Chapter Twenty-Two

Molly lurked near one of the marquee's windows watching the activity inside. Arthur insisted the Snapes wouldn't require her rock cakes. He was convinced the McGonagalls, Hogwarts' house-elves, and the Malfoys would keep the refreshment tables well stocked with all the family favorite. But she knew better.

"Look, Mollywobbles." Arthur moved to stand behind her as she put the last of the rock cakes into the large picnic hamper she used for transporting food to family events. "Severus and Hermione will be much to busy to enjoy those during the reception."

He placed his hands on her shoulders and squeezed gently. His breath ghosted against her ear, almost a repugnant as his words. As dearly as she loved the man, there were times... "There's no need to go early to deliver them." Only years of practice kept the shiver of revulsion from reaching the surface at his touch. Must he always be so affectionate? "Just bring them with us. You can place the whole lot in Hermione's hands."

She slipped from beneath his hands with all the ease of one who'd spent years placating clingy children. "Nonsense, dear. Then the other guests couldn't enjoy them." She grabbed the basket off the counter, turned and patted his shoulder, much as she would do with one of their boys. "I'll just pop over, leave these on the refreshment table, and be back before Percy's knotted his tie." Completely ignoring her husband's advice, she turned on the spot and moved toward the back door.

Lucky thing she had, too. She narrowed her eyes as Severus assisted Hermione into her seat. Seemed one could learn quite a lot by arriving undetected. Like how Harry employed Snape's help in committing Ron to that awful treatment center. And she might have learned more if the boy's stomach hadn't been seduced by strawberry scones.

Still, it wasn't a complete loss. She swallowed the bile at the adoring looks passing between the new parents. It was a wonder they didn't have a house full of the little blighters by now. With the knowledge gained by delivering her contribution to the festivities early, she learned the identity of the wizard who'd visited Ron's Tumbledown Rookery flat. Now if she could only corner the dark wizard, she could find out how much he knew about Periwinkle Parkinson. Had he hidden her away somewhere? Did he realized the bastard child she carried was Ron's? That the girl she'd bought with the promise to ruin her own daughter's happiness was round with the magic that would break the Belby curse?

"Molly!"

Arthur's too jovial voice resonated in her head like fingernails on a chalkboard. Just like it had back at Hogwarts before that fateful Yule Ball during sixth year.

Envy bubbled just beneath the surface as she watched Arthur Weasley and Poppy Pomfrey make another circuit around the dance floor. Not that she wanted the gangly, big-eared wizard. The Ravenclaw prefect was welcomed to him. It was the having someone to dance with, someone to dote on her every whim that Molly Prewett wanted. Unfortunately, the closest she'd gotten to that was poor Archibald Padfoot's attempt to retrieve her Transfiguration notes from Black Lake about a month into term. Both the notes and the boy were nearly unsalvageable. Thankfully, the Giant Squid had magnanimously deposited both back on the shore before permanent damage was done. The drought between then and now seemed one for the history books.

Sighing, Molly settled a little more comfortably on the cushioned bench in the corner. Perhaps she should have volunteered to help tend the younger children in Gryffindor tower. Francis Fawcett was always good for a laugh or two. And Joseph Nettles could usually be coerced into coughing up a little liquid comfort once the younger students fled the common room for their dormitories. And if Francis fell asleep in front of the fire like she usually did after a tumbler or two, Joseph might be convinced to—

"Good evening, Miss Prewett."

Molly shrieked and almost tumbled off the end of the bench when Headmaster Dumbledore appeared beside her, seemingly out of thin air. Of course, that simply wasn't possible. Professor Binns assured them the castle didn't allow such shenanigans. She must have simply been too preoccupied by her thoughts to notice his approach. Scrambling to her feet, she pressed a hand to the center of chest to quell the thundering of her heart and swept into as a low a curtsey as her trembling knees would allow. "Headmaster," she squealed. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't see you—"

"It is I who should apologize, Miss Prewett." He eased onto the soft burgundy cushion, urging her to follow suit with a slight sweep of his hand. "I did not mean to startle you, only to inquire as to why you are hiding in the shadows." He nodded toward the crowded dance floor. "Surely you would enjoy being out there rather than sitting here alone."

"I'd be alone out there as well, headmaster." Molly shrugged, happy the dim lighting hid the color she felt rushing up her neck to her cheeks. "At least here, no one notices."

"Nonsense, my dear," the headmaster scolded. He looked out across the dancers, his gaze flitting from one wizard to another until it landed on a particular redhead. "In fact, if you look closely enough, you will find exactly the right young man."

Molly balked. There was absolutely no way Arthur Weasley was the right wizard for her. He was too clumsy. He lacked talent and funds. His family was the laughing stock of the wizarding world and had been for a century or more. "But he's with Poppy Pomfrey." It was a weak protest, but the only one her numb brain could come up with to give the headmaster pause.

"They are not bound, Miss Prewett," he intoned, gathering her hand in his own. "There is no formal courtship between them." He drew squares and circles and zig-zags around her knuckles. Each stroke seemed to dissolve another piece of her prejudice against the Gryffindor prefect until she could no longer remember the protests she lodged each time someone suggested the match. "And I think you will find you and young Mr. Weasley will suit quite well." A final draw of his finger down the length of her hand drew her attention to his twinkling blue eyes. "I advise you to trust me on this."

And she had. Not only about Arthur, but about the relationship between her Ronald and Hermione Granger. She'd been ready to encourage her youngest son to search elsewhere for a mate until Albus Dumbledore assured her the chit was her son's Arthur. That's why she'd passed along the information regarding the witch's itinerary the Halloween young Ron attempted to wrestle her from Snape's. She glared at the couple as they traded the kind of looks reserved for the bedroom. Had they no shame? If only Albus was still—

"Molly."

She nearly shrieked when her husband touched her shoulder. Damn his stealth. And damn her lack of focus. If she continued to be this distracted, there was no way she'd be able to investigate the suspicions her eavesdropping aroused. "Arthur." She turned to him, clutching her throat to keep her heart from pounding through her esophagus. "You are getting as bad as your sons."

His adorably sheepish look melted away her irritation. "Sorry," he murmured, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. "The boys are waiting near the entrance. Are you ready to join them and go in?"

Them, yes. Their spouses and dates, no. Fleur spent the better part of the morning trodding on Molly's last nerve. Audrey was much too Muggle, and Angelina seemed to be the only one able to make George laugh. It was quite nauseating really. Still, one had to keep up appearances. Smiling brightly, she nodded and allowed him to move her toward the group of redheads. After all, there wasn't much sleuthing to be done outside the pristine canvas structure. "Absolutely."

SSHGSSHG

Poppy's glare alerted Hermione to the presence of the gaggle of gingers before the family's matriarch announced their arrival with her usual shrill greeting. A cold chill swept over her and landed as a knot of emotions in the pit of her stomach.

Tightening her grip on Severus' thigh, she followed the group as Molly pushed past some of the other guests leaving the boys and Arthur to apologize in her wake. Given the glares directed at the matronly witch as she marched through the crowd, any prestige bestowed by the woman's actions during the Battle of Hogwarts was quickly tarnishing. "Perhaps omitting them from the guest list may not have caused much gossip after all," Hermione mused.

The warmth from Severus' hand as he covered hers helped to dispel the iciness in her veins. He leaned as close as he dared in a public venue, his breath barely caressing the shell of her ear as he spoke. "I doubt the Daily Prophet would share your sentiments, love." He curled his fingers beneath hers and lifted them to rest more comfortably in his lap. "And until we are reasonably sure questions will not be raised, we could not take the risk."

Of course he was right. It didn't make it any easier to hear, but he was right. "Still—"

"Excuse me." Poppy's voice was barely audible above the hum of conversation, yet there was no missing the emotion in it. "I think I'll go and see if Minerva needs some assistance."

Hermione's heart ached for the matron as she abandoned her seat, and the perfect view of the Weasley family, to join the headmistress and Narcissa. Despite the her own insecurities around that family, Hermione knew they didn't hold a candle to Poppy's feelings. And, considering the story Severus shared, she couldn't blame her.

Hermione snuggled between the back of the sofa and Severus' side. Mindful of the tiny bundle that now shared her wizard's broad chest, she nestled her cheek against her favorite spot just above where his heart thrummed steadily. She slid her hand across the soft cotton of his shirt until she encountered the hand-knitted blanket Minerva insisted accompany the newborn when she was released from the infirmary. With practiced ease, her beloved accepted her fingers between his own, resting their hands against Rose's back. The gentle rise and fall as the baby breathed was enough to complete the feeling of home despite the fact they were within the Potion master's former quarters instead of the lounge of their Belgravia home.

Between the warmth of her husband beside her, the crackling of the fire on the hearth, and the contentment of their new normal evening routine, her mind quieted for a moment. But only a moment. Then Poppy's rather vocal aversion to the Weasley family tickled the edges of her brain. "Severus?"

"Hmm?"

The sleep in his voice was almost enough to divert the question for another night. Almost. "What does Poppy have against Arthur and Molly?"

The silence stretched long enough to convince Hermione he hadn't heard the question. The words realigned on her tongue only to be silenced by his quiet reply. "Arthur is Poppy's Lily."

His words were enough to propel her head from his chest. Rising enough to meet his eyes, she watched the play of his love for her and his regret for Lily in the dark depths with cold, ghostly fingers slowly squeezing the breath from her lungs. "But I thought you were..."

The smile curving his lips was soft and gentle. "I am, love. I have been over her far longer than you realize." He moved enough to press his mouth against hers in tender assurance. "We are bonded, you and I. Fated, most likely from the beginning of time. Besides," he murmured, his smile going a little lopsided the way it did only when directed at her, "I am so completely in love with you, there isn't room in my heart for her. She is but a distant memory. A past regret." He kissed her again. This time when he drew away, his eyes glittered with warmth and adoration and passion and devotion and all the other million things he offered her on a daily basis. "Unfortunately, not everyone is as blessed as the two of us." The light in those dark orbs flickered and dimmed a little. "Poppy is one of them."

"It is so utterly unfair," Hermione sighed.

"She will survive this day," Severus murmured. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze, urging her to return her attention to him. Looking up, she found his onyx eyes filled with determination and devotion. "We all will."