(A/N: I disclaim everything come up with by J. K. Rowling. I also advise you not to read this if you have not already read "Living with Danger" and "Living without Danger". You are going to get very, very lost if you do. But, if you have... well, here it is! Enjoy!)
Chapter 1: War Games
Even for young witches and wizards, the children known as the cubs of the Pack were quite unusual. For one thing, they had voluntarily gotten up at six-thirty in the morning every day of their summer holidays so far. For another, they were willingly learning lessons during this precious vacation time. And then, of course, there was the simple fact of who they were: The Boy Who Lived, The Boy Who Disappeared, the brightest witch to come to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry within living memory, and the blood Heir of Rowena Ravenclaw.
On this rather damp and foggy morning, these four, plus one more, were sitting in a row outside their Devon home, the Marauders' Den, watching what they got up every morning to watch, and some mornings to take part in. A man was dancing around in front of them, wand in his hand, throwing spells at a target which moved erratically in all directions.
"Time," called the woman standing behind the five children, waving her own wand in the direction of the target. It sank obediently to the ground, as did the man, but only one of them was panting with exertion.
The smallest of the children, a petite girl of ten, picked up the water bottle sitting beside her and walked out to her father. "Here you go, Dadfoot," she said, handing it to him. "Did you make it?"
Sirius Black accepted the water, took a long swallow, and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "I don't know. Letha, did I make it?"
Aletha Freeman-Black picked up the now quiescent target and tapped it with her wand three times. Gold-colored numbers rose to hover above it. "Let's see, what do you need?" she asked.
"One hundred solid hits in three minutes, and you know it. Quit teasing me."
"But why?" asked the girl still sitting in line, innocently. "It's so much fun."
Sirius groaned. "Did I sprout a sign in the night saying 'Pick on Me'?"
"No," said one of the boys, grinning. "It's permanent."
"Brat." Sirius picked up the water bottle, cocked his elbow, then brought it down sharply. Hermione Granger-Lupin ducked away with a squeal as cold water spattered all over her brother.
"That felt good," said Draco Black, shaking his head briskly and sending water droplets flying everywhere.
"I wish I'd known you were all mad before I decided to come and stay for the summer," said Neville Longbottom, mopping his face with his shirt.
"But you did know," said Harry Potter, wiping his glasses on his sleeve. "You've known us for two years, you tried to stop us going after the Sorcerer's Stone, you watched me go into the Chamber of Secrets – you had to know we were mad."
"If anyone's still interested in knowing the results..." Aletha drawled.
Sirius raised his hand like a schoolboy. "I am, I am. Did I make my goal or not?"
"As a matter of fact... after three solid weeks of training... yes. You finally made it. One hundred eleven hits in three minutes."
Meghan Black squealed and hugged her father happily. Sirius gave a satisfied nod. "Excellent. Now all I have to do is cram a little to be sure I'll pass the written tests, and I'll be back in there with the best of them."
"I wish I could be an Auror," said Neville wistfully.
"You could be," said Sirius, standing up with a grimace. "Someday."
Neville shook his head. "I'm not good enough at magic," he said. "Or coordinated enough. I trip on things, and break things, and forget things all the time."
"Not so much any more," said Hermione. "You used to be a lot worse. Maybe you'll go on getting better."
"And people who trip on things can be Aurors," said Draco. "Our Cousin Tonks trips on things all the time, and she's going into her last year of apprenticeship."
"Hey, that's right!" Sirius accepted a conjured towel from Aletha with a nod of thanks and began to dry his sweat-soaked hair. "Little Dora, all grown up and just a year away from being a full Auror. I remember her when she was eight or so. She tripped on everything in sight then, too."
"She did, didn't she?" said Aletha as Harry opened the back door to let everyone into the kitchen. She lowered her voice slightly. "What I remember is running into Dora and Andy at Diagon Alley, doing Hogwarts shopping. The day Andy asked me about Draco – and the only thing I could tell her was that he wasn't dead."
Sirius nodded. "Poor Narcissa – and there is something I never thought I'd say."
"Poor Narcissa? I think you're pitying the wrong member of the family, there. She's dead, and well out of it. Whereas you ought to know, better than anyone, what her loving husband is going through."
"You actually think I should pity Lucius Malfoy?" Sirius gave his beloved wife a look that said he doubted her sanity. "After everything he did, and tried to do, to our Pack – to one of our cubs in particular?"
"No, not really. No more than I pity anyone in Azkaban. If anyone deserves that place, he does."
"Amen. And with that, let us turn to more cheerful topics. Such as – what's for breakfast?" Sirius directed this question to the woman standing at the stove.
"Cold cereal to start," said Danger Granger-Lupin, whose real name of Gertrude was seldom if ever used. "Juice and milk on the table, coffee and tea as soon as you get a mug and come here. Further bulletins as events warrant."
"Did you make it, Padfoot?" asked Remus Lupin, looking up from the sheets of parchment which littered his end of the huge kitchen table.
"I did, I did indeed, Moony," said Sirius, snagging his favorite mug from the collection on the table, and stealing a cornflake out of Harry's bowl just before his godson poured the milk on, earning an elbow to the hip. "One hundred eleven."
"Nicely done. They might take you on after all."
"Might," scoffed Sirius, dropping a teabag into his mug and holding it out for Danger to pour boiling water into. "They've only been asking me to come back for two and a half years."
"Sporadically," Aletha pointed out. "And I think the first offers were out of guilt, because they spent so long looking for you as a dangerous criminal."
"I pity this country if a dangerous criminal ever does get loose," said Sirius, taking a seat at the table. "If I could hide for almost nine years with practically no trouble–"
Remus nearly choked on his own tea. "Practically no trouble? When we had to live in hiding and pretend to be other people for five years, cut and run, abandon the house and our jobs, spend six months in America, then come back and pretend to be other other people for three years? Do tell me, what part of that amounts to 'practically no trouble'?"
Sirius grinned. "The part where I didn't have to do any of the work."
"Mr. Moony would like to know if Mr. Padfoot would care to have a mug of tea upended over his head."
"Mr. Padfoot might not mind that, but he would like to stipulate that said tea not be too hot."
"Mr. Moony assures Mr. Padfoot that the tea is perfect drinking temperature."
"Mr. Padfoot reminds Mr. Moony that his idea of perfect drinking temperature is about a hundred degrees hotter than anyone else's."
Danger laughed, coming to the table with a plate of bacon. "He's got you there," she said to Remus, setting it in the middle of the table. "Oy, you with the glasses."
Harry looked up from his cereal. "Yes?"
"Come stir the eggs. I need to get the muffins out of the oven."
"But it'll get soggy," Harry said in distaste, looking down at his bowl of cornflakes.
"I'll finish it for you, and you can have a fresh bowl when you get back, how's that?" suggested Sirius.
"If you really want it." Harry took his spoon out of the bowl and set it on his napkin before pushing the bowl down the table to Sirius, who took a spoon from the pile in the middle of the table and dug in.
Draco scooped up the last of the milk in his bowl with his spoon and got up to put it in the sink. "What're we doing today?" he asked the room in general.
"Fighting in bad weather," answered Remus. "Practice at targeting by sound, a spell to make friends and enemies light up different colors so you don't shoot your own side by mistake, and some general tips for camping out in rain or snow."
"Outdoors first, or second?"
"Which would you prefer?"
"First," said Draco, just as Hermione said, "Second."
The two turned to glare at each other. Harry adjusted his position at the stove slightly so that he could see. The adults sat back to watch. Neville and Meghan exchanged speaking looks, then, by mutual consent, stole the last of the bacon for themselves.
"You want to be out there, in this?" was Hermione's opening statement, with an eloquent gesture to the window, where the fog was swirling against the panes. "We won't be able to see five feet!"
"Isn't that the point? We won't be able to choose when we fight if there's a war. And we'll be learning how to deal with the fact that we can't see five feet."
"If we wait until the afternoon, this might burn off, and then we can be comfortable while we learn. Nothing says we have to learn about targeting by sound when we actually can't see. We could close our eyes, or wear blindfolds instead."
"The point of training is to mimic the real thing as closely as possible. We won't be blindfolded in a war – we'll see lots of things, but the point will be that we can't let them distract us. We have to focus on what we hear, while still responding to what we see if it's a threat."
"But we have to be inside for a little while, so we can learn the spells we'll be using." Hermione brought this out triumphantly. "Why not just get all the inside work out of the way in the morning, and then go at the outdoors fresh in the afternoon?"
"Because we might not have to be inside, if we're using a spell we've already learned. Are we?" Draco asked Remus.
Remus nodded. "Sparks, for the targets, and the Staining Spell when we move to human targets."
"So there. We won't have to do any inside work beforehand, because we know how to do those already." Draco looked smug.
Hermione pouted. "Fine," she said snippily. "Outdoor work first, then. And I hope you get a horrible cold from it and sneeze all night."
A whistle came out of the fog. "Infusco!" shouted Ron Weasley, aiming his wand in the general direction it had come from.
Another whistle, from a different direction. Ron spun. "Infusco!"
A third. "Infusco!"
Every time he shouted the incantation, a small ball of something like black ink shot from his wand tip and disappeared into the fog. This third shot provoked a squeal from the direction he'd targeted, making Ron grin.
"Don't let your guard down," warned Aletha, who was supervising this exercise. "Next target, go!" she called out.
"I was the next target," answered Ginny out of the fog. "Nice work, Ron. You hit the person next to the person you were aiming for. Really good aim, there."
"Oy! Can you do better?"
"Think I can." Ginny appeared in the small clearing Aletha had formed for the shooter and made a face at her brother. "Can I have a go, please?" she asked Aletha.
"Let Ron finish his round. Whoever was after Ginny, go!"
Ron fired off six more Staining Spells before Aletha called everyone in. When they arrived, the marks on their robes told the story. Ron had hit only two of them directly, three more with splatters, and Ginny by mistake.
"I'm not even that good when I can see what I'm doing," said Ron in disgust as Aletha cleaned everyone's robes for a new round. "I'll never get good at this."
"Not without practice, you won't. Now, out with you." Aletha shooed him out of sight, to the predetermined distance where all the human targets stood, and Ginny took up a fighter's stance in the center of the circle. "Ready, steady, go!"
By an hour or two past sunrise, the fog had mostly cleared away, so the Pride moved on to other outdoor things, like physical training. Sirius coached them in hand-to-hand combat, Remus in the use of long staffs, and both men taught them the basics of fighting with a knife.
The Pride had undergone a long lecture on the proper uses of these techniques, which had gotten quite detailed as to the probable punishments involved should any of them be caught using the techniques incorrectly, or even telling anyone that they had been trained. The lecture had been calculated to strike a little fear into even the most Gryffindor of the children, and so far, it seemed to be working.
Of course, it could just be that none of them as of yet were good enough to brag about anything.
The cubs had been training in the basics of hand-to-hand, mostly the self-defense things but a few offensive patterns as well, since they were old enough to understand what it was for. To Sirius' surprise, Ron, Ginny, and Neville all demonstrated a basic knowledge as well, and the cubs admitted, after a little shuffling, that they'd been working with their friends in private. The greatest surprise, though, had been Luna.
To get their measure at the start of the summer, Sirius had invited them to rush him and try to get in a hit somewhere on him. One by one, he blocked them, got a hold of them, and knocked them to the mats they trained on. One by one, until Luna came up.
She had walked up to him and struck at his chest. He had blocked it and made a grab for her arm – which she had evaded, and used his moment of surprise to get a hold on him, then nonchalantly kicked his legs from under him and used his own weight to take him down.
"What was that again, in the lecture the other day?" Draco had commented. "'Never underestimate your adversary because of looks'?"
But he didn't think it was nearly so funny when Sirius slapped him with dishes for a week, for insubordination...
Luna continued to be one of the more promising students at the hand-to-hand work, along with Draco and Ginny. Meghan knew the patterns, but was just too small yet for some of the more forceful moves. Sirius was teaching her a few tricks to handle someone larger than herself, which most if not all of her opponents were likely to be.
Ron and Neville both had trouble with confidence, Neville's rather simpler than Ron's.
Neville's just timid about a lot of this. He seems to think he'll never be good at anything, and it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we can crack him out of it, he actually shows a lot of promise.
Ron's attitude problem was simply that it fluctuated immensely. He often started the day being utterly sure that he could do anything, but one loss or mistake would send him into a state close to Neville's, where he was just waiting for the other person to beat him.
If we can get him into a more permanent form of the first one, but keep him from getting overconfident and stupid...
Hermione didn't care much for this sort of exercise, but the Pack-parents had made it clear that it was all or nothing, that she had to participate in the outdoor work to get to the indoor, so she had, a little grudgingly, agreed. Her opinion had veered slightly more towards the favorable when Remus had brought up a certain story, about the time a girl called Neenie had gotten the better of a Grumpy Professor with a well-placed elbow. Still, she sometimes held back, not committing herself fully.
She wants time to think it through. But in a fight, there isn't time to think. You have to act, and act right away.
Harry was quite good at hand-to-hand, and always had been. His problem was akin to Ron's, in that when he was doing well, he began thinking he was unbeatable. When this came up, Sirius could usually deal with it by proving, with a few well-placed moves, that Harry was wrong.
That's hand-to-hand. Almost the same things apply to staffs, with one or two interesting differences...
For some reason, Hermione didn't seem to mind staff fighting quite as much as she did other types. She moved from "reluctantly capable" to "somewhere near decent" when she had a staff in her hands. Neville had been afraid of the five-foot-long poles at first, until it was made clear to him that no one would be coming after him with one unless he had one as well, and unless he had clear warning they were coming. Now he was able to strike and block with, if not confidence, at least some measure of skill.
And all of them are a little leery of the knife work. And with good reason. Of all we're teaching them, even the magic, that's the skill with the most possibility for someone to get injured, even killed, if they use it wrongly.
As Sirius had promised when the cubs had received their silver daggers at the previous Christmas, he and Remus were teaching them to fight with the knife in either hand, though they made it very clear that tossing it from one hand to the other looked a lot better than it worked.
It's like putting a big sign on your weapon that says "Take Me Now". This is just in case they're caught injured, or with one arm pinned or something.
Overall, there had been a great deal of improvement in everyone's skills over the three weeks that the games had been going on. Molly had lodged a joking complaint about hardly seeing Ron and Ginny any more, but she made it clear that as long as they were enjoying themselves and not making trouble, she had no problem with them spending nearly all day, every day, at the Den.
They would have anyway, I'm sure. Or the cubs would have been at the Burrow. They still are, on the days we give them off. And, if Molly's to be believed, wait around in hiding for the twins and mob them. Heaven knows they come home with bruises and such often enough... though I suppose I'm encouraging them by patching them up without calling them on it...
Aletha sighed at her own folly. And here I am on the one subject I keep trying to avoid. Healing.
Sirius had cited his wish to return to his work as an Auror as the official reason he wouldn't return to Hogwarts for another year of teaching. Unofficially, he had pointed out, in pithy and occasionally vulgar language, the general inadvisability of returning to work at a place where he had missed out on dying only by virtue of becoming a rock for two months.
We took the job because Dumbledore asked us to, and because I could tell that without the cubs around to keep us all occupied, Sirius was about to die of boredom. He'd even stopped writing. She smiled. He's back to it now, though. And isn't Professor McGonagall going to get a surprise when a formidable older woman named Athena pops up in Valentina Jett's next novel?
So, Sirius had plenty to do with himself these days. Aletha didn't. She wasn't about to ask for the Defense job for herself – for one thing, she wasn't well qualified to teach alone, and for another, it wasn't the kind of work she liked to do by herself. Besides, Dumbledore had replacements lined up already, and she rather thought they'd do a better job than she would.
She could return to the life she'd led since they'd come to Devon, puttering in the house, working with her potions, tending her garden, and taking music students from the village, those whose parents didn't mind them fraternizing with such strange folk. It had been enough for her when all the cubs had been home, and even with just Meghan, but she doubted its ability to hold her interest now, even with all the household chores added to it.
And they won't take nearly as much of my time as they do Danger's, because she isn't confident enough with magic to do them that way, and I am. Besides, I think she likes doing them by hand. But that just doesn't appeal to me.
So there it was. She needed something to do. Something stimulating, interesting, rewarding. Something she enjoyed, and something that would make a difference.
And my mind keeps working back around towards Healing.
Could I get back into the program? If I pass the tests, would they let me pick up where I left off? I finished two years of training back during the war – that would mean two more to get my license. I'm older now, stronger, more willing to deal with my own fallibility. I won't quit again because of one mistake.
She grinned wryly. Now it'll take two.
But of course, whether or not she could reenter the Healer's program might not matter, depending on the answer to another question.
Do I really want to?
Healing was my dream when I was young. But I just said it myself, I'm older now. I'm a wife and a mother, a Pack-mate. I've changed a lot from that girl fresh out of Hogwarts who wanted to cure all diseases and save the world. Is Healing still what I want to do?
It's a big commitment of time and energy. If I do it, I want to be sure that it's really what I want, and what I'll stick with. There are other places I could go – I could get a secretarial job again...
She rolled her eyes. Oh, please. Filing parchments? That was to keep the bills paid, Letha, and well you know it. Now that you don't really have to worry about money, you can do whatever you please.
And that leaves me back at the same question.
What is that? What sort of work would please me?
She'd been thinking about it since school had let out, and hadn't come up with any definite answer yet. Sometimes she wondered if she ever would.
Oh, what the hell, there's no rush. It's not like I'm on a deadline...
Well, actually, I am. The year for the Healer's program starts September 1, same as school term. So if I decide for it after that, I'd have to wait another year. Besides, it would be better to have it settled before the cubs head off to school. They deserve to know what their Pack-parents will be doing while they're studying hard. Or goofing off and playing pranks. Whichever.
But nothing says I have to decide it now.
"Hello? Anyone in there?" A gentle tap on the side of her skull brought Aletha back to earth. Danger had reached up to rap her knuckles against her friend's head, and was now grinning at her. "Come back to us, oh sister, from whatever rhapsodic dream hath enraptured you."
"Sorry, I was reading Shakespeare last night. Come inside. Lunch is ready, and then it's our turn to try to knock some learning into these wild creatures called children."
Aletha nodded, following her Pack-sister towards the house. "Are we going to start the, ah, 'special' course of study today?"
"No, we decided to delay until after we talk to Arthur and Molly, so we don't have to start over if they say yes. Gerald was charmed by the idea, and trusts us to keep Luna safe during the process, though knowing him, he wouldn't altogether mind if she came home one day with feathers instead of hair. And you remember what Mrs. Longbottom said."
"I do indeed." I am pleased that you think my grandson capable of such a feat as this at his age, the letter had read. Your point about his friends is also well-taken. I recall quite well the antics Frank would get up to at school, with little to no adult supervision. If you promise to keep careful track of him and see, as far as is in your power, that he comes to no harm, I give you permission to teach him.
To teach him what, of course, had not been specified, not in writing. Augusta Longbottom was too canny for that.
It is illegal, after all.
But they had her permission, and Gerald Lovegood's. Now came the tough sell. Arthur and Molly Weasley were likely to be quite wary of what the Pack proposed to teach the cubs and their friends next. The Pride themselves would probably be willing to walk through fire for a chance to learn this, but the Pack-adults had agreed long since that they would teach those children who were not theirs nothing without their parents' or guardians' consent.
But if all goes well, we'll have that consent by tomorrow afternoon. And then we can get started.
They had kept this part of the summer's learning strictly under wraps. The cubs might suspect, recalling a promise made some years ago, but the adult Marauders had been careful to say nothing on the subject, and so far there had been no agitation.
Of course, they're not actually thirteen yet. Draco's birthday was not for another three days, Harry's for five days after that. But I'd be willing to lay money they remember that promise, and they'll be there ready to collect as soon as they are.
So we had better be ready.
And ready they would be. As long as Arthur and Molly agreed.
And if they don't?
Well, if they didn't, Ron and Ginny would have to be excluded from this aspect of the lessons, and the cubs given strict instructions not to start teaching them secretly.
But they won't obey. I know they won't. And it's a very bad idea to give a command that you know won't be obeyed.
For everyone's sakes, she hoped Arthur and Molly would listen to what passed for reason.
Even though it does make us look suspiciously like pushovers.
"So, Arthur, is it true Lars Vilias is ill?" asked Sirius the next day in the living room of the Burrow. Only the six adults were present, the children having found other places to amuse themselves.
"Yes, that's true," said Arthur, blowing on his tea. "Hardly ever comes to work anymore, and when he does – shadow of himself. He's worn down, overworked, I think."
"Well, what do you expect," said Molly. "A bachelor, lives all alone in that big creaky old mansion except for a house-elf or two. I'd wager he doesn't eat properly at all, nor go to bed when he should."
"He's likely to be busy," said Remus diplomatically, "but even the busiest man needs to take care of himself."
"Precisely." Molly beamed. From refusing even to acknowledge that Remus existed after he had confided in the Weasleys the nature of his condition, she had come to accept him precisely as she had before she'd known, even perhaps trusting him more, knowing that he trusted her with a secret of such magnitude.
And a secret I pray it remains. I would hate to have to leave before I've started.
And speaking of getting started...
Mentally, he nudged Danger. That's your cue, love.
I know that. "On that subject," said Danger aloud. "Of taking care of oneself."
Arthur and Molly seemed to sense something was up, Molly sitting up straighter, Arthur setting aside his teacup to listen.
"We told you at the start of the summer what we'd be teaching Ron and Ginny," Danger went on. "And we've kept to that. But there's a promise coming due, from us to our little ones, and it may affect yours as well."
"You know that we're Animagi," said Aletha. "You've seen us transform. When we started studying, the cubs wanted to learn as well. But they were ten. We told them absolutely not."
"To be perfectly honest, they blackmailed us," said Remus. "They threatened to start studying it themselves, on their own, the way..." He stopped.
"Go on, finish it," said Sirius. "The way we did. Myself and James Potter. We became Animagi in school. Illegally, of course, and it was dangerous. I'm still amazed we didn't screw it up completely. But we managed it within about two years. We were Animagi by the time we were fifteen."
"Which means," said Aletha, "that they started when they were thirteen."
Molly nodded. "And now your children want to learn just like their parents did," she said. "Don't they?"
"Yes." Sirius looked a bit sheepish. "And the way they see it, since we started at thirteen, they should be allowed to."
"Are you going to teach them?" asked Arthur.
"If only to prevent them from doing it untaught," said Danger. "And they would, if given half a chance."
"And I have a fair guess of why you're bringing this up to us," said Molly. "You want permission to teach Ron and Ginny as well."
"Yes. Only for their protection," added Remus quickly. "So that they don't try to learn from Harry or Draco and get themselves caught between forms, and be too scared to get help in time, so that they're stuck that way. It almost happened to James; it was just luck that Sirius and I found the counterspell in time."
"Luck, nothing," said Sirius. "That was all you, Moony, don't be modest. You know your way around a library like nobody else."
"But I wasn't the one who did the spell," returned Remus. "I don't know if I could have, then."
"If the mutual admiration society is quite finished," said Aletha laconically. She looked at Arthur and Molly. "I'm sorry we have to put you in this position, but we did promise. And you know our cubs will try to teach your children how to do this, even if we try to tell them not to. They have a history of that."
"There's something else as well," added Danger. "You've already had a taste of how dangerous it could be for your family to be associated with us as closely as you are. Ron could have been hurt much worse in his first year. Ginny and Percy might have died in the Chamber. If we can teach Ron and Ginny a trick no one expects from them... well, having something up your sleeve can save your life if you use it right."
Arthur picked up his teacup again, staring into it as though trying to read the tea leaves. "Consorting with lawbreakers," he said. "If my father were alive, he'd roll over in his grave."
Molly sighed. "I don't like it," she said bluntly. "But you've made a good point. Better they have your supervision than not. Are you teaching Luna and Neville as well?"
"Yes, we are," said Remus. "Gerald and Augusta both gave us permission. Oral, of course, not written."
"Why 'of course'?" asked Arthur.
"Because this way, we take the liability," explained Aletha. "If something should go drastically wrong, it's our fault, not yours, and the worst thing that happens is we're banned from contact with your children. That would be a nuisance only. If you had given written permission for this, an illegal activity..."
"I do see." Arthur nodded. "You seem to have thought this out."
"We have," said Remus. "And we give you our word that nothing will go wrong if it is within our power to stop it."
For a long moment, no one spoke. The Weasleys were looking at each other, speaking silently in their own way, with the ease of many long years' practice. Finally, Molly nodded, and Arthur turned back to the Pack. "Go ahead with it," he said. "Please do be careful."
"We will," said Danger. "We promise."
Later on that afternoon, Remus and Danger found an excuse to make their way upstairs. Danger knocked in a pattern at a certain door, which opened a bit to expose one wary brown eye. "Yes?"
"I assume you got our letter," said Remus.
"Do you have an answer for us?"
The eye disappeared for a moment, and there was the sound of whispering inside the room. The eye reappeared. "Yes."
"And that answer is?" said Danger, keeping her face straight, allowing her amusement to flow mentally only.
"Excellent," said Remus briskly. "Your first installment, then." He took a small bag from his pocket and held it within reach of the door.
A hand came out and snatched it, and from within the room, there was a muffled sound that sounded quite a lot like "Yes!"
Critical mass of laughter had almost been reached within the mind-link. Danger could no longer keep her face quite straight, and turned around instead, devoting her attention to keeping her laughter silent.
"We expect results, gentlemen," said Remus a trifle unsteadily. "Will we see them?"
"Yes," chorused two voices from within the room.
"Good. We'll see you in a few days, then."
"Yes," said one voice, and the door closed.
The Lupins managed to get one flight of stairs away from the room before sitting down and succumbing to helpless laughter.
What have we done? Danger asked when the first paroxysm was over. We've encouraged underage wizardry and underhanded dealings. We've supported those boys in a plan I'm certain their mother wouldn't approve of.
Good for us, said Remus. Love, Arthur and Molly stopped trying to control the twins years ago. They just put alarm spells on the room to let them know if they get into serious trouble and forbade magic in the rest of the house. Be grateful they're not Muggle-born.
Oh, God... This set Danger off again. The Ministry would have to have a special flock of owls just for them, for delivering those prune-faced "Don't do magic outside school" notices.
Remus gave her an odd look. How can a notice be prune-faced when it doesn't have a face?
And don't you forget it, they said in unison, and started laughing again.
Paper went flying everywhere as Draco Black, newly thirteen years old, tore into his gifts. The Pack-parents had long ago decided that birthdays and Christmas were not days to be overly obsessed with the niceties of saving paper and ribbon. Politeness to gift-givers and party guests was more important, and far more strictly enforced.
Of course, with gifts like the one Draco was now holding, politeness didn't have to be elicited.
"Hey, I've been wanting these!" Draco flipped eagerly through the flat square boxes he was holding. "Phantom of the Opera, Joseph, Jesus Christ Superstar – thanks, Aunt Andy!"
Andromeda Tonks smiled at him. "You're very welcome, Draco."
"Quite a haul this year," said Sirius, looking at the volume of shredded paper all over the music room of the Den. "Don't be expecting parties like this all the time, now."
"Don't worry, I won't." Draco made a face at his Pack-father. "Not when you didn't give me anything."
"Greedy," chided Aletha. "Just you wait."
Draco looked speculative, and interested. "Wait for what?"
"Harry's birthday," said Danger. "We're saving one of your presents for then."
"Awww," said Draco. "Can't Harry get it early, instead of me late?"
The Pack-parents shook their heads over the sound of laughter.
"Cake," announced Remus. "Everyone to the kitchen."
Andy would have gotten up to follow the children, but Danger caught her eye. "Stay a minute?" she mouthed.
The room emptied quickly, leaving the two witches alone. "Something wrong?" asked Andy as Danger came to sit in a chair next to hers.
"Not wrong, exactly. But I do need to talk with you. We've told you about my dreams, I think – that I sometimes dream in verse, and when I do, it's a good idea to follow the instructions therein, or to heed the warnings. We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble over the Wormtail affair if we'd remembered that I had a dream about him being somewhere with a lot of red-haired people."
Andromeda nodded. "Sirius acted on part of one of your dreams before the trial. The one that told him if he did something with me, something which called for my trust, it would work."
"That's right." Danger sighed. "Well, I've had another one. And this one names you as well." She leaned over to an end-table, opened the drawer therein, and took out a small scroll. "Here it is." She handed it to Andy. "The first few lines are the ones that concern you."
Andromeda read over the verse, frowning in thought. "Whose name is stars and royalty – Andromeda was a princess in the myth, and a constellation..."
"Exactly. And 'Gertrude' means 'warrior woman'. So I'm supposed to talk to you about something. Or someone."
Andy ran her finger along the next two lines, then set the scroll down abruptly. "Just in case I was wondering if you were genuine," she said, shaking her head. "No one, but no one, knows what I'm working on right now. Not even Ted."
"Is that just because you're being private about it, or is it something no one should know about?"
"Well, I certainly wasn't going to say anything here. Not with your houseguest around."
Danger nodded. "Relations of his?"
"You could say that."
"That's what we thought. Are you having any luck?"
"Some. We've tried quite a few things over the years with them. Most of them haven't worked at all, and a lot of my colleagues have just given up. But I needed a new project, and it seems criminal to leave them that way if we could help them. So I've been pulling all the notes we have on their case and looking them over."
"Anything you can share?"
"Most of the things that helped them were not spells but infusions and potions. They seemed to become more aware of their surroundings, less confused, under the influence of certain herbs and drafts. But many of those can be dangerous if taken for too long, and they had to keep increasing the dose to get the effect."
"Until it reached the point where it wasn't worth it any more."
"Exactly. I've been trying to come up with some combination of the things that have worked, to see if possibly their effects all in concert might bring about a total restoration." Andy smiled crookedly. "So far, not much luck."
"Don't give up yet," said Danger. "Look here. Her thoughts are right, and good her goal. So you're on the right track."
"Nice to know. What would be even nicer is if someone could point out to me where I'm going wrong, so I can fix it."
"See, there's the hitch." Danger took the scroll from Andromeda's lap and scanned down it. "If we've read this right, you're not going to be able to fix this by yourself."
"Here." Danger handed the scroll back, indicating a certain line. "This is the part that interested us the most."
Andy nodded slowly, reading it. "Eagle's daughter, is it? I think I know who that is."
"So do we. But it's made very clear she can't do it on her own. I think this may be a case where either your experience or her talent would fail alone."
"But together, they might turn the trick."
"Well, I hope I'm adult enough not to get worked up that a little girl can do things I can't. That's always the way of things, isn't it? Children surpassing their parents?"
"It's just that they usually don't do it when they're ten."
"Oh, you're never ready for it." Andy smiled wistfully. "Dora's been out of Hogwarts two years now, dating Charlie Weasley for longer than that, and I'm so proud of her, but it seems like yesterday she was my little girl. A tomboy, of course, the kind who always wanted to play Aurors and bad guys instead of tea party. And she was constantly trying to see if she could fool me by making herself look like another of the neighborhood children."
Danger chuckled. "Did it work?"
"Not well. Not after she caught on that she couldn't change her clothes as easily as she could change her face." Andy grinned. "If she ever complains that I used to dress her in the most horrid colors, that was why. So I could find her when it came time to get her home for supper."
Four days later, there was another party held at the Den, this one for Neville. His grandmother came to visit, and he showed off what he'd been learning for her. She was duly impressed, and confided to the Pack-parents that she hadn't thought the boy had it in him to do so well.
"He just needed some personal attention," said Remus calmly, gripping an enraged Danger by the scruff of her mental neck. Settle down or I will throw you in the river. She doesn't mean to be rude to him, it's just her opinion.
And her opinion is probably what's been holding him back all these years.
It's not our place to intervene. We're doing the best thing for him right now, by building his confidence and his skills. So cut this out, NOW.
Danger grumbled but subsided.
"And tomorrow, we get another another party," said Meghan happily as she and Hermione prepared for bed.
"Yeah." Hermione yawned.
Meghan sighed, climbing into her bed. "I miss the boys." With a male guest in the house, the girls' beds had been moved into the guest bedroom, which was just, barely, big enough to fit them both and still have room for the rest of the furniture and walking around besides.
"We see them every day," said Hermione, sitting on her little sister's bed. "Just about all day long. Do you really want to be with them at nights too?"
Meghan pouted, putting on her little-girl face. "Yeah, I do! I miss hearing Harry snore!"
Hermione laughed. "You'd better not tell him that. He'd get mad."
"But he does."
"I know, but boys don't like to hear that. Actually, neither do girls."
"OK. Then I won't tell you."
"Won't tell me what?"
"Good night." Meghan lay down.
"Oh, no, you don't." Hermione pulled her back upright. "What won't you tell me?"
Meghan shook her head adamantly, then made a firm zipping motion across her lips.
"Fine, if that's the way you want it." Hermione let her sister go and clambered across into her own bed. "I'll find out sooner or later."
She turned the lamp off with a click.
"You snore sometimes too," said a voice out of the darkness.
"I do not."
"Do..." Hermione yawned. "Not."
"Do so..." Meghan's eyes closed.
"Not," muttered Hermione before her own did the same.
"Well, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but actually you occasionally do," said a male voice behind her.
Hermione squeaked and jumped, spinning around. "Alex!"
"What?" Alex spread his hands helplessly. "It's only the truth."
"You scared me!"
Alex shook his head. "You and your sister. You're the jumpiest women I've ever known."
"Considering what they deal with, I'd say they have every right to be jumpy," said a woman, coming up behind Alex. "Hello, Hermione."
"Lady Maura." Hermione dipped a quick curtsey, then shook hands with the daughter of Gryffindor. "Is there something special happening?"
"Just birthdays," said Alex, waving his hand around the Great Hall, which Hermione now saw was decorated with streamers and balloons. "We thought we could make this an annual tradition. Have a little get-together, this time every year."
Hermione did a quick count in her head and realized it had indeed been a year since they'd created the Pride-pendants and been named honorary Heirs. "That's really nice of you," she said. "But I do not snore."
"How would you know? You're never awake to hear yourself." Alex offered his arms to the two women. "Shall we?"
Maura accepted with a wink to Hermione, who kicked Alex in the ankle before taking his other arm.
"Everybody beats up on me," whined Alex as he escorted the ladies to the snack table.
"I'm glad we're here," said Remus to Gryffindor some time later, as they sat together in a quiet corner. "There was something I wanted to ask you about Danger's latest."
"I thought you might. Will you wait a moment?"
Rowena and Margaret Ravenclaw broke off their conversation gracefully and drifted towards the two men. Danger, in a different part of the hall, cocked her head and frowned, then came to join them. "Was that you?" she asked Gryffindor. "Because it didn't sound like him." She pointed to Remus.
"It was I. Will you join us? We are discussing prophecy."
"Certainly." Danger pulled over a chair as the Ravenclaws created their own.
"Ask away," said Gryffindor.
"Meghan was identified in the poem as 'eagle's daughter'," said Remus. "I take that to mean that she is a blood descendant of yours, Madam Rowena." He gave her a small, sitting bow. "Am I correct?"
"You are," said Ravenclaw.
"There were others named in the poem as children of animals. Two mentions of a 'badger's son', and one of a 'lion's son'."
Helga Hufflepuff drifted into their sphere, sitting down between the Ravenclaws.
"May we assume that those so named are also blood Heirs?"
The three original Founders looked carefully at one another. Finally, Gryffindor turned back to them. "You may so assume," he said quietly.
"You're not telling us if that assumption is right, though," said Danger.
"Not in so many words. That is forbidden."
"We understand," said Remus. "I hope."
"You do," said Hufflepuff. "Trust yourself, young man, you're far too hard on your intuition."
Remus smiled. "All right, I will."
"Is that all you wished to ask?" said Ravenclaw.
"For the moment, yes."
"I never thought I'd see the day," said Margaret. "A man who knows when to quit. Hang on to this one, dear," she said to Danger. "Worth his weight in Galleons."
"Oh, don't I know it," said Danger, grinning. "I'd keep him around to look at even if he weren't so wonderful in other ways."
Remus and Gryffindor exchanged the age-old look of the outnumbered man.
"One other question," said Remus quietly as the ladies began to talk amongst themselves. "Should we expect the lion's son – whoever that is – to have a similar eruption of power to Meghan's? Because that could be dangerous."
"No." Gryffindor shook his head. "My current blood Heir had his powers bound by his father, from whom he inherited the bloodline, when he was a baby, to prevent just that from happening. Unfortunately, since his father is now dead, there is no one to take those bindings off. But I can promise you this – if that power is ever truly needed by the Heir, it will not be notable by its absence."
Remus nodded. "Thank you. That's all I needed to know."
Harry came awake, blinking at the fuzzy ceiling. It had been a great party. He hadn't gotten any gifts himself, but he'd gotten to watch Ron's surprise when he was named a secondary Heir of Hufflepuff – "for the loyalty that kept you waiting even when you'd been told to go," said Adam, presenting the gift – and Ginny's delight as she became a secondary Heir of Slytherin – "just so you don't get the wrong idea about the house from my ultra-great-nephew," said Alex. "We're not all like that."
And now it's my birthday. Presents, cake, ice cream, and...
He grinned, sitting up. "Draco," he called quietly.
"Wha-at?" his brother called back, lifting his head from the pillow, his eyes only half-open.
"We're both thirteen now."
"Remember what they promised we could learn how to do once we were thirteen?"
He counted seconds. Hebridean Black one, Hebridean Black two, Hebridean Black three...
"Oh yeah." Draco's face suddenly displayed understanding, and then excitement. "Yeah!"
"Hunh?" said Neville sleepily from the other side of the room.
"Nothing," said Harry, getting up to find his clothes. "You can go back to sleep if you want."
"No, he can't," said Moony tersely from the doorway.
Harry frowned at his Pack-father. Moony looked... unsettled, was the word he decided on, as if something had happened he hadn't expected and didn't like in the least. "What's wrong?"
"Later, Harry. Neville, I'm afraid you have to get up and pack your things. Your gran wants you home right away."
"What?" Neville sat up, looking confused. "I thought I was staying all summer."
"There's been a change of plans. She'll explain when you get home. Draco, Harry, up and dressed, please, and come to the kitchen when you've given Neville a hand."
With five of them working, although Meghan pouted a lot through it, Neville was packed in under half an hour. Danger found Trevor under the sink in the kitchen and returned him to his owner, and Letha came upstairs to get his trunk.
"We're really very sorry about this, Neville," she said as she levitated it down the stairs. "You'll understand when you get home."
"All right." Neville shook hands with the other boys and Hermione and hugged Meghan good-bye. "I'll write," he promised. "And we can still visit, even if I'm not here."
Meghan nodded, and held on for one more second before letting Neville go.
Once Neville was gone, and Padfoot had returned from taking his trunk on ahead, the Pack gathered in the kitchen. All the Pack-parents looked as Moony had, Harry noticed, worried about something, even frightened. His initial excitement about his birthday began to sour. What's wrong here?
"This morning, we had a letter," said Moony. "It came from the Ministry, informing us, as interested parties, that there has been an escape from Azkaban."
Hermione gasped. Meghan was staring at Moony, her eyes enormous.
"A double escape."
Draco went dead white. Harry's mouth was dry.
"Lucius Malfoy and Peter Pettigrew are currently at large."
(A/N: You can thank a fire alarm for this. It got me up at 6, and there was no point in going back to sleep, so I did some writing instead. Happy belated birthday to Hermione, and happy reading to all of you, who have been looking forward to this for so very long... yeah, a week or two. How would you ever survive if I didn't update every few days?
Well, anyway. Encourage me, feed me, love me – review! And ask me questions on the Yahoo group! I promise I read them, and I even usually answer!)