Hortensia Gaunt née Potter hunched over the toilet; the taste on her tongue didn't help calm her stomach in the least. Her shoulders shook as she cried. There was no doubt now. She couldn't lie to herself anymore; this wasn't a bout of wizarding flu. This was morning sickness.
At any other time, Hortensia would've been delighted to learn that she was pregnant. She had been dreaming of her and Marvolo's future children since she first realized she was in love with him.
In fact, she randomly came up with names for his heirs and heiresses, delighting in each nod of approval or shudder of horror. Sometimes she spent hours thinking up horrid appellations just to disgust him, because he always insisted on kissing such ugly thoughts out of her head.
But now . . . now it wasn't safe for her to be pregnant.
Hortensia covered her stomach with both hands and lay on the bathroom floor in hiccupping sobs.
In less than three hours, she was supposed to compete in the Second Task of the Triwizard Tournament. Once chosen as a Champion, refusal to participate in the tasks resulted in a loss of magic.
That meant she had two options right now, and both were equally repugnant: she could lose her magic, which would include her bonding to her lord and husband, or she could chance losing the beloved child Marvolo and Mother Magic had given her.
What was she supposed to do?
Cheek pressed against the cold tile, Hortensia bit her lip.
"Why did I have to enter this cursed Tournament?" Hortensia hissed, hating her decision for the first time.
True, the Champions got to interact with the Minister for Magic in public, and she always appreciated more time with her secret husband . . . but now she could only think of how utterly careless she had been to place herself in such danger.
Nausea welled again, and Hortensia was back on her knees before the toilet. Her knees throbbed and ached, but they held her weight. They would be bruised later; her pale skin bruised easily.
Marvolo loathed seeing marks on her flesh. He had always been insanely gentle with her, as if she would break in his arms and leave him with a gaping maw of insanity where a soul-bond had once been.
Hortensia cast a cleansing charm on herself, aiming the scope of it at her mouth, and shakily pushed herself to her feet.
She was good at keeping secrets—better than anyone her age that she knew—but this wasn't something that she could keep to herself. Hortensia had no idea how eating Gillyweed would affect a pregnant witch, and her mind would break if she accidentally aborted her child through ignorance.
When Hortensia walked into the dorm room, Lavender Brown walked over to her side and put an arm around Hortensia's waist.
"What's wrong?" she whispered.
"I . . ."
Hortensia stared into her best friend's eyes.
"Can you help me get to Severus, Lav?"
Keeping the secret from Lavender was hardest of all; they had been best friends since they were four years old.
However, Marvolo had been receiving an inordinate amount of foreign threats these past few years, and he worried that one of the students or visiting headmasters would attempt to poison, curse, or kill her if they knew she was his lady.
Lavender cocked an eyebrow, but didn't ask her why.
"Of course," she said.
Lavender kept her wand in her free hand as they left Gryffindor Tower, thwarting anyone who wished to speak with Hortensia. Lavender guarded her through the corridors and down to the dungeons, only stopping once they reached Professor Severus Snape's office.
"Thank you," Hortensia said.
Her attention had wandered the whole trip, and she didn't think she would've made it on her own. Her legs had tried to give out on her more than once. If Lavender hadn't escorted her, she didn't know what would have happened.
"Do you want me to come in with you?" Lavender asked.
Hortensia shook her head, grateful that Lavender respected her privacy and wouldn't be offended by a negative response.
"No. I . . . I have to do this alone."
Lavender knocked on the door, the sound of her fist rapping against the wood echoing down the hallway.
When Severus opened the door with a scowl on his face, Lavender stroked a hand down Hortensia’s back and said, "She needs you, Professor."
Severus's scowl vanished. He put an arm around Hortensia's shoulders and guided her into his office.
"Thank you, Miss Brown. I'll take it from here."
Severus shut the door and raised his wards again.
Hortensia sank onto the chaise lounge before the small hearth in his office. She folded her hands in her lap as tears cascaded down her cheeks.
Severus was going to be hurt that she hadn't included him in her bonding—even more than Sirius Black would. Her godfathers had been fighting over who would get to give her away for years, as if her own father didn't own that right hands down.
Then again, not even her own parents knew she had bonded with Marvolo.
She had been lying to all the people she loved, and she could only hope they would forgive her.
Brushing the tears off her cheeks with his thumbs, Severus asked, "What's wrong, little lion?"
A bitter chuckle escaped her. It was her stupid Gryffindor side that had gotten her in this fix in the first place. She shouldn't have entered the cursed Triwizard Tournament; she should've been content with the time she had with her husband, which would increase exponentially when she graduated in a few months.
"Hortensia?" he asked, voice becoming harsh with worry.
An almost-forgotten childhood game came to mind. Playing it now would be cowardly, but Hortensia didn't care.
"Can we discuss a hypothetical scenario, Severus?"
That's what she always asked him when she wanted to confess something she had done that would get her in trouble.
His swallow was audible.
"Yes, Hortensia. If that's what you need."
"Hypothetically," she whispered, hands aching as she clutched them together, "a witch eats Gillyweed so that she can stay underwater for an hour."
She chanced a peek up at his black eyes, before dropping her gaze again. Hortensia didn't think she cold bear to see his reaction to her next words.
"H-how would that affect her if she were"—it took everything she had to force the word out of her mouth—"pregnant?"
Severus's magic had never been so still in her presence before. It was as if he had turned into a marble statue at her side. When he finally spoke, his voice sent shivers down her spine.
"Who do I need to kill?"
Her gaze shot up to his, and her breath caught in her throat at the raw hatred in his eyes.
"Tell me his name, Hortensia!"
She could feel the blood drain from her face. He thought . . . Hortensia flinched.
"I-I wasn't—no one e-ever f-forced—"
Severus didn't know she was bonded, though. So, from his point of view, such horror must be the only thing that made sense. Tears ran down her cheeks again at the mere thought of someone trying to take what belonged to Marvolo alone.
"I'm sorry I didn't protect you," Severus said, voice anguished, as if he thought her words and protestations were lies she used to guard her sanity.
Hortensia hunched over.
This was worse than her wildest daydreams. She had to tell him the truth; anything else would be needlessly cruel.
"I bonded in secret when I was fifteen," she confessed, just a whisper of breath. "Not even Mum and Dad know."
"Why didn't you tell me? Why wasn't I there? Tell me his name, Hortensia! Unscrupulous, filthy—"
"He's not like that, all right? I'm sorry! I'm sorry you weren't there and that you didn't get into a three-way duel with Dad and Sirius about who could give me away. But I chose this. I love him, Sev. And I chose this!"
Severus cupped her chin and made her look at him.
"Swear to me that's the truth. Swear that I didn't fail to protect you from—"
Not even he could say the nightmarish word.
"I swear on my magic that I bonded of my own free will when I was fifteen," Hortensia said.
His shoulders slumped.
"I thought . . ."
Hortensia leaned over and hugged him, saying, "I'm sorry, Severus. I never meant to make you think that. It didn't even cross my mind."
Severus hugged her just as fervently and stated, "Hypothetically, eating Gillyweed would cause a transformation that would magically abort the child."
His grip tightened with each word he spoke.
Hortensia wondered if she would ever run out of tears. She was choking on them as the realization settled in. Her child was going to—
"Triwizard Tournament rules, section eighty-three, paragraph four, sub-clause one states: a pureblood witch who becomes pregnant with a pureblood's heir during the course of the Triwizard Tournament may be released from the magical contract automatically and without punishment at her request," Severus said.
He pressed a comforting kiss to her temple.
"You don't have to compete any more, little lion. Your baby's safe."
All that did was make her cry harder as relief swept through her.
Then, overwrought, Hortensia fell asleep against her godfather.
Severus woke her what felt like moments later, but the clock above the mantle told her otherwise. The Second Task was going to start in fifteen minutes.
"You had better withdraw before it's too late, Hortensia," Severus said. "And then we have to get down to the Black Lake. Attendance is mandatory."
Hortensia rubbed her eyes and stood up, paying little attention to all the grooming charms Severus was so kindly casting for her; she knew she must look a mess.
"I, Hortensia Potter, resign from the Triwizard Tournament."
She bit her lip in relief when a golden rope of magic loosened around her core and vanished into nothingness.
"If you're bonded, how did the Goblet of Fire bind you under your birth name?" Severus asked.
"Because my parents recognize my legal name as Hortensia Potter, I can still use it when I want," Hortensia said.
She was a Marauder's daughter, after all. She had been told more than once that 'Sneakiness' should've been her middle name.
Severus chuckled and wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
"Your dad is going to throw a tantrum fit for a king when he finds out you're bonded, little lion. I hope I'm there to see it."
He smirked, before changing the subject entirely as they headed through Hogwarts and out to the Black Lake.
"This lord of yours, does he love you?"
Hortensia smiled for the first time that day.
"More than his own life," she assured him.
And she wasn't exaggerating either. Hortensia met her husband by accident, when her Pegasus somehow bypassed his wards when she was fifteen.
His pet Basilisk tried to kill her for intruding, and Marvolo Apparated between them and was almost impaled by one of its fangs. She apologized for trespassing, he apologized for his Basilisk, and then they just stared into each other's eyes for an embarrassingly long time.
The stands that had been erected around the Black Lake were several yards away still when she heard Ludo Bagman's pompous amplified voice say, "The Champions have one hour to recover their hostage. Let the Second Task begin!"
There was a loud noise, and then Hortensia saw the other two Champions dive into the lake. The witch from Durmstrang was wearing a scandalous swimsuit—something Hortensia had been dreading about this task, before Marvolo Owled her a Muggle wetsuit. He didn't want anyone looking at her body, and neither did she. Besides, a swimsuit would've revealed the Gaunt crest, which covered the entirety of her back, from her shoulders to her bum.
Hortensia took four more steps before Bagman's words registered; her knees failed her. If Severus's arm hadn't been around her shoulders, she would have crashed to the ground.
The word 'hostage' repeated in her mind. A hostage was a person—a living person.
"Hortensia?" Severus asked. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Her voice shook as the song from the golden egg resurfaced.
"An hour long you'll have to look, and to recover what we took, but after an hour the prospect's black—"
Hortensia bit her lip and fisted her hands, mind skipping to the last line.
"It won't come back."
Marvolo was at the bottom of the Black Lake; she just knew it. And since she had withdrawn, she couldn't go down and get him. But even if she were still in the Tournament, doing so would have risked her baby's life.
Her voice cracked as the song played over and over, "I'm going to be a pregnant widow at seventeen."
"Absolutely not," Severus snapped.
"Don't be a fool, Hortensia. The Minister wouldn't allow the Department of Magical Games and Sports to use tasks where innocent people die. This is an updated, safer version of the Tournament. He'll be fine."
"You can't know that," she whispered, even though she knew how much time Marvolo had spent going over the tasks. He had vetoed countless ones over the summer, telling her about the more imbecilic ideas presented to him.
"Yes, I can," Severus assured her.
"Headmaster Dumbledore took me into his confidence. I promise that your lord will be returned to you unharmed."
His eyes were honest, but his words couldn't calm her fears entirely.
"Now, come on."
He guided her over to the stands closest to the wharf.
Hogwarts students hollered questions down at Hortensia, wondering why she wasn't participating anymore. It seemed few had read the rules, and so they didn't know why their Champion had withdrawn.
Hortensia was just grateful that Ludo Bagman hadn't announced her pregnancy in public; that would've been cruel and humiliating. Since no one knew she was bonded, except Severus now, the speculation would've been vicious.
Her child wasn't illegitimate.
"Silence," Severus hissed.
It succeeded in quieting the students, but didn't keep their attention off her for long.
Hortensia flinched when she realized that the other hot topic of gossip was the Minister for Magic's absence from the Second Task. His personal Aurors had apparently appeared in a flurry, shouting desperate questions, asking if the Minister had arrived early without their knowledge.
He hadn't. His seat was empty.
And Hortensia knew it was because her husband was at the bottom of the Black Lake, waiting for her to rescue him.
"An hour long you'll have to look. . . ."
Hortensia bit her lip and closed her eyes, but it didn't help.
The large countdown in the air was moving interminably slowly. Each millisecond felt like a lifetime of waiting. Hortensia didn't know if she would still be sane when she reached the end of the longest hour of her life.
Her parents, her younger siblings, and Sirius crowded around her, but she couldn't focus on them. She was dimly aware of Severus brushing their questions aside, no matter how frantic they became. They probably thought she was going to lose her magic if she didn't get in the lake.
They shouldn't be worried about her magic; they should be worried about piecing her mind back together if her lord died.
If Hortensia lost Marvolo, she would not only lose his magical presence, and all the love and comfort that came with it, but she would lose a part of herself—a very large part, seeing as it was a soul-bond.
"It won't come back."
"It won't come back."
The witch from Durmstrang swam to shore with a little boy in her arms—her brother, no doubt.
"The prospect's black."
She blinked. The countdown ticked.
"It won't come back."
The other Champion pulled a blonde witch onto the wharf.
Why was Marvolo still down there? Hortensia had withdrawn from the thrice-cursed Tournament! So why wasn't he here at her side, holding her close, telling her he couldn't wait for their child to be born?
The countdown ended.
Marvolo didn't appear; Hortensia felt her grip on reality slip.
"It w-won't come back."
Severus pulled her against his chest and whispered comforting words of assurance as she gagged on her tears. It didn't help. The continuing presence of the soul-bond was all that kept her on her feet.
When Hortensia couldn't handle not knowing any longer, she did what Marvolo had ordered her to do if she were ever in peril: Hortensia yanked on the soul-bond with all her magic.
She had no sooner done this than a wave of magic parted the Black Lake. Marvolo rose from the depths in a sphere of lashing, vicious, white magic. Screams of shock filled the air as he flew across the surface of the lake and landed on the wharf.
His Aurors rushed forward to surround him, but his magic batted them aside like gnats.
Severus stepped in front of her.
Marvolo stalked toward the group surrounding her. As the buffetings of his magic brushed against her skin, Hortensia felt reality settle back into place. Her lord was alive, she had her magic, their baby was safe, and they were still sane—somehow.
"Stand aside," Marvolo ordered, voice ringing with authority.
"No," Severus replied, "not until you calm yourself."
Marvolo's magic formed a lance and he pressed it against Severus's chest, snarling, "For the last time, stand aside!"
"I could forgive myself for many things, Minister, but never for endangering my goddaughter's child."
Severus wrapped his hand around the lance, keeping a straight face even as his skin began smoking.
"You would touch your lady with magic as violent as this?" he queried.
There was a heartbeat of silence, two, and then Marvolo's magic retreated beneath his skin. His words were even more forceful than before when he said, "Stand aside, Severus Snape."
Severus bowed at the waist.
"As you say, Lord Gaunt."
Then he took one large step to the side.
Marvolo closed the distance between them with ground-eating strides. He engulfed Hortensia in his arms and buried his face in her hair, inhaling deeply.
"A child, darling? We're having a child?"
Hortensia's nails clawed at his back as she fisted his robes.
"I'm s-sorry. I withdrew to keep the b-baby safe."
Tears spilled over yet again.
"I-I had n-no idea y-you were down there. I-I th-thought—"
"Hush, darling. You did the right thing."
Marvolo kissed down her neck as she breathed a sigh of relief at his approval.
"Nothing would be worth the pain of losing our child."
She couldn't agree with him, not on this, and Hortensia had always been honest with him.
"As long as you lived, I could bear it," she confessed.
Marvolo's lips stilled against her neck, and he tightened his hold just shy of bruising force.
"Never think like that, darling. There's nothing in the world powerful enough to tear me from your side. I swear it. I want you to focus all your energies on protecting yourself and our children, all right? I won't ever leave you."
From anyone else those would be false, idle words offered in reassurance. From him, she knew they were one hundred percent true.
Hortensia kissed the underside of his jaw.
"As my lord commands."
Chuckling, Marvolo swept her up in his arms and held her bridal style against his chest.
"I love it when you're obedient. It's so rare."
He kissed her forehead and then her lips.
"Rest, darling. I'll handle it from here."
Hortensia yawned and leaned her head against his chest, right over his heart. A thin layer of his magic covered her like a warm blanket. She let all her worries drain away: their bonding being made public, her unexpected pregnancy, her parents' reaction, and everything else. There was no need to worry any longer.
Hortensia was in her husband's arms; Marvolo would die before standing aside.
Marvolo stared at Hortensia as she drifted off to sleep.
Terror still choked him.
In the two years that they had been bonded, she had never yanked on their bond before. She was strong, courageous, and skilled enough to handle most threats.
Rising from the lake, he had wondered if the judges had thought it would be amusing to add something to the Second Task without his permission—another magical creature of some sort, perhaps.
Instead, it seemed the thought of losing him was what had spurred her to action. Since losing her was Marvolo's worst fear, he forgave her for the flood of adrenaline that was still rushing through him.
"Minister." James's voice was hard.
Marvolo hadn't expected anything different when one of his strongest political supporters found out the truth. Not asking for James's permission to bond with Hortensia was one of his few regrets; the man deserved to know his daughter was respected, and that he, himself, was respected.
Marvolo had countless excuses for why he hadn't done the honorable thing: Hortensia's siblings were young and might not keep the secret, Marvolo didn't want to have to wait until she graduated to bond, and those were just the tip of the iceberg.
But Marvolo knew the real reason. He might lie to everyone around him if he deemed it necessary, but Marvolo never lied to himself. A man in his position couldn't afford to be self-deluded.
James might have said 'No.’
James might have refused his offer for Hortensia . . . and Marvolo knew himself well enough to know he would have ignored that refusal and bonded with her anyway.
Because Marvolo loved Hortensia as he had never loved anyone.
"Not here," Marvolo said.
He wouldn't rehash this in public. Too many secrets had already been revealed today: their bonding and her pregnancy.
The latter caused delight and horror to battle within him. His family was growing, but so was the number of weaknesses he possessed. The baby wouldn't have the skills Hortensia did. What if their child was kidnapped or attacked?
"My office should suffice," Severus said.
His wand was out, but so was Sirius Black's. They were eyeing the crowd as if they expected assassins to leap out at their small group.
Marvolo held his fragile burden closer to his chest and marched toward the school. Severus and Sirius followed him, while James and Lily Potter flanked him, a child on either side. They all had their wands brandished; he had never seen them so on edge.
"Your office, Professor?" Lavender asked as she stepped in front of them, wand in hand.
There was an Indian girl at her side. Patil, was it? A brunette in Gryffindor robes joined them. Hmm. Fay Dunbar, if he remembered rightly. That only left—a bushy-haired brunette appeared at Lavender's left. Ah, Hermione Granger.
"Yes, Miss Brown," Severus replied.
"You have our word that we'll protect her while she's at Hogwarts, Minister Gaunt. Now that they know she's yours, I'm sure Malfoy will get the Slytherins to protect her by any means necessary," Hermione said.
It galled Marvolo to entrust Hortensia to anyone, especially now that she was carrying his child. He wanted to be at her side at all times.
It wasn't realistic, though.
Marvolo couldn't handle all his duties as Minister from Hogwarts, and he wouldn't withdraw her from Hogwarts. He knew how much she wanted to graduate with her year-mates. He held great sway over his wife's heart, but he didn't want to abuse it. Just because he could convince her to live at their manor and learn from a tutor didn't mean he would.
"Don't fail me," Marvolo said.
That was as close as he would ever get to saying 'thank you' to anyone other than his wife. Gratitude put you in others' debt; that was dangerous. Debts were a very real and serious thing in the magical world, not something easily forgotten or forgiven like in the cursed Muggle world where he had grown up.
Very few people reached the castle before they did. The students parted as they approached. Marvolo wondered whether it was because of his presence, or if all the wands trained on them convinced them now was a very bad time to ask their questions.
The staircase down into the dungeons seemed to stretch on forever, but each step felt like coming home. Slytherin House had been his first real home. No matter where life took him, Marvolo never forgot that.
"We're here," Lavender said.
The Gryffindor girls moved to the side so that they weren't blocking the door. As Severus went to open it, Lavender walked over and petted Hortensia's hair.
"She was really sick this morning. She's going to have a rough time of it. A token soaked in your magic that she could keep on her at all times would help. That way the baby could feel your presence, too."
The words were a dagger to Marvolo's heart.
His mother, Merope Gaunt, had died in childbirth. It wasn't until he was at Hogwarts and learned more about pureblood customs, rituals, and so forth, that Marvolo realized why. His father had abandoned his mother, and, even in the womb, Marvolo's magic had reached out for his father. The distance was too great, the lack of love impossible to overcome, but his magic had never stopped trying. So his magic had pulled on his mother's, so that he could reach ever farther. In the end, he took so much that she didn't have enough left to heal herself from a long, bloody birth.
His mother died in childbirth because Marvolo felt abandoned by his father. His father had made Marvolo kill his own mother. That was why Marvolo returned the favor and murdered his father.
Marvolo's voice was a raspy mess as he said, "Hockle."
All he could focus on was one thought: she absolutely could not die.
A house-elf with droopy ears popped into the hallway and said, "Yes, Master?"
"The locket. Immediately."
Marvolo brushed past everyone and into Severus's office. He walked through it and into the sitting room beyond, settling into the overlarge chair by the fire.
James and Lily sat on the chaise lounge, a child on each of their laps—even though Hadrian was almost twelve.
Sirius and Severus were standing by the closed door, the only difference being that Severus wasn't scowling and his wand was put away.
"Want me to Cruciate him for a bit, James? Lily's a dab hand at the Obliviation Charm, so no one will ever know. He deserves it, doesn't he?" Sirius asked, a ruthless light to his eyes.
"Sirius Black, you will not be Cruciating anyone in front of my children!" Lily objected, glaring.
Pouting, Sirius returned his wand to its holster.
"Fine, fine, not in front of the kiddos."
He winked at Lily.
"Later, though, right?"
"The locket, Master," Hockle said, after popping into the room.
"Good. That's all."
Marvolo dismissed the house-elf after taking Slytherin's locket from Hockle's wrinkly hand.
It already radiated his magic, but Marvolo was paranoid. Too much was always better than not enough, especially when not enough would cost him all that he loved.
The locket grew hot in his hand as he forced more and more magic into it. The faded, scratched metal straightened and sparkled in the firelight. The links of the chain were uniform and unmarred. When he couldn't fit another drop of magic in it, it looked as if it had just been forged.
"That's . . ." Sirius gaped.
"Brilliant!" Hadrian declared, hazel eyes wide. "I want to do that."
"When you're older, Ian," Lily said absently.
She carded her fingers through his unruly black mop of hair.
Marvolo nicked his thumb and rubbed his blood on the links, so that only he would be able to remove it. What good was a protection that could be easily stolen or removed? Besides, he knew Hortensia wouldn't mind; she wore the locket whenever she was at their manor. Thankfully, that would be much more often in the future.
He slid it over her head, and then dropped it down the neckline of her robes.
He would have Hortensia send him reports on her health.
If the locket didn't do its task, then Marvolo would find a way to make being the Minister from Hogwarts feasible.
Hortensia was more important than everyone else in the world, more precious than all his plans and goals and maneuverings.
"Ma'v'lo?" Hortensia grumbled, turning so that her face was against his chest.
As much as Marvolo wanted to reassure himself of everything, and talk about what had happened, he knew she needed rest. She must have been expending an unneeded amount of energy to keep her utter exhaustion from spilling down their bond. The pallor of her skin reiterated Lavender's declaration that she hadn't been well.
"Sleep, darling. Just sleep."
He stroked her hair, and then felt her go under.
Lily pursed her lips, gaze shrewd and invasive.
"I've always quite liked you, Minister, despite your high-handed methods. You make things happen. I know Hortensia's her father's daughter, daring and reckless, and I would hate to learn you took advantage of that. Because she's the only daughter Mother Magic has given me. There isn't anything I wouldn't do for her."
Ah, the love of a mother. What would it have been like to have that for himself? His mother had only lived a scant few hours after his birth.
James's blank mask and harsh tone put Abraxas Malfoy to shame.
Marvolo met his father-in-law's gaze—it was so bizarre to think of James like that—and stated, "I'm a selfish coward, James."
"Selfish, I don't doubt in the least. I've known you long enough to be aware of that. There's nothing wrong with being a little selfish."
James’s jaw clenched so hard that it twitched.
"But of all the things I've thought about you over the years, 'coward' wasn't one of them. I don't buy it."
"It's true," Marvolo insisted, much as he wished it wasn't.
Being a coward wasn't something of which to be proud. However, he hadn't been willing to chance James refusing his suit. Hortensia was one-of-a-kind. He wouldn't have ever been able to find a replacement that matched the original.
"You gloated and bragged about her all the time. She's your little princess," Marvolo said.
He caged Hortensia in his arms, as if James would try to steal her away; he wouldn't allow that.
"You only talked about how she deserved the best of everything."
Marvolo took a deep breath, but failed to calm his nerves.
"My father was a Muggle."
"As is mine," Lily countered, shoulders straight.
She wasn't ashamed of her heritage, but then, her father likely wasn't a kin-slayer.
Marvolo chuckled. It rang with bitterness. "I've often been told that a father's expectations for his daughter are much higher than a man's for himself."
"James, aren't you going to scrub those foolish thoughts from his head?" Lily demanded.
"How long have you been bonded?" Sirius asked, blatantly buying time for James.
It was to be expected. Sirius and James would do anything for each other—that was a well-known fact.
"A few months?"
"Two years," Marvolo answered.
He didn't care to see Sirius's reaction, because his attention was on James, who still hadn't said anything.
"Two years? Lily, cover the kiddos' eyes. It seems like I'll be Cruciating him now, after all!" Sirius hollered, drawing his wand again.
"You're not good enough for her."
James's words were a punch to the gut.
Marvolo had always assumed that would be his reaction, but hearing them hurt more than expected.
For a moment, he was a first-year outcast in Slytherin House. He was an unloved orphan, even though his father was still alive. He was living in a filthy orphanage with Muggles who tormented him and killed his pets.
Lily gasped and covered her mouth with a shaking hand.
"I know," Marvolo gritted out.
This was why he hadn't asked James's permission in the first place. He felt vindicated for skipping that step, now. Because bonding with Hortensia after being refused by her father would have been wrong.
Marvolo would have done it anyway.
James's gaze trailed lovingly across Hortensia.
"No one is good enough for her."
Hortensia was light and laughter and love. She was joy and jokes and just what Marvolo needed. She was hugs and helping hands. Hortensia was kisses and kindnesses, both of which were rare in Marvolo's life. She was a meeting of hearts and mornings spent in bed, long after they should have gotten up.
"I know," Marvolo agreed, because he did know. She was too good for him; Marvolo was keeping her anyway.
"You're not good enough for her," James repeated, "but I can't think of anyone else I would trust with her."
Marvolo blinked in disbelief. "What?"
"Do you love her more than anything else? More than all your gold, more than your title, more than your positions of power, more than the mounds of blackmail you uncovered, more than your heritage, and more than yourself?" James inquired, the stiffness of his muscles belying the calm tone of voice.
Marvolo would give up all his worldly possessions as long as she would be his. Nothing mattered to him more than Hortensia did.
Imagining her with anyone else was agonizing.
He had barely made it through the Yule Ball. Watching her dance the first waltz in Neville Longbottom's arms had made him ill with envy. In fact, Marvolo wouldn't be surprised in the least if that same night was when their child had been conceived.
Hortensia was his but, due to increasing threats, he hadn't been able to claim her publically for fear of losing her.
Now, the secret was out. He would have to find a way to keep her safe.
James offered a friendly smile as his mask melted away. He took Lily's hand in his.
"Then you have our blessing."
The words meant more to Marvolo than he thought they would. Perhaps, because he had never thought that he would hear them. And why should he? He had ignored what was honorable by bonding with Hortensia without permission. James was the Heir of the Honorable and Most Ancient House of Potter. Such breaches in propriety would bother a Potter more than most purebloods.
Condemnation was appropriate. Marvolo had even been prepared for grudging acceptance, full of reservations. To receive the Potters' blessing was unexpected.
Before he could respond, and Marvolo had no idea what to say, Hortensia stirred in his arms. She turned sleepy eyes on her father and reminded Marvolo once again of why he had fallen in love with her.
"Tha's nice, Da. But Ma'v'lo has my bles'ng. Tha's all tha'"—Hortensia yawned and clutched Marvolo's robe, head on his chest—"mat'rs."
Marvolo laughed, and if it was a little wet, no one said anything.
He kissed Hortensia's hair.
Marvolo placed his hand over his growing child, awaiting the day that it would be large enough to move; that was when the mental bond with his son or daughter would appear.
His family lay on his lap. He was no longer alone or unloved.
Life was a fight, and Marvolo had won.