(A/N: You all recall this installment's title from back in Chapter 19, right?)

(Disclaimer: You all recall that I don't own these characters and make no profit from this story, right?)

"Coming Back Late"

by alchymie

XXXXV: Nemo Me Impune Lacessit

There was something in the air at the Ministry…

Hermione couldn't put her finger on it, quite. But it did seem to her that, as she walked the corridors that late afternoon, small clusters of people would abruptly fall silent at her approach. Surely it wasn't the presence of her bodyguard: today's Auror had been careful to walk several paces behind her, and in any case, her bodyguards had never caused a problem within the Ministry before now. This was something else: not hostile per se, indeed, people smiled as she drew near. But she couldn't help but feel that she was missing something… or, perhaps more accurately, that she was being excluded from something, something private.

It had been a long time since schoolgirl cliques bothered her; she wasn't much bothered by the Ministry staff's secrecy, either, as long as it didn't impede job performance. She felt sure, if it was important, she'd learn about it sooner or later.

As it happened, that very evening.

"I suppose," she managed to not-scream through a throat constricted with rage, "I should be grateful that you subscribe, Fleur. Merlin knows when I might have found out about this otherwise."

"Well, probably tomorrow," responded Fleur with equal parts sympathy and amusement. "When the Daily Prophet published it."

Fleur had Flooed Enthalpy House the moment Hermione arrived home. They now sat in the living room, with the damnable Moniteur Magique lying on the coffee table. Try as she might, Hermione could not take her eyes from its front page photograph, where her image writhed appreciatively under Harry's roving hand.

"I'm sure the Ministry gets its copies as well," Hermione fumed. "No wonder people were acting so strangely – they were laughing at me! Laughing behind my back! Those foul little…" It dawned on her that the clusters of people who'd been acting so secretively that afternoon had all been wizards. And this was just the sort of 'men-only' sniggery that would appeal to a certain type of male. Of which, evidently, there were more in the Ministry than she'd ever realized.

The fire in the Floo flared green, and Luna's voice came through. "Hallo, Hermione? Fleur? Is anyone there?"

"I took the liberty of contacting Luna," Fleur quickly explained before Hermione could speak. "After all, she helped us the last time we had a problem like this. I felt sure her advice would be useful again."

Hermione nodded reluctant agreement. "Hold out your hand, Luna, I'll pull you over," she called. Within a very few minutes, Luna was examining the Moniteur with the air of a connoisseur, while Hermione waited with suppressed impatience.

"Yes," Luna finally commented, "I can see where Harry would be upset."

Fleur clamped her hand down on Hermione's arm to forestall another indignant outburst. "We were wondering, Luna, if there were anything Hermione could do about this," she said patiently. "It's already public in France, but it isn't widespread in Britain yet. But Hermione feels certain that the Prophet will not keep this story quiet, as they did the last time."

"Oh, they won't report it," Hermione injected acidly, "no, of course they won't. Their story will be the fact that the Moniteur's reporting it."

Luna's eyes flicked from the newspaper to Hermione's face. "And you don't think the Prophet will mention that the Moniteur's photo is faked?" She canted her head in a quick, birdlike manner, and answered her own question. "Well, they certainly wouldn't emphasize the point, no. Hmmm." She returned her gaze to the photo; she gave a quick, appreciative smile as Harry's image began to use both hands.

"You should simply ignore this, Hermione," said Fleur firmly. "Attacking the press will only serve to emphasize what we'd like to see forgotten. It would give the photo more weight, not less."

"But if I say nothing, it'll encourage worse to come." Hermione plucked the newspaper from Luna's hands, ignoring Luna's small yelp of protest, and slapped it down on the coffee table. "You see why the Moniteur, the press in general, think they can get away with this, don't you? Think! Has any other Minister of Magic had to put up with this sort of personal attack? Did Kingsley? Did Scrimgeour?"

"Cornelius Fudge…" began Luna.

"Was challenged on his competence and ethics – both of which were, quite obviously, fair targets. But I don't think even the Quibbler suggested that Fudge seduced schoolgirls!" Hermione rubbed her brow as though to scrub away her thoughts before they formed. "I'm Muggleborn, is why. I am the first Muggleborn Minister of Magic ever. And too many wizards see me as an object of fun for that reason alone. I can't afford this! I can't afford to have my authority further undermined by any suggestions of…"

"Of what?"

All three ladies started at the sound of Harry's voice. The almost silent pop of air that heralded his Apparation had gone unnoticed. Now he stood at the door to the kitchen, motionless, his features expressionless to the point of emptiness. Hermione could tell he was upset, but whatever problem he'd brought with him was lost almost immediately, as he caught sight of the newspaper's photo.

It took only an instant for him to absorb the photo and its message. His expressionless face turned positively murderous. "Ah," he said grimly, "I see. Right, then, so much for journalistic integrity."

And he turned to leave.

Hermione was immediately out of her seat and stretching out her hand to him. "Harry, wait! Look, I'm very sorry about this. I know it looks bad – I just found out about it, and I'm as mortified as you are! We were just about to discuss what I might do to counter…"

"Not much you can do," Harry broke in. "The Minister can't take action against a foreign newspaper. And any action the Minister takes against a British newspaper will just make it look like you have something to hide. The Minister can't take any official action." He gave her a small, tight smile that didn't extend past his mouth, and didn't last more than a second. "Trust me, I know about official actions. Dennis explained it all."

"This is different… a different situation altogether." Hermione couldn't speak explicitly about her covert assignments to Dennis and Canby, not with Fleur and Luna listening. In any case, this wasn't the time for a lecture. She strove for a neutral tone, firm but reasonable. She didn't want to sound like she was either ordering him or pleading with him… certainly not lecturing him. "Harry, I trust you more than anyone, you know that. I'll trust you with tasks just as I trust Dennis, or Canby. But this problem is about public perception, and it has to be resolved publicly – by me. Harry, please, let me deal with it."

His mouth tightened. "Scotland," he said curtly.

She responded with a warm smile, which seemed to give him pause. "Yes, the motto of Scotland. I do appreciate it… thank you. But this time, I have to deal with the problem – and be seen to deal with it – on my own, if I want to maintain my authority as Minister. I can't be seen as powerless." Or dependent on The Boy Who Lived Again, she didn't add.

Harry stood unmoving for one more moment, before his shoulders slumped. "But what can you do? As Minister, what can you do? You said it last time: asking the Prophet not to print the photo is a sure guarantee they will print it. Pretty much all you can do…" He caught her gaze and concluded quietly, "is disavow. Deny that we're…" He left the sentence dangling, unfinished.

She shook her head slowly, her eyes never leaving his. "No," she said with simple finality.

He seemed to lighten at that, if only a little. "No?" he echoed.

"No, of course not," said Luna unexpectedly. "For one thing, Hermione won't lie. And besides, no one would believe her. I mean, it's so obvious."

"Thank you, Luna," Hermione muttered under her breath. At least she'd forestalled Harry from Apparating to Paris and confronting the Moniteur's editor face-to-face. His smile for her seemed less forced now… less grim. She hoped, whatever problem he'd had when he'd arrived at Enthalpy House, it was no longer important.

In the meantime, she needed a plan for dealing with the Prophet. She turned and addressed Luna and Fleur. "The press never showed this sort of contempt to previous Ministers, even female Ministers like Bagnold. They think they can get away with attacking me because I can't retaliate – because my position is seen as precarious – because I'm Muggleborn." Hermione spread her hands, inviting suggestions.

"You will not disavow," declared Fleur, "you will not deny. Instead, you will do what no one will expect." She laughed. "And you will change the playing field to your home ground. After all, chère, there is one other way in which you differ from previous Ministers."

Another sleepless night – but one markedly different from those he'd experienced while he was Master of the Deathly Hallows. Then, he'd been energized to the point that he no longer needed sleep. Now, he needed sleep desperately – but his mind was far too tumultuous to allow him the luxury. Instead, he sat in The Ossuary's drawing room, trying to marshal his thoughts.

Harry had provided the three witches with "brainstorming fuel" (he knew a pizzeria in Southampton whose fare was acceptable), then had left them to their plans – returning to The Ossuary for the night feeling decidedly dejected. True, Hermione's reassurances had been, well, reassuring: good to know that she didn't plan to issue a press release to the wizarding world that began Harry and I are just friends. But Harry still felt as though the problems she was about to face, once the Prophet published that blasted picture, were somehow his fault, and his responsibility to fix.

At least the photograph had briefly diverted him from his earlier fury.

Blaise Zabini. It had to've been Blaise Zabini. I was at the Arch, I know how much time elapsed between Kingsley's soul going through and Hermione's soul going through. I know Kingsley was dead when Hermione was being strangled – so it wasn't Kingsley's Incarcerous spell that did it. It was Zabini's. In Moore's Pensieve memory, I saw him mouth the incantation.

But Moore didn't hear it. And I can't tell anyone I was at the Arch, when I supposed to be in the domain of Death. So I can't prove Zabini did it… but I know it was him. Ohh yes.

Harry was just a hairsbreadth away from Apparating to Zabini's home and taking the law into his own hands. Only the knowledge that it would reflect badly on Hermione had stayed him… at least initially, until he'd talked with her. And then, when he'd arrived at Enthalpy House, seeing the Prophet's front page demand Hermione's attention, he'd remained silent.

And he'd understood her tacit warning, and request.

She trusts me like she trusts Dennis Creevey, and Canby. She sends them out to investigate on the sly, so the Cartel's agents won't know. Right. So I can investigate on the sly as well. I can take care of Zabini without her involvement… give her, what's it called, plausible deniability. That's just what I'll do.

The question is how. I have to find proof that I can present in court. Moore's memory is a start, but it's not ironclad. Because I intend to nail the bastard.

And if I can't… well, I can still pay Zabini a midnight visit.

He glanced up and was surprised to see streaks of pink through the window… the sun was dawning. Harry hadn't realized how late he'd stayed up, or how early it now was. Or how exhausted he was… thank goodness he wasn't scheduled for Hogwarts that week. He doubted he could have given a coherent lecture.

A soft knock at the front door caught his attention. Who would be visiting The Ossuary at that hour of the morning…? He rose from his chair, quickly made his way to the foyer, and opened the front door in time to catch Canby raising his hand to knock again.

"Oh!" the elf whispered. "Canby is so sorry, Mister Harry, Canby was trying not to disturb…"

"You didn't, you didn't. I was already awake." Harry gestured Canby inside. "I'm guessing you're here to collect Ayesha for some more questioning?"

Canby nodded. "Also to take Ayesha to visit Ministry elves. They have asked after her, hoping she is well."

"Yeah," Harry said slowly. Something about the Ministry was sparking an idea in Harry's head. "Canby, before we call Ayesha, I've a question. I hope you can answer it… it's about the Department of Magical Law Enforcement."

"Of course, Mister Harry." The elf looked up at him expectantly. Harry took a moment, seeking a way to get the answers he wanted without revealing his purpose.

"There's a spell you use in Magical Law Enforcement," he began. "Hermione mentioned it. It's some kind of transcription spell: it writes down what a person says. Are you familiar with it? Good. The thing is, Hermione used that spell on my godson, Ted Lupin. And Ted's worried that it might still be working."

"Oh, no need to worry, Mister Harry!" Canby chirped. "The spell does not last more than a few days. When prisoners are being monitored, the spell must be renewed twice a week."

Damn. That's not very long at all. Harry didn't let his disappointment show. "Does it only work at the Ministry? No, wait, of course it doesn't: Ted was at Hogwarts when Hermione cast it on him. I suppose you'd know more about that than I would…" He trailed off invitingly.

Canby seemed happy to show off his knowledge. Possibly he wanted to impress the Defender of House Elves… or maybe he'd simply spent too much time around Hermione. "Scribo is a simple spell, keyed to special quills at the Ministry. It is not strong – it must be cast by contact, not from a distance – but it is very suited for monitoring prisoners. It writes prisoner's location, writes what prisoner says…"

"While at least looking like you're respecting their privacy, got it." Harry couldn't help chuckling at that. "Okay, thanks for telling me. I can let Ted know he's off the hook."

After Canby had left with Ayesha, Harry sighed and made his way to the kitchen. Maybe I'll think better for some breakfast, he thought. There must be some way I can get the goods on Zabini. Mmm, maybe a few Extendable Ears planted in his home…

He set a skillet on the stove, letting it heat while he cracked some eggs into a mixing bowl. Moving with practiced ease, he slipped a pat of butter into the skillet while adding a dash of milk to the eggs. Spices, let's see, what sort of spices did Susan stock in her kitchen? Cinnamon, or redseed, or…?

"Mister Harry!" Brillig had arrived in the kitchen. 'Agitated' didn't begin to describe her. "Oh, Mister Harry should not be cooking! That is why Mister Harry pays Brillig! Sit, sit, and Brillig will make breakfast…!"

Harry smiled and shook his head. "I like cooking, Brillig. I like to think I'm good at it – ah! She does have redseed!" The bottle of redseed didn't seem to have its own grinder; Harry tapped some seeds onto the countertop and crushed them with the back of a spoon. The powdered redseed went into the eggs, which Harry began whisking rapidly, keeping one eye on the skillet.

Brillig watched, her anxiety ebbing, as Harry prepared to pour the eggs into the skillet. "Master Jack was liking butterbeer in his eggs," she offered tentatively.

"I've heard of that," Harry shrugged, setting aside the bowl and retrieving a plate from the cupboard. He maintained a running commentary as the eggs were scrambled. "Butterbeer's too sweet, though, really. You add milk to the eggs to make them lighter, of course, but I like a little zest too. If I were making a full breakfast, we'd have bacon, a couple of cheeses… here, try this."

He filled a fork with scrambled eggs and pointed it at Brillig's mouth. She hesitated, uncertain whether she was permitted to eat humans' food, then bravely opened her mouth and accepted the offering. Her eyes widened. "Ooh…! The red is… like that funny pepper?"

"Cayenne? Yeah, but redseed's better. Doesn't overpower the flavor of the eggs, which is important if you've got fresh farm eggs like these." The eggs done to Harry's taste, neither too runny nor too dry, he tilted most of the skillet's contents onto the plate, then glanced at Brillig. "There's enough for two."

The elf was, of course, shocked by the suggestion that she eat Harry's food, with Harry – but Harry was pleased to see that the shock didn't seem as strong as before, nor did it last as long. It was just as well: Harry knew from experience that Brillig could follow recipes, but her remarks on preparing eggs had surprised and touched him. He found himself curious just how creative Brillig could be in the kitchen.

It should be interesting to find out, he decided as they ate their breakfasts at the kitchen counter (Harry standing, Brillig seated on the counter). I've never tried teaching anyone how to cook – really cook, I mean. Heck, this may be fun for both of us.

Blaise Zabini was likewise having a sleepless dawn. He was sitting at the desk in his study; sheets of parchment were strewn over the desk, looking as though he were dealing with Departmental minutiae – but he wore his enchanted reading glasses, in response to the buzzing summons he'd received while in bed.

Svartalfer's image, at least, was expected. Unexpected was the other Cartel Lord visible in the glasses: ibn al-Afrit. Each Cartel Lord wore one lens of a set of spectacles… which meant, Blaise realized, that ibn al-Afrit had joined Svartalfer in his secure location. Both Lords, after all, were still fugitives.

"So Granger has now cut off aid to the ICW," Blaise concluded his report, "and we'll still hold the means to influence her future decisions, as well."

"And this is due to you and your agents," confirmed Svartalfer. "Well done, Zabini… though it has not yet much effect had. Local Aurors continue our local operations to hamper."

"We are still retrenching, regrouping… replacing lost personnel," said ibn al-Afrit. "Revenues will be depressed for the foreseeable future. We much fear this will reduce your usual honoraria… for the moment."

"And my agent?" inquired Blaise. "Initiative must needs be rewarded…"

"He will have a high place in our new organization," ibn al-Afrit promised. He frowned. "Though it is as my colleague says, the ICW still harasses us. Indeed, they seem uncomfortably familiar with the details of our operations. You're certain your local Aurors are not still providing information?"

"Quite sure. I was present when Granger ordered cooperation suspended. I've been dealing with the international consequences personally." Blaise shrugged. "In any case, with Swivingham dead and his local cadre dispersed, any sources of information here in Britain will have long since dried up."

"I had in mind the house-elves we sent Swivingham…"

"The only house-elf who might have presented a threat was your own body servant – the one Granger managed to bring to Britain to testify against me." Blaise saw the subtle dig strike home, and gave ibn al-Afrit an urbane smile. "Alas, she was accidentally killed in the firefight at the Ministry, the day Shacklebolt died."

"My Ayesha killed, you say?" The Arab's face went blank for a moment. "Well, no matter," he said at length, "our priorities remain unchanged." He nodded to Svartalfer, who picked up the thread.

"There are certain of Swivingham's stockpiles which we would useful find," Svartalfer told Blaise. "We will need access to them – and passage in and out of Britain for our people – without your Enforcers' notice."

"I will arrange it, of course. The same drop as before," promised Blaise, wishing he could call for Virgil to bring him coffee. The discussion didn't look as though it would soon conclude, and he wanted to be at his freshest when he went to the office in a few hours. After all, he trusted the Daily Prophet would act as he expected: those scandalous photos in Monday's foreign news would be prime fodder for Tuesday's Prophet. And far be it from him to fail to do his part: he'd already shared them with a few hand-picked Ministry co-workers. The photos could only serve to damage Granger's reputation, and the wider they were spread, the better.

Despite his shortness of sleep, Zabini arrived at the Ministry earlier than his usual time. Forearmed with Ginny's insights into Granger's likely response, he wanted a good seat to watch the show. Its entertainment value alone would be worth the foul taste of Pepper-Up Potion. And he'd prepared several amusing (and risqué) one-liners to drop into conversations throughout the day… each one chipping away a little more at Granger's reputation.

But oddly, when the morning Prophet arrived on his desk, the embarrassing photos weren't there. Not on the front page, not even buried inside. In fact, the Prophet didn't mention them at all, even to say that they'd appeared in the Moniteur. Surely Granger couldn't have…?

Electing discretion over pleasure, Zabini decided to hold off on commenting on the photos, concentrating instead on gauging the mood of the Ministry: listening in on conversations without ever appearing to eavesdrop. He would wait for Granger to arrive before choosing the face he'd show his co-workers.

Which, as it turned out, was a prudent decision – for when Granger did arrive at the Ministry, Zabini almost didn't recognize her.

Someone must have advised Granger on her appearance, because she didn't look her usual non-descript self. Her bushy hair was more than merely tamed, it was coiffed. Her face was a study in subtlety, made-up to look quite lovely without seeming glamorously made-up. She wasn't wearing her usual robes, but something more form-fitting, flattering to her figure while still undeniably suitable for the offices of the Ministry. It all combined to proclaim that Hermione Granger was a youthful, attractive, confident witch.

Even worse, Granger had Mina Mignot in tow. Mina Mignot was a bright young reporter for the Daily Prophet: smart, but in Zabini's view, not yet sophisticated. In other words, the perfect person to write up Granger's spin exactly as it was given to her.

"It will still take time," Granger was now saying to Mignot as they strolled down the corridor, a photographer trailing silently behind, "but I think the Ministry has just about recovered from Kingsley's death. We're back on top of our responsibilities now, and that's always a good thing."

"And how have you settled in as Minister? Experiencing any, shall we call it culture shock?" asked Mignot. A notepad hovered near her shoulder, with a Dictation Quill scribbling, leaving Mina's hands free.

Granger smiled broadly. "If I were, I wouldn't be the only one. You have seen those photos from France, haven't you? Our poor European cousins just aren't quite certain what to make of me." She actually laughed, damn her. "After all, I'm probably unique, unprecedented, in their experience."

"Oh? How so?"

"I'm the youngest Minister of Magic in living memory – possibly in the last three hundred years. Age is only a demographic, of course," and Granger waved a hand over herself in modest self-deprecation, "but you have to admit, there's an undeniable… freshness that comes with the territory."

"A breath of fresh air, as it were?" Mignot asked dutifully.

"As it were, and taking some folks by surprise, I suspect. Honestly, can you imagine anyone faking a photograph like that of Millicent Bagnold when she was Minister?"

Mignot's face lit with appreciation. "Hardly! She was pretty crusty when she was elected! And she was our last female Minister, too," she added, making the connection. "Nobody'd have tried this sort of thing with a male Minister, would they?"

"I doubt it. What do you think, Blaise?" Granger added, turning to him unexpectedly. "Would an elderly male Minister ever be subjected to this kind of muckraking? Would he even consider it slander – or a compliment?"

Surprised and unprepared, Zabini could only temporize, struggling to maintain a smooth poise, and painfully aware that more and more Ministry staffers were now listening. "Kingsley Shacklebolt was too well respected… and Pius Thicknesse was, frankly, too feared…"

"And both old enough to be our fathers," laughed Granger, returning to the point she insisted on making: that her age, not her Muggle heritage, had sparked the Moniteur's moment of yellow journalism. She had, in short, completely shifted the battleground before Zabini'd had a chance to fire his main salvos. Sly barbs were still possible, but now his battle would be fought uphill.

Well played, Granger, he acknowledged as he retreated to his office, well played.

Having agreed to this charade when Fleur proposed it, Hermione was committed to seeing it to the end. She'd contacted the Prophet at once, and arranged for an exclusive interview. Then this morning, reluctantly, she'd allowed Fleur to prepare her for it: sitting uncomfortably while Skeekeasy's Hair Potion was applied; while Fleur painted her face, erased what she'd done, repainted, over and over; while her wardrobe was critiqued with a scathing Gallic scorn, and her best robes Transfigured. Merlin, she hadn't gone to this much trouble on her wedding day!

Now she artfully maintained her cheery front, consenting to be photographed in her new look, projecting an aura of vigor and vitality – pretending the tasteless jokes had been because she was young, not because she was Muggleborn. She knew, intellectually, that it would not only enhance her political standing, but confound her opponents: the ones who were hungrily waiting for her to fail. It was the right course.

But neither her intellect nor her determined cheer could quite overcome the bad taste in her mouth.

It's been almost exactly twenty years since I was first called a Mudblood, she reflected sourly. We fought a war over that prejudice. Is it too much to ask that I not have to put up with it any more?

Miss Mignot's voice intruded on her thoughts. "One more photograph, I think, Minister? Of you behind your desk. I think we've enough for a full spread, with that."

Obediently, Hermione led them to her office. The Minister's office, it had formerly been Kingsley's; his decorations and memorabilia had been packed up and forwarded to his family. Hermione had been tempted to decorate here as in Enthalpy House, with many bookcases stuffed with tomes. A little reflection, though, had led to the addition of some objêts d'art around the room, hanging on the walls or displayed on small tables. She was proudest of her statuette of Lady Justice: delicate features, blindfolded, scales in one hand and a sword in the other. It was a reproduction of a 19th C. work, and she took secret pleasure in knowing that the original, and the reproduction, were made by the hands of Muggles.

Hermione took her seat behind the desk and made sure she was sitting erect, head up, chest not too obviously out, before giving the cameraman a confident smile. His camera flashed amidst a puff of purple smoke (flash powder, Hermione thought irrelevantly, how quaint), and then he was nodding to Mignot and packing his gear.

"You can read the story in the Prophet, probably by the end of the week," Mignot said. "I won't lie to you: my editors may decide to run those French photos after all." (Which meant, Hermione knew, that they had already decided to do so.) "But we'll blur your faces, and the, um, unpublishable bits…"

"Muggles call that 'airbrushing'," Hermione informed her.

"Sure, okay. But it'll all be part of the story of how the new young Minister is bringing vitality to the Ministry, and all that. Trust me, it'll be tasteful." Mignot smiled apologetically. "Hey, it'll have to be tasteful. Everyone in the press knows what you said to those three idiots who ambushed you in Hogsmeade, the day you were elected."

"Excellent," Hermione said gravely. "I do so hate repeating myself."

Mignot's smile faltered for a moment, before she managed to plaster it back into place. "Erm, yes, well… and the rumors about you and Harry Potter? I'm sure you'll be wanting to make some statement…?"

"That Harry was with me in Athens is beyond denial," Hermione stated, in what was clearly a carefully rehearsed speech. (She reminded herself to stick to Harry's cover story as closely as she could.) "Obviously, with Harry behind the Veil, he'd been effectively dead. His return after so many years was a joyful time for him, and for all his friends. I count myself fortunate to be Harry's friend, and we've spent a great deal of time together since he came back – renewing our relationship."

"So… you're officially 'just friends', Minister?" Mignot grinned cheekily.

Hermione gave a serene smile in return. "Friendship, certainly, but of the deepest and truest kind. Certainly, there's no man to whom I feel closer."

"Such a pity, then, isn't it? That he's, what, half your age or thereabouts…?"

Laughing, Hermione cut short the rest of Mignot's sentence. "I said it before, I'll say it again: age is only a demographic." The reporter's eyebrows rose at the implications, and Hermione continued, "Even before passing beyond the Veil, Harry had experienced more in his life than most wizards of any age. It's experience that gives maturity, not the ticks of a clock."

If she didn't know better, Hermione would have sworn that Mignot's eyes glittered with anticipation. She all but leaned forward to catch Hermione's response, as she asked softly, "What, exactly, are you saying, Madam Granger? For the record, are you and Harry Potter any more than friends?"

"For the record," and Hermione paused dramatically, never losing her smile, "Harry and I have been very close, we are closer today, and I would say we look forward to growing closer still. I trust that answers your question, Miss Mignot?"

"Mere words cannot express," Tori declared, "how much I've looked forward to this."

Ted was in total agreement. They were queued up with their classmates, waiting for that precious moment when the gates of Hogwarts would open, and they would be free! Free, at any rate, to escape Hogwarts for the day, free to forget classes and assignments due Monday – free to visit Hogsmeade, which for once took precedence even over Quidditch practice. Already, Ted was planning how much they could pack into their morning, since he had an engagement for the afternoon.

"If only because," she added, squeezing his arm, "I'll have to you to myself for a rarity. Not sharing you with Rosie."

"Oh, cut her some slack," Ted admonished. "She's back in the Hospital Wing this morning, did you hear?"

Tori nodded, her expression suddenly serious. Every five days, Rose would abruptly "not feel all that well" and report to Madam Pomfrey. A couple of her fellow Gryffindors had begun to remark on it; only Tori and Ted knew that Rose was pretending to receive her doses of antidote. Her poisoners probably couldn't keep track of her comings and goings, not inside Hogwarts… but why take chances? Rose would play her part to the hilt, until the blackmailers were caught.

"I heard," said Tori somberly, likewise playing her part. "I hope she feels better soon."

"Yeah, me too." Ted shrugged. "Not that you've had to share me with Rose all that much, lately. She only has eyes for Someone Else now." He smiled an evil smile. "I can't wait until he subs for Professor Longbottom on a day he has to teach the firsties."

"On that day, you will behave, if you know what's good for you."

"We'll see." He lost his evil smile and looked almost solemn. "Is, um, is there anyplace you'd like to visit first? Zonko's, or…"

"Why on earth would I want to visit Zonko's? Is my last name Zonko? Isn't the Hogsmeade branch of the Wheezes just down the street? That would be 'no' and 'yes', respectively. Please, Ted, try to show a little loyalty."

"To the Weasley name? Are you saying I don't?" He laced his fingers with hers, and continued, "Whatever you'd like to do, love. I'm just sorry I can't spend all day with you, but…"

"But you're lunching with your Gran. I understand, Ted. Don't fret, I'll find some way to amuse myself." Tori squeezed his hand and smiled happily at him, and Ted's problems seemed to retreat with remarkable speed.

All too soon, however, he found himself breaking away from Tori, with many apologies on his part and dismissals on hers, and making his way to the Three Broomsticks. Gran had said she'd be reserving one of the private parlors for them, which implied she wished privacy for their discussion. First, about why she wanted him to change his name – what need did she see for it? – and then, about the will Harry had suggested.

But when Roswitha, the landlady, had ushered him to the parlor, he was surprised to discover that Gran wasn't alone. Gran hadn't mentioned that she'd be bringing anyone to their meeting, much less that it would be…

"My sister Narcissa," Gran introduced them as he stood at the door, frozen in astonishment. "Cissy, this is your great-nephew Teddy."

"Ted," he corrected automatically, entering the parlor and closing the door behind him. He extended his hand. "Ted Lupin. Um, pleased to meet you… er, how shall I call you?"

"Aunt Narcissa will do," Narcissa replied, taking Ted's hand with a smile. There was no sign of hesitation or squeamishness on her part; from what Ted had heard about her, he'd almost expected some. "The pleasure's mutual. Let me thank you for allowing us to stay in your home, until we find our footing."

"Oh, no worries, no worries at all." Ted glanced sidewise at his grandmother, hoping for an explanation. Wasn't this supposed to be a private discussion…?

"I asked her to be here," Gran said, gesturing to the chairs and taking one herself, "to lend her suggestions about your legal change of name. The one I wrote to you about?"

"Changing it to Black-Lupin, you mean?" Ted noticed a sideboard with three pitchers and several glasses. A quick inspection showed butterbeer, water, and tea in the pitchers; he poured himself a glass of water. His glance inquired whether Gran or his new Auntie likewise wanted a drink; when they shook their heads, he took his seat, water glass in hand.

"Or Lupin-Black," said Narcissa. "Or even Black. But yes, in any event, having the Black surname made formally yours."

"Is that really important, then?" Ted looked from Narcissa to Gran. "I mean, it wouldn't change me. I'd be the same person, with the same parents, even if I changed my name to Arglebarg."

The corner of Gran's mouth twitched upward, as it always did when she was trying not to smile. "I rather imagine the Wizengamot would find it difficult to acknowledge an Arglebarg as Head of the Most Noble House of Black."

"More to the point," Narcissa continued smoothly, "I and my son would find it difficult to acknowledge an Arglebarg as Head of our House. Or anybody not named Black."

"Um… I didn't realize the House of Black had a Head. Or that it needed one – I mean, we've been getting along fine without a Head for how many years? Since your cousin Sirius died, isn't it?"

"We've been 'getting along', as you put it," said Gran severely, "but I would hardly characterize it as 'fine'. A Noble House does better with a single Head to whom its members can look for leadership. If you were Head of our House, anyone who would claim the status of being a Black would have to acknowledge you." She met Ted's eyes and added, "And support you fully, Teddy. In everything. Which will be no small thing, once you reach your majority."

"I… seeeeee," Ted said slowly. "And I need to do this before making a will?"

"It simplifies things tremendously, if the will ever needs to be executed – God forbid," Narcissa replied.

He sipped his water, giving himself a chance to think. "So, um, ifif I decide to do this, how do we go about it? You mentioned the Wizengamot; we don't have to work through them, do we?"

Gran reached into her purse and brought out a sheaf of folded parchments. "They'd be informed of the change, and may acknowledge your status – but for the change itself, all that's needed is a filing with the Magical Records Office. Mind you, Teddy, it will be a magical filing: not quite a Magically Binding Contract, but you won't be able to just change it back on a whim. You need to be sure this is what you want."

"Um, I guess I'm not quite sure yet. I guess. I'd like to think about it some more. There's no deadline, is there?" Gran shook her head; Ted noticed that Narcissa said nothing, and kept her face friendly, but he thought he saw a hint of satisfaction there as well. Well, if Harry's right, he thought, the longer I put off making a will, the better for her and cousin Draco.

He extended his hand towards the parchments. Gran gave them to him, and he tapped them thoughtfully against his chin. He made no move to open and read them. "One thing," he said after a moment, "if I do this, I want to keep the Lupin name too. It was my dad's name, and I want it to be mine."

"That should be no problem," Narcissa smiled. "And I commend you on your loyalty: an admirable trait in the Head of a Noble House. And I quite understand your desire to keep up appearances."

"That's twice you've said something like that, Cissy," Gran put in. "What are you talking about?"

"About Ted's father," explained Narcissa. "Naming Remus Lupin as his father. You know, Dromeda." She paused, momentarily uncertain. "Or have I misunderstood? Was Remus Lupin not a werewolf?"

"Oh, he was a werewolf, Mother," came a new voice from the parlor door. "That fact came out when I was a third-year, and he was our Defense teacher. Since he resigned as soon as he was outed, we all knew it was true." Draco Malfoy entered the parlor and extended his hand to Ted. "Hello, there. I'm your cousin Draco. I'm very pleased to meet you." He paused, his hand outstretched, as Ted stood motionless as a statue.

"First cousin once removed, to be precise," Narcissa put in. "You bear the same relationship to Draco that Draco bore to our last patriarch, Sirius."

Mechanically, Ted reached out and shook Draco's hand. By reflex, his expression had schooled itself into the innocuous look he favored when accused of a school prank – showing absolutely nothing of what he was thinking. "Draco, yes, I'm Ted. The pleasure's mine. Good to meet you."

"Thank you," Draco said, relaxing slightly. "So, Ted… I understand you play Quidditch?"

"Erm, yeah," Ted said, and then coughed. He cleared his throat and began again. "Yeah, I made captain of the Gryffindor team this year. I play Chaser…" He coughed once more and released Draco's hand.

"Ah, Chaser," Draco drawled. "A good position for learning teamwork, Chaser. I played Seeker when I was your age… for Slytherin, don't you know…" He stopped, slightly dismayed, as Ted started coughing again, more prolonged and violent this time.

"S-Sorry," Ted managed to choke out. "Got something down the wrong pipe…" He was seized with another fit of wracking coughs. "'Scuse me a sec…" Seeing Gran's alarmed gesture of dismissal, he darted for the door and made his way to the lavatory.

Once inside with the door bolted, he dropped the pretense of coughing and raised his hand to his face. He sniffed carefully. There was no mistake.

But now what do I do? I can't go back in there… well, I can, I won't give anything away, I never do, my face always looks exactly like I want it to look… but then what do I do? I wish Harry were here… he'd know what to do…

One possibility occurred to him. He hadn't yet tried this trick, but it ought to work… please let it work! Ted drew a deep breath and his wand at the same time. He brandished it towards the narrow lav window, and tried to think of a happy memory. Well, that one was obvious.

The night I let Tori use my wand.

As Harry had taught him, he filled his mind with that memory… then altered the memory slightly, to incorporate the message he wanted to send. Then, before he could begin to doubt himself, he flicked his wand and intoned, "Expecto Patronum!"

And out of the end of his wand there shot a shining, brilliant, silver… three-inch-long reptile, with bulbous eyes and a curled tail. It perched on the ledge of the window for a split second, regarding him with one eye askew, then flashed out the window and away.

A chameleon. I finally get my corporeal Patronus, and it's a chameleon. An effing lizard. Hex me now.

Well, any port in a storm. Ted splashed some water on his face, left the lavatory, and returned to the parlor. He arrived as Draco was explaining to Gran, "I'm sure any daughter of yours wouldn't have played the field once married – even married to a, yes, well – so they must have asked a friend to help them out. That's always been the general assumption, anyway. The important thing, though, is that his mother was a Black…" Draco fell abruptly silent upon seeing Ted in the doorway.

Ted was seething inside – if that story was "the general impression", why was this the first he was hearing about it? – but his face remained bland. "Sorry about that," he told everyone casually, as though he'd heard nothing. "Must've been the caramels I ate for breakfast."

"Caramels?" Gran asked pointedly, just as Ted had predicted.

"For energy," he explained. "You'd know about that, playing Seeker and all," he added, turning to Draco with a grin.

Draco returned the grin. "I do know what you mean, but I never liked the sugar rush: it didn't last. I always loaded up with carbs and caffeine before a game." He cocked his head. "First game of the year should be coming up soon, eh? Gryffindor vs. Slytherin, as always?"

"As always. Maybe you'd like to come to Hogwarts and, um, watch the game?"

"Not that game. I wouldn't know who to cheer for. But perhaps later in the year… when you play Ravenclaw, perhaps?" Draco gave a light laugh and turned for the door. "Well, I wanted to drop in and meet you, cousin, we'll be seeing much of each other – especially once you've been recognized as Head of the Blacks – but I've still some things I need to do today. Until later, Ted, ladies." Before Ted could think of an excuse to keep him in the parlor, Draco opened the door and walked out.

And ran headlong into someone just outside the door.

Draco hacked and spit, stepping backwards into the room, massaging his throat. "Watch where you're going, you blithering idiot, you nearly crushed my windpipe…" His tirade stopped short as he recognized the figure who'd blocked his path. "Potter?"

"Malfoy," Harry responded, closing the door behind him. "Mrs. Malfoy, Mrs. Tonks. You're all looking well."

"You're looking very well, for a dead person," said Draco coldly. "Is there something you need here? I hesitate to point it out, but this is a private party."

"Which was his idea in the first place," Ted said quickly. "When I got Gran's owl, he advised talking with her face to face. And he is my godfather."

"Your…?" Draco's eyes narrowed; his glance flitted from Ted to Harry and back.

"Well, he wasn't around to carry out the duties until now, but yeah." Ted turned to Narcissa and spoke gravely. "I bear the same relationship to Harry that Harry bore to our last patriarch, Sirius."

"I see." Draco's face looked as though he were eating lemons – but he drew himself up and spoke without heat. "Well, Potter, I hope you do well by our young man. He has an important role to play in society, and there are things he needs to know." That you could never teach him, was the unspoken addendum. "If you will all excuse me now." He left the room without waiting for a response.

Harry looked at Narcissa and gave a small smile. "He's never liked me."

"I am sure," Narcissa said regally, "my son is willing to let bygones be bygones."

"If he doesn't rattle my chains, I won't rattle his," Harry agreed. He gave Ted a hard look, and a silent message passed between them: they would talk alone later. "So," he continued cheerfully, turning back to Andromeda and Narcissa, "what did we decide on? Lupin-Black, or Black-Lupin?"