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Hunter's Bribe

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"Severus!"

Without turning, Severus snapped his wand back, and the threat brought Harry to a teetering halt at the end of his rush down the rickety wooden staircase.

"I am busy, Potter. Do not interrupt."

Relaxing, Harry grinned at the man's back. Potter, was it? "Oh, but we just got an owl," he said innocently, "with some fascinating news, and I'm sure you'll want to know--"

Severus glanced back just long enough to aim, and gleaming black ribbons shot out of his wand and wrapped around Harry's ankles. The ends streaked up Harry's body next, like racing serpents, and he wondered if he should draw his wand and defend himself before his wrists were caught. Upstairs, a fight might provide some spice, but down in the potions lab it was a far riskier business. Before he could decide, the ends cut up towards the ceiling.

"Hey!" he yelped, as he found himself pulled into the air, feet first. His arms scraped against the floor as he pushed them out to protect his head, leaving his wand behind in a clatter as he rose. "Oh, crap."

"Wait," Severus snapped, turning back to his cauldron.

Harry stretched down, brushing his fingertips across the smooth stone of the floor. By bending and straightening he could swing slightly, but not enough to reach the wand, which had rolled between two worn flagstones. When they had bought this place, the cellars, although extensive, had been mere storage, but they were clearly far older than the house. Severus thought that they might have once been part of a small monastery that had been torn down or burned after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The vaulted ceilings seemed in keeping with that. Twisting to look up, Harry saw that his bonds had secured themselves to one of the hooks that Severus had put in to stretch the kappa hide that they had obtained last summer. Despite knowing that he was perfectly safe, it made Harry's skin crawl with something delightfully close to fear.

That is, he told himself a bit later, he was perfectly safe if Severus didn't forget him for longer than people could survive being upside down. What had Hermione told him? Twenty minutes? No, that was probably to unconsciousness. Still....

"Sir?" he prompted.

Severus stiffened. "Thirty-four," he said out loud. "Thirty-five. Thirty-six."

Harry nodded upside-down and told himself to be patient. He couldn't really relax, with the pain in his ankles from dangling, although that wasn't as bad as it could have been. The straps were wide and distributed over a fair amount of space. Still, although small for an adult man, he was heavy enough for hanging by his ankles to be a strain. He tried swinging again, straining forward and trying to wandlessly summon his wand. It rolled again, but didn't rise. Perhaps he could get it in range of his fingertips?

He put all his focus into the wand, and tried again. It rolled another inch. If he could get it just a little closer, the dip in the floor would work with him. Twisting, he stretched his right hand closer, thrilling to the clatter of the polished length of wood against stone....

A boot came down over it, trapping it safely in the space under the arch.

"Pathetic, Potter," Severus sneered. With a backwards kick of his foot, he rolled the wand to where he could bend to pick it up out of reach of Harry's clenched fist. "Your neglect in maintaining your skills in wandless magic might be partially placed on me, but I would think a Gryffindor would understand the value of a secure wand holster."

"I didn't really expect to be upended," Harry said dryly.

"My partner," Severus said -- which usually meant business, although this situation made the more personal meaning appropriate as well -- "should be ready for anything."

With that same quick snap of his wand, he sent two more straps flying towards Harry. These wrapped, one each, around his wrists and flew up to different hooks. Harry found himself staring at an arched stone rib of the ceiling, his torso kept face-up by his spread arms while his joined legs twisted side to side. He stretched out to balance and raised his head to peer over his chest.

"Done with your potion?" he asked casually, over the dizzy singing of his blood.

Severus sniffed. "Merely at a resting point. I have a wait of twenty-seven minutes -- twenty-six, now -- before it requires further attention."

I'd like a little attention. That wasn't the thing to say, though. "And here I am, hanging from the ceiling," he said sweetly.

"You do look ... convenient," Severus allowed. He studied Harry's legs for a minute, and then sliced his wand down with a whispered spell. Harry's bonds parted between his ankles, leaving a trail of cold that faded as they retightened. Severus left the now independent straps going to the same hook, but he also stepped between Harry's legs, steadying his rocking.

"Oh, fuck!"

"Precisely what I was thinking. Another two inches up, I think. And perhaps a little higher with the arms?"

Harry thought Severus must have added in a lightening spell when he shorted the bonds. He still felt his weight against the straps, but less of it, easing the strain on his joints.

"Thank you, sir."

"Oh, you are quite welcome," Severus said fiercely, lip raised in what was almost a snarl. He set his wand just under the waistband of Harry's tight jeans -- not at his cock, which Harry was sure must be visibly distorting the dark denim, but further back between his legs, pressing at the base of his bollocks. Harry wondered what he had planned. Something to delay orgasm, perhaps?

Severus stepped closer in, adding force to the wand point. "And you're wearing too much clothing."

"Well, that's what you get for not planning ahead."

"Did I not?" Severus smiled slightly. Slowly, his wand began to trace down the inner seam of the jeans, pressing hard, and Harry felt cool air at his thigh.

"Oi! These are new!"

"And a sewing charm will set them right."

The wand had reached Harry's knee, now, and by curling up, Harry could see it was not slicing the fabric, but undoing the threads of the seam. In a bare minute, the legs were unmade, with the strips of denim left dangling awkwardly from his waist.

"That will do," Severus said, stepping back. The motion set Harry rocking side to side again, and his efforts to counter that made it wilder. He missed Severus undoing his own pressed trousers, but heard them hit the floor and then scuff against the stone as Severus kicked them to the side. For a moment, Severus stood there, his burgundy cock pressing forward under the placket of his white shirt. Slowly, he undid the lowest button, and then the one above that, letting the crisp cotton part to either side of his jutting erection. Harry licked his lips.

He couldn't see any lower than Severus's thighs, but he could hear the precise click of boot heels as he came back to Harry's feet, and then between his legs. Harry thought he'd probably made his trousers enormous enough to step out of. The boots kept him at the right height; when he was close enough, he bent his legs slightly and set the tip of his cock just against Harry's hole.

"Merlin," Harry breathed, letting his head sink back. "Please, sir?"

"Please what?"

"Please fuck me."

"No prep?"

"None," Harry said confidently. "Just slow enough."

Severus sneered. "Reckless and impatient as always, Potter."

"But you don't have much time," Harry argued.

"Do not mistake me. I will happily fulfill your request." Severus apparently had lube with him already, because Harry could feel the cold slide of it being smeared all along his crack and up to the base of his balls. "After all, I like you tight."

"Uh-huh," Harry agreed. Reason was beginning to fade behind anticipation -- or maybe behind the blunt pressure of his lover's cockhead. It pressed in slowly, at the edge of too much, as he had asked. Now and then, Severus would retreat enough to add more lube and then make up the depth plus a little bit more.

"Yeah," Harry approved, as the width of the head gave way to shaft, and he finally got the depth he craved. "Oh. Good." He tensed and stretched to rock in his bonds, swinging his weight into the thrusts of his lover, whose wordless voice was starting to rise. "Yeah."

The clamor of a bell startled him. Severus had a timer? But it hadn't been that long.

With a snarl, Severus shoved one last time and his face contorted with orgasm. Harry tried to follow, but his balls felt as bound as his wrists. He was close -- so close.

Severus pulled out and snapped out his wand, silencing the clamor.

"Cut the spell," Harry begged. "Please! Just a touch..."

Severus was summoning something. Harry felt the butt-plug slide in -- so small! -- as Severus sneered down at him.

"Patience."

"No. I want it."

"As you wish." The wand turned on him. "Ejaculario."

Harry felt his balls give up a jet of semen, but it wasn't coming. There was no peak, only the sudden absence of readiness as blood receded from his cock. In the moment he was unable to breath, Severus turned away.

"That's not fair!"

"Oh?" Severus shot back over his shoulder. "You came, didn't you?"

"I didn't get to feel it!"

"You made the choice." Severus was washing his hands at the wide sink. The sound of running water made Harry uncomfortably aware of his bladder.

"I did not! I just said--"

"That you wanted release. You were close enough that even if all you could do was squirm and think, I don't believe that would have lasted without the charm." Turning, Severus reached toward the waiting cauldron just as a second alarm went off. Harry gaped at his back as he began to stir the thickened potion. The curve of his shirt almost covered his neat arse. Below the white, his legs were bare down to the top of his boots. Harry knew they had sparse dark hair, but in this light, he couldn't see that, although he did have his glasses on. His nose itched.

"I cannot come from a stray draft," he managed belatedly.

"Perhaps true," Severus allowed, setting a seven-point funnel into a frame of waiting vials, "but you have a natural grasp of wandless magic, and an absurdly strong will. You'd manage something."

Sighing, Harry lay back, looking back up at the grey stone. The ribs were lighter than the stone between. "Would you let me down please? This is uncomfortable."

Severus actually looked back at that, with a mocking sneer. "Ridiculous, as well. I might, perhaps, release you, if you agree to assist with the bottling."

"After I use the loo."

"Ah." With a downward pull of his wand, Severus released Harry's legs, and then, when he had nearly stopped swinging, his arms. It wasn't until he was standing that Harry felt his full weight return. "Loo only," he said. "No stopping for a smoke."

"Git," Harry said with a scowl, as he rubbed at his wrists. He would have, he knew, but he would also obey the restriction and enjoy it more later. Perhaps delayed release wouldn't have been so bad. "You owe me," he said defiantly.

Severus actually laughed at that, with that choking sound he had, as if he hadn't really figured out laughter as a child. "Agreed," he said. "One long, slow fuck, to last as much of this afternoon as you desire. I will even agree to cuddle afterwards."

"I don't cuddle!" Harry said indignantly.

"Really? Apparently I don't either, then. What do you call that time that I'm petting your arm or chest or whatever's in reach?"

"Exhaustion," Harry replied promptly, but then laughed. "Yes, I suppose we cuddle. Secrecy pact?"

"Of course. We both have reputations to maintain." He poured a ladle of pearlescent blue liquid into the trough of the funnel. "But we cannot start that project until I finish my current one."

"Oh, right! Be right back!" Harry sang over his shoulder, clattering up the stairs as precipitously as he had arrived.

 

**********

 

The second round didn't take the entire afternoon, but the sun was slanting onto the bed by the time Harry crumpled back on his pillow a second time. Severus, not inclined to try for seconds himself, brushed his lover's ungelled hair back from his eyes and kissed the edge of his collarbone.

"Mm," Harry said, bringing a hand up to drape over Severus's thigh.

"Better?" Severus asked, satisfaction dropping his voice to a low purr.

"Perfect," Harry agreed, reviving enough to pet the skin under his hand. He curled up to kiss Severus on a random point on the chest before falling back again. Severus was tempted to say something about cuddling, but he restrained himself. Harry was a young man -- young enough that his insecurities might best sleep unchallenged. Casting about for another subject, he remembered how Harry had clattered down the stairs like a boy, loud and eager.

"You never did say why you interrupted me," he reminded him, getting a flicker of attention in response. "What was so exciting?"

"Oh." Harry bit his lip. "Just a letter from Remus."

Severus felt tension spread out through his body. Harry's touch stiffened in response, which he hated. Why did the boy persist in liking the damned werewolf? "He wishes to beg for more Wolfsbane potion," he guessed contemptuously.

Harry shrugged, pretending indifference. It was a useless attempt -- Severus could feel the taut muscles of his shoulder.

"If he does, it was indirect," he answered. As he answered, his lassitude changed to care. Slowly, his gaze came up to Severus's face, and then quickly moved away. "He said -- well, that he maintains an interest in Dark creatures, first, and second that a penpal of sorts had told him that an Asian Manticore had killed nearby, and Remus thought we might be interested."

Severus caught his breath so quickly that he nearly choked. "Manticore?" he said, immediately cursing himself for sounding like a simpleton. "Where?"

"Er...." Harry swallowed. "He said Shambala? I don't think he'd be spinning a tale, though; does that mean something to you?" Harry's voice had risen with anxiety.

"Shambala?" Severus repeated. "Perhaps it might mean Shambala? It's a small Wizarding kingdom on the edge of ... Nepal, I think. I've never been to that part of the world myself."

"Oh." Harry met his eyes again. "Isn't that-- I mean, I thought it was...."

"Shangri-La?" Severus suggested. "Yes. However, the Eastern world separated both earlier and more slowly from Muggles -- long before there was even a civilization to separate from here, to be blunt. I believe the Muggles there took a memory of healing charms and other such amenities, and remembered it as land blessed by their gods."

"So it's not divine or something?" Harry asked.

"Hardly. Oh, the kings may have aspirations of such, but -- from what I've heard -- that just makes them neglectful. On the Wizarding World Corruption Index--"

"There's a Wizarding World corruption index?"

"Do you actually read? Yes, of course there is. Far older than the Muggle one, I might say, although similarly fraught with European bias. In some cases, the ranking may merely reflect a misunderstanding of social code. However, it serves as a rough guide, useful for --" Severus stopped himself. "You said a Manticore."

"Yes, but what about--"

"Never mind that! I can explain later. Lupin said that a correspondent of his said that an Asian Manticore in Shambala had killed, is that correct?"

"Yes, but why should that matter? The killing bit, I mean?"

"Manticores, like many other large magical creatures, are extremely rare, and generally protected from harvesting. However, once one kills a human, it usually continues to kill humans. Tigers are much the same, I believe, and Asian Manticore kills are often framed as tiger kills to Muggles.

"Because of this, a Manticore that has killed a human -- even a Muggle -- is generally marked to be culled."

"Oh," Harry said. As dull as the answer sounded, Severus could see the bright spark of comprehension in his eyes, and then in his grin. "How big is this?" he asked. "Am I starting dinner, or packing?"

"Packing," Severus answered approvingly. "With any luck, I can get clearance for an international Portkey before the Ministry shuts down for the night."

"Right. Anything special I should include?"

"The erumpet and dragon-hide gear. This creature doesn't have the scorpion sting of its Mediterranean cousin, but it can shoot foot-long barbs from its tail."

"Brilliant."

He actually sounded sincere. Severus shook his head as he pulled on his robes.

 

**********

 

Dear Hermione,

Severus and I are heading off to Shambala in a few minutes -- as soon as he packs the flint butchering knives, and I move a nest full of baby mice out my erumpet-hide waistcoat-thing (jerkin?) that Severus bought for me, after the Wyvern. (It's basically armor.) Would you let Hedwig stay at your place? Just if she wants to, of course.

Did you know Shambala is a real Wizarding kingdom? It's mostly isolated, Severus says. They don't play Quidditch at all, which I suppose is why I've never heard of it. It's only working with him that I've had any other context for names of far-off countries in the magical world. He says they don't even fly brooms; flying is mostly by small dragons (for priests and nobles) and a yak-like creature that floats like a balloon (for farmers).

Anyway, I might not be back for Wednesday dinner next week, or even the week after. We're going to hunt a Manticore -- not the Greek sort we learned about in third year, but the East Asian one. I didn't know the difference, but you probably do, because Remus says it was in the supplemental reading. The biggest difference is they're not really Being intelligent, but Severus says they're tricky. The first step, of course, will be getting permission from the government, but I don't think that should take too long. It's killed five people so far, mostly kids. Don't worry about me, though; I'll be ready for it. (And I have the armor, of course!)

With love,

Harry

 

**********

 

They didn't manage to travel that evening, but only because the authorized Portkey wouldn't work until the Shambala border control office opened in the morning, which happened a little after 1:00 a.m. London time. Apparently, border control (or, according to the sign on the door via Harry's new translation charm, "Greeting and Guidance of Visitors") was the only thing open at that hour; they were chivvied out a side door in the back wing of a near-silent palace, onto a dingy street that hummed with distant chants, where their palace guide commended them to the care of a child. She was a girl, slightly too young for Hogwarts, with light brown skin and wispy brown hair that escaped from her ponytails, and after staring in astonishment for several seconds, broke into a smile and began chattering merrily.

Harry could hear the soft patter of her actual words under those created in his head by the translation charm. It was like listening to a translated interview on the radio, except that the translation was in the same voice. It even had the lag of a radio interview. Harry thought that some of the words had been rearranged, because the pauses didn't match.

"I guide you to mother hostess," she told them brightly, as she cut between a creaking carriage drawn by some sort of ox-like creature, and two whispering women with wicker rucksacks. "The best rooms, and near the palace. Did you come to buy a Cloud-Yak?"

"Thank you," Severus said politely, something about his translation making the girl giggle. "No, we do not want a Cloud-Yak."

"There was a man who bought a Cloud-Yak last year. Most far-away-people who visit, they take plants only. Will you take plants?"

"Perhaps a few," Severus answered. "Why do you think we will take something?"

She laughed, skipping on and off a stone beside the street like a beam of sunshine in the dull morning. "Oh, you do not look like trekkers or pilgrims, and you do not make photographs. But I heard you return to see officer of exports." Her nose wrinkled as she made a face. "I do not take you to his office. "

"Is he mean?" Harry asked.

She shook her head. "My father says he is a bad man."

"Why is he in the government, then?"

"Perhaps he is good at doing something?" she said doubtfully.

Severus sniffed. "A rather sophisticated question to pose a child, Harry," he commented. He had left his translation charm in place, but spoke quietly. The girl gave them a puzzled look.

 

The walk may have been short, but it seemed endless. Harry felt ready to drop by the time they got to their destination, which seemed to be a small boarding house. The woman there did not appear to be the girl's actual mother, just an adult she knew well, and she made no comment about the Secretary of Exports. After they had removed their shoes -- which took Harry some time, even with an unlacing charm -- they were shown to a room with a fine view of snow-covered mountain peaks and a multi-roofed temple, and were told that they could use the rickety staircase down to the gardens, if they did not want to enter through the house.

"Dear Merlin," Severus said, dropping down onto one of the cushions by the window. "I would have warned you not to wear those boots if I'd remembered you'd have to take them off all the time."

"I thought they'd be safer in the jungle."

"Oh, most probably. I expect you could kick the teeth out of a crocodile. But for town, let's purchase some in the local style. And you should keep your robes on, as I suspect what you have on underneath would be scandalous." Leaning over, Severus snagged the smaller of his two bags and pulled out a rolled case of potions vials. "Something for altitude? I'm exhausted."

"Oh, is that it? I thought it was that you put me through wandless magic drills, rather than letting me sleep."

"No, we're half-way into the mountains, here -- some of the world's highest. The manticore will be in the lowlands, of course."

"Of course," Harry replied dryly, taking the vial. He downed it gratefully, and closed his eyes against the warring sensations of the hideous taste and the glorious flow of strength returning to his limbs. "Oh, that's much better -- or it will be once I rinse my mouth out. I still want a nap, though."

"Not until afternoon," Severus replied warningly, "and then I'll keep it short."

"Why? The Secretary won't be in until noon, that wizard said."

"You need to adjust to the time change, and it will drag on longer if you coddle yourself now."

"Gah. Couldn't we have left in the morning, then?"

"If we did, we likely would have got here to be told that the Secretary leaves at one, and have lost a full day. There will be other applicants vying for this."

"Mm." Harry let his eyes close again, and found himself yawning. "I'm not sure I can stay awake."

"Stand up."

"Huh?"

Severus slapped him lightly on the thigh. "Up! We're going out."

"What for?"

"A brisk walk. Something to eat, perhaps -- I expect there will be a square near the temple."

"With food?" Harry wasn't sure he was hungry. For a moment, Severus looked uncertain.

"The priests -- no, they probably eat in seclusion. But there are certainly other people on the street. Tourists, even. Tourists need food."

Reluctantly, Harry hauled himself up to a sitting position and pulled over the brass-toed boots.

"Not inside! Come out to the staircase."

 

They wandered around for a while, along narrow streets that cut in seemingly random directions, watching the mist dissolve in increasingly bright sunlight. Harry could tell he was too tired to appreciate things properly. They passed a tiered pagoda with elaborately carved slanting balconies and pointed end beams that should have been beautiful, but it all looked as dark and dour as the dungeons at Hogwarts. Even the fluttering strips of red cloth at the eves, tipped with glittering gold, seemed damp and tawdry, rather than Gryffindor-bright. Perhaps it was just hunger, Harry thought. By this point, the time he calculated it to be at home felt just as wrong as the time around them.

Finally, at the edge of a small brown brick plaza, they found someone selling food -- balls of cheese, with rounds of flat bread that were close to what Harry would have expected from a curry shop. He supposed that made sense; the book he'd found while Severus was at the Ministry said that the Asian Manticore had about the same range as the Bengal tiger, so they must be near India, relatively speaking. While they wandered, they saw a few tourists heading out with walking sticks, and one that they agreed looked British -- to Harry's amusement, he turned out to be French -- directed them to a market. This early, there were still spaces for absent tents, but they managed to find someone who had slip-on shoes of wool and fleece. There was even a tray of ones with Impermeability charms on the soles and water-repellent above. Harry picked out a pair only to have the seller pull them away. "For women!" he chided, and offered another set. "These will suit you better."

The translation charm seemed to be learning.

 

Rather than touring the temple, they went back to their room. It was still hours early for their meeting and after Harry had taken off his boots -- for the last time until they left for the hunt, he hoped -- he started across the room to the sleeping mat. Severus caught him by the collar as if he was still a child.

"None of that. You are going to practice wandless magic."

"Again?" Released, Harry turned and glared at him. "Shouldn't I get time to rest and absorb the lessons?"

"I believe more in immersion. You should be capable of invoking your skills at any time, under any circumstances." Severus tilted his head up. "Let me consider...."

"You know, when I was little, I'd be looking up your nose when you did that."

"Excuse me?"

"Sniffing up in the air like a Malfoy." Harry demonstrated, following it with a strut forward. He managed to get half-way across the room before Severus hit him with some hex that brought him up short.

"What was that?" Harry felt like he'd walked into a squishy wall. He turned to see Severus regarding him, his arms crossed over his chest so tightly that they were drawing in his light travel robes.

"That was a Keep Close charm. They are primarily used for toddlers and ill-trained Krups."

"I'm not a child."

"No, but you are behaving like one."

"Because you're treating me like one! How am I supposed to know what you want me to do?"

"You knew you were not to sleep."

Harry grinned at him. Suggestively, he began to undo his robes. "Who said anything about sleeping?"

"Hmph." Still, Severus looked thoughtful, as he studied him. "Very well. Harry, as we have sufficient extra time, I believe it would be a good idea for you to practice casting wandless charms for a few minutes before moving on to anything recreational. In fact, I think you should do so several times a day, until you can perform the most critical tasks under any circumstances."

Nodding, Harry drew his wand and passed it to Severus. "That's better." He shrugged the robes off and tossed them towards the wall. "Summon my wand, Disarm, and what else?"

"I would like it if you could manage the Confundus charm, but it's not one of your better ones. Too indirect, I believe."

"Probably. How about the Patronus charm?"

Severus nodded. "A good addition, as it has multiple uses." He set Harry's wand on the windowsill. "Begin."

 

Harry went through the exercise on the edge of exhaustion, but that didn't seem to interfere with his abilities. He was too tired to be distracted, perhaps. He wasn't sure how long it went on -- fifteen minutes? Twice that? Severus called a halt when he had cast each of the spells several times in a row. Only the Patronus charm was still taking too much time.

"Catch!"

Harry had only an instant to realize that Severus was tossing his wand obliquely across the room. In blind panic, he summoned it from mid-air.

"Adequate." Despite the word, Severus exuded satisfaction. "We will do two more sessions like this today, if time permits, and tomorrow we will work in environments that disrupt your focus."

That could certainly be interesting, Harry thought, as he sheathed his wand. He flopped down on the sleeping mat and rolled onto his back. "Kay."

"Stay awake," Severus snapped.

Smiling slightly, Harry stretched his arms over his head. He could feel the cool air striking the narrow strip of skin exposed by his rising t-shirt. "Make me."

Severus paused, and then his lips stretched in a thin smile. "So it's come to that, has it?" He stepped closer, until he was looking straight down at Harry. "Hm. Whatever shall I do?"

Harry wet his lips and twisted on the mat, but made no suggestions. As he had hoped, Severus dropped to one knee and reached for that exposed skin.

He was completely unprepared to be tickled.

"Gah!"

He was, somehow, across the mat and in a crouch, wand out. Severus snorted.

"Very good. Now...." Harry remained wary as Severus reached again. This time, the hand went more where he had expected, settling at the crotch of his jeans. "Good boy," Severus whispered, leaning so close that his breath heated Harry's ear. "We wouldn't want you to lose those reflexes."

Harry felt a momentary spike of offense. Hadn't he proved those reflexes just before lying down? But Severus was bringing him up with one hand as he brought his zip down with the other, and wasn't forgiveness essential to any relationship? He twisted against the rough fabric beneath him, helping Severus work his tight jeans down.

"May I touch you, sir?"

The breathless plea widened the true black at the heart of Severus's dark eyes. "Wait," he answered, denying them both, and backed away to stretch the jeans over Harry's bare feet. Those discarded, he stood and undid his own robes, button by button until Harry looked away, trying not to yawn. A flash of white recaptured his attention; Severus had dropped the robes and pulled his shirt off over his head. The wide placket of his trousers hanging open, he knelt over Harry's legs, his swelling cock spilling out as he leaned forward.

"No, I think." His voice was so low that Harry had to strain to hear the words. "Indeed, I believe that you need your hands bound."

Harry expected his wand to snap out, but instead, Severus stretched out over Harry's body to fasten cuffs over his crossed wrists. Harry knew these. Wide, woven of the deceptively delicate threads of the Fairy Worm, they took no more space in Severus's pocket than a silk handkerchief, but they held like leather. He wondered if it mattered. With all this training in wandless magic, could he counter the binding? Annoyingly, he still had attention to devote to the question. He lay still and tried not to think while Severus anchored the short band between the cuffs to the mat with a simple Sticking charm.

Arcing his chest up, Severus pushed his lower body down against Harry's bare legs. "No, you're not doing anything," he ground out, in time to the thrusts that drove his cock along the narrow trough of Harry's thighs. Each stroke prodded Harry's bollocks with not-quite bruising force. Harry thought it should be exciting, but he was too tired to focus, leaving just discomfort.

"I want more," he warned.

Uneven teeth bared as Severus pushed harder.

"How unfortunate for you."

Harry tensed. His eyes narrowed. What was that incantation Severus had used on him yesterday -- no, this morning? Something related to "ejaculate." He couldn't remember the difference and didn't care. Whispering the word, he focused on the shadow between them and unleashed all the power he could muster.

Severus yelped -- actually yelped, like a frightened puppy. Harry's balls and thighs were wet. For a moment, he was afraid that the liquid was something else, but when Severus pulled back, his face was darkening with fury. Harry's bonds didn't open, but they split from the mat, letting him curl over and rock up.

"You absolute brat!"

Harry's heart was hammering. "You won't do that to me twice!"

Severus flinched back, eyes widening. He looked uncertain. "Harry...." he began awkwardly, and Harry felt suddenly guilty. It had been a typical game, really; he just hadn't had the patience for it. Though he still felt Severus had deserved what he got.

"Didn't you want me to practice?" he said blandly, his heart hammering.

Severus looked away. "Yes, of course," he said slowly.

That was not what Harry had expected. The teasing comment was meant to be a way out for both of them; instead, Severus still sounded uneasy. Harry swallowed. "What do you want?" he asked, and winced at how plaintive he sounded.

"I...." Severus ended the pause with a huff. "Nine hours of sleep, I expect."

"You were the one who wouldn't--"

"I am quite aware of that!"

"Look, I'm sorry. I don't know why-- Can I make it up to you?"

That at least got Severus to look at him, but Harry couldn't read his expression at all. He waited, worrying that Severus was truly offended.

Finally, Severus nodded. "Tomorrow," he said. "For now, we should attend our meeting, eat something more than bread and cheese, and return to an early bed."

Harry shrugged. He knew he should object to a plan that boring. Instead -- to his horror -- he yawned. "All right," he said grudgingly.

"However," Severus continued, raising his head, "I expect your submission -- with no contest -- during the meeting."

Here, Harry felt himself on firmer ground. Combined with Severus's now normal manner, the demand reassured him. "To what extent?"

"Nothing too outré. If this culture had more chairs, I would have you kneel at my feet, but we are likely to both be near the floor."

 

 

The street was not crowded, but it was foreign, forcing Harry to think about how to behave. At least he didn't need to worry about where they were going; rather than adjusting his behavior when they reached the office, he followed behind Severus, who walked swiftly to the lower palace gate. There they were stopped by a guard who looked them over with obvious disapproval. Harry wondered if he objected to their dull English robes, or to Severus's polished leather shoes. Perhaps it was his hair. He hadn't spiked it up after their travel; without the stiffening potion, it reverted to its natural messy state. Harry looked past him at the worn brown bricks of wall.

"I am here to see the Secretary of Exports," Severus said haughtily, presenting their travel papers.

The guard muttered something that Harry's translation charm couldn't handle, and then his voice rose. "Have you a legitimate reason for this ... appointment?"

"To discuss approval for an export," Severus replied icily. Harry could almost hear the unsaid "you dolt" at end. "Do you serve as an assistant to his office? For if not, discussion of contracts seems improper at best, and potentially larcenous, at worst."

The guard scowled, but with a nod to his partner, led them across the small courtyard to a tall, dark door, carved with beasts and leaves. Inside, they turned down a gloomy corridor, with torches unlit beneath the uncertain light of high windows. At the end, they did not turn, but stopped at a smaller carved door. Beside it was a sign full of squiggles that Harry's translation charm rendered as "Office of Outgoing Things." The guard stood, arms crossed, while Severus knocked. Only when the door opened did he turn and leave.

Harry was just drawing a breath of relief when he saw Severus's back stiffen. Reflexively, he flexed his forearm against his wand, but no hexes flew. Severus even stepped forward.

"Mr. Secretary," he said politely, and a pleasant voice answered.

"Mr ... Snape, is it? Please come in. I am--" The translation charm leant a slight reverb effect to the softened English words below it. That might have been what caused Harry to miss the man's name, but just as disruptive was the vibration in his collar as Severus flicked his thumb quickly against his ring, warning of trouble. "—But you may call me Owen," the Secretary of Exports continued, "My friends at Oxford found that far easier to say."

Despite the vibration, Severus did not move as if he was under attack. His polite, insincere greeting drifted back as he stepped forward, giving Harry a view of the office. He saw no obvious danger. The Secretary of Exports, a smooth-faced man with robes in the multi-colored stripes favored by the natives, was all smiles, something Harry had not seen in the palace before. He shook Severus's hand, and then motioned him towards the stiff, upholstered chairs set to one side of his desk. The decor was disconcertingly European, with native flourishes of color -- perhaps overly ornate, but in no way foreboding. The Secretary was settling behind his desk when he noticed Harry. His eyebrows lifted.

"And who is this young man?"

"My assistant," Severus said curtly, making a quick chop of his hand downward as he took a seat in one of the three chairs before the great, carved desk. "Sit, Jack. I want legible notes, this time."

Harry's spike of resentment almost immediately gave way to furious thought. Severus could be trying to humiliate him ... but then why the invented name, and the warning? And how was he supposed to get parchment and a quill? He couldn't conjure them without the stranger noticing. Usually, it was Severus who took notes. Deciding to concede where he could, he moved to Severus's side and knelt on the thick wool carpet.

Beside him, he saw Severus's hand twitch against his trouser leg.

"Very nice," the Secretary murmured.

Severus said nothing as he extracted his miniaturized lap desk from an inner pocket, but his hand brushed Harry's arm as he passed it to Harry. Harry, now quite certain some trouble was afoot, expanded the desk and its contents without comment, placing it before him on the carpet. He pretended to focus on it, while taking in as much else as he could. Under the secretary's desk, he could see the curled toes of Owen-whatever's slippers, as the man sat.

"Perhaps notes are premature at a first meeting," the official commented. "I have received a message that you are interested in the Manticore, Mr. Snape, but we do not yet have a hunting application from you."

"It is, however, a Manticore," Snape answered silkily. "You do, I expect, want the matter dealt with before there are more deaths to account for?"

The man shrugged with casual grace. "Deaths are not under my department," he said. "Obtaining adequate compensation for a valuable export is. We are not a rich country, Mr. Snape."

Harry wondered what he could write, other than Sec. of Exports a git, or wants bribe. He settled for Manticore = deaths, comp. needed.

"Most nations have regulations for such matters," Snape observed.

"Indeed," the Secretary agreed, without apparent offence. "Did you wish to hunt an elephant or a tiger, or to purchase a cloud yak, or a quantity of carved jade, I could read you the tariff from a list. Manticores, however, are unusual. This is the first to qualify for harvesting in fifty-six years."

He was saying he hadn't dealt with it before, Harry supposed. The man looked to be in his mid-thirties. Still, that was tantamount to declaring incompetence. Indeed, Severus sniffed disparagingly.

"And my application will help you to establish the appropriate tariff?"

"No, you misunderstand me. The application is needed to establish that you are a qualified hunter of dangerous Magical Creatures, and do not face charges of unapproved harvesting. The Asian Manticore is a rare and valuable beast. I do not issue permits to fools who may kill the wrong one."

Severus nodded. "That is prudent. You will find, I believe, that my reputation as a hunter is flawless." That was rich, as Harry was the one to hold that license internationally. To look busy, he scribbled down care, reputation, protected creature. Severus reached a hand across the desk. Harry could just see his long fingers unfolding at the edge of his vision. "The application, then?"

From a narrow rack, the Secretary took down a thin scroll hung with scarlet ribbons, and from his chest pocket, he drew a short, carved stick that was also hung with ribbons -- but in this case short ones, of purple, gold, and black. It was not until he tapped the carved stick against the scroll, creating a ribbonless copy, that Harry realized it was some sort of wand.

"Complete this succinctly but fully," he said, "and return it in the morning."

Snape's fingers tensed again. "Not today?"

"I am afraid I have other business that will occupy my afternoon," the Secretary returned. "You may come at ten, if you are impatient."

Severus stood. "We will see you then."

The word "we" was the first indication that Harry had any significance.

 

Outside the palace, Severus cut off Harry's attempt to speak. "In our rooms. Come."

They walked even more swiftly than they had come, but also less directly, at one point cutting through the shoe-seller's tent, and at another, entirely circling one building and then going half way around the next. Harry watched for pursuit, but saw nothing suspicious. Everyone seemed to move slowly here, and although he felt they must look absurdly out of place, few people seemed curious about their presence.

"Let's get inside."

At the top of the stairs, Harry kicked off his new slippers. Severus, behind him, sent alarm spells at the steps below and at the nearby wall. Conjuring a mat over the threshold, he followed Harry inside still shod, and cast trigger spells on the windows and door, and then privacy spells all around.

"Tell me when you're ready," Harry said, crossing his arms over his chest.

"That should do it." Despite his words, Severus continued to peer out the small window in their door. Harry reached out and tapped him behind the knee, making him step out to catch his balance. Severus snarled.

"I am not in the mood for games."

"Then tell me what's going on! You sent me a warning, but nothing looked dangerous, and you've barely said a word since we left the palace!"

"I --" Exhaling slowly, Severus unlaced his shoes with two quick charms and moved to the sleeping mat. "You are correct. Join me, and I will explain."

Somewhat mollified, Harry sank down to the mat at arm's length from Severus.

"Go on, then."

"I was disturbed by the appearance of the Secretary of Exports."

"He looked normal enough to me."

"Quite. However, he also looked exactly like a man who came to visit with Voldemort -- just once, as far as I know -- many years ago. Shortly before you were born, I believe."

Harry hated the way Severus's mouth would twist when he said such things.

"You must have been quite young."

"Old enough to be too far into it."

"Do you think it's the same man?"

Severus scowled. "Logically, no. That was twenty years ago, and this man is no older than the one I remember. It may be, perhaps, his son. I may be exaggerating the resemblance in my memory; I did not know many people from this part of the world, at that age."

Harry thought about this for a minute. Severus hadn't been alarmed by anyone in the market.

"You're worried enough that you warded this place every way you could."

"I should have done that to begin with." Severus studied his stained nails for a moment. "It is ... My first thought was that if he is that man's son, he may be a danger. On the other hand, that is not necessarily so, even if his father continued to sympathize with my former lord. Draco, as we have noted, is not Lucius. It is enough, however, to indicate the possibility of a risk I had not anticipated."

"That was why you changed my name!"

"Exactly." Severus reached forward, hesitated, and then set his hand over Harry's, as he never would have a year earlier. "He may still regard you as an enemy."

"And you!"

"I am far less ... notorious."

Harry frowned. "Enough that he'll make the connection when he starts looking into your reputation."

"Perhaps." Severus actually squeezed his hand at that. "But.... It is your decision. We could risk that the son is not the father ... or we could go home."

"And pass up the Manticore?"

"We are ... comfortable enough."

Hearing Severus say that they didn't need more money -- even obliquely -- was a warming concession. Harry shook his head. "I think we should stay. Not everyone is like his father, you know."

Severus almost smiled. "Touché." He tugged, and Harry came to him. When they were lying together, he brought his mouth to Harry's ear, so close that Harry was expecting some taut, obscene suggestion.

"You matter more," he breathed.

They fell asleep without dinner.

 

The first time that Harry woke, it was still dark, and Severus had turned on his back and was snoring behind him. Harry poked him until he rolled onto his side, quieting his breathing, and then immediately went back to sleep. The second time he woke, light was seeping through the papered windows, and Severus was just shutting the door behind him, having apparently returned from outside.

"Did I oversleep?"

"No. It's late enough that I had a second option as to where to buy some cheese and bread, but no more than that. Get dressed, and we will share it."

The whole thing was disorienting, Harry thought. He had no sense of what time it was. It wasn't unusual for Severus to arise early, but considering that he hadn't got off the day before, Harry had expected to be prodded awake, not fetched breakfast. Harry wondered if Severus was genuinely offended by his behavior the previous day, or annoyed at him for not waking earlier. He dressed quickly, throwing on jeans and a button-down shirt that he left open. To his relief, Severus looked covetously down the bare slice of skin, but then -- confusingly -- away.

"Sit. You should eat something before we talk."

Harry's stomach twisted. "Do you think I can eat with that hanging over me? If you're going to rant at me about hexing you, get it over with."

Severus blinked. "Dear Merlin. You cannot think I am angry at you."

"Well, what else would I think?" Harry retorted.

"After I have let you sleep and brought you breakfast?"

Harry shrugged. "Slytherins?" he suggested sheepishly.

Severus huffed out one of his half laughs. "As it happens, I feel I treated you badly yesterday. In my defense, I was as tired and off-balance as I suspect you were, but even so, I did not pay adequate attention to your reactions."

"But it would usually have been all right," Harry argued. He looked down at the table. "And I should have been clearer before just firing that off at you."

"Perhaps." Severus considered. "It is something like this: we were both awake all night and into a second day, and our usual mock battle -- whether you are consciously aware of it or not -- requires subtlety."

Harry nodded, relieved that they were being ascribed equal responsibility. "I do know that, actually. So you mean we were so tired that we messed it up?"

"It would seem. In the future, perhaps we should limit ourselves to something clearer and more directly negotiated when neither of us is completely awake."

"That makes sense," Harry agreed, tearing off some of the bread Severus extended. "Part of it was that I was just too tired for anything slow. I mean, I couldn't stay focused...."

Severus swallowed a bite of the food. "I see. And rather than saying that you were bored--"

"I said I wanted more." Harry ducked his head. "But I do, don't I?"

"Exactly. And that is why I must pay attention. Because I very much enjoy it when you beg, and would be disappointed if you only did so when you truly, urgently, mean it."

Harry grinned. "Better not use that hex on me again, then."

"Ah." Severus narrowed his eyes. "Yes. You were correct that I had not experienced it. It was more unpleasant than I had expected."

"Yeah."

"Yes. Which I should have been aware of before using it on you."

"So remember that." The words having sounded harsh, Harry ducked his head in apology. "It wasn't too bad. I know potions don't wait."

"Still, I think I will find some other remedy next time."

"Okay. And if I'm really upset, I think you'll know."

"Apparently, but I would prefer to find out without being hexed."

Harry laughed. "You wanted me to practice."

"And still do. I, it seems, will have to cultivate neglected craft commensurately."

 

**********

 

Harry seemed disconcerted by cuddling without sex, so Severus made a point of remarking that any further activity should wait until after the meeting, when they had some sense of their schedule. Unsure how to make conversation in the face of Harry's restlessness, Severus suggested they start out, although it was earlier than he had planned. It was just as well. He found his steps dragging as they approached the palace. Exotic design did not keep it from being as foreboding as any squat castle. At the finally turn, a more immediate threat caught his attention. He pulled Harry into the narrow space between a house and a rickety goat pen.

"What?"

"Look."

Severus pointed at blond, burly man coming from the palace. His robes were brown, with irregular swirls of green, to better blend in to a forest or jungle. A lanky teen walked behind him, with two hunting dogs on a split lead. Both pulled to sniff at the edges of the road.

"Jansen," Harry muttered. "Wasn't he working with a woman before?"

"His last apprentice lost an arm collecting Yeti claws over the summer," Severus answered blandly. "Lucky to survive, I heard. The one before that didn't."

Frowning, Harry looked over. "Bad planner?"

"Quite a good one, I expect," Severus said sourly. "He hasn't been injured in years."

From the flash of his narrowing eyes, Harry understood, although he did not comment. "Huh. Wonder if we'll see those Polynesian girls with the diving eagle? They were rather fun."

Severus snorted. "I believe they specialize in oceanic creatures. But yes, Jansen is clearly here as a competitor."

The person in question having turned down a side street, they emerged and resumed their walk.

 

Today's guard seemed less suspicious, or perhaps he was more prepared, having presumably just seen Jansen. "You have come about the Manticore?" he asked, frowning at their papers.

"Precisely," Severus answered.

"I wish you luck in the hunt." A spicy scent wafted off the man as he re-rolled their travel papers and slipped them back in their protective tube. Severus thought he should know it, but it was in the wrong context. "My sisters live down mountain – too close to the beast."

"Have you any suggestions for getting authorized?" Severus asked. He drew a few galleons from his pocket, and toyed with them as he spoke, in tacit offer. The man watched as he shrugged.

"Like anyone else, I suppose. Your apprentice –"

"Partner," Severus corrected.

"Ah. Then not useful as trade, even if you could make him look younger."

Severus did not tense like a hunting dog, but it was an act of will. The guard cleared his throat and continued.

"The honored secretary likes to travel. Information or connections to smooth a trip might please him."

Severus nodded and fumbled with the coins, dropping all of them and picking up only one. He and the guard both ignored the others, except for a slight shuffle forward, which put the guard's foot on two of them.

"How young does the secretary like his boys?" Severus asked casually, not looking at Harry. The guard twitched.

"I don't know," he answered quickly, his voice growing higher with tension. "It is gossip." He stepped back off the coins. Severus pretended not to notice.

"Oh come," Severus urged. "I won't repeat it."

The man hesitated. "It is charity, of course," he said quickly. "He takes in orphan beggars that he finds on his travels, and they leave when they are old enough to care for themselves. No one has any reason to believe otherwise."

"I see." Severus began to toy with a few more galleons. "Is he known to be a charitable man in other things?"

The guard hesitated, then looked back at the empty courtyard. "He has sometimes cared for older people -- ones without family."

"Do they leave him money, these older people?"

"It is well known that he donates all moneys to the king," the guard said, more confidently. He twisted the keys at his belt. "They may die suddenly -- but old people do die, of course."

"Of course." Severus shook the man's hand, exchanging the galleons. "Thank you for the entertainment, then. I will be sure to give no credence to such calumny, should I hear it."

"That would be wise," the man said, pocketing the coins. "The secretary has the king's confidence."

He closed the gate and led them across the courtyard and just inside the building beyond, where he led them around the corner and gestured down the passageway to the Secretary's door. To Severus's dismay, it was open. There would be no chance to discuss the guard's revelations with Harry. He glanced over in question, but Harry's reply was just a steady Gryffindor nod, as if Harry would back him in any action. Even after two years, that trust still disconcerted him.

In the office, Owen walked forward to greet them.

"I am glad to see you again, Mr. Snape. You are looking more rested."

"Quite," Severus answered. "And I believe I neglected to introduce my partner, Mr. Harry Potter?"

The secretary's eyebrows twitched up. "That is not what you called him yesterday."

"Ah. There are other names we use. They ... encode certain instructions."

The man laughed, showing gleaming white teeth. "Instructions such as 'kneel at my feet?'" He leered at Harry.

"Exactly." Severus lifted his considerable nose. "But for now, I present him as one of the most skilled collectors in the world -- quick, intuitive, and fearless."

 

**********

 

After Severus's introduction, Harry found Owen's attention turned on him. He looked back steadily into the evaluating gaze. Owen glanced at Severus. "Yet he does not speak?"

Harry squared his shoulders. "I do when I have something to say."

Owen's eyebrows rose, but his teeth flashed in a grin. "And in all of yesterday's discussion, there was nothing?"

Harry rolled his eyes visibly. "Tariffs, forms -- that's Severus's job." It was true, but he also said it more plainly than necessary. It had occasionally benefited them to have people underestimate his understanding of those particular details. "When we're collecting hunting information, then I'll talk."

Severus nodded. "And I had required his submission, as you will recall."

Owen appeared to recall it quite fondly, from the way his eyes rested on Harry. Severus motioned to a chair. "Sit, Harry." He sat also, as Owen finally moved behind his desk. "Another thing I did not mention yesterday..."

"Yes?"

"You look disconcertingly familiar. Have you an older relative who traveled to England, when he was your age, or close to it?"

The man frowned thoughtfully. "Yes," he said finally. "My father went there on a matter of business -- twice I believe -- and again when I was I was doing research at the library of Hildegard's College."

"Business?"

"With that man who caused so much trouble -- what was his name? Voldimore, or some such." He smiled disarmingly at Harry. "Nothing political, you understand. Merely a matter of some shared interests -- in, we say, arcana?"

Dark Arts or artifacts, Harry thought, but he nodded pleasantly.

"The Dark Lord was a most impressive scholar before madness overcame his knowledge," Severus said dryly. "Now, if we might review our application...?"

 

Harry spend the next hour listening to a rambling conversation that he recognized as a Slytherin sort of negotiation -- contorted and tedious, with neither party ever saying what was meant. The Minister waxed lyrical about the rare and wondrous creature they wished to hunt, and with great worry confided that he was not sure that foreigners should be allowed to take such a cultural treasure from his land. Severus spoke of hunting traditions and wildlife management, the danger to the populace, and the surety of hefty export revenue after their successful hunt. With neutral murmurs, the Secretary tightened and loosened the curl of their application parchment, sometimes studying Harry more than Severus, and then, after some pause, began his disconnected rhapsody again.

After this repeated for several cycles, he merely said he would review their application and they should return after lunch. Harry wondered if that was before or after Jansen.

 

"Should we be eating here?"

They had been served little bites of tasty food, and Harry wanted to enjoy it, but he couldn't stop looking from the door to outside over to the curtain hiding the kitchen.

"Is it not to your taste?"

"It's delicious, so far, but I'm worried about that creepy secretary suggesting it. What if he's setting us up?"

"Paying the cook to poison us, you mean?"

"Something like that, yeah."

"I find it unlikely. Besides, I have a beozar in my pocket."

Harry laughed. "Good to know. Do you think we're getting anywhere, though? All these delays -- he could be taking bids on us."

"I am far less worried after this morning's negotiations. I expect we are just easing towards a bribe."

"One worth paying?"

"That sort of man knows not to charge more than the market will bear. However, it could cut into our profits considerably, especially if we are led into a bidding war with other applicants."

"Maybe we could offer him something else?" Harry suggested. He had been thinking of potions -- Severus could often make things that people had trouble buying -- but as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized what else they could mean.

Severus studied him, with an intensity that made Harry's face heat. "You said you found him 'creepy'?"

"Very."

"Unfortunate." Severus looked away.

"You know -- not physically," Harry amended. "I mean, if you were there...."

Severus raised his eyebrows.

"Oh, come on -- this has been a fantasy of ours since the start! I just want it clear I listen to you, not him."

Snape nodded. "Very well. I admit the idea intrigues me, although I would have not have been the one to suggest it."

"I was thinking of your talents when I first said it," Harry confessed. "But then...."

"Ah."

"How do you make that sort of offer?"

Severus sat back. He steepled his hands, and lowered his chin. "Indirectly."

Harry laughed. "Yours."

 

**********

 

Severus could have approached the matter less bluntly than "I want a tunic under your robes --nothing more." However, then he would have not been able to appreciate Harry's wide-eyed shock.

"I don't own a tunic! And if I did, I wouldn't have packed it."

"If you feel your transfiguration skills are not up to the task, I will do it for you."

"I don't even know what you mean."

"I was picturing something for a Roman slave boy. Your hair will suit that. Give me the lightest-colored T-shirt you have with you."

Harry's eyes had widened again, but Severus was confident that the shiver down his body was one of excitement. In a few wild seconds of rummaging through his things, he pulled out a nearly white shirt, with a torn collar and a worn print of the War Thestrals '97 tour logo on the front.

"Very good. Now take off all your clothes."

When Harry was naked -- standing properly still, hands clasped behind his back, and cock amusingly at half mast -- Severus held the T-shirt up to him and made thoughtful noises, as if this was terribly important. It was useful to see how many inches he needed to lengthen it, of course, but the fun was in dragging the cloth over Harry's swelling erection, as if by chance.

He brought the garment down to mid-thigh, getting some of the added length by substantially widening the neck hole and disposing of the sleeves, but more from making the fabric thinner. Switching from net to weave of course gave him leeway to make the garment wider, but by the time he had dropped it over Harry's shoulders and secured it with a gold belt, there was little substance to the fabric. He cast a looking glass spell on the wall, and got to watch Harry's eyes widen again.

"It looks a bit like a dress," he said doubtfully.

Severus smirked. "With the way you're pushing it out in front, I wouldn't worry about being mistaken for a girl." Pocketing the items he had pulled out of his bag while Harry was rooting through his, he dropped to his knees in front of Harry and lifted the front of the thin garment. For a moment, he enjoyed nuzzling at the musky curls there.

"I suppose if you like--"

Harry stopped speaking quite abruptly as Severus took his cock in his mouth. His hands came to Severus shoulders and hung on as Severus moved sloppily up and down the length.

"God, yeah, do that."

Severus stopped. "Lie down."

"Okay." Harry dropped readily to the sleeping mat. "Like this?"

"Yes, but knees up." At Harry's questioning look, Severus pulled out a short butt plug and twisted it back and forth where Harry could see. "This man is an unknown. I want you ready enough to withstand careless handling without harm."

Harry's shoulders thumped back on the mat. "This is going to be another tease, isn't it?"

"Inevitable, I'm afraid," Severus returned, as he lubed the thick wedge. "But if he doesn't make the wait worth your while, I promise that I will do so upon our return."

"Good to kn-- ... Ah!"

Severus stroked Harry's cock with his left hand, while he rubbed the tip of the lubed plug along the cleft of Harry's buttocks. After a few passes, he put the toy down in favor of playing the pad of his thumb more directly around the folds there, and watching Harry's eyes close in pleasure. He took Harry's cock back into his mouth as he pressed in with his thumb, and Harry tilted forward, ready for more. Severus pushed the thumb into him as he slid his lips loosely down Harry's cock and then tightly up. With his free hand, he pulled a collection of leather straps out of his pocket and ran it along the crack of Harry's arse.

"Please, yes!"

Severus removed his thumb and worked the slender plug in, making Harry buck with pleasure. He felt a stab of regret as he slipped the strip of leather up under the lower bound of his lips and clipped it closed.

"Hey!"

Letting Harry's hard cock slip noisily out of his mouth, Severus looked up with a smirk, attaching the straps for the bollocks below Harry's already constrained cock. "I believe this will make a very clear offer," he said, coming to his feet. "Robes on, now -- you can't be out on the street like that."

 

**********

 

Harry was uncomfortable walking, but no one seemed to notice, as far as he could tell. When they arrived at the palace, the guard who had taken Severus's coins was still at the gate, but he had a partner this time. He silently accompanied them to the corridor, leaving with a nod.

Owen looked up with a frown when they are entered.

"Mr. Snape." His eyes shifted to Harry, looking him up and down for longer than seemed merited. Harry wondered if his state was visible even through the thick wool of his robes. "How good of you to return so promptly."

Severus acknowledged with a nod.

"Have you considered my reservations?"

"Of course," Severus said. "And further discussion seems merited, but I thought it might benefit the discourse if we were more relaxed."

Owen's eyebrows came up. "By what means?" he asked. "I do not bargain while intoxicated."

"Of course not," Severus agreed. "But that does not constrain us to undo formality." He stroked a hand down Harry's neck and spine. "Robes off, Jack."

Owen's eyes widened at the name, perhaps in recollection of Severus's previous explanation. Looking down to hide a smile, Harry unfastened his robes and dropped them to the soft carpet. His constrained erection pushed his thin tunic out in a stretched peak. Excitement rose to meet his strained physical state as he heard the man suck in a quick breath.

"You seemed to find him intriguing," Severus said smoothly, moving behind Harry. His robes were thick behind Harry's barely covered arse as he pulled him close with a hand on his hip. With the other, he stroked up Harry's shaft. "I thought you might appreciate him like this."

"Quite attractive," Owen breathed. "I may do more than look, I presume?"

Severus pressed against Harry hard before shifting back. "Within my presence only. He is my dearest possession, you understand. I offer you enjoyment of him -- within limits, but his range is quite extensive."

"He was on his knees before."

At the slightest cue from Severus, Harry dropped to his knees again. Owen stepped closer, one hand moving to the front of his robes.

"Very nice."

"He's quite good with his mouth," Severus said, tracing a finger across Harry's lips. Harry caught it and sucked it in. "And I have prepared him for more intense penetration, should you prefer a harder grip."

"In the grand British tradition," Owen returned, his voice harsh with lust. "I recall that part of my academic career quite fondly." He parted his heavy robes and fumbled briefly with loose trousers before pulling out a hard cock, curving up. The tip pushed against Harry's lips and he opened them to take it in, rewarded with a moan of pleasure. "Not too much of this," Owen muttered. He pulled back after less than a minute. Harry found it disorienting at first, but it was less so when a hand gripped his arse. "Over my desk."

Harry froze. He didn't mind servicing the man, but he would not take orders from him. Behind him, Severus chuckled.

"My insistence on being present is not only for my benefit. I'm the only one he obeys, you see." His voice changed. "Harry, pull up your tunic and lean over the desk. Now."

It was excitingly lewd to do as instructed, baring his bum and displaying it with a bend forward. It was almost worth the pressure on his aching cock.

"Anything else?" Severus asked idly.

"Bind him."

Severus's usual smooth, wide ribbons slid over Harry's wrists and pulled them together behind his back. Another pair snaked around Harry's ankles, connecting them, but loosely, leaving enough slack to widen his stance another few inches.

"Closer?" Severus asked Owen, behind him. "Further?"

"Acceptable as it is," the man said, moving closer. The butt plug rocked as he grasped it. He twisted it to the side, making Harry moan. With no further warning, Owen pulled it out. Harry yelped.

"Oh, don't worry," Owen soothed. "I'll replace that with much better." With only that warning, he thrust in. Over his own startled gasp, Harry just caught a faint sound of appreciation from Severus. That was encouraging. He pushed back on Owen's cock, thinner -- and possible longer -- than he was accustomed to. Owen slowly drew it nearly out, only to push in again -- fast. He repeated that, feeling very unlike Severus. Excited and unsettled, Harry squirmed between the unfamiliar fucking and the hard desk.

"I hope you don't mind...." Severus said delicately, and Owen gasped out a laugh as he thrust again.

"Not at all. Please enjoy."

Trying to move his head as little as possible, Harry strained his eyes to the side to see. Severus had his own robes parted and was wanking with short, tight strokes.

"He is quite lovely," Severus said, the smooth words fighting with his uneven voice. "I am usually too close to appreciate it."

"Come closer," Owen ordered. "Rub against his face, but don't let him take you in."

Through what was now a haze of sensation, Harry wondered fleetingly if Owen was enjoying Severus's display as much as his arse. Severus didn't seem to be bothered by the possibility, or even that he might be seen as obeying. He moved up, his familiar cock pushing past Harry's cheek and then out of reach as Harry tried to lick it. Harry hoped one of the older men thought to let him come.

"Excited by this?" Owen asked, amused.

"The last few days...." Severus moaned and shoved against Harry's mouth before pulling away. "Travel distortion and privacy issues -- I haven't had an uninterrupted go at him since we got here."

Owen laughed again, the sound even more wrong than before. Harry judged he was on the verge, and Severus nearly as close. Harry tried to get his mouth to that cock and someone pulled at his hair, holding him back.

It must have been Owen, because Severus's fingers were across his lips. "Harry," he said smoothly. "Our host's rules."

Frustrated, Harry put his mouth to the edge of the hand and sucked on that instead. Beside his face, Severus's other hand was a blur on his cock, and Owen's thrusts had slowed and evened in time with his panting breaths. Severus gave first, with rough gasps of pleasure. Oddly, Owen's hand shot forward over Harry's back, and Severus's familiar cries changed, tightening, then rising to an anguished wail. He slumped forward. Harry jerked back from the sudden weight, trying to see, but the bonds were tight.

"What-- Severus!"

Severus slid from the table to the patterned carpet. His hair was grey, and the lines of his face were those of a far older man. His breath sighed out .... and to Harry's relief, stuttered in.

As a magical haze formed around his anger, Harry fought to keep it in check. He could break his bonds and fight -- but he had no idea what Dark Arts had aged Severus decades in a moment. If he pretended to be helpless, the Secretary might boast. Voldemort certainly would have.

"Severus!" Deliberately, Harry twisted to look wildly at Owen. The man was spitting something into his hand -- a polished stone. As Harry struggled for words, Owen looked up, the light falling on his face. As Severus was visibly older, Owen was younger -- only slightly older than Harry.

"What did you do to him?" Harry said, his voice low. "You took...."

Owen laughed. "Years! Exactly! " Owen preened. "For every two he has aged, I am one year younger."

Harry fumed at the injustice of that. Not only was it vile theft, but Owen did not even gain what Severus had lost. Fiercely, he pushed down protestations of loyalty. The important thing now was to find out enough to reverse what had been done to Severus. He refused to believe it was not possible.

"You over-reached," he spat. "Anyone can see you are younger. How do you explain that?"

"Hush," Owen ran a gentle hand back through Harry's hair, forcing a shudder from him. Harry hoped the man would take it as pleasure. "I have you."

"What?"

"I will give you the extra, and take it from you year by year. I am a kinder master than that one, I assure you. He is a harsh man. You can see it in the lines of his face." Owen's hand clenched in Harry's hair and he used the hold to stretch his head forward, forcing him to look down at Severus, who was at least breathing visibly. "I will be better to you."

Harry wanted to snarl, but he managed to sound merely doubtful. "By keeping me prisoner?"

"You're exaggerating, my pet. When you are grown again, you may leave, yes?" Owen moved closer. His erection had not diminished with the influx of youth and it poked Harry's thigh as he bit at the back of Harry's neck. "Think of it as a few years' holiday."

Harry gritted his teeth. "And if I don't want to stay? If I would rather have Severus?"

Owen chuckled. "You want another choice? I will age you to match your lover, and then you may leave with him."

Harry didn't believe that for a moment. He twisted back, sucking on his lip in a manner meant to look vulnerable.

"I'm very good at cooperating," he said, trying to sound young and nervous. The latter should not have been an effort, but was. The nerves were there, certainly, but displaying them took pushing down a much stronger fury. "I just don't want him hurt. He has been good to me, really, whatever you think. Can you give him back some years?"

"And age myself more?" Owen objected. "That's not the point."

"Does it have to be two to one, then?" Harry thought Severus might be coming around. He should have enough presence of mind to lie still and listen. "How do you do it?" he asked curiously.

Owen pulled off his ring.

"This stone," he said. "The Youth Well. It's related to the Philosopher's Stone -- easier to make, but far more limited. It doesn't give you youth itself, or even stave off death. Years must be taken from a man, via the touch of his seed, while the keeper of the stone holds it in his mouth. Or you can use blood from anyone, but that is less productive -- one year to eight, rather than one to two." He started to rub against Harry. "Can you be very good?" he asked teasingly.

Harry pushed back on Owen's cock, trying to focus on the sensation. He needed to look eager. Somehow, he had to get that stone to Severus, and then get Owen to come on him. "Yes," he promised. "I'm very good at all sorts of things." Like wandless magic that could have me out of these bonds in seconds, you idiot.

Owen brushed the stone across Harry's lips. It felt hot.

"Hold this in your mouth. When I climax, wait four seconds and then spit it out. That will give you four years -- eight of the ten I took." His tongue flicked over Harry's ear. "I'll wager you were pretty at that age."

Harry forced a moan. "I -- May I get on top of him, sir? I've always wanted to do that."

"Oh yes," Owen answered. "Oh, you do that." He moved more directly behind Harry, rubbing his cock along Harry's arse cheeks for a few seconds as he reached forward to undo Harry's cock ring. His stick shook by Harry's ear, and then pointed at Severus. New cords, these red, whipped out of the low table across the room, pulling Severus out of his slight curl and onto his back. His eyelids fluttered. With his face turned up, Harry could clearly see how the lines of it had deepened.

With a quick pat to Harry's buttocks, Owen pulled back to let him stand. The desk floated aside. Hands pressed down on Harry's shoulders, and, recognizing the clumsy cue, he fell to his knees. As nothing else moved, he shuffled forward that way. It was awkward, and painful, but Severus wasn't far. Harry squirmed over Severus's prone form -- he was certain the man was faking! -- a knee to either side of his legs, and as far forward as the hobble would allow. It was hard to balance with his hands tied behind him, but he didn't want raise suspicion by leaning too close right away.

"Let me give you a little more room," Owen murmured, extending the ankle binding a few inches.

"Thank you, sir." Harry edged forward to position his half-hard cock along Severus's flaccid one. He wished he could touch his collar to send a reassuring yes to the ring Severus wore.

"Four seconds, now," Owen warned, as he moved close in behind him. "Those bonds are self-adjusting. Take too much from me and you will starve to death in them. And don't swallow it, or you will grow too young to live."

"Understood, sir," Harry answered, squeezing in with his knees. He hoped Severus was listening to the instructions. If Owen had taken ten years from him, Severus would need to hold the stone for twenty to get what he'd lost back. Harry frowned. He wasn't good at counting in exact seconds. Severus was, of course, but may not have been conscious that early in the conversation.

Severus had opened his eyes, just a crack. Harry did his best to leer at him, and tongued the stone into his cheek to speak. "What, I'm not getting you hard now?" he taunted. That should cue Severus in, and might mislead Owen. "But you love rubbing against me. Is it different trapped? Or is twenty years older too much to get it up?"

Owen, as Harry had hoped, chuckled appreciatively. "Not so intimidating this way, is he? Don't worry. I have a good, strong staff for you."

"Let me feel it then," Harry panted. You really believe I don't care, don't you? Good. "But I want to-- If I can get him hard like this, that would be so sweet."

"I imagine so," Owen agreed, the stiff length of his cock rubbing along Harry's crack.

Harry expected Owen to resume fucking him and pull out at the last moment, but it was even better than that. The man didn't seem to want the complication of penetration. Instead, after adding more lube, he moved down between Harry's legs, and angled the tip so it went between him and Severus.

"Up and down against him," he whispered, and that gave Harry an excuse to lean forward. Without his hands free to hold himself up, it made sense to lie along Severus's body. He pushed up as far as his legs could go, putting their mouths even. There, he bit at Severus's lips, clearly keeping the stone to himself. Severus growled and twisted, and Harry drew back to do it again.

"Faithless brat," Severus snarled. "You can't go home if you kill me here. People will know."

"That you died?" Harry parried. "Occupational hazard, as you always say." Embarrassingly, he was hardening by the second. He could feel Owen's cock pushing past his balls and the base of his cock. The man had set up a rhythm, rutting between them. It was possible he would take a long time, but Harry wasn't going to count on it.

In the next pass, he kissed Severus. The man stayed impassive, and Harry had to force his lips open with his tongue. It was nothing to press the stone in. He twisted immediately.

"Ejaculate."

Owen gasped with shock, and then stiffened, as Severus had done. He collapsed forward. His weight was heavy on Harry's back and legs.

"Twenty seconds," Harry said quickly.

Severus nodded. Harry took a breath, pulled all his tension into a hard ball, and ruptured the spell binding his wrists. Feeling queasy with exhaustion and excitement, he took Severus's wand to free him. Severus was still moving his lips in a count, but his hair was black again.

"Are you--?

"Fifteen," Severus said firmly. "Sixteen."

Nodding, Harry shot a Full Body Bind at Owen, and then released the bonds on his own ankles, settling a little more firmly over Severus.

"I think--"

"Twenty-two."

"Severus!"

Severus spit out the stone with a smirk. "Oh, all right." He pocketed the little pebble. "It's just a year."

"Two. More, I think." Harry pushed along against him, Owen's weight adding force. "Dee's balls, I want to finish. This entire trip...."

"Do, then," Severus said, seizing his hips and pulling him more tightly down. He kicked out, shoving Owen's petrified body away. Harry hoped the man was still alive. It would be disturbing if not. "Rub against me, just like that."

"I'm not hurting you?"

"Consider your weight and my tolerance, no, you little tit. Harder."

Harry grinned. "Since you asked." He thrust harder. Severus let go on one side to grab his wand, and enhanced the experience with both lube and heat.

"Oh God!"

"Like that?"

"Brilliant. Love you. So fucking close."

"Do it."

Harry moaned. Severus moved a finger down to his arse -- not pushing in, just stroking over the sensitive skin there, and that was all Harry needed. He arched up, stars flashing across his vision as his mind and body lost control, and he roared pleasure into the dark room.

 

He was lying atop Severus, and he thought he might have been there a while. He was fairly sure that Severus had called him beautiful a few seconds ago, or longer. Slowly, he shifted his weight to one side, but managed to keep from saying sorry.

"All right?" he asked instead.

"Magnificent," Severus said intensely. "Although you still owe me one. The last time didn't count."

"Since you passed out?"

"And it was unpleasant -- even more so than the spell. I will not invite you to share the experience." After a quick nip of a kiss, Severus pushed him away. "But now to business. I suggest we flee."

Harry frowned and looked over at their captor. The man appeared to still be alive, but quite old -- more than seventy, at least.

"He attacked us," he protested.

"Yes, but we are strangers, and he -- according to that guard -- has the trust of the king."

Harry scowled. "I won't run. We came here to hunt a Manticore, and I won't have all this a waste!"

Severus rolled his eyes and pulled up his trousers. "Very well. We will make the attempt. However, you must be prepared to fight, and if I apparate away, you will do the same -- without delay -- and meet me at our room."

Mollified, Harry nodded. "Agreed. And we should talk to someone other than the king first."

"Of course." Severus raised his eyebrows. "Possibly that guard."

 

"Shall we bring him?" Harry asked when they had cleaned up and dressed. Owen was still sprawled to the side where Severus had shoved him. One side of his open robes was caught beneath him, leaving his flaccid cock on display.

"It will look suspicious."

"I'll fetch the guard, then."

"You will, my Gryffindor?"

Harry shot him a look. "I doubt he'll have as much sympathy for you," he retorted.

"Ah. Carry on, then."

Harry's slippers whispered on the worn stone as he stole up the corridor. It might have been an advantage, but Harry thought he would have felt less anxious in his loud boots. He looked back and saw Severus in the doorway, wand out, and felt a little bit better.

Near the corner, he began to hear voices -- curses and laughter and clatter of something small against the stones. Harry was not surprised, when peering around the corner, to see the guard sitting on the worn floor, tossing small tiles in a wagering game with another man.

Carefully, Harry crept back a few steps, and then hurried -- not quite running -- up to and around the corner. The guard scrambled up, reaching toward his belt, but then relaxing back as Harry continued to move towards them, showing his empty hands as he approached.

"Where's your master?" he asked. Harry let the label pass. The man behind the guard had stood. He was of the same age, but his clothing more richly embroidered.

"The secretary attacked us! Severus is with him -- we managed to subdue him."

The guard hesitated, glancing quickly at the man at his side. "Attacked you?"

"He has a device to drain years from someone, and made himself younger by stealing them from Severus. This must be what he does to the old people." Harry stepped back as the stranger came bolt upright. "He wanted to give the extra to me and keep me."

"I'll eviscerate him!" The stranger collected himself. "If this is true," he added quickly, eyes narrowing. The guard closed his gaping mouth, swallowed, and nodded. "This aged man -- Sevus -- where is he now?"

Harry shook his head. "Not aged anymore! We managed to reverse it -- well, sort of reverse. The balance isn't even, and he'd aged Severus twenty years to take ten, so we had to take twice that to reverse it." He coughed. "And, er, may have overdone it a little."

The man's eyebrows rose. His voice smoothed out. "You have aged and restrained a respected government official, yet I am to believe he was the attacker?"

The guard stepped forward. "You saw yourself, Your Highness, that it explains certain events. Your uncle's death -- how he declined so quickly after the fall."

Harry registered the title, but decided to ignore it. There were nine princes, according to Severus's nation summary, and this was unlikely to be a high-ranked one, if he wagered with guards. However, he should probably try to avoid explaining the mechanism by which the stone worked. Of course, that would probably be a good idea anyway. He nodded. "You can believe me. I will submit to Veritaserum, if that is recognized by your courts."

"He does seem timeless," the prince agreed gloomily. "Very well. I will speak to your master -- you are an apprentice?"

"Partner, actually," Harry answered. "I'm the Hunter. He handles contracts."

The prince looked doubtful, and perhaps amused. "Very well, Mr. Hunter," he said. "I will talk to your partner and compare his story to yours. He is back in the office?

"Exactly," Harry admitted. "Our first idea was to bring the Secretary to this guard, here, but we thought he might jump to conclusions if we approached with someone unconscious."

"Understandable," the prince said dryly. "Come along, then. And say nothing unless I order it."

They let Harry go in front, perhaps to better watch him. When he rounded the corner, Severus was still waiting, but he slipped inside the office so quickly that Harry doubted either of the men behind him saw. When they came through the door, Owen was still on the floor, although with a small carpet over his lower regions. Severus, Harry thought, looked exhausted.

The guard pointed at Severus. "He is younger, Your Highness. A few years, at least."

The prince toed the bundle on the ground. "And this one -- he looks as old as he should, but never has." He turned to Severus. "Explain this."

Severus inclined his head. "Yes, Your Highness. The Secretary of Exports was reluctant to grant us permission to hunt the Manticore--"

"WHAT?"

Severus hesitated. "The Manticore. There is a Manticore in--"

"I know that, you knave! We have daily pleas from the lowlanders, and no Hunter--" He stopped suddenly, his head pivoting to Harry.

Severus frowned. "There is at least one other foreign applicant for the job," he stated. "We saw him leaving the palace this morning."

"It is true, Your Highness," the guard said. "I have admitted three applicants since yesterday. If I had realized that you did not--"

"And this cur would delay?" The prince's face was an unhealthy maroon. Severus raised his eyebrows.

"He said tariffs, not deaths, were his domain," he related blandly. Harry saw the prince's fist tighten about his carved and ribboned wand. Slowly, the man pulled in his breath.

"Continue. He was ... reluctant."

Severus nodded. "I thought it a bargaining position. He had expressed some attraction to Harry, and we surmised that indulging that might incline him to favor us above the others --" His face twisted. "His true interest turned out to be not pleasure, but a stranger who could vanish without rousing suspicion."

The prince sniffed. "He threatened your young man?" he asked. Harry thought he must be attempting to mislead Severus, as the interpretation made little sense.

"No." Severus's eyes flashed to the sprawled body between them. "He aged me to make himself younger. I do not know what happened immediately thereafter, but by the time I revived, Harry had discovered the mechanism for the transfer, and had set things up so that I, rather than he, would receive my years of life from the secretary, and I maintained the contact for long enough to allow for some margin of error." He hesitated.

The prince stepped back to the guard, and pointed to the half-covered man on the floor. "Check if he is wounded."

"Merely undressed," Severus waved the matter off. "The transfer link is established via ejaculate -- from and to."

"My uncle would never--" The Prince caught himself. He cleared his throat. "That makes your alleged switch improbable."

"You misunderstand," Severus said. "Skin contact is sufficient to designate the recipient. A hand moved over at the right moment...."

"That is enough!" the man barked. With a disgusted look at Severus, he turned and kicked the man on the floor. Harry thought that would have been better with boots too.

"Get up!" he snapped. "What have you to say for yourself?"

Owen moaned. With a snarl, the prince shot a quick spell at him -- Harry had expected some sort of reviving charm, but instead the man collapsed again.

"A better idea," the prince muttered. In a few seconds, he had the man propped against the desk, and he waved Severus forward. "Let us have him awaken to you," he said, and his hand fell on the guard's shoulder. "Over here, my friend. We will observe."

They retreated behind the desk, into the shadow of the screen. His next spell was the anticipated Renervate.

Owen's eyelids fluttered. "Oh, my back! What--" His opening eyes came suddenly wide. "You!" he shrieked, pointing at Severus. He tried to come to his feet, but lost his balance, tilting to the side and catching himself to fall back to sitting. He looked down at his hands, running fingers over prominent knuckles and veins. "What have you done to me?" he wailed.

Severus raised his chin. "What you have done to many others, I believe."

"The stone! How did you get the stone? That boy--"

Harry, who had been somewhat behind Severus, stepped forward.

"I kissed him, didn't you see?" he said. "Easy enough to pass it on."

Owen, moving more carefully, rose to his feet. "Very well. You have had your fun, and your master younger, though why you want that, I cannot fathom." He stepped forward, hand outstretched. "Give it back to me."

"So you can steal years from others, like you did with Severus? No."

"You want it for yourself," Owen hissed. "Or your master does. He has taken more than his due already. Soon he will be as young as you, and how will you control him then?"

Harry frowned. "That doesn't even make any sense."

"That he will steal years? Oh, he will."

Severus stroked Harry's back as he moved beside him. "He assumes I would find you less tempting were I younger, I believe. Absurd, but he has only seen us at play."

A disgusted sound from the prince made Owen swing around. "Your Highness!" he exclaimed.

The prince's lip curled unpleasantly. "I hear you have a stone that makes people older."

Owen swallowed. "No!" he said suddenly. "It keeps me young. He pointed at Severus. "This man has stolen it -- he is younger already! In a few days, he will be in his prime and stay that way."

"Is that how it works?" the prince asked disingenuously.

"Exactly," the Secretary said. "Make him return it to me, and I will be younger by tomorrow."

"Even if I lock you in a dungeon with it?"

"You wouldn't dare!"

"This stone," the prince said, stepping forwards towards the three of them. "Who has it now? We will test if what you say is true."

Warmth circled through Harry's collar -- a warning. Severus stepped back, bumping against him.

"I had been under the impression you disapproved," Severus said. He brought his hands to hips like an alewife, pushing back his robes. The strange pose put his pocket at Harry's hip, and hid Harry's hand as he reached inside. He wondered if he should, really. If they kept the stone, would Severus use it? He sounded so bitter when he spoke of his age that Harry thought he might be tempted, at least. But it would be worse to leave it here. Owen's guilt might be proven, and the stone taken from him, but then who would have it?

"It is lies, you see!" Owen insisted. "He has the stone, and he delays. Is that the work of a wronged man? Of an innocent man?"

"And why would I not keep the wand that was pulled against me?" Severus retorted. He threw an arm wide just as Harry found the smooth mass of the stone. Harry transferred it quickly to his own pocket. It reminded him strangely of his first year, and the philosopher's stone, but this time no one was watching him. The prince and guard were watching Severus and Owen. Harry touched his collar to signal success as he stepped to one side. Severus stepped to the other.

"He has ruined me!" Owen cried, moving almost between them. "I demand justice! Your father will hear of this!" His voice rose. "Help! Treason! Guards!"

The guard tensed. His hand moved to his hip and stopped there, not drawing sword or wand.

"I will take you down," the prince spat. "Even if I must flee, my uncle will be avenged."

"I will see you destroyed for this! A sixth son, and of no particular skill. Your tales are madness at best, and treasonous plots at worst!"

Snarling, the prince twisted to shove Severus back. "The stone! Give it to me."

"It is mine!" Owen cried. "I paid for that dearly, in blood and pain."

"As did others," Severus said coldly, as if he were not pressed hard against the stone wall. He offered no resistance. "I intend to keep it as payment for my ill treatment at your hands."

"Count yourself lucky to leave with your life!"

"He has a point," the prince said. His head swung to the guard. "Search him."

The guard came awkwardly closer, sword scraping against the wall, and he patted at Severus's trouser pockets, before moving to his robes. Making up his mind, Harry readied his wand and a Blasting curse. No one was going to have this.

Approaching footsteps clattered in the distance corridor. "Help!" Owen bellowed. "Murder!"

Harry hurled the stone into the air.

"Aa!"

"Reducto!"

There was a sharp crack and a blinding flash of light. Harry threw an arm in front of his face and braced himself against the shards. Nothing hit; nothing clattered. He let his eyes, tightened to cracks, widen. Light was flickering down through the air like the most delicate of snowflakes. The prince threw back his head and laughed in pure joy. Even Severus was smiling, stepping forward in freedom. The guard beamed. Outside, distant voices raised in calls, turning to song.

In the circle of their delighted smiles, Owen fell to his knees, sobbing.

**********

 

"We ended up not needing to prove anything," Harry said, leaning back in his chair. Hermione's eyes were wide. "No, really. The Secretary completely fell apart, confessing to everything, but saying it wasn't his fault -- that the stone had made him use it."

Hermione huffed. Ron frowned.

"Dark artifacts can do things like that," he said reluctantly.

"Yeah, but I don't think he was particularly fighting it -- by his own words, he hadn't come on this stone by accident -- blood and pain, he said. And it seemed awful enough before, but turned out to have been even worse -- every time someone used the stone, it was draining energy -- joy or light or something -- from everything and everyone around it, which was why the place kept looking so dull, even when I knew it should be beautiful. Half of what we'd been putting down to altitude was just the exhaustion of being near the thing."

"So that was why everyone was happy when you destroyed it?" Hermione asked, intrigued.

"Right. It all came back out, or something, and the people there got to feel really happy for the first time in years. Elated! The new guards tumbled into the room like people going to a party, and then we all went off to see the king."

Hermione nodded thoughtfully. "And he was happy too."

"Exactly, though upset as he could manage to be about what had been going on. Once everything was sorted out he, well, offered me his youngest daughter's hand in marriage, but only because he knew I'd refuse, I think. He seemed more eager to make his next offer -- an exclusive try at the Manticore."

Ron choked on his beer. "You know, you're supposed to slay the monster for a reward, Harry, not as a reward."

"Oh, believe me, we made plenty off it." Harry grinned. "And I would have done it for the people there anyway. The children brought us flowers and fruit when we came back with it dead, and half the women in the village hugged us."

"I can't imagine! Snape being hugged by strangers. Did he hex anyone?"

"No, just stood very still. It was funny. Imagine him dripping with flowers while it happens!"

While Ron sniggered and Hermione giggled, Harry caught up on his beer. It was good to be home.

"Did you ever determine Severus's new age?" Hermione asked. "Won't that cause identification problems?"

"Oh, he has a pile of paperwork for that! Age spells say he's thirty-four, now. That would normally trigger an inquiry, but we have documentation from the king of Shambala that this was an accidental change, so he gets out of that." He put down his beer. Hermione was frowning as she did the math. He knew she wouldn't believe a professional brewer would miscount five seconds accidentally -- not any more than he had. "So -- how was your week? Any excitement?"

Ron and Hermione glanced at each other. "You might say that," Hermione said coyly.

"Well? Tell me!"

Ron cleared his throat. "A question first."

"Okay."

Ron sat formally, as if he was trying to be serious, but his mouth kept twitching up at the corner. "All right. Harry, we've been friends since we met. Would you... I'd like you to be my best man. We don't have a date yet, but she said yes, and--"

Harry's whoop kept Ron from getting any further. He barely registered that he'd made the noise. Somehow he had gotten past the table and had grabbed Ron in a one-armed hug. The remains of a pint may have been sacrificed in the lunge. He threw out an arm to grab Hermione as well.

"You two! Of course I will, you idiot! Honored! Congratulations, both of you!" He loosened his hold enough to look at their faces. "That's wonderful!"

Ron, comfortable again, smirked. "Glad you approve."