The fluff of the peacock-feather described a lovely iridescent arc. Let's see. Ah! "Ministry blunders," Rita scowled at the parchment. And did they! Outrageous, that this was allowed to happen! And then to try to keep it secret – Ohh, she knew there was a cover-up explanation waiting to be put in place. A disaster of this magnitude? The public was in danger! The people had the right to know everything that pertained to their safety.
Perfectly lacquered nails tapped the parchment. 'Lax security . . . Dark Wizards running unchecked . . . national disgrace.' That ought to do it! She could see the title, in large print across the front of the Prophet. SCENES OF TERROR AT THE QUIDDITCH WORLD CUP.
"Let's see Schellden crush this one. It'll have to go through to the presses!" Just the thing to stir up public awareness - this is my big break! After all, she was a professional eyewitness and a fabulous reporter. Nicholas just wants to keep the Prophet too tame.
Blowing on wet ink, Rita took one last look around the tent provided for the reporters' use. Good thing that Channesy wasn't here. He was the competition that kept her from the headlines. He's not even that skilled; he just knows the executive editor. Accusations of favoritism never made it through to the presses, no matter how carefully she used words to hide it.
Sweeping past the canvas, she headed for the nearest Apparition point; just beyond the Muggle house. I wonder what happened to them. Well, no doubt the Obliviators would have their work cut out for them. A piece on them – and their jobs? Not a lot of human interest, unless you look at all the cases they've missed, Muggles that go on knowing about the Wizarding world. That would be a good follow-up, with that Muggle family . . .
Especially since the exclusive on the players that she'd wanted to do originally wasn't panning out. Most wards didn't affect Animagi, but whoever had overseen the Irish team's protections had included that component. My back still hurts from running into the ward. Which was probably equally dangerous to humans, now that she thought about it. A piece on the sloppy and dangerous work done by the Aurors? Especially in light of the riot.
Twinges and telltale aches restricted her movement a little; it probably meant that the delicate wings of her beetle-form were still crumpled. But the pain was more than worth it; this story was her best yet. And I wasn't put in Slytherin House for nothing.
Sidestepping a last downed tent, she finally managed to get free of the campsite. But the Apparition point was overrun with Aurors. "Don't you have anything better to do?" she snapped. Ridiculous! Anne Lin, the irritating second-in-command of Gawain Robards, was there. Wasting their time marking who's coming and going when they should be catching the Death Eaters! Unbelievable!
"Destination?" the woman asked sweetly.
Teeth ground. Rita unhinged her jaw long enough to smile back. "Daily Prophet office in London." She flashed the manuscript of her article toward Lin. Take a good look. We'll see who has the last laugh. "I need to get tomorrow's headline to the editor." After I add in a good five lines about this ridiculous hold-up!
"Of course," was the flat reply. "If you'll take your place in the queue."
For the first time, the line of disgruntled and frightened wizards caught Rita's eye. "There are almost thirty people here!"
"And they've been waiting," Lin replied evenly.
"This," Rita pushed the article in her face, "is an emergency. I need to get to the office at once, and I cannot wait!"
"I'm afraid you'll have to, just like everyone else," the Auror snapped back.
Rita let her eyes narrow behind her glasses, and reached for her parchment and quill. This means war! "Very well," she hissed. "Let me see . . . 'criminal mismanagement'. . . 'time-consuming paper-pushing' . . . 'neglect of public safety'. . . Would you like to comment on how the Aurors ignored the danger to the witches and wizards attending the Cup twice in previous hours, during the two riots which have broken out? Obviously the division is unable to cope with the requirements of its position -"
"You're welcome to stand there as long as you like," the Auror interrupted smoothly. Lin's wand gestured toward the gathering crowd. "But it won't make your wait any shorter."
And the line was only getting longer. Very well, then. But the people will know about this! Rita moved to the end, peacock-feather wiggling a mad ink-trail across thick parchment. A familiar face in the line caught her attention. Diggory. And another. Well, look at that – it's Amelia Bones and her niece.
An idea hit her. Exclusive! After all, from the look of things no one was going anywhere for a time.
"Mr. Diggory." Rita edged her way over to the man and his son, sliding glasses up firmly to bring them into sharper focus. "I heard you were involved in searching out the culprit who cast the Dark Mark only a few hours ago. What did the Ministry find?"
"I really can't speak about that, Ms. Skeeter."
'Rumors that bodies were removed from the woods' . . . She applied her most charming smile. "Why not?" Glaring at me isn't going to get you anywhere. But she could smell paydirt.
Diggory conceded two words. "Ministry policy."
The rest of the interview was almost like pulling teeth. If she could have pried open the man's mouth and yanked the words out of his throat with her bare hands, she would have. Oh well. It's what he doesn't say that's just as important. And if he's not going to tell me what's going on . . . She was more than capable of drawing her own conclusions. The information was out there; Rita was confident she would find it. Starting with my sources.
By the time she'd managed to work through the line and Apparate back to London, an additional side piece had been worked up to accompany the main article. It'll look perfect in the bottom corner of the front page, as an addendum –
"Mr. Schellden," she breezed into through his office door, offering him her brightest smile.
"Rita." He was surprised. "You're in early this morning."
"I was at the Quidditch World Cup." She slid the manuscript of her article across his desk with a flare. "I have inside information on the riots, the Death Eaters, the Dark Mark -"
Schellden was nodding, eyes flicking over the page. Rita couldn't keep from bouncing, ever-so-slightly, on her toes.
This is it, this is it!
"This isn't a bad article, Rita." Parchment was extended back toward her. What? "But I'm afraid that you're going to have to check your sources and details more thoroughly."
"But Nicholas," she tried for a smile, pointing with the peacock-quill. "I was there, I spoke personally with several Aurors -"
"And you're missing and have misstated quite a few key facts," the Prophet's executive editor broke in. One finger indicated a sentence; Rita didn't see, green eyes locked on the editor's blue gaze. "That Muggle family was killed – you make no mention of it. And the entire segment about the Obliviators is unnecessary. Some of your statements are completely unsubstantiated. Also, I have a much more detailed account of the riot. The presses are already printing for the morning edition."
"Who?" She would not be usurped by an upstart, she was the only member of the Daily Prophet staff on duty at the Cup – Wait. "Channesy. It was Channesy, wasn't it?"
"Listen, Rita -"
She was fairly buzzing with anger. How could he! Behind my back, the sneaky, underhanded cheat! Oooh! Two steps to the left, two more to the right. Back and forth, she paced in front of Schellden's desk. Didn't even have the decency to check in at the Prophet's tent and let anyone know he was - "But I was there!"
"So was Rob." No give in that voice now. Oh, she could read people – and her editor was reaching the end of his fairly limited patience. "And he got caught in the riot, barely managing to get free. He saw the Aurors work to get the Muggles clear firsthand."
Just because I happened to be situated on the other side of the campsite – "I could go back," she offered. She would not lose this chance, not now that she'd managed to wedge the door open a bit. "Interview the teams, get a piece on the match -"
Schellden was shaking his head. "I'm afraid those articles have already been written." And he had the nerve to sound apologetic! "That was what Channesy was originally at the Cup for." And he got past the wards to see the teams –
Painted nails dug into her palms. She was going to sneak into his office and sit there for as long as it took to find out who the wizard's sources were.
"But I would like you to go back."
I knew it! The triumphant smile was barely out before the editor's next words.
"There were several witches and wizards killed in the riot yesterday," the stern glare wilted her happiness. "I want you to interview the families; there's great human interest in this kind of article. I don't think that I have to remind you that this article is going to be dealing with a tragic and controversial topic."
"Of course not!" she flared. She was a professional, no matter how they tried to suppress her work –
"No baseless accusations." The editor's voice was hard.
"My opinions are never baseless," Rita snapped right back.
"Fine," one hand waved dismissively. "This is a delicate issue. Treat it with the respect it deserves; remember, the Prophet has a reputation to maintain. These are the lives of our customers' loved ones."
"I'm aware of that." She couldn't keep the frostiness from her voice, but she did manage to avoid slamming the door on her way out. Part of it was because she was a witch with the nerve to shoulder in on a wizard's profession; Rita had encountered that her entire life. But he hired me. Apparently even those in positions of power are not free from blind gender prejudice. Women in the workforce – it would make a good article. She'd just have to be circumspect enough that it could slip through to the printers.
She passed a paperboy with a fresh copy of the morning edition on the way to Schellden's office. DARK TIMES RETURN, the headliner. So close. She'd been so close –
The sun wasn't even up. The whole day was stretching ahead of her.
And as for Channesy. . .
Well. She'd always known who the real competition was. It was past time she started to do something about it.
"Not hungry?" Limp fur waved back and forth enticingly.
Edmund choked on his omelet. Gross! "Ugh, not anymore! Lu, put that away!"
"I wasn't talking to you." His sister lowered the dead mouse to the dish sitting on a sun-drenched sill. The tawny owl dipped a disdainful beak in the provided water bowl. It seemed to be waiting patiently for someone to drop the requisite fee into the pouch dangling from its ankle.
Edmund reached for the Daily Prophet, leaving Lucy to secure a Sickle and three Knuts in the owl's bag. The bird took of in a whirl of wings. He batted floating down away before it could land on his plate. Oh, ewww –
A look at the headline made him forget to breathe.
DARK TIMES RETURN
Written by Robert Channesy, and complete with a picture of the Dark Mark hovering against the stars.
"Oh, Aslan. . ." He couldn't tell which set of lips the soft prayer slipped from.
Warm presence over one cotton-clad shoulder, reading. 'Death Eaters riot at the Quidditch World Cup, recalling times before the fall of the Dark Lord.'
"Lucy. Edmund. What's wrong?" Susan, lifting her hair back as the kitchen door yielded to her, stopping dead at the two white faces raised to greet her.
He handed over the paper. Four 'Muggles' killed, and six witches and wizards. Three minors. Oh Aslan . . .
Beloved features under red hair were strained. "You don't suppose -"
Harry. Remus and Sirius. Hermione. The Weasleys – "No." Ceramic scraped as he shoved the plate away, appetite gone. "We would have heard, Lu. You know we would have."
The noise of his older sister sliding into a chair across from them was almost nonexistent. "Thirteen people dead -"
"Apparently the Death Eaters were blasting tents out of the way as they went through the campsite." Edmund spared a bitter glare for the glittering skull on the front page. "They couldn't get out in time."
"And the Muggles?" Knuckes paled as Lucy gripped her arms close. He moved, catching her in a hug.
'Despite valiant attempts by the Aurors to preserve life, medical reports confirm that the Muggles had been murdered by the Killing Curse at least an hour before the riot even began.'
"Do you think Peter knows?" Susan's face was pinched and white, but her tone was even. Peter had left for London barely an hour before; he had no contact with the Wizarding world while there. That Macready is becoming more and more of a nuisance . . . "I don't know," Edmund admitted.
"He was planning to meet Sirius at Grimmauld Place this afternoon," Lucy murmured. A shiver trembled through her slender frame; Edmund tightened his hug. Susan's eyes went soft. "I'm sure he'll find out."
He needed to oil those hinges. The kitchen door had been getting louder over the years. Later.
"Sirius! Remus!" Lucy sprang toward them, their older sister on her heels. "You're alright!"
And looking worse for the wear. Edmund was just behind his sister. Robes were rumpled and stained; shadows darkened the hollows beneath two sets of eyes. "Did you manage to get any sleep at all?"
The Marauders shared a glance of grim humor.
"How bad was it?" Susan brought tea to the table, and they all managed to back off enough to let both wizards sit.
"Harry, Hermione, and the Weasleys are fine," were the first words from Remus. Maybe it was only telltale signs of tiredness in every line of his body, but the gray flecking his hair seemed more pronounced to Edmund's gaze.
Pale eyes flicked over the article lodged in the center of sanded oak whorls. Edmund could tell when the Auror reached the recounting of the casualties; tiny lines around the Auror's eyes drew tight.
"How accurate is it?"
"Very." Sirius set his cup down, stiff posture melting against the back of the chair. "There were two serious injuries from the riot on the pitch yesterday. St. Mungo's reports that they have very good chances of recovery."
"The Death Eaters?"
Remus clearly already knew; the professor practically radiated distaste.
"Seven apprehended." Sirius frowned. "There were more, but a few managed to get away from the confining spells. Most of those detained after the riot were just drunk witches and wizards, having a bit of fun." The last word sizzled the air more venomously than a curse.
"The article doesn't say much about the Dark Mark," Edmund said slowly. An idea he didn't much like was flirting with consciousness. Dark Mark. Sign of the Dark Lord . . . Tea cooled under his fingertips.
"Because there is little to be said."
"Padfoot. . ."
Tense lines morphed into a tired smile. "Sorry, Moony."
Suspicion solidified; breakfast became a cold lump in Edmund's stomach. "It was Voldemort, then."
The steady anger in the Auror's voice surprised more than just Edmund. He caught Remus giving the other Marauder a worried glance as well. There's something he's not saying. What's going on here?
"But he's gone now." The Auror shrugged, the powerful intensity that had flickered in pale eyes gone like mist before the noonday sun. "With any luck the containment field I put up around the scene caught his accomplice, but I doubt it."
"Do you have any idea where he might have gone?" Susan knew about Voldemort, knew that he was a wizard who wanted immortality and power over all of them – and that the Pevensies were a target because the love of Aslan gave them something he wanted. Something he'll never have. That Tom Riddle, her girlhood crush, and Lord Voldemort were one and the same . . . She knows, but she doesn't truly remember.
Without the memory of turbulent emotions, the texture of them, all Susan had was clinical analysis. And Peter had long since given up the hope of being forgiven for making her unhappy, all those years ago.
"No," was the Auror's response.
Remus shook his head, one hand rubbing tired eyes. "We can't even tell them without more proof."
Edmund grimaced, sipping stone-cold tea. We've been over and over it, from so many different angles . . . They needed solid evidence. Evidence that won't bring us all so far into the public eye that we might as well dance naked in Diagon Alley for all the privacy we'll get. "What do we do?"
"I have the feeling that we won't have long to wait."
Sirius blinked, focusing back in on them. "Voldemort. I have the feeling he won't wait the year out before revealing himself, useful as the secrecy of his return might be."
"Why?" Edmund couldn't bank on that; he was going to spend whatever time he had trying to convince children at Hogwarts not to chose Darkness over Light. And to heal the young souls already shadowed by Voldemort's legacy. I need every advantage I can get.
"Because of the power it will give him." The Auror was picking apart the situation with an analysis more cold-blooded than any battle plan. "The fear he inspired had life of its own. It made people crumble before him, join his ranks – and with Fudge and his new assistant in office, the power of that fear over the government might be enough to plunge us all into Darkness."
"But we have time to prepare," Remus cut in reassuringly. Edmund saw the werewolf glancing at his sisters' worried faces, and put an arm over Lucy's shoulders. Susan drew closer, seeking comfort. "Nothing is going to happen even within the next month. Voldemort wants a war, but wars take time. Preparation." He stifled a yawn.
Time we can use as well.
"You're exhausted," Lucy changed the topic abruptly, standing.
"I got more sleep than Sirius did," Remus deferred immediately, avoiding anyone's gaze.
The other Marauder snorted. "Which means you're worse off, not better. I can keep going – you've had a little bit of rest and you're just waiting to crawl off somewhere and sleep for a day."
"Too right," Remus managed around another yawn. "But you need one of us awake, if those wizards from the Department of Magical Transportation are coming to set up the Floo -"
"I'll take care of it," Sirius rested a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Get some sleep, Moony."
Susan sighed, getting to her feet as Remus disappeared into the hall. "You know, I just remembered the mess that temporary Floo was. Maybe we should rethink this decision."
The Auror shook his head. "There are a few clauses in the permanent spell which care for that. The temporary wouldn't have had it; it takes too much power unless the spell's being set for good."
Edmund glanced over at his half-finished breakfast, eyes catching the headline once more in their travels across the tabletop. It made his stomach clench in fury. I think I'm done eating for a few hours.
"Why?" Lucy gave up on the dishes in the sink, pushing herself up onto the counter. Bare feet swung, within centimeters of pounding on cabinet doors. "Don't most people have house-elves to take care of that?"
"Good question, Lu." I hadn't thought of that. Edmund felt his face pull into a frown at the cold tea in his cup. Nasty.
Sirius couldn't hide his surprise. "Wherever did you get that idea?"
Water ran, washing tea down the drain. Edmund turned the faucet, glancing back.
"Well, Hogwarts . . ." Lucy shrugged.
The white wand was out. It still caught Edmund's eye; for all his wanderings around Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, he had yet to see another wand made of aspen. There's something we don't know there, either. But he would ask Remus, maybe.
"Hogwarts is massive." The wand flicked toward the sink. "Scourgify." Suds filled the basin, a sponge lifting to scrub dishes all on its own. "There are a lot of different cleaning spells and solutions used by magic folk."
Does everyone who knows Hagrid use that phrase? Edmund grinned; he sometimes did, himself.
Sirius shrugged. "House-elves are usually found at places where the effort for witches and wizards to clean is so extensive that it would be ridiculous to try. Hogwarts, probably Durmstrang Institute and Beauxbatons Academy, the Ministry, St. Mungo's – places like that. The upper echelon of Wizarding society usually have house-elves as well."
"A status-mark," Susan commented, watching the dishes hop merrily through soap bubbles and water to sit cheerily in the drying rack. Edmund's eyes narrowed. They move the same way they did when they were enchanted to act like frogs at Harry's party . . .
"Yes." Another flick of the wand, and the water drained, bubbles disappearing. Countertops were suddenly sparkling, free of crumbs. "Sometimes they're attached to a particular place or family. But more Wizarding families have Floo than house-elves, so it was something that got built into the enchantments early."
"'Attached'?" Lucy had a glint in her eye. Edmund couldn't particularly disagree. That's slavery. It left a bad taste in his mouth. "You make it sound like they're barely creatures worth noticing."
"Well, it hasn't always been like that." The wizard sounded thoughtful.
"What do you mean?" Susan's curiosity spoke for him. Thanks, Su! Edmund perked up.
"House-elves are very powerful magical creatures," Sirius leant against the doorjamb; Edmund went back to the table. "For the most part. They didn't start off that way. They were . . . Muggles call them 'Brownies', I believe, but they have many names. Kobolds, ùruisg, Heinzelmännchen. Mostly they were just little sprites, who would come into homes and perform small magics, trying not to be noticed."
"Why?" Lucy persisted, crossing her dangling ankles.
"No one knew why," Sirius shrugged. The wand had disappeared again, though midnight robes lay over the back of a chair in favor of regular Muggle clothes. Too hot for so many layers of cloth. Edmund wasn't surprised. "Not for awhile. Then people started to notice that the longer a house-elf was with a Wizarding family, or attached to a certain home, the more powerful their magic grew and the more they were able to do."
He got it. "They're parasites."
"Not quite." Hands dove into pockets. "They're not harmful, if that's what you mean. But they do get something out of their association with witches and wizards. They . . . absorb, I suppose, magic from the members of the family or from places that are heavily magical, like Hogwarts."
"Interesting. Has anyone studied this phenomenon?" Look out world. Susan in full-on 'scientist' mode.
Another shrug. "I'm not sure. I don't really know all that much about it." More than most, I bet. But Edmund didn't press the wizard.
"Something for you to look into, Su," Lucy suggested. "Speaking of magic, do you know when the wizards from the Department of Magical Transportation are going to be here?"
"Soon," Edmund interjected, with a look at the clock. He pleaded with the ceiling for patience. "That is, if I've got the times right." Irritating magical clocks . . . not a one of them tells the time properly. But they were useful enough for other things; the Weasleys had one telling where family members were. I wouldn't mind having one of those.
"We'd better make sure everything's ready." Susan stepped around Sirius and into the hallway.
"We already checked twice," Lucy filled in with a tolerant smile, door swinging shut behind the youngest Pevensie.
Edmund followed, shrugging at the wizard's raised brow. "Coming?"
"Oh thank goodness, thank goodness!" Wetness soaked through her bedroom slippers from damp grass. "Arthur – I've been so worried – so worried –" Molly flung her arms around her husband's neck, dropping the paper. Oh, thank Merlin he's alright – and Ginny and Ron, Bill, Charlie, Percy – oh, my boys –
Molly wiped at tearing eyes. "You're all right." She let Arthur go, just a little bit. "You're alive. . . Oh boys -"
She caught up two identical bodies in a hug.
"Ouch! Mum – you're strangling us -"
"I shouted at you before you left!" Sobs boiled up, she fought to get the words out. "It's all I've been thinking about! What if You-Know-Who had got you, and the last thing I ever said to you was that you didn't get enough O.W.L.s? Oh Fred . . . George. . ."
"Come on, now, Molly, we're all perfectly okay." A solid arm went around her, and the twins slipped free. Something's wrong. She could tell it, in her husband's voice. Tears blurred the trip back into the Burrow.
Seated in the kitchen she could look them all over. Percy's nose is red, oh dear – he got hit in the face – and what happened to Charlie's shirt! And Bill – there's a bandage on his arm, oh –
"Here you are, Mrs. Weasley." A cup of strong tea clinked to the table in front of her. Hermione gave her a hopeful smile.
"Thank you, dear." Molly hiccupped, sighing. So thoughtful. "Oh, you're all alright – I was reading the paper and so worried!" They could have died – other people had. Death Eaters. . . oh, Merlin save us! In the face of that - How could I have been so angry over O.W.L.s?
Arthur pulled out the Ogdens Old Firewhiskey as Bill handed him the Daily Prophet. Her baby girl was exhausted – oh, they all were, it must have been such a dreadful night – with riots and Death Eaters – fear chilled her from the inside out. The tea burned pleasantly going down, spreading soothing warmth.
"It's not bad," Arthur sighed, lowering the paper. She really didn't want to look at that awful glowing skull much longer. "Channesy has all his facts straight, at least."
"It says he was caught in the riot," Charlie was reading over his father's shoulder.
"And he still manages to avoid spreading accusations and rumors," her husband set the paper aside. "Much as I hate to say it, I'm glad he got the article written before that Rita Skeeter could try to print whatever trash she made up after cornering us outside that wood!"
"That woman's got it in for the Ministry of Magic!" Percy said hotly. "Last week she was saying we're wasting our time quibbling about cauldron thickness, when we should be stamping out vampires! As if it wasn't specifically stated in paragraph twelve of the Guidelines for the Treatment of Non-Wizard Part-Humans -"
"Do us a favor, Perce," yawned her oldest, "and shut up."
"Bill!" Molly couldn't help scolding. I know he's old enough to live on his own now, but really!
A tired smile went her way. "Sorry, Mum."
Arthur sat further back, comfortable. "At least I'm not going to have to go into the office."
"Of course not! You're on vacation, Arthur!"
"Yes, well." He looked rather uncomfortable, and she knew exactly what he was thinking. I won't stand for it!
"Oh, no you don't!" Molly raised a shaking finger. "This has nothing to do with your office, Arthur, and there's no need for you to try to smooth things over at all – you weren't even involved."
"Well, I have to give a statement to the Aurors," her husband admitted. One hand was combing through the front of his bangs nervously. Red tufts pointed sideways off his head; her fingers itched to smooth it down.
"Mr. Black can collect that when he shows up to get Harry, though, can't he?"
Hermione. Bless that girl.
"That's not proper procedure," Percy pointed out; she couldn't hold back a frown as her son continued. "I don't really think it would be acceptable."
Oh, Ron. Her youngest son had been at his brother all summer. Percy was adhering quite stringently to the rules, but that was a good thing. So unlike Bill and the twins. Charlie was the same way, though he was less vocal about it.
"Policy is in place for a reason," Percy shot back. Toast popped out of the toaster; Molly frowned. I don't remember –
Hermione collected it, sliding jam and a knife onto the table within everyone's easy reach. Ah. The girl really was responsible and thoughtful. It was nice to see that Ron's friends were such good children. Poor Harry did have his fair share of trouble, but now that his godfather was free –
"Quiet, you two." Arthur raised his voice to be heard over Percy and Ron's bickering.
Another burning gulp of tea, as she caught sight of the paper headline once more.
"Ron!" Molly sighed, wishing she didn't have to snap at him; but still, the familiarity of it gave her a strange comfort. It's so good to have them all home and safe – oh, I thought -
The floor shivered.
"What's that?" Bright green eyes darted nervously at each of them. Her children were simply moving out of the way; tired as they all were, she was sure it was just automatic. Poor dears.
"Visitor," Molly reassured Harry. "That's just -"
The Floo roared to life, tumbling a new figure into the kitchen.
The person swore, colorfully and creatively; a chair leg snapped off as the man hit it rolling from the fireplace. Various items fell from the edge of the counter, spilling and spraying glass shards across the floor. Drat! The body fetched up against the far wall.
Her frown solidified as the man stood, shaking soot from his hair. Pale eyes glanced up, and froze. Hands lifted slowly. Sirius?
Then Molly saw that all her sons – indeed, her husband as well as their guests, had wands out and aimed. Arms relaxed as the wizard's face was revealed. What's going on here?
"Language!" She remembered, belatedly, to be severe. Really, Ginny shouldn't hear such – but her youngest was grinning. Hmmm. Molly raised a brow; her daughter's lips jerked straight, but laughter danced in blue eyes. "We were expecting you," she told him. "You're a bit early."
Pink stained the Auror's cheeks; he was off-duty, in Muggle clothes. "Sorry about that." His wand came out; Molly blinked at the wood. How unusual. Pale eyes half-closed. "Ma'at."
A slow wave of power, it spread like a single ripple through a pond. When it passed, the chair was righted, broken plates restored – glancing around, Molly noticed that the soot was gone; in fact, the kitchen was cleaner than it had been in months. The creaky table looked better than new, and the crack had disappeared from the window over the stove where Fred and George had tried to conduct one of their experiments. A glance around the room showed that little things here and there had been fixed, adjusted, or renewed. Including Charlie's shirt.
The sigh only just reached her ears. "Ah, damn."
"What spell was that?" Hermione's interest gleamed in brown eyes. Such a thirst for knowledge. Molly shook her head, smiling. A good influence on Ron. Still, I dare say it would be very useful about the house. She'd never heard that incantation before either.
"I'm sorry," the Auror offered. "I was just going to fix my mess, but the spell got away from me a little." He scowled, muttering something uncomplimentary under his breath about magic and ancestors, but nothing clearer.
"It's no matter." Molly reached out to brush soot off Sirius' shirt. "I've been after Arthur to replace that window for weeks now."
"Where did you Floo from?" Harry cut in, looking puzzled.
"Thank you." His wand had disappeared. Sirius' attention slipped to his godson. "First trip is usually a little rough, but the Pevensies' Floo is up and running." Oh, they finally got it installed? Wonderful!
"Yes way." The Auror ruffled Harry's hair. "Ready to go?"
Molly hmphed. You don't get away that easily! "Just as soon as you explain to me why everyone got so jumpy when Sirius arrived." Probably didn't mean anything. It could just be that they're all on edge from last night – But for a throwaway question, the room was suddenly too still. Fear drenched her, washing away the tiny smile she'd worn.
Arthur's eyes were serious. Something's wrong. "Molly, there's something I need to tell you."
"Come on." Sirius was herding all of them to the parlor.
Harry looked over one shoulder. Mr. Weasley was urging Mrs. Weasley down in front of her toddy, speaking to her in a low voice.
"Let's go," Bill spoke up. The Weasley children filed out without protest at that; Charlie flicked a Silencing Charm back at the kitchen.
Settling around the living room, Harry couldn't take the silence as they waited for something to happen. "I thought you had to work," he grinned at his godfather, still surprised that Remus hadn't shown up instead.
Sirius smiled back. "I have six hours before they want me back to help clean up. Did you get any sleep?"
I wish. "Not really." Harry shoved back a yawn, but wasn't entirely successful. He could see that Ginny had already fallen asleep on Percy, and Fred and George were muttering to themselves on the side. Charlie had started to darn a fireproof balaclava that had been hiding among knick-knacks on the mantle.
The soft murmur of conversation was soothing. Harry blinked. Hmm?
"Well when we get back you can go to sleep if you like. Remus' already out like a light." Sirius settled deeper into the couch, breathing a soft sigh. Harry leant, a little, and one of his godfather's arms came around him, pulling him in a sideways hug. The hand gently ruffling his hair felt good. Warm. Soft.
Comfortable, and secure. Sleep beckoned gently; Harry didn't waste energy fighting it.
"Sirius?" Hermione's voice felt like it was coming from a long way off.
The body pressed against his side shifted a little, vibrating with speech. "Yes, Hermione?"
"What was that charm that you used before? I've never heard an incantation like that – what language was it?" Hermione and new magic. . . like a dog with a bone . . . the analogy made him smile, even on the shores of sleep.
"It's a bothersome little spell," Sirius said quietly. "Just something passed down in my family forever. When it comes to cleaning charms, you're much better off using something a little more predictable. I only used that from reflex."
"Oh." Hermione sounded disappointed. "Sorry to bother you."
"It's no bother. Curiosity's a good thing. If you don't ask, you'll never know."
Sound trailed into nothing, punctuated by the slow rise-fall of the chest his head was resting against. In. . . out. . . in . . . out . . . .
Adrenaline surged; Harry snapped upright, smacking against something hard. "Ow!"
A hand at his head, he looked up to see Sirius rubbing his jaw, rueful smile on his face. "You alright, Harry?"
A yawn split his face in two; Harry blushed.
"Oh, Fred – George – you kept everyone safe, oh, I can't believe it -"
"Mum -" George gasped. She had them in a stranglehold again, hugging tightly. Fred's face was red.
Mr. Weasley moved in again, carefully prying her off the twins. "There, now, everything's fine, Molly -"
Mrs. Weasley gulped tearfully. "Oh, I can't believe it – You-Know-Who – oh, what are we going to do – you all have to go to school, and I just want you to be safe -"
"We needn't worry about getting the children to London this year, at least," Mr. Weasley soothed. "The Pevensies have offered to let us use their Floo as a waystation to Hogsmeade."
Huh? Emerald eyes shot to Sirius for an explanation; his godfather smiled.
"Ever wondered how students who live far from London get to Hogwarts?"
"Not really," Harry yawned. Tired. He'd yet to see Seamus Finnegan on the Hogwarts Express, but he'd always assumed they'd just missed each other.
"Some students actually live closer to Hogwarts than to London," Sirius explained. "It's out of their way to go to Platform 9 ¾ and catch the Express. There's a Central Floo Station in Hogsmeade. A lot of students take the Floo to Hogsmeade, using stopover points, and then meet everyone coming off the train at Hogsmeade Station to go to Hogwarts."
Hermione was listening closely. "Is that what's going to happen this year?"
"Probably." Sirius rose, stretching a little. Pale eyes flicked to Mrs. Weasley, fat tears streaking her cheeks. "I think it's time to head out."
They said their goodbyes to the Weasleys. Mrs. Weasley was gulping at the toddy Mr. Weasley had brought out of the kitchen for her, and had an arm wrapped around Ginny that strongly suggested she was never going to let go. She was gushing over Fred and George and the spell they'd developed; Hermione rolled her eyes as Harry grinned. Looks like 'Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes' just got Mrs. Weasley's stamp of approval.
Sirius reached into his pocket and pulled out a small sack of Floo Powder. "Pevensie Mansion. Keep your elbows tucked in -"
"And my head down." Harry grinned. "I know."
"Go on then." Sirius nudged him a bit.
Seconds later he was shooting across the Mansion's floor, skidding to a stop and rolling quickly out of the way. Just in time; his godfather followed quickly, and then waved him near. "Whenever you're done using the Floo, Harry, tap the mantle with your wand, here."
"Why?" It was a struggle to keep his eyes open.
"The Floo is like a door. You need to close it when you're done."
"'Kay." Taking a nap was sounding better and better. Harry managed to stumble to his room without help, but didn't bother undressing before snuggling into the mattress. Sleep, long denied, rushed up with a vengeance.
"Professor Stanton. Welcome to Hogwarts."
The man blinked, gazing across a green field that Albus knew looked empty, desolate, and utterly uninviting.
The Headmaster stroked his beard a moment, before reaching for fourteen inches of sycamore. "Aggrego."
Gray eyes blinked. Widened. But the face remained serene, except for a small smile. "Thank you. I was fighting the urge to go home and return a call to my sister."
"The Muggle-repelling charms around Hogwarts are very old and powerful." Albus began to walk toward the entrance to the Great Hall, casting a twinkling smile back. "But there are. . . loopholes."
"I imagine those might be useful every so often," the low murmur seemed to escape the Muggle's attention; a glance showed Albus that the man was utterly absorbed in his surroundings. The Headmaster himself didn't know precisely what Muggles saw, other than a brown and barren moor, but the grass under their feet was lushly green and Hogwarts itself sprawled lazily not far away.
"A moment." Albus paused on before entering the school, measuring amiable features over which – or was he imagining? – curiosity swept, there and gone. "If you would, please, place your hand on the doors."
Not an inquisitive look, not even a questioning glance as fingers met oak. Why does it bother me that there is no emotion to him? Because it made the new professor an unknown quantity. Well. He is a Muggle; there is a limit to the damage he can do. It wasn't the first time the insistence of the School Governors had forced him into a hiring he was unsure of. Almost forty years of annually rotating DADA professors had helped him learn to keep his reservations to himself.
A breeze kicked up; Stanton shivered once.
"There." Albus pushed the door open. "You have been entered into the castle's wards, they will recognize you now. And the magic of Hogwarts has accepted you. You need not worry that any of your students might try to place a spell of any sort on you."
Stanton inclined his head, straight brown bangs brushing gray eyes. The small smile grew, just a little. "My thanks. That is . . . comforting."
Stanton jumped; Albus turned and smiled.
"Headmaster Dumbledore, sir," squeaked the small, green-skinned creature bedecked in mismatching socks and moth-eaten collared shirt. "Dobby is here, sir, as Master ordered."
There! The newest professor blinked, eyes a hair wider than normal. Not as controlled as Severus. Not quite.
"Ah, Dobby. This is Professor Stanton."
The little house-elf bowed, shirttails scraping the ground. "An honor it is, sir."
Now that he knew how to read it, embarrassment and mortification lurked in the kind smile Stanton gave the creature. "It's nice to meet you, Dobby."
"May Dobby take Professor Stanton's bags, sir?"
Even in light of such aggressive hospitality, the man's calm didn't waver. "I'd rather hold on to them, if you don't mind," Stanton lifted the two cases once more, fast to regain composure.
"Ah, very good then." One hand swept forth. "Shall we?" Albus led them past the Great Hall, stopping a moment to let the newest professor peer inside. "Dobby will give you a detailed tour of the castle as soon as you've settled."
"The steps change, sir," squeaked the house-elf helpfully as they reached the portrait bedecked tower spanned by dozens of shifting staircases.
Indeed they do! Albus wished that he could accompany Stanton and Dobby on the tour; Hogwarts had been the only place he ever wanted to be since childhood. Watching others see its wonders for the first time . . . Through his students, the Headmaster could be reminded of all the ways in which he loved this school.
And here we are.
The entrance to this set of rooms was a stele that looked to be carved into the wall; the clash of two armies on horseback had been pulled from the stone in detailed relief. "Simply touch a finger to this horse's mane, and say your password." The equine in question was a magnificent creature, rearing free of its rider at the head of the left-hand army. Almost ready to leap into the halls of Hogwarts.
"The house-elves assure me that the rooms are ready for your use," Albus twinkled at Dobby; the little creature smiled back from under floppy ears. "The password has been set to your name, and Dobby will show you how to change it. I expect I will see you at the evening meal, in the Great Hall, Professor Stanton?"
"You shall." The handshake was firm, but the eagerness barely hidden in gray eyes did much to allay Albus' doubts.
The portrait alongside the carving, that of a unicorn, was innocuously chewing hay. One dark eye remained fixed on them, and Albus raised a brow at it as he passed. The creature was far more intelligent than it let on. I wonder if that's a result of guarding Pevensie Tower. Or perhaps wizards don't know as much of unicorns as we believe we do.
Think on it later. Now – Now, he had business to deal with. Albus reached his office with little trouble; Hogwarts Castle was slightly more accommodating to its Headmaster than to the students. Stairs resisted the urge to change until he had crossed, and hallways remained connected to their proper destinations for the minute it took him to pass through.
The slide of stone over stone accompanied him as the revolving stairs carried him upward. A soft skreet greeted him; red whirled through the air and feathery weight settled on his shoulder.
"Fawkes." Soft down brushed his ear; the treat he held up was delicately grasped in a sharp beak. "There is much to be done."
Indeed. He had begun the summoning of the old crowd a week ago, on Severus' confirmation of Voldemort's return. Sirius Black is many things, but a liar is not one of them. The man was unaccountably troublesome, and always had been. There's little to be done about that now. Think on it later.
The Dark Mark sparkled menacingly from the front page of the Daily Prophet. DARK TIMES RETURN. Not if I can help it.
Replies littered gleaming mahogany, just beside the disturbing article. Red cushions shaped themselves around Albus' body as he sat, with the comfort of long acquaintance. Arabella Fig, Mundungus Fletcher, of course. Alastor Moody. Emmeline Vance, Deadalus Diggle, Sturgis Podmore. Amelia Bones had also replied – and with the suggestion to allow cell-leaders to begin recruiting. She wants Gawain Robard. And it would be easier, with the Head of the Aurors among us.
He'd hoped for more by now.
They will not want to believe Voldemort has returned; especially when life carries on without noticing. But perhaps some good would come of the tragedy at the World Cup.
Experience had taught Albus that the only way for the Order to survive the upcoming war was through secrecy. Even he didn't know who all the members of the covert group were; he knew many of the original leaders of small cells scattered through the Wizarding World, but not their members or cells that had arisen around them.
Nearly out of ink, the quill paused.
We have lost members. We will have been weakened through the years, just as he has.
But like a phoenix stretching its wings for flight, the word would gently spread.
Sirius coughed. "Sorry."
Thick dust silvered the wizard's hair; raking fingers through blond strands, Peter felt a cloud of the stuff lift from his own head. "No one's lived here in how long?"
"Ten years at least." The last dustcloth joined the others in the middle of an expensive rug covered in filth. "Welcome to Grimmauld place."
"It's interesting," Peter replied truthfully.
Sirius snorted, pale eyes narrowly scanning the room to within an inch of its life. "It's a dump. Now."
He kept his mouth shut, and followed the wizard to a window. Rubbing at the grime produced a bleary image of the street outside. Muggles walked unconcernedly by, paying no attention to the decrepit house rotting between numbers ten and fourteen. At the very least, it should have garnered a glance – "They can't see it." Why am I so surprised?
"No," Sirius agreed. "There are many enchantments on this place. Old magics. It's Unplottable, and unless you have a direct blood tie, you can't Apparate into the house." Which meant Sirius was the only one who could do so.
Peter looked over the room again. Faded furniture made dirty with the weight of years of disuse, a sight that was helped by the fact that little light illuminated the true extent of the disrepair. Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, was just as Sirius had warned him. Dark. "It's going to take a lot of work."
"Not so much," the wizard shrugged, detouring around a mahogany table and headed toward the door. "Some spells will make it livable at least, until I can find a house-elf to do something about the other problems. And a lot of the wards need to be patched, or entirely reworked and strengthened."
"A house-elf? Why -"
"Filthy blood traitor!" His hand was reaching for his sword before he recognized the shriek. "You are no child of mine, disloyal cur! Disowned bastard of the House of Black! You -"
The mouth of the portrait moved, and Peter watched the fury on painted features fan into flames as the words the spindly woman tried to spit out at them were smothered. In the half-light, he was barely able to make out the heads of house-elves mounted high on the walls. "Why don't you just get rid of that?" Peter asked, carefully as he knew how.
"The portrait?" Sirius scowled. "Knowing my mum, there's a Permanent Sticking Charm on the back of it. It'll take more time than I have to get rid of the damn thing. I'd blast it, but she's probably warded it. It's a miracle I got her to shut up for this long."
Well then. Peter held up a hand. "Would you mind if I . . .?"
The wizard blinked, and then smiled for the first time since their feet had hit the front walk. "Be my guest."
It took a moment of focused concentration before he was able to yank the frame from the wall, but the look in Sirius' eyes was worth it. Peter could feel the spells dissolving from the portrait, water sliding from a duck's back, as he lowered it to the floor. "The spells on it are gone," he commented, planting both feet on ragged carpet, well away from whatever destruction was about to find the hateful creation.
"Incendio!" Flames shot out, greedily gulping down oil and canvas. The frame was a charred outline that existed for only a moment before likewise being swallowed by the spell.
Peter whirled at the despairing croak, and was shocked at the small figure that rushed toward the spot of ash staining the rug. A – is that a house-elf? But I thought-
"Blood traitor!" the nasty little thing hissed. It looked like the house-elves of Hogwarts, except that its skin was darkened with age. Or dirt. "It has destroyed Mistress' portrait -"
"Be silent, Kreacher!" Sirius' voice was harsh; Peter winced. Maybe coming here wasn't the best idea after all. But Sirius was determined, and for more reasons than one. With the power of the Black lineage behind the magics sunk into the wood and land of Grimmauld Place, the house was a veritable fortress. And it could become a sanctuary.
It was more than likely, given how easily the Mansion had been breached by Death Eaters. Sometimes, there was no solution but to fight fire with fire. Sirius needs a secure retreat. And Harry needed a place to call home. Though I don't know if Grimmauld Place qualifies. . . . Hard to believe Sirius had grown up here.
The little thing was muttering evilly to itself, but no words were truly legible. Sirius' glare had the house-elf glaring back, a living version of the eerie, glass-eyed stares drifting down from the decapitated heads high on the walls.
Peter blinked. "I thought you said there wasn't a house-elf in Grimmauld Place."
"I was expecting to find him dead somewhere," Sirius admitted. "This makes things a bit more complicated."
"The traitor is speaking of Kreacher as if Kreacher had loyalty to such a thing -"
"Quiet!" But unexpectedly, the wizard was almost laughing. "Unbelievable."
Peter choked on a laugh. "What's it going to take to make this place habitable in the next day?"
The wizard glared at the dead house-elf heads. "A good deal of magic. A week of a proper house-elf's attention -"
Kreacher opened its mouth.
"Not. A. Word."
Thwarted, the house-elf made low grumbling noises to itself, skulking back into the shadow-lined hallway. Sirius caught Peter staring, and smiled thinly. "There's a lot of Dark magic about this place. It's affected his temperament a bit."
"I'll say." They hadn't even breached the deeper regions of the house yet, and Peter found himself reluctant to go further. It's worse than the Forbidden Forest. And that was almost an understatement –
White glowed, despite the weak lighting. "Sirius?" The Auror's wand was out, and up. Something's out there? No warning, shivering down his spine. He felt the frown, and ignored it.
"Just – stand there a minute. Don't move."
Mystified, Peter obeyed. Pale eyes shut in concentration. What's going on?
Tsunami, was all Peter could think. But it was a wind, with all the force of a mile-high tidal wave smashing against land – even though it was gentle as summer, a breeze caressing his face like a dryad's call. Magic? He'd never felt anything like this.
Blue eyes that he couldn't remember closing blinked at the hallway.
It wasn't much cleaner, but it was different. The dinginess now was what he would expect of a house uninhabited for years, but not wholly neglected. And there was light, through all the windows. Peter looked closer.
What happened to the – Aslan.
The horrendous, decapitated house-elf heads were gone. Changes scattered here and there in the actual build of the house; the hallway was more open, the faded carpet red rather than blue. Woodwork, though still blanketed with age and dirt, was golden, not the black it had been. Metal fixtures he would have sworn were in the shape of snakes now sported lion's heads.
It was still in need of a lot of work, and it was still Dark. But the Darkness had faded considerably, lingering only in the shadows behind closed doors and under furniture.
"What was that?"
Shoulders shrugged too casually as the wizard took a cautious step further into the hall. "Old magic, been in my family for ages."
The instinct slammed Peter out of nowhere; a peculiar shifting of the world revealed in a blinding moment of truth that he had felt during the hardest of Narnian negotiations, the toughest profiling cases. "Literally?"
A glint in pale eyes. "Something like that."
Carefully, now . . . Peering into another room, he saw the dustcloths were not smothered thickly with dirt, but only lightly coated. Did it change the whole house? "I've never seen magic do anything like that." Not on that – scale. It took the Darkness away.
"Magic is all about intent." Sirius' hand was wary on the closed kitchen door; oak swung back without a sound. "The purest, most powerful form of magic is the oldest. The words are the ones first used to harness magic; the intent is . . . clearer." The other man prowled through the kitchen, cautiously opening drawers and poking through cupboards.
Important. He knew it . . . but Peter couldn't – quite – see how. Wait. Be patient. Gather the pieces.
"Good," Sirius breathed, casting a smile his way. "Let's check upstairs."
Upstairs was like the rest of the house now was; unused, but not filled with the decrepit decay that had swarmed through Grimmauld Place on their arrival. A few quick cleaning spells had two bedrooms and the water closet almost like new. Still, I can't help but hope that Sirius does manage to find another house-elf. Soon.
That Kreacher –
Peter clamped down on an uncharitable thought. Tested the restored mattress instead, a bit surprised when his bouncing didn't elicit a cloud of dust. Spells or not, when the dirt vanished and he couldn't tell where it had gone, he couldn't fully trust it was clean. Come on, Peter! You've slept in worse places than this!
Yes – but that had been outside –
The mirror, thankfully, didn't talk; but if it did, it would only be telling him how foolish he was acting. He'd unpacked, gotten settled, and had fifteen minutes before Sirius was going to collect him to enter Peter into the House's wards.
Fifteen minutes was not enough time to deal with the letter in his hand. The one I've reread a hundred times, looking for a way to tell Su, Ed, and Lu about something I don't even believe in. Magical prophecies marked turning points, they didn't spell out the future with undeniable confidence, as Narnian prophecies did.
'There is a prophecy about the fall of Voldemort, telling of the one who will vanquish him. I have reason to believe the individual it mentions is Susan.'
Reason? None was specifically mentioned in the green script gliding across parchment stained with Peter's fingerprints. It was crumpled where he'd gripped hard on the first read-through. Peter smoothed the marks absently.
They hadn't even seen this prophecy. And if Dumbledore thought to command their actions, they had to know fully everything he was keeping from them. Prophecy very much included.
'There are undeniable cues and parallels mentioned by the Seer, and I believe the power you four control is prominent enough to challenge him.'
Control? That was being generous. It simply was, like the length of their hair or strength of their hands – changeable, but a part of them.
Do I want Dumbledore knowing that?
The love of Aslan was more wide-ranging than just Aegis Sanguinis, though that was the phrase the Wizarding world knew it by. Voldemort was nothing in the face of it, for all his evil. But for all we can interact with the Wizarding world, are we really meant to save it?
This prophecy business made Peter uneasy. By the Lion's Mane, he didn't know which way to turn.
'Thus, when you arrive at Hogwarts again in September, I will speak with all of you about what this means for the future.'
Whatever was happening, Peter didn't like his options. Ed, Su and Lu will be at Hogwarts next year, all the time; and I'll be mostly gone, dealing with work and the Macready. He'd been efficiently separated out from them, and he didn't like it one bit. Especially now, with our very lives dependant on Dumbledore and Hogwarts for safety from Voldemort. The ease with which Death Eaters had found and breached the Mansion left no doubts on that score.
What was he going to do?
But first, how do I tell my family what I suspect?
He'd been wrestling with that question since the Hogwarts owl had arrived, almost on the heels of the furious visit Harry's godfather had made to the Headmaster. Just after Voldemort was resurrected.
Last year, they'd at least had time. This year, every day was a respite from the battles Peter knew were looming.
Blue eyes drifted shut. Aslan, by your grace protect my family. Shield us from harm. I beseech thee, Great Lion – give me the strength and courage to face all coming trials. Help me protect my brother and sisters. Please, Aslan. Help me keep those in my charge safe.
Prayer was a comfort to him, bringing him something close to the serenity he'd found gazing into tawny eyes, the calm brought by a heavy paw resting on his shoulder. He would continue to do everything he had to in order to protect his family. No matter what.
There was a war coming.