"When at last Vertumnus revealed himself just as he was, much to his surprise, he had no need of words. Pomona was happy with what she saw, unadorned and undisguised. Soon enough, the vine was clinging to the tree." Metamorphoses, adapted by Mary Zimmerman from Ovid
I turned to face him and leaned back against the sink. "I was raised much like this, you know," I gently chided him. "I can't imagine why you thought I'd be shocked."
"I suspected you'd been. I've looked through your photograph album."
Without asking permission, of course.
He sighed and held out my bag. "There should be an ewer of hot water in the bedroom if you'd care to wash. I'll set out the supper things while you do."
I expected he needed some time alone, so I took the bag without comment and went up the rickety stairs to the second floor. Spot on: two doors only, and not a bath or loo in sight. There must be a tin tub, somewhere, for Sunday baths in front of the kitchen fire.
The door to the larger bedroom was open, and I stepped in to set down the bag. Winky and Dobby had lit a fire here as well, to dispel the chill and damp and to air the linens. It was small but comfortable, and obviously an adult's room.
I couldn't resist. I stepped across the hall and eased open the other door: the room that must have been Severus'.
There was nothing there but a narrow mattress with an iron bedstead and a tiny chest of drawers and wash stand. No desk, no pictures, no books. Nothing to tell me the kind of child he'd been. It had been wiped clean: erased. As if his childhood had never existed.
I carefully closed the door -- no squeaks, thank goodness, to tip him off that I was nosing around -- and returned to the other room and washed my face and hands. I eyed the bed warily, and tested it: feather mattress, no box spring. I confess I've always wanted to sleep in a real featherbed, and it appeared I would finally get the chance, but I feared for the state of my back in the morning. (For purely mundane reasons -- not, I'm sure, the one you were just thinking: I wasn't at all certain at this point that he'd be in the mood.)
It's both intriguing and annoying, this wizarding refusal to assimilate some modern conveniences. It was rather like living in a period drama at times, and could be quite fun, but at some point you longed to say 'uncle,' and go back to what was, for you, normal. While the rest of Britain has embraced central heating, for example, wizards remain adamantly in the mid-nineteenth century with wood and coal fires. Some of it made sense -- there wasn't a great deal of industry in the Wizarding World, so if you had a yen for plastics (for some odd reason), you had to acquire them from the Muggle World (Severus would have a dim view of plastics, I'm quite certain). However, I suspected that the reason was more of a cultural mindset: I could see why they might avoid disposible biros, but why they stuck to quills rather than fountain pens was still a mystery to me. At least most places, unlike the cottage, had fairly modern baths and kitchens now -- even the Burrow had had a modern loo tucked under the eaves where the older boys' room had been.
But the Gatekeeper's cottage was extreme: two rooms down and two up; no running water, and a privy out back; bare stone walls with a faint, fading coat of limewash; a featherbed, and a wash stand and ewer that must have predated Albus Dumbledore. The Burrow had been luxurious, compared to this -- and had had the added benefit of considerable charm, while this had none.
And my brilliant, driven husband had been raised here, a stone's throw from what was once, by comparison, a palace.
I shook away the dark mood and the sympathy all this had roused -- Severus wouldn't appreciate it -- and unpacked my bag, carefully setting aside the bottles and his little bundle (no, I didn't peek, but it felt like a bound book). Then, with nothing better to do, I sat in the rocker by the tiny window under the eaves, and waited.
He called up eventually. "Have you fallen asleep?"
"No -- just resting." I scrambled up and hurried down the stairs.
He'd drawn the table over by the fire in the main room, and sat me at it with a curious formality -- as if to emphasise the distinction between the shabbiness of his past, and the absolutely proper and formal man he was now -- and we ate in silence. I didn't push him: I knew he was struggling with something, and would have to tell me whatever it was in his own way and time. The Elves had managed to leave a quite respectable meal, and it only served to impress me further with the incongruity of all this: this was a place meant to be filled with the smells of dark, homemade bread, shepherd's pie, mashed veg, and Guinness -- not duck in aspic and the last bottle of Severus' South American wine.
It was getting dark: we finished eating, and I rose to clear the table, moved to the kitchen, and stacked the plates to the side of the sink.
"Leave it," he called after me. "They'll be in come morning, to clean up down here."
No problem. I hate doing dishes. And besides, I hadn't figured out where the well was. Or pump -- whichever it was.
Severus had lit the candles and fed the fire while I was in the other room, and refilled my glass before shedding his topcoat and settling in the worn wing chair next to the fire. I sat on the threadbare sofa, toed off my trainers, tucked my feet under me -- which he usually deplored, but chose to ignore tonight -- and waited.
For fifteen minutes.
I couldn't stand it anymore.
"I take it, then," I said softly and cautiously, "that you were pulling my leg about the nanny."
"Not entirely." His mouth twitched -- good: he wasn't averse to talking, then, he just wasn't going to start the conversation. "I was educated at the Hall, with my cousin. He was only two years older, and I was quick for my age. She was, as it happens, an Irishwoman. No comments, please," he said with a dry look askance at me, "regarding that Freud person."
"Don't look at me -- I think most of his theories stink."
He grunted in agreement. "Nanny Moira. She was huge, bigger than Sprout, and smelt of liquorice, and she smacked my hands with her wand when my nails were dirty -- and they often were. She was very kind, nonetheless."
He rolled his glass between his palms, staring into the dregs, and finally decided to start at the beginning.
"My father," he said softly, "was not a practical man. Arthur's a model of efficiency and common sense, in comparison. He was a scholar -- an astronomer, and he dabbled in arithmancy. He'd made some stunning discoveries as a young man -- many of the modern wards and Unplottable charms that protect Hogwarts are derived from his early work, in fact. There's no question that I owe my intelligence to his genetic contribution." He raised his eyes and stared off into the middle distance, and the lines etched at the corners of his mouth deepened.
"He did not, however, have the perspicacity to protect his work, or the business sense to market it. His sole concern was the work itself, and the older he grew, the more he deluded himself in chasing after unattainable theories and speculations. He was a don at Salisbury until his obsession with one particular theory got him sacked, for grossly neglecting his teaching duties. I was five... or six, I'm not certain. I can barely remember it.
"So, with no job and no income from his earlier discoveries, we were destitute. He hadn't laid a single knut by. And my mother -- who, to give her credit, had kept us afloat until then -- finally had enough of living with a dreamer incapable of considering or providing for the absolute necessities of life. She left us. Simply picked up her wand one day and Apparated out. I do not know where she went, and I don't want to." He smiled wryly. "I've been told she was charming and intelligent, but quite impatient. Presumably that's where I acquired the latter trait."
He sat quietly for a while, re-ordering his thoughts before continuing.
"Whatever negative things one can say about the pureblood families, it must be admitted that they take care of their own. Father's uncle offered him the position here, as the gatekeeper, and we moved from Avebury. He might have offered outright charity, but this gave my father the dignity of a real position, at least, and one that wasn't arduous. The Snapes are not -- were not, the most sociable of the families, and visitors were few and far between -- the estate manager, mostly, a Muggle, because the home farm was run by Muggles. Glamour was used to conceal the more obvious wizarding aspects of life at the Hall, and the Elves were confined to belowstairs unless specifically called. The Lords Snape were simply considered eccentric Muggle recluses.
"So my father spent the rest of his days -- not many, he for he became rather ill shortly after I was born -- in this room, at that desk, pouring over his astral charts and celestial readings, doing increasingly complex and incomprehensible calculations, and acknowledging my existence as little as possible. And I --" he added softly, "-- a wild child, I had the run of the estate, when I wasn't in the schoolroom or the potions garden. And I was determined that I would not end up a poor, useless, deluded, powerless man, dependent on others.
"So now you know. Not all, certainly, but perhaps enough."
I nodded slowly. "I think so."
"And you understand, now, why your antipathy toward the higher social orders amused me."
"Yes. And I'm rather sorry for that idiotic tease about your mother."
"You couldn't have known, and I didn't take it amiss, in any case." He dismissed the apology. "It's common knowledge in pureblood society, of course. I've been less than forthcoming with you about my past -- unreasonably, in this instance, and it was time to remedy that situation. You deserve it."
"Thank you. It's difficult for you, I know."
"It shouldn't be. Not with you. But reversing a lifetime's reticence is proving challenging," he admitted.
"I know that," I said patiently. "I've accepted the fact that I have forty years of occasional confessions coming, and I can live with it. I'd rather miss them, I think -- it helps maintain that alluring air of mystery about you. It's not the greatest of your charms, but it helps."
He usually responded to comments like that with derision and self-deprecation, but tonight he was too tired, I think, from preparing himself for his revelation. Instead he smiled sweetly, set his glass on the table, and leaned forward to pull me from the sofa and into his lap.
Eventually his voice rumbled in my ear, where it lay against his chest.
"You have an opinion on everything. I'm curious."
"I think," I said reflectively, "that the Gatekeeper's son has done very well for himself -- exceptionally well, considering, and on his own merits, too. But..." I paused, to sort through the next bit.
He shifted under me a little, perhaps alarmed, and his hands froze on my back and hip.
"... I have to admit that it doesn't make much difference, overall. I don't respect and love him any more or less than I do Lord Snape, it appears."
It must have been the right thing to say, because he proceeded to show me precisely how much he appreciated it.
The fire had burned rather lower by the time he'd finished expressing himself -- for the moment, at least.
"I'm tired, Severus," I said softly, when I'd caught my breath. "And I want to see the rest of the house tomorrow, and walk in the orchard. Take me to bed."
The sheets and pillows in that sorry cottage were thin and ancient, but they still smelled faintly of lavender and marjoram.
And my fears about the feather mattress were totally unfounded.
It had been beautiful, once. Very plain, of course -- the cross-timbered, white walls (sooty, now) weren't conducive to the grandeur one sees in some of the houses that had undergone renovations in later periods -- or worse, fiddling by architects intent on mimicking earlier periods. It was the genuine article, elegant in its simplicity.
"There are a few tapestries and portraits, in storage at Gringotts," Severus told me. "The library didn't fare as well. Most of the books survived, but Matthew needed money and sold many of them over the course of the years. My cousin," he added in response to my look. "Fled to the Continent after the fire. He would have sold the estate, I think, had it not been entailed."
"So the fire was deliberate?"
"Yes. Death Eaters. Matthew refused to join or support Voldemort in any way." Severus grimaced as he stepped over shards of glass from a broken window, and leaned against the sill. "Voldemort wasn't pleased that the head of such an old family refused to join -- bad example to the other pureblood families. So we were directed to raze the place to the ground and make an example of Matthew."
I managed not to blurt out 'We?', but he knew it was coming, and continued dispassionately.
"It was assumed that I would participate -- certainly out of duty, but out of... contempt as well, and for the purpose of acquiring the title. At the time I made no secret of my feelings about the injustice of my situation."
"Did you warn him?" I asked quietly.
"Yes. Which is why no one died that night, and why the worst damage was confined the the kitchen wing." He stared out the window for a moment. "At least I wasn't prepared to see him die, though I was still deeply committed to Voldemort at the time. But I was glad to see him get his comeuppance. We did not get on at all -- I resented the privilege he enjoyed from birth, and he returned the sentiment with contempt." He smiled wanly. "Somehow he missed out on his grandfather's innate decency and compassion. Aloysius was always kind, if distant, to me."
"Children are often cruel, until they learn better. I take it, though, that it didn't improve at school?"
He shook his head. "No opportunity. Aloysius sent him to Beauxbatons. He knew Hogwarts was a training ground for young Death Eaters. He wouldn't have been in my Form, in any case."
Aloysius, Lord Snape, was Severus' fathers' uncle, and his son, Marcus, had managed to provide the estate with an heir, Matthew, before getting himself killed somehow or another. The old Lord had died before Matthew was out of Beauxbatons. Why Matthew hadn't had any children, passing the title to Severus, was still an open question.
"Is that why you don't use the title?"
"Guilt over this? No."
A beating outside at the window drew our attention, and Severus opened the rusty casement to let in Lenore. She'd joined us last night, with a note from McGonagall. Nothing we'd had to worry about -- though it appears Alastor had let slip to Minerva that we were married. Severus had some explaining to do when we returned to Hogwarts.
Lenore hopped onto Severus' shoulder, crooning at him, and he absently stroked her plumage as he continued. "More the accident of birth feeling, I suppose. I didn't earn it and I wasn't raised to have expectations of it. Nor did I think Matthew would die so soon, and without a child -- just three years ago, shortly before you came to Hogwarts, in fact -- Lenore," he said irritably, untangling her beak from his hair.
Lenore was unusually affectionate with him -- painful to him in more ways than one, as she sometimes pulled out strands of his hair. I imagine she lined her nest with it, if she had one -- I don't know if she had a mate: I'd never seen her with one. Severus never disciplined her for yanking away other than a sharp word or two when it stung -- and I knew it did, as she'd tried it with me, once. I considered it a sign of acceptance as much as raven acquisitiveness -- but I let her know I didn't appreciate the sensation, as much as I did the sentiment. I think she was intelligent enough to understand.
"He was married, before you ask," Severus said when he'd settled Lenore down. "I don't know why they didn't have children. If it was a physical problem he might have divorced -- that's really the only socially-acceptable reason for it, in the pureblood families -- but if it was, he had the decency not to do so."
"Where did they go?"
"Italy, near Florence. I expected Rouen -- he'd know that area, from Beauxbatons. But perhaps that was too close to home for comfort. He wrote a few times. Appreciated the warning, although I'm sure he questioned my motives. Rightly so."
Lenore shifted uneasily on his shoulder, and then sneezed.
"I agree, Lenore. The soot's wreaking havoc with my sinuses." He pushed off from the sill, and we carefully picked our way back down to the Stillroom and out to the potions garden.
"I never expected to survive this long myself, you see," he finally volunteered when we'd seated ourselves on a lichen-covered bench, in one corner: Lenore launched herself off his shoulder and strutted around the garden, poking her beak into intriguing-looking crevices and piles of brush. "And it's been a peripatetic life in any case. I never expected to have anything like a home, or the need for means to provide for it. Heart's Solace was my one concession to that, and it was more a bolt-hole for when the students got to me too much."
I had to laugh at that. He made much of his disgust for the majority of his students. (I'm not saying that it wasn't real, but I do know that he enjoyed teaching -- at least the few like Granger and Finnegan who had talent and some drive. Though Granger was in a class all her own.)
"What will happen to it, assuming we don't have children?"
"It will go to the Crown just as a Muggle estate would, unless the entail could be broken somehow. The title and lands go back far enough, from before the time the two societies began to split for good -- that was sometime around 1600, I think, when the first effective long-term Unplottable charms were developed."
I paused for a moment.
"You're plotting, when you go into a trance like that."
"Oh. No, I was just thinking that would explain a lot. That's always been considered England's Golden Age, you know -- that period of Elizabeth's reign -- with the great explorers, and the great dramatists and writers all clustered in that short time. And then after 1600 or thereabouts, there's a sharp drop-off in quantity and quality. I just wondered if it were significant, sociologically speaking -- the date in the wizarding texts is always given as 1692."
"That's when it was officially legislated. But it's possible -- though Muggles have always outstripped us in the fine arts, Marlowe being the notable exception." He raised a hand to cut me off. "That's what my foray in there was about yesterday -- I'll let you read it for yourself tonight. You'll have a better appreciation for the historical significance than I."
Oh, good. It wasn't fair of him to have thrown Marlowe at me yesterday, and then to have forgotten all about it.
"It might be nice to fix the Gatehouse up a bit, at least," I said hesitantly. "Running water, definitely. It could be handy, for much the same reason as Heart's Solace. Arthur and Molly seem so firmly established there, it would be a shame to ask them to leave."
"Were our finances in any shape to do it -- and they're not." (By which he meant his -- we hadn't gotten as far as merging our bank accounts, and likely wouldn't now, with the situation at Gringotts.) "And I've already siphoned much of the proceeds from the home farm to Hogwarts, under the circumstances. As I said, the estate's entailed or I'd have dispensed with it by now."
"It might not be that difficult, depending on how long this all drags out," I said absently, and determinedly shoved the possibility that he wouldn't survive it to the back of my mind.
"What do you mean?" he asked, and shifted to face me, suspicious. "Don't tell me you've been hiding a fortune from me."
Well, the cat was out of the bag now.
"Albus left me a little bequest," I admitted sheepishly. "It's tied up now too, for the same reasons -- but I don't think he'd mind me using a bit of it later. In recognition of the effort you've put into everything."
"How much is a little?" he asked, trepidatious.
I told him. He choked.
"Wh-- why in bloody --" he stuttered. "I realise he was very fond of you, but..."
"I think he suspected I'd move it from Gringotts -- which is precisely what I did first thing, well before the seige. I'm the proud owner of a Swiss bank account, and Climpson and Percy have been managing the transfers and accounting for me."
"That's how Percy's been pulling so many rabbits from the hat, then," Severus muttered. "I wondered -- I couldn't see how the faculty and staff were still getting half-pay, but I hesitated to ask Minerva. Good gods."
"We've tried to be cautious, but I'm afraid it won't last much longer at this rate -- we're just ready to start in on the principal. I'd hate to lose the war all for the want of a nail."
He shook his head. "Use it. Use it all. We'll deal with poverty later if we must. Life won't be worth living, otherwise."
"That was more or less what I thought, too."
"Why didn't you tell me before?"
"I thought you might go all funny and insist it was mine and shouldn't be used, etcetera. His letter was quite clear, though, at least to me -- he intended me for a steward."
"Well, now you know I wouldn't have. I think." He knitted his brows a bit, puzzled as to what he should have thought of it a few months ago, and then gave up. "He left me a bloody Pensieve, as it happens."
"The Grindelwald one?" I asked
"Don't know -- I haven't looked."
Probably afraid he'd see himself.
"I really think you should. If it's what I think, I know he regretted not telling you about it."
"I'll consider it when we get back," he conceded.
"Which is --?" I asked delicately. "Tonight, or can we afford to wait until morning?"
"First thing tomorrow -- early enough for a decent clean-up and breakfast. Now that Lenore's here Dobby can reach us if Minerva needs me before morning."
I'd like to think it he was determined to stay solely for the pleasure of my company, but I knew he wasn't going to face Minerva until the last possible moment, if he could help it. She was going to twit him unmercifully for not letting her know he'd married me. She wasn't nearly as seemingly omniscient as Albus -- not yet, at least.
He rose from the bench, pulling me with him. "Come along -- you wanted to walk the orchard. Best do it while there's still enough light." He whistled for Lenore, and the three of us moved on to the apple orchard.
"Mmmmmmm. Sweet dreams."
Severus paused, and then continued his hints in my left ear, leaning over the back of the sofa. "I had hoped to have company."
"You can't put something like this in my hands and expect me to drop it at a moment's notice," I noted mildly, and carefully turned a brittle page.
Warm hands slid down my sides and under the edge of my pullover. "You are on the verge of convincing me that familiarity breeds contempt."
"Not likely," I snorted, and squinted hard at an illegible squiggle on the page. "Besides, I have to play hard-to-get occasionally, or you'll come to the same conclusion."
"Not likely. And Happy Belated Natal Day, by the by, though it's disconcerting that you seem to value your present more than you do my company."
"How did you --? Oh, forget it, you checked my employment file. The Deputy Head strikes again."
"Privilege and Authority have their advantages." Clever fingers played over my ribs, moving upward.
Lenore -- huddled up in a corner of the wing chair -- gave a disgusted little burble, glared at us, and shoved her head further under her wing.
"See? Even Lenore thinks you have only one thing on your mind."
"Lenore is correct, not that it's any of her business."
"Admit it -- it's chilly up there, and you want a human hot water bottle."
"That, too. I've gotten rather used to it. Cruel of you to deny me it now." He bent his head to my neck, strands of hair tickling my collarbone.
"Oh, all right. It's my last night to sleep in a featherbed, for a while, anyway. Might as well make the most of it."
I put Christopher Marlowe's last journal on the table with rather more haste and less respect than it deserved, and followed Severus to bed before we squicked Lenore further.
Minerva was very, very unhappy with us: the shrillness of her voice made me wince. She'd managed to restrain herself through breakfast, and now we were getting the accumulated frustration full force.
"What if the students had seen the two of you sneaking about? What kind of example does that set?"
"None whatever, Minerva," Severus retorted. "'Sneaking' has not been necessary --"
"Been taking advantage of the floo connection, have you?" she pounced on his comment -- correct assumption, too. "You know very well that's not what it's intended for, young man."
You always knew you were in deep trouble with Minerva when she called you 'young' anything. Especially if you were a wizard in your early forties and she was your former teacher and current superior.
"Damn it, Minerva, we are married," Severus bellowed. "Not by Handfasting, but married nonetheless. It's a reasonable compromise, in the circumstances."
"Not by Hand--" she was horrified. "You didn't go to some Muggle registry office, did you? Or --"
Her eyes suddenly softened. "Oh, Severus, you didn't invoke Conligabimus Aeternus, did you?"
He must have, whatever it was: he looked exceedingly embarrassed, as well he should. He'd refused to explain the Binding Ceremony to me, other than assuring me it was entirely legal and, in this instance, appropriate -- whatever that meant. I hadn't been able to find anything useful in the library so I was still in the dark.
"Oh, dear boy you should have said, and I should have known. I felt the wards strengthen, but I didn't make the connection between the two of you or, ah, that particular activity," she said apologetically, pinking up nicely, and then recollected her ire and sniffed. "You might have warned me, nonetheless."
"I hadn't planned it, it just happened," he muttered, and strode to the window, his back to us.
"Around October 27th, then, was it?" she asked me.
"Or 28th. I didn't have the presence of mind to check the clock," I said dryly, and her cheeks went red again.
"Well I suppose felicitations are in order, then, on both the marriage and the successful ritual."
"I wish someone would tell me what all the fuss is about," I said impatiently.
"He hasn't told you?"
I snorted ('Are you joking?') and jerked my head toward Severus.
"Oh, quite," she admitted with a sigh. We were, after all, discussing our favourite Slytherin, who was currently quite pink about the ears and cheeks himself. She hesitated, and then determined what to do next. "Well, under the circumstances, I retract the vehemence. Off with you, Severus. Miranda and I have business to discuss."
He shot her a glare. "You are not going to gossip with her about --"
"Business, Severus, business."
"I told him," I informed her. "Just this weekend."
"Good. I never understood why you hadn't before. Nonetheless, this is simply a boring necessity, but it may take a while, Severus. Get along with you."
He left the room, shooting another glare at Minerva.
She settled back in her chair with a sigh. "My word." She called for an Elf -- she didn't have Albus' way with simply waving comestibles into existence -- and ordered us tea.
"Please don't twit him too much about it, Headmistress. I honestly don't think he planned it," I said determinedly, ignoring the fact that Severus would not appreciate me continuing the discussion.
"You can drop 'Headmistress' immediately," she said severely. "You're not in nearly the trouble he is -- I can't imagine he gave you any notice, did he? No, I didn't think so. Don't worry about him, he's very pleased with himself right now for pulling the wool over my eyes this long -- he's always delighted in that, as long as I've known him. Probably thinks he's gotten back at me for Black," she grumbled. "And he must have done some planning, Miranda -- it's an ancient and obscure ritual, and as far as I know it hasn't been done for ages -- I don't know where he might have found a reference to it."
"I take it there are implications of which I'm not aware," I said sourly. "Perhaps you should enlighten me."
"No, you wouldn't have felt the change in the wards, would you?" She sighed. "It goes back to early Roman times, though I suspect it's a far older magic than even that. It was often invoked in times of war then, because in addition to binding two people together it confers additional protection to the entire community -- Hogwarts, in this instance. Not that it's used just for that," she said hastily, noting the horror in my face. "Oh, no, my dear, don't think that at all. It isn't effective at all if the intellectual and emotional bonds between the two people aren't genuine. Aren't quite strong, in fact, as well as considerable, ah, physical desire."
I let out the breath I'd been unconsciously holding. "He didn't admit what he'd done until -- well, I didn't know until it was fait accompli."
She tsked in affectionate irritation. "So like him. I take it that it wasn't unwelcome, however?"
"No, not in the least -- just unexpected. He simply fell apart, all of a piece, and the barriers came tumbling down...." I shrugged. "I thought I recognised 'friendship' in there somewhere," I added softly, "and frankly, at the time I was happy enough with that - it was a lot, coming from him."
She nodded. "'Aeternum hoc sanctae foedus amicitiae,' covenant of inviolable friendship, to be precise. And yes, I think you're quite right. I'd gladly take that from a man like Severus more than all the 'loves' I might get from someone else," she said matter-of-factly, ignoring that I'd intimated I'd have been happy even without benefit of legality.
"Why isn't it used more often?"
She pursed her lips. "I suspect most people -- the few who know of it -- aren't brave enough," she finally said. "If it doesn't take you know it immediately, and the relationship is effectively ruined. And it was traditionally used by the higher castes, rather than the general populace -- chieftan wizards seeking to consolidate their clans, should they be so lucky as to find someone who fit the requirements of the ritual." She stared at me with keen, kind eyes. "He must have been very certain of you and his feelings for you -- not to mention yours of him, especially as you didn't realise what he intended."
"I think that's accurate," I conceded, and tried desperately not to blush. (I never thought I'd be having this conversation with Minerva McGonagall.)
"Did he take you to Wiltshire this weekend?"
"Ah. I wondered. I almost sent one of the Elves with champagne, but Alastor convinced me the interruption wouldn't be welcome," she said primly.
Ten points to Alastor. It wouldn't have been, the sweetness of the gesture notwithstanding.
"Would you really? You're livid with us."
"I'm annoyed with Severus. I have found that on these occasions that the more I let him think he's enraged me, the more mischief it gets out of his system. And, as I said, the more I suspect he enjoys it."
I sputtered into my tea a bit. I'd come to more or less the same conclusion myself, but I hadn't thought Minerva McGonagall capable of the same sly trick I was working to perfect. (Not that it took much effort: Severus Snape in a mischievous mood was exceedingly trying on the temper.)
"I take it he still feels secrecy is necessary," she continued, tactfully ignoring my blunder with the tea. "Conligabimus Aeternus is so rare it was overlooked and doesn't require registration with the Ministry. I assume that's another reason he chose it."
"I imagine so. He's still convinced the Death Eaters might try to get at him through me. I don't think there's much point, myself -- half the faculty already know -- Alastor, Poppy, you -- and I think Sirius."
"But not Hooch or Hagrid?" she asked.
"Don't think so."
"Well, Black's the only problem, then, and I can solve that. I do believe, however, that I should ask Filius and Olivia to arrange a more permanent connection between your rooms. We can't afford to waste floo powder, not now."
"By all means, if you can convince him." (It was irritating that Severus could pop into my rooms whenever he felt like it -- courtesy of the Deputy Head's floo connection to all faculty fires -- but I was homebound unless I had I very good reason to descend to the dungeons.) "Speaking of which -- and so I can honestly tell Severus we did discuss business -- do you need any transfers, soon?"
"No, I think we are fine until February, barring any emergencies."
"Good. We're about to dip into the principal."
"Ah -- that reminds me. I was trying to reach you rather than Severus, in fact. You haven't had time to look at the Prophet today, have you?"
I shook my head.
"It's finally happened. Fudge has been given a vote of no-confidence, and the Ministry is scrambling to pull together a new leadership."
I sat bolt upright. "What?"
"It's true. And Minister Protheroe looks to be the likely nominee."
"Thank God. Severus will be delighted."
"He wanted to speak to you regarding the proposal Percy submitted -- the alternate currency. I suspect he'll want to use some of Albus' money to back it up, at least insofar as purchasing necessaries from the Muggle world is concerned. I told him you would be back today, so you might wish to floo the Ministry directly to see when he's available."
"I'll do it right away -- if we're finished, that is."
"Yes, I think so. Here, you might want to read this," she said, handing me her copy of the Prophet.
"Thank you, Minerva." I rose and set the teacup on the desk, and made for the door.
I stopped and turned to look at her.
"I am very happy for you, regardless of Severus' machinations," she offered with a little smile. "Although I must admit, I think you're a braver woman than I. He should drive me insane, I think, despite my appreciation for his finer points."
"Thank you. Too late for that, I think -- I must have already been barking mad, that first year at Yule." That first year when, despite his best efforts at diagreeableness, I'd let slip to the faculty gossips that I was intrigued.
No wonder Dumbledore had got the absurd, glorious idea that we belonged together. And I wondered if Minerva had been the one to tattle to him of my indiscretion.
I returned Minerva's smile and left the office.
I stared at Severus blankly. "Well what?"
"What kept you there for three quarters of a bloody hour?"
I shrugged. "Business."
"Bloody hell," he snorted. "The two of you nattered on like the outrageous gossips you are --"
I shut him up by the simple act of tossing the Prophet in his lap: he glanced at the headline absently, glared at me, and then did a double-take at the front page.
"Merlin's blessed balls." He ripped open the paper and visually devoured it.
"It would appear it was me Minerva wanted this weekend," I said when he'd had a chance to digest a good portion of the article. "Protheroe wants to discuss the currency proposal." I stepped to the fireplace, threw in a pinch of floo powder, and requested Kate Climpson while Severus continued to read.
"Oh, Professor Hunter," she exclaimed, her head shimmering in the flames.
"Good morning, Miss Climpson. This is a bit unusual, but I understand Minister Protheroe was trying to reach me over the weekend."
"Yes, but --" she leaned forward a bit, conspiratorially. "He's in a meeting at the moment -- the council members are going over his nomination," she whispered. "It looks very good."
"Wonderful. I don't know who his secretary is, now that Percy Weasley's with us --"
"You are speaking to her. Let me check his calendar --"
She disappeared briefly, and then returned to the fire. "He has an opening at four o'clock. I'll put you down for a floo-call then, shall I?"
"Heart's Solace," Severus muttered behind me.
"That would do nicely -- could you have him call at Heart's Solace, in Hogsmeade?"
"Of course -- he's called Mr. Weasley there before. How are things getting on with the finances? Are any transfers needed?"
"Not yet, but I think that's what Minister Protheroe shall want to discuss."
"Very good. I shall probably speak to you again first thing tomorrow, then."
"Very likely. Thank you, Miss Climpson."
"You're very welcome, Professor Hunter. Goodbye."
She winked off the floo.
"Snape," Severus growled behind me.
I swung 'round to look at him and found myself staring at his clavicle -- or where it should be, beneath that topcoat with its blasted, innumerable buttons: he'd silently risen from the sofa and stood directly behind me.
Damn it all, how does he do that?
"Snape," he said decisively, and when I looked up into his eyes they were exultant and intensely satisfied. "Lady Snape, to be precise, but I shall accept Mrs under the circumstances. And I shall concede 'Professor Hunter,' when this bloody mess is over, in the interest of minimising confusion amongst the imbeciles."
There was something else in his eyes, too, something insistent that I'd become very familiar with over the past two months, and I stepped back, bumping into the mantle and halting.
"You were the one who demanded secrecy," I stammered as he took a step forward and insinuated his body against mine, hemming me in with an arm to either side of my head. "Don't go all possessive and masterful about that now --"
He didn't let me finish the sentence. And he found a very creative way to celebrate a potential prime minister's nomination.
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Entailment: legal device whereby "family" property (lands, houses, etc., as oppposed to personal property) are protected from sale by unscrupulous and/or cash-desperate heirs (usually the eldest male heir). Came out of all the primogeniture jazz, although some estates passed to the eldest female daughter (or, more properly, her husband). See several of Dickens' plots for the difficulties involved in breaking an entail. (The term "land-poor" probably derives from this -- big estate, but no money to support it or pay death duties, etc.)
'for want of a nail': ...the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, etc.
'Conligabimus Aeternus': lit., 'we shall bind forever.' Or at least I hope that's what it is. (Teaching yourself Latin sucks.) It's mine, not JKR's.
Historically, Handfasting was a form of marriage which did not require the officiation of clergy (the Church didn't care for it as it created problems when unscrupulous participants would deny it had been used; moreover, in the English medieval period, at least, people would try to avoid certain monetary duties that were imposed by the lord of the manor for the privilege of marrying.) The idea of Handfasting as being a "trial" marriage for a year and a day is fictitious. See Historical Handfasting by Sharon L. Krossa at http://www.MedievalScotland.org/history/handfasting.shtml. Angel of the North tells me the "year and a day" business was called "living over the brush," which has an interesting echo in the slave culture of the American South: they called slave marriages "jumping the broom." I wonder if there's a common reference there.
Cookie: a talk with Snape's messenger-raven, Lenore. I'm old enough to intentionally spy on Miranda and Severus.