Hermione was unfamiliar with the layout of the Daily Prophet offices, which were busier than she'd expected to find them on a Sunday morning. Her surprise gave way to relief, however, as she quickly found Rita Skeeter without being noticed; she was in a private office and, unsurprisingly, shouting at someone loudly enough to be heard outside of it.
"I am not a 'publicity whore', Barny! I just want the evening edition to be something other than an excuse to line bird cages!"
"You're an annoying bitch, is what you are! People care more about Death Eaters than dead Aurors—I'm not moving your headline above the fold!"
"Pardon me," Hermione interrupted, walking into the room and addressing the rail-thin, florid-faced man with whom Skeeter was arguing, "but would you mind buggering off for a bit?" She smiled sweetly.
"I beg your pardon?" he demanded. "Do you know who I am?"
A man who refers to women as bitches, Hermione thought, not caring who he was beyond that as she made her reply. "Take a moment to recognise me."
The man narrowed his eyes, and then drew back. "Oh," he said slowly, as his scowl became a smile and he offered her his hand, "you're—"
Hermione didn't give him the chance to feign charm. "Going to want you to close the door."
Skeeter's eyes gleamed as her quill and notepad rose into the air. "Twelve February: this reporter has just witnessed an altercation between Eligible Hermione Granger and Daily Prophet Editor-in-Chief Barnabas Cuffe."
"You were shouting at him."
"That's different," Skeeter said, with a shrug, "happens every day. Now let's see, shall we?" she asked, beginning to tick stories off on her fingers as Hermione pulled the quill from the air. "Magical Parliament's in an uproar over Artemis Twist's removal, and the future of her suffrage bill is terribly uncertain. Ministers are embarrassed. Ministers are angry. Ministers have a great deal to say of late. More than that, I've sources in your own department that say there's a lot more to Twist's story than one 'exhausted' Peer. The Shrouding at St. Mungo's has yet to be explained, and the related human interest stories about those who died—"
"The deaths of Aurors count as 'human interest'?"
"—need more attention than dear Barny wishes to give them," Skeeter continued, snatching her quill from Hermione. "He'd rather run with the news of Lucius Malfoy's death, which is ridiculous when I'm this close to speaking to someone who knows more about the arrest of one Miranda Frasier, Haruspex, than has been released in the Crimes List."
"You know that Frasier was arrested at Snape Manor and that I was there, so that's not surprising. Has Bellatrix Lestrange's death made the Crimes List, too?"
"Lestrange's death? No, when did—"
"I'm not here to discuss Lestrange or Frasier," Hermione interrupted, "but if you'll make the Unbreakable Vow with me, I'll give you a better story, more than one, in fact."
"The Vow? Because you'll have to hold some information for a bit."
"No, I meant why are you offering it to me?"
"Because the person who asked me to speak to you knows that you used to be married to Elton Tattle and can't stand him."
"I told Elton not to excoriate Snape in 'Social Notables and Notorious Doings'," Skeeter said, clapping her hands together in delight, "but why doesn't the Supplicant just come see me, himself?"
"He isn't the one who asked me to speak to you."
"The Head of Family Snape," Hermione replied calmly.
Skeeter's shoulders slumped. "Bugger off, yourself! I don't have time for pointless bitchiness today."
"I don't intend to disappoint you, so don't disappoint me—or Peer Blaise Alessandro Patrizio Zabini Snape."
Skeeter straightened. "Barnabas!"
Without even pretending that he hadn't been standing outside the door the entire time, Cuffe opened it. "Allow me to be your Bonder."
"Yes," Skeeter said, thrusting a hand towards Hermione, "and then I want to know everything."
"—been good and listened to Cousin Draco and Mr Harry and missed you! And there are gnomes! And I met Ronnie and Harry and Big Ron and Mrs Ron, and oh, Mummy, I'm glad you're here!" Aries exclaimed, in his mother's arms. "Where've you been? I was sca—I missed you!"
"Bellatrix" untangled herself from her son's arms and laughed.
It was a mirthless, brittle sound, and one to which Aries responded by standing ramrod straight.
Bellatrix fell silent for just long enough to nod at him before saying, "Of course you have. You're Mummy's good boy." She turned to Harry. "I'd like to spend some time alone with my son."
Harry swallowed nervously. "Of course. The library's empty—except for biscuits and pumpkin juice, that is," he told Aries.
"Thank you, Mr Harry!"
Harry frowned as Aries drew himself away from his mother. "Yes, ma'am. I'm sor—"
"Don't apologise," she interrupted, grabbing Aries none too gently by the shoulder and steering him towards the library. "It's a sign of weakness."
Watching the two of them disappear into it, Harry murmured, "I don't know if this is such a good idea after all."
Severus laid an arm across Harry's shoulders. "You know why she's behaving this way."
Harry sighed and crossed his arms. "I wish Tonks had agreed."
"Narcissa was right. Tonks wouldn't have known how to behave, and that would have caused Aries even more confusion."
Harry turned to embrace Severus, saying into his chest, "Yes, but now he's scared and . . . ."
"We'll make things right for him, Harry."
"Yes, but will she have enough time? Polyjuice only lasts about an hour."
"It will have to. I haven't any more on hand."
"Don't sound so guilty about that. I was surprised that you had any on hand at all—but not as surprised as I was to learn of the Black family tradition of keeping Death Lockets."
"What surprises me," Severus replied, tightening his arms around Harry, "is that Andromeda Tonks thought to send a lock of Bellatrix's hair to Narcissa at all."
"Really? That's a capital 'eff' Familial matter if ever there was one, no matter how sick."
With that, they both turned towards the library doors and waited in apprehensive silence.
Inside the library, Aries was most definitely confused by what his mother had just told him. "But . . . but Aunt Cissa says . . . lying's wrong."
"I don't care what she—what I mean to say is that your aunt doesn't understand how important I am—not like you do—and no one understands how important you are. I had to keep you a secret, Aries, so I told the lie. There were bad men trying to hurt your daddy, so I kept you a secret from him."
"Is that why Father doesn't like me?"
"Have you not been paying attention?" his mother snapped.
"I don't know what you mean!" wailed Aries.
She pulled him up onto her lap, and he stiffened. His mother rarely touched him, and he'd thought she was angry because he'd hugged her before. It was nice, though, being held, so he didn't say anything and tried to keep as still as he could. He was that scared.
"John Parkinson isn't your daddy, Aries. He thought he was because I lied to him, too, but that doesn't mean he was happy to think himself a father—the man never did care much for children."
"Because not everyone does."
"But why did you have to lie? Why didn't you just make the bad men go away?"
His mother exhaled forcefully. "Because there were too many of them to fight and keep you safe at the same time. Do you understand?"
"No," Aries replied, sniffling.
"Well, try to. You're not a stupid boy. The bad men would have tried to hurt you to make Daddy sad if they'd known about you."
"Who is he? Does he miss me? Will Fa—I mean, Mr Parkinson be mad because you lied about me?"
Wiping his tears away, his mother replied, "One question at a time."
"It doesn't matter what John thinks about my having lied to him because you won't be seeing him again, so never mind about John."
"Be still and listen!"
Aries' lower lip began to tremble.
"Stop that. Big boys don't cry. You know that."
"I don't . . . I don't feel very big, Mummy."
"Under the circumstances, I shall forgive you for that, but I wish to discuss your daddy now."
"Daddy has, of course, only just learnt about you. That's why you're here now, understand? You're in Daddy's house."
Aries jerked up his head. "Daddy's Mr Severus?"
"Certainly not! No, Daddy is Mr Severus' husband, Aries. Daddy is Harry Potter."
The library door opened suddenly with such force that it smacked the wall. Harry made to bend down as Aries rushed him, but instead of flinging himself into Harry's arms as Harry fully expected him to do, Aries kicked Harry in the shin.
"You shouldn't have let Mummy lie! You shouldn't have left her alone with the bad men!" He kicked Harry's other shin. "You should have known about me!"
Before Harry could react, Narcissa, still wearing Bellatrix's visage, emerged from the library and began walking quickly in the direction Aries had run.
"Come back here this instant!" she called.
From the top of the landing, around which Aries was about to disappear, he shouted, "No!"
Mid-stair, Narcissa stopped and looked down. "Give me more time."
"There's still time to get this in the evening edition," Skeeter said excitedly, seizing her notepad from the air. "I'll just call Barny back."
Hermione crossed her arms. "He won't hear you with my Muffliato on the door, and don't bother calling him—or writing anything down! You can't run the story."
"Of course I can. You're an Auror. Aurors don't cast harmful charms."
Hermione drew her wand and pointed it at Skeeter's notepad. With a twitch of her fingers, it began to smoke.
"Stop that!" Skeeter demanded, dropping it and casting a counter-spell. "What's wrong with you?"
"Wrong with me? You're the one who—don't you know what breaking an Unbreakable Vow would mean for you?"
"Oh, what? Another period of manic writing?"
Hermione scoffed. "The curse Ginny cast on you after the ministry gala was nothing to the suffering you'd experience if you broke the Vow. You break the Vow, you die."
"Well, that's inconvenient," Skeeter replied, tapping her quill against her mouth. "So when may I write about Zabini's adoption?"
"When it's been finalised, of course. For now, you'll just have to content yourself with announcing my engagement to Blaise."
"Your engagement to Blaise Zabini won't make much of a story, will it?"
Hermione ignored Skeeter's acidic attempt to bait her. "Anything that a war hero does is news, and our engagement piece will make a nice partner to the one you're also going to write," Hermione said, pausing to breathe, "about Severus Snape's magic-fasting to Harry Potter during the Courtship Ritual."
"What? Why didn't you tell me that to begin with? Is that part of the Vow?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I was saving the 'best' for last, I suppose, and no, it's not part of the Vow. It's your next above-the-fold story. Once I've arranged the interview with them, you'll be permitted to ask them anything you wish about their marriage, including the impediments to it, one such being the Haruspex incident."
"Ha! I knew there was more to that story!"
"They'll want to see an advance copy of your article, by the way."
"Then they won't speak to you. They'll give the story to Xenophilius Lovegood."
"Severus Snape wouldn't give the time of day to that kook! Besides, you've given me the story outside the constraints of the Vow, so I can run it without speaking to them."
"What kind of story would it be then? Don't be stupid, Rita. So you lose tonight's headline, so what? If you play your cards right, you may well get a book out of all this. There hasn't been a Surrendering of Seat in some time, and a magic-fasting? Readers will eat that up."
Skeeter raised an inquisitive eyebrow and threw her quill on the desk behind her. "What's in it for you? Why are you telling me all this?"
"Because you're vicious."
Skeeter grinned. "Ah, you believe that I'll keep my fellow reporters at bay in order to protect my exclusives."
"You bet your clenched arse I will."
"Then that's settled," Hermione replied. "I'll be in touch."
"You'd better be, Granger, today."
"That's Auror Granger to you."
"How delightfully modern of you, 'Mrs Snape'—or will it be 'Mrs Granger-Snape'?"
"As I said, I'll be in touch to set up the interviews. Don't break the Vow."
Hermione left Skeeter's office feeling that their discussion had been a job well done. The Vow had been Blaise's idea: "Give Skeeter one story that she can't tell—she'll expect that sort of secrecy with regard to a Surrendering—one that she can prepare for, and one that she can run with," he'd said, and Hermione had agreed. She'd seen no reason to hide their engagement, which she'd known they would have to announce sooner rather than later.
Skeeter be incensed when Harry and Severus reveal Aries to the world in the Quibbler, but at least she won't come flittering around uninvited now that I've promised her the other exclusives.
It was a good plan, one that would give Harry and Severus time to develop a cover story to for Aries while Skeeter and the public were distracted by other news—which meant, or so she and Blaise hoped, that the fact that Pansy Parkinson was never going to see a trial would go largely unnoticed.
Not all members of the High Chamber agree with use of the Binding magics, and Blaise will need their respect if he's going to work with them.
She found herself hoping that Severus and Harry, who had not been consulted as to the plan, wouldn't be too shocked by it.
"I never expected that," Severus told Albus and Minerva, as they sat together in his study discussing Minerva's conversation with Most Unspeakable Price.
"I did," Albus replied, "not least because I saw fit to—"
Minerva cleared her throat. "What Albus meant to say was that we were hoping Harry might leave things to us. He'll have his hands full with Aries, and Baird is going to find it very difficult, knowing what his mother has done. Their relationship was never good."
"Tell me what it is that you propose, and I'll put it to Harry."
"How is he, Severus?" asked Albus. "Has he explained matters to Aries, yet?"
Severus didn't answer immediately; it wasn't truly his place to answer such a question on Harry's behalf, and he knew that Harry no longer completely trusted Albus. Which only shows good sense, he thought, shifting in his chair.
Minerva shook her head. "We don't mean to pry, of course, but do you think that Harry would mind your sharing his intention with regard to the children with us? The more things that we can settle now, the less he'll have to worry about."
Grateful that Minerva had redirected the conversation, Severus replied, "He wishes to place the children under the care of Lorelai Lovegood so that she can assist them in the rehabilitation of their gifts."
"With Morgan Moody serving as the children's protector?"
"And you thought that wise given that they're both Unspeakables?"
"Harry has his reasons for believing them trustworthy, Minerva.
She scoffed. "I don't know that I'd trust any creature of Persephone's."
Severus leant forward in his chair. "And what have you and Albus in mind?"
"Retirement, dear boy," Albus answered.
Severus sat back in surprise.
"Retirement to Aberdeen where Minerva and I might do for the children what Harry wished young miss Lovegood to do."
"Well, I'll be seeing to that if Harry agrees," Minerva put in. "Truth be told, Albus is looking to keep bees and spend more time amongst the Mugwumps."
Severus looked at Albus. "'Retirement', old man?"
"Everyone needs a hobby," was Albus' cheerful, unrepentant reply.
"I'll put your suggestion to Harry," Severus repeated, thinking that Albus' "hobby" most likely had to do with a desire to enter politics. I feel safer already.
"Excellent!" said Albus, popping a Sherbert Lemon. Now then, I've spoken to Sean Callahan—"
"I don't care," Severus interrupted. "If you wish to discuss the judge's concerns, do so with Blaise. Going forward, he'll be handling all Familial matters."
"Oh?" asked Minerva, as Albus said, "Ah."
"What is it?" she asked him.
"I would guess," Albus replied, his eyes on Severus, "that young Mr Zabini is about to experience, among other things, a dramatic change of career."
Severus nodded. "Unlike you, I have no taste for skullduggery."
"All evidence to the contrary, but it is true that you never did care much for public politics."
Severus noticed Minerva looking from him to Albus and back again, while thinking, Fuck. He's thinking of replacing Marchbanks, isn't he?
He didn't have long to contemplate that disturbing idea because suddenly, Minerva exclaimed, "Oh! Oh, Severus, I think that's a wonderful idea!"
"Agreed," Albus remarked. "Blaise will be a great credit to Family Snape. Congratulations, dear boy, on becoming a father."
Aries' mood had shifted. Through the door to Draco's suite, where Aries had run looking for him—and why Draco wasn't there, Harry didn't know; he'd assumed that Draco had returned to the manor late the previous evening—he could hear his son's anger turning to desperation.
"Please, Mummy? Please don't leave! I'll be good, I promise!"
"Let me go, Aries. You're being tiresome. I'm leaving now, and you can't come with me. You know why."
Damn, thought Harry. The Polyjuice's wearing off.
"No, you can't go! Don't leave me, Mummy!"
"Aries Lestrange Potter! You will be brave, or it will be the worse for you!"
That was too much for Harry, who wasn't sure just how far Narcissa would go to keep up appearances. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and strode into the room—only to stop short at the sight of what appeared to him to be a furious and frightening Bellatrix. The unexpected fear passed, however, as he saw the sadness in her eyes. His true tormentor had never displayed such vulnerability to him, and it was enough to help him regain his nerve.
"Thank you, Narcissa," he mouthed, as he carefully untangled Aries from her robes and clung to him tightly as she fled.
Aries burst into tears. "No, Mummy! Mummy! Mummy, come back!"
Blinking back tears as Aries sobbed and kicked and begged, Harry tried to soothe his son. "Shh. It's all right. Shh, Aries. Your mother lo—loves you, she does. She just has to go, but you're safe with me. You're safe, I promise you. Please, Aries," Harry entreated him, "stay with me. I want you here, and you're safe with me."
There was another son, elsewhere, whose safety was not as certain.
"Would you truly endanger yourself so carelessly?"
Draco, who'd been about to caress a crystal sculpture in Mary Millblossom's private sitting room, pulled back his hand and stuffed it into his robes like a scolded schoolboy. "Forgive my curiosity."
The witch shook her head. "I would have thought you'd know better than to touch objects with which you were unfamiliar."
"I usually do know better. I suppose I'm just nervous."
"Nervous? Of all this?" she asked, opening her arms wide. "Why? I know for a fact that you were raised in grander, more dangerous surroundings—although why the Ministry has seen fit to allow your family to keep their holdings is a mystery to me."
"A name that instills fear," Draco replied simply, by way of explanation. "That, and great wealth."
"Ah, paid to clean up the war's mess, did the Family Malfoy?"
"My mother did what she could, and she's been creditably serving in Parliament. People respect her."
The flat reply was not unexpected. "Obviously you don't agree, but yes, Mrs Millblossom, they do."
"I do find it difficult to believe that anyone in Parliament might respect a female Peer, but no matter. There have never been that many of them. Now sit down," she ordered him, doing likewise. "We'll need to pass the time until you can go, and I've yet to hear how you intend to do right by me."
Draco swallowed. He hadn't liked it when the gates of the Spellcraftres' Guild had closed behind them, or when the caretaker had explained the Guild's policy of timed protective warding: from midnight to noon, no one, no creature, could enter or leave the Guild; that wasn't, however, what concerned him. He decided to be honest.
"I have . . . very little true idea how to put things right, ma'am. For now, I can only apologise to you."
"You shouldn't," she said, scowling, as Draco said with her, "It's a sign of weakness."
The witch smiled in a slow, familiar manner. "Very good, Mr Malfoy. At least some of your training took."
I hate you, Father, Draco thought bitterly, forcing his wand hand to remain still.
Professor Dumbledore had cautioned him against rash action and given him a protective amulet against possession in the thestral stables, but that hadn't made Draco feel any easier about his present course. His plan was to gain "Millblossom's" trust so that he could later lure her to a private place in which to assert his Familial dominance. The Guild was not such a place because no one, not even Dumbledore, knew the extent or nature of its security charms.
With this in mind, Draco said, "Mrs Millblossom, do you truly wish to resume your work at this time?"
"What do you mean?"
"With respect, you've suffered a terrible ordeal. Wouldn't you prefer to return to your home for a period of convalescence?"
"You perfectly dreadful boy! You know that I have no home any longer! Your aunt saw to that when she murdered my family!"
"I apolo—I know, ma'am, but while I cannot restore much of what you've lost, I can see to it that your home is reconstructed. It's a trifling service, and I don't mean to insult you by offering it, but would you permit me to perform it on your behalf?"
His son's question reverberated in his mind, and Lucius fought to clear it. He was almost completely disorientated; Dumbledore's magic felt alien to him, being trapped in female flesh, even more so, and he knew that even had he had access to a wand, he wouldn't have been able to use it. The pull of unfamiliar wards crackled painfully over his skin, no doubt because it did not contain Millblossom's essence. He doubted it would be long before the building's protections revealed his subterfuge, and he wasn't at all certain what might happen to him then. He was angry and frustrated to find himself thus weakened, and desperate to alter his circumstances while he still could.
Without taking the time to ponder all variables regarding Draco's suggestion, he replied, "Yes, do that, and do it soon."
Draco murmured something banal and civil, and Lucius fought not to fidget in the soft cage in which he was trapped while offering his share of the conversation.
"I'll contact the builders as soon as . . . ."
I should be able to take possession of his body once I've gained control over this one. I'll start again. I'll find some likely chit to make the new Mrs Malfoy, and— "Yes," he said, interrupting his thoughts to reply to Draco, who had finished speaking, "I would appreciate that."
Draco nattered on.
I'll take the Malfoy Seat in Parliament and set about correcting Bellatrix and John's mistakes.
"Of course," Draco said, his annoying voice disturbing Lucius' thoughts once again, "that may have to wait until after Father's memorial."
"Of course," Lucius said, thinking, but it wouldn't have to if you were stronger.
A Malfoy didn't wait for anything or anyone once he's decided upon a course of action; that was a rule, one which it was obvious that Draco had failed to learn.
Lucius glared at him in disgust. I'll choose my next wife more carefully. I'll choose someone who'll give me a powerful son, not an obsequious weakling like you.
"Is it because of the trick I can do?"
Harry was sitting on the floor of Draco's room, gently rocking Aries in his arms.
"No, of course not. Your mother loves you just the way you are."
"Then why'd she leave, Mr Harry?"
Harry sighed; "Daddy" was not something to be achieved so quickly, it seemed. "She left because she has . . . important things to do, things which she believes will keep you safe. That's all I know."
"Are you mad 'cause she didn't tell you about me?"
"Why not? I'd be mad. I don't think it was very nice. Oh," said Aries after this declaration, as if he suddenly realised that he shouldn't have spoken ill of his mother.
"Don't be scared to say what you mean," Harry told him. "You're allowed to be upset with your mother. You're allowed to be scared, too, but I promise you," he said again, "you're safe with me, and I want you here."
Aries wiped his nose and pushed himself off Harry's lap with a yawn. "Where's Cousin Draco? He hasn't been in here."
"You mean last night?" Harry asked, rising from the floor to stretch his cramped limbs.
"You don't have to do that."
Aries looked at him, frowning.
"I mean, you don't have to call me 'sir'."
"Mr Severus' a 'sir', though, isn't he?"
The question made Harry smile. "I expect you're right about that, but we can ask him if you like."
"Okay," Aries said, before biting his lower lip.
Merlin, he looks just like me when he does that. Harry swallowed.
"He didn't sleep in his bed."
"Well, er, how do you know? The elves probably made it after he got up."
"No, Cousin Draco reads, but there's no books."
"There are no books, that's true. Do, er, do you like to read, Aries?"
Scrambling up on Draco's bed, he replied, "Sometimes."
Harry moved to sit next to Aries and was relieved when he remained seated next to him. "Well, when we get those toys I promised you, perhaps we could also buy you some books. I like to read. I could read to you."
"Cousin Draco does that."
"Oh," Harry thought, feeling a bit stung.
"But I guess it would be okay if you did it, too."
"That's awfully nice of you. I'd like to do it."
"Could we find Cousin Draco first?"
"Er," Harry said, not knowing how to respond.
"Guess not," Aries remarked, hanging his head. "Guess he's important, too."
Oh, gods. Severus?
"I won't keep you," Severus said abruptly, as he heard Harry's private plea.
"And that's a dismissal if ever I heard one," Albus replied, smiling, while Minerva moved to kiss Severus' cheek.
I'm coming, Harry.
"Let us know what Harry decides," she said, before leading Albus from the room.
Severus followed slowly behind them, feeling Harry's gratitude, and as soon as they'd Floo'd away, he ran quickly up the stairs towards where his sense of Harry was most strong.
As he entered Draco's suite, Aries asked him, "Are you a 'sir', Mr Severus?"
"I am, indeed—to most people," Severus replied, kneeling down before the bed so that he could look Aries in the eye while sending to Harry, They wish to take responsibility for the children.
Harry's response was as unexpected as Albus and Minerva's proposal had been, but he didn't have time to think about it; Aries was speaking to him.
"But not to me?"
"No, not until you're a student at Hogwarts."
Severus gazed over Aries head and shared a smile with Harry. "Hogwarts," he said, standing up and offering Aries his hand, which he took while hopping from the bed, "is a castle where magical children go to school."
"Would you like us to tell you about it over breakfast?" Harry asked.
Severus watched him start as Aries offered Harry his free hand. You're doing fine.
Sure I am, Harry responded doubtfully, as they walked towards the door. He's stopped asking questions about me.
"Will there be biscuits?"
He's tired, he's got enough information to absorb for now, and he feels sure of you, Severus assured Harry. Aloud, he said to Aries, "Yes, I believe that luncheon will include biscuits."
"But not just biscuits," Harry added.
"And Hogwarts is a school?"
Well, Severus? Harry silently asked him. Is that all Hogwarts is to be?
Severus shook his head. Tell him.
Harry's relief was palpable. "Hogwarts isn't just a magical school, Aries. Hogwarts is home."