November 1997

The first week felt surreal. Nothing quite fit how it used to. He knew his manner to be erratic, that the tenured professors wondered just what caused the temperamental mood swings, and several portraits attempted to draw him into conversation about the subject. Yet, none succeeded. Poppy and Minerva watched him when they thought he didn't notice, and more questions were answered from that alone than anything else. His mind slipped back into the previous weeks, overhearing Minerva moving 'them,' and groaned.

Little pleasure did he find in conversing with the silver tabby cat under normal circumstances. In the current climate, Severus found it, in a word, excruciating. Bloody near impossible, if he were being honest, especially if one Albus Dumbledore caught wind of the situation. Yet, a conversation he must have. These thoughts raced through his mind as, several days into the first full week of November, Severus hovered a crate of various draughts and potions the infirmary needed when last he checked. Soft voices trickled into the back passage, and, curiosity getting the better of him, Severus leaned forward to listen.

"I do believe you were quite right, Minnie," Poppy Pomfrey mused. "Very well suited, they are, and the child-"

"An example of fine breeding, unlike what He-Should-Be-Rotting and his lot believe," sniffed Minerva.

Severus muffled an amused snort.

"It was quite brave of her to tell us about it," murmured the matron.

"Indeed, it could not have been easy for her," the easy agreement.

"And her face, as if she faced the fires," the other woman sighed, a soft clink of china followed.

"In a way, I suppose she did," the transfiguration professor softly stated. "If not for her ingenious, little riddle, the big reveal could have easily gone quite differently."

Riddle? Severus' mind caught on the word, wondering what in the world Hermione had done. He pieced together enough to know that the ladies were both aware of the situation between Hermione and himself. Surprise and worry roiled in his stomach as his mind raced through the ramifications of such information. And yet, the same quiet, steady voice reasoned, it appeared to not be a surprise to the witches. They were not revolted, nor did they hunt me down to make demands and, most likely, execute some painful form of revenge. They have kept quiet and acted as Wizarding Britain assumed, and expected, they would. Brow furrowed as his mind worked the newest puzzle thrown his way.

"True, and to keep it from the boys," murmured Poppy, sympathy in her voice. "Her arrangements are quite clever. It is so sad that she cannot trust her friends, but, circumstances as they areā€¦"

A wince answered. The dark man imagined his other half alone, not allowing herself to tell anyone unless she knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, they would not betray her. Or our child, the quiet, calm voice murmured in his mind. Anger, fear, and pride bubbled to the surface, only to be smothered by an overwhelming fondness and awe. Just how much she cared for him, them, he corrected, warmed his soul.

"Albus knew exactly what he was doing," Minerva mumbled. "Even if the rest of us do not. Slippery as a Slytherin that one is, and still won't talk to me."

"For good reason, I would think," laughed the matron. "I imagine, even on oil and canvas, Albus wants to avoid your claws for as long as possible. Perhaps, especially because of his current state of existence."

"Fat lot of good it will do him," the other woman growled, "And if he even thinks of escaping, I swear I will pull out the turpentine myself."

"And what would you berate him for, Minnie?" tisked the nurse. "For forsaking one of his own? Misusing children? Training them for war? Why don't you just go ahead and just tell him everything while you're at it, hm? Face it," a soft chink of china reached his hallway hide out, "until this is all over, talking to Albus will only make you say more than you should. Think of the children here, the others, them. Don't make it harder than it needs to be."

"I just wish it didn't have to be this way," Minerva's Scottish lilt murmured. "My little angels, in so much pain and turmoil. I hope she is right about all of this. For her sake."

"As do I, Min, as do I," Poppy's soothing cadence followed.

A world weary sigh, and resigned goodbyes followed shortly thereafter. As Severus snuck into the infirmary, his mind reeled with new information. Perhaps, he thought, approaching Minerva will not be quite as daunting as I originally thought.

oOo oOo oOo

Several evenings later, Severus sat, veritable mountains of paperwork surrounding his person. Things started to spiral downward in the school, though he took great pains to keep it from descending too quickly into madness. Often the dark haired wizard felt like too little butter spread upon a hearty piece of toast, always a step behind a Carrow traumatization session or some misplaced bought of student rebellion. Through it all, he could only think of what he overheard in the Hospital Wing.

He inferred, from their writings and the clandestine conversation, that Hermione knew of their, and her own, situation long before hand. Being an intelligent, logical witch, Severus imagined she realized it at the same time as he; when the Order removed Potter from his Aunt and Uncle's home. Almost four months, has it been so short a time? And yet, it feels like a lifetime, Severus mused, scrawling a correct punishment for Amycus to mete for a young Hufflepuff.

Quite ingenius of Hermione to give a riddle or a thought to guide her well wishers. Rather Slytherin of her, if Severus were to admit it. A part of him burned to ask her about it, yet he thought it best to do so in person. Merlin, did he want to see her, and, at times, he didn't know why. The stubborn, pessimistic part reminded him that Severus did not actually know Hermione Granger all that well, even as a student. How could he miss someone? Or want to be around them so strongly? Yet, he did.

Lank, black locks shook back and forth, a few slipping forward. Finger moved the hair behind his ear as his mind drifted far from yet another egregious discipline form. Eyes strained to decipher the chicken scratch that passed for writing when a soft chime echoed through his mind. Without missing a beat, he reached into his inner pocket and produced the navy volume. Soft leather slid under his thumb's light caress before he turned to the newest entry.

Good evening, my dear, her entry began, and Severus fought to keep even the barest of smiles off his face. I hope I am not interrupting anything particularly important. I simply wanted to say hello and tell you about my day, not that it was exciting or different.

So she wrote. Sometimes their conversations were academic. Her spell crafting inquiries delighted him in particular, as so few people took the time to create their own spells. Other times, she simply bantered back and forth, trading witty commentary and sarcastic observations of the world around them. Severus chose students and staff to use his particular brand of witticisms, and often those she knew well so to keep her informed of their health. For her, it happened to be the elves and their "overly solicitous, protective, demanding" behavior towards her. Today, he found to his amusement, happened to be one of those days.

And you will never believe it! Tilly has made it so I am always tucked, rather snugly, and has tried to ban my morning walks. Simply because I cannot walk as fast nor as far as I could a month ago does not mean I am infirm, injured, or ill. It is not my fault that he presses against my lungs. I practically have one of the elves holding my hand just to take a turn about the flower garden! Severus nearly snorted at the image of Hermione Granger, defender and liberator of house elves, being led by a hand holding elf with large, luminous eyes imploring her to stay inside.

Everyone knows it's better for both mother and child to have regular exercise. Granted, the little man feels quite content to simply do somersaults, kick my ribs, and dance on my bladder. I wonder where he got that from. At that, Severus choked back a chuckle, easily imagining the playful, accusing tone. The rest of the message talked of odd cravings, some aches and pains, and other little things.

Severus tapped his long index finger against his chin, thinking of an appropriate reply. Unbeknownst to the young witch on the other side of this journal, he savored these moments of normality, away from the horror of the war that raged on, even within these walls. She could not know how much it meant to him for Hermione to accept him fully into her life, to want to share such benign details as what foods she currently craved or how putting on socks and shoes slowly became more and more difficult. Severus did not tolerate such inanities under normal circumstances. Yet, with her, it revealed more of this woman whom magic marked as his, and he fell under her thrall. No one had ever wanted him in their life before, and Severus savored every moment.

Far be it from me, my darling, to correct the elves upon the correct way to properly take care of a woman in your circumstance. While there is much I wish to speak of in person, I can safely and honestly say, I am a rather protective individual. Therefore, I am the last to rescue you from your current house elf situation. If anything, pass on my compliments and thanks for their continued, dutiful care, he penned. You may very well find yourself quite smothered upon the happy day we meet once more.

Her reply came swift and playful, and so they continued to banter. From their day to house elves and their need to serve how they sought fit to serve, their topics varied. Every quarter of an hour, or so, Severus would stop the painfully slow process of going through the Alps of parchment and flip open the navy journal. As supper came to an end, Severus too caught up in work to notice the time on this day, an obnoxious voice intruded on his silence.

"May I ask, dear boy, what book you have there?" Albus inquired, innocent as could be. "It appears to be quite the handsome volume. I cannot recall ever seeing it before."

"It is just a journal I picked up after Samhain," Severus muttered, waving a distracted hand in hopes to quiet his predecessor.

"Even from here, I can see it is well made," hummed the old man, blue eyes regarding him with a carefully blank expression. "And what shop did it come from? I cannot imagine such a piece being easily accessible."

"A small Irish shop," Severus bit out, wary of the old Gryffindor's interest.

A few minutes of silence settled upon the office. The soft gong of a bell releasing classes followed by the rumble of students filled the space. Soft snores and the last of the birds added to the gilded peace. Another chime alerted him, and, soon, Severus had the small journal open once more.

Is that a promise? Her curved handwriting inked upon the cream page made his heart swell. In an instant he penned a response, he scarcely remembered the exact words, just the staggering emotions. As Severus felt ready to take mental sigh of relief, the dreaded tenor once more spoke.

"You seem to write in it quite often, Severus," Albus mused, a slight disapproving note in his tone.

"As I find myself with less time to do my potions work, I record such thoughts and ideas in this journal," he remarked in a dry, distracted tone.

"I dare say, it appears a bit distracting," continued the oil painting. "I simply ask, because I only want what is best for the students."

"I assure you, Albus, that this journal is anything but," a swirl of dark fabric followed Severus, standing up in indignation. "As you have already sacrificed my life and my soul, I kindly ask you leave my personal matters the fuck alone."

"Dear boy, I am only concerned," started the wizened wizard.

"No, you wish me to live by your standards and your rules," his silky voice growled. "I am doing everything you ask of me to the best of my capabilities. If I decide to write in a journal while unable to practice my own art, it is none of your business. If what you say has no impact or bearing on that front, I ask you hold your damnable, Gryffindor tendency towards nosiness to yourself."

"On that note," Phineas sighed after a pointed stare from the current headmaster, "There is no outstanding news from the two nitwits. They still duel, and all I see is of their rather pitiful attempts to perform the most basic of strategies."

"No news of Miss Granger, Phineas?" the high handed question from Dumbledore.

"None. While they occasionally will say her name, I have not seen hide nor hair of her for weeks, as you know, Albus," he stated as nonchalantly as if speaking of the weather. "I doubt you have anything to worry about, seeing as the two dunderheads are perfectly happy and content at the moment. You Gryffindors cannot keep emotions off your faces to save your lives, and, unless I am mistaken, they would appear agitated if something serious befell the girl."

"As you say, Phineas," demurred Dumbledore.

All the while, Severus rolled his eyes. As always, bypassed by a painting over information that he rightfully held. If nothing else, the younger Slytherin thought back at his desk to continue tackling the slips that threatened to cover it whole, it keeps the old poof out of my business.

oOo oOo oOo

On that Thursday, during the normal staff meeting, Severus smirked and sneered at the assorted witches and wizards gathered before him. With new eyes, he observed that the 'old guard,' as Alecto liked to cackle, were rather attentive. Yes, their glares appeared cold, glances disappointing, and mutterings discontented, but their eyes spoke of a tentative understanding.

"And Minerva," Severus drawled as he drew to a close, "I expect to see you in my office at half past eight sharp this evening. We have much to discuss about your little angels."

He threw in a sneer for good measure, and, with grim satisfaction, saw the indignant expression blaze upon the elder lioness' face. Confident, graceful steps born of many years practice lead him from the Hogwarts War Council meeting Severus convenient ignored to his office. Once there, he immersed himself in the mind numbing continuance of paperwork required to run a boarding school. Parchment shuffled across his desk, quill scratching nonstop through supper and beyond, as became his nightly tradition. A knock at a prompt thirty after eight broke his concentration and, with a swish, the room righted itself.

"Come in," his deep voice intoned.

"You requested me, Headmaster?" her haughty response.

"Sit, there is much to be discussed," a black clad arm motioned towards the chairs across his desk.

With a flick of the wrist, a white cloud formed in front of the picture frames of the previous heads of the school. Mutters and shouts of dismay came through the fog, dampened and quieted. Every painting in the office appeared frosted. A smug smirk tugged at his lips at the sight of Minerva McGonagall gaping both at him and the frames around her.

"What have you done?" She asked, part awe, part horror.

"Let us say, I have ensured us total privacy. While the previous holders of this prestigious position cannot speak of anything inside this office with anyone else, I believe this meeting will go much smoother should they not be able to see or hear anything," his silky voice explained.

"And, pray, what do we have so private to speak about, Headmaster?" A brow quirked up in question.

Now that the moment presented itself, words escaped the typically eloquent wizard. How could he explain to the witch here that he sought an audience with a young lady that, if all he read and inferred to be correct, saw her as her own daughter. Severus never thought he would find himself in a serious relationship, not after Lily and the disastrous decision to join the Death Eaters. However, here he sat, about to ask his mate's surrogate mother permission to see her daughter. Damn it all.

"Am I correct in the understanding that you are a devout follower of the Old Ways?" Severus asked, deciding to start with a vague question.

"Yes, as you are more than well aware," Minerva responded, a politely curious expression upon her face.

"In that case, I am sure you know about magical mates," a nod spurred him to continue. "Then, you would no doubt be surprised to learn that I, too, follow the traditions. Can you imagine my surprise, when, after decades of attending the holidays, I find myself with a mate after one such gathering?" A wary glint flashed in her eyes, as if watching a dangerous predator ready to pounce. "I confess myself quite surprised at this occurrence."

"As fascinating as this story is, Severus," the older witch broke down, saying his name without even noticing in her distracted speech, "I cannot, for the life of me, understand why you feel the need to share with me."

"I am getting to that, if you would but wait a moment," he sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"You found your magical mate," the wry comment from the tabby cat answered.

"Yes, well, imagine, Minerva, how I must have felt when I discovered, during a skirmish no less, that my other half happened to be none other than one of your own cubs," he sneered at the pain and denial he felt at the time. "Me, the big, bad Death Eater matched with none other than your own protege and know-it-all extraordinaire, Miss Hermione Granger."

Instead of a shocked gasp or rousing denial, the prim witch in front of him stared into his eyes. Hazel met dark brown, probing into his soul without any magic. This at least confirmed that both Poppy and Minerva previously knew of this, Severus mused. Minerva settled further into her chair, a contemplative look in her eye. Hell, they are probably her only support at this moment in time. I cannot imagine her being able to talk about any of this with Potter or Weasley-Boy-the-Sixth. Maybe with Weasley-girl, but if they were in contact, she would have known not to steal the sword, or, at the very least, where to take it.

"As I thought, none of this is news to you," his low baritone rumbled through the room. "Not that I can admit it a surprise. The staff has been suspiciously supportive under their rather juvenile attempts to prank me. I must admit it raises the morale of the students, which is something of a priority at this moment. Let me warn you, though, that raising the attempts would be unwise. Please inform the rest of your war council that, in this case, quality supersedes quantity."

Sputters of disbelief greeted his ears, a smug smirk gracing his features. Severus enjoyed outmaneuvering Minerva as such inarticulate displays amused him greatly. For a moment, it felt like any other meeting between the two in the staff room. Her pinched expression and narrowed eyes almost made him laugh.

"Though I am not quite as omnipresent as dear, old Albus," he let the sarcasm drip off his voice, "I do know most of what happens in this school."

"So it seems," growled the tabby animagus. "Which brings me back to my original question, what is it you wanted to speak to me about?"

"I thought I made myself quite clear earlier," Severus commented, keeping his voice carefully neutral. "I would like to speak to you about your little angels."

Confusion bled into understanding and curiosity. Leaning back into her chair once more, Minerva studied him as before. That penetrating gaze, more so that the twinkling blue of his predecessor's, had the unwelcome effect of making Severus want to squirm. Several times early in his tenure, Severus remembered actually shying away from such a look. A worrisomely feline expression spread across her features as a soft chuckle filled the air.

"Well, well, well, it appears Hermione does, indeed, know something of you," mused the Gryffindor aloud. "And what about Hermione do you wish to know?"

"She mentioned that I must ask your permission," the word tasted sour in his mouth, "to meet with her in person."

"And how you must hate that," the laughing response. "Tell me, Severus, we have known each other many years. What are your intentions with Hermione? You must be aware I view her as my daughter in all but blood."

"Nothing nefarious, if you must know," at the unimpressed look, Severus heaved a sigh and ran his hands through his lank hair. Expressing himself never came naturally to him, thus making subsequent conversations so taxing, tiresome, and awkward on his account. "Minerva, she is my mate, my other half. Surely, you, of all people, can understand both my intentions and my feelings on this matter."

"Humor an old lady," an impish smirk sparkled at him, a trait reminiscent of another elder Gryffindor.

"You are hardly senile, no matter what I say outside this office," grunted the younger man. A wry, bemused brow rose in response. Another deep, sigh answered. "Be difficult if you must-"

"I shall," Minerva cheerfully interjected.

"-But I maintain it is for no vicious reason," Severus finished, sending an irritated glare at the tabby cat. At length, he continued with, "my aspirations are quite ambitious, but my intention is to meet and talk with her. From there, I wish to obtain an understanding of sorts, to see if we can form a proper relationship."

"And your true aspiration?" She asked, head tilted to the side as she considered the man before her.

"To finish the ritual," he stated, dark eyes intense as they stared into her hazel.

Pensive silence descended upon the office. Severus did not know how long, the old grandfather clock ticking the only marker of time's passage. Gryffindors, for all he sniped and harassed, did not count amongst the most consistent of people. Often, he found Minerva or Albus took unprecedented or unconventional action in situations Severus thought he predicted correctly. Overreaction, protection of their cubs, tended to highlight the twists and turns of their personalities, finding unique (though, often times, convoluted and ridiculous) ways to solve problems.

"Tell me," her quiet, Scottish brogue suffused the air, "How does this fit with the rest of your life as it stands."

And that's the kicker, his wry thought.

"There are two options," Severus took a deep breath, steepling his fingers and tapping them to his chin. "The first is to keep it all a secret. It would be difficult. Magical signatures change with the ritual, and the Dark Lord," venom laced the words, "detects such things through the mark. He already did from the mating as it stands. Any more change requires another plausible cover story that matches the first."

A sound of accession greeted those words. With a deep breath, the dark wizard settled deeper into his chair. He debated the merits of masking his magical signature, played with the concept after the Midsummer Festival. To his dismay, it failed. Spectacularly. Not only did the Dark Lord notice the difference, he felt the masking spell as well. Quick wits kept Severus alive, spinning an excuse of not wanting his brothers to feel the change, though knowing he could never keep it from his master. As Samhain drew near, a half thought plan tickled the edges of his mind, a nebulous idea at best. Afterwards, well, he fleshed it into a fully formed, workable solution. Very risky, perhaps, but the best he could do.

"The second option may very well sit better with your more Gryffindor sensibilities," he sneered, no heat behind the expression or words. "The general idea would be to introduce her as my mate to the Dark Lord." Seeing the fear and fight in the words, Severus held up a hand to cut off the tirade sure to come.

"What you must understand, Minerva, is that He only cares about power. To keep His financial backers and politically powerful majority under His thumb, the Dark Lord united them under the banner of keeping wizarding society pure. Even now, half mad and more reptilian than human, He is scarily pragmatic. He will feel her power as a leyborn, see the bond between us, and accept Her into his society," Severus explained, speaking quickly to override the witch before him. "The Dark Lord is quite fascinated with the Old Ways, and highly respects those who truly follow the Wheel and it's teachings. He also holds all the cards, as it were."

"What do you mean?" Minerva's brow furrowed, not quite liking how this sounded.

"And you are supposed to be intelligent," he quipped, sending a half hearted smirk her way before turning serious once more. "Think, will you? With her mate as a loyal servant, the Dark Lord will have two, if not more, strings to pull and keep Hermione in line. He is smart enough to know she would do anything for her family, and needs no other resource to manipulate her."

"How, exactly, is this a plan?" the witch growled, staring his down.

"Because, she can gain information I cannot, and help buy the brainless twits she calls friends," eyes rolled as the thought that they would abandon her if they knew who he was to her flashed across his mind, "to do whatever task the old poof set upon them. To have such inside information would, surely, be a boon from the Order, as I have been unable to fulfill that role of late."

A contemplative lull followed this declaration, sound rippling out towards the edge of the proverbial pond. He watched as his colleague pondered his words and reason. He spoke plainly, knowing Gryffindors to require such directness his Slytherins and several Ravenclaws loathed. The things he did for his mate, even if she sat unaware of those action.

"Also," he murmured, slowly, as if to himself, "It will keep them both safe if we were to lose this war." He felt the sharp gaze more so than observed it, and elaborated. "You must understand, Minerva, my first priority is to them. They must live through this war." They have to, a desperate voice pleaded. "Do not mistake me, I will fight as I always have, and I doubt Hermione will give up the cause. Think of this as a contingency plan, if all else fails. I will protect them to the best of my abilities.

"Always."

oOo oOo oOo

Severus figured he said something right that night. True, the portraits nearly rebelled, Albus in particular, but he decided the cost worthwhile. A nondescript barn owl flew through his window the next night, a small parcel tied with twine around its leg. A frog leg later saw the post, generic print addressed to him, sitting upon the solid, ornate desk. Fingers withdrew a small card stuck under the twine. Flipping it open, eyes read the single line of spelled text. Remember your promise. Three simple words. Curiosity, the bane of all Slytherins, gripped the dark wizard as he took hold of the string and pulled. A small box containing a proportionally sized velveteen bear greeted him. A piece of parchment fluttered to the desk, detailing the time and date.

For, perhaps, the hundredth time that day, Severus examined said parchment. Innocuous and small, the rush of emotions it invoked within him never failed to shock or surprise the man. Hope. Fear. Anxiety. Desire. Happiness. More swirled in his gut. Tomorrow, a voice whispered in his mind, I will see her for the first time as peers, a romantic interest, my hopeful future, tomorrow.