scandal would halt that immediately. Plus, you're pretty popular in many circles, and she wouldn't want backlash from that, either."
Severus leaned up on one elbow, gazing into Harry's eyes. "You don't have to risk it. I'm willing to wait -- as long as you want."
Harry's eyes burned, and he blinked against the tears. "I know. You've been brilliant. But I can't hide who I am forever, and I don't want to be without you anymore. I want you in my bed, every night and every morning. Maybe I'm selfish, but I feel like I deserve this."
Severus shook his head, his silky hair brushing Harry's shoulder. "Not selfish. I love you too, you know."
"I do know." Severus didn't say much about his feelings, but his latest painting, titled Him, had stirred Harry like none other, and he could see the depth of love within the swirling golds, silvers, and rich greens. It seemed abstract at first glance, but if you stepped back, you got the sense of a man's face -- Harry's face.
"How can I support you?" Severus asked quietly.
"Watch the kids while I meet with her?"
So the next morning, Harry sat outside a local cafe, drinking tea and watching his ex-wife's face as he planned his speech. "Things seem to be going well," he said.
"Oh, they are," Ginny replied. "Though I meant to tell you, I can't have the kids on Saturday next, as planned. I'm off to Vienna."
"That's fine," he said. "Listen, Gin, there's something we need to discuss. Well, it's not so much a discussion as something I need to simply tell you."
Her gaze sharpened, those brown eyes suddenly wary. "What is it?"
"I've fallen in love," he said simply. "With a man."
She froze. After a moment, she glanced around. "Is this some kind of joke?"
"Of course not," he said. "But we're getting serious, and I thought you should know."
"You're gay?" she whisper-screeched. "You must be joking. This isn't funny, Harry."
He sighed. "You're right. It's not. And yes, I'm gay. I realized when you first started traveling a lot that I preferred men. I never looked at another woman -- not even once -- but many men caught my eye."
"Did you cheat on me too? Oh, my God. That's why you gave in so easily -- you were cheating on me!" Her voice had risen, and Harry reached over and took her wrist firmly.
"Do you really want the whole world to hear this, Gin? I didn't cheat on you. That's not my thing." Even though he kept his voice even, she went bright red.
"Oh, but it's mine?" Her voice had dropped again. "I'm the cheater? You're just a poofter, I suppose, a regular old shirt lifter."
He let go and shook his head. "I thought you were better than that," he muttered, pushing his chair back and standing. "We can talk later."
"Wait a minute!" She jumped up and grabbed his arm. "You can't have your boy toy around my children."
He shook her off. "They're my children too, Gin, and they love him almost as much as I do." He stalked off, not looking back, though he could feel her angry gaze following him.
As soon as he got home, Severus was there, waiting with open arms. Harry sank into his embrace, startled to realize he was shaking.
"She didn't take it well, I gather," Severus said quietly.
"No." Harry let Severus hold him even closer, the quiet play of their children in the background. After a few minutes, his breathing calmed. "I think she'll come around, though. It was just the shock. I hope."
** (Later that afternoon)
Narcissa knocked on the door of Ginny Potter's flat, having planned her day after a long phone call from Severus. When Ginny opened the door, her eyes red-rimmed and angry, Narcissa gave her signature smile. "Good afternoon. I'm Narcissa Black, and I'd like to talk with you about your support for local artists."
Ginny gave a loud sigh. "No door-to-door sales, please." She began to close the door, but Narcissa simply put her foot out to stop it.
"I'm not selling anything," she said simply. "But I do need to talk with you, Miss Weasley."
Ginny's eyes narrowed. "It's Potter. And how do you know who I am?"
"If you'd let me in, we could have that discussion." Narcissa stood, waiting.
Ginny stared but seemed to realize she wouldn't win this one and slowly opened the door.
"Thank you," Narcissa said, with only a hint of sarcasm. "Now, Ms. Potter, let's talk about your career and public perception, shall we?"
** (Six Months After That)
"Thank you all for coming tonight," Severus said, standing before a small group of community leaders in the large, open area of the Barbican Center. "We appreciate your continued support of the arts and creativity throughout London and the UK." As the group clapped, he reached out a hand, and Harry stepped forward from behind the dais. Severus linked their fingers as he drew Harry close to him.
The reporters in the back began murmuring, Ginny among them, and Harry distinctly heard his name.
"This is my partner, Harry Potter, and the inspiration for the lead painting in the exhibition tonight. You may know him from his football career," Severus added, smirking.
The reporters surged forward, all waving their hands in the air and calling out questions, most regarding Harry. Severus ignored them, turning to look into Harry's green eyes. "All right, luv?" he asked.
Harry smiled. "Yes." To seal the deal, he leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Severus's mouth, while cameras flashed around them.
Off to the side, Narcissa watched, her grey eyes shining and perhaps even a bit teary. "Soulmates," she murmured. She walked past the crowd, catching Ginny's eye. Ginny nodded, only a hint of resignation remaining. But then she gave her attention back to the men on the dais, and Narcissa slipped out, knowing she'd hear all about it from Severus and Harry during their weekly tea -- kids and all -- the following day.