Disclaimer: The following is not purely original fiction, but rather characters, settings, and situations as created by J.K. Rowling. I will return all characters in fairly decent condition. No money is being made of this piece of fanfiction and can not be reproduced for any purposes but strictly private entertainment.

Author's Note: AU. Meaning Alternate Universe - defies canon.


Stepping About the Shadows

Involuntarily, Remus's lip curled as he heaved the trunk in the Red Room. Everything of this guest screamed of power and magic and wealth - of so much money it brought out common sense. A practised, merchant-like eye picked out clasps of pure gold and silver (he'd felt the latter), deep black velvet and leather than showed no sign of wear; in other words, brand-new. The cloak already hung was rich and finely-made, and as Remus swiftly and silently unpacked the clothing he saw it was more of the same, and all wizard's robes, in every bleeding colour of the rainbow, no less. And that broom! Top of the line with every custom bell and whistle one could dream up. He had not seen this James Potter arrive, but knew that everything about the young man (the clothing was not quite adult-sized) might as well have been a neon sign flashing above him: 'VERY VERY RICH. THEIVES LOOK HERE.'

Of course, it was one of the few truly useful reasons Remus was about Crossed Tailfeathers Inn. Sure, there had probably been a few things nicked from customers when Remus wasn't aware of intent, but when he knew a thief was about, they had yet to outsmart Remus Jacy Lupin.

So he would probably end up watching the Ministry brat Potter's back, not that Potter would ever know. Remus did not expect thanks, or even especially desire it. His lone satisfaction would be in the irony, for his ideals were rather undeveloped in a world where all traces of his existence were hidden. No, he would just silently gloat as Potter left, not a Knut shorter due to larceny, because a wretched, despised werewolf had protected the son of a man who campaigned to have said protector killed.

James Potter, with his perfect ivory-tower life, would go on none the wiser. And Remus would soon forget him in catering to other fortunate ones. And both would die some day. The end.

Or so Remus believed that fateful evening.

The Red Room was immaculately clean before, but in the few hours Potter had been here untidiness had slyly crept in. Remus went about the chores as best he could, with so little time, so little tools. Dinner would end soon.

After straightening and cleaning the windows, Remus pulled a warmed brick from his pocket to heat the bed. It was unusually chilly for summer, mostly due to storms and the ceaseless rain, the damp of which may have penetrated other inns of Roasedaly - Dewdrop, Green Dragon, Espeliocal - but never the Lupins' Crossed Tailfeathers. Haunted and the owners with a rumoured werewolf child it may or may not be. Cold it was not and would never be.

Belongings were sprawled over bedcovers so rumpled Potter might have well as slept on them. People are such bloody slobs, Remus reflected crossly, stacking a photograph album, Chocolate Frog cards, and a chess set on the nightstand. He tucked the brick at the foot of the bed, pulled the sheets and blankets straight, and set about collecting the loose photos to an orderly pile.

Wizarding photographs, of course, brandied about carelessly. These showed rambunctious scenes and figures beaming and waving up at Remus. In spite of himself, Remus slowed as he glanced down and began to study them. Three boys his age, heads a contrast of two jet-black and one tow blond, playing a rockilling game of lets-jump-around-and-see-who-breaks-the-most-bones-and/or-first-falls-into-the-lake. The same two dark-haired boys with a fiery-headed girl, doing her best to look stern and failing completely. A mud-coloured dog in the midst of a bath given by the blond one and one with black hair and no glasses.

'Hallo,' came a cautious voice behind Remus.

To say Remus was startled was an understatement. To say he was ashamed and disgusted with himself was so grossly an understatement it bordered on downright falsehood. Nearly dropping the photos on the spot, he suppressed a gasp of surprise and turned to face the voice's owner.

James Potter, as he undoubtedly was, in spite of his rather tousled looks, was not exactly what Remus had expected. He was a good few inches taller than Remus, with black hair that went beyond disheveled, large, round, and outright hideous black glasses, and a build that was neither slender nor burly. Still, he was the same of one of the boys in the pictures, and in spite of everything he was obviously an aristocrat and reeked of old, family gold, so there could be no mistake.

'I beg your pardon, sir,' Remus said automatically, stunned, realising faintly that he had been seen but not quite registering the fact. 'I am not an intruder and only came to straighten your room.'

The Ministry brat studied him, face blank as a newly-washed blackboard, and then suddenly gave a cordial smile. Remus felt as if he had stood before the judgment of all worlds and had been deemed worthy of some sort of Potterish approval or honour. 'I see. You're the Lupins' son?'

Seeing Potter's composure reminded Remus of his own, or current lack of. 'No,' he lied coolly, and went on unfalteringly with the hateful words always given when dealing with such occasions. 'I work for the Lupins.'

For nearly everyone else, it had always halted the conversation, as they put Remus into the proper place in their minds: the pale, light brown-haired boy was from a poor family and early an adult, and to them, simply their servant. It worked well to cut off more contact, and no questions were asked when they never saw him again.

But in this case Potter stared a moment. Of course, Remus thought with no small envy. What did James Potter know of anyone his age earning their meals? Remus tried to discreetly slip the photos on the nightstand, for going through personal things as they were was one of the highest breeches of Crossed Tailfeathers service, and Remus reddened as he understood what he had done. But Potter's eyes followed him.

In fact, Potter froze, looking worried. Anxiety seemed strangely at home on his features, unlike most children in his position.

'Erm - those photographs…'

Watching colour drain from his face, Remus waited, enjoying the prospect of watching Potter squirm.

'I - I can see why you're no interested.' Potter laughed nervously. 'I get questions on them all the time. You see, erm, I purchased them from a novelty shop.' Remus smirked as Potter pronounced 'novelty' no-velity, as if the Muggle stores had an adjective pronounced differently than theirs. 'So… I'm not exactly sure how they work - some - some newfangled mechanics - '

'There is no need for explanations, master Potter,' Remus said, feeling so wryly amused at his stumbling bitterness did not skulk into his thoughts at the title. 'I'm quite familiar with the wizarding world.' And aspects of it you've never known, never dreamed of, Ministry brat.

Potter was dumbfounded. 'Oh,' he said sheepishly, offering a grin. 'Sorry. I thought - you know.'

Remus ignored this, gently shuffled the pictures into a pile, and laid them on top of the chessboard. 'Your trunk has been brought up, young Mr Potter.'

'Oh, thanks,' Potter smiled.

Choosing to ignore this as well, much less return it, Remus went on: 'Of course. Crossed Tailfeathers only offers the best of service.'

Still with that friendly smile, Potter chuckled a bit. "Bet you get tired of saying that.' Remus half-growled at the implication it was a rehearsed statement he was paid to say. Which was half-true, but details, details… 'Not that I'm disagreeing,' Potter tacked on quickly. 'I'm honestly enjoying this place. Glad I came. Say, er - if you're no Muggle, and obviously as British as they get… why haven't I ever seen you at Hogwarts?'

Remus's heartrate increased. Potter mustn't guess the truth. Crossed Tailfeathers would ever do business again. The brown robes he was wearing did not help the situation. Then the right lie came to him. 'I'm a Squib,' he said, not having to feign the slight colouring of his face. Shameful as it was to say so, sometimes his sheer genius even astonished himself.

'Oh.' Potter was regretting he'd even asked. Good for him, the neb-nose. 'Er, sorry.'

'Do not hesitate to ask if you need anything at all, master Potter.' Remus gave him a slight bow.

'All right then,' Potter said cheerfully. 'In that case, can I have an extra bed set up in here? I have two friends coming along tomorrow night, and we'd like to share a room while we're here.'

'Certainly…' Remus glanced about the Red Room dubiously. In spite of his reply, it was a bit small for three people. But Remus was unused to making any decisions about the inn at all. He was told what to do and did so, and had rarely ever had to speak face-to-face with guests in roughly ten years.

A decade. Right near a decade's worth of pretending he didn't exist, of not being seen, like a Borrower.

'Of course, if you'd like, we could move you and your companions to a larger room.' Remus was fairly sure the Blue Room was unoccupied. It usually was.

'No, if we could,' Potter said, glancing around. 'I like this room a great deal. It's not too large and has that beautiful deep scarlet, and was Gryffindor's room, you know. If it would just be possible to get the third bed…'

'I shall see what we can do.' Remus's tones continued to be stiff and clipped, and grew frostier every time Potter asked a question, or, as he did not, even looked to be thinking of a query. 'G'eve'n.' With another bow, he left the room. More cautious even than usual because of the encounter with Potter, Remus double-checked his every step.

To make sure he was concealed by shadows.

*

The Red Room hadn't actually been Godric Gryffindor's room, of course, although Cauley Lupin would have led you to believe so, and had convinced many a person of it. Of course, he would say, far more soberly and solemnly than Catty's easygoing brother-in-law generally appeared, it a lot of people claimed that 'Gryffindor slept here', and the greater bunch were quacks, but oh no, you never got that from Crossed Tailfeathers. When pressed that it was doubtful this was his precise dwelling from a thousand years ago, Cauley would relent and admit that yes, of course, Crossed Tailfeathers was made of wood, and since wood is just dead tree to begin with, the original building had long since deteriorate and been taken down… but the Red Room, yes, had been built on the exact same spot Godric's feet had rested all that time ago… well, no, of course, not, the Red Room was on the floor above, technically the dining room was where Gryffindor's footsteps had graced the ground, but still, you had the general idea, didn't you? And by now Cauley's voice would be pleading, almost mournful, eyes winning over every female in the room… and they would comfort him. Oh, yes, Crossed Tailfeathers definitely had the honour of Godric Gryffindor. And Cauley would reward the believers with his playful little smile. Calder often mentioned to Catty that he wondered if Catty had married him because of Cauley's charm rather than Calder's own. 'Nonsense,' Catty would say, of course. She was in love with Calder Lupin and not his brother. But one had to admit that Cauley was far more cheering than her own husband, endearing as the latter was.

She had always been enchanted by the idea of inn keeping. 'Frightfully disrespectful,' her sister Nora had jeered. 'Did you fall in love with Lupin or his father's inn?' her mother had asked scathingly. But Father had said: 'Of course, my Coral-Cat. As long as you have a home and a home you can fuss over you'll be happy.'

And Calder! Glancing sideways at her oh-so-anxiously, 'Won't it be a bit of a step-down for Cora Rookwood?'

'Not for your cat,' Catty had retorted. 'Don't be ridiculous, Calder. I'll be the happiest woman in the world.'

It had held true for the most part. Rookwoods might wonder why she married to drudgery, but it had never seemed so to Catty. She loved the greater portion of it all, although a severe illness had lamed her left leg and slowed her down some. But the paperwork! Accounting was truly a task only for the crazy, or, considering how badly they were doing, those of morbid heart.

So she was pleased by the distraction of her son's appearance in the kitchen. 'Appearance' was the right word; Remus's footsteps made as much noise of falling snowflakes when he wished them to be, and, to Catty's sorrow, he had never drawn a line between silence with family and silence to the world.

'A third bed is wanted in the Red Room,' he said without greeting or warning or prodding, much less emotion.

Although Catty had hoped more for a hullo, Mam, how're you doing?, she was not about to pass up the chance to turn away from figure-keeping. 'Whatever for?'

'He has two friends coming tomorrow evening. They wish to share a room.'

'Are they paying full price?' It was not the sort of thing Catty would usually first ask, but the glaring numbers on the table had left an impression.

Remus paused. 'I didn't think to ask. I'm sorry.'

'Ask?'

'He saw me.' Remus's voice was neutral. 'I told him I'm hired help and a Squib, in case you need to stick to the story.'

The bluntness of the statement stung at Catty's heart. She examined her son with an inward sigh. He was so very… the word didn't come. Not lethargic or melancholy or apathetic. Remus never quite moped. But he was so constantly silent, out of habit because for him to speak at the wrong moment could ruin their livelihood, so pale from lack of sunlight, for he was well-known to the town enough that if they saw him he would be attacked, and from his monthly ordeals, which were, as a mother, Catty's worst nightmare, not to mention Remus's, and - lonely. Just sad and lonely and hiding it in classic adolescent fashion by withdrawing.

Somehow things hadn't improved with years, as Catty and the Lupin men had hoped. Various happenings had only barred Remus from one more place and then another, until at fifteen he could scarcely dare leave the inn, and even then he had to stay hidden.

Occasionally Catty wondered if they shouldn't've continued to pursue his schooling. But the smaller schools, even the ones for special cases, had turned him away unhesitatingly, and they hadn't the heart to keep seeking more unlikely sources.

Catty had secretly (well, with Cauley's assistance in the matter) gone to Hogwarts, best and most known of them all, when Albus Dumbledore had become headmaster, the same year as what should have been Remus's first. Dumbledore had been her own Transfiguration teacher and she remembered him for his fairness and kindness. Others must have too; he was renown for those traits.

Dumbledore… oh, yes, Dumbledore had been understanding, sympathetic… considering how little he had actually helped, insultingly so. He had agreed that it was indeed a dilemma, and quite a terrible shame, but upon careful consideration there were a great deal of risks that came with Remus's 'condition', and now that this new cult was on the rise he did not want students to be pulled from the school because they would so easily fall into Voldemort's hands, and that as far as this war was concerned Remus wasn't quite a 'normal' child, and would Cora care for a Licorice Wand?

'No, thank you,' Catty had said in tones of ice.

Of course there was no reason to neglect Remus's education, Dumbledore had continued. It was crucial to his future. He had a friend who might be interested in taking Remus on as a personal student in his field -

'Calder and I can provide an education, Professor.' In a voice colder still.

Certainly they could.

'But what we want is to give him a childhood, like any boy deserves!' Catty's voice had now gone heated.

For a moment, Catty thought she had won. Dumbledore's face, quick as a heartbreak, had looked so much older, to make him seem the over-century wizard he was. And she almost felt guilty - almost. Then Dumbledore soberly: 'Many people were unfairly cheated from their youth and still led happy, productive lives, Cora.'

But Catty had fumed and repeated her rejection of the friend who was willing to take Remus as an apprentice. Remus needed parents and love and friendship and laughter and acceptance - and aye, discipline. He did not need a life carved out in stone for him at barely a decade old. Finally the meeting had ended. Catty had never owled Dumbledore to take up his parting offer of: 'If you need any help at all, please contact me. I promise to do anything in my power to assist you in this.'

Sometimes Catty wondered if she had been wrong. She had thought family would help Remus more than a stranger who would come along to claim the role of a mentor and to take him away, but every day Remus reminded her more and more of a trapped animal - a bird in a cage, gazing longingly for things he only knew as enticingly different, occasionally trying to stretch his wings only to find the bars beat them back.

Now Catty felt herself nodding automatically. 'Very well. Your father and Cauley can get that bed up tomorrow morning. Let me snatch you some dinner, dear.'

'I'll eat something a little later; you needn't worry. I'm not hungry.'

'Nonsense,' Catty responded firmly, tucking the stool under the light oak ledge on the back wall of the white kitchen that served as the Lupins' dining room table. 'You're fifteen, not to mention male. It goes against every known law of nature for you not to be ravenous every hour of the day and night.'

''Sorry,' Remus said again, in a sincere but many-times repeated tone. It rather infuriated Catty to know Remus was apologising as much for being freak of nature incarnate as for disagreeing with her. He was in one of those moods.

Catty concentrated on going through the dinner leftovers, piling a (small, since Remus's appetite had been pretty lean the past few months) plate for him. 'Tired?' she asked, ruffling his hair a bit. Remus gave no indication of acknowledging her gesture, except to lean his head to the comfort of her chest for a moment.

'A little.' He began to pick at his food.

'Get to bed a little early tonight,' Catty suggested. 'It's not too busy and all under control.'

'I'm fine, honestly.' There was no whine yet in Remus's voice, although there would be if she pressed on against his will. 'Can I go for a walk after I finish?'

There was no hiding Catty's frown. 'Remus…'

'I'll be careful, I promise. No talking to strangers or accepting sweets, and make sure I'm not seen - although I must say strangers have the best sweets.'

She ignored the sarcasm. 'Where will you be going?'

Remus always looked rather irritated at this question. 'I don't know. Around. The woods. Not too far.'

'It's not that, dear. I trust you; I'm just worried.'

A faintly edgy nod.

'Don't stay out too long.'

How often, Catty wondered as she waved her wand at the dishes, prompting them to wash themselves, had they gone through this script? When had they started it, and why was it only now she was beginning to notice they went through it nearly every evening?

'What've you been doing?' Remus asked… right according to schedule.

The account book was subject to another distasteful tap.

'And how has that been going?'

'Awful. You know, you'd think that we'd've gotten some of Green Dragon's business since that affair with Janus Thickley, but honestly, all it's been doing is getting their name about… and as they're the only openly-magical inn in Roasedaly…' Remus cringed a bit, as people tended to do when Catty got on her rants concerning the state of competition between the inns. Of course, Remus was particularly sensitive because he was the prime reason Crossed Tailfeathers wasn't doing particularly well. 'Respectability counts for nothing these days,' she ended, rather mildly, compared to the rest of her words.

'Respectable, Mam?….' Remus gave her a dry grin. 'Lady Slytherin's ghost, a werewolf, Cauley Lupin… where do you get this impression of respectability?'

'Remus,' Catty tried to smile back. 'Those aren't the important things.'

'Well, except to the guests.' As if trying to steer the subject away from where he had unwillingly brought it, Remus asked something about when the next Quidditch game. Catty offered a few distracted opinions until both mother and son fell into another silence.

The kitchen and their own quarters were charmed to be muffled from the rest of the inn; not silenced, as that would have made for an eerie quiet that might've bothered some guests and aroused suspicions in others. Still, they could hear what was going on in the dining room and lounge pretty well, and right now Cauley had 'slipped' and started to get into loud tale-telling with another guest, who was similarly fond of exaggeration.

'Yea, dah Frenchie wi' th' dragon, yea… swear on Mahlin's beard tamed 'em things - had a lit'l Liondragon an' a awld mamma Vipertooth… when'never D'Arcy wanted fer a bit o' a meal, he'd never cook, 'twasn't much shakes a' it, act'ly, but he'd just have th' Liondragon roar o' bit…'

'I knew ould Jolie right well,' Cauley said contemplatively. 'We'd gone egg-huntin' as boys - dragon eggs, of course.'

Catty and Remus exchanged looks.

'How I'd love to ask how Cauley ever got to France,' Catty commented. 'And then wash his mouth of those lies.'

'He's getting better,' Remus reasoned. 'This time he didn't claim to be Jolie D'Arcy himself.' His smile was soft but untainted by any faint bitterness, and the most beautiful sight Catty had seen in quite a while.

*


' "Yeah, yeah, we'll just follow those directions that drunk bloke gave to us, Black, and just go flying out in the dead of night searching for some backwoods haunted little inn", sure, grand idea! Petey the genius!' Sirius scowled. 'Last time I listen to you, Pettigrew.'

'Stop grumbling,' Peter said, exasperation imprinted into his every syllable and movement. Even worse was his clumsiness on his broom, while Sirius zoomed ahead and swooped about impatiently in wait for him. He was chilly, embarrassed, tired, and generally bothered. 'Life's tough, Black. Get used to it.'

'Huh! Look who's talking, Mr Perfect Peter Pleoh Pettigrew.'

'At least I don't complain when things go wrong, Sleazy Ladies' Man In The Astronomy Tower.'

'Ooh, ooh, do I detect a note of jealousy in St Petey's voice?'

Peter knew very well the only way to shut him up would be to keep his own mouth closed and not give him the satisfaction. Unfortunately, his lips were moving against his will. 'Certainly not - one day my tax Galleons will be paying for your prison cell, Black.'

True to form, it only added fuel to Sirius's fire. 'I find it disturbing that anyone would pay you to work for them, Pettigrew.'

While Peter did have a withering retort, it was cut off as he flew headlong into prickly trees branches and brush. 'Ow! Bugger!' He wanted to rub bits of wood and blood out of his face but didn't dare take his hands off of the broomstick.

'Not again, honestly! One'd think you were a Muggle!'

'So what? Someone'd think you were a Slytherin!'

'You're the one who cheats every test.' Still, Sirius sailed expertly over and began to whack the branches about to clear a hole for Peter, who refused to reach very high altitudes. Tentatively Peter used one hand to wipe his face. It was going to be a long night, searching for this Crossed Tailfeathers Inn. Didn't help that the moon was barely at first quarter as well. It was dead dark in Roasedaly Forest, and several times Peter heard certain animalistic noises that sent shivers to his fingertips.

Not that he was ever, ever going to let Sirius see his fear.

'Come on, Petti. We need to get to Jamie.'

Although they were not prone to agreeing on much, Peter nodded. They were always able to unite in the face of James - especially now, when he needed as the protection he could get. Whatever was in this forest was probably a cute little fluffy bunny rabbit compared to what was out to get James.

They flew on further, talking much less during this stretch. Peter made the comment that they were going too far east, which Sirius ignored. Sirius later said they were going north when they should be going south, which Peter ignored. Needless to say, they hadn't found Crossed Tailfeathers and were getting bitten by every insect imaginable, especially a thoroughly miserable Peter, who had what was known as 'sweet blood' that the little things couldn't get enough of.

'Damn. What time is it?'

'You're the heir; why don't you have a watch?' Peter asked resentfully.

'Well, excuse me for being clever enough to not wear it on a dangerous flight like this. Imagine that. Intelligence. What a foreign concept to you, Petti.'

'It's ten to midnight.'

Clever Sirius could only respond with one word: 'Damn.'

'I could've sworn you sounded tire - oomph!' Quite abruptly, Peter tried to brake and failed, smacking into a halted Sirius's back.

'Hey, shh!'

Peter absolutely hated obeying Sirius's orders. With good reason: they generally caused havoc. But mainly because it was submission that burned his resolve to do so under no circumstances. On the other hand, his nose hurt pretty badly with its meeting with Sirius's backbone. And above all, if Sirius had spotted some sort of creepy forest dweller, Peter was not about to attract it with noise.

'Oh.' Sirius seemed to slowly relax, although he was still whispering. 'Just someone.'

' "Just someone". Hmph.'

'Well, excuse me for wantin' us to get to this place with all limbs attached; I'm sure that's a really odd desire!'

'You idiotic imbecile,' Peter growled. 'If someone is down there as opposed to something, bloody ask where the inn is!'

'You wanker. Why would someone be in the forest at midnight that we'd want to ask directions from?'

For once Sirius had logic on his side. Peter couldn't find a retort and instead concentrated on being quiet, peering over Sirius's shoulder at said 'someone'.

'Looks harmless enough.'

'Oh, sure, if you consider vampires harmless, I suppose so.'

It was all Peter could do not to snort. 'Vampire?'

'Well, look at 'im.' Sirius waved a hand at the white figure in high-collared robes, whose steps were not making a sound. The stealthy movements, now that Peter thought of it, were rather unnerving. Even more so when the sometime-vampire glance upward and they saw he actually looked quite normal for a boy their age, apart from the unnatural paleness.

'You're not supposed to be coming until tomorrow evening.'

If it hadn't been for the faintly wondering note in his voice at these words, Peter would have been scared straight out of his skin. Still, it was completely unnerving to hear him so calmly knowing of their plans.

Sirius's eyebrows had come together. 'How d'you know that?' he asked sharply.

Sirius, you idiot. It should've been 'What do you mean by that?' For all Sirius's supposed cleverness, he had never grasped the basic rules of war they'd had to live by for the past five years. Such as how you never trusted anyone and, particularly on such a mission as they were on, never confirmed anyone suspicions of your intentions. In fact, when Jamie Potter wasn't concerned, Sirius refused to accept there was a war at all. It grated on Peter's nerves in the manner of a badly-tuned musical saw.

'Not that we know what you mean,' Peter added quickly and defiantly. Sirius gave him a pitying sideways glance and Peter groaned inwardly. Lame, Pettigrew. Tres lame.

Even the mystery person looked rather superior. 'Er, of course not,' he said with a smirk. 'So you're coming early. Crossed Tailfeathers Inn - you're right of it. Turn and go almost directly straight, just a little south.'

'Tol' you so,' Sirius murmured, and then more loudly: 'Thanks. Thanks a lot. Hadn't been for you, we'd've been searching about all night. I'm Sirius Black, by the way, and this pansy is my cousin, Peter Pettigrew.' Peter groaned, and not just because Sirius had yet again labeled him a 'pansy'. Distributing full names! Black!

'If you really wanted to thank me, you could hurry and get to the inn quickly, or else when you'll arrive you'll wake the keepers.' Without a further word, the boy continued walking so dismissively even Sirius knew there was no good trying to talk with him any further. Sirius hung in the air limply, shocked and rather affronted. 'That wasn't very nice.'

'He just gave us directions. You're in no position to say anything - and you heard him.' Peter's barely-swallowed nervousness made him Sirius Black-impatient. 'Let's get to the inn. Want me to reach it 'fore you?'

This zapped Sirius back to life, and he went from standstill to full speed in seconds. 'Never,' he said, with sincere determination. After a few moments, when Sirius was sure he had Peter sufficiently outstripped, he asked: 'But how d'you think he knew where we were going?'

'Gee, let's think.' Peter dipped the words in a vatful of sarcasm, screwing up his face in mock thought. 'Hmm. Hmm. Here's a toughie. How does a complete stranger just so happen to be able to tell where we're going and when we were supposed to be there, particularly when we're going to help protect our best friend - who just so happens to be on the top of You Know Who's victim list. By Merlin, this is difficult! Wait - gasp, no! I think I got it! Do you just maybe think, Black - thinking, you know, that thing where you exercise what's between the walls of your head? - that perhaps the aforementioned complete stranger is perhaps… no, that's a silly idea, him being a Death Eater spy. No, stupid notion, if you care about Jamie at all, just forget I said anything.'

'Okay,' Sirius said over-brightly. 'I'll do just that, thanks. Really, Petti, you idiot. He was our age.'

'And that has what to do with anything?' Peter demanded.

Sirius shrugged. 'Let's get to this inn. I'm starving.'

*

Catty, for one, was pleased to see the latecoming guests. Remus hadn't yet returned from his walk and it was abnormally late for him. Calder was having little short of a conniption while Cauley tried to convince him it was perfectly natural for a boy of fifteen to stay out belatedly in rebellious protest of life in general. Since Catty agreed with both of them, the distraction was welcome. That young Sirius Black was the most charming thing, even if he did flirt outrageously with every female in sight - he had a reason to. And little Peter Pettigrew was adorably sweet.

'You're here!' It was James Potter (Red Room, oh, dear, we haven't moved the extra bed into it yet…), bounding down the steps, half dressed in his pajamas and half in very proper dress robes, whispering but loudly so in excitement. 'Early!'

'We know you spend every second apart from us in unbearable agony, yeah-yeah-yeah,' Sirius rolled his eyes, punching young Potter on the shoulder and somehow managing to give him a quick hug-that-did-not-look-enough-like-a-hug-to-break-male-adolescent-pride at the same time. 'All safe?'

'Breathing, aren't I? What're you doing so late?'

'It's Sirius's fault, Jamie, you know that,' Peter commented, standing awkwardly a little by them with hands stuck in his pockets.

It earned a beam from young Potter. (Knowing his father was so high in the Ministry of Magic and that bit, it was harder for Catty to think of him by his first name than it would be other boys.) 'I know, Peter. It's always Sirius's fault. We should just buy him a shirt that says "I am the one to blame". Save a lot of breath.'

'Hey!' Sirius protested in the middle of James's idea. 'He messed up the directions!'

'Did not!'

'Say, let's keep our voices down, everyone's sleeping,' young Potter said, still smiling but rubbing his eyes with his knuckles.

Catty had already whispered the situation concerning James Potter's request to Calder, who nodded rather tightly, knowing it was inconvenient but necessary if he wished it. Now Calder explained to the boys about the Red Room. 'It would be a lot of noise right now, and as Master Potter said - '

'Sweet Merlin, just "James", please,' the boy cut in, and Catty smiled fondly, already labeling him a dear in her mental file cabinet.

' - the other guests are, indeed, asleep. Shall we set Masters Black and Pettigrew up in a spare room for tonight?'

Peter's face went slack. 'No, Sir. Don't call him Master Black. He'll have to buy all new hats, six sizes larger.'

Sirius growled before turning back to Calder. 'What's the problem?' he asked. 'We can sleep on the floor in Jamie's room.' He cut off Calder's coming protest with: 'We slept on worse, at the Green Dragon.'

Calder halted his contradictions. Crossed Tailfeathers and Green Dragon had never been friendly. 'Are you sure that would be comfortable…?'

'I'd rather stick by Jamie.' Sirius grinned. 'He needs someone to help him find his glasses in the morning.'

Jamie laughed good-naturedly.

'After you wake up at noon tomorrow?' Peter snapped, glaring at Sirius.

Now young Potter's smile faded. He turned to Calder. 'About payment, Mr Lupin. Of course we intend to pay the fare for two rooms.'

Catty liked this boy more and more every minute, and could tell even Calder, who disapproved of teenagers staying in rooms without any adult supervision, was relenting. She hoped Calder didn't send them off or force them to bring in parental approval, which might make them leave. For one thing, the ledger-keeping from that afternoon was prominent in her mind. Did they ever need a rich, generous guest staying for an indefinite amount of time!

'That will be fine,' Calder nodded. 'Shall we send up any extra pillows or coverlets?'

'Nah, there's enough for two people, right?'

'Are there not three of you, Master Black?' Calder raised an eyebrow at the dark-haired boy, who gave Peter a shove.

'Oh, he doesn't count, Sir.'

Animosity in the family! Catty reflected with some worriment. She felt for the smallest boy, who had the look of someone who was the perpetual third wheel.

Peter snarled at his cousin. Jamie gave a yawn that might also have been a sigh. 'Excuse me. Yes, if you could lend us some for the night, that would be grand.'

Calder and Cauley set off on this task, tired themselves and eager to get the boys off to bed as quickly as possible. In spite of her worry concerning Remus, Catty had waxed quite wonderfully under the little dears' influence. It… hurt… to think… they were Remus's age, and seemed so deep in their friendship… but after hearing Sirius and Peter hadn't a proper dinner this nagging bitterness evaporated. The lads must have a bit of something before going upstairs. She invited them into the kitchen threshold… boys weren't very particular as long as there was something good to eat… and they complimented her 'midnight bites' so much that Catty was quite gratified. The three had made an ally for life with their words of praise concerning her cooking.

Thawing out much of their natural boyish and adolescent reserve under the influence of food, they chatted and gossiped in the most delightful manner, telling Catty bits about their school, and families, and friends and girlfriends, Quidditch opinions, hilarious tales of detentions, and unmoral but amusing tales of war concerning a Slytherin named Snape.

'Do you remember the time we used that charm that magnified every noise he made all day?'

James's face went wholly red as he tried not to laugh too loudly. 'How could I forget? Every single word, the whole school heard. Even McGonagall couldn't get it off!'

Catty had the vague impression she ought not to be laughing… encouraging them in such a thing!… but did so anyway. It was such a jumbled stew of talk and events that her head was quite spinning but the dizziness was pleasant. She had thoroughly enjoyed their company and impulsively hugged Peter Pettigrew - quickly, but motherly all the same - before they went up. Peter had gone rather red but didn't seem offended.

After waving them off she turned to cleaning up the kitchen counter, and after a few moments - and Catty never knew how long he'd been in the room - Remus emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, smelling pleasantly of forest and night. His face was hard-set… even more than his norm of late… but his eyes seemed to have softened, as they generally did after his rambles. 'Poor lad, it's all the freedom he's left,' she sighed to herself.

'Remus, you're quite late,' she scolded gently.

He rinsed out the sink before she could. 'Sorry.'

No, he wasn't! Catty had an impulse to embrace and slap him all in one movement.

'Your da's upset.'

'It's nice out there, Mam.'

How was one to reply to that? 'And you lost track of time?'

'For a while, yes.' Remus paused, as if considering, and then said with no apparent emotion, 'Two travelers on the road reminded me of it.'

'Re…' She trailed off. No more lectures, not tonight. Besides, it was wholly awful, having to tell your own son that he must separate himself… what a mess it was. The smile left over from Peter, Sirius, and James faded without her realising it. Leave Calder to it, the warnings: she worked hard all day, hadn't she?

'I'm sorry that I couldn't get back in time to help move the beds,' Remus said over his shoulder, moving toward the doorway.

Catty jumped. 'How did you know of that?'

'I like to make sure I know everything. If things aren't running smoothly around here, or I don't know for certain they aren't, it bothers me.'

The contrast between the lighthearted, carefree boys and her son, who devoted himself so carefully to make up for whatever he thought himself lacking in other ways… 'Remus… you needn't worry so much…'

'I'd rather be useful, if you don't mind. 'Night, Mam.'

A pause. 'Good night, dear.' Her soft and tender voice apparently had no effect, shattered and melted no ice. It had been quite a long day.

TBC