Outtakes - Chapter 1 - ShadowAceSeverus - Harry Potter (2024)

Chapter Text

Explanation of what you’re about to see (I’m sorry)

I haven’t shared the complete origin of TCtL before, but this seems like the perfect time as it’s finally wrapped up in favour of new stories. Needless to say, 2021 was not a good year for my brain, and I can’t explain some of the ideas you’re about to see XD Believe it or not, for all the therapy and serious emotional aspects, TCtL was originally conceived as . . . well, a little bit of a crack fic. I was bored stiff in quarantine and happened upon far too many tiktoks of Severus and Lucius doing coordinated dance routines, and . . . well, let’s just say I made some poor decisions XD

I don’t think I need to explain why this arc was cut, but I knew pretty quickly once people started truly loving TCtL and wanting to see where it would take Severus’ character that I needed to trim off the bonkers ideas in favour of a more serious and emotionally driven storyline. To be honest, I didn’t think it would get nearly the amount of attention it has (I started out hoping to hit 10,000 hits over the course of the whole story), so I didn’t plan to take it all that seriously at first. It was a fun project when I had far too much time and far too little social interaction, which I was inspired to write by my favourite Darker Than Black fic. The importance of living for yourself was its biggest theme, but I didn’t have a good plan for how to get there, nor really a plan at all.

Compared to the modern draft of TCtL, this arc really does read like a crack fic. But, I had a lot of fun with it at the time, and I thought you might enjoy seeing how some of the ideas in this story were originally conceived. Good things can come from even the worst of decisions, as you’ll soon see XD

The main reason I cut this arc (besides the obvious insanity) was that I realised Severus didn’t feel like he had any agency in the changes he was making, and I wanted him to be growing into himself because he wanted to, not merely dragged along kicking and screaming into a conventionally attractive coat of paint. But, while it is an unequivocally poor arc for the modern TCtL, I had a lot of fun with it, and I think it’s at least hilarious to read. Plus, it’s the arc where I invented Natalie! She’s obviously completely different now from this first version, as I originally created her as simply another background character for Severus and Lucius’ dance class, but something about her grew on me quickly, and I thought it’d be fun to see if I could make her work with Severus. Three years and a lot of drafts later, I think I’ve managed it, but you’ll have to wait until their friendship/romance fic to see just how! :) I’ve got the first chapter coming along, and I’m hoping to get it up today or tomorrow, so keep your eyes peeled for it!

If you’re in the mood for something other than a sane story, though, I can guarantee this arc will surprise you and probably make you laugh, even if only at the realisation that the writing process is glaringly imperfect, and sometimes the best stories come from trying to fix the absolute mess you’ve made of a world.

Sorry, Severus. The truth is, you’re just too fun to mess with.

Enjoy!

Lucius’ POV:

“A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.” ~ Arnold H. Glasgow

“What brings you here, Severus?” Lucius asked, not bothering to conceal his curiosity. “I haven’t seen you since you received the Order of Merlin.”

“Ah, well,” Severus replied, looking quite smug at the reminder, “I happen to have an obligation next month, and I was hoping you might join me.”

“An obligation?” Lucius questioned suspiciously, his social senses tingling in warning, and Severus’ lips curled in an unsettling smile.

“Nothing untoward, of course,” Severus said mildly — Lucius did not miss the way his black eyes glittered behind his hair, though with malice or mischief he wasn’t sure. “Merely something I need a plus one for.”

“And what, exactly, would being your plus one entail?” Lucius asked shrewdly, knowing full well that anything that made Severus’ eyes reveal more than their usual blankness was something of which he needed to be wary.

“Why, Lucius, don’t you trust me?” Severus asked softly, his innocent expression fooling neither of them. “Surely you know that I mean no harm to you . . . or your reputation.”

“I have precious little reputation to spare, Severus,” Lucius said warningly, and Severus let out a quiet snort, clearly agreeing. “I do trust you. I trusted you with my son’s life, and I trust you to have my best interests at heart. But, I also know — ” He added a scanning look, his pale gray eyes moving over their target in a way he’d long ago perfected. “ — that not everything you do is what I would consider in my best interests.”

“Are you regretful of what happened to the Dark Lord, Lucius?” Severus asked, his voice silky — deadly so — and Lucius felt his shoulders stiffen despite himself. “Narcissa was quite grateful, you know. But, I’m sure,” the black-haired spy continued, his eyes glittering again, “that there would be those who would be eager to get their hands on that piece of information.”

“Severus, you wouldn’t,” Lucius protested, disbelieving that his oldest friend would threaten such a thing. “Surely you don’t mean that?”

Severus raised his eyebrows minutely, as if asking the question himself, and Lucius felt his stomach turn, as if the world had suddenly stood on end.

Severus Snape had always been his own man, even when Lucius had thought that he’d known him — this past year had proven that as nothing ever had. But, even through the worst times, when it had felt like the world itself had abandoned the Malfoys to destruction, Severus had always been there for them, a bond of friendship beyond mere loyalties in a war. To imagine that that was no longer true — well, it unsettled Lucius greatly.

“No, Lucius, I don’t mean that,” Severus replied softly, as if seeing the fear on his face. Lucius was inclined to believe that he had been hiding it, that Severus was merely guessing at his emotions, but he knew better; even among the most socially-savvy Purebloods, Severus had always been the most observant, the quickest to determine someone’s true intentions and feelings. It was a great skill of his, and it never failed to intimidate Lucius, who prided himself on being unreadable. For all his arrogance, he’d never pretend to be even half as skilled an Occlumens as Severus, who had fooled even the Dark Lord’s powers of perception.

“I should hope not,” Lucius managed, doing his best to recover himself. “Why, then, are you threatening me with such a thing?”

“Because I’m worried about you, Lucius,” Severus said quietly, his black eyes taking in everything before them — scanning, calculating, as only a Slytherin could.

“Worried about me?” Lucius couldn’t help the question, genuinely surprised; it certainly wasn’t beyond Severus to blackmail someone for their own good, but he was at a loss as to what he could possibly be hoping to accomplish.

“You’ve played both sides for too long, Lucius. I would know,” Severus added, a slight smirk curving his thin lips. “You’ve given too much of yourself . . . The sterling reputation you catered to for so long is gone, now, and still you’re pretending. When will you start living for yourself, instead?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Lucius replied, peering down at his closest friend with bewilderment. Severus, lecturing him on taking care of himself? What was this?

“I’ve been learning a lot, these past months, about the importance of listening to my own desires. The importance of friendship,” Severus continued, and now Lucius was at a complete loss, wondering when he’d start making sense. “I’ve been . . . gently coerced into taking better care of myself, you might say.”

“By that Mudblood therapist?” Lucius questioned, highly skeptical of wherever Severus was going with this.

“Do not call her that, Lucius,” Severus said silkily, and Lucius stiffened again, seeing the warning flash in those ebony eyes. “But, yes, by my Muggleborn therapist. Her name is Arcadia, should you need to refer to her in the future. Or, perhaps, you might call her by her nickname, Cadie.”

Severus’ meaning was clear, even without his hand drifting casually to his wand: Call the woman a Mudblood again, and I’ll hex you so badly you’ll wish you’d never learned to speak.

Lucius felt a stab of curiosity, wondering if this Arcadia might be on her way to replacing the famed Lily Potter in his oldest friend’s eyes, but he refrained from asking, knowing that he was already in dangerous territory.

“And what does Arcadia recommend?” He asked instead, conceding to Severus’ threat.

“She suggested that I find an activity outside of the confines of my daily life, which I could use to escape the many stresses I face. I have done so, and I have also . . . realized . . . ” His eyebrows raised ever so slightly again, as if daring Lucius to interrupt him. “ . . . that you could benefit from the same.”

“Severus, I am quite capable of knowing my own needs,” Lucius replied, somewhat annoyed — surely Severus couldn’t seriously be blackmailing him into joining some foolish ‘de-stressing’ activity recommended by a fraud Muggle Healer?

“Really? I don’t believe so,” Severus said softly, and Lucius’ cheek twitched; Severus smirked, reading his irritation. “You’re quite aware of my advantage in this situation, Lucius. Don’t make me press it. You shall join me in Muggle exercise clothing on September fifth, four Saturdays from now, and I will not be accepting your protest or refusal.”

“That’s absurd, Severus,” Lucius snapped, but the slightly smug expression on his friend’s face did not change, nor did his piercing eyes.

“Absurd it may be, Lucius, but you will still be joining me,” Severus answered, his black eyes glittering. ‘Just try me,’ they said, and Lucius felt a twisting in his stomach. Did he dare refuse him? Lucius had always been confident in his ability to hold his own against another in power games, but Severus had always been a dangerous opponent, very dangerous, and that was when he’d had little to no social influence. Now, though, Severus had been named a hero by the Ministry of Magic and Harry Potter, had regained all of his influence at Hogwarts and then some, had become a celebrated figure in the Order of the Phoenix, a member of which was now Minister . . .

Lucius couldn’t help it; he felt frightened at the very thought. Severus, who was so skilled at manipulating others and who now had far more influence than Lucius himself . . . It was a nightmare to even consider.

“I see you understand. Good day, Lucius. I shall return at eleven-thirty sharp on the predetermined Saturday, and I expect you to be ready. Our class is at noon,” Severus said, smirking his triumph, and Lucius panicked as he turned away, ready to sweep out the door.

“Wait, Severus! You haven’t even told me what we’re supposed to be doing!” Lucius protested, feeling quite like the younger, weaker of the two for the first time.

“Didn’t I?” Asked Severus, not bothering to hide how deliberate the choice had been. “My apologies, Lucius . . . We will be taking a modern Muggle dance class. You do like dance, don’t you?”

Then, he left, the afterimage of his malicious smile ingrained in Lucius’ vision. The tall, platinum blonde former Death Eater stared dumbly after his raven-haired friend, disbelieving, telling himself that it couldn’t be true — Severus must be joking, the reclusive Potions prodigy would never willingly do such a thing . . .

But, if there was one thing Lucius had learned this year, it was exactly how little he actually knew about Severus, and his gut told him that the man was serious.

Shaking his head dumbly, Lucius sank into a cushioned chair, Summoning himself a drink from the cupboard. A strong drink. He grasped it in a slightly shaky hand and took several large gulps, trying to calm his nerves.

Oh, if this ever got out . . . He’d be ruined, disgraced among Purebloods — more than he was, anyway, which was already quite badly on both sides. He was already hated as a turncoat by blood purists and reviled as a Death Eater by blood traitors, hated as Severus had been before his true loyalties had been revealed, and to think that the situation could worsen even further . . .

Lucius took a deep breath, deciding that he’d swear Severus to secrecy; the man may be a Slytherin through and through, but Severus had always kept his word to the Malfoys, and Lucius knew that the day that changed was going to be a day he’d have more to worry about than a Muggle dance class.

He’d just have to make sure Narcissa and Draco never learned of this . . .

Lucius’ POV:

“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

(Never fear, the school year does not have the same arcs, details, or general situations as alluded to in this chapter. I won't ruin it, I promise XD)

Lucius sat awkwardly in his study, fidgeting with the freshly dusted, silver-framed pictures of his wife and son on his desk and trying not to think about his fast-approaching obligation. Severus was going to be here soon — in just a few minutes, if his friend was as punctual as usual — and Lucius, though he’d never admit it, was extremely nervous.

There was still a chance, slim as it was, that Severus had been taking the piss, but Lucius highly doubted it. In all the time he’d known the Potions Master, Severus had never been the type of man who joked about his pursuits.

Straightening a picture of Draco sitting in the garden with Narcissa only a week ago, Lucius resisted the urge to look beneath his dressing robe again, at the horrid Muggle clothing it was concealing.

He’d been unable to bear the thought of his wife or son walking in and seeing him in such rags, so he’d elected to err on the side of caution. A disapproving comment from Narcissa about how late it was to be undressed would be far preferable to the shock and dismay she’d have upon seeing him in Muggle sweatpants.

Lucius looked up at the sound of footsteps in the hall, self-consciously smoothing his hair and standing behind his desk, looking for all the world like the powerful head of one of the Sacred Twenty-Eight, unintimidated and immovable.

The pair of grey Muggle trainers just visible beneath his robe somewhat ruined the effect.

“Come in,” Lucius called at the soft knock on the door, and Severus strode inside, his usual wide black robes flapping around him, though he too was wearing sneakers — the shoes were worn and ratty and looked well used, which struck Lucius as odd, having never seen Severus in anything but boots.

“Ready?” Severus asked without preamble, and Lucius inclined his head stiffly, shrugging the dressing robe from his shoulders and draping it over the back of his chair.

“Are you, Severus? Don’t tell me I put these awful clothes on for nothing,” he retorted, narrowing his eyes at the dark-haired man’s choice of dress.

“Hardly,” his friend in a clipped tone, and Lucius’ eyebrows raised slightly as Severus stripped off his outer robe, revealing the black frock coat underneath, which he proceeded to unbutton.

And unbutton.

. . . and unbutton.

“Merlin, Severus, why do you wear that bloody thing?” Lucius questioned, stuck between amusem*nt and exasperation at the absurdity of the garment, but Severus just glared at him, folding the garment over his outer robe and setting them on the desk, now standing in a loose grey sweatshirt and very thin, tight black trousers that left little of his scrawny frame to the imagination. Lucius couldn’t help staring at these, never having seen anything quite so revealing pass for men’s outerwear. “And what are those?”

“Leggings,” Severus replied, somewhat self-consciously — Lucius recognized the same tone from when he’d been an awkward teenager, unsure of himself and his fashion choices. “They’re for exercising.”

“Leave it to Muggles to invent something like that. They’re scandalous,” Lucius said scathingly, and Severus’ cheeks turned a faint pink colour, though his expression betrayed nothing but annoyance as he rolled his eyes.

“They’re not so different from breeches. Regardless, they’re comfortable,” he responded, and Lucius snorted, seeing and seizing the opportunity to further level the playing field — if he was going to spend an involuntary hour and a half in the presence of Muggles at Severus’ demand, he was going to make sure to get revenge while he could.

“Maybe for you, but, as someone who is unfortunately fully possessed of my sight . . . ”

“Shut it,” Severus grumbled, but he picked up his frock coat and shrugged it back on, folding it closed over the offending pants.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to do all of those buttons again,” Lucius smirked, and Severus glared sourly at him. “Or, rather, go ahead — if you take long enough, you can make us late.”

Something in Severus’ expression at this jab caught Lucius’ attention, and he couldn’t help laughing, the sound clear and ringing.

“Or, don’t tell me, you’re regretting this endeavour? How very ironic,” he teased, glad to feel like the one in control after Severus’ last visit. “I’d be happy to forget it for you, as an old friend, of course . . . ”

“I know you would. I don’t suppose you have any brandy?” Severus grumbled, and Lucius paused, unsure if Severus had answered his question about still attending the class or not.

“As always,” he replied, his pale eyebrows raising slightly. “Why? Are we celebrating not going?”

“Oh, we’re going,” Severus said grimly. “But I’ll be damned if I’m going to show up sober.”

“I don’t suppose I can convince you otherwise?” Lucius tried, nevertheless crossing to the small liquor cabinet by the door and pouring two servings of Hors d'Age cognac.

“Too late. I R.S.V.P.’d a month ago. We’ve got two spots, and we’re keeping them,” Severus answered, accepting the glass with a slight, grateful twitch of his lips. Lucius had long ago learned that Severus had very specific taste in liquor — back in the day, he’d joked that Severus’ large nose was too discerning to pawn subpar spirits off on, but it wasn’t entirely untrue. After several decades studying Potions, Severus had an extremely refined sense of smell and could detect any number of smaller subtleties that a mere rich connoisseur couldn’t, and it was partially for that reason — and because of their longtime friendship — that Lucius saved his best bottles to share with him.

The small, niggling awareness that Severus could never afford anything to match such quality as his nose required was also there, but Lucius did his best to ignore it, as he’d long ago learned that Severus resented any pity on the matter. He’d often gotten the impression that Severus would rather be outright manipulated as a poor, illustriously-skilled bastard than pitied by the most well-meaning of people, though he’d never entirely stopped feeling a bit odd about his closest friend’s well-worn robes and self-administered haircuts.

“Pity,” Lucius sighed at last, sipping the drink and appreciating the idea that, at least, the alcohol would make the coming experience less awful. “How are we getting there? I’ll have to get a traveling robe on if we’re going anywhere near Wizarding Britain.”

“We’re Apparating. I scouted the building out a week ago and found an Apparition point not too far from it. It’s rarely used, but a traveling cloak wouldn’t go amiss,” Severus replied, and Lucius felt a small measure of relief; Severus always took care to understand the finer points of a new location, to the extent that even a fellow Slytherin could trust in his judgement.

“I would wear one anyway. I’m not going to sneak out of my own house,” Lucius responded, still sipping the brandy, which was warming in his hand.

“You call this a house?” Severus groused, and Lucius smiled briefly at the long-standing complaint. “Your study is larger than my house’s entire first floor.”

“You call that shack a house?” Lucius asked, mimicking Severus’ tone with the ease of years of practice. “Your bedroom is smaller than my third broom closet.”

“Hardly a bedroom, is it?” Severus muttered, but, rather than ducking behind his hair like he would if he were genuinely embarrassed, he instead cast his gaze around the study, scanning the wood paneled walls and large fireplace. “I’ve been thinking of moving out of it, actually.”

“Really?” This was news to Lucius; Severus had been staying in the same, horrid Muggle slum for his whole life, inheriting the ‘house’ — Lucius’ returning jokes about its moniker were not as fabricated as he pretended — from his wretched Muggle father and blood traitor mother. Lucius had expressed his scorn for the place dozens of times over the years, until the young, freshly-hired professor had banned him from visiting at all.

Lucius’ personal guess as to this change in policy was that Severus had always assumed Lucius was looking down on a relatively ordinary situation from a position of high wealth and that, upon seeing the homes of the other Hogwarts staff, he’d come to realize that he really was, in fact, living in abject poverty, even by Muggle standards — something Lucius suspected that he’d known for some time but had refused to accept. Merlin, even Hagrid’s hut made Severus’ shack look pathetic in comparison.

He well remembered the early years of Severus’ career, watching as the young professor had accumulated a small nest egg and appeared in new robes for the first time, as Severus’ boots had increased in quality, as he had stopped looking quite so enviously at the wealth of those around him, Lucius foremost. It had been a good change, and Lucius was glad to hear that Severus was shedding the last of that poverty.

“I like the idea of getting rid of it, finding a better place. It was Arcadia’s suggestion, actually — I mentioned my house to her offhandedly the other day, and, apparently, it’s not quite normal to joke that you wish your colleague had burned down your house when she destroyed your every possession,” Severus said with an amused curl to his lip, but Lucius was too shocked to enjoy the joke.

“When she what?”

“Minerva burned my belongings when I fled Hogwarts, right before the final battle. A final act of spite, in case they didn’t win. It’s no matter,” Severus replied dismissively, and Lucius couldn’t help it — he felt himself getting genuinely angry on his friend’s behalf.

“And she is paying for this?” He asked demandingly, and the black-haired professor shrugged, taking a sip of cognac. “Severus!”

“I have two functioning robes, and she didn’t burn any of my books or manuscripts, so it’s hardly crippling,” Severus said with a slight glare. “It’s none of your concern.”

“All the same, Severus, that’s something she should repay you for,” Lucius protested, knowing that it would do no good to offer to help him — Severus would just get defensive and angry.

“She offered. I refused. She gave me a pay raise,” Severus replied, in a tone that clearly stated the conversation was over. “Now, it’s ten til noon, so we need to be going. Get your traveling robe.”

Lucius sighed in acquiescence, but, no matter how irritated it made Severus, he wasn’t going to be forgetting this revelation. He waved his wand, which was finally starting to become as comfortable as his old one, and Summoned his robe from the wardrobe. Donning it, he and Severus then set out down the hall, striding quickly through the house.

Lucius hoped desperately that they wouldn’t run into Narcissa or Draco, not wanting them to question the Muggle shoes or Severus’ leggings, which were still visible below the knee. If Severus insisted on going to this class next weekend, as well, Lucius would have to think of a safer way to avoid discovery.

They strode out of the house and down the drive without incident, heading toward the gate, where the anti-Apparition boundary ended, and Severus offered his left arm to Lucius, who had no idea where in England they were going. Both of them exchanged a glance, remembering the many times they’d Apparated to the same destination using that very left arm, and Severus’ lips twitched in irony; Lucius tried not to think about it.

They turned on the spot, appearing with a soft pop in a tiny, out of order public restroom, and, upon peeking out to ensure there were no wizards waiting to use it, Lucius took off his traveling cloak and hid it in the enchanted bag that he carried in his pocket, which was currently disguised to look like a leather Muggle wallet. As much as he utterly hated Muggles, he didn’t want to cause Severus trouble — or himself, for that matter; the last thing he needed was an inquiry at the Ministry — so he’d made an effort to ensure his disguise was sufficiently convincing. Muggle sweatpants and a long-sleeved, green shirt were innocuous enough, he’d thought, and they allowed him to hide his Dark Mark without drawing attention to his arm.

Severus led the way down a row of crowded buildings and shops, having removed his frock coat in favour of the grey Muggle sweatshirt, and turned into a building labeled, ‘Woods and Johnson Community Centre,’ which was as squat and ugly as most Muggle architecture. The interior of the building was carpeted in some sort of cheap, rough, awful material, stained by however many years of use, and the walls were a drab, bluish-grey colour that Lucius’ instincts for fine architecture found almost offensive. Thankfully, Severus didn’t pause in the atrocious lobby, instead crossing to a door on the far wall.

A sign cheerfully stating ‘Modern Dance for Fun and Leisure (12:00-1:30)’ was adhered to the door. Lucius consciously fought to keep himself from stiffening as he followed Severus into the room — and promptly lost the battle.

Sheer, utter, abject horror at the occupants of the room all but Petrified him, his back going straight as a ramrod and nearly as flexible.

“Welcome!” A brunette Muggle in her thirties waved with a smile from the circle of young women sitting on the floor, not a single man among them. “Please, come in!”

Severus had paused, clearly just as shocked as Lucius, but not for nothing had he been able to fool the Dark Lord; he recovered quickly, walking to the circle, where a few young women quickly scooted over to make room for the two middle-aged men.

Wishing he could melt into the floor, Lucius followed.

It would have been better to walk into an ambush of angry wizards bent on getting revenge on the two former Death Eaters than it would be to face Narcissa’s fury if she ever found out he’d been here, he thought grimly as he joined the poker-faced Potions Master. Merlin, he was going to kill Severus for this.

He sat as close to Severus as was acceptable, trying to avoid the Muggle woman on his right; she glanced at him in confusion, clearly noticing the half meter gap he’d left between them.

Lucius wished that he’d sat down next to a stupider one. Well, it couldn’t be helped.

“Now, I think we’re all here, so why don’t we start with a quick round of ice breakers?” The first woman asked cheerfully, apparently the instructor of the group. Severus sent Lucius a brief glare when he scooted over just a smidgen more, bumping his knee into his friend’s; Lucius glared back, trying to tell Severus just how much he blamed him for this with his eyes alone. “Let’s each introduce ourselves and say something about us, why we came, and how much experience we have with dance. I’ll start:

“I’m Amy, and I used to teach youth dance,” she said, smiling around at all of them. “I thought an adult leisure class would be a great way to have something to look forward to on the weekends. I’ve been dancing since I was little, and I have experience with both ballet and modern dance.” She turned her smile on the woman sitting directly on her right, waiting expectantly, and Lucius tensed, seeing that the burden of introductions would be upon him and Severus in just a few moments.

“I’m Jessica, but you can call me Jessie,” the next woman, looking to be in her early twenties, greeted. “I’ve always loved music, and I danced a lot in theatre when I was in high school. I was in a Modern Dance club in college for three years, and I missed it, so I thought I’d find something similar.” She looked to the woman on her right, who had a blonde bob and chubby, dimpled cheeks.

“I’m Gemma! I dance for fun when I sing, but that’s all, really. My husband suggested I try this class, since I’ve never really liked the gym — we’ve been trying to exercise more this year. He says I’m a good dancer, but I’m not so sure,” she said a bit sheepishly, and the first Muggle, Amy, smiled kindly at her.

“Not to worry. Everyone starts as a beginner,” she encouraged, looking at Severus, who was next in the circle; Lucius felt vindicated to see that his friend looked quite uncomfortable.

“I’m Severus,” the Potions Master said, his hair obscuring his face more than usual. “I’ve never taken a class at a community centre before, but I saw this one in the paper and decided to try it. I don’t have any experience with dance.”

“You taught your students the waltz for the Yule Ball,” Lucius objected before the introduction could turn to him, and Severus’ cheeks tinged a light pink — Lucius felt a smug look coming on and schooled his face back into a neutral expression.

“That hardly counts,” Severus muttered, but Amy had already latched onto the piece of information.

“Do you teach?” She asked with yet another smile, obviously trying to help the reserved man relax.

“I’m a professor,” Severus replied, glaring at Lucius, who pretended not to notice. “And my students already knew how to dance — I just demonstrated the proper etiquette for joining the dance floor after the leading couples.”

“Which involved dancing,” Lucius pointed out, enjoying the small piece of revenge. “Draco told me all about it. He said you were very elegant.”

“Like I had any choice,” Severus grumbled, and Lucius smirked briefly, seeing the spark of murderous intent in his friend’s black eyes. There was something satisfying about knowing Severus couldn’t curse him here, no matter what he said. “Making a fool of myself in front of — of a bunch of aristocrats?” He caught himself well; Lucius doubted the Muggles suspected anything. “I’d have been laughed out of the room.”

“Surely not. Your students have great respect for you,” Lucius replied. It wasn’t an untrue statement, but Severus glowered at him, clearly seeing that it was intended to rile him.

“I might remind you that, unlike you, I haven’t been taking classical dance since I was a toddler, Lucius,” Severus grated. He was hiding his anger well from a casual observer, but Lucius could see how irritated he was at having to speak negatively of himself in front of a group of strangers, Muggles no less.

“You have experience with dance, then?” Amy beamed at Lucius, who was somewhat taken aback by her friendliness. Had they missed the power struggle going on right in front of them? Muggles, so disconcerting.

“Yes, quite a bit — ballroom dancing, that is. Ah, Lucius Malfoy.” He introduced himself as an afterthought; it felt very odd to speak to people who didn’t know his
name.

“What inspired you to join us today?” Amy asked, addressing him with the same comforting tone that she used for the Muggles, with no idea of the importance or history of the Malfoy family. Lucius scoffed inwardly, opening his mouth to tell her exactly what he thought of being here and how unwillingly he’d been dragged in the door, but he caught Severus’ expression in his left eye and hesitated.

Severus looked . . . genuinely worried? His black eyes were looking imploringly at Lucius, who realized, with a great amount of shock, that his friend might be more invested in this Muggle nightmare of a class than he’d let on.

“Yes, well — it was Severus’ idea,” Lucius recovered, which was considerably nicer than what he’d been planning to say. While it was hardly the insult he’d wanted to throw, it did have the advantage of passing the burden of conversation back to Severus, who clearly hadn’t been expecting it so soon; the Potions Master fumbled for a response, looking very unprepared.

“I — I thought it’d be fun,” he blurted, so unconvincingly that Lucius almost laughed — Severus looked like he’d swallowed something remarkably unpleasant, ducking behind his hair in embarrassment. Amy didn’t seem to notice anything off about the response, though, instead smiling again. Lucius thought it was rather discomfiting, how she never stopped looking happy.

“No worries! We’re all here to have fun!”

We are? Lucius asked skeptically as she turned her unsettling attention on the Muggle to Lucius’ right.

“I’m Natalie,” greeted the woman, her shoulders squaring themselves as she straightened. Lucius, who had been avoiding looking at her as much as possible since he’d sat down, was surprised to see that she was one of the oldest women in the circle, perhaps a bit over thirty. She had very dark skin, with straight, shoulder-length hair that reminded him oddly of Severus’, and he wondered if it was naturally that way or if she used a Muggle device to style it. “I’m a doctoral student studying chemistry, so I don’t get out too much — ”

Obviously, thought Lucius, who was growing impatient with this nonsense.

“ — but I’ve always wanted to learn how to dance, and I thought that I ought to try before I get into the workforce full time. I’ve never taken a dance class before,” she finished, smiling at the woman on her right. Lucius groaned internally, wondering how long it would take to get through this and how soon he could hex Severus for making him come.

“I’m Michelle,” began the next woman, with light brown hair cut into a pixie. She looked cheerful; Lucius found himself wondering if these Muggles would ever be interested in replacing the dementors as the new guards of Azkaban — a month of these bubbly introductions, and anyone would be losing his mind. “I’m in med school right now, so I really needed something to help me destress, and I’ve always enjoyed dancing. I did some ballet when I was in primary school, but I haven’t taken any other dance classes.”

She looked to the right, a friendly, expectant expression on her face; Lucius daydreamed about being burned at the stake.

“I’m Victoria, but you can call me Vicky,” greeted a petite, blonde woman who couldn’t have been more than twenty-one. “I actually just moved here from Scotland, and I thought a community class would be a great opportunity to . . . ”

Lucius zoned out, staring at his horrid Muggle trainers with mind-numbing boredom and wishing he could be back in his study, having a drink with Severus and discussing nothing of great consequence. He missed their friendship, even if he hated to admit it. Why, oh why, had Severus decided this would be the first public activity they would do together since Draco had started school?

He and Severus had never been ‘buddy-buddy,’ as the saying went, but they’d been very close, for Slytherins. Lucius well remembered the early years after the first war, when he’d pretended to come back from the Dark Lord’s side. In a world where he had to watch everything he said and did, where he had to avoid associating with any of the other ‘Imperiused’ Death Eaters for fear of allegations, Severus had been a welcome friend with whom he could speak his mind.

Of course, he’d been careful of his words at first, knowing the younger Slytherin was one of Dumbledore’s trusted professors, but Severus had always seemed sympathetic to his complaints about the degradation of the Wizarding World, and, over the years, Lucius had come to trust him with his true opinions. It had been a wonderfully freeing outlet, drinking into the night with Severus and discussing everything from blood purity to educational reforms. He fondly remembered his pleasant surprise at Severus’ unending knowledge of and passion for the Dark Arts, which had served as a topic on many of their evenings together.

Now, Lucius looked back on their discussions, on Severus’ snarky remarks about the blindly trusting, senile old Headmaster and the dilution of true Wizarding blood at Hogwarts, and wondered if it had ever been genuine. Had it been an act the whole time? If Severus had truly been loyal to Dumbledore since the Potters were first targeted . . .

Was it real, their friendship? Had it merely been a convenience for the spy, an in with one of the Dark Lord’s inner circle? Lucius had been one of the Dark Lord’s most trusted Lieutenants for years — he’d always assumed that Severus had been after his connections, his influence, maybe even his wealth, but, somehow, the idea that Severus had been planting himself in a favourable position for the Dark Lord’s return seemed much more sinister.

Lucius knew Slytherins. He knew how they clawed their way up the social ladder, how they schemed and planned and rarely said what they meant, and he knew that Severus had had far further to climb than most. But, the idea that Severus hadn’t been after the usual riches and power went against everything he thought he’d known.

Sure, defeating the Dark Lord was ambitious, but it was also selfless, in a way that was very unusual for a Slytherin. Severus had put himself through far more hell following Dumbledore than he would have renouncing him — Merlin knew the old fool wouldn’t have suspected it.

Why hadn’t he left? Why hadn’t he played both sides, as any Slytherin double agent would, rather than betting everything on Potter’s victory? Lucius had been desperate to get out by the end of the second war, frantic to protect his family, but he hadn’t had a choice; he’d stayed, knowing he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. Severus, though . . .

He’d had a choice. He was one of the most brilliant wizards Lucius had ever met. He could have left, if he’d wanted to. The Dark Lord was famous for hunting down any defectors, but Severus had had Dumbledore’s extensive knowledge, near-mythical power, and bottomless trust in his pocket. If anyone could have done it, could have survived the Dark Lord’s fury, it was him.

Yet, he hadn’t run. Not then, and, Lucius realized, not now.

In the past few months, Severus had become famous, admired, even hailed as a hero. He’d gained influence, respect, and power, while Lucius had lost nearly all of his. There was no war to fight anymore, no Dumbledore to obey, and Severus had made it plain that he refused to take any sort of monetary assistance from the Malfoys. Yet, he was still here, still being friendly to Lucius, despite the fact they’d fought on opposite sides for nearly two decades.

Dragging him to torturous Muggle dance classes, yes.

But, he was here.

Lucius looked over at the object of his thoughts, who was watching as one of the last Muggle women introduced herself. Severus’ face was politely blank, feigning interest, his black hair hanging over his thin cheeks in unflattering curtains. He was scrawny and pale, his dark eyes narrow and his eyebrows sharp, with his overly large hooked nose, oily skin, and perpetual sneer, which so often curled to form a scowl. He was difficult, acerbic, unpleasant, bitter, and dangerous, with a cruel, malicious streak that could be directed at friend and foe alike.

He was Lucius’ most valued friend, second only to his wife and son.

Severus caught his gaze, raising his eyebrows minutely, and Lucius felt a strong pang in his abdomen.

It wasn’t just his son’s life that he owed Severus. It was so, so much more.

“Alright, then, let’s get started on some warm ups,” Amy announced cheerfully, standing up — Lucius blinked, emotionally whiplashed back into the present. Next to him, Severus rose with a subtle wince; Lucius could sympathise, his joints screeching after their extended stay on the hard wooden floor. He’d guilt Severus into giving him a potion for joint pain later.

The Muggle instructor turned on a device that looked vaguely like a radio, putting an odd disc into a slot at the top of it. Immediately, an energetic song began to play, and Amy put her hands on her hips, bouncing on the balls of her feet as the music viciously attacked Lucius’ remaining will to live.

“Alright! Let’s get started,” she exclaimed, and it was with great effort that Lucius reminded himself of how much Severus had done for him. The least he could do was participate in the class Severus had asked him to — not that it had been much of a choice on his part, but still. Even if he hated it, for Severus, he’d try. “Just follow my motions, and don’t worry if you get off. Our goal right now is just to get moving and loosen up a little!”

So saying, she stretched her arms up to the sky, and, rolling his eyes inwardly, Lucius copied her. They waved their arms, twisting from side to side, then proceeded to start a series of the most ridiculous exercises he’d ever seen, which included the utterly asinine idea of jogging in place — the purpose of which, Lucius assumed, could only be understood by Muggles.

When Amy called ‘jumping jacks!’ with vibrant enthusiasm, Lucius stared at her, unable to hide his disdain. But, after a few seconds of watching her flailing her arms and legs, Severus joined her and the other Muggles, imitating the motions with a focused expression, and Lucius sighed heavily.

He started jumping the jacks.

The exercises lasted only several minutes, but, by the end of them, Lucius felt he’d lost all dignity as a wizard. Worse than the embarrassment, though, was Severus’ rapt attention, still focused on the crackpot Muggle instructor.

“Alright, now, just follow after me,” Amy said, beaming at the room and pushing her palms up toward the ceiling. Actually rolling his eyes now, Lucius imitated her, along with everyone else in the class, and they moved into a series of easy stretches, leaning to either side and breathing deeply.

The atmosphere was calm and somewhat bouncy with the backtrack of cheerful music and friendly conversation between the Muggles, and Lucius, much despite himself, felt a small amount of contentment as he eased gracefully into the quadricep stretch that Amy was demonstrating.

“Bloody hell, I’d have signed up just for these,” Severus groaned softly, wincing as he caught his balance, one leg still held behind his hips. “I haven’t stretched since . . . I don’t know when.” He switched to the other leg with a look of relief, then came back to a standing position, shaking out his knees. “A few months of these, and I might not feel elderly.”

Lucius felt alarmed — he’d been hoping Severus would drop the idea of dance classes after the first one, but he seemed to be going in exactly the opposite direction.
“Ah, you’re not that old yet. Just take a — a concoction, or something.”

Severus snorted at Lucius’ fumble of Muggle terms, but Lucius personally felt that he was doing far better than anyone had any right to expect, seeing as he held Muggles in complete contempt. The things he did for his closest friend, honestly.

“Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask. How’s teaching been this year?” He asked conversationally as they followed Amy in stretching their calves, both intending the question to distract Severus and genuinely wanting to know.

“You haven’t heard?” Severus queried, looking over from where he was leaning forward, his palms flat against the wall. Lucius felt a pang at the surprise in his voice, reminded of when he’d been utmostly informed about going-ons at Hogwarts, and Severus must have read the emotion from his face, as he continued hastily. “Ah, well, it’s not the biggest news, I suppose. But, Slytherin had its lowest Sorting percentage in eight hundred years, and it set a three-century record for the highest number of students to drop out in a term this year.”

What?” Lucius couldn’t keep the shock from his face, and, even as the Muggles looked over curiously, he was too caught up to mask it. “But — you’re a fantastic teacher! And who in their right mind would drop out of — of such a good school?”

“Well, an improving teacher,” Severus said, looking a bit embarrassed, though Lucius could’t imagine why; Draco had always told him that Severus was the best teacher at Hogwarts, and he’d never had a reason to doubt it, as brilliant as his old friend was. “After the whole fiasco last year, most of my more . . . er, ‘conservative’ students declined to return. I think — ” Severus lowered his voice, glancing around the room as they sat down on the floor to stretch their hamstrings. “I think that a lot of it is their families. You know how many people died during the war, and even those who got out didn’t do so unscathed. Most everyone in Slytherin lost a relative, and many lost their parents . . . ”

“I know, but still . . . To lose a Hogwarts education?” Lucius replied just as quietly, suddenly very glad that Draco had all but finished his schooling; he would only need to sit his N.E.W.T. exams in October, and he’d be considered graduated.

“It is rather discouraging, to tell the truth. I’m down to forty-five students,” Severus responded solemnly, and, at Lucius’ astonished expression, he sighed heavily. “Four-fifths of Slytherin House is in fifth year or lower now, and I’m trying to manage all of the younger students with only three Prefects . . . It’s a nightmare. I’ve only got four first years, which I guess would be a good thing for the situation otherwise, but only one of them is a girl, and she’s so small and shy — she burst out crying, you know, when she was Sorted. I’m keeping as close an eye on her and the rest as I can, but, if the other Houses start feuds, my students are going to be on the losing side.”

“That’s awful, Severus,” Lucius said, and he genuinely meant it.

“I’m doing everything I can to support them,” his friend shrugged, standing up with a cricking sound from his knee, which made him look down in surprise. “I’ve extended my office hours as much as I can, and I gave my students express permission to talk with me about anything they need help with, even if they’re just feeling stressed or homesick. I’m starting a weekly event night, too, to help them bond with each other. Slytherins only, of course, since I don’t have the authority to involve the other Houses,” he added, and Lucius felt a small amount of surprise that Severus had brightened somewhat; rather than looking down as he had before, he looked almost energized.

“An event night? That’s new,” he replied as they moved to stretch their arms, curious to know what sort of activity could affect such a change in the cynical, jaded professor.

“It’s — well, it’s a bit unorthodox, but I think the students will enjoy it. It’s been a lot of work to plan, so they better,” Severus muttered, and Lucius felt a smile twitch on his lips.

“I don’t know how you find the time,” he remarked, but, before Severus could reply, Amy had quieted the radio and gathered the class’ attention.

“Great job, everyone! Now, we’re going to do an activity to help us build some confidence. We’ve got sixteen people on the nose, so I want you to pair off in groups of four, and we’ll get started!”

At this, Lucius looked at Severus in alarm, but the Potions Master was already scanning the room, evidently searching for two Muggles to group up with. A few steps away, the woman who had sat on Lucius’ right and the woman who had sat next to her glanced at each other, pairing up with an awkward laugh, and Severus looked toward them hesitantly, apparently making a decision.

Before Lucius could stop him, the Potions Master walked over to the Muggles.

“Um — I don’t suppose you’d want to — ?” He started to ask awkwardly, gesturing back to their spot even as Lucius watched in horror, and the first woman smiled.

“Sure!” She said, and, with that, their fate was sealed.

“Alright, now,” Amy began again, and Lucius looked back over at her, trying to keep an expression of despair off his face. “In the next ten minutes, I want everyone in each group to teach a dance move, one per person! It doesn’t have to be a well-known dance, and it can be as simple as you like, but it’s got to be some kind of movement. And don’t worry! I think you’ll find that anything can be a fun dance when you’re doing it with other people. Sound good?”

There were a few murmurs of assent, and she beamed around the room.

“Great! Let’s get started!”

Lucius suppressed a groan as the two Muggles stepped a bit closer to him and Severus, their odd group meandering over to one of the corners of the room even as the other groups did the same, everyone automatically spreading out.

“I’ve never taught anyone a dance move before,” the second woman mused, running a pale hand through her pixie-cut hair. “Most of the ones I know are ballet. Maybe we should try something simple, like a tendu?”

Severus and Lucius both looked blankly at her, and she let out a nervous chuckle, tapping a finger on her midsection.

“Well, simple in a relative term . . . ”

“It’ll be fine, guys,” the first woman piped up cheerfully — what had been her name again? Nathalia? “We’ve got a teacher in the group.”

She smiled encouragingly at Severus, and Lucius almost laughed; the Potions Master had turned no fewer than ten shades of red at this comment, looking like he wanted nothing more than to sink beneath the floorboards.

To the Muggle woman’s credit, she actually seemed to notice his embarrassment.

“It’s Severus, right?” She asked, now using a kinder tone. She was tall, standing up; perhaps only a few centimeters shorter than Severus, though both were short to Lucius. He wondered if Severus noticed things like that, or if it all blended into the nebulous void of ‘women,’ of which the Potions Master seemed perpetually oblivious.

At least now Lucius had some idea why.

“Er — yeah,” Severus managed, ducking somewhat behind his curtains of hair.

“And Lucius and Michelle?” She queried, glancing at Lucius and the other woman respectively, and, his lips thinning with disdain, Lucius nodded. “Alright, cool. I’m Natalie.”

For a moment, they stood in silence, the background music and chatter washing between them.

“So, I guess we’re the old farts here, huh?” Michelle joked, and Natalie laughed, then stopped just as quickly when neither Lucius nor Severus followed suit.

“Guess so,” Severus said hastily in a poor attempt at a light tone, trying to make up for his lack of humour. Lucius groaned internally; he’d forgotten how bad Severus was with women, not to mention people in general. Usually, he’d be the one making up for the Potions Master’s shortcomings in polite society, but today? Today Severus could burn.

“Um, do we want to try learning how to do a tendu?” Michelle asked awkwardly, and both Severus and Natalie nodded, taking on expectant, attentive expressions. “Okay, so, we’re going to go into first position, which looks like this — ”

She started demonstrating a dance move, elegantly lifting her foot in front of her, and Lucius watched in disdain as Severus copied her along with the other Muggle woman, regretting even waking up this morning. His silent protest didn’t last long, though; noticing that Lucius wasn’t copying the move, Severus shot him a glare that could kill a phoenix, his black eyes flashing with a wordless warning.

Lucius did the tendu.

“I suppose I’m next, then,” Natalie said in her cheery tone, but she looked a bit sheepish as she glanced around at their group. “Is it a cop out if I teach the Macarena?”

Michelle laughed, but Severus looked at the Muggle in genuine confusion.

“The what?” He asked, and both women stared at him in shock.

“You don’t know the Macarena?” Natalie questioned, sounding bewildered, and Severus shook his head. She turned to Lucius next, looking at him in disbelief, and he copied Severus’ motion, resisting the urge to roll his eyes as both Muggles gaped at them.

“Guess I really will have to teach it,” Natalie remarked, visibly amazed. “Okay. Um, well, you put your arms out like this . . . ”

She walked them through a series of six arm movements, which were started with the left hand and mirrored with the right hand, but it seemed the asinine flailing wasn’t enough; the dance had to be finished with a circular rotation of the hips, which Lucius thought was utterly ridiculous, but, then, maybe Muggles found such stupid dances sexually appealing. All he knew was that he did the dance exactly once, to show Severus that he’d learned it, and he planned to never do another Muggle dance again for as long as he li —

“That was easier than I expected. Are there any others like that one?” Severus asked, sounding impressed, and Lucius almost dropped dead.

“There’s the YMCA; it’s pretty easy,” Natalie replied, and, when Severus’ expression changed to reflect his curiosity, she smiled. “You really don’t dance, do you?”
“No, never,” Severus answered truthfully, ignoring Lucius’ desperately imploring gaze.

“Well, this one’s really simple. You just take your arms and spell out the letters above your head. How about you teach it to us?” She offered, and Severus blinked, clearly doing some hurried thinking.

“Okay,” he said, and he raised his arms with a hesitant motion, looking awkward. “So, we start with a ‘Y,’ then I guess this counts as an ‘M’ — ” He put his fingertips on the crown of his head with his hands straight, angling his wrists sharply and bending his elbows outward. “ — and then you mirror a ‘C’ to the left, and you finish with an ‘A.’ ”

“See, you’ve got it!” Natalie encouraged, as she and Michelle followed along with his instructions, and Severus responded with a tentative attempt at a smile, which looked out of place compared to his usual sneer. “That was perfect.”

“Well, that’s good to hear. I’m not very ‘hip with the kids,’ ” Severus replied, trying to joke, and Lucius took a moment to wonder which of them would end the day wanting to murder the other more — it would be him for sure, if the Potions Master kept up with this. Natalie and Michelle laughed, though, apparently finding this funny, and, as they did so, Lucius plotted how he might escape teaching a dance move, unwilling to so much as talk to a Muggle, much less educate one.

“How about you, Lucius? You’re experienced with dance, aren’t you?” Natalie queried, looking up at him, and he worked very hard to suppress a grimace.

“Well, unfortunately, I know primarily couples’ dance,” he answered, trying to sound like he was genuinely apologetic.

“Oh, that’s cool. We can do that,” Natalie said cheerfully, and, before Lucius could so much as blink in horror, she and Michelle exchanged a questioning glance, as if asking who should partner with who — then stared, confused, as Lucius quickly seized Severus’ arm.

“Indeed. We’ll demonstrate,” Lucius said smoothly, even as Severus gaped at him.

“What?” The Potions Master asked, dumbfounded, and Lucius held his eyes for a moment, impressing on Severus just how much he absolutely would not dance with a Muggle and how, so help him Merlin, if Severus tried to make him do so, he would have his revenge. “Er — yeah. Sure.”

“Great. Waltzes are simple. Let’s do a waltz,” Lucius continued through gritted teeth, forcing a smile. “I’ll lead.”

Having heard the unspoken threat, Severus didn’t argue.

“You know the drill. Hand — no, on my shoulder. Right arm out. Yes. And one, two, three; one, two, three — ”

Lucius steered the Potions Master through a basic waltz with Natalie and Michelle awkwardly following along, Michelle having taken the leading role. It wasn’t until Lucius glanced critically over at the Muggle pair that he realized how incredibly odd it was to be dancing with Severus, but, to his credit, the Potions Master maintained his poker face, not letting on to any feelings of discomfort as they spun to a halt.

Natalie and Michelle exchanged another glance.

“Alright, time’s up! Now, I’d like everyone to please demonstrate the four dances they learned in front of the class with their group,” Amy announced, and Lucius felt the blood draining from his face even as Severus blanched next to him.

“Great job, Lucius,” the Potions Master seethed into his ear as everyone wandered back to the middle of the room.

“You brought us here. I blame you,” Lucius hissed back, and Severus glowered at him, but there was nothing to be done about it; they’d dug their grave, and now they’d have to dance in it.

“And your last dance?” Amy asked cheerfully, and both Severus and Lucius paled.

“Our last dance was a waltz,” Natalie answered, and Amy lit up in a beaming smile.

“Oh, yes, that would make sense! Taking advantage of being the only couple pairs in the class, I see.”

There was a long moment of silence, and everyone in their group seemed to exchange a glance as one, all unsure how to respond to this.

“Well, actually — ” Lucius began to say, but a movement in the corner of his eye stopped him: Severus was sidling away to the edge of the group, as if to pair with one of the women, and Lucius realized that he’d been betrayed.

“No worries, it doesn’t need to be perfect,” Amy encouraged, misreading the blanch on his face.

“Good, because it definitely isn’t,” Natalie muttered, too in an undertone for the instructor to hear, and Michelle giggled quietly. Looking at the two Muggle women, Lucius was overcome by a sudden panic: he had to escape this situation somehow, before it could spiral any further.

“Oh — oh, ow,” he said suddenly, trying to look distressed as he reached down to rub his calf. “Oh dear, I seem to have pulled a muscle. What bad luck. I think I’ll have to sit down.”

So saying, he limped to the edge of the group of seated Muggles, who laughed at his overplayed antics even as Severus glowered at him. Lucius had been banking on the fact that no one would ruin the joke by forcing him to return, and this seemed to hold true; Amy laughed along with the others, shaking her head with a rueful grin, but she made no motion to intervene.

Natalie and Michelle exchanged a quick look, and then Michelle bent down to rub her own leg, lamenting, “Oh dear, me too. How terrible.”

She joined the group sitting down, whistling innocently, and Severus’ expression became resigned; he looked at the remaining Muggle woman, who shrugged, as if in acceptance of the situation.

If there was one thing Lucius ought to have learned this year, it was to not underestimate his closest friend, but he was more shocked than any of the Muggles when Severus took a deep breath, composing himself — and offered his hand politely to Natalie, as if they were guests at a gallant ball.

Suppressing a laugh — apparently taking the Potions Master’s very serious demeanour as a joke in itself — Natalie accepted his hand, and they stepped just close enough to complete the hold. They made an odd couple: almost the same height, both with straight, raven hair, yet so contrasted by Severus’ pale skin and Natalie’s midnight complexion, which was nearly as dark as her hair. For a brief moment, Lucius allowed himself to fancy that he was seeing Severus with a proper witch — but then he blinked, and he was back in the dreadful Muggle class, as far from the Wizarding World as Severus was from finding a woman to court.

Wearing the same look of intense concentration he would for a highly advanced potion, Severus softly counted off and started the waltz, steering the Muggle through a simple but surprisingly elegant movement. Lucius couldn’t help but think of the many parties Severus had declined over the years, apparently wasted opportunities. Oh, if only this was a high society event back in the Malfoys’ prime . . .

The demonstration finished quickly, thank Merlin, and Severus stepped back from the Muggle woman as quickly as he could while still being polite, looking like he’d just survived a harrowing duel. Lucius had to resist the urge to laugh as he saw the Potions Master taking measured breaths, so different from Natalie, who’d spent half of the dance trying not to burst out giggling at the apparent absurdity of it all.

“That was very good!” Amy complimented as the class laughed and clapped, Severus’ cheeks flushing a light red. “

“Bye, guys,” Michelle called back, trotting out of the room, and Natalie waved at her, then turned to both of them.

“It was nice to meet you. See you next week,” she said cheerfully, and Severus seemed to fumble for a moment.

“Er — yeah. See you,” he replied, giving her an awkward smile, and Lucius managed a stiff nod, almost pushing the Potions Master out the door.

Despite his intense distaste for Muggles, Lucius couldn’t help but add a jibe as they stepped onto the cobblestoned drive to the manor, the summer wind gusting around them.

“So, I take it that was the first time you’ve danced with a woman?”

“ . . . shut up, Lucius.”

Natalie’s POV: (Extra)

Natalie arrived early to her first Saturday dance class, more out of habit than because she thought there would be much to do. At work, arriving early made a good impression; when she made plans with friends, it usually just meant she would be waiting for them to be ten minutes late.

There were two people in the room when she walked in. One was the instructor, who introduced herself as Amy. The other was a woman with a brown pixie, who Natalie gave a quick smile and stood next to for about half a minute before the silence became unbearable.

“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Natalie,” she greeted, and the woman smiled back.

“I’m Michelle. It’s nice to meet you, too,” she responded, and they nodded to each other, looking awkwardly around.

“Guess we’re a little early,” Natalie remarked, and Michelle gave a small, polite laugh.

“I didn’t know when everyone else would arrive, so I thought I’d come with time to spare.”

“Better early than late.”

“Definitely.”

They lapsed into the awkward silence again, and, mercifully, another woman walked in. As the minutes ticked by, more women joined her, and Natalie felt a bit singled out, seeing how young most of them were. This might not have been advertised as a college class, but it sure looked like one.

She’d assumed that everyone in class would be a woman, having heard the horror stories from when her mother had dragged her father to a dance class back in their thirties, so she was surprised when, right on the hour, the door opened to reveal a man. He gave a funny little stop as he saw the other occupants of the room, but then he forced a smile and kept coming, a second man ducking in behind him.

The second man, Natalie noticed, looked horribly embarrassed, and he sat as close to the first man as possible when they joined the circle, self-consciously brushing a lock of platinum blonde hair behind his ear. Both men had long hair; the first had fine black hair that fell just a bit past his shoulders, and the second’s went all the way down to his mid back. Beyond that, they didn’t look all that similar.

“Now, I think we’re all here, so why don’t we start with a quick round of ice breakers?” Amy asked cheerfully, and the blonde man scooted just a bit further toward his companion, as if Natalie might make him combust upon contact. She peered at him, skeptical as to the reasons for this, but she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt for the time being, refocusing on the instructor. “Let’s each introduce ourselves and say something about us, why we came, and how much experience we have with dance. I’ll start:

“I’m Amy, and I used to teach youth dance,” she said, smiling around at all of them. “I thought an adult leisure class would be a great way to have something to look forward to on the weekends. I’ve been dancing since I was little, and I have experience with both ballet and modern dance.” She looked to her right, and Natalie hurriedly started preparing her introduction, splitting her attention between remembering what to say and listening.

“I’m Jessica, but you can call me Jessie,” the next woman, looking to be in her early twenties, greeted. “I’ve always loved music, and I danced a lot in theatre when I was in high school. I was in a Modern Dance club in college for three years, and I missed it, so I thought I’d find something similar.” She looked to the young woman on her right, who had a blonde bob and chubby, dimpled cheeks.

“I’m Gemma! I dance for fun when I sing, but that’s all, really. My husband suggested I try this class, since I’ve never really liked the gym — we’ve been trying to exercise more this year. He says I’m a good dancer, but I’m not so sure,” she said a bit sheepishly, and Amy gave her a reassuring smile.

“Not to worry. Everyone starts as a beginner,” she encouraged, turning to the black-haired man, who looked a bit uncomfortable. He had incredibly dark eyes, Natalie noticed in some surprise, his iris and pupil indistinguishable from one another.

“I’m Severus,” the man said in a remarkably deep voice, ducking behind his hair and fiddling with the drawstrings on his sweatshirt. “I’ve never taken a class at a community centre before, but I saw this one in the paper and decided to try it. I don’t have any experience with dance.”

“You taught your students the waltz for the Yule Ball,” the second man pointed out, and Severus — at least, she thought he’d said Severus — flushed, glancing down at the floor. For a moment, his companion looked a bit smug at this, but he hurriedly hid the expression before Severus could see.

“That hardly counts,” Severus muttered, the low sound almost inaudible. In profile, Natalie couldn’t help noticing that he had a very large nose, which hooked sharply at the end and gave him an almost bird-like appearance.

“Do you teach?” Amy asked, and, suddenly, the stress lines on Severus’ otherwise thirty-ish face made a lot more sense.

“I’m a professor,” Severus replied, and he shot a glare at his blonde companion, who pretended not to notice. “And my students already knew how to dance — I just demonstrated the proper etiquette for joining the dance floor after the leading couples.”

“Which involved dancing. Draco told me all about it. He said you were very elegant,” the blonde man said, and Severus flushed again; Natalie gave him an encouraging smile, but he didn’t see it.

“Like I had any choice,” Severus scoffed, seeming flustered by the implication. “Making a fool of myself in front of — of a bunch of aristocrats? I’d have been laughed out of the room.”

“Surely not. Your students have great respect for you,” the other man replied, not seeming to notice that everyone was waiting for him to introduce himself.

“I might remind you that, unlike you, I haven’t been taking classical dance since I was a toddler, Lucius,” Severus said shortly, glancing around the circle in a way that told Natalie he, at least, realised how long they’d been talking.

“You have experience with dance, then?” Amy smiled at the blonde man, whose mouth pulled unpleasantly, as if he’d been confronted by an awful smell. It was the same look, Natalie noticed, that he’d given her as he’d sat down, and she frowned, now unsure what had caused it.

“Yes, quite a bit — ballroom dancing, that is. Ah, Lucius Malfoy,” the man answered, his tone going haughty. Natalie thought she saw Severus wince slightly, but then he was back to toying with his sweatshirt, wrapping the laces around his fingers. He had very spindly hands, which twined deftly together like a spider weaving its nest, and Natalie was distracted by their motion for a moment before she was able to tear her eyes away.

“What inspired you to join us today?” Amy asked, and Lucius hesitated, then exchanged a glance with Severus, whose expression was oddly worried.

“Yes, well — it was Severus’ idea,” Lucius said, and Severus balked even as he appeared relieved, his hands stilling.

“I — I thought it’d be fun,” Severus managed after a few, awkward moments, ducking behind his hair yet again. He did that a lot, it seemed.

“No worries! We’re all here to have fun!” Amy encouraged, and she looked to Natalie, who straightened as much as she could.

“I’m Natalie,” she began, running the talking points through her head like a mantra. “I’m a doctoral student studying chemistry, so I don’t get out too much, but I’ve always wanted to learn how to dance, and I thought that I ought to try before I get into the workforce full time. I’ve never taken a dance class before.”

It amused her, how nervous a simple introduction could make her feel, and she took a deep breath, looking toward Michelle. Lucius kept his gaze on her for a moment, but Natalie ignored him, and at last he looked away, focusing on the other woman.

“I’m Michelle. I’m in med school right now, so I really needed something to help me destress, and I’ve always enjoyed dancing. I did some ballet when I was in primary school, but I haven’t taken any other dance classes.”

She looked to the right

“Okay,” Severus said hesitantly, and he raised his arms slowly, taking on a focused expression. “So, we start with a ‘Y,’ then I guess this counts as an ‘M’ — ” He put his fingertips on the crown of his head, the move surprisingly accurate. “ — and then you mirror a ‘C’ to the left, and you finish with an ‘A.’ ”

“See, you’ve got it!” Natalie encouraged as she and Michelle followed along with his instructions, and Severus gave a tentative attempt at a smile. He had crooked teeth, his right front tooth having grown at an angle over his left, but it matched the crooked way the smile sat on his face, and she couldn’t help smiling back. “That was perfect.”

“Well, that’s good to hear. I’m not very ‘hip with the kids,’ ” Severus joked

Lucius’ POV:

Sev and Luci have their fourth dance class (Sept. 26th), and they join Natalie and a few others in going out to lunch

Severus wears his dress robes in the morning and Lucius is like, “What is this?? You look fabulous. I need more. We’re going shopping.”

A group of women had gathered by the door, talking animatedly, and Lucius did his best to drown them out as Severus buttoned up his coat beside him. The Potions professor was nearly done when he suddenly glanced up, looking past him, and Lucius turned in alarm to see one of the Muggle women from the group walking toward them, a hesitant smile on her face.

“Hey, so,” Natalie said, primarily addressing Severus but glancing at Lucius politely, “we were going to go grab some lunch nearby. Just hang out, get to know each other and all that. Do you guys want to come?”

It was almost comical watching the stages of shock travel over Severus’ face, bewilderment turning to perplexed surprise, but Lucius didn’t feel like laughing at all when a sudden, encouraged expression won out.

“I will!” Severus replied, sounding obscenely happy about the invitation, and he looked to Lucius with an unsettling amount of excitement. “What about you, Lucius?”
The taller, blonde man let out an awkward, forced laugh, trying not to look as horrified as he felt as he turned to Natalie.

“Could you give us just one minute to think about it?” He asked with sickening politeness, then gripped Severus’ shoulder like a vice and wrenched him over to the corner, hissing, “Are you insane? I am not spending my free time with Muggles!”

It was hard to say for sure, but he thought Severus looked somewhat dejected at this.

“You wouldn’t just be spending it with Muggles,” the professor protested, sounding far too sincere for Lucius’ liking. “Come on, Lucius. When was the last time we went to lunch? It’s been years!”

“We can go to lunch anywhere!” Lucius shot back, struggling to keep his voice to an angry whisper. “Why in Merlin’s name would you want to do it with Muggles? I don’t understand why you’re so friendly with them. It’s profane!”

Now, Severus’ expression was the one that took on a tint of anger, and the professor was short when he replied.

“I’m friendly with them because I like them. I’m learning things I’ve never heard of before, and I’m getting to talk about things I can’t with wizards. For Merlin’s sake, haven’t you caught on to the fact we’re here because they’re Muggles? They don’t know who we are!”

Lucius’ eyes widened, combing through all of their conversations on the subject to see if this was true, and Severus continued hotly.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of everyone staring at me! I can’t walk down the street without making the paper! I came here to get away from that. Don’t you want to get away from it, too? Doesn’t it bother you how everyone stares and whispers in the Wizarding world? I like being here with people who don’t think I’m anything more than some random professor!”

“We could just stay in the Manor and eat,” Lucius tried, but the protest sounded weak even to his ears. Severus’ expression turned disappointed, and the professor looked down at the floor, letting out a frustrated, downcast sigh.

“It’s an escape, Lucius. And we never escape anymore.”

The sincerity in his voice almost hurt to hear, and Lucius struggled for several seconds with himself, his love for Severus and hatred of Muggles wrestling for a victor.

“Oh, alright,” he said exasperatedly, hardly believing his own words as he spoke them. “But if I walk out, don’t be surprised.”

For a brief moment, Severus looked overjoyed, and Lucius resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

“I don’t have any Muggle money on me. I won’t be able to buy anything.”

“That’s fine. I’ll pay,” Severus said, and the ease of it, coming from the stingiest wizard Lucius knew, confirmed what he’d thought: for some incomprehensible reason, the professor seemed set on having a Muggle afternoon out with him.

Severus turned around and waved to the Muggles, who were staring at them with visible confusion and interest.

“We’ll come!”

Looking curious, Severus took a cautious sip of the drink — and choked, coughing into his elbow as Lucius shook his head, caught between smug vindication and disgust.

“Sorry,” the Potions Master wheezed as the Muggles looked at him in surprise. “It’s just — a bit sweeter than I was expecting.”

“I always think fountains are sweeter, too!” Exclaimed Gemma, and Severus scrambled for an expression, settling on a questioning half-smile. “They’re like, more mellow, y’know?”

“I like them better,” Jessie commented, taking a sip of her drink with a notable lack of horror. “The bottles are too strongly flavoured, for me.”

“I like that, though. You always know what you’re getting,” Michelle responded, and Severus’ gaze darted around the group, joining in with a hesitant nod.

“What about you?” She asked, looking to Natalie. “Where do you work?”

“I work at the library on King Street,” she answered, and Lucius saw Severus give a visible start.

“The London Nook?” He looked flabbergasted, but Natalie only nodded, nonplussed. “I’m there most weekends! I haven’t seen you, though.”

“Oh, really? Yeah, I mostly work weekdays,” she replied, smiling in that grinning way Lucius hadn’t yet figured out. “It’s a good job. They’re flexible with my research schedule, and having a Master’s is required to be a librarian, so it pays alright.”

Lucius exchanged a glance with Severus, seeing the confusion in his friend’s eyes. Surely the Muggle hadn’t said she had a Mastery? What could the Muggle world even offer to master?

“What did you get your Master’s in?” Jessie asked cheerfully, looking as if the question was completely normal.

“Chemical Research. I did look for a job in chem, but they’re really competitive, and there’s not many out there. I’ll probably end up being a professor at university once I’ve finished my PhD,” Natalie answered, flashing a brief smile at Severus, who let out a remarkably unconvincing, ‘heh.’

“Why did you choose chemistry?” Michelle questioned, mercifully redirecting the Muggle’s attention from the Potions Master.

“It’s my favourite subject. I’ve been doing chem since I was in primary school,” Natalie replied, grinning at the horrified looks that passed over the other women’s faces. “When I was looking at careers as a teenager, I decided it was what I wanted to do. It’s not the easiest field, though.”

“God, chem kicked my arse in college,” Michelle complained, shaking the last of her crisps onto her hand. “I can’t imagine what it’d be like at PhD level.”

“Chem is currently kicking my arse in college,” Victoria muttered, stirring her drink.

“Do you want help? I do tutoring,” Natalie offered

Lucius’ POV:

“A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked.” ~ Bernard Meltzer
Secluded in the largest study of Malfoy Manor, Lucius was pacing.

Back and forth, back and forth he went, treading down the carpet in front of his desk, his mind worrying a league a minute as his hands fidgeted behind his back.

Severus was late.

Severus was never late.

Lucius had been waiting for Severus for almost twenty minutes now, and he was growing seriously concerned. The worst part was, he didn’t have a way to contact his closest friend and ask about the delay — Severus was the only Death Eater who had ever been able to cast a Patronus, and Narcissa had never learned the charm. Hell, even if she had, Lucius had no idea how Dumbledore’s variation, which allowed the caster to speak through their Patronus, worked in the first place.

Sending an owl would be foolish, of course; owl delivery could take hours, and there was every chance Severus would show up before then. He’d thought about Flooing to Severus’ office, but that too had its flaws — he could miss Severus on his way out of Hogwarts, and then they’d be running in circles like two idiots in a bad comedy.

No, Lucius knew he had to wait, but he dearly wished that Severus had sent him a message explaining his absence. Should he go on ahead? He didn’t want to miss their class, but he had no idea how late Severus was going to be. Five minutes past the hour? Ten? Was he even coming at all?

Of course he was coming, Lucius grumbled to himself. Severus would never shirk an appointment, and he definitely wouldn’t shirk an appointment without telling him first.

Yet, he hadn’t contacted him.

Hence, Lucius’ worry.

Lucius collapsed into the chair behind his desk, his knees jogging nervously, and watched the clock with agitation. The second hand ticked by with almost agonizing slowness, and he watched it make its rounds, the minute hand moving ever so sluggishly closer to the start of their class . . .

A familiar knock sounded on the door.

“About time!” Lucius exclaimed, springing up from his chair as the door to his study opened. “I was getting worried you wouldn’t come!”

“Sorry,” Severus replied, slightly out of breath as he shut the door behind him. “Several students got into a tussle right as I was about to leave — something about Quidditch, they dragged one of my fourth years into it — and I had to find Rubeus, but he was in the Forest, and — ” He paused in the middle of his explanation, only now taking in Lucius’ too-late hidden relief and uncovered Muggle workout clothes.

“I thought something might have happened to you,” Lucius said hurriedly, feeling somewhat stupid as Severus raised one of his eyebrows; the excuse might fool most people, maybe even most Slytherins, but not Severus.

“Right,” Severus responded, a slight smirk curling the edge of his lip. “Well, let’s be on our way, then,” he added casually, but Lucius caught the glitter of amusem*nt in his black eyes.

Lucius ignored him with the air of a king, maintaining a haughty expression as he swung a warm traveling cloak over his long-sleeved shirt and sweatpants, and they swept out of the room with the momentum of two powerful men pursuing important business.

Lucius tried to forget that they were actually headed to a humble Muggle community event.

They strode through the Manor at a brisk but unhurried pace; they were still on time, if only by a few minutes. Draco and Narcissa, who were long used to Severus and Lucius’ weekly outing by now, didn’t interrupt their departure, but Narcissa had wished Lucius a good day with a smile earlier, before he’d returned to his study to wait for their engagement. He still hadn’t told them what exactly it was that he and Severus were doing, but he felt they would be happier in ignorance.

As they headed down the drive, Severus glanced over at him, a barely-noticeable motion to any but a high class Slytherin — Lucius caught it easily. He looked back, catching his friend’s gaze and the renewed glitter in it.

No, Lucius realized, that wasn’t Severus’ usual glitter of mischief or malice. It was . . .

A sparkle. One of genuine happiness.

“Yes?” Lucius asked, trying to make sense of seeing his cynical, jaded friend with such a cheerful light in his eyes.

“Nothing,” Severus replied easily, turning his head back to the front. Lucius raised his eyebrows slightly, but he let Severus’ denial stand, letting the brisk December wind continue the conversation in his stead. His leather gloved hands, content in their fur-lined shelter, were relaxed despite the chill gust, and it was when he thought offhandedly of how cozy they were that he realized —

Contentment. That was this feeling.

He was glad to see Severus, glad to be heading to their usual class together, and he felt touched as he understood that Severus was glad, too. They were, for the first time in a long while, perfectly content to do something purely for fun.

Lucius didn’t know if there had ever been a point in his life where he hadn’t had to worry about what others were thinking of him or weigh his every word and motion in the long run of his grand scheme to gain influence and respect. Maybe when he had been very young, but, even then, his father had impressed on him the importance of always maintaining a persona, always presenting the proper face to the world.

It felt freeing to tell those decades of ingrained control to stick it up their arse for a while, even if it was only for a few hour period with Severus.

They Apparated as usual, heading down the now-familiar Muggle street, and Lucius breathed the smoky air of the city with a spring in his step, no longer resenting it as he once had. The squat Muggle community centre looked almost welcoming as they ducked in the door, their cloaks still on — cold weather was always a welcome excuse to wear Wizarding garments in the Muggle world. Severus folded his over his arm as they crossed the lobby, revealing his usual black frock coat, but Lucius left his on as they swept into class, considering it fittingly dramatic.

Sure enough, all eyes were drawn to them, and Lucius removed his gloves smugly, swinging off his cloak and folding it to join Severus’ as his closest friend started unbuttoning his coat.

Lucius wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to seeing the Potions Master transform from his usual black-clad, modest teaching wear to his tight-fitting, light-colored exercise clothes, but it never failed to amuse him.

“When you finish unbuttoning that awful thing, you can join us,” he called over his shoulder as he headed to the circle, and, without glancing back, Severus made a rude gesture that caused an outbreak of laughter among the women.

“It’s good to see everyone,” Amy said cheerfully, as the last few giggles faded away. Severus joined the group with a neutral expression, giving no sign that he’d just demonstrated a rather potent obscenity, and Lucius smirked as he ‘accidentally’ knocked him in the shoulder. “Has everyone had a good week?”

A chorus of agreement answered her, quickly followed by Severus’ deadpan reply of “Oh, yeah, it was great. Spent the whole time dreading Monday.”

“Understandable,” commented Natalie, and another wave of giggles washed through the group.

“What did you get yourself into now?” Lucius questioned, raising his eyebrows; he and Severus hadn’t gotten a chance to catch up as usual today, since his friend had been running late.

“You’re not going to believe it,” Severus groaned, though Lucius could tell he was enjoying the grins of the class. “We’re having an event day on Monday at school, and guess what joys I get to look forward to?”

“Public karaoke?” Gemma suggested, drawing a few chuckles from the women.

“I almost wish,” Severus replied, crossing his arms and sighing dramatically. “On the roster is bobbing for apples, eating sherbet with a blindfold, getting pied in the face ten times for a student raffle, and — ” He paused for effect, leaving Lucius and the others wondering what could possibly be worse than getting pied in the face. “ — teaching the entire last day of the semester in bubblegum pink. Including hair!” He exclaimed over the immediate burst of laughter, which now included a very shocked Lucius, who couldn’t imagine seeing Severus with anything but black hair and kept laughing harder every time he tried.

“Oh my God, that’s amazing,” Jessie said, wiping a tear of mirth from her eye. “Please take pictures — we need to see it.”

Natalie and Gemma immediately chimed in their agreement, and the other women joined them, until the whole class was clamouring to see evidence of this oh-so-awful event day. Lucius couldn’t help it — he looked at his friend, who seemed caught between laughing and groaning in despair, and felt a genuine smile spread over his face.

“You better have pictures,” he warned, and Severus finally cracked, wheezing a laugh as he hid his face in his hands. “And give me copies — they’ll be family heirlooms.”

Absolutely not,” Severus replied, raising his head, and Lucius grinned, enjoying being the cause of the renewed fits of humour.

“I finally finished my semester,” offered Michelle as the group finally quieted down. “Just one more, and I’ll have my degree! Then I can start Foundation Training,” she said excitedly, and several women cheered; Lucius joined the others in clapping as she blushed, beaming around at all of them. He had no idea what she was talking about, but it seemed good, and he figured that was enough.

“What kind of doctor are you going to be?” Victoria asked curiously, and Michelle brightened.

“Oh! I’m going into ophthalmology,” she answered, and the women cheered again, whooping and clapping. Lucius tried not to laugh, still having no clue what the
Muggles were so happy about.

“Think a Healer, but for eyes,” Severus murmured to him, obviously reading his confusion, and Lucius nodded, continuing to clap.

“Hey, Severus?”

Lucius glanced back as he pulled on his gloves, seeing that Natalie had drifted over to talk to the Potions Master, who was busy buttoning up his absurd frock coat. “I just wanted to ask, are you, um, busy tomorrow?”

“A bit,” Severus answered, turning to face her. Lucius noticed a gaggle of women giggling off to the side, watching the exchange, and his social instincts twinged in warning — there was more to this than a casual question. Now listening with rapt attention, he pretended to fix his cuffs, but his hand was drifting to his wand; he doubted the Muggles were a threat, but it would never do to forget caution. “Why?”

“Well, I thought, um, maybe you’d like to get a coffee with me? Only if you’re not busy, of course,” she added hurriedly, and Lucius’ jaw fell open, eliciting a rush of giggles through the other observers, but Severus merely blinked, his brow furrowing ever so slightly in confusion.

You great idiot, Lucius thought, smoothing his expression back into polite indifference with great effort — he felt like his stomach had just learned to Levitate.

“Well, tomorrow is the last day before the end of term,” Severus said, oblivious to the women who were almost falling over from silent laughter just outside his field of view. “I’m done with grading, but I usually like to go over the final reports for each student, to make sure I haven’t missed anything, and I probably won’t be able to finish them tonight . . . ”

“That’s alright,” Natalie replied quickly, hiding her disappointment remarkably well. Severus watched in some surprise as she fiddled with her hands, clearly sensing that something was off but not seeing what. “Um — thanks. Have a good day,” she fumbled, giving him her best attempt at a bright smile.

“Er — yeah, you too,” Severus responded, his eyes tracking her as she skittered back to the group of women, who enveloped her like a protective bubble. Then, he glanced at Lucius, as if to check if he’d seen that; Lucius feigned ignorance, straightening the edges of his cloak.

“You go on ahead,” Lucius mentioned offhandedly, pretending to still be getting ready to leave. “I thought I’d do some shopping.”

“Alright,” Severus said suspiciously — for all his romantic obliviousness, he was extremely adept at reading social cues, and Lucius knew his Slytherin instincts must be pinging like crazy. “You don’t want to walk out with me?”

“Don’t tell me the big bad Professor Snape is afraid to walk down the street alone?” Lucius teased, but the attempt at distraction only made Severus’ eyes narrow further. “Oh, bugger off, Severus. I’ll explain later.”

“Will you,” Severus muttered, but he knew not to question a direct message to leave. Something was afoot, and he was getting in the way of it — Lucius took a moment to be glad of the years of trust between them, knowing that it would be impossible for anyone else to chase Severus off with such a vague, unhelpful statement.

He waited until Severus had exited the room, calling back a polite “Merry Christmas!” to the Muggles, then headed over to the group of three women, who were reassuring a rather faint-looking Natalie.

“Ladies,” he greeted, and they fell over themselves again, giggling and snickering.

“Lucius,” tittered Gemma, her arm around the dismayed woman.

“I feel so dumb,” Natalie moaned, hiding her face in her hands. “Did he notice?”

“No, I don’t think so,” answered Lucius, who was preoccupied by wondering when his life had ever gotten this weird. Of all the ridiculous situations he’d been in — realizing a Muggle woman fancied Severus? That had to be one of the strangest. “He’s actually very good with social cues, but he has a bit of . . . let’s say . . . an ingrained assumption that women aren’t interested in him.”

“What, really?” Jessie asked, sounding genuinely surprised. Lucius stared at her for a moment before remembering that, of course, Muggles wouldn’t know about Severus’ complicated past. Come to think of it, he realized, they’d only started taking the class after Severus had started looking healthier and taking better care of himself, so they wouldn’t know of his more unattractive years, either.

Lucius wracked his brains for a way to dissuade Natalie from liking Severus that wouldn’t involve grievously insulting his closest friend. He cared deeply for Severus, yes, but he wasn’t going to wingman setting him up with a Muggle woman.

No — he corrected himself — because he cared for Severus, he wasn’t going to wingman setting him up with a Muggle woman.

“He’s never had a date that I know, and I’ve known him since he was eleven, if that helps,” he replied, and now he had the attention of all the women remaining in the class, even the few that weren’t bunched around Natalie.

“Woah, seriously? He’s so hot, though,” Jessie protested, and Gemma fervently nodded her agreement.

“Er — he is?” Lucius wished he didn’t sound so skeptical, but he couldn’t deny that Severus was, at the very least, not conventionally attractive.

“Well, not, like, facially.” Jessie gestured unnecessarily to her nose. “But, he’s super smart, y’know? He’s so funny, and when he dances . . . ” She trailed off, fanning her face for dramatic effect; Lucius, who could not say he paid any particular attention to Severus’ dancing beyond snorting when he messed up, couldn’t quite keep an expression of disbelief from his face. “He’s so graceful, like a black panther!” She clawed the air with a hand, growling in a manner Lucius supposed was intended to be suggestive.

“He’s really confident,” mumbled Natalie, whose dark cheeks were still visibly flushed.

“And, he’s a professor!” Gemma chimed in, as if this explained everything.

“Er — yes, he is.” Lucius was unsure how else to reply to that.

“He is straight, right?” Victoria asked anxiously, and, for lack of a better response to such a surreal situation, Lucius nodded. “Oh, good. We were pretty sure, but we weren’t totally sure, you know?”

Lucius did not know.

“Ah, well, Natalie — ” He segued, trying to gather himself before this conversation got any weirder. “You’re . . . around thirty, yes?”

“Thirty-two,” she answered, still looking very embarrassed.

“See, Severus is a good bit older than he looks,” he continued, relieved that age alone would make a good argument against her pursuit of the oblivious Potions Master. “He’s turning thirty-nine in just a few weeks, actually.”

“Oh my God, really?” Gasped Jessie, and Natalie flushed, if possible, an even deeper shade of red. “He looks so young! We thought he was, like, thirty!”

“No, unfortunately not,” Lucius confirmed, gaining the momentum of the conversation. “He’s a bit of a workaholic, too,” he added, his tone apologetic. “As I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

He gestured vaguely to the door, reminding them of Severus’ unintentional excuse, and Jessie stifled a snort.

“Sadly, that’s not all,” Lucius continued, deciding he was going to play this extra safe. “I regret to inform you — ” In truth, he didn’t regret it at all, minus a small amount of guilt over trampling on Severus’ privacy, which was quickly subdued; it wasn’t like everyone in the Wizarding World didn’t know this already. “ — but he’s also, well . . . ”

He trailed off, genuinely not sure how to phrase this.

“ ‘Functionally widowed,’ ” he said at last, and the women blinked at him in confusion. “He — er — lost someone a long time ago. His first love,” he added, and they let out a collective gasp, hands flying to mouths in shock and sympathy. “He’s doing better, much better now, but I’m not sure he’s ready to . . . try again, you know?”

He was getting the hang of this Muggle dialect thing, he thought smugly.

“That’s so romantic,” Gemma warbled, her eyes glistening, and Jessie nodded silently, hushed by the idea.

No, not really, Lucius wanted to reply. It’s a bit pathetic, actually.

“He has a good therapist now,” he continued, figuring that he didn’t want Severus to walk into class after the holidays and wonder why half of the women were suddenly offering him emotional support. “And he’s been much happier. He’s a good man — and a good friend. But, he’s . . . well, complicated. Probably better as a friend,” he said sympathetically, and Natalie looked down, subdued.

“This is always what happens,” she mumbled, and Lucius blinked — he’d been of the opinion that Severus’ backstory was what never happened. “I always like guys who aren’t looking to date. Oh well,” she sighed heavily, managing a smile. “I’m happy just to be friends. I’ll find someone eventually.”

“Of course you will! You’re so smart, and you’re beautiful!” Jessie told her, wrapping her in a hug from the side. “And, hey — ” She nudged Natalie with an elbow, grinning suggestively. “ — maybe Severus knows some cute young professors, y’know?”

Lucius resisted the urge to laugh, knowing that the vast majority of professors at Hogwarts made Severus look positively youthful by comparison.

“You called him Professor earlier, didn’t you?” Victoria asked curiously, bringing his attention back to the conversation.

“Oh — yes,” he answered, and Jessie giggled, covering her mouth with her hand.

“What’s his surname?” She questioned, her eyes dancing with delight.

“Snape,” Lucius replied, mystified by how much attention his closest friend had managed to garner from the Muggle women — and to think that neither of them had noticed! Muggles must be sneakier than he’d thought. “Severus Snape; he doesn’t have a middle name.”

“Professor Snape,” Jessie giggled again, and the other women joined her, minus Natalie, whose lip twitched with a suppressed smile.

Lucius was starting to accept that he’d never understand Muggles, much less Muggle women who took modern dance for fun and leisure.

“When’s his birthday?” Natalie asked, glancing up. “You said it’s in just a few weeks, right?”

“Er, yes — January ninth,” Lucius answered, still trying to wrap his mind around the idea that Severus was somehow attractive to at least four women.

Muggle women, yes, but all the same.

“January ninth! We have class then!” Jessie exclaimed, looking very excited.

“Would he — would he mind if I got him something? As friends?” Natalie blushed again, but she seemed far more composed than earlier, thinking like her usual, observant self. Lucius felt very odd that he knew a Muggle well enough to know that she was acting like herself.

“I doubt he’d mind,” he replied, about as close to honestly as he could with Muggles. “He’ll want to return the favour, though.”

Jessie tittered, and Lucius caught her whisper of “how chivalrous!” to Gemma.

“I’d recommend a simple, utilitarian object,” he added after a moment of thought. “Maybe a scarf, or gloves? He wears a lot of black, but forest green is also acceptable.”

Merlin, he hadn’t gotten Severus anything for Christmas or his birthday, he realized belatedly. He’d have to rectify that as soon as possible, before the shops in Diagon Alley closed on Christmas Eve. He wasn’t given to losing track of time, but these past few months had flown, accelerated by the comparative lack of stress and their weekly classes.

“Thanks. I appreciate it,” Natalie said, and she smiled sincerely at him. Despite the fact she was a Muggle, he felt a Slytherin-like understanding pass between them; though they hadn’t spoken of it, he knew that she wouldn’t pursue Severus romantically, and she knew that he wouldn’t tell his friend anything about her feelings toward him.

“Yes, well, I better be off,” Lucius mentioned, now thinking that there might be some truth in the excuse he’d given Severus and feeling eager to escape this fiasco of an experience. “Have a Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas!” The group chorused behind him, and he raised a hand in farewell, striding out the door with his cloak billowing behind him.

As he stepped into the brisk December wind, he felt a wave of tiredness come over him — Muggles were exhausting.

Lucius had a goal now.

He was going to help Severus find a proper witch for himself.

Lucius’ POV:

“Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.” ~ Thomas J. Watson
Sev and Luci go shopping

Lucius talks with Sev about how he thinks Severus is worried to accept that his appearance can change and be anything he wants it to be, though in a kind way. He encourages Sev to change whatever he’d like but also confronts the seeming fear/shame Sev has of knowing how he can look with effort (in that it involves accepting that his lack of self-confidence in his appearance was something he could have changed earlier in his life, though of course Sev’s still struggling with his self-confidence later during their bake sale conversation)

They Apparated into a small, seemingly-closed shop down the street from The Leaky Cauldron, and Lucius stepped briskly onto the pavement, Severus following him reluctantly. The Potions Master combed his hair forward as they walked down the sidewalk, evidently trying to be a little less conspicuous, and Lucius winced, glad that, after today, he’d never have to see Severus’ awful, flat haircut hiding his face again.

They turned inside the pub, and Lucius kept his head high, striding with a purpose even as the patrons whispered and stared in recognition — some in awe of Severus, some in distaste of his company.

Let them stare, Lucius thought smugly, leading the wizarding celebrity through to the back. He was Severus’ closest friend, and no stranger’s hatred or envy would change that fact.

The thought helped him step confidently through the brick archway into Diagon Alley.

“Alright: first things first, we’re going to get you a new set of robes,” Lucius stated as they headed down the main thoroughfare, Severus attracting an almost comical number of double-takes from passerby.

“A new set? You said a bit of shopping!” Severus said, aghast, and Lucius snorted, his platinum blonde hair streaming out behind him as he strode smartly past the first few shops. He knew that word of their excursion would spread all over Diagon Alley before long, and he wanted to look confident and casual in his interactions with the famous Potions Master so that the public would get the correct impression.

“That is a bit, Severus, honestly. Haven’t you learned that by now?” He asked, steering his friend toward Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions before he could object. “Don’t tell Narcissa we were here, by the way; she still insists on shopping at Twilfitt and Tattings, but, personally, I find their menswear section a bit lacking.”

“I — what?” Severus questioned, clearly caught off guard by the lack of context, and Lucius took advantage of his confusion to push him through the door.

“Good morning,” Lucius called, catching the attention of Madam Malkin and one of her assistants, who were both pinning a robe onto an elderly woman.

“Good morning, Mr. Malfoy,” Madam Malkin answered, managing a polite smile. She exchanged a quick look with her assistant, passing some message between them, then walked over to them; Lucius noticed how Severus tensed when her eyes widened in recognition. “Professor Snape! It’s such an honour to meet you! How can we help you today?”

Meet? Meet? Lucius stared at his friend for a long moment, Severus doing his absolute best to ignore his flabbergasted expression. He’d known Severus wasn’t exactly fashionably inclined, but he’d never even set foot in Madam Malkin’s? Merlin, this was going to be trickier than he’d thought.

“Severus here needs a new set of robes,” Lucius replied, putting a special emphasis on ‘Severus’ just to be extra clear on his closeness to his famous friend. “No, actually — make that a new set of clothes. We’re starting fresh. You still do head-to-toe commissions, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” Madam Malkin said as Severus sputtered beside him, something about ‘certainly not necessary’ and ‘that’s ridiculous.’ She started to glance at the Potions Master in concern, but Lucius overrode both of them, determined not to let his friend slip away.

“Great. We were thinking semi-formal open robes, casual enough for daily wear but nice enough for special occasions. A few dress robes wouldn’t go amiss, either,” he added, and Severus glared at him.

We were not thinking that,” Severus retorted, his hair shifting across his face as he lifted his head to narrow his eyes at Lucius. “You were thinking that.”

Lucius took a deep breath before he replied.

“Severus, love, you’re an expert in many areas, but your fashion sense is atrocious. For your own sake, I really think you ought to let the professionals handle this. As a favour to me?”

Maybe it was the sheer honesty; maybe it was that he’d called Severus by such an affectionate nickname, something he’d never done in all their years of friendship, but Severus didn’t argue, his mouth slightly agape in surprise as Lucius turned back to Madam Malkin.

“I’m thinking waistcoats,” he stated, and she blinked, recovering — she looked almost as flabbergasted as Severus.

“Yes, that would look nice,” she admitted, scanning Severus’ hideous frock coat. “Formal waistcoats, robes, trousers — yes, I think we could make that work. If you’d just step over to the mirror . . . ”

Lucius steered a dazed Severus to the fitting spot, helping him out of his robe and gesturing for him to unbutton his frock coat. Severus started down the absurd row of fastenings, the motions looking automatic, as if he was still reeling in shock — which he probably was. The Potions Master flushed slightly as he took off the coat, his eyes darting to the elderly witch and the young woman who was fitting her, but he handed it to Lucius, standing in only his slacks, belt, shirt, and boots.

“Hmm,” Madam Malkin hummed, looking over Severus’ thin frame with a practiced eye. “Hold the robe and coat up to him?”

Lucius lifted the two garments close to Severus’ face; his friend shifted uncomfortably, but he didn’t pull away.

“Yes, I thought so,” the Madam mused, nodding to herself. “They’re the wrong shade of black.”

“The wrong shade of black?” Severus asked, sounding like someone had just told him that he’d spent the whole of his life using the wrong type of magic. When Madam Malkin didn’t reply, instead heading into the back of the shop, Severus looked at Lucius in utter confusion, baffled that no one else seemed to be taken aback by this statement.

“It doesn’t match your hair,” Lucius said patiently, lowering his arms again and continuing before Severus could interrupt. “You know how complicated things get in advanced Potions? All the regional differences in ingredients, all the variation of different knives and cauldrons? Clothing is just like that.”

“That’s . . . ” Severus trailed off, clearly wanting to argue but unable to, as he knew next to nothing about fashion. Lucius watched him struggle in some amusem*nt, glad that his friend was too prideful to be caught looking like a fool and too curious to flat out deny the intricacies of a foreign art. As long as Severus knew that there was a process going on here that he didn’t understand, he would be more inclined to learn than to contradict.

“Here are some options,” said Madam Malkin, appearing again with a few different black robes in her arms. “Stand still, if you would.”

Severus stood rooted to the spot, looking bewildered as she held each robe up to him, casting variations on Lumos to see how the fabrics looked in different lighting.

“I think this one,” she commented, and Lucius nodded his agreement; one of the inky robes looked better next to Severus’ skin and hair than the others. “I would advise against wearing too much black, however. You can see here how your hair blends into the fabric, so any styling you do will be harder to catch. It’s also . . . ” She scanned Severus’ black hair and eyes, as if looking for a nice way to say this. “Rather overwhelming.”

“What colours would you recommend?” Lucius asked as Severus blinked in confusion.

“With his complexion?” She scanned Severus again, her brow furrowing, and Severus listened expectantly. He’d shifted from professor to student, which Madam Malkin evidently recognized, as she addressed him when she spoke. “You’ve got a warm skin tone — notice the yellow undertone, as well as the black hair and eyes. Red would bring out the warmth in your skin tone, and I think a forest green, if dark enough, could work, as you’re the Head of Slytherin, but you’ll generally want to stick to warmer colours. I would suggest maroon, maybe plum, and a neutral like a light grey or tan would look quite nice on you. Are you interested in ties?”

“Er — no?” Severus looked at Lucius, checking to see if this was an acceptable answer, and Lucius had to suppress a smile.

“That one’s up to you,” he shrugged. “A few wouldn’t go amiss, though, with waistcoats. Think of it as a Magical-Muggle style,” he explained, and Severus tilted his head curiously.

“Waistcoats are Muggle?”

Lucius stared.

“You spend a significant portion of every weekend in the Muggle world, and you didn’t know formal waistcoats are Muggle?” He asked slowly, and Severus flushed slightly, clearly hearing the tone of distinct disbelief in his voice.

“I hardly ever see Muggle men,” he protested, trying to regain some of his dignity as an observant Slytherin, and Lucius resisted the urge to snort, instead rolling his eyes for the benefit of a very confused Madam Malkin.

“Waistcoats are a Muggle men’s staple,” he responded, adopting the patient tone again. “That’s why I suggested them for you.”

You nitwit, he added mentally.

“So: open robes, waistcoats, trousers, dress shirts, and dress robes. Is there anything else you need?” Madam Malkin asked, apparently eager to get the conversation back on familiar grounds, and Lucius perked up, but, before he could answer, Severus spoke.

“Not much I can think of,” Severus replied, looking a bit uncomfortable. “I suppose I should get a nicer belt — ”

“No. No belt,” Lucius interjected immediately, and Severus looked at him in abject confusion. “Braces.”

Braces?” Severus sputtered, even as Madam Malkin nodded understandingly. “I’m not going to walk around wearing braces!”

“Yes, you are,” Lucius said firmly, gripping his friend’s shoulder even as Severus stared up at him, aghast. “Belts make you look undersized; they bunch up your dress shirts and give you a muffin top, which is absurd, given how slim you are. Braces will suit your figure much better.”

“He’s right,” Madam Malkin agreed, and Severus’ face took on a look torn between dismay and regret, as if he wished he’d never so much as stepped foot in Diagon Alley today. “They can be worn formally and casually, and I think you’ll find that they’re more comfortable than belts. You’ll see the difference when we do a fitting.”

“We ought to fit some socks and boots as well. These aren’t bad, but they’re old and too utilitarian,” Lucius added, glancing down at the Potions Master’s black leather boots, thick-soled and heavy.

“Too utilitarian? I spend most of every day on my feet!” Severus argued, apparently still sore over the braces, and Lucius rolled his eyes.

“You can look nice and be comfortable at the same time. You should do something with a heel — the height would serve you well, being short.”

Severus glared up at him with visible contempt, and Lucius shrugged.

“What? Do you want me to say you’re tall? With boots, I’m over fifteen centimeters taller than you, and goodness knows most wizards aren’t much shorter. It’s about the impression, Severus.”

“I’m about to give you an impression, alright,” Severus shot back venomously, and Lucius smiled, using the expression to throw his friend’s anger off balance.

“I look forward to seeing it,” he hummed, amused at the twitch in Severus’ eye, and the Potions Master scowled, crossing his arms and shooting a dirty glance past Madam Malkin toward the racks of clothing.

“I’m starting to think Minerva wasn’t the only one involved in burning my wardrobe,” he said icily, and Lucius paused, considering this.

“Now that you mention it, I really ought to thank her. A wonderful opportunity, really. Does she take brandy?”

Severus muttered something under his breath that Lucius doubted was appropriate to a lady’s shop in Diagon Alley, but he didn’t protest when Madam Malkin awkwardly offered him a pair of black braces, struggling for a moment to button them on until Lucius stepped forward to help, bringing them over his friend’s shoulders.

“This is a green tweed that I thought might look nice, as well as a brown and a maroon,” Madam Malkin added, holding out the three waistcoats folded on her forearm, which she’d Summoned during their brief spat. As Diagon Alley’s foremost clothing fitter, Lucius was sure she’d long gotten used to her clients having squabbles, especially with reluctant male customers. “If you’d try on the green one, I’d like to make sure it’s a good colour for you.”

Clearly bemused, Severus shrugged the waistcoat on over his braces, buttoning it — Lucius swatted his hand away from the bottom button, shaking his head sternly.

“Ooh, yes, very nice. Reminds me of when my son got his first job,” the old lady remarked wistfully, and Lucius almost laughed at the expression on Severus’ face.

“It’s a bit large, but we can take it in. You have a very slim figure, but that will give you a flattering waist with the right tailoring. I might thin the shoulder sections, as well, to broaden your appearance,” Madam Malkin said, studying Severus from the front and back, and the Potions Master flushed slightly. “This shirt is a bit short in the arms — perhaps we should go up a size. I can always bring it in, as this one needs. What’s your shoe size?”

“46,” Severus answered, and she blinked, glancing over him in clear surprise.

“Well, I’ll get the measuring tape,” she decided, Summoning it as well, and she waited as Severus unlaced his boots, pulling off his black socks. The tape fluttered around his feet, then returned to Madam Malkin, who stared at it as Severus shifted uncomfortably.

“It is indeed,” she said at last, and the Potions Master winced. “That is unusually large for a man of your stature, but we can always custom make boots, if need be.”

“He does have rather large hands and feet,” Lucius agreed, and Severus’ face burned scarlet, his head whipping to glare at him.

“One more word out of you — ” He warned, but Lucius ignored the threat, continuing matter-of-factly.

“The problem is that they’re also very thin. He has to get custom gloves, if they’re to fit right, and he tends to look gangly, with his arms and legs as they are. Any advice on how to lessen that?”

“Mostly the cut of clothing,” Madam Malkin replied, eyeing Severus shrewdly. “While I’m at it, I think it would be best to get measurements of your entire body. Usually, I would simply pin the garments on you, but, in the interest of handling your proportions, I’d like to have the reference.”

“Are they that abnormal?” Severus asked, a touch of self-consciousness making its way into his voice, and Madam Malkin paused.

“I wouldn’t say abnormal. Unusual, yes, but hardly unworkable. Would you remove your dress shirt?”

Severus’ expression turned almost comically horrified, but he obediently unbuttoned his shirt, shrugging his arms out of the sleeves. Lucius watched as Madam Malkin’s eyes flicked to the tattoo of lilies on his inner forearm, resplendent in its full-colour glory, but she refocused and sent the measuring tape flitting around Severus’ shoulders, arms, chest, and waist.

“Now, most of the tweeds we carry have some amount of green, so they should pair well if you’d like to wear them with green ties,” Madam Malkin added, and Lucius perked up.

“That would be a good way to present yourself as the Head of Slytherin

“For dress robes, I would suggest something like this,” she said, holding up an elegant, embroidered robe in wine red. “We

“You should talk with your therapist about it,” Lucius said (partially inspires Arcadia to give Sev the homework of asking his colleagues what they find most attractive about him, physically and as a person in general)

Sev gets a haircut

“But — they must be busy. It’s only two days till Christmas,” Severus protested, sounding desperate, and Lucius gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

“It’s quite alright. I made an appointment for you already,” he said, and Severus took on an expression that suggested someone had slipped dragon dung in his Christmas pudding.

“Ehrm — I don’t suppose there’s a way to lighten it just a bit? So it doesn’t look so greasy all the time?” Severus asked tentatively, and Lucius perked up; he hadn’t expected Severus to have his own ideas about changes he wanted to make, much less to be relaxed enough to bring them up.

“So, doing some highlights?” Queried Jake, and Severus nodded hesitantly, evidently not wanting to admit he didn’t know what the man was talking about. “You do have very fine black hair; I can see how it might look constantly oily. I’d suggest using some volumizing products, as well, and some texturizing ones wouldn’t go amiss; that’ll keep your hair off your scalp more, so less oil will transfer to your roots. Do you ever wear it up?”

“Rarely,” Severus answered, sounding uncomfortable.

“Hmm. Well, give that a shot. Messy and loose styles especially will help mask that persistent oily look. What are you thinking on length?”

“Er . . . ”

“Longer? Shorter? Are you thinking of keeping this general style?” Jake prompted, and Severus managed a weak shrug. “Okay . . . Well, how about I throw some things out there, and you tell me what you think.”

“Sure,” Severus mumbled.

“First option: longer, maybe mid-back. That would give you some length to work with, if you wanted to try out some different styles and up-dos.”

“That could work,” Severus replied, but he didn’t sound confident whatsoever. Apparently, Jake thought so, too: he changed directions, trying to get a definite opinion from the uncertain professor.

“Second option: men’s cut, cropped close on the back and sides. That would be a big change, if you wanted to — ”

“No,” Severus said firmly, and Jake let out a silent chuckle, seeing the repulsed expression on Severus’ face in the mirror.

“How about a long men’s style? Maybe down to the nape of the neck with the front around chin length?”

“ . . . no.”

“We could do a bob, maybe about here?” Jake held his hand just below Severus’ jawline, and the Defence professor glared up at him.

“Are you purposefully picking the worst ones you can think of?” Severus snapped, and Jake let out a low whistle.

“Okay, not a fan of the bob. But, hey, if you tell me you hate it, we can avoid it. You do wear a lob of sorts — any thoughts on angling it? We could do longest in front, give it a modern look.”

“I’d really rather not.”

“Do you want to try longest in back with some shorter pieces in front? Maybe do some layering?”

For a long moment, Severus didn’t answer, and Jake pursed his lips, sucking in his cheeks.

“I’m gonna be honest,” Severus said at last, and the hairstylist raised an eyebrow.

“Yes?”

“As long as it’s long, I don’t really care what you do. I doubt you could make it any worse than it is, anyway. Go ham.”

“Hell yeah! That’s what we like to hear!” Jake whooped, and he whirled the chair around, Severus looking like he was already starting to regret his acquiescence. “Let’s start with a hair-growing spell, to give me a bit more to work with, and then we’ll give it a wash and see what we can do, yeah?”

“Sounds great,” Severus said, somewhat hollowly.

“Trust me. You’ll love it,” Jake promised, and he drew a light tan wand, murmuring a spell over Severus’ head. Immediately, the lank black hair grew past his shoulders, down to his mid back, and Jake flicked his wand again, stopping the spell. “Cool. Now, we tip you back, and I’ll wash your hair in the sink here . . . ”

Lucius almost laughed at the expression on Severus’ face as Jake scrubbed his scalp, humming all the while, but he managed to contain himself, thinking that he didn’t want to make Severus any more embarrassed than he was already. Instead, he sat quietly, scanning through a magazine while Jake shampooed and conditioned the reluctant Potions Master.

“Alright! Now, we could do a few different lengths. A hand’s breadth past the shoulder could look nice, but I’m feeling right at the shoulder — does that sound good?”

“Sure,” Severus mumbled.

“Well, don’t bowl me over with your enthusiasm,” Jake remarked dryly. “One sec. I’ll get the light and medium highlight potions.”

Severus stared after Jake as he ducked into the back room for a second, then looked over at Lucius with an expression bordering on bewildered.

“What on earth is a highlight potion? I’ve never heard of any such thing,” he said, disgruntled, and Lucius again resisted the urge to laugh.

“It’s a beauty potion. Hardly your area of expertise, Severus.”

“But is it a hair care potion? Or a physical change potion?” Severus asked, determined to understand this new addition to his knowledge.

“A physical change potion, I suppose. It lightens hair, and it comes in various strengths,” Lucius answered, and Severus nodded slowly even as Jake appeared again, carrying two medium glass bottles.

“Alright, so we’re gonna try a new cut and some highlights. If you don’t like them, we’ll use a colour restore potion and reset back to basic black. Same if you don’t like the cut; we can trial and error it as much as you want.”

“Doesn’t that . . . take time?” Severus questioned, and Jake laughed.

“Well, sure, but I’m getting paid triple for this, so you won’t hear me complaining. I booked this appointment for my whole afternoon.”

“Ah.” His wet hair combed back from his face, Severus sent a hawkish glare toward Lucius in the mirror; Lucius pretended not to notice, flipping a page in his magazine.

“I have always been morbidly curious to see it short.”

Natalie’s POV:

“Don’t be afraid of new beginnings. Don’t shy away from new people, new energy, new surroundings. Embrace new chances at happiness.” ~ Billy Chapata

Sev’s new haircut and improved skin was noticed by a certain someone

“sh*t, man,” Michelle said appreciatively, looking the thin professor up and down. “I can kinda see why you fancy him. He’s not too bad to look at, when he tries.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying,” Natalie replied, her joking tone getting a bit lost as she distractedly went from looking to staring at Severus. For all that her friends in dance teased her about him, she truly did think of him as friend first and fancy second, but . . . She was also human. And, friend or not, Severus looked fit today.

She still wasn’t entirely sure how she’d come to find him physically attractive. Because, truthfully, Severus wasn’t the kind of man people gawked at walking down the street. That wasn’t to say she didn’t find him attractive in general, because she absolutely did. He was kind, intelligent, funny, and many other appealing things, but those were traits that she had to know him to appreciate. His appearance, on the other hand . . . The best way she could describe it was that it had grown on her after she’d already liked him in every other aspect.

When she’d first taken a liking to him, sometime in early October, she’d thought that he was attractive in an intellectual way; he had a quick wit, and he was fun to talk to, be it about dance or seemingly random topics. She’d rarely known someone to express such genuine interest in even the most mundane subject matter, and she enjoyed holding conversations with him, appreciative to have a man who truly engaged with and listened to her. In the depths of academia, she often felt unheard, but Severus had never once been pretentious toward her or anyone else in the class.

Lucius . . . Well, that was another story. She still hadn’t figured out what was going on with Lucius. How a sincere, endearingly awkward man like Severus had become close to such a haughty, pompous person, she had no idea, but at this point she supposed she was just glad Lucius was able to hold a conversation with anyone in class without looking positively constipated. She’d wondered about him, those first few weeks.

Still, Severus seemed to genuinely care about him, and that had to count for something. Maybe Lucius was just very, very, very bad with women.

She had her doubts, but she tried to ignore them for the sake of her friendship with Severus. Thinking his friend was a bit of a git didn’t stop her fancying him, after all.

The professor glanced up at her as he finished taking his coat off, and he gave a friendly wave, oblivious as always. Natalie waved in return, giving him a winning smile, and Michelle snorted beside her.

“For Pete’s sake. Just shag him already.”

“I’m not going to shag him.”

“Yeah, because he’s clueless. But you totally would.”

Natalie gave her a look, then let out an exasperated sigh as Michelle laughed, seeing she had no argument.

“Ah, c’mon,” the med student joked as they headed over to join the circle, her voice dropping to keep it from a certain duo’s ears. “He’s available; we’ve confirmed that. You just have to be really obvious.”

“I’ve been really obvious,” Natalie grumbled, thinking back to her nerve-wracking attempt at asking Severus out to coffee.

“He’s a nerd, girl — it’s not really obvious until you ask him right out,” Michelle replied, giving her a knowing look, and Natalie glanced over to their oblivious topic of conversation, who’d left room for her as he always did, so sweet and clueless at the same time.

“One of these days, I’m plopping right on his damn lap,” Natalie swore, and Michelle raised an eyebrow.

“And hurt your bum like that?”

The med student was still laughing as they took their seats, and Severus gave Natalie his usual crooked smile as she dropped next to him, to which she managed a weak grin. She doubted she’d ever truly be so forward, but that was because she genuinely liked him, and she didn’t want to turn him off of their friendship. They’d probably only ever be friends, but she was okay with that. He was still a fun, interesting person that she was glad to have met, who she hoped to stay friends with far beyond their class.

Of course, that didn’t stop her looking appreciatively at his arse as they started warm-ups. Men in leggings were just unfair.

“I’ll see you all next week!” Amy dismissed cheerfully, and the class broke apart, laughter and friendly farewells filling the room. Natalie headed over to the wall to grab her bag as usual, but, as she slung it over her shoulder, she sensed someone had walked up to her, and she turned.

“Hey,” Severus said in greeting, his thumbs hooked in the waistband of his leggings, and Natalie flushed slightly, her mind flashing back to their last class.

“Hey,” she replied, trying to sound cheerful. She was desperately hoping Lucius had kept her botched attempt at asking the oblivious professor out a secret — she hadn’t talked to Severus at all today, still embarrassed by how poorly it had gone.

“So, about our last class,” Severus said, and she blanched, thankful that he couldn’t see the blood draining out of her face beneath her dark skin. “I’m sorry I was busy. I thought — well, I’m free today, so, if you don’t have anything going on, would you — er — would you like to grab that coffee?”

He shifted his weight, looking awkward, and Natalie tried unsuccessfully not to blush.

“Yeah, sure! I’m free today,” she answered, doing her damndest to sound casual. “Do you mind if I change first?”

“Not at all. I’ll change, too,” Severus replied, and he waited politely for her as she fumbled her shoes on. As she stood up, she caught Lucius’ eye, and they exchanged a look full of meaning — oddly, Natalie thought that Lucius looked rather dismayed as she turned back to smile at Severus. He returned her smile, if a bit shyly, and she noticed to her surprise that his teeth were less yellow than before. Perhaps he’d visited the dentist over break?

They joined the queue, scanning the menu in mutual silence as they waited for their turn at the counter. Severus seemed to be trying to stay behind her, but, as the line got closer to the register, and Natalie was struggling to decide from the enormous menu, he ended up catching the barista’s eye first.

“What can we get for you?” She asked politely, and he cast a panicked glance at Natalie, then appeared to do some very quick thinking.

“Um — hello,” he greeted the barista, rigid with nerves. “Can I have a large coffee with cream and sugar and a blueberry muffin, please?”

“That'll be five sixty-two,” she replied, and he handed her a tenner, then accepted his change back with exaggerated care, folding the bills together and slipping them into a small coin purse. “Will that be for here or to go?”

“Er — here,” Severus said, catching Natalie’s agreeing shrug.

“Can I have a name for the order?”

“Severus,” he answered, sounding nervous, and the barista blinked.

“What was it?”

“Severus?” He tried again, and she leaned forward over the register.

“One more time?”

“Se-ver-us?”

“Spell it for me?”

“S-e-v-e-r-u-s,” he said, looking a bit like he wanted to sink into the floor.

“Think I've got it. We'll have that out for you in just a minute,” she responded, and he nodded sheepishly, ducking out of the line while Natalie ordered a medium mocha and a lemon muffin, thinking he had the right idea about getting a small bite to eat.

“That must get pretty tiresome,” she commented as they walked over to the waiting area, but Severus merely looked at her in confusion. “I mean — people never getting your name right the first time.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess. I often forget how weird it is when I'm at school,” Severus replied, and his eyes darted embarrassedly off to the side, his hand coming up to rub his elbow. Natalie watched him for a few moments, surprised that he seemed nervous, but she supposed this did feel like a date. Not that it wasn’t, really. She hadn’t given Severus many cues on the matter, wanting to see where things would go on their own.

“Were you named after someone?” She asked, having long been curious about the odd name, and Severus shrugged.

“Not really. My mother came from a line by the name of Prince, so she wanted something that sounded a bit . . . er, royal. It drew a lot of strange looks in co*keworth.”

“What does it mean?”

“Stern, or severe if you stretch. It’s a Roman name, just Anglicised. There was a whole Severan Dynasty with emperors named Sey-wey-rus,” he answered, putting his hands in his pockets. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, then seemed to notice the motion, as he came to a sudden halt.

“Is co*keworth where you’re from?”

“Yes. It’s a factory town by Lancaster,” he added, clearly seeing that she had no idea where he was talking about.

“Oh, really? Is the factory still going?” Natalie had never been to Lancaster, but she knew the city was up north, which would match Severus’ accent.

“No, it’s been abandoned for a long time. I’ve got a house there still, but I almost never stay at it.”

“Why not sell it?”

“I use it during summer,” he replied, shrugging again, then elaborated upon seeing her curious look. “I teach at a boarding school, but I don’t usually live there over break.”

“Which school do you teach at?” She’d assumed he taught at a university, but, then again, he was quite young. It made sense that he would teach lower forms.

“Oh — it’s a secondary school. Year Seven to Year Thirteen. What about you? Which university do you attend?”

“University College London,” she answered, feeling the usual mixture of pride and slight embarrassment, as if she might make him feel bad by mistake. To her pleasant surprise, though, Severus didn’t do the usual series of blinks or raise his eyebrows, instead nodding totally normally.

“Do you like it?” He asked, and, nonplussed, Natalie returned his nod.

“The chemistry program is very good. I’ve really enjoyed it,” she replied, thinking that she shouldn’t test his nonchalance by going on about it. No sense in ruining a good thing, after all.

“Chemistry is a remarkably interesting topic. I can see why you would study it,” Severus said, somewhat offhandedly, and Natalie smiled in immediate excitement. So few people actually liked chemistry that she almost never brought it up outside of her program, but she absolutely loved talking about it. So much so that it was a banned topic at family dinners — but, then again, it was hardly alone in that. Niche enthusiasms ran in the family.

“Do you like chemistry?” She asked, hearing the hope in her voice, and Severus returned her smile with his usual crooked, endearing one.

“I don’t know as much about it as I might like to, but I like most academic subjects. I became interested in it when I was learning about disease research, both modern and historical.”

Natalie lit up, but, before she could reply, her name was called from the counter. She grabbed her coffee, heading back with a bounce in her step, but a hesitant call made her turn.

“Seh — Sebearus?” A barista tried, and she suppressed a laugh as Severus walked up to get his drink, giving the poor barista a wry smile.

He joined Natalie in heading over to a corner table, taking the seat against the back wall, and she dropped into the chair across from him, scooting it in with a smile.

“So. Disease research. What’s your favourite case?”

There was something novel about seeing Severus become so animated and expressive, and Natalie couldn’t help grinning as he went on about the historical significance of the eighteen fifty four cholera outbreak and the pellagra epidemic in the U.S., seeing that he truly enjoyed talking about them. To her shock, he appealed to her own expertise completely naturally, asking how one could detect vitamins and amino acids in samples like doctors had done to determine the missing dietary factor behind pellagra, then listened attentively as she explained various experiments and their historical use. She’d become so used to having to prove her knowledge and experience to men in academia that simply having a man ask a question so openly, willing to let her teach, was almost a new experience in itself.

But then, she thought as she listened to the professor chatter enthusiastically about a new book on child psychology that he was excited to bring into his teaching, Severus had never exactly struck her as a typical guy. Hell, his presence in their dance class alone was proof of that. Wasn’t it that atypical aura that had led to her asking him to coffee in the first place? She’d been hoping that he might be someone she could build a lasting friendship with — or even something more. It had been a few years since she’d dated for a serious relationship, and she felt ready to give it another shot once she found a good candidate. And Severus . . . well, he was doing a lot better than most guys already.

There was still the issue of whether or not he was actually into women, as Lucius had claimed, but she would cross that bridge when she got to it.

“I’ve always found psychology interesting,” she mentioned, knowing it was too early to bring up exactly why, but Severus nodded eagerly.

“I found out last year I have a few conditions, and my life has gotten so much better since I’ve started treating them,” he said, using the exact same level of enthusiasm he had for everything else in their conversation. “I’ve got PTSD and depression, mostly dysthymia, but antidepressants have subsided my symptoms almost entirely. And therapy, of course. Have you ever been to therapy?”

Well. Maybe it wasn’t too early.

“Er, I have,” Natalie answered, a bit baffled that he was being so up front. Usually, she didn’t bring up the whole PTSD story until she’d been dating someone for several months, often longer. She’d learned that lesson early on, after she’d gotten ghosted on the first date by three guys in a row.

“It’s great, isn’t it? Do you have any conditions?” Severus asked, and she blinked at him, unsure if she wanted to laugh awkwardly and brush it off or laugh for real at the absurdity of it. Severus truly didn’t seem to think it was an overly personal question, but there was something oddly refreshing about his honesty, even if he was trampling on normal social boundaries.

“I do. PTSD,” she said, waiting for the inevitable question of why, but Severus merely nodded, looking for all the world as if the notion to ask didn’t even cross his mind.

“It sucks, doesn’t it? I can’t believe it took me so long to figure out I had something. I just thought it was normal. Goodness knows how.”

He tapped the side of his head with a slight eye roll, and Natalie had to hold back a laugh again, unable to help the smile that crossed her face.

“Therapy has been the best life decision I’ve ever made,” Severus continued, as if it was his favourite topic of all. “I feel so empowered now. Like my life can finally be whatever I want it to be, rather than me just going along with it. Everything’s been better this year; my students are responding to me a lot more positively, and I’ve been building stronger relationships and pursuing my own interests — and I can’t wait to see my end of year grades. I think they’re going to be higher than they’ve ever been.”

“That’s really cool,” Natalie said sincerely, bemused by the thought she hadn’t heard someone talk about positive growth on a first date in a long time. Usually, people liked to talk about where they’d been or where they were, but Severus was pretty much doing the exact opposite of talking about his ex. Was discussing your own future with vivid excitement included on the list of green flags for a partner? Because she was starting to think it should be. Severus’ enthusiasm for his life was infectious.

“I’m going to start a second Ma — er, a second degree next year. I switched subjects this year to fill a vacant position, and one of the incentives the Headmistress offered to keep me on was sponsoring me to study the subject I’ve always wanted to. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m excited for it. I’ve already started thinking of projects to work on, and all of them could be rewarding to do. The hardest part will be picking something.”

“Wow, a second doctorate? That’s really impressive,” Natalie replied, feeling a bit intimidated. Doing one was hard enough — she couldn’t imagine turning around a few years from now and starting another one. She’d thought in their first class that Severus was intelligent and had likely been a good student, but that sort of academic drive was something else. “What subject are you going to focus on?”

“Well, I’m hoping to keep it in an area I’ve always been passionate about, but nothing’s set yet. Hopefully, I’ll know by fall,” he answered, waving a hand and giving her a small, disarming smile. “What about you? You haven’t said what you’re studying.”

Intellectually, Natalie knew she ought to inquire a bit more about his own interests, but the opportunity was too good to ignore; she launched into an eager recap of her research at UCL, going into far more detail than she usually did on a first date. Severus was such an attentive and engaged listener that it was hard not to chatter on a bit, especially since he seemed genuinely interested in her work and its implications for the field.

Lucius’ POV:

“The most beautiful discovery true friends make is that they can grow separately without growing apart.” ~ Elisabeth Foley

Snape drags Lucius to Hogwarts’ first bake sale, an idea they got from their Muggle dance class, and makes him volunteer in the baking tent. Lucius does so, Molly Weasley joins them, and things are a bit awkward. Then Molly goes off to talk to Hermione, who’s helping run the front, and Snape and Lucius get into a bit of a bicker over Lucius’ preparation of ingredients (“it’s chop finely, Lucius! Not mince!” “How are they different?” “Does it actually matter?” “Well, no . . . ”), and Snape finally agrees that they don’t need to take baking as seriously as potion making. Snape turns on the radio Molly brought, and he and Lucius bop out for a bit while finishing up all the baking they can do (they’re short on a few ingredients, which Hermione went to get. Little do they know that she ran into Draco and Narcissa, who were curious about the bake sale, and, of course, upon seeing them, Molly asks if they’re here to visit Lucius, and they’re like, “what?”). Snape and Lucius are just generally having a blast now, and they’re jokingly dancing together when Molly, accompanied by Draco, Narcissa, Hermione, and Ginny comes back to check on them.

Cue a very awkward moment before Sev and Luci just lose it and start laughing uncontrollably, Severus at the hilarity and Lucius at the sheer embarrassment. Severus is laughing so hard that he can’t stay standing, and he sinks to the ground, never having laughed this hard in his life, which does not help Lucius compose himself. Cue Minerva and Pomona walking up just in time (“who on earth is laughing?”) to hear Severus reassuring Narcissa that Lucius isn’t cheating on her with him. Cue

“Lucius,” his wife gasped, still laughing as she brushed her hair behind her ear. “Lucius, have you been drinking?”

“Do you think Severus could have gotten me to do this sober?” Lucius asked, raising his pale eyebrows, and she smiled, a real smile

“It’s chop finely, Lucius! Not mince!” Severus said sharply, and Lucius looked up in some surprise to see his closest friend looking, horrified, at the cutting board where he’d been dicing garlic.

“How are they different?” Lucius questioned, raising a pale eyebrow, and Severus let out a strangled noise.

“How are — Lucius!” He exclaimed, looking utterly appalled. “Chop finely means to slice at right angles! You’ve been mincing them!” Severus gestured distressedly to the knife, which Lucius had just angled to dice the garlic into smaller pieces, some sixty degrees off from its placement before. “You’re not even mincing them properly — how do you know if the angle is correct?”

“It’s garlic, Severus, not dragon liver,” Lucius answered, trying very hard not to look amused by the Potions Master’s overreaction. “We’re not brewing the Draught of Living Death, for Merlin’s sake.”

“The Draught of Living Death doesn’t have dragon liver,” Severus said, visibly irritated; Lucius’ lips twitched into a smirk. “It’s important that we prepare the ingredients properly.” He gestured now more pointedly to Molly’s empty workstation, where the Weasley matriarch would assemble the dish.

“I’m sure Molly doesn’t care whether we mince or chop the ingredients, as long as they’re tiny,” Lucius remarked, raising the knife to continue his work — Severus crossed the floor almost frantically, grabbing his wrist.

“No, no! This is a very important meal!” He argued heatedly, and Lucius rolled his eyes, nevertheless letting the Potions prodigy take the knife before he keeled over from a stroke. He watched as Severus inspected the garlic, eyeing it carefully before shaking his head in dismay. “I can’t save it. We’ll have to start fresh.”

This was a little too absurd a request for Lucius to entertain — not least because he’d spent the last fifteen minutes painstakingly peeling the blasted cloves.

“Severus, it’s garlic. It doesn’t matter how it’s chopped. It’s just to add flavor,” Lucius countered, snatching the cutting board before Severus could Levitate it to the trash. “You think just anyone could cook if food required the same precision as Potions?”

“Not anyone can cook! It has to be right,” Severus insisted, trying to take the board back — Lucius immediately held it up, out of the shorter man’s reach. “Dammit, Lucius, give that to me!”

“I will not. You’re being ridiculous,” Lucius stated, raising the board still higher as Severus reached for it again. “Severus, stop that — you’re making a fool of yourself.” For a moment, his friend glared at him, insulted, and Lucius quickly continued before he could retort. “Tell me: why is it so important that the garlic be chopped finely and not minced? How will that affect the dish?”

Severus looked at him, severely disgruntled.

“It’s — it’s the principle of the thing,” he protested at last, but Lucius could tell that he was realizing just how weak his complaint was.

“You’re too advanced a potioneer to cook casually, Severus,” Lucius reproved, setting the board back on the countertop now that he was sure Severus wouldn’t go for it again. “You have to relax. Put on the wireless or something, good gracious.”

Grumbling under his breath, Severus swept over to Molly’s portable radio — as much as one could sweep in trousers and a dress shirt, at least. Lucius felt pleased that Severus was wearing one of his emerald vests, which suited his thin figure nicely; he’d known a change of dress would do wonders for his friend’s appearance, and he felt smug that even Severus, notoriously stubborn as he was, had acknowledged he was right.

“Bloody hell, I can’t stand Celestina Warbeck,” Severus complained as a familiar, overplayed tune began to sound from the set. “Why do wizards have so few programs?”

“You’ve just gotten used to Muggle music,” Lucius replied, dicing the garlic a few more times before deciding that, unlike Severus, he really couldn’t care less whether it was exactly what Molly wanted.

“Maybe I have, seeing as Muggles at least have the decency to play more than three bloody artists,” Severus retorted, and, removing his wand from his sleeve, he gave the radio a sharp rap — Lucius noticed with a small smile how he was careful not to scratch his precious wand, even in the midst of his temper.

“Leave it alone, Severus. It’s not like matt — ” Lucius paused as a familiar Muggle tune began playing, something asinine about being blue, but the song wasn’t what took him aback.

Severus, seemingly unconsciously, was dancing to the music as he made his way back to the workstation.

“What?” The Potions Master asked, picking up the peeler he’d abandoned earlier in horror at Lucius’ chopping skills, apparently oblivious to the fact he was still grooving, his shoulders moving to the beat.

“You’re embarrassing,” Lucius muttered, starting on slicing the carrots, purposefully making them ever so slightly misshapen to irritate his friend. Next to him, Severus peeled the potatoes with almost indecent speed and accuracy, gouging out their flawed eyes like his hands were a precision instrument dedicated to that specific purpose, all the while shifting his hips back and forth.

“Because I’m better at this than you are?”

“No, because you’re trying and failing to seduce that poor cabinet.”

“Because I’m what?”

Lucius glanced up from the board to see Severus giving him a look that was equally confused and scandalized.

“Nevermind,” Lucius sighed, rolling his eyes — Severus stared at him, still trying to figure out the snarky comment.

“I don’t — ” Severus started to say, but he stopped as Lucius dumped a load of freshly sliced carrots into the waiting bowl at Molly’s station, the last ingredient that had needed to be prepared before she’d left.

“Looks like we’re done,” Lucius observed, wiping his hands on a towel and glancing around the room. “When will Molly be back?

“Bugger if I know,” Severus shrugged, and, after a moment of thought, he started on the dishes, faintly humming along to the wireless as he resumed his side-to-side gyrating. Lucius watched the motion, stuck between laughing and despairing at his friend’s complete and utter obliviousness.

Severus, he decided, was too smart to be this stupid.

“You are aware that you’re dancing, aren’t you?” He asked at last, and Severus snorted, drying the knives and putting them in their drawer by hand — Levitating them was, for obvious reasons, a very poor idea.

“No, clearly,” Severus said sarcastically, leaning back on the counter, which necessitated a cessation of the repetitive move. “But I’m certainly not ‘trying and failing to seduce that poor cabinet,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean.”

“You were moving your hips,” Lucius pointed out, and now it was Severus’ turn to roll his eyes.

“Hips aren’t sexual, Lucius,” the Potions Master replied, brushing a lock of hair behind his ear. “I teach preteens and teenagers dance — you think I’d challenge their maturity? Not for a thousand Galleons.”

You’d think they were sexual if you’d ever been in a relationship, Lucius thought inwardly, but he wasn’t fool enough to say that one out loud; he even glanced away from Severus’ eyes, to ensure he didn’t overhear the somewhat disparaging remark.

“You’ve heard no jokes in that vein, then?” Lucius questioned, leaning with his elbows on the surface behind him in a mirror of Severus’ posture.

“I’ve gotten wolf whistles, but I got those with the pink hair, too.”

Lucius smirked at the reminder; Severus gave him a cool glare, daring him to laugh.

“Still, Severus,” he continued, figuring that someone had to tell the reclusive Potions prodigy this, and, if he didn’t, certainly no one else would. “You — you should be cautious, dancing like that. If you’re ever alone with a woman,” he clarified, not wanting Severus to freak out about any previous incidents.

“I hardly think a woman would misinterpret such a minor movement as sexual interest, Lucius,” Severus replied somewhat flatly, sounding irritated. Lucius suppressed the urge to sigh.

“See, about that,” he said, feeling, for the first time in a very long time, rather awkward. “Men aren’t the only people in the world that feel sexual attraction.”

Severus stared at him in abject confusion, his face looking as if Lucius had suddenly grown two heads.

“You do realize that I’m not an idiot, don’t you?” The Potions Master asked, his tone now erring offended.

“That’s not what I meant. What I’m saying,” Lucius continued slowly, as if he were a researcher getting close to a rare, easily spooked creature, “is that, even if you don’t think hip movements are sexual, others — others might. And, unless you want to be attracting women . . . ”

To his surprise, Severus snorted loudly.

“Ah, yes. I’m so concerned that women will find me attractive. Be reasonable, Lucius,” he scoffed, and Lucius realized, as if a Lumos had just been cast in his mind, that Severus didn’t know.

He didn’t know how much his appearance had changed — or, maybe he did, but he thought no one else had noticed. Maybe he could only see himself as ugly after all of the years of insults, questionable grooming, and poor health had beaten down his self-image. Maybe he thought everyone’s compliments were patronizing, Lucius didn’t know — and he didn’t care. What mattered was that Severus didn’t know he’d become attractive.

Lucius took a deep breath.

“Severus, listen to me. Really, genuinely listen,” he said, standing up straight and looking his closest friend in the eyes. Somewhat startled, Severus copied him, shifting all of his weight off the counter and holding his arms close, equally alarmed and hesitant. “You are attractive.”

“Right,” Severus grumbled, so doubtful that the sarcasm was almost painful, and he crossed his arms, no trace of anxiety left in his posture.

“No, Severus,” Lucius insisted, determined not to let his friend leave this conversation with anything less than the truth. “You are. I know you’re not conventionally attractive — you don’t have to glare at me,” he added, holding up a well-manicured hand. “But, you’re healthy, and your haircut suits you, and you hardly ever sneer now. You’ve become almost pleasant to be around.”

“Wow, laying it on thick, aren’t you?” Severus drawled, but his eyes were sharp, as if trying to discover a falsehood in the words.

“I’m saying,” Lucius continued, trying not to become frustrated, “that there are women — not many, maybe,” he conceded at Severus’ baleful glower. “But, women all the same, who will find you attractive.”

Severus glared at him, not buying it.

“Look,” Lucius huffed, putting his hands on his hips — the irony of the placement didn’t escape him. “Remember Natalie asking you to coffee before Christmas?”

“Why are you bringing that up now?” Severus snapped, clearly irritated beyond measure at the perceived insult against his person; Lucius couldn’t fathom how someone so intelligent and observant could be so blind when it came to his appearance.

He remained silent, holding Severus’ gaze and waiting for the moment that his friend’s brain would catch up to the implication, watching as those black eyes narrowed to slits, then, just as abruptly, widened —

“No,” Severus gasped, as if the idea was unfathomable.

Yes,” Lucius stated emphatically, mentally adding the ‘you idiot.’ “See? And she doesn’t know that you’re famous!”

“That’s not — there’s no way,” Severus argued, but Lucius could see that he was going back over the scene, reviewing the statements, considering his time with her, and he raised an eyebrow even as Severus deflated, looking suddenly stricken. “That’s — that’s not . . . ” He said weakly, and Lucius sighed, rubbing the bridge of his sculpted nose.

“She’s not the first woman to like you, Severus — she’s certainly not the last. You’re a well known, highly respected, extraordinarily talented wizard. You’re practically a household name! It’s only expected,” he responded, and Severus shook his head, picking at his thumbnail.

“That doesn’t explain Natalie,” he protested, and Lucius could see that he was struggling with the idea, wanting to cling to any denial he could.

“Well, how about this, then: You’re a confident, educated, relatively young man with a stable job, good hygiene, and polite mannerisms,” Lucius listed, counting the positives off on his fingers to illustrate their prevalence. “You have shoulder-length black hair, black eyes — ”

“Dark brown eyes,” Severus corrected automatically, and Lucius rolled his own, light gray eyes.

“ — black hair, dark brown eyes, thin lips, and pale skin, with a sharp face, a lean build, and a nose that errs just on the distinguished side of horrid — ”

Severus had the pride to at least try to look offended.

“ — as well as elegant hands, a deep voice, and dozens of other, minor positive features, and you don’t see how that might be attractive to a woman?” Lucius demanded.

Severus opened his mouth, then, after a moment of thought, closed it.

“I thought so,” said Lucius, huffing. “Look, Severus: women are going to find you attractive. Hell, men are going to find you attractive. Maybe they’ll only be attracted to your fame — maybe only to your skill as a wizard or a potioneer, or maybe only to your appearance — but they will find you attractive. You have to realize that, or you’re going to lead them on without knowing it.”

“Natalie and I already have a second coffee date planned,” Severus realized in horror, and Lucius nodded grimly.

“Exactly, and that’s why you have to think. You can’t just do this.” He gestured to Severus’ torso, and the Potions Master had the self-awareness to flush a light shade of pink. “I know this is new for you,” he added in a slightly softer tone of voice, one he wasn’t sure he’d ever used with his friend. “But, I think it’ll be good for you, in the long run.”

“Why on Merlin’s bloody earth would people being attracted to me be a good thing? You just acknowledged that most of them will only care about my fame and abilities,” Severus countered, and Lucius gave him a long, exasperated look.

“Maybe it’s a good thing because you won’t have excuses,” he replied once he was reasonably confident that he wouldn’t strangle the frustrating man.

“Excuses?” Severus tried for scornful, but he came off more genuinely confused.

“You’ve spent long enough as a bachelor, Severus — and not least because you didn’t make any effort not to be. I, for one, look forward to seeing you with a witch,” Lucius said, letting out a small, pretentious sniff.

“I — I don’t — ” Severus stammered, clearly embarrassed by the idea. “Lucius, I — I don’t know if I could be with a woman.”

Lucius stared, then recovered.

“With a wizard, then,” he stated, and now Severus turned an impressive shade of burgundy that he hadn’t known the pale Potions Master was capable of.

“No! No, no, that’s not what I mean!”

“Well, please say what you mean then, seeing as I just went through four circles of hell trying to reinterpret the whole ‘Lily Potter’ incident,” Lucius grumbled, and Severus let out a groan that transcended his ability to describe.

“This is so stupid,” he moaned, burying his face in his hands, and Lucius took a moment to be grateful that they’d cleared up the ‘probably still straight’ issue a few seconds earlier.

“What’s stupid?” He questioned, and Severus groaned again, as if he couldn’t believe that Lucius was this much of an idiot — Lucius felt privately offended, seeing as he’d managed not to complain outwardly about a certain someone’s many idiocies today.

“I — I just don’t know if I want to try a relationship,” Severus mumbled, still speaking into his palms.

“And how,” Lucius said, feeling like he was talking to Draco during his toddler years, “would you know that without trying one?” Severus opened his mouth to protest, but Lucius was faster. “Bloody hell, Severus. You’ve never dated in your life! How can you know that you don’t want to? You’ve certainly felt interest in at least one woman,” he added, and Severus flushed again, though he was no longer the color of a Gryffindor scarf.

“Why do I have to explain this to you?” The Potions Master demanded, emerging from behind his hands and gesticulating sharply. “I don’t know if I can be with a woman after that!”

“But, you’re over Lily,” Lucius replied, exasperated. “Or aren’t you? With the Patronus change, I figured — ”

“Yes, I’m over my feelings,” Severus snapped, and he crossed his arms, leaning back against the counter and ducking behind his hair for the first time in months. “It’s not that.”

“Then what is it?”

Severus didn’t reply, continuing to glare at an unspecified spot on the floor, and Lucius had a slow, dawning realization.

“You’re . . . worried? About dating?” He tried to keep any judgement from his voice.

“I don’t have any experience,” Severus said harshly, though the sharpness was gone from his tone. “I’m almost forty — most people my age are long married. How am I supposed to sort through the legions of fame-seekers and shallow admirers? How am I supposed to find someone who suits me, who’s also willing and able to be in a relationship with me? How am I supposed to — to start a family, if she wanted one?”

Lucius didn’t reply to this; not only would a lewd joke be inappropriate when Severus was expressing a rare moment of vulnerability, he also didn’t think his closest friend was referring to sex at all.

A long minute passed, only the magically quieted wireless filling the silence.

“I don’t want to be like my parents,” Severus whispered hollowly, and Lucius felt a genuine touch of empathy.

That . . . He understood that.

“It’s a risk, you know. Having kids when I’m this damaged.” Severus gestured at his skull in disgust. “I’ve talked about it with Arcadia, a bit. But, it’s not just that. I don’t want to let myself get invested like that again. I . . . I know I project onto people. I don’t know that I could bear another loss like Lily.”

Lucius knew that this concern was valid. A bad break-up would be hard enough on his friend — he couldn’t imagine how Severus would take it if a woman betrayed him, if she used him for her own ends or claimed she’d never loved him.

The day that happened, if it ever did, Lucius knew he would be risking Azkaban a third time.

“I understand why you’re worried about that,” Lucius replied, returning to his soft tone. “I don’t think it would be easy. But, I also think that it would be worth the risk — and I know you’re brilliant enough to make it work,” he added; Severus snorted lightly. “Really, though. Not to be melodramatic, but your first kiss doesn’t matter.”

Severus looked up, his brow furrowed in confusion.

“What I’m saying is, very few people find the right partner the first time,” Lucius elaborated, gesturing with a relaxed hand. “Narcissa and I? We were arranged; we didn’t have a choice; we had to make it work. I don’t regret that, but nor did I have any say in the matter. You’re still young, even if you don’t think so — you can try, and maybe you’ll fail, but you can try again. And, if you decide that you don’t want to marry or even date, you can always return to a single life. But, I don’t think you should make that choice until you try it.”

Severus had his gaze trained on the floor again, looking dejected, and Lucius tried to inject some humor into his voice.

“I mean, honestly, Severus — you’re so single, I’d be glad to see you bring home Natalie.”

This, at least, got a rise out of his friend, if only a half-hearted one.

“You say that now, but how am I supposed to turn her down?” Severus countered, finally sounding more disgruntled than worried. “You think I have experience rejecting women?”

“I’m not sure you’ll have to try,” Lucius replied delicately, and now Severus looked genuinely offended. “No, not in that way. It’s just that I may have . . . perhaps . . . taken preventative measures already.”

“You used magic on her?” Severus demanded, and Lucius was alarmed at the anger in his voice, flashing in his black eyes.

“No! No,” he said quickly, holding up his hands in surrender, and Severus relaxed again, though his eyes were still narrowed dangerously. “Honestly, you think I want to risk any more trouble with the Ministry? No. Absolutely not. I haven’t so much as raised my wand in London, much less around a Muggle.”

“What did you do, then?” Severus questioned, his brow furrowing in a mixture of suspicion and puzzlement.

“I did what most every Slytherin does when they’re trying to dissuade someone from dating a particular individual,” Lucius replied patiently, seeing that he’d gotten out of the metaphorical woods. “I told her a few well-chosen truths.”

“You — what? What did you tell her?”

To Lucius’ great surprise, Severus sounded anxious, as if he was genuinely invested in the Muggle’s perception of him. Sensing a possible issue and not eager to assume the difficult task of cheering his closest friend up twice in one day, Lucius chose his words with care.

“I told her your age, for one, since Muggles age more quickly than wizards,” he said, watching Severus’ reaction cautiously. “This being shortly after October, I also told her that you were still working through a past romance of sorts and that you were unlikely to be looking for someone.”

And don’t you dare say you are, Lucius thought disgruntledly, seeing as I just spent a great deal of effort trying to convince you to so much as consider dating.

“That’s all?” Severus looked relieved, and Lucius resisted the urge to raise an eyebrow, feeling a touch of concern — suddenly, he fervently hoped that he’d done a thorough enough job of discouraging the Muggle woman from pursuing his friend. “That’s not so bad.”

“I’m good at working with comparatively little,” Lucius answered, conveniently letting himself forget the other comments he’d made about Severus that day. But, really, how was he supposed to know that Severus would be dumb enough to stumble into finding out? If only he’d warned the oblivious Potions Master not to pursue the coffee invitation . . .

But, no, that would have drawn Severus’ suspicion. It was better this way, wasn’t it? At least Severus had reacted negatively to the knowledge of Natalie’s feelings.

On that note, Lucius had an idea.

“This might be good practice for you, you know,” he mentioned, and Severus sighed, nevertheless waiting for him to elaborate. “You need to learn how to let your admirers down gently, and Natalie would be a low-risk test case.”

“She isn’t a test case,” Severus snapped, and Lucius’ alarm increased when his friend scowled darkly in aggravation, an expression he hadn’t seen on him in months. “She’s an intelligent woman, as well as an interesting conversationalist, regardless of whether she’s a Muggle. It’s not her fault that she doesn’t know hardly anything about me. I’m the one lying to her — and I don’t want to treat her as a risk-free throwaway. She’s a person, and, believe it or not, her feelings have some meaning to me as a friend.”

“I’m not saying that she means less because she’s a Muggle,” Lucus replied carefully, not wanting to make Severus angry again; the black eyes glared at him, but Severus didn’t interrupt, even though he looked almost comically skeptical. “I’m just pointing out that she’s not part of your usual social group. She doesn’t know your colleagues, and she’s not someone who can be interviewed by the Prophet. If you mess up with her, it won’t have consequences for your life in general.”

Severus remained silent for a long moment, and Lucius could see how he was resisting the urge to protest, quelling his reflexive arguments before he finally took a breath and straightened.

“A fair point, but I refuse to be careless,” he stated, and Lucius relaxed inwardly.

“Of course. Careless practice isn’t practice at all,” he agreed, not wanting to risk an argument after he’d so nearly avoided one. “I’m sure you’ll manage just fine.”

“Sure,” Severus grumbled

Molly’s POV:

“Anyone who isn't confused, really doesn't understand the situation.” ~ Edward R. Murrow

Molly overhears Sev and Luci having a heart to heart discussion and is like “whelp I better find something else to do for a while,” goes back to front and sees the Malfoys. They come back and see Sev and Luci practicing their Muggle dance presentation, Narcissa laughs and is happy to see Lucius smiling for once

Humming cheerfully, Molly reached for the door handle — and paused as she heard someone mumble unintelligibly on the other side, sounding embarrassed.

“And how,” a man’s voice said exasperatedly in response, “would you know that without trying one? Bloody hell, Severus. You’ve never dated in your life! How can you know that you don’t want to? You’ve certainly felt interest in at least one woman,” the man added slyly, and Molly stood frozen, recognizing the haughty, upper class tone of Lucius Malfoy.

“Why do I have to explain this to you?” Professor Snape’s quiet, distinctive baritone asked angrily. “I don’t know if I can be with a woman after that!”

“But, you’re over Lily,” Lucius replied, audibly exasperated, and Molly found that she was leaning closer to the door despite herself, disbelieving that she was actually hearing this. “Or aren’t you? With the Patronus change, I figured — ”

“Yes, I’m over my feelings,” Professor Snape snapped, and she couldn’t help but think he sounded quite defensive. “It’s not that.”

“Then what is it?” Lucius demanded, but the professor didn’t reply, several seconds of silence passing on the other side of the door.

Molly startled slightly, realizing in full that she was eavesdropping on what seemed to be a very private conversation, but, just as she was pulling back, uncertain whether she should open the door, Lucius spoke again.

“You’re . . . worried? About dating?”

“I don’t have any experience,” Professor Snape replied hollowly, his voice hoarse, and Molly froze again, her hand on the doorknob. “I’m almost forty — most people my age are long married. How am I supposed to sort through the legions of fame-seekers and shallow admirers? How am I supposed to find someone who suits me, who’s also willing and able to be in a relationship with me? How am I supposed to — to start a family, if she wanted one?”

This was Molly’s cue to leave.

“Is this what you’ve been doing when you head out together?” Narcissa asked, and she sounded genuinely surprised and interested, not haughty and judgemental like Molly would have expected.

“Dancing? Well, yes, actually, but . . . ” Lucius glanced at Professor Snape, who was clearly still fighting back a smile. “Oh, blast, Severus. You got us into this mess. You explain.”

“About last August, I RSVP’d two spots in a Muggle dance class in London,” the Defence professor answered, and Molly found her mind blank and completely at a loss. “I didn’t want to attend it alone, so I may have . . . persuaded . . . Lucius to join me.”

“Persuaded? You bloody blackmailed me is what you did,” Lucius retorted, and the smile flickered over the professor’s face again. “Merlin, I remember I wanted to curse you for that. But — ” And here he threw a cautious glance at his wife and son, looking between them with uncharacteristic nervousness. “It hasn’t been — entirely bad. Entirely.”

“You can almost carry on a conversation with a Muggle without grimacing now,” Severus remarked teasingly, and the former Death Eater shot him an icy glare.

“Yes, indeed — and Severus can almost carry on a conversation with a woman without making a complete idiot of himself now,” Lucius agreed, mock cheerfully, and Molly saw the Defence professor blush an impressive shade of scarlet. “At this point, he’s practically dating.”

“No, no, no. No, I am not. Shut up,” Severus snapped,

Natalie’s POV:

“People have an annoying habit of remembering things they shouldn't.” ~ Christopher Paolini

Sev runs out on Natalie, now aware that she likes him, and she becomes suspicious that he won’t give her any details

“But which school is it?” She insisted, and he shifted in his seat, now very visibly uncomfortable. For a long moment, he didn’t reply, but then he took a deep breath, ducking behind his hair.

“I’ve got to go,” he said abruptly, getting up and pushing his chair back in.

“What?” She watched in shock as he strode past her, and she stood, her heart skipping a panicked beat as she turned, gripping the back of her chair. “Severus!” He ignored her protest, his shoulders hunching as he skirted the line, and she stepped out from the table, realizing too late that he was headed for the door. In desperation, she called after him.

“Severus, wait — ”

But he was already gone.

. . .

It was Tuesday morning, and, unlike usual, Natalie wasn’t having a very good day.

She was at work, sitting morosely behind the check-out desk in the London Nook. Normally, she would be finding some way to fill the time; there was always work to do in a library, but, after half an hour of dully stamping an order full of young adult fiction, she’d resigned herself to the fact that she wasn’t feeling particularly productive. Deborah, always perceptive, had initially tried to engage her in conversation, but, upon receiving a few glum, lackluster responses, she’d given her a supportive pat on the shoulder and left to go dust the reference section.

So, now she was sitting, staring at a screen that showed the library profile of the last person to check out and generally feeling miserable.

Two days ago, Severus had walked out on her, for no reason she could discern. She’d been quite busy for the past few days, so she hadn’t had much time to think about it (she’d elected to throw herself into work instead), but now she had all the time in the world, and think she did.

It wasn’t the incident itself that bothered her. She’d been through the romantic mill before, and she was long used to relationships not working out. How many men had she dated by now? Five? Six? Six and a half, counting the awkward attempt in secondary school?

No, it wasn’t the incident. Hell, she and Severus hadn’t even been dating. Their first coffee date, in addition to Lucius’ warning, had firmly cemented him as a friend in her mind. Even in the past few weeks, it wasn’t like they’d been more than casual friends. They’d hardly passed the line of ‘good acquaintance,’ for goodness’ sake.

But, here she was, still ruminating on the matter.

Sometimes she felt angry with him, for leaving so abruptly and causing a scene. Sometimes she felt hurt, upset that he hadn’t talked anything out with her. Mostly, she felt confused. What had set him off? She’d been a bit aggravated with him, never giving her details, but she hadn’t thought she was crossing some great line. Yet, he’d reacted like she had, walking out on her in full view of the entire cafe.

God, it frustrated her just to think about it.

Hence her mood.

As the hours ticked by, in between checking out the sparse smattering of patrons typical of a weekday morning, Natalie kept stewing. By lunch, she felt rather angry again, though for a different reason now.

From every angle she looked at it, it seemed like Severus had been lying through his teeth, and she’d inadvertently caught him in the act. But, that also didn’t make any sense. If he had been lying about teaching, then why would he independently check out books that supported his story? But, if he wasn’t lying about teaching, why would he flee upon being asked the name of the school he taught at? Was he hiding something? Was it a partial truth? If so, why mention the fact he was teaching in the first place? Why bring up something he was trying to hide?

It didn’t add up. None of it. And, if there was one thing Natalie hated, it was being uncertain about whether someone was lying to her. She’d had more than enough manipulative people in her life, and she was quite happy to avoid them, thank you. But, was Severus lying?

She tapped an irritated finger on the computer mouse, watching the clock tick closer to the end of her shift one long, frustrating second at a time.

She wanted very much to talk about Severus with Deborah, as well as Alice, who was working on a project in the back, to tell them about the incident and ask for their opinions. They knew him, after all, even if only cursorily; surely they would have an impression as to whether or not he was being truthful.

But, she also knew that he’d been into the library on Sunday. In her kind attempt to distract her, Deborah had mentioned that he’d seemed more subdued than usual, merely checking out a few new books and not staying to take notes, a change that had surprised the two librarians. Clearly, Severus felt uncomfortable with the knowledge that her coworkers might report on him to her.

And, for all that she was frustrated with him, she didn’t want him feeling like he wasn’t welcome at the library. She knew that Deborah and Alice liked him, if not in the way she once had; he was a regular now, and they were always glad to make an affectionate quip or comment about his odder tendencies. In fact, Deborah had been angling to ask her if she knew whether Severus was doing alright when Natalie had reached her limit and made a markedly off-topic comment on the check-in bin.

As she stepped out onto the rainy street, a new determination came over her.

So, Severus wouldn’t give her answers, huh?

Then she would find them for herself.

Severus’ POV:

Sev has tea with Rubeus and thinks about everything happening with Natalie

Severus looked guiltily down at the tea mug, reminded of last weekend, and a wave of embarrassment and shame washed over him. Why had he run out on Natalie? How had such a simple situation panicked him? How, after two wars spent being a spy under Voldemort’s snakelike nose, had he been unable to handle something so small as a woman he was only casually friends with rightfully thinking he was hiding details of his life?

This is such a lame situation, Severus thought to himself, trying to ignore the tugging wrench in his gut. He shouldn’t care this much — or, at least, he wished he didn’t. Why did it matter so much to him that he didn’t lose a friend he barely knew?

“How do you know if saving a friendship is worth it?” He wondered aloud, only belatedly realising that he’d come off as speaking directly to Rubeus, who was staring down at him in obvious confusion.

“Er — well, tha’s a good question, I suppose,” the other Head said, sounding a bit uncomfortable. “Depends on a lotta things, I’d say.”
Severus sighed.

“Sorry, Rubeus. I’m just thinking about a lot right now.”

“ ‘s alright, Perfessor. Yeh’ve always had a busy mind,” Rubeus replied cheerfully, and he popped a rock cake into his mouth, chewing with several alarming crunching sounds. “I don’ mind talking about it.”

At least that makes one of us, Severus thought, but, despite himself, he found that he did want to talk about the incident — not least because even Arcadia hadn’t been able to help him decide what to do.

“What would you do, Rubeus, if you had a friend, but you couldn’t tell them certain things? Not because you didn’t want to but because the law itself told you you couldn’t? But, they’ve managed to stumble across those things, and they’re upset because they know you’re keeping secrets, but you can’t even tell them why you can’t talk to them about it, so now they’re angry, and you might not be able to save the friendship?”

Rubeus blinked, then shook his shaggy head.

“Might need ter run tha’ one by me again, Perfessor. Wha’ does the law have ter do with secrets?”

“More than it probably should,” Severus muttered, but he took a breath, thinking of a less convoluted way to voice this. “What I’m trying to say is, how do you tell someone you want to be friends when they know you’re not being honest with them?”

“Well, jus’ like tha’, I’d imagine,” Rubeus replied, and now it was Severus’ turn to look up at the other Head in confusion. “Sometimes, you can’ tell people things. So, maybe you tell ‘em tha’, instead. Tell ‘em you like ‘em, but yeh’ve got something you can’ talk abou’.”

“I suppose.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, and Rubeus took an enormous draught of tea, draining half his mug in a single sip.

“I have ter say, Perfessor, I wouldn’ think yeh’d be so concerned abou’ the law. No offence,” he added, and Severus raised his gaze from his oversized mug, meeting Rubeus’ twinkling dark eyes. “I’d say, if ‘s bothering yeh this much, bollocks the law. I’d figure most of yer friends are pretty good a’ keeping secrets.”

Severus stood up to leave, feeling better but still subdued as he opened the door to the hut — his stomach was churning with the thought of dance class in an hour, and he couldn’t say he remembered feeling this anxious since Halloween.

Evidently reading his worry, Rubeus gave him a wide, whiskery smile.

“Yeh’ll figure it ou’, Severus. Yeh’ve got a good head on yeh,” Rubeus said, and Severus felt a flush come over his face. He wanted to push away the pleasant yet embarrassing gratitude with a sharp retort, a mutter of ‘I’d better’ or ‘Some good it’s done me,’ but he didn’t want to snap back at Rubeus, not when the man was clearly trying to encourage him.

So, instead, he held his tongue, standing in the doorway for a long moment.

“Well — thanks,” he managed at last, and he pulled the door shut behind him, unsure why he’d suddenly been overcome with such a strong wave of emotion. Rubeus was just being nice; it wasn’t like the other Head actually had faith in him. Unless —

Severus stopped, dumbstruck, on the grassy hill, cold wind whistling around him.

Rubeus didn’t say things he didn’t mean. He was almost unfailingly honest. His statement hadn’t been a well-intentioned white lie. He’d really, genuinely meant it.

He believed Severus could save a friendship.

A sudden sense of determination came over him, and Severus’ nails dug into his palm as he clenched his right fist in a silent oath.

He was going to do everything possible to rescue his friendship with Natalie. He didn’t want to lose their friendship, didn’t want her to think the worst of him — and he wanted to prove something to himself, too. That he was capable of making the right decision, this time. That he was worth staying friends with. That . . . he knew to fight for things he cared about, now. He was not letting another friendship slip away because he didn’t know what to say. He might say the wrong thing, true — but, if things fell apart, it wouldn’t be because he stood aside and let them.

This time, he was going to try.

Natalie’s POV:

“To be given permission to be confused — and remain confused — for as long as it takes would have been a huge gift.” ~ Janet Jackson

Several times, it seemed as if Severus wanted to say something, opening his mouth hesitantly or glancing at her when the class was at a moment of rest, but he remained silent. Natalie did the same, feeling slightly childish but not caring. They both knew why she was giving him the cold shoulder, and, frankly, she was afraid to try to talk to him, afraid of the rush of anger, frustration, and hurt that threatened to spill over every time she met his eyes.

So, she went on ignoring him, pretending not to notice the times when he reflexively lifted his hand to get her attention, on the edge of speech, then dropped it back to his side with a chagrined, nervous expression.

She tried to grab her things quickly, tugging her jacket out from her bag, but cautious footsteps behind her stilled her hand, freezing where she’d crouched.

“Hey, Natalie?” Severus’ deep, quiet voice sounded every bit as hesitant as she’d expected, and she felt a stony expression come over her face before she took a deep breath, forcing herself to stand up.

Severus’ black eyes were anxious, and she started glaring at them, then caught herself and looked away, folding her arms over her chest.

“Yes?” She asked stiffly, and he took a small step back, looking much like a man suddenly caught on the edge of a cliff.

“Can we — I mean, I know you’re angry with me, and I understand — but I really want to explain, and — well, I just wanted to ask if, um — ”

A firm hand settled on the professor’s shoulder, stopping him, and Natalie glanced up to see Lucius Malfoy barely hiding a wince at his friend’s fumbling.

“Severus would like to explain what happened last Saturday. He wanted to know if you could possibly do coffee today?” Lucius asked, using a polite, unruffled tone, and Severus ducked behind his hair, his pale cheeks flushed a bright, embarrassed red.

“I suppose I could,” Natalie replied, pointedly ignoring the visible relief that came over the thin professor. “I am assuming I’ll actually learn what’s going on this time?”
The words came out more accusatory than she’d meant, and she was surprised to see Lucius almost roll his eyes, patting his friend on the shoulder.

“You’ll learn everything. Isn’t that right, Severus?” He questioned, smiling thinly, and there was a note of forced cheer in his tone. Looking visibly uncomfortable, Severus averted his eyes, and Natalie was struck by a sudden feeling that, whatever he was going to tell her today, it was something of which Lucius didn’t approve. Suddenly nervous, she put her hand to the small, zippered pocket in her leggings, which held her mobile.

To his credit, Severus seemed to notice her discomfort.

“Do you want to — to ask someone to walk with us?” He asked, sounding almost guilty. Natalie studied him for a long moment, considering, then finally shook her head no. The fact he was willing to offer probably meant that nothing would happen.

Probably.

“Well, I’d rather like to know why you’ve been lying to me.”

Severus let out a tired sigh, letting the door fall shut behind them.

“I haven’t been. That’s what I want to explain.”

“You’re going to explain why I can’t find so much as a birth record for Lucius, much less any of your colleagues?” She couldn’t keep the accusation from her tone.

“Just — wait, okay? Until we get coffee?” Severus ran a hand over the back of his neck, and Natalie saw his exhaustion in his bearing, so different from his usual straight posture with his shoulders bent and heavy. “I’ll explain everything, but I don’t want you to run off in the middle of it, before I get a chance to finish.”

Natalie remained silent, and Severus put his hands awkwardly in his pockets, glancing at the buildings surrounding them.

“I am sorry about that,” he said at last, and she felt her remaining anger ebb, replaced by sorrow for the friendship that seemed to be at an end. She wanted to think that she’d be willing to forgive Severus, but what kind of explanation could possibly do justice to a lie of this magnitude? “I didn’t mean to leave you in an uncomfortable situation. I — I just panicked.”

“Because I asked you something you couldn’t explain.”

“Yes,” Severus answered, which surprised her. “Because you asked me something I couldn’t explain.”

He didn’t elaborate on what he meant by that, and Natalie didn’t ask, knowing that he’d just avoid the question anyway.

They walked in silence.

On any other day, with any other topic, this would have been a pleasant spring stroll, but Natalie couldn’t bring herself to enjoy the weather. She felt very frustrated, as well as betrayed, and the emotions that had been building ever since Severus had walked out on her were coming to the forefront, leaving her feeling like someone on the wrong side of a prank gone too personal.

Had Severus actually been ignorant about her initial feelings toward him? Had he used them to manipulate her, to trick her to some end? Had he ever requited anything toward her, even friendship?

Natalie almost didn’t want to know the answer, but, more than she didn’t want her illusions broken, she wanted the truth.

They reached the coffeeshop, and Natalie followed Severus inside, wanting to make sure he didn’t bolt at the last minute. They ordered a coffee each without conversing, Natalie her usual mocha, Severus his usual vanilla latte, and sat down in the corner, where Natalie beat Severus to his usual chair against the wall.

“So,” she said as he sat down across from her, glancing back at the room as if it bothered him to be vulnerable to it. “We’ve got coffee.”

“We do,” he replied, too resigned for the joke to provide any levity. “Before I — before I explain, can you promise me something?”

After a long moment of thought, Natalie answered.

“Maybe. What is it?”

Shifting in his seat, Severus wrapped his hands around his coffee, looking back into the room again.

“Can you promise me that, even if you think I’m talking nonsense — even if you think I’ve gone absolutely barking mad — you’ll let me finish my explanation?”

She remained silent, glancing around the room herself in an automatic assessment of danger, and Severus continued.

“I’m not going to do anything. I won’t try to stop you if you leave. But, I’d really prefer if you stayed, at least until I’ve finished talking. We’re in public; nothing will happen to you, even if I turn out to be a raving lunatic. So, can I count on you to let me prove that I’m not?”

“I — ” Natalie hesitated, but every instinct she’d cultivated over her thirty-two years as a woman in the modern world was telling her that Severus wasn’t a threat. “I suppose.”

“Okay,” Severus said seriously, and he took a deep breath, sipping his coffee. “Well, then.”

She watched carefully as he appeared to collect himself, trying to pick cues from his closed off expression.

“Do you remember the disasters that happened last year?” He asked, and, taken aback by the apparent change in topic, Natalie nodded. “Do you remember how many of them couldn’t be explained? How many of them seemed supernatural, such as the neverending mist?”

“There were a lot of theories going around about it,” she replied neutrally; internally, meanwhile, she was begging, please to God, don’t let Severus be some crazy conspiracy theorist. This day was already going to be bad — don’t let it turn out that bad.

“And, you remember that I study and teach defensive magical history?”

Her dread increasing, she nodded again.

“Okay. This is the part that’s going to sound crazy, so please let me explain,” Severus said, running a hand behind his neck again. He took a deep breath, and Natalie internally wished that she’d just stayed home today. “The magic that I study — it’s real.”

“Is it.”

“Yes, it is,” Severus sighed, looking surprisingly un-put off by her flat tone, which conveyed the depths of skepticism and doubt that she was feeling as nothing else could.

“Is this another lie?” She questioned, getting a slight flash of anger as she wondered if he was merely wasting her time, but Severus quickly shook his head.

“No, it is real. And, I’m going to prove it, right now,” he said seriously, holding her gaze.

Goddamn my fancies to hell, she muttered.

“Watch my right hand,” Severus told her, and, despite her ever-increasing desire to walk away that instant, she had promised, so she remained where she was, watching his hand with a detached feeling.

Moving slowly, deliberately, he twirled a lock of hair around his index finger —

Natalie stared.

Right where there had been a lock of black hair, right where she had just been looking, his hair had turned ivory white, as if all of the color had suddenly been bleached out of it.

“How did you do that?” She demanded, not in the mood to be led on by parlour tricks.

“Not enough? I figured not,” Severus sighed, and, with a momentary flash of light, his hair was back to its previous state. “Okay, see this napkin?”

Natalie stared intensely at it, refusing to let herself blink as he cupped it in his hand.

A sparrow looked innocently back at her.

“How — ?” She gasped, and the bird twittered, hopping off of Severus’ hand and taking flight, darting through the door to the shop as another customer opened it.

“I told you,” Severus said slowly, and his black eyes were completely serious as he looked at her. “Magic is real. Magic is real, and I’m a wizard.”

“I — that’s not — ”

Severus waved his hand, a light, casual motion, and Natalie’s cup lifted out of her hands, levitating several centimeters above her empty grip.

“How — ? There’s no way — ” Natalie’s mind was warring with her eyes, and she ran her hands determinedly around the boundary of the cup, trying to find some method of suspension.

Severus flicked his wrist, and the disposable lid that she’d taken off to help her coffee cool faster turned into a mouse, which transformed into a butterfly before she could so much as exclaim, then just as quickly into a lily, which sat innocently on the table.

Transfixed, she ran her finger along one of its petals, which were as delicate and velvety as any flower she’d ever seen.

“How?” She asked, awed, and he held her gaze, motioning for her cup to return to the table.

“Magic is real, and I’m a wizard,” he repeated, and, unbuttoning the left sleeve to his dress shirt, he eased it up to reveal a color tattoo on his forearm of a bouquet of lilies and rosemary, which bloomed and intertwined together. It was certainly unconventional, but she couldn’t deny that it was beautiful.

It was also moving.

The lilies swayed in an invisible breeze on his bare skin, and Natalie stared at them, uncomprehending.

“You couldn’t find anything on the school where I teach,” he continued, taking a deep breath; Natalie felt like she ought to do the same, but she didn’t think she could breathe at all. “That’s because I teach at a school for young witches and wizards.”

Natalie wasn’t sure that she believed him, but she wasn’t sure that she didn’t, either.

“That school is named Hogwarts. It’s in Scotland. I Apparate, which is another word for teleport, every week to London to attend our dance class, but, primarily, I live on campus there.”

Scotland. Teleport.

“It’s actually a very prestigious school, considered by many to be the best of its kind in Europe, and it’s quite large, with about two hundred and seventy students in recent years. I — I didn’t want to lie about that, but I couldn’t think of any other way to keep you from asking questions,” he said apologetically. “It’s attended by almost every school-age magical child in the United Kingdom, and some come from further to enroll. I taught Potions there for fifteen years, but I switched to Defence Against the Dark Arts this year; I taught it two years ago, as well, but outstanding circ*mstances forced me to assume the position of Headmaster for most of the ‘97 to ‘98 school year.”

Potions. Defence Against the Dark Arts.

Headmaster?

“You were a Headmaster?” She blurted, her utterly shocked brain latching onto the one thing in his explanation that she understood.

“Well, yes, but it wasn’t — er — optimal,” he replied somewhat awkwardly, and she stared, feeling as if her mind had short-circuited. Here was Severus, being his usual flustered self, in the midst of the most outlandish conversation she’d ever had in her life. She almost wanted to laugh. “I was offered it back this year, but Minerva is much better suited for it than I am. I prefer teaching, anyway.”

“You — wait — I’m sorry — what do you mean — Dark Arts?” She fumbled, flailing against every assumption she’d ever had about the world.

“Yes, the Dark Arts,” Severus said, deadly serious. “For quite a few years, ending last May, the Wizarding World was at war. That war was the source of the deadly accidents, unusual weather, and otherwise unexplainable phenomena that occurred during that time.”

Natalie felt numb.

“This was the Second Wizarding War. The First War occurred sixteen years prior to it, and I, along with many others, fought in both conflicts,” Severus continued, watching her closely, as if worried she’d bolt. At this point, though, Natalie was in too deep — she had to know if he was crazy and just very convincing, or if he was, God forbid, telling the truth, even if she felt like she’d suddenly taken leave of her sanity. “The side that’s better for your world and ours, the side I was primarily on, won.”

“The murders,” Natalie realized with a gasp, and Severus nodded grimly even as she continued, dumbstruck. “All those murders — all those unexplained deaths. The Brockdale Bridge. That was magic.”

“Well, not magic itself,” Severus amended. “Those murders were committed by a faction called the Death Eaters, a group of extremist witches and wizards who made a sport of killing Muggles and Muggleborns, along with anyone who sided with them.”

The venom in his voice took her aback, and Natalie saw his black eyes darken, glinting dangerously.

“Muggles?” She had never heard the word before.

“Non-magic folk,” Severus explained, and the harsh look in his eyes faded back into his usual attentive expression. “There were a lot of reasons the war was fought — power foremost among them — but one of the major ones was blood purity. Many wizards believe that those who come from a long magical line, purebloods, are truer wizards than those who come from Muggle blood, Muggleborns and half-bloods. Some of those pureblood elitists took their beliefs to the extreme, and, under the guidance of a very powerful Dark Wizard named Lord Voldemort, they started wreaking violence on those they deemed of lesser blood, including anyone they deemed to be a ‘blood traitor.’ Murder, torture, threats to one’s self and family — most of the Wizarding World was too petrified to stand against them.”

“But . . . not you.” Natalie was looking at Severus intently now, struck by the thought that the quiet professor had fought in a war to protect Muggles — to protect people like her.

“Not me,” he agreed, though he shifted a bit uncomfortably, brushing a lock of hair out from behind his ear. “I’ve been a member of the Order of the Phoenix since the first war; the Order was the first group to stand against Lord Voldemort, and, though it was a precious small one, it also held some of the most important figures in the war. Albus Dumbledore, the only wizard who Lord Voldemort ever feared and who devised the plan that killed him; Kingsley Shacklebolt, the current Minister of Magic; Harry Potter, the wizard who went on to defeat Lord Voldemort; and — ” Here he hesitated, but he gave an awkward shrug, staring down at his coffee cup. “And me.”

“Do I have to guess what you did?” Natalie asked, half-joking. It felt odd, trying to encourage Severus like usual during such an outlandish conversation, but she was desperate to hear more — equally out of disbelief and a dawning appreciation that this might really be the truth.

“What do you think I did?”

Severus seemed to ask the question before he thought better of it, and he flushed, toying awkwardly with his fork.

“Er . . . ” To be honest, Natalie hadn’t the faintest clue what role a schoolteacher might play in a war. “I can’t say I could guess. Perhaps . . . something with treating the wounded?” The callback to Severus claiming he worked in pharmaceuticals was a weak one, but it was all she had.

“Well, in part. But, that was hardly my main role. I . . . ” Severus trailed off, and she got the impression that he regretted bringing this particular facet of the story up. “I was a spy for the Order, actually.”

Out of everything he’d told her in the past minute, Natalie would not have guessed that this would be the hardest to believe, yet . . .

“You were a spy?” She asked incredulously. She simply couldn’t picture the shy, easily flustered Severus infiltrating an extremist racial terrorist group, but the gaze that the thin professor leveled at her held nothing but seriousness.

And, suddenly, his eyes changed. She wasn’t sure what it was — it wasn’t an expression or an emotion, nor was it any shift in their shape. But, where she’d been looking into his intelligent, keen eyes a moment before, she now found dark, hollow tunnels that scared her, not because they were filled with malice but because they were so terribly empty. They were devoid of . . . anything.

Shuddering, Natalie dropped her gaze, but then Severus blinked, and the fathomless abyss retreated as if it had never existed, leaving behind only the bright lights of the cafe reflected in his black eyes.

Suddenly, she had no doubt that he might have been a spy. That emptiness had held something that unsettled her — frightened her, even. It wasn’t natural, whatever magic he’d just wielded.

“What was that?” She asked, doing her best to keep her tone from shaking.

“Occlumency,” Severus answered, and she could have sworn his voice had also flattened, leaving his tone sounding almost dead. “It’s the art of defending one’s mind against invasion by others. I’m . . . Well, I’ve never met an Occlumens as strong as myself, and Dumbledore once said he thought my defences were so formidable and consistent that they could outlast even his. There’s a good chance I’m the best Occlumens alive today.”

“But . . . What is it? How does it work?” Natalie questioned. She wasn’t sure why, but the emptiness in Severus’ eyes had seemed more magical than any of the demonstrations he’d given — this, she knew, was no parlour trick. She had felt the change in him instinctively.

“It’s vaguely related to meditation, except designed for a different purpose. The ultimate goal is to clear your mind so completely that anyone rifling through it will find only inconsequential information. Or, if you’re skilled enough, only the information you want them to find. My most significant talent is my ability to control the information in my mind without letting on that I’m doing so, even to the most skilled Legilimens. I can twist my thoughts so that my emotions seem to be coming from entirely different sources than they actually are, as well as mimic the weaker defences of someone who’s good but not a master. Knowing which stray thoughts to let through is an art in and of itself.”

“And you have . . . a knack for it?” It felt wrong to reduce such a serious topic to casual wording, but Natalie really didn’t want to think too hard about what might give someone a ‘talent’ for controlling their thoughts and emotions.

“Yes,” Severus said, and he shifted slightly in his seat, as if he were suddenly uncomfortable. “I have a good disposition for it — controlled, reserved, closed off. But, I was also raised in an environment that kickstarted my development, so my natural inclinations grew into a far greater potential. Once I started training regularly and learned the theory, I understood that I’d been doing Occlumency long before I knew what it was, and that helped me get to . . . well, the level of skill that even Lord Voldemort never broke or suspected.”

“That’s why the Order had you infiltrate the Death Eaters,” Natalie guessed, starting to see how this foreign magical ability might have been far more important than the fact Severus didn’t seem to fit the role at all.

“Er — no. Well, somewhat. You’re correct, just . . . not entirely.” Severus glanced down at his coffee again, and there was a flicker in his eyes that made Natalie want to glance away again, but it disappeared as quickly as it had come. “I . . . I don’t want to talk about it. Not now. Maybe later, when you understand a bit more.”

For all her curiosity, Natalie found herself a bit impressed by this. Severus had never simply told her he didn’t want to talk about a subject; usually, he just suffered through it and deflected as best he could. She wouldn’t have thought he was forward enough to stand up for himself like that.

But then, it was clear she hadn’t known a lot of things about Severus.

“So . . . There’s a whole Wizarding world in addition to the Muggle one,” she said, trying not to show how ridiculous the words made her feel. “Are there many wizards in London?”

“Plenty, but London also has most of the major magical destinations in the UK,” Severus answered, looking, as always, relieved that the subject had changed to something that wasn’t him. “The Ministry of Magic isn’t far from here, and then there’s St. Mungo’s Hospital and Diagon Alley, which is the main shopping thoroughfare for anything magical in England.”

“Show me.”

Natalie’s POV:

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” ~ Robertson Davies

Natalie’s heart had never pounded as it did today.

She followed Severus through the streets of London, feeling an odd combination of dazed and highly alert, caught between stupefying confusion and fierce curiosity. Every detail of the bustling city around her seemed to jump out, her eyes darting to anything that seemed too colorful or moved too quickly, anything that might betray the presence of another, supernatural reality, but, no matter how hard she looked, she didn’t see any evidence of the world Severus had painted.

The tricks he had shown her, on the other hand . . .

Her desire to learn whether magic was truly real was such that, when the self-proclaimed wizard turned into an out-of-order public toilet and her instincts as a woman screamed danger, she only hesitated a moment before burying her sweaty hand in her pocket and following.

To her vast relief, Severus did not attack her upon entering; instead, he was pressed awkwardly against the wall, as if he was as uncomfortable being in the small space as she was.

“We’re going to Apparate to Hogsmeade, the only entirely magical village in Britain, which sits adjacent to Hogwarts,” he told her, his deep voice oddly loud on the enclosed tile walls. “It’s — well, Apparating isn’t a pleasant experience, especially not the first time. You might barf.”

“Wonderful,” said Natalie, her voice steady even as her hands trembled from nerves.

“If at any time you feel overwhelmed or want to return, just tell me, and we’ll come back here,” Severus continued, and she was struck that he sounded as nervous as she felt. “We should appear outside, away from other people, so don’t worry about composing yourself immediately.”

“Got it,” Natalie replied, drawing confidence from his anxious demeanor; even as a supposed wizard, he felt much less threatening when he sounded like an embarrassed teenage boy.

“You’ll need to hold on tightly,” Severus added, and he extended his forearm to her, his sharp cheekbones tinging a light shade of pink. “It’ll only be a few seconds, but they’re going to feel long. The important thing is not to panic.”

“Fun,” Natalie remarked, and she wrapped both arms around Severus’, gripping it tightly and giving him her best attempt at a smile. Glancing at the wall, he cleared his throat, his cheeks still a pale red.

“Whenever you’re ready,” he said, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed.

Natalie took a long, deep breath, increasing the force of her hold as much as she could without hurting him, and exhaled.

“I’m ready.”

She let out an involuntary yelp as Severus’ arm twisted away from her, though her iron grip kept her attached to him as everything went black. A crushing force pressed in on her, and she realized she couldn’t breathe — she would have cried out if not for the fact she had no air left in her lungs to do so. It was with a half-hysterical mind that she remembered Severus’ warning not to panic even as her ears shrieked under the pressure, leaving her certain that she was underwater, that she was drowning —

Then, it was over, and she was falling against Severus, gasping as her lungs worked overtime to get oxygen, convinced that it might disappear at any moment.

“Are you alright?” Severus rumbled, his voice concerned, and the volume startled her before she realized her ear was against his chest, picking up the vibrations there. Embarrassed, she jumped away, staggering, and he steadied her with a firm hand.

“I — yes, I’m fine,” she managed, and she realized that she felt very nauseous; seeing the queasiness in her expression, Severus helped her sit down, the sensation of tilting ground lessening as she tucked her knees against her chest.

“Well, you didn’t barf,” Severus offered encouragingly, and she smiled weakly up at him, still in the process of attempting not to do just that.

“Would you believe that I’m good with moving vehicles?” She asked, trying equally to distract herself and rescue her remaining dignity, and Severus quirked an eyebrow.

“Do I count as a moving vehicle?”

Natalie laughed, doubly so at the fact Severus didn’t seem to understand why the comment was amusing, but she forced herself to stop as her stomach flipped, threatening to jump up her throat.

“Oh — oh God. Ergh,” she said as she clamped a hand over her mouth, doing everything in her power to keep her lunch down.

“Take your time,” Severus told her, and he sat down next to her to show that they weren’t in any rush, fiddling idly with his wand while they waited for her nausea to subside. Natalie stared at the thin rod, trying to focus on it to the exclusion of all else, but it was difficult, especially as Severus kept fidgeting with it, spinning it in dizzying circles around his fingertips.

“So, tell me. How exactly do wands work?” Natalie asked after a minute, her voice still strained with the effort of not vomiting.

“They focus and amplify magical power,” Severus answered, trailing a finger along the carved wood, which, now that it wasn’t twirling, Natalie could see was quite pretty: it was a pale, orange-tinted wood, with purple streaks snaking through the polished grain, and she wondered what type of tree it came from. “They’re not strictly necessary, as I demonstrated earlier, and not all Wizarding communities use them, but they’re considered a staple in Britain. There’s a famous wandmaker in London named Ollivander, who comes from a long line of wandmakers by the same name, and I bought this one from him only a few months ago. My original wand, which I bought at age eleven, as is customary, broke after the war. It’s an interesting story, if you want to hear it, but it’s better left for another time, as it’ll take me a while to explain.”

Her curiosity piqued, Natalie nodded, listening as he continued.

“Ollivander uses three types of cores: dragon heartstring, unicorn tail hair, and phoenix tail feathers. I’ve used a wand with each, and I’d say I prefer dragon or phoenix wands, which are more powerful and versatile, respectively. This one is cedar with a phoenix feather core.”

“It’s beautiful,” Natalie said sincerely, trying to ignore the surrealness of learning dragons, unicorns, and immortal birds of fire were real, and Severus blushed slightly.

“It’s definitely the prettiest of the wands I’ve used,” he admitted, running a fond palm over its length. “I polish and treat it every week, to keep its color from fading, though that’s not strictly necessary. I — well, I confess that I’m quite proud of it; this wand was designed specifically for me, which is quite uncommon.”

“Really?”

“Most wands are pre-made,” Severus explained, twirling the wand in his right hand with a practiced motion. Unlike before, the sight didn’t quite make her want to vomit. “Usually, a witch or wizard will try wands until they find a match, which is generally known as the wand ‘choosing’ the wizard. In this case, though, I was given the phoenix feather by a particular phoenix, so Ollivander made an exception and custom crafted this one for me. I had to answer a lot of questions so that he could pick the right wood to make it.”

“The right wood?” Natalie questioned, her nausea fading beneath her interest.

“Different wand woods create wands of various temperaments. I don’t know that much about wandlore, but the three I’ve used have been ebony, hawthorn, and cedar. Ebony is good for Transfiguration and dueling, which served me well through the wars; wands made from it seek people who hold fast to their beliefs, and my wand ended up becoming so attuned to mine that it broke when something I'd thought impossible came to pass,” Severus answered, and Natalie blinked in surprise.

Then again, sentient wood was really not the weirdest thing she’d been exposed to today, she thought wryly.

“Hawthorn, on the other hand, is best for people going through a period of turmoil, and it’s strongest at curses and healing magic. I borrowed Lucius’ son, Draco’s, wand after the war, until it backfired on me after I found peace with part of my past, which had been my source of turmoil. That was the wand with unicorn hair, and it was a bit less versatile than my other two.”

Ah, right — Lucius. Natalie remembered his comment from several months ago and wondered if it had been true. By ‘magic exists’ standards, Severus having some long-lost love didn’t seem unreasonable, but, after today’s revelations, she wasn’t sure she could take anything either man had told her prior to today at face value.

“Lastly, cedar is attracted to someone who has strength of character and unusual loyalty,” Severus continued, and Natalie heard a distinct note of pride in his voice. “It’s a good match for the shrewd and perceptive, as well as someone who will protect their loved ones fiercely.”

“That suits you well,” she remarked, seeing that he was happy with the description.

“Thank you. I — oh!” Severus brightened suddenly, and Natalie blinked as he smiled at her. “Would you like to see a particularly interesting charm?”

“Sure,” answered Natalie, who was feeling better and thought she’d recovered enough to entertain the shock of more magic. “I’m alright to walk now, by the way.”

At her words, Severus stood up, offering her a polite hand; she took it, rising steadily to her feet — then gasped at the beauty of their surroundings.

A quaint village rose out of the hills, a hundred small houses stretching out in terraced lines with storefronts in the middle, and, further out over the fields, pretty cottages sat on their own beside tiny gardens. Beyond the village, the boarded-up ruin of what might once have been a great castle lent a sense of age and gravity to the scenery. Natalie turned slowly, trying to drink in the lush spring grass dotted with flowers, the shaded forest extending into the horizon on their right, the enormous mountains that loomed beyond it in the distance, and the small homes that spread across the countryside, intertwined with small pathways that led to the denser village.

“Welcome to Hogsmeade,” Severus said, his smile turning into something like a grin. Awestruck, Natalie followed him as he started toward the village, her steps slow and reverent, and Severus limited himself to a casual stroll to indulge her.

“I’m planning on moving here soon,” he commented after a minute, and she nodded, still enamored by the beauty of it all. “Hogsmeade is where most professors who don’t board at Hogwarts stay, thanks to its proximity to the castle.”

“The castle? You mean, the boarded up one?” Natalie asked, confused out of her reverie.

Severus chuckled, a low, pleasant sound.

“It only looks boarded up now, since you’re seeing it from a distance. It’s bewitched to drive away Muggles, but, up close, you can see it as it truly is. Witches and wizards aren’t affected.”

“Wow,” she breathed; she squinted at the ruin, but she couldn’t make out anything more than crumbling walls and towers. “Even knowing that, I can’t see anything odd about it.”

“It’s one of the most heavily enchanted buildings in Britain. Hogwarts was founded over a thousand years ago, so it’s had a long time for its disguise to be perfected,” Severus explained, and Natalie’s attention was caught as he spun his wand slowly, passing it through his long, dextrous fingers.

“I’m sorry. You were going to show me a charm?” She asked apologetically, and he blinked, as if he’d forgotten, too.

“Oh! Yes. This charm is an extremely difficult one,” Severus told her, sounding more animated than usual as they stepped onto a mildly-worn path, heading toward the heart of the village. “It’s called the Patronus Charm, and it’s used to defend against Dementors and Lethifolds, two of the darkest creatures known to Wizardkind. It’s an embodiment of happiness, a shield of silver mist which, in its advanced form, coalesces into a creature representing its caster. Most wizards are unable to produce even an incorporeal Patronus; casting a corporeal one is a sign of superior magical ability, so it’s a bit of a status symbol. Corporeal Patronuses were used by the Order of the Phoenix for communication, as they can’t be imitated by Dark Magic, and most Dark Wizards can’t cast them. In a war where one’s appearance and voice could be imitated, they were invaluable in knowing that the information you were receiving was true.”

“I can imagine,” said Natalie, who was splitting her attention between listening and enjoying their surroundings. The spring air was fresh and sweet, almost distractingly so, and she had to make an effort to hear Severus as he continued.

“On rare occasions, Patronuses can change form, and that’s what happened to mine the day Draco’s wand backfired on me. My old form, a doe, was one that belonged to someone I’d lost long ago, so it was more of a representation of my love for her than it was of me. But, this year, I finally moved on enough that my Patronus changed.”

Lucius had been telling the truth, then, Natalie mused. At least, probably.

“Would you like to see it?” Severus asked, a hint of hope in his voice.

“I’d love to,” she answered truthfully, both curious to see more magic and to know what animal represented Severus as a person. She had to admit, she had a hard time picturing him as a doe — she wondered whether a gender-incongruous Patronus was unusual, but she wasn’t sure she ought to ask.

Severus raised his wand, the purple wood grain rich in the sunlight, and Natalie saw him focus, her anticipation growing as he took a breath.

Expecto patronum!”

A silver raven leapt from the tip of the wand, and Natalie gasped. Even more than the village, more than the mountains or forest, it was gorgeous.

The raven flew as if it was alive, though it was almost translucent in the bright sunshine, and Natalie watched, mesmerized, as it arced around them, flapping its intangible wings — and as, without visible command, dove toward them, alighting on Severus’ shoulder.

Pure light, woven like gossamer, formed the raven. Its feathers had all the detail of a living bird, its eyes pools of glowing silver, and Natalie laughed, shocked and delighted, as it ruffled its wings, looking at her intelligently.

“He’s beautiful!” She exclaimed, and Severus blushed, while the raven looked distinctly pleased. “How is he — is he alive?”

“I don’t believe so, not in the sense that he’s his own being, but he seems to respond to me, whether I give him commands or not. Patronuses do seem to have some form of intelligence, though; Lily’s doe acted on her own sometimes, and he can be mischievous if I let him fly free. The day I first cast him, I was teaching Patronuses as an extra, advanced lesson to my seventh years, and he kept disrupting my class until I told him to stay on my shoulder.”

“That’s — that’s just amazing,” Natalie laughed, reaching out a hand to the raven; it co*cked its head at her, then tapped her thumb with an intangible beak, leaving only a warm sensation that she might have imagined. “I might not have any understanding of magic, but I feel like I can understand why Patronuses are so hard to cast. They’re just so — so incredible!”

“I’m glad you like him,” Severus said, his lips twitching into a smile.

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Er — ” Natalie wasn’t sure she’d answered that question since primary school, and it took her a moment to find her answer. “Sapphire.”

Severus waved his wand, and Natalie watched, stunned, as a sapphire blue robe and matching pointed hat appeared in thin air, roughly sized to fit her.

“Here,” he offered, holding them out to her; still dazed by everything magic could apparently do, she took them. “If you look like a witch, no one will question your presence.”

She pulled on the robe, which was rather warm in the spring weather, and Severus waved his wand again as she tried on the hat, feeling a bit foolish. This time, an emerald green robe appeared, and he tugged it on over his dress shirt, where she saw that it perfectly matched his vest.

“Do you create all of your clothes?” She questioned curiously, trying not to feel jealous at the thought.

“No, actually,” he answered, starting toward the village again; it had grown quite a bit closer since they’d arrived, close enough that Natalie could see the individual storefronts, with small groups of people milling around them. “All of these were made traditionally, though they’ve been tailored by magic. Transfigured objects, such as your robe, only last for a short period of time, so they’re hardly ideal for a wardrobe.”

“I see,” Natalie said, studying the threads in her sleeve. “How do you do that, then?” She gestured toward his robe, and Severus’ lips twitched upward.

“A variation on the Vanishing spell, which makes it possible to recall the object. It’s very convenient,” he mentioned, and Natalie nodded.

Yes, she could see how infinite storage space could be convenient.

If I’m not careful, I’m going to end up emerald green with envy, she mused, doing her best to separate the whole ‘magic’ idea from her ordinary, ‘Muggle’ life. She’d given up trying to comprehend it all; she knew she’d need days, maybe even weeks, to process today’s events alone, and she wasn’t sure what Severus had yet to show her — she might need months, the way this excursion was going.

This really is a different world, she thought as they walked, amazed by the serene, secluded nature of the village. Off in the distance, the castle still looked abandoned and decrepit, but she glanced at it every minute or so, fascinated by the idea that its derelict appearance was a mere disguise. Was there anything magic couldn’t do?

It was a rhetorical question, but she couldn’t deny wanting to know the answer. She decided to ask Severus.

“Quite a few things,” he replied, as they came within a few minutes’ walk of the stores. “Bring back the dead, for one. Food can’t be Transfigured or Conjured, which you can understand, as it would change back while within the digestive system, and precious metals are almost impossible to create. Only the Philosopher’s Stone was able to make gold, and it was destroyed seven years ago, to prevent the Dark — er, Lord Voldemort from using it to return to his full strength. It was actually hidden at Hogwarts that year, and I was tasked with heading off the man he possessed to steal it; it’s a long story.”

“Does being a lord mean something special among wizards?” Natalie queried, trying to ignore the idea that alchemy was, evidently, real, and Severus shrugged.

“Not really, but he was the most dangerous Dark Wizard to ever live, so it’s a title given out of twisted respect. As I mentioned, I was a double agent, so I’ve called him the Dark Lord for decades, which was the name he had among his supporters. Most people call him You-Know-Who or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but a braver few call him by his taken name, Voldemort. I — well, I don’t like doing so, but I don’t want to call him the Dark Lord, and I was far too close within his circle for ‘You-Know-Who’ to sound anything but stupid.”

Natalie took a moment to reflect how absurd this day had been that she kept forgetting there had been a war in the Wizarding World as one of the less shocking details.

“You were in the — the Dark Eaters?”

“Death Eaters,” Severus corrected, and he rubbed an uncomfortable hand behind his neck. “I — I joined when I was eighteen. It was the worst choice I ever made, and I regret it far more than I can ever say, but it ended up sort of saving the world, so I’m trying to come to terms with it.”

“You — what? You saved the world?” Natalie was having a lot of trouble believing the whole ‘magic’ business already, but this was on a whole other level of unbelievable.

“Inadvertently, by making a morally repugnant decision that got the love of my life and her husband killed, yes.”

Severus stared down at the grass, the lines of his face etched with unspeakable pain and remorse, and Natalie felt so many layers of guilt at once that she almost staggered.

“Oh my God — I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to — please forgive me — I’m such an idiot sometimes, I never should have asked — ”

“It’s fine,” Severus sighed heavily, straightening with what looked like great effort. “No, really,” he added, forcing a smile even as Natalie cursed herself in three separate languages. “I’m just used to everyone knowing at this point. It happened seventeen years ago, anyway — it’s not like it was recent.”

“Still, I’m so, so sorry,” she apologized sincerely, and Severus shrugged, a slight movement that she barely caught beneath his robe.

“I mean, I’ll need to explain the whole war at some point. Both of them, that is,” he said, tucking a lock of hair behind his ear. “If something comes up about it, and we’re within earshot of anyone, it’s probably best if you pretend to be from some far foreign country, since every witch in Europe would know about it.”

“I can do an atrocious Australian accent,” Natalie suggested, and Severus’ smile was genuine this time, if brief.

They were only about a minute from the village now; Natalie looked over it in wonder, fascinated by the idea of an entirely magical community, but she couldn’t help commenting as they started running out of road.

“You know, with all the ‘long stories’ you’ve mentioned today, I think we’re going to need a lot more than just another coffee date,” she remarked, and Severus snorted.

“Try a semester-long class, and we might get there,” he replied dryly, his mouth curving upward in a half-smile that she might have mistaken for a sneer if she hadn’t seen him use the same expression with Lucius most every class.

“Good thing you’re a professor, then,” she teased, and he laughed — the sound was bright and unexpected

Natalie could see the truth of the matter in the way he moved, in the confidence and ease he had navigating her through the village. This was Severus’ reality; this was his world. He wasn’t weird at all — or, maybe he was, but not in the ways she’d thought. In this world, quills and wands and professorships at twenty-one were just part of life.

Post office, Honeydukes, Zonko’s, Sev tells her about Diagon Alley. They go back to Spinner’s End and do Potions

They appeared on a cobblestoned street, and Natalie caught her balance, feeling about half as nauseous as last time. Grimacing back the queasiness, she straightened and looked around — and gaped at the decrepit neighborhood around them.

Every house stood vacant and forlorn, with shards of broken windows glinting dully on the ground, where they’d fallen after being smashed by weather or rocks. Trash was littered across the dirty cobblestones, broken bottles and graffiti testifying to years of vandals, but the street was deserted as far as she could see. The only sign of recent human activity was a semi-fresh fish and chips wrapper that lay soggy in a clogged gutter, cheery yellow turned an ugly mustard by polluted rainwater.

“It’s not the best part of town,” Severus said embarrassedly, and she quickly closed her mouth, berating herself for letting the shock show on her face. “After the factory closed down, almost everyone left. I’m one of the only people who live here now.”

“That must be good for not having to hide magic,” she managed, trying to tear her eyes away from the sooty, dark terraced houses.

Severus gave her a look that clearly said, ‘don’t bother.’

“You can see why I’m eager to move,” he muttered, but he mustered an attempt at a smile, gesturing to the house in front of them, which was the only one that looked to be in a liveable state. “This is the house I grew up in. It’s not much, but it . . . works.” He scanned the decrepit brick, long faded from its original red, an expression of loathing twisting his mouth.

“At least Hogwarts is a boarding school,” Natalie offered, trying to lighten the mood, and Severus’ lips twitched upward.

“At least,” he agreed, stepping forward until he was at the door. He drew his wand, pointing it at the threshold and whispering several incantations that Natalie vaguely understood, recognizing the roots of some of the Latin.

“Are those protective spells?” She asked curiously, and Severus nodded, putting his wand back in his sleeve.

“Once a spy, always a spy,” he answered, turning the rusted door knob. “This house is protected to the best of my ability: it’s shielded from Dark Magic, and it bars entry to everyone unless I’m with them and undo the wards. If someone forces me to undo them, there are defenses that activate to incapacitate them, as well as provide me with the spells and potions I might need to recover. It’s safe for you, though,” he added, glancing back at her as if worried she’d be anxious at the information.

“Sounds like a dangerous job,” Natalie commented, feeling more fascinated than unsettled, and he nodded grimly, pushing the door inward.

She wasn’t sure what she’d expected after seeing the outside of the house, but the inside could be considered cozy, for some. For her, it erred on the uncomfortable side of cramped, a feeling exacerbated by the bookshelves lining every wall, filled to bursting with leather-bound books whose contents she could only imagine. Severus crossed the living room with easy familiarity, but Natalie had to take caution not to bump into the couch or the coffee table, being careful not to knock over a dusty stack of scribbled parchment or the inkwell that sat next to it.

“Why don’t you hide your house from Muggles like Hogwarts?” She queried as she navigated into the kitchen, which was as tiny as a standard bathroom, a small, rectangular table squeezed into the far side of it.

“It’s actually more secure to not hide it,” Severus answered, retrieving a chipped porcelain teapot, and several boxes of tea from a cabinet. He waved his wand, and Natalie watched in shock as a stream of water issued from the tip, filling the pot; a flick of his wrist later, and the water was boiling, a convenience that made even an electric kettle seem clunky and slow. “What type of tea would you like?”

“Anything’s fine,” she replied, unsure if she should sit down or remain standing. Thankfully, Severus made the decision for her, taking a single stride to the table and setting the teapot down on a hot plate that hadn’t been present a moment earlier.

“Here, you can take whichever chair you’d like,” he offered, heading two steps back to the cabinet to fetch a pair of ancient-looking teacups that might have been new sometime in the 1800s.

Remembering his preference to face the room, which she now had some understanding of, Natalie took the chair that faced away from the living room, providing her a nice view of the faded wallpaper and the dark alleyway behind the house, dull sunlight filtering in through a grimy window. Severus gave her pick of the teacups, and she chose the one that looked slightly sturdier, not wanting to break what might be a longtime family heirloom.

“Protective enchantments are an entire sub-category of Defence,” Severus continued as they waited for the tea to steep, now sitting across from her; for lack of anywhere else to look, Natalie held eye contact with him, noticing how comparatively comfortable he seemed. After her interactions with the awkward, easily-flustered Severus she knew in the Muggle world, it felt odd to see him looking relaxed, talking without his usual hesitation. “There are some houses, usually belonging to old magical families, that are hidden like Hogwarts, often making them invisible to Muggles and Unplottable, which means it’s impossible to find or mark them on a map. Those sorts of enchantments are complex and require a lot of effort and energy, but I could make use of them if I wanted. This house, however, relies on a different style of concealment.

“Magic can almost always be detected if you have good instincts and the patience to conduct a thorough search, but few witches or wizards do. So, I chose to use a few, strong protective spells, which allowed me to hide their presence from cursory magical examination; most people searching for a magical dwelling would overlook this house, especially as this area is deserted. Even if they did detect the spells on the building, they would probably assume it was long abandoned and move on to continue their search in more likely places. In short, very few people know even vaguely where I live, so most of my security lies in my anonymity.”

“I can see that,” Natalie replied, interested in the idea of magic concealing magic. “Is it rare for wizards to live in the Muggle world?”

“Somewhat,” Severus shrugged, checking the temperature of the teapot with his knuckle. “Most live in mixed communities, where several magical families settle in a town or neighborhood, unbeknownst to surrounding Muggles. It’s less uncommon for Muggleborns and half-bloods, which is what I am. The biggest advantage to staying here was that no one in their right mind would expect a Death Eater to live in an abandoned Muggle factory town.”

“Why’s that?” She questioned, and Severus blinked, as if he’d forgotten how little she knew about the magical world.

“Death Eaters — well, all of Lord Voldemort’s followers, really — were characterized by a lot of anti-Muggle and anti-Muggleborn beliefs,” he explained, looking mildly uncomfortable; Natalie felt a bit odd at the reminder that he’d once been genuinely part of that group. “Most were extremely racist against anyone with Muggle blood, seeing Muggles and other sentient magical creatures as lesser animals, and many also came from wealthy families. To put it mildly, not one would so much as even think to suspect that I live here.”

“Jesus Christ,” Natalie said, the swear slipping out before she could contain her emotions. “And those people almost won?”

“It was far closer than it should have been,” Severus nodded solemnly, tapping the teapot again. “Not so much because most wizards believed that rubbish, though. Lord Voldemort himself was extraordinarily powerful, and he dabbled in magic that made it almost impossible to kill him. He was ruthless — once you joined him, you had to stay, or he’d murder you personally. By the end of the war, even some of the Death Eaters wanted out, and the larger wizarding community was in an ongoing panic.”

Natalie absorbed this information in a state of detached horror.

“And, you were one of the main reasons they didn’t win?” She asked, trying to keep the faintness out of her voice.

“Yes. There were . . . quite a few points where the fate of the war was resting on my shoulders,” Severus answered, his tone strained, and his eyes seemed to flicker, suddenly looking hollow and empty. “It was . . . awful. There were times when I thought we were utterly doomed, but we managed to scrape by through sheer luck, in the end. I’m doing everything I can to ensure that no war like it occurs again, as are many others.”

They sat in silence for a long moment, considering the implications of the nightmare his words had painted. Then, Severus stirred, pouring the tea, and Natalie tried to come back to herself, though the sickening feeling in her stomach made it difficult.

“I — I can’t even imagine. And, we didn’t even know, in the Muggle World. God, I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if Lord Voldemort had won,” she said, her voice sounding far away.

“If it makes you feel better, we’re much better prepared for it if such a thing ever does happen again,” Severus offered, and Natalie managed a weak smile. “We’ve all had enough of war, but you can rest assured that, if another Dark Witch or Wizard rises, the Ministry of Magic, the Order, and hundreds of others will stand to face them.”

“And you’d be with them?” The question came out before she could stop it, and Natalie flushed slightly, feeling like a small child afraid of the dark.

“And I’d be with them,” Severus said seriously, his black eyes holding hers.

It was a small promise, in the grand scheme of things, and she still had trouble believing that the addition of one extra wizard could make much difference in a future conflict, but . . . Maybe it was the force with which he uttered it or the air of competence that he exuded, or maybe it was the simple fact that she knew him personally, and his skills seemed so much more real than some nebulous Order or Minister of Magic, but Natalie felt much better knowing that Severus would fight to protect the Muggle and Wizarding Worlds alike.

Severus waved his hand, a sugar bowl and a pair of tiny spoons appearing on the table, and Natalie’s smile was genuinely reassured this time.

She stirred a spoonful of sugar into her tea, sipping it, and Severus did the same, the miniature utensil clinking on the fine china.

“Earl Grey?” She asked, and he nodded, shrugging at her light amusem*nt.

“I used to rely pretty heavily on caffeine,” he answered, and she felt her smile quirk into a slight grin. “I’m sleeping better now, but I’ve been staying at Hogwarts, so I haven’t bought any herbal teas.”

“Do you use magic to clean your teeth? Because, if so, I’m jealous,” Natalie remarked, remembering the change in his appearance over the winter holidays.

“I do now,” he replied, his lips twitching upward. “Lucius is trying to convince me to get my teeth straightened. I’m undecided on the matter, though.”

Natalie couldn’t help a light blush — she had grown rather fond of Severus’ crooked smile, but she thought it would be too forward to say so. She didn’t know him that well, after all.

Severus tells Natalie that Lucius was a Death Eater, as was Draco

“I assume you probably understand this already, but the war wasn’t purely black and white, not in morals,” he added, somewhat hesitantly, and Natalie nodded slowly, not having enough information to judge that. “Most of the Death Eaters were evil, through and through, but some . . . Some weren’t so different from me. A good few would have left, if they could, but, as I said, it was a great risk. If Voldemort found you, you faced certain death — that’s why I had to play a double agent for both sides, to prevent him suspecting me.”

“I’ve seen members of the Order and Aurors get away with things that would be an automatic lifelong sentence for anyone else. Even I’ve gotten off on the same.”

“Lifelong sentences? In jail?” Natalie couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable at the idea, and she felt anxious as Severus nodded.

“The wizard prison, Azkaban. It’s not as nasty as it was before, when it was manned with Dementors, but it’s still not somewhere you want to be. Casting any of the Unforgivable Curses on a fellow human being is supposed to be an automatic life sentence, but those laws tended to get ignored during the wars.”

Evidently seeing her confusion, he elaborated.

“The three Unforgivables are the Imperius Curse, Imperio, which gives a wizard complete and utter control over an individual for as long as the spell isn’t lifted, the Cruciatus Curse, Crucio, which causes as intense a pain as physically possible, again for as long as they spell is left active, and the Killing Curse, Avada kedavra, which effects an immediate and painless death.”

“Are those the only spells that hurt others?” Natalie questioned, shivering despite herself; the spells did sound terrifying.

“Not at all. They’re not the only fatal or excruciating curses, either. They just happened to be the ones that got specifically legislated.”

Severus gave her a thin smile, clearly seeing her horror at this.

“Wizarding laws are often archaic and backward, but the three Unforgivables are one of the best examples. The only one I would say is inherently different from other severe curses is Avada kedavra, which almost always damages its user’s soul. Committing murder will damage your soul regardless, but the Killing Curse tends to cause more damage, by virtue of being a spell specifically designed to kill. See, it was originally a mercy spell, so a quick, painless death is its entire intention; even now, after it’s been twisted by centuries of use as a curse, you can use it without damaging your soul provided the person you’re using it on wishes to die.”

“How do wizards know that? How can you . . . measure a soul? How do you know if your soul has been damaged?” For once, Natalie felt like this part of magic made sense to her, intrinsically, but she still couldn’t fathom how one knew if their soul wasn’t whole.

“I’ve used it, and I can tell,” Severus said quietly, and suddenly the room was silent, even the slight creaking of the old house ceasing without so much as a whisper. “I thought it would always damage a soul, but . . . Dumbledore was cursed by Lord Voldemort, and I couldn’t halt the spell, not for more than a year, so he was dying. If the curse had killed him, his wand would have transferred to Voldemort. Usually, that wouldn’t matter, but this wand . . . It’s historical, an artifact of great power. In Voldemort’s hands, it would have been devastating. Dumbledore asked me to kill him to prevent that, with the hopes it would transfer to me. It didn’t, in the end — he was disarmed by someone else first — but, if it had . . . It would have been my job to defeat Voldemort.”

For a long moment, the silence stretched on, until finally Natalie managed to stir.

“You’re . . . that powerful?” Suddenly, her relief that Severus would stand and fight in a future conflict seemed much more reasonable.

“Powerful?” Severus laughed, but it was a weak, despairing sound, hardly the reassuring one she’d been hoping for. “Oh, I’m plenty powerful, but Voldemort powerful? No, I’m not that. I’m one of the best duelists in Europe, one on one, and I’m probably the best Occlumens alive, but dueling Voldemort? That’s another thing entirely. Dumbledore is the only wizard who ever dueled him individually on skill alone, and goodness knows I’m not Dumbledore. Now, that’s not to say it would have been impossible for me to win, if I’d had time to plan; one of my biggest strengths is the spells I’ve invented, which he would have had difficulty countering if I was Occluding, and, if I’d taken a Potent Exstimulo Potion to increase my magical power . . . ”

He trailed off, evidently thinking, and he started twirling his wand again, apparently unaware of the tic.

“There were a lot of avenues I could have taken. Dueling is pretty much the only way to kill someone without damaging your soul, but I could have poisoned him, if I’d needed to. If it came down to me or the world, there’s not much choice there. I don’t know what my chances would have been in an all out duel, even with the Elder Wand, but I could have caught him off guard, perhaps, or maybe Imperiused other Death Eaters to cover me . . . ”

A sudden realization seemed to cover him, and his gaze snapped back up to her, an almost comically worried expression on his face.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to go on about this — I’m really just glad it didn’t come to that,” he said, sounding incredibly nervous that she would think he was insane. Natalie couldn’t entirely deny being at least a little unsettled, but she tried for a light shrug.

“I mean, if I had to pick someone to kill the most powerful Dark Wizard in the world, I’d want them to have a few ideas about it,” she remarked, trying to joke, and Severus rubbed an awkward hand behind his neck.

“Er — yeah, I guess so. Dumbledore knew I could do it, if I had to; that’s why he chose me. But, let’s not talk about this,” he said, still sounding incredibly uncomfortable.

“Works for me.” For a long few seconds, neither of them spoke, and Natalie cleared her throat. “So, what do you want to talk about?”

“Um . . . ” Severus took to rubbing the back of his neck again, looking very much like the awkward professor Natalie had first been introduced to, and he winced slightly after a dozen seconds had passed without further comment. “Sorry. Talking about the war can make it a bit hard for me to focus.”

“I can imagine,” Natalie replied, unsure what else to say.

Another few moments passed, neither of them continuing, and Severus sighed.

“I guess you can see why I’m in therapy, yeah?”

Caught off guard, Natalie laughed, and she found herself replying with a raucous, joking tone that she wasn’t sure she’d used with him before.

“I mean, I think I’d need a lot more than therapy, so I’d say you’re doing pretty well. Are there wizarding therapists that you can talk about magic with?”

“One,” Severus answered, and he relaxed as she’d expected. “Arcadia Mayberry; she’s a Muggleborn witch who became a clinical psychologist, as there weren’t any available to wizards before her.”

“Do you like her? I can’t imagine only having one option — I had to try three therapists before I found one that suited me.”

“She saved my life,” Severus said simply, and Natalie felt a small constriction in her chest at the matter-of-factness in his tone, as if she hadn’t fully appreciated the fact he was a severely traumatized soldier until now.

“That’s all you can ask, I suppose,” she replied softly, and Severus nodded, tapping his fingertips on his mug of tea.

“So . . . you’ve been to therapy?” He asked after a moment, sounding incredibly curious.

“Oh — yeah,” she answered, suddenly feeling the same awkwardness that he had. “My birth mom was . . . really bad, when I was young. Alcohol, drugs, and all that. My dad remarried, and my stepmom is really awesome, but my mom was just . . . awful. I had a therapist all through my teenage years, and I’ve had to go back a few times.”

“I’m sorry about that. My dad was like that, too,” Severus said, and he seemed to genuinely mean it.

“He was a bit of a brute, you said?” Natalie vaguely remembered the comment from their first coffee date, but she didn’t think Severus had mentioned much else about his parents.

“More than a bit, really. I just don’t like to talk about it.”

Severus looked down at his tea, swirling it with a hand, and Natalie reflected that there were a lot of topics he preferred to avoid. It was just luck, she supposed, that she’d managed to stumble around as many as she had for so long.

Not that she could blame him. She didn’t like talking about her mother, either.

Natalie’s POV:

“You must be a fellow cursebreaker, then?” Claremont questioned her, his tone friendly.

“Oh, no, actually. I’m a Muggle,” Natalie corrected kindly, smiling back at him.

The momentary look of dumbfounded shock on his face told her that that may not have been the optimal response, but he recovered quickly, leaving her just enough time to glance at Severus and see that he’d blanched the shade of fresh drywall.

“Ah! I see, I see,” Claremont said, his smile turning into a suggestive grin, and he raised his eyebrows in a jovial manner.

Too late, Natalie realized what she’d just implied. She looked at Severus, desperate for advice, but the thin professor was too mortified to respond, a deep flush suffusing his cheeks.

Claremont took one look at Severus, whose ears had just turned pink with the blush traveling over his skin, and burst out laughing.

“Snape, you’re so red, you look like a Gryffindor,” the Auror guffawed, and Natalie noticed with horror that several people who had overheard her had stopped in their tracks around them, shamelessly listening into the conversation.

“It’s — it’s not quite — ” Severus started to say, but Natalie saw the panic in his eyes as he frantically tried to determine what was worse: letting the misunderstanding go unchallenged or correcting it at the risk of legal repercussions.

As he fumbled, Natalie made an executive decision.

“Oh, we’re not dating, actually,” she replied cheerfully, trying to sound as if this sort of thing happened all the time; her smile felt plastered to her face, but she was highly aware of their unwanted audience, and she kept smiling for all she was good for. “I heard of magic long before we met. I have a lot of interest in Potions, since it’s accessible for me, so Severus and I get along well. He’s been showing me around some.”

Feeling like an actor in a bad infomercial, she gave Severus an affectionate pat on the shoulder, still doing her best to look natural. She’d worried that her act would catch him off guard, and his reaction would reveal the falsehood, but she shouldn’t have doubted him: the long-time double agent was quick on the uptake and even quicker on the corroboration.

“People do tend to assume,” Severus agreed, sounding much more casual than she did. “It’s no matter, though,” he added, seeing that Claremont had opened his mouth to apologize. “We’re close friends, so it’s a good laugh, if anything. Frankly, I’m always surprised they assume your standards are so low.”

This comment was directed at Natalie, and he raised his eyebrows at her, as if this was a joke they made all the time.

“Right, low standards — says the war hero.” She gave him a casual knock on the shoulder, this motion feeling much more genuine. “This is why he isn’t allowed to talk about himself,” she remarked, now addressing Claremont again. “Always understates everything. ‘Oh, I have experience with Potions’ — and you’re a bloody heckin’ prodigy.”

This compliment was punctuated by three more light punches, and Severus’ lips twitched in what Natalie was pretty sure was genuine amusem*nt.

“But, really. If I let your self-confidence build your proverbial throne, I’d find you ten feet down in a hole and still digging,” she complained, and Claremont laughed, a half-smile making its way onto Severus’ face.

“My apologies. I’ll try to be more arrogant,” he replied sagely, but his black eyes sparkled, betraying their true emotions.

Natalie grinned.

They stepped onto the elevator, which mercifully closed before anyone could join them; they breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief, and Natalie smiled at Severus, only to find him already smiling back.

“Natalie, know that I mean this in the nicest possible way, but you are absolutely a Slytherin,” he said, and she laughed, both at the remark and at Severus’ grin, wide and out of place on his thin face.

Yet, somehow, it suited him.

“That had better be a compliment,” she warned jokingly, and he chuckled, his usually sharp features warm and pleasant.

“It’s the highest compliment. At least, to Lucius,” he added, and she laughed again, her grin turning a bit sheepish as the doors opened and a pair of bedraggled witches got on, looking half a cup of coffee from comatose. Severus moved over politely to give them room, which led him to bump shoulders with Natalie, who had to suppress the urge to snicker.

Unwilling to let go of the humor, she leaned over and jokingly hissed in his ear, and his lips pressed tightly together, his eyes closing in an effort not to laugh as the two women looked startledly at her. Severus’ shoulders started to shake silently as they squeezed into the opposite corner, but Natalie was alarmed, not knowing what she’d done wrong.

The women practically bolted out at their floor, and Severus burst out laughing the moment the doors had sealed, burying his face in his elbow as he ran out of breath.

“Oh my God. What did I do?” Natalie asked worriedly, but he only wheezed harder, his chest heaving until he fell against the wall, laughing so hard that he couldn’t breathe. “Severus! What did I do?” She protested, and Severus held up a hand, still incapacitated by the silent giggles.

“I — I bet that woke them up,” he managed at last, and Natalie couldn’t help smiling at the tears of mirth making his eyes glisten. “Oh, Merlin — just wait until they find out you’re a Muggle. Bloody hell.”

“But what did I do?” Natalie asked insistently, and Severus dragged himself back upright, wiping the corners of his eyes.

“They think you speak Parseltongue. They — ” He had to stop, silent laughter taking hold of him again, but he composed himself quicker this time. “They think you can speak to snakes. It’s a very rare gift, one Salazar Slytherin was famous for. They’re probably going to think you’re descended from him.”

“Is that bad?” Natalie doubted it was too awful, since Severus seemed so amused, and her remaining nervousness was alleviated at the sight of his cheeks ballooning outward in an effort not to laugh as the doors opened, revealing them to the world at large.

“Bad? No. Parseltongue is often associated with evil, but no one is going to be stupid enough to think a Muggle is secretly a Dark Witch with hoity-toity beliefs on blood purity. Merlin’s beard, I wish I could see the moment they tell that story to someone who overheard that you’re not a witch,” he lamented, a grin flashing over his face at the thought as they stepped out of the elevator. “They probably think I speak Parseltongue now, too, but that’s not even close to the oddest rumor that’s been circulated about me in the past year, so I can’t say I’m concerned.”

“Rumors, eh?” Natalie raised her eyebrows suggestively, and she could see Severus force down another chuckle, likely not wanting to risk losing control of it again.

“Did you know that I am, evidently, an underground boxing champion?” He queried mischievously, and she couldn’t help it — she laughed, the idea of the thin, bookish professor in boxing gloves too absurd to entertain.

“Do I even want to ask?”

“I mean, technically, everything was true,”

Natalie’s POV (Assorted cut scenes from even earlier drafts):

Then — and only after she’d decided not to pursue him, of course — he’d appeared in class today looking like a different man.

His painfully thin figure had been filling out slowly through the months, but she hadn’t realized just how much it had improved until she’d seen him for the first time in three weeks, after she’d had some time to forget his appearance. He’d gone from thin, even bony, to lean and fit, and he’d gained toning in his forearms, drawing attention to his long, agile hands and manicured fingernails. And his teeth! She had no idea how on earth they’d whitened and straightened so quickly — she’d been quite sure he didn’t have braces, but she’d heard of a new type of clear, plastic aligners that were more discreet. Maybe he’d been wearing those this whole time, and she just hadn’t noticed? Not to mention, his long black hair, once barely a positive, was now incredibly flattering, with a volume and luster that made him look twenty-five — she was still having trouble believing he was actually almost forty.

Sev’s new haircut and improved skin was noticed by a certain someone

“sh*t, man,” Michelle said appreciatively, looking the thin professor up and down. “I kinda forgot he was attractive. He doesn’t make much of it, usually.”

Natalie didn’t reply, not sure how to voice her response without sounding a bit rude. Because, well . . . the truth of the matter was, Severus wasn’t the kind of man that one gawked at walking down the street. That wasn't to say she didn’t find him attractive — if anything, she fancied him, really. He was kind, intelligent, witty, and many other appealing things, but those were traits that you had to know him to appreciate. His appearance, on the other hand . . . The best way she could describe it was that it had grown on her after she’d already liked him in every other aspect.

When she’d first taken a liking to him, sometime in early October, she’d thought that he was attractive in an intellectual way; he had a quick wit, and he was highly educated, with quiet mannerisms and a remarkably pleasant voice that matched his refined speech, which contrasted nicely with his endearingly northern accent. She’d admired his earnesty in class, as well as the physical grace that he seemed to have naturally, and she’d liked that he was pursuing his interests without fear of somehow ‘losing’ his masculinity. It had been refreshing to see a man who was content to join a bunch of young women in learning to dance, especially as he’d apparently talked one of his friends into joining him.

But, he’d never been particularly physically attractive, and it had taken quite a while for her to appreciate his other traits enough to decide that she didn’t care if he had an oversized nose, crooked teeth, and a scrawny build. She’d liked him despite his appearance, not because of it.

Now, though . . .

Well, he still wasn’t a man that would turn heads on the sidewalk. But, maybe Michelle was right; he had a subdued, subtle type of attractiveness that, if you knew him well, might just become more apparent to the eye. And, he didn’t make much of it, usually, but today?

Today Natalie wouldn’t mind appreciating that subtle handsomeness.

Natalie gives Sev his scarf

There was another woman at the sink, washing her hands, and Natalie exchanged a brief, polite smile with her, ducking into a stall and locking it. She just sat there for a minute, listening to the tap and hand dryer run and trying to calm her nerves.

She knew this wasn’t a date. She was quite sure Lucius hadn’t said anything to Severus about her botched attempt at asking him out, and, at any rate, he’d been too casual about asking her to coffee. But, she still felt nervous, her hands shaky and sweaty on her knees.

Learning that Severus was quite a bit older than her and probably at least a little troubled hadn’t helped, either — it had only hit home how little she actually knew him. She would have been content to return to their previous casual relationship, as she had to deal with crushes before, but now he was the one offering a closer friendship. Sure, he’d always been polite, especially compared to Lucius, who had struck her as aloof and cold from the first class, but asking her to coffee? That was, at the very least, something more than mere acquaintanceship.

The worst part, insofar that it could be considered a negative, was that he was now undeniably, objectively attractive. Natalie could no longer convince herself that her off-hand fancy was biased; Michelle had confirmed it. Severus was now nearly as attractive on the outside as he was in personality.

And that didn’t make it any easier to decide not try pursuing him again.

It was unfair, she grumbled as she stood up. She was trying to ignore the part of her that said, ‘Bollocks if he’s thirty-nine and has a therapist — he’s a hot professor with a sense of humor!’ but it was difficult. She was glad, at least, that she hadn’t said out loud that she was giving up on him; she wouldn’t lose face if she tried again, though she doubted Severus was looking to date someone. Lucius had seemed genuinely shocked to hear someone was interested in him at all, which certainly didn’t bode well.

She sighed heavily, standing up with the determination that, at the very least, she’d give her increasing friendship with Severus a genuine go.

Natalie changed into her street clothes, reapplying her deodorant and doing her best to make the simple jeans, green t-shirt, and blue plaid look a bit more like a planned outfit, not something she’d thrown together because she was running low on laundry. Then, she checked her makeup, touching it up and wishing she’d taken just a bit more care with it this morning. She reapplied her lipstick, using the old, well-worn favorite color that she kept in her handbag for occasions just like this one, and brushed her fingers through her hair, smiling a few times to loosen up her cheeks.

Then, taking a deep breath, she strode out of the bathroom, trying to keep her smile looking friendly and cheerful without letting it become a giddy grin.

She failed immediately, though she didn’t fault herself in the slightest.

Severus was leaning on the wall with his arms loosely crossed, patient and cool, wearing by far the most attractive outfit she’d ever seen him in. Semi-formal black trousers and a tweed waistcoat over a white button down, with a retro silver pocket watch, brought out the best in his slim figure, his dark hair falling softly around his sharp cheekbones. When he looked up, his black eyes flicked smoothly to hers, and Natalie had to forcibly grab the squealing, girlish part of her before it could show on her face.

“Thanks for waiting,” she said, grateful that her voice was steady despite the butterflies in her stomach. God, she’d never imagined Severus could clean up this well, or she would have asked him out months ago.

“Not at all,” he answered smoothly, his voice silky and deep as always. She blushed as he joined her in heading through the lobby, and it was only when they were halfway to the doors that she recovered enough cognitive function to wonder, where on earth had he put his clothes? He didn’t have a gym bag, and the only thing he was carrying was his long black coat over his forearm.

No matter, she thought, brushing away the distracting question. He’d probably just given Lucius his bag.

When they reached the exit, Severus pulled on his coat, and she realized with some surprise that it wasn’t his usual frock coat. Rather, it was a black wool overcoat, cut with a flattering cinch at the waist and clearly tailored to fit him specifically. She admired it for a moment as they both donned their gloves, getting a small thrill when Severus wrapped the scarf she’d given him around his neck and feeling relieved she’d gotten him a basic black one.

Severus politely opened the door for her, looking every inch the gentleman.

“Thank you,” she said, and he nodded, stepping with her into the chill air. She was glad it wasn’t raining — she hadn’t brought an umbrella today, not expecting to have plans. The coffeeshop she’d suggested wasn’t far, but it wouldn’t be a fun treck to make in a dreary drizzle, even with her current crush beside her.

Almost at the thought, a gust of wind blew Severus’ hair right into his face, and Natalie suppressed a desire to laugh even as she tried to keep her hair, which was doing the same, from flying into her eyes.

“Bit breezy,” she commented, and Severus, who was trying and failing to tuck his hair behind his ear, raised his eyebrows as if to say, ‘No, really?’ Natalie giggled, unable to help it at his exasperated expression as the wind changed direction, undoing all of his hard work.

“Bugger this,” he muttered, and, still trying not to laugh, Natalie unclasped her purse, removing her glove so she could dig through it.

“Would you like a bobble?” She asked, pulling one out for her hair and holding it up for him to see.

“Er — alright,” he replied, taking the cloth-covered elastic carefully. She tucked her gloves under her chin, doing her thick hair up into a high ponytail with a practiced motion, and smiled as he attempted to do the same; he clearly wasn’t used to putting his hair back, but he managed a half decent tail, leaving only his wispy fringe to gust into his face.

They continued down the sidewalk at a relaxed pace, the wind far less bothersome now, and Natalie let happiness swell in her chest, giddy that she was actually getting a coffee with Severus. Sure, she was just focused on being friends with him right now, but that didn’t erase the months of mild crushing that gave her a pang everytime he walked in the door.

“So,” she said, keeping her voice cheerful but casual, “where are you from?”

“co*keworth,” he answered, his dark eyes scanning the street attentively. “You?”

“I grew up in London,” she replied, suppressing a grin at his unusually-laconic manner; it seemed she wasn’t the only one who was a bit nervous. Maybe Severus wasn’t as casual about this as he was pretending?

She hurriedly squashed the thought, but not before a traitorous spark of hope flared in her chest.

“Where do you live now?” She asked, inwardly scolding herself to at least try to focus on purely platonic friendship.

“Er — co*keworth, actually. I teach at a boarding school,” Severus responded, and Natalie felt a small amount of surprise.

“Where do you teach?” She questioned when he didn’t continue; it seemed he needed to be prompted for details, so prompt she would.

“It’s a small school,” Severus answered, and, though his expression and body language were casual, Natalie thought he sounded a bit uncomfortable. “Not many people have heard of it, but I like teaching there.”

“That’s good,” she remarked, wondering if he was embarrassed and, if so, why.

“What about you? Do you work?” Severus asked, glancing around as they came to a zebra crossing, which Natalie motioned toward; Severus followed a step behind her, apparently not familiar with the area.

“I did full time until last year, in retail, but I quit when my classes got more intense. I work part time in a library right now,” she replied as they strolled across the street, heading up the next sidewalk. “It’s actually just a few blocks from here, but I don’t work on weekends.”

“You work at the London Nook?”

Natalie wasn’t sure who was more surprised: her, having thought he wouldn’t have heard of the niche library, or Severus, who looked utterly nonplussed.

“Have you been there?” She queried, interested, and Severus blinked.

“I’m there all the time. Only ever on Sunday, though,” he added after a moment.

“No kidding!” Natalie laughed, both at the surrealness and the pleasant tingle at learning she’d been unknowingly just-missing Severus for however many months now. “Small world, isn’t it?”

“I guess so,” Severus replied, sounding a bit embarrassed again. Natalie glanced at him, wondering why he would feel that way over something so innocuous like before — when a sudden realization hit her.

“Oh my God,” she said reflexively, and Severus jumped in alarm, his eyes scanning the street tensely. “Oh, no, sorry,” she apologized, seeing that she’d startled him; he relaxed at her bright smile, which only barely repressed a hint of mirth. “It’s just — you’re at the library every Sunday?”

“Yes?” Severus seemed uncertain, evidently confused by her amusem*nt, and she was sure. But, still, she’d ask. Just to make certain.

“I don’t suppose that, by any chance, you use a quill to take notes?”

Still bemused, Severus nodded, opening his mouth hesitantly.

“Is that — have you heard of that? Is it that unusual?” He sounded almost nervous, and Natalie had to suppress the urge to laugh, instead searching for a way to tell him this that wouldn’t embarrass him further.

“Alice and Deborah, two of the full-time librarians, have mentioned you,” she replied casually, but she couldn’t stop a smile from tugging at her lips. “I figured there could only be one long-haired professor who visits every Sunday, but you never know, y’know?”

She was trying to make light of the matter, but, far from looking relieved, Severus seemed more anxious than before.

“I — they haven’t — er — is there a chance — that is, have they mentioned anything else? About me?”

That sentence was almost impressive, Natalie thought, doing her best to stifle any trace of her amusem*nt. As funny as she found Severus’ reaction, she reminded herself that he was genuinely embarrassed and that, if he was uncomfortable, she should do her best to reassure him, both as a caretaker of the library he frequented and as a friend.

“Not much,” she answered, not entirely truthfully; the affectionately nicknamed ‘Professor Quill’ was, like all of their most unique patrons, the source of many minor stories behind the check-out desk, filling the silence while she bound new books with protective plastic or organized the check-in bin. “They’ve mentioned that you do calligraphy.”

And that you’re endearingly awkward. And that you’ve checked out half the section on teaching teenagers, as well as preteens. And that you’re a bit clueless, but you’re soft-spoken and polite, and you’re always fascinated by the books they recommend to you.

Somehow, she doubted Severus would be less embarrassed if she told him everything she’d heard about him.

“That’s all?” Severus sounded relieved, and Natalie did her best to smile without letting on to the laughter bubbling just beneath the expression.

“About all, yeah,” she said casually

“That must be a nice change of pace,” Severus commented, and Natalie lit up, pleased and encouraged that he recognized her favorite part of the job. Before she knew it, she’d started chatting about the relaxed atmosphere of the library, so different from the constant, potent stress of retail, with Severus listening attentively. Every time she worried she was boring him, he’d ask a question or comment on how interesting the comparison was, and, emboldened, she’d continue, going on about the best and worst types of customers in each job.

She was so caught up in talking to Severus, in fact, that they were still on the subject when they reached the coffeeshop. Natalie was stunned. She’d been chattering on for over fifteen minutes straight, and Severus hadn’t stopped her. She’d wanted to learn more about him, but instead she’d spent the entire walk talking about herself!

It was at the pang of guilt in her stomach that she realized — no, no, Severus had been listening the whole time, and it was his positive cues that had kept her talking. He was a remarkably good listener, she thought as they stepped into the warm coffeeshop.

To her surprised approval, Severus copied her example requesting a sweet, vanilla coffee and a lemon muffin of his own; it seemed Lucius had been right that he was good at reading social cues.

They stood a bit off to the side, waiting for their orders, and Natalie casted about for a subject to continue their conversation. She couldn’t say she was surprised that she was the one doing so — Severus had never seemed particularly inclined to initiate conversations on his own — but she worried that he might be quieter than she’d thought. She’d have to be careful not to be overbearing.

“What subject do you teach?” She asked, and Severus shifted his weight, opening his overly-warm coat.

“Religious studies, of a sort. The history of magical customs and beliefs in Europe, mostly,” he answered, his dark eyes roaming the room, and Natalie blinked.

Alright, she hadn’t expected that.

“That sounds interesting,” she commented, hoping that she didn’t sound skeptical. She’d never been a history buff herself, but she knew there was value in such subjects, even if she had trouble enjoying them. “Have you always taught that?”

“No, actually.” He folded his overcoat over his arm, and Natalie felt like she finally had some context for his retro dress choices — not to mention the quill! “I taught pharmaceuticals for fifteen years, but I’ve always had a passion for the study of magic.”

“Oh, really? That’s — wait, fifteen years?” Natalie was doing some quick mental math, which was difficult in the clamoring of the coffeeshop. If her thought process was correct, then that would suggest Severus had been teaching by the time he was twenty-three, probably earlier. How was that possible? Unless he hadn’t always been a professor… “When did you start teaching?”

“Er — I started at twenty-one, but I didn’t finish my degree until I was twenty-six. I was… an outstanding expert in my field, so I got hired unusually early,” Severus said somewhat awkwardly, and Natalie felt herself surprised for the third time in the past minute.

“Did you start as a professor?” She queried curiously, wondering how that might work; she supposed it made sense, if a university had recognized the ability of one of its students and provided them with a job. But, then, didn’t Severus teach younger students? Between his choice of books and the few times she’d overheard him talking with Lucius about them, she’d always assumed that Severus taught children and teenagers, and she couldn’t imagine many higher universities had event days where professors were required to wear pink…

“Well, technically, yes, but not in a typical sense…”

Severus was saved from explaining whatever in blazes he meant by that by an announcement that their orders were ready, and Natalie tried for a friendly smile as they sat down at a table in the corner. She noticed that Severus had automatically headed for the seat against the wall, and she sat across from him, wishing that she could be the one to face the doors.

But, then again, the way Severus’ eyes were constantly scanning the room, maybe he’d do an alright job of that himself, she thought.

“You work with younger students, don’t you?” She asked, wrapping both of her hands around her warm coffee cup.

“Yes. My school boards from ages eleven to seventeen,” Severus answered, looking down at his muffin with a slight grimace. Though he seemed to be trying very hard to hide it, Natalie was getting the distinct sense that he didn’t want to talk about this; she couldn’t help being interested in his reaction, as he’d never seemed awkward when discussing it with Lucius.

“So — magical history. That’s unique,” she tried, and Severus winced ever so slightly — or, she thought he did. His expressions had become remarkably closed off, and she was having difficulty reading him. “What kinds of things does that entail?”

“Ah, well…” He began to reply, sounding quite reluctant and not hurrying to get to his response. He ducked his head as if to hide behind his hair, but, as it was still tied back, the motion looked sheepish and out of place.

Natalie was stumped. Her professors over the years had usually been thrilled to talk about their subjects, or, at the very least, comfortable with bringing them up. What did it say about Severus that he didn’t want to discuss his at all? Did he regret his passion? Was he embarrassed by it, since it was so niche?

“I specialize in magical defenses against evil, charms and enchanted objects, that sort of thing. They have an interesting history, especially during times of great distress,” Severus continued reluctantly; Natalie nodded, doing her best to maintain polite interest. She was trying to ignore the part of her that was retreating inwardly, disappointed that Severus was, well… a bit weirder than she’d thought.

He’s a thirty-nine year old man taking a dance class, what did you expect? She scolded herself, regretting her taste in men not for the first time and, certainly, not for the last.

“So — you study food?”

The segue was palpably awkward.

“Yes,” Natalie said, glad to change the subject. “Food science, specifically. I always had a great interest in chemistry, especially in college, but a lot of fields involving it are very competitive, and I wanted a job, not a lifestyle. So, when I was deciding what to get for my Bachelor's, I talked with one of my advisors…”

The oddest thing was, as soon as Severus started listening, his uncomfortable aura faded as if it had never been there in the first place. He seemed relieved to find himself on the passive side of the conversation, and he returned to his earlier method of asking thoughtful questions, apparently content to let her do the talking.

Maybe he’s really just that awkward with women, Natalie mused as she explained one of her undergraduate research endeavors in increasingly fine detail. Severus certainly looked and sounded genuinely engaged by her words; maybe he simply ran into trouble with new people, or maybe he was worried about coming off too passionate about his interests.

He didn’t strike her as creepy, at any rate, for which Natalie was grateful. She’d been pretty sure he wasn’t, but it wasn’t always easy to tell from a distance — harmless social awkwardness, at least, she could handle.

Still, it was becoming increasingly apparent to her that Severus didn’t get out much. Nor, it seemed, did they have all that much in common. Natalie saw a brief light in his eyes when she mentioned that she had considered going into research before deciding a more traditional career would provide her a more secure future, and his nod of understanding was slightly more emphathic than those that had come before, but he was otherwise… She wasn’t sure ‘stoic’ was the right word, but he certainly wasn’t a very open conversationalist.

The most he’s moved in the past ten minutes is to eat his muffin, Natalie thought to herself with some amusem*nt, watching as Severus meticulously dismantled it. His long fingers pursued every crumb that escaped the pile he was collecting on his discarded paper wrapper, and she found that she was following their progress across the table as she spoke, distracted by the motion from the otherwise still man.

Is it sad that I believe he’s never had a date? She wondered, stifling a smile as he polished off the last of the pastry. She’d only finished about a third of hers, but, then, she’d been the one talking.

As it happened, though, Severus wasn’t perpetually awkward, as she discovered completely by accident when she mentioned a fellow graduate student she’d been working with. Wanting to get a chance to drink her coffee before it grew cold, she’d made an attempt to pass the conversation back to Severus by asking about his colleagues — and she was blown away by the comparative ease in his demeanor as he started chatting.

“Well, actually, I attended the same school when I was a student, and most of my current colleagues taught back then, so they’ve known me for a long time. There’s Minerva McGonagall, the Headmistress; she taught until this year, and she’s always been a good person to work with. Serious and strict, with high standards.”

Severus nodded to himself as if this explained everything about her, and Natalie suppressed a surprised laugh by taking a large sip of her mocha.

“Then there’s Filius Flitwick and Pomona Sprout — I was never particularly close to them, but we’ve been friendlier this year. They’re both brilliant, in their own ways. And Rubeus Hagrid; he’s worked at the school for forever, but he only recently became a professor — we’ve been collaborating a lot this year, so I’d say we get on relatively well. Together, they’re the Heads of Houses, along with me, of course,” he continued, and Natalie blinked.

“You’re a Head of House?” She questioned curiously, intrigued. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she was stuck between amusem*nt and bemusem*nt at the names of Severus’ colleagues; she’d thought that ‘Severus’ was a rather odd name when she’d first met him, but, in that lineup, it really didn’t sound out of place at all. Maybe it was a regional thing?

Or, maybe, she thought with a slight smile, having such intriguing names had inspired them to stray off the beaten path in the first place, as Severus had with magical history.

“Yes, of Slytherin. It’s named after one of the founders of the school, Salazar Slytherin,” Severus answered, idly swirling his remaining coffee. Although his attention seemed focused on the cup, his eyes were still watching the room, always moving, always checking, never pausing anywhere for more than a few moments. “We’ve had a lot of new hires this year, as well; there’s Cassia, Eira, and Basil, and they’re all quite good. Cassia took up my previous subject, so I’ve been helping her some,” he added, tapping his fingertips on the cardboard zarf around the paper cup.

For the first time, Natalie wondered why eleven year olds would be learning pharmaceuticals and European magical history, but she didn’t want to interrupt Severus when he was finally talking — nor was she entirely sure she wanted to know if he taught at some bizarre religious school.

“Slytherin is a difficult House to teach, lots of old blood, but it’s also rewarding. They’re good kids,” Severus said, and, this time, she let herself smile.

“You’ve got the same initials as Slytherin, don’t you?” She asked, wanting a benign thing to comment on; to her relief, Severus snorted lightly at what she guessed was a recurring joke.

“Ah, yes. Severus Snape, Head of Salazar Slytherin’s House of the Serpent,” he drawled, the corners of his lips twitching upward. “I’ve heard that one before.”

“That’d be a good tongue-twister,” Natalie acknowledged, chuckling. “I don’t think I’ve ever known a person named Severus — were you named after someone?”

“Er — well, not a person in particular. It’s a Roman name,” he answered, swirling his coffee again. “My mother liked the sound, and she thought it would go well with my surname. We — she came from a long line, named Prince, so they tended to pick dramatic names. I like to — well, it’s a running joke between Lucius and I that we were named after the same Roman emperor: Lucius Septimius Severus Pertinax.”

“Oh, that’s cool,” Natalie said, grinning, and he shrugged slightly. She could see Severus becoming awkward again, almost the moment she’d asked him about himself, and she groped for a change of topic that would feel natural.

“Lucius means light, doesn’t it?” She queried, and, sure enough, Severus relaxed, setting down the cup of cooled coffee.

“Yes; he was named after another Lucius, far back in his family line.”

“He’s an interesting person,” Natalie commented, trying to sound off-hand. “Does he work? He seems rather upper-class.”

Was it bad manners to ask about another man on a semi-date? Probably, she figured, chewing a bite of her muffin, but she didn’t care, if it kept Severus from becoming as hesitant and reluctant as he had been earlier.

“He’s never had a job, no,” Severus replied, rolling his eyes in mild disapproval. “The Malfoys are old money — it’ll be generations before one even needs to think about working, and they’ll probably just marry into wealth and start the process anew.”

“Must be nice,” said Natalie, and Severus’ lips twitched upward at her disgruntled tone.

“He can be a bit insufferable,” he agreed, but his tone was fond. “But he’s alright, if you know how to navigate it. He’s reliable, for . . . the type of person he is. I’m his son’s godfather in all but name, and I’ve helped the family out when he was otherwise indisposed.”

“So . . . your mother’s maiden name is Prince, right? What are your parents like? And your extended family?” Natalie asked, aiming to continue their more comfortable conversation, but, to her surprise, Severus paled slightly, tapping his fingers on his coffee cup.

“Well, my mother was Eileen Prince, and she was a lot like me, at least in appearance. She was . . . intellectual. She liked strategy games, but she wasn’t the best at . . . other subjects. My father, Tobias Snape, wasn’t much, just a mill worker. Bit of a brute, really.” Severus glanced down at himself, as if wondering what had become of those genes, and his wry smile met Natalie’s amused one when he looked up. “It’s safe to say I don’t take after him.”

“Are both of your parents passed?”

“Yes. They both died when I was in my late teens, though not quite at the same time.” Seeing her regretful expression, he shrugged. “

“Hey, you know Severus?” She asked, unable to entirely suppress her smile, and Deborah looked up in some surprise.

“Severus as in, Professor Quill? Yes, he was in here Sunday, as usual. He had a new style — it looked nice on him, very academic. Why?”

“He’s in my dance class. I went to coffee with him on Saturday.”

“Gosh, I remember the day he first came in. He was a bit of a mess, I thought,” Deborah recalled with a chuckle, shaking her head. “He seemed better the next time I saw him, though. I think he was just flustered at the time, that’s all, but, goodness, if I’ve ever seen someone be so scattered. I don’t think he recovers very quickly from embarrassment.”

“He really is awkward, isn’t he?” Natalie remarked, her tone somewhere between dry and rueful. “You wouldn’t believe how different he was when I was talking versus when he was talking. Frankly, I think he’d rather die than carry a conversation by himself.”

“I think you might be right, there,” Deborah agreed, the scanner beeping in the background as she checked in the Returns cart. “It’s odd, isn’t it? One moment he can seem so put together and educated, and then the next he asks me if I know any books on ‘those intersection light boxes.’ ” She pantomimed a traffic signal, making a large rectangle in the air, and Natalie had to hold back a laugh at the vivid image of Severus doing the exaggerated motions with the utmost earnestness. “And would you believe he’d never heard of the Dewey Decimal System? I thought I was going mad when he asked about it, that or it was a prank of some kind.”

“You told me that! I’d forgotten. But you know, I do get the impression that he’s rather rural,” Natalie mused, stacking a large pile of mediocre romance novels on the cart to be put away. “He said he’s from co*keworth, though. Maybe he’s from the outskirts?”

“Oh, co*keworth, is it? I knew he was from somewhere up north, but I couldn’t place it. His accent is a bit Scottish, I’d say.”

“I’d say you’re right. It’s not really the Queen’s English, is it?”

“Hardly. I’ve wondered if that might not be why I have trouble understanding him sometimes. I haven’t been much north in recent years.”

“Hmm, possibly. I do think it’s mostly just awkwardness, though. He doesn’t seem to do well with women, as best as I can tell.”

“What makes you say that?” Deborah asked curiously, setting the scanner down and pushing a final stack of books over to her.

“Well, he’s got a male friend in our class: Lucius . . . Malfoy? I think it’s Malfoy. And it may just be that they know each other well, but Severus seems to talk to him just fine. Better than fine — they’re thick as thieves, those two. But I’ve known him for, what, almost five months now? And he was as awkward as anything over coffee.”

“You did mention you went to coffee. What did you think of him? Do I need to start reporting back to you?” Deborah teased, and Natalie laughed.

“I don’t think so, no. He’s nice — I rather like him in general. But, I don’t think I could ever get past the awkwardness. It’s just a bit excessive, for a man his age.”

“Bit excessive for any age, really. But you’re right, he seems like a good gent. When he’s not flustered like a schoolboy, at least.”

“It’s a pity, honestly. He’s so confident in our classes — it caught me off guard to see him stumble so much. And it’s so odd, because he’s usually so composed! But maybe he needs a friend around to feel comfortable with social things.”

“So composed? Really?” Deborah asked, her tone excessively skeptical. “Are we talking about the same Severus here?”

“Severus Snape, the long-haired professor who visits every Sunday? Well, I’d certainly hope so,” Natalie replied, kicking the brakes off on the cart. “You should see him in dance. You probably wouldn’t recognize him.”

“From the sounds of it, I think you might be right,” Deborah said, and they parted ways for an odd hour and a half or so, each going about their own tasks. But, when lunch came around, and they rejoined each other behind the check-out desk, their conversation resumed about where it had left off.

“I do somewhat envy you,” Deborah remarked wistfully, setting a tupperware of chicken salad on the table they kept toward the back of the desk space and taking her usual chair by the storage room door. “I love Dave, but I do miss getting to know other men. I feel like I only ever hang out with the girls, now.”

“I can imagine,” Natalie replied, taking a bite of her ham and salami sandwich.

“Don’t lose your male friends — that’s my advice. It gets old when you only have your husband to talk to.”

“Tell me about it,” complained a third voice, and both women glanced up to see Michael, the third librarian on shift today. He usually worked in the back room or cleaning shelves, but he joined them for lunch; Natalie liked him, as she did most everyone who worked in the library. “Laura gets jealous whenever I try to make plans with my female friends. Drives me nuts.”

“Well, you’re newly married. She’s still protective of you,” Deborah said, at the same time Natalie asked, “Have you talked about trust with her?”

“I’ve tried a few times,” Michael answered, responding to Natalie. “She’s not really paranoid as much as just clingy, I guess. It’s not too bad — yet, at least. But, you know, if I want to hang out with a friend I’ve known since primary school, I don’t want to have to justify it.”

“That’s rough,” Natalie said, and Deborah nodded sympathetically.

“Yeah, a bit. But, what’s this I hear about you meeting a new guy?” He asked, taking a seat with his lunch box so that they each sat on an adjacent side of the table, Natalie across from him. She was the one facing the desk, as usual; it would be her job to stand and greet any patrons coming in, as well as assist anyone checking out, but weekday mornings were notoriously slow, and she often got through lunch without more than one or two interruptions.

“Well, not meeting so much. But, y’know Severus?”

“The eccentric professor guy? Sorta. You dating him?”

“Definitely not,” Natalie answered, and Michael laughed, opening a bag of chips with a loud crinkle. “But, turns out, the Severus who comes here is the same Severus in my dance class — which, honestly, I probably should have figured out sooner, but I just never thought about it. Anyway, he and I went to coffee on Saturday.”

“And how’d that go?” Michael questioned, raising his sandy eyebrows.

“Decent, I guess. But he’s so awkward, I can’t even tell you. I almost felt bad for imposing, but he asked me, so I could hardly apologize,” Natalie lamented, and Deborah looked at her in shock.

“He asked you? I thought you asked him!”

“Well, I did, back in December. He was just busy. He asked if I wanted to grab one on Saturday, and I wasn’t gonna say no, I mean. Even if I’d wanted to — which I didn’t — it was his birthday, so . . . ”

“He asked you to coffee on his birthday?” Michael asked, looking incredulous. “That might be more than friends, Natalie.”

“It definitely isn’t. Do you know how old he is?” Both of them shook their heads, and Natalie gestured with a carrot stick, punctuating her words. “Thirty-nine. Just a tad old for me, don’tcha think?”

“Oh, that is old. He looks young!” Michael said, even as Deborah grumbled ‘that is old’ sarcastically under her breath. “I woulda guessed thirty.”

“I guessed thirty-two. But, yeah, he does. I could maybe ignore the age if he wasn’t so awkward, but . . . Well. I’m sure you’ve heard.”

“Yeah, a little bit,” Michael laughed, and he started in on a sub sandwich that he’d gotten from the quaint shop down the street. “Is he Jewish? I’ve wondered about that, but I’ve never asked him.”

“I’m not sure, but he’s never mentioned anything about it. He could be, I guess; he said his father’s name was Tobias, and that can be a Jewish name, can’t it? I don’t have a clue where ‘Snape’ comes from, though.”

“He does have a religious air about him, doesn’t he?” Deborah mused. “I suppose Severus could be a Roman name — I always assumed he was named after Saint Severus, though.”

“He said that his mother picked it because she liked the sound. Something about dramatic names . . . ?” Natalie furrowed her brow, trying to remember, then brandished a carrot stick in triumph. “That’s what it was! His mother’s maiden name was Prince, and they liked to dramatize that. But he described it as a Roman name to me.”

“That would explain why he looked at me like I was speaking Greek when I asked him if he meant Severus as in the saint,” Deborah chuckled, starting in on a small bag of sliced apples. “Did he tell you what he teaches? I don’t think he’s ever mentioned it to me.”

“He said he teaches magical history, of a sort. Something about historical beliefs about magic and the supernatural? He didn’t say much about it,” Natalie recalled, thinking of how awkward Severus had seemed when she’d brought up the subject.

“Maybe social studies or religious history, then? I can imagine he might fumble around that a bit,” Deborah replied, and Natalie nodded emphatically. “I suppose he does strike me as a bit ‘olde worlde.’ ”

“Would you believe he said he started out teaching pharmaceuticals? Apparently, he was some sort of prodigy, and he got hired early by the school

He was saying something to Lucius, too quietly for her to hear, but she saw him shake his head in a distressed motion, his intense black eyes pleading with the taller man’s resigned look. She really wished she knew what he was saying, but she wasn’t so curious as to abandon tact and eavesdrop on them. So, she waited until Lucius whispered something back, letting out a visible sigh, and Severus looked down at the ground in shame, their conversation lapsing.

After a moment, both turned to get their things, clearly intending to leave. This was it — Natalie knew she had to act now, before this went on for another week.

Gathering her courage, she stepped up to Severus, tapping his shoulder to gain his attention.

“Severus, wait,” she stated, and the thin professor flinched, looking alarmed to see her talking to him. Lucius watched from off to the side, raising his eyebrows ever so slightly but not commenting, as she’d hoped. “We need to talk.”

“We do?” Severus couldn’t quite hide his discomfort.

“Yes,” she said firmly, refusing to back down, though she lowered her voice so as to not clue the whole room in on the conversation. “You ran out on me. Why?”

“Er — ” Severus glanced at Lucius, as if looking for help, but the older man was feigning ignorance; Natalie saw the disgruntled expression that flashed over Severus’ face at his friend’s antics and made a mental note to thank Lucius for not getting involved. “Well, I — I, um — ” Severus stammered, his eyes darting around the room, where they were attracting rather a lot of attention by way of their unusual proximity.

“If you don’t want to talk here, then fine. I’m free. I’ve got all day to wait,” she told him stubbornly, seeing that Severus was looking for a way to weasel out of this.

“Um, well, actually — ”

“Oh, that’s convenient,” Lucius interjected, suddenly appearing over the awkward professor’s shoulder. “Severus is free today, too, of course.”

Severus gave his friend a look that could have killed Natalie on the spot, but the blonde man only smiled, gesturing ever so faintly in her direction.

“Talk to her,” Lucius hissed in a whisper that she only barely caught, and Severus’ expression rapidly turned to one of horror.

Wonderful, thought Natalie grimly.

“Well, then, I’ll be off!” Lucius announced to the room at large, dusting off his coat before Severus could protest — or, judging by his expression, commit murder. “I do hope to see you all next week. Toodles!” And he swept out the door, a wicked grin on his face as several women called out friendly farewells.

Severus looked outraged.

“That sneaky, conniving, back-stabbing snake!” He seethed, and Natalie raised an eyebrow, giving him a cool look — he seemed to have forgotten her in his moment of almost comically child appropriate swearing.

“But aren’t all Slytherins snakes?”

Severus froze, looking back at her with utter dread and horror, and Natalie raised her eyebrow still higher.

“I am assuming, of course, that he was in Salazar Slytherin’s House of the Serpent? Which, funnily enough, I can’t seem to find any information on, no matter how much I search the — ”

“Alright, alright,” Severus said almost desperately, raising both of his hands in surrender. “I’ll come with you.”

“Good. Coffee. Now.”

She marched Severus out of the room and through the lobby, steering him down the sidewalk with a firm hand on his shoulder. Suddenly, she was simmering with anger, which was starting to boil over the lid she’d kept on it all week.

“Why did you lie to me?” She demanded once they were out in the air, and Severus glanced down, averting his eyes. “Why not just tell me you didn’t want to talk?”

Severus remained silent, staring at the sidewalk, and she felt herself getting still angrier.

“Why, Severus? What’s going on? Why does Lucius always seem to know what you’re talking about? Are you lying to him, too? Is this some ongoing joke at everyone else’s expense? Where does it even end?” She was becoming upset now, a feeling of genuine hurt in her chest, but still Severus wouldn’t meet her gaze. “Has everything been a lie? How do I know that anything I know about you is true? How — how do I know that Severus is even your real name?”

The thought struck her in the moment, but it hit her like a ton of bricks, so much worse than any lie before.

Of course, she thought bitterly. She’d thought from the beginning that Severus was such an unusual name, and it made sense that it would fit with his colleagues, who were all fictional creations.

For, she hadn’t been able to find anything on any of them. Not professional profiles, not degrees, not teacher-of-the-year awards — nothing. Not even a record that someone by the name of Filius Flitwick or Rubeus Hagrid had ever existed in Britain. She had found a 1960 birth announcement for one Severus Snape, but how could she know that that had been him? After all, there had been no record for one Lucius Malfoy, no matter how many years back she checked.

“It’s — it’s not a lie.”

Severus’ voice was resigned, defeated, and Natalie felt her emotions freeze.

Don’t tell me, she thought numbly. He believes this?

Somehow, the idea was even worse. How could she not have realized that Severus was crazy? How hadn’t Lucius? Or, was Lucius crazy, too?

“I know what you’re thinking,” Severus sighed, sounding very tired. “I’m not insane.”

“How do wizards fight?” Natalie asked, for lack of a more coherent question.

“Usually, in duels, which are very dangerous. I was a special case, however; I was a double agent, so I was rarely involved in duels, to avoid blowing my cover. I did assist the Aurors, who are Dark-Wizard catchers, in hunting down Death Eaters — the primary force of the other side — after the war, though. I am… actually a remarkably accomplished duelist,” Severus said, looking almost embarrassed.

Natalie was really starting to be sick of feeling bewildered.

“How powerful is magic?” She asked, dropping her tone so that those around them didn’t hear. “Can — can it kill people?”

“Easily,” Severus answered gravely, and she watched as he reached toward his bare forearm — and gaped as he pulled a carved, wooden stick from thin air. “This is my wand; using it, I could Transfigure this table into an elephant. I could Levitate a car, Summon an object from ten kilometers away, or Stun someone with only a mere incantation.”

Natalie’s brain could not accept this.

“But — but — you can’t possibly turn a table into an elephant! That goes against the Law of Conservation of Matter!” She protested, and Severus’ lips quirked into a wry grin.

“Well, by those laws, I can’t transform a coffee lid into a flower, either,” he pointed out, and Natalie was forced to acknowledge that, yes, that was true.

She felt absolutely and completely stumped.

“How does the world not know about this?” She asked, her next fall back in trying to deny the things that he’d shown her.

“Oh, it does. The Prime Minister and other world leaders are informed, though you can understand why they’d never dare tell a soul,” Severus replied, and she stared at him, willing the past ten minutes to make sense. “That’s — well, that’s why I’m telling you now, actually. There’s a Wizarding Law called the International Statute of Secrecy, which, strictly, forbids any witch or wizard from telling a Muggle, someone who can’t use magic and who doesn’t come from a magical bloodline, about magic. However — ”

He hesitated, and she couldn’t help noticing that he seemed rather nervous about this part. Dismayed, she wondered what could possibly be even weirder than what he’d told her already.

“However, this law is generally waived if a witch or wizard can prove that there was reasonable expectation of becoming legally related to said Muggle,” Severus continued, his cheeks tinging a light red color.

Natalie was confused. What could he possibly —

“Oh,” she realized, and he fidgeted with his hands, picking at his thumbnail for a moment before he stopped himself.

“I mean — I know we’re not — but, since we’ve been ‘going out’ recently, I figured it looks enough like — anyway, I didn’t want to keep lying to you,” he mumbled, and Natalie almost laughed at how embarrassed he looked. “I — there’s magic I can use, to erase memories, but… I respect you, as a person, and I didn’t want to use that if there were any alternatives. I still can, though, if you’d prefer to forget what I’ve — ”

“No,” Natalie said immediately, cutting him off. “I want to remember this. Even if I’m — and I am — rather confused at the moment.”

Severus nodded meekly.

“Tell me more about this — this statute,” she requested, wanting to get the conversation away from memory erasure, the idea of which unsettled her greatly.

“Well, it used to be that a witch or wizard could only tell a Muggle after they’d married them, but… You can understand why that didn’t always result in a happy marriage,” Severus said awkwardly, and Natalie nodded emphatically.

The way today was going, she could more than imagine.

“So, in more recent years, as long as the Muggle doesn’t go stirring up trouble, trying to tell other Muggles and whatnot, the law generally looks the other way,” Severus explained, the color in his cheeks fading slightly.

“And you think that’s what will happen with me? I promise I won’t tell anyone,” Natalie added hastily, and Severus managed a small smile.

“Well, I am close acquaintances with the Minister of Magic, so I feel reasonably confident that he won’t cite me,” he replied, and Natalie’s jaw dropped.

“You’re — ? How do you know the Minister of Magic? Isn’t that — isn’t that like the Minister in the non-magical world?”

“He and I were members of the same small resistance force against the Dark Lord — er, Lord Voldemort, that is,” he corrected himself, and she saw how he shuddered at the name. “Kingsley Shacklebolt; he was an Auror, but he became acting Minister when the war ended, and he was voted into office not long after. He and I were in the Order of the Phoenix together, which was primarily led by Albus Dumbledore, the greatest ‘good’ wizard of this age. Kingsley and I were never particularly close, of course,” he added, swirling his coffee, “but I think he’s warmed up to me since then. He’s always polite to me, at least, and he advocated for my receiving the Order of Merlin, First Class.”

“Is that a Wizarding award?” Natalie asked, curious. She was trying to imagine knowing the Minister personally, but her mind was already having more than enough trouble wrapping itself around the whole ‘magic’ revelation — she dropped the train of thought.

“Yes, the most prestigious one, actually; in Muggle terms, I guess it’s about equivalent to a Knighthood. I was one of only five people to receive it after the war,” Severus answered, and she looked at him, genuinely impressed. “I — well, honestly, it’s more trouble than it’s worth, but I was one of the two main factors in our side winning the war, and I’ve picked up rather a lot of public recognition since then.”

He sounded almost annoyed at the thought, and Natalie blinked.

“You’re famous?”

“Among the Wizarding World, yes. Hence why I’m taking a Muggle dance class, to escape from all of that,” he replied, rolling his eyes. “It’s really not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“You’re… a famous wizard?” The question sounded inane coming out of her mouth. “You’ll — you’ll have to forgive me, this is just a lot to take in,” she added apologetically, and Severus gave her the closest attempt to a kind smile that she’d ever seen on him.

“I — well, no, I don’t understand,” he amended, fidgeting with his hands. “But, you’re not the only person who has difficulty believing all of this. There’s a reason why I never sign up to go explain magic and Hogwarts to the family of a school-age Muggleborn. That is, a magical child born to Muggle parents,” he explained, and Natalie took a moment to absorb the implications of that.

“Two Muggles can have a child that can use magic?” She asked faintly, and Severus nodded. “Does — does that happen often?”

“Very rarely, but it does occur,” he answered, and she shook herself, telling herself firmly to get her head back in the game.

“What are the statistics of that? What are the risk factors?” She questioned, her mind already whirring, and now it was Severus’ turn to look at her in confusion.

“Statistics?”

Natalie stared at him.

“Yes, statistics. The study of — of data, which can tell you how frequently something occurs. Don’t they teach statistics at Hogwarts?” She asked slowly, and Severus’ smile turned wry.

“You seem to have a rather high opinion of the amount of common sense present in the average wizard,” he responded, twirling his wand once before setting it back on the table. “Unfortunately, the magical world isn’t known for its logical sensibilities — as I can attest, having lived in both. Many things Muggles consider given, such as math classes or, say, a monetary system where the largest currency is divisible by more than two-digit prime numbers, are sorely lacking. Hell, even in government, Kingsley is the first semi-competent Minister we’ve had in decades.”

In light of learning how ridiculously powerful magic was, this was not encouraging news to Natalie.

“So, if wizards don’t learn Muggle subjects… Do you or do you not have a doctorate?” She knew there were a thousand more important questions that she should be asking, but, honestly, at the moment, she didn’t care. She just wanted to know how much of Severus’ story before today had been true.

“I have a Mastery in Potions, which is the highest achievable certification. It’s different than a Master’s in the Muggle world, though it takes about as long; I would say it’s considerably more difficult. It has a research component like a Muggle doctorate, and it’s necessary to hold certain positions and brew certain potions, so a doctorate is the closest equivalent I can think of,” Severus explained, shrugging his thin shoulders apologetically. “Most wizards go directly into a career field after Hogwarts and receive a few years of job training, so Masterys are rather rare. Including me, only four people in Wizarding Britain have one in Potions.”

“He’s going to make himself useful and carry a message up to the castle so that Minerva knows that I’ve brought a guest. Aren’t you?”

This question was fondly directed at the raven, which ruffled its feathers again.

Expecto Nuntium: Good afternoon, Minerva. A friend of mine is visiting from London, and I’ve invited her to the castle. If you’d like to meet her, we’ll be up in about an hour; we’re going to visit some of Hogsmeade first. I mention it because I think you might get on well,” he added with a slight glance at Natalie, who wasn’t sure what he meant by that or whether she should be flattered.

The raven, apparently having accepted this message, flew off, and Natalie squinted against the sunlight to follow its progress until it disappeared into the vividly blue sky.

Not a minute later, though, something caught her eye, and she pointed it out to Severus, watching in amazement as a silver cat bounded across the grass toward them. The cat stopped gracefully at their feet, and Natalie jumped as it spoke in a human voice.

“I’d be glad to meet her, Severus,” the cat said, her voice crisp and no-nonsense, though with a caring undertone. “Pomona, Rubeus, and I are in the Three Broomsticks right now, so we’d be happy to walk up with you. Just let us know when you’re passing by.”

“Oh, of course it’s a Hogsmeade weekend,” Severus realized with a groan, and Natalie looked at him in confusion as the cat vanished into thin air. “That means the village will be chock full of students. Third years and above are allowed to visit the village on occasion,” he explained, seeing her bewilderment. “I don’t usually participate, especially with our class every Saturday, but Rubeus likes to go — he invites me every time it rolls around, helps keep an eye on the students and all that.”

“Is that a problem?” Natalie asked, and Severus shook his head.

“No, but it does mean you’ll garner a lot of attention, walking around with me,” he answered, looking disgruntled at the thought.

“Because you’re famous?” Natalie could hardly believe that she’d learned about all this only an hour or so ago, but the conversation was still vivid in her mind.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Severus sighed. “Not among the students, of course, but they’ll be interested to see me with someone they don’t recognize. I have an idea, though.

Outtakes - Chapter 1 - ShadowAceSeverus - Harry Potter (2024)

References

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Nicola Considine CPA

Last Updated:

Views: 6323

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (49 voted)

Reviews: 80% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Nicola Considine CPA

Birthday: 1993-02-26

Address: 3809 Clinton Inlet, East Aleisha, UT 46318-2392

Phone: +2681424145499

Job: Government Technician

Hobby: Calligraphy, Lego building, Worldbuilding, Shooting, Bird watching, Shopping, Cooking

Introduction: My name is Nicola Considine CPA, I am a determined, witty, powerful, brainy, open, smiling, proud person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.