Chapter Nine

Curiouser and Curiouser

I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when looked at in the right way, did not become still more complicated.

-P. Anderson

THE STORY THUS FAR:

Right – For those of you (such as my dear Beta Wolves) who need a reminder of just WHAT is going on…. Yes, yes, my own fault; I *do* realize how long it has been since I updated.  Ahem!

The peace of the Christmas season has been shattered at the Lupin and Black households.  Unwittingly, Roarke Lupin & Griffin Black have managed to be swept up into the eye of the storm of what will become known as the 73rd Goblin Rebellion in later editions of 'A History of Magic'. It started innocently enough; Roarke was on a job interview (that ended with her rescuing a Muggle from Trolls) and Griffin was trying to pretend he wasn't on a date with Annie Lupin (Gary Weasley being brought along as 'proof' of this).

Remus Lupin and Sirius Black are not about to sit around waiting for the Ministry of Magic to 'work things out' with the Goblin Council.  With the assistance of Draco Malfoy (Professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry) they have managed to persuade a goblin who couldn't get away from Draco fast enough to cough up a valuable piece of information: there is a secret entrance to the Goblin Warren under London that houses Gringotts & other whatnots – and all evidence points to the fact that this was where Roarke and Griffin were taken.  Oh yes – and the poor Muggle rescued from Trolls, Billy Stockwell.

The catch to the secret entrance is that humans cannot pass it unless taken in by a Goblin.  Padfoot & Moony have come up with a unique solution to this issue; one that relies on the use of griffins (the beasts, not the boy) and the full moon due that evening….

 Oh, also running about are Malcolm Lupin (Junior Auror), Katie & Liz (turning a semi-blind eye to the activities of their spouses), Annie & Gary (who are determined to help Remus and Sirius but not get caught doing it), an understanding woman with nerves of steel named Peliah Mercier (set to become the future Lady Malfoy, despite Draco at times) and Harold Black.  Harold is Sirius' older cousin, the only other remaining member of that once great family.  Harold is about to have his last nerve tested, but he has always had a soft spot for Cousin Sirius and this is not the first odd situation that this has placed him in.  Though it is the first time even Sirius has asked him to secret fantastic beasts in his London townhouse.

Well, those are the highlights.  Of course there are a lot of subtle details that will be threaded back in here; they don't merit the Summary, but they are hardly forgotten. We are not at the end, I have a few more twists and turns - but we are getting close.

***

The faint sound of tiny feet pittering down a rather gloomy corridor grew louder for a few moments, and then faded off in another direction.  Several silent heartbeats later, the noise came back only this time it seemed there were rather a few more feet contributing. As before, these grew gradually, and then faded off in another direction.  It was impossible to tell which direction, of course; the Goblin burrow was too twisty, too dark and too charmed to allow anyone save the Goblins to know which end was left or right; or even, which corridors led up, down, or slightly to the northeast.  Even Goblins got lost, according to Wizard lore, but of course the Goblins seethed at the very idea of such a ridiculous thought.

The Goblins owning the feet currently puttering back and forth knew exactly where they were and exactly what they were doing.  They were also aware that things were developing faster elsewhere than they had anticipated, and hence the reason for the increase in volume.  Certainly not a one of them had been so careless as to not anticipate the every move of the Wizards; but one or two of the band did start to have a slight concern that their timing on the unfolding of events may have been off.  But no one was saying anything.  They simply picked up their pace and, as Goblins always do, stuck to the original plan.

"Slipnod?"

Slipnod did not hesitate from his work on the large ledger two other Goblins held up in front of him, forming an impromptu desk.

"What now?"

"We're nearly done; shall we mark this section off and re-set the alarms?"

Slipnod make a few more checks in his book, and then nodded as he waved his ledger-bearers off with a hand desperately in need of a manicure, even for a Goblin.

"Yes.  And this time, make sure the alarms are properly secured.  We've had enough nasty shocks for one day.  And for god sake, give that one with the cold some Pepper-Up.  Disgusting."

The messenger looked extremely nervous.

"Ah…how does one administer that, exactly?"

Slipnod gave a twisted grin.

"Rather quickly, I should think."

***

"Roarke, I have a reasonably bad feeling about this," Griffin whispered in a voice Billy Stockwell was sure he wasn't supposed to hear.

He did miss the response, but could just make out the boy's eyebrows draw closer together, and his naturally rather stormy look get darker.

Billy turned his back on them now, and simply resolved himself to the fact that he was most likely going to die in this strange cave in a shower of pixie dust or something equally unlikely and (even though he could hardly come to grips with this fact) quite magical.  He gave his watch yet another nervous glance.  It was pointless, as the watch hadn't been working properly since he and his companions were deposited here.  At least, since Billy had first thought to look at the watch after he had regained some part of his senses.  The digital dial flashed random numbers and shapes wildly, none of which had anything to do with the time.  He couldn't guess how long they had been in this place; Griffin had taken his time going about the room and searching for the magical lock Roarke had spoken of. 

And so Billy sat on the floor as he was asked, and waited as he was told.  At this point there seemed no more reason to argue with whatever was happening, despite phrases like 'mummy's curse' 'dark magic' and 'you would call it fortune-telling' giving him small fits of hyperventilation every now and again.  Roarke, who spent most of the time standing next to him, would simply reach down when he did this and push his head forward between his knees and keep him there until he had stopped.  Then she would release him without a word.  Safe in the assumption by now that she would never go out with him anyway, Billy didn't really mind the routine.

When at last Griffin seemed to have found what he and Roarke were looking for, Billy stood up to see what was happening.  Roarke gave him another beautiful smile however and asked him to wait where he was.  He did so once again without much thought to questioning her (no doubt giving back another empty, sappy grin) and just turned to gaze at the wall for reasons he couldn't comprehend.  It wasn't as if architecture had ever interested him and he certainly didn't want to contemplate an entire Goblin Civilization. He focused on trying to convince himself that this was nothing but a very lifelike bad dream.  When he was called back, it was once again in that lovely calm voice of the grey-eyed witch. Odd, such a lovely voice in a nightmare, he thought.

"Billy, could you come here a moment?"

Billy took a deep breath, then turned and walked over to Roarke and Griffin.  The boy was giving him a look edged with pity, but Roarke was turning his insides to jelly once more with her smile.

"Billy, we've figured a way out of this room, but we need your help.  Up for it?"

There was no missing the smirk Griffin quickly covered with one hand as Billy nodded more vigorously than he really needed to.  Billy wondered how much blush showed up in the blue cast of the room; some must have, as Griffin flinched as if pinched on the elbow when Roarke gave her wand a little twirl at her hip.  The two shared a long and clearly meaningful look then Roarke turned back to Billy and held up her hand to show him something.

"This is what we call a Portkey.  It has the ability to move you from one spot to another when it is activated."

"Okay…."

"Griffin is going to set this so that we can send you to the other side of the door, and then you can open it for us by giving it a good tickle."

"Um…why doesn't Griffin send himself?" asked Billy in a rather nervous tone.  The so-called 'Portkey' looked like a garden rock and had absolutely no appearance of being magical.  Then again what would he know about that?

"I can't, and neither can Roarke.  We need to send you."

"But… I'm a Muggle…." He stopped as both Griffin and Roarke giggled slightly in an almost identical fashion. 

"Sorry, Billy," said Roarke. "Muggles don't refer to themselves as such very often. The situation is that the Goblins have that door hexed…."

"Hexed?"

"Charmed; same thing.  Don't get caught up in linguistics as it serves little purpose in life." 

"Unless you're a lawyer or something else equally dedicated to loquacious verbosity," deadpanned Griffin.

Roarke did give a small smile, though she commented pointedly over her shoulder that someone named 'serious' of all things was going to hear about that snipe.  She then continued addressing Billy. "The door is magically guarded so that magical folks such as Griffin and myself can't get through it and it can only be opened from the other side.  Yes, you are a Muggle and bloody lucky for us as we can put you on the outside and then have you let us out!"

Billy considered this, aware that the other two were now looking at him expectantly.  Refusal certainly wasn't an option based on what they had told him, but Billy had a sinking feeling that this was not going to be as simple as they wanted him to believe it would be.  Well as simple as being magically transported though a door protected by a mummy's curse, of all things, could be.

"And the curse in the door?"

Roarke tsked at him.

"Billy!  I told you hours ago that was rot; stories made up to scare people who don't know any better.  You know better as we've told you so.  However, I do want to perform a few protection spells on you before you go, just to give you an added boost. Harmless. Well, mostly harmless. Honest."

Billy glanced at Griffin who now wore an expression so pointedly neutral Billy knew something was up.  Griffin had mentioned a set of parents several times; Billy wondered if they had their hands full with this one, magic or no. With a sigh, he nodded and resolved himself to what was going to happen.

At the very least, he was given a delightful surprise when Roarke cupped his face in her hands and gave him a kiss.

"There's a good lad.  It'll all be over before you know it, I promise. Now, stand very still if you would."

Billy stood still, gulped audibly as Roarke raised her arm, and then he screwed his eyes shut, unwilling to see what happened next. He had to admit, part of him expected a cry of 'Hocus Pocus' to come next, but there was nothing but some whispered words he couldn't catch.

And then was only a roaring in his ears as Billy Stockwell staggered a bit to his left and then opened his eyes to see who had pushed him. Roarke looked like she was attempting to talk to him, but he wasn't able to make out the words.  Something must have happened; everything was spinning so fast and out of control around him, it actually appeared to him that he had shrunk and that the other two were towering over him.  It then occurred to him that he may be seated on the ground, having fallen down hard on his backside from the effects of the 'protection spell' Roarke promised would be 'somewhat' harmless.  All Billy could hear over the pounding of the blood in his head was the voice of his uncle quoting the great North American philosopher, Yogi Berra; 'You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there.' Well no trouble there, Billy knew he was going to be transported through the door so there was nothing to worry about at all.

"Billy!"

His hearing now getting back to normal, Billy quickly refocused on Roarke. Actually, as she was now eye level with him again, Billy happily told himself that it he had only had some sort of momentary fit and was not, God forbid, allergic to pixie dust.  This thought actually made him giggle a bit and Roarke's raised eyebrow of concern only made his laughter worse. 

"Yessssss?"

"How do you feel?"

"Faaaaaan-tastico.  Jus' great, thank you!"

Griffin snickered somewhere behind Billy's left shoulder.  Billy swung around quickly to grin at the boy and finally try and do a little bonding with him – after all, why shouldn't he after what they had been through together? – when he had another attack of the vertigo-like sensation of Griffin being a good two feet taller than him.  He blinked quickly a few times, and it helped because Griffin came down to the proper height soon enough.

"Thanks!"

"For what?"

"For being a good boy and not being too tall anymore.  Totally annoying, you know?"

Griffin nodded sympathetically, still smiling broadly.

"Billy?"

Billy turned more slowly this time to face Roarke once more and his caution proved effective.  Roarke kept at eye level and didn't spin out in any direction.

"I think you had better take up the Portkey now; Griffin will activate it.  Remember what you need to do?"

"Ahb-sho-lutely.  I am to tickle the door! Give it a damn good run for it's money!"

"Ah, yes."

"Not that you'll be paid for doing this," Griffin commented in a merry tone. "Well, not from this room anyway.  You might luck out elsewhere if Roarke isn't as clever as she thinks she is …."

"Griffin! Shut up and activate the Portkey!"

"Temper, temper!  I'm not the one who just picked on the hedgehog here! And did you have any idea that the side-effect would be…"

"No.  Now send Mr. Stockwell on his way."

Billy felt himself urged forward so that he stood in front of the door.  Moving threw him off balance again; his legs felt very wobbly and almost as if they had been cut off just below the knee.  Worse, his skin felt funny and it seemed as if his clothes had doubled in size as the cloth brushed against him.  He looked over to see Griffin, still looking very entertained about something Billy couldn't quite follow, holding out the small rock he had held earlier.

"If you don't mind, try not to lose that once you get to the other side.  Stick it in a pocket or something if you can; it's a gift."

"Rock, gift, got it.  Pocket it is!"

"Thank you.  Now, when I say go, close you hand around the rock, and wait for the pull.  Trust me, you will know when it has worked."

"Should I close my eyes?"

"Only if you want to; it won't make any difference to the spell. Ready now?"

Billy nodded nervously and offered his hand.  Griffin dropped the small stone on Billy's palm, then took his wand and said words Billy couldn't place though he thought it sounded a little Latin in the way people who only hear Latin on TV-courtroom dramas recognize that language.  Billy felt his hand get warm and stared as the rock shimmered for a moment, then Griffin muttered 'go' quietly and Billy made a fist around the rock.

"Bit sloppy, Griffin, I saw the spell take," Roarke said from behind Billy.  Griffin seemed unimpressed and only gave Billy a small roll of his eyes before he pulled back from Billy's side.

"Would you care to do it next time?"

"I don't care for a next time at all, if you don't mind."

"Well I can understand that.  Four, three, two…."

Billy caught on that the countdown was happening just as something seemed to explode in his hand.  With a gasp, Billy felt the dizziness come back ten-times worse than before. It felt now as if a giant hand had come from the deceptively simple little rock and grabbed him about the middle, and then yanked him forward into a black pit. He would have screamed, he was sure of it, if he had had the time.  But to his astonishment, by the time he was focused enough to open his mouth and draw breath to expel with any sound or fury, he was dropped as quickly as he had been grabbed and he sat face up against a metal door.

His scream disappeared with the tiniest of squeaks, and Billy sat down hard on the floor.  He appeared to have 'transported' about a foot and was now simply pressed against the door, rather than standing just behind it. Shaking slightly, he swivelled carefully around to ask the other two what do to next….

Only they were not there.

Billy jumped to his feet, and saw that he was not in the dirt-floored room, but in a dark corridor with cobblestone paving and a high arched ceiling hung with lanterns casting more pale light. And there were metal doors up and down the corridor as far as he could see.  Stunned, he now looked down at the rock held in his hand and let out another nearly inaudible squeak.

***

It was still early enough at the Ministry of Magic that only a few Witches and Wizards still on the night watch were roaming the halls.  Malcolm Lupin decided he needed a break from the rather hectic and tense environment inside the Aurors' offices for a few minutes so he slipped out through the imposing ebony double-doors that marked the official entrance to the Department, but which were almost never used.  Aurors were far too fond of slipping in through hidden passages and such; the front door was too, well, mundane for them. 

"Well someone wants a shave."

Malcolm practically fell over in shock; he was so startled to hear the voice coming from one of the scores of corridors that crept to the rotunda in front of the Department.

"Oh, sorry Lupin! I thought you heard me!"

Malcolm gave a tired smile to Magnus Tavers.

"I'm not the Lupin with the good hearing, Mag. You should know better."

Malcolm's former upperclassman smiled back and shrugged his shoulder so that the large official owl sitting there moved up closer to his head; owls with the habit of sitting on the outside of the shoulder tended to slip, and consequently leave talon-scars on their exasperated handlers.

"What are you doing here so early then?"

Malcolm looked a little shocked, and said "you haven't heard?"

"Heard what?  I've been here all night; got my shift switched thanks to a little argument with one of the seniors, but it's been dead quiet at our end.  Well, until a little while ago and now I've got my own mystery. What's up?"

Malcolm shook his head and scratched at his chin, which did indeed need a shave. He explained the situation to Magnus, who looked more and more shocked as everything that had happened in the past 12 hours with the Goblins was detailed. When Malcolm finished and gave Magnus an expectant look, his be-owled friend commented only that the Goblins would rue the day they enraged Sirius Black.  Malcolm had to laugh, despite everything.  Magnus had always been terrified of Malcolm's godfather and made no secret of it.  Sirius had long ago stopped trying to befriend him and simply took every opportunity he could now to act as menacing and borderline insane near Magnus as he could get away with purely for the sport of it.

"What's your mystery then?" asked Malcolm, wanting to think about almost anything else at this point.

Magnus pointed at the owl still threatening to slip from its position on his left shoulder.

"Seems rather unimportant now; not a peep all night down there at the Improper Use rooms then I get a warning of underage magic being practiced.  I set a Quick-Quotes Quill on the note, sent the owl off and went back to other things."

"And so what does…." Malcolm stopped as Magnus produced an official 'Improper Use of Magic Office Paragraph C' letter from his robes.

"This fellow just brought it back.  Unopened and undelivered.  Rather unusual to start with.  I thought he might simply be at the end of his useful life," here the owl gave a cross sounding 'hoot' and from the wince on Magnus' face, seemed to tighten his talons in protest as well.

"Anyway; I looked at the receipt then and saw there was no name.  Sure enough, I opened the letter and there was only the form response and no name.  Look."

Malcolm took the letter and glanced at it.  There was indeed no name, which was odd to say the least.  He'd received two of these himself; the second one arrived to exactly the spot he was standing in, far from his home.  He had (probably like thousands of others) incorrectly assumed that if he wasn't home they wouldn't find him. 

"My first thought was that the Quick Quotes Quill was broken or something. But is not the Quill. So my next thought was that it could be a Muggleborn we don't know about who just, well, got a bit of a shock or something.  But even then, it doesn't explain the lack of a name.  We could identify the magic…."

"But not the user," finished Malcolm.  He stared at the letter for a bit longer. "Why did the owl even accept it for delivery if there was no name?"

Magnus shook his head and looked exasperated.

"Don't ask me, I can't fathom how they think.  Returned mail comes back only if they can't find the recipient and not giving them a name doesn't always mean they don't know who is supposed to get the letter as you know. I gave up trying to understand them when I was four. Anyway, this isn't without precedent," and here Magnus grimaced a bit. 

"Last time the Ministry had this sort of incident was, well, before the Second Voldemort War.  Death Eaters training their spawn at home behind illegal wards, and I rather doubt that is the case now.  Still, who else might want to be doing magic behind such charms? On that happy conclusion, I decided I might just wander down this way and see if any of you would want a look at it."

"And you brought the owl because…?"

Magnus shrugged once more, and the owl finally took the hint and moved up his shoulder so close to his head half of Magnus' face was lost in the plumage.  Spitting around the feathers with a glare, Magnus said simply "Thought the owl could be of some use. There's also the possibility that this was deliberately returned, with the offenders name erased.  That is something I wouldn't put past an underage … oh, Gryffindor for example."

Malcolm was about to say something pithy, but stopped when an idea came to him. Magnus Tavers' face showed that he may have just had the same idea.

"Malcolm…say our offender was trapped behind those concealment wards."

Malcolm nodded excitedly.  "It's a long shot – but I can imagine that forbidding the casting of spells to identify anyone who might be in the Gringotts vaults at any given time is one of the top 2 clauses of the Goblins' contract to provide banking services.  Secrecy is paramount! Let's go find Dexter."

The young man sputtered a bit. "Dexter…Tanner?"

Malcolm smiled.  "Yeah, the big boss.   I just had an idea, but we need his okay to follow through on it.  And I promise not to tell him about the Quick Quotes Quill."

"Thanks."

***

As Malcolm dragged Magnus with him in search of the Minister of Magic, his 'mad when it suited him' Godfather was just settling down to a very tense breakfast party being reluctantly hosted by Harold Black at his townhouse a few blocks away. 

Sirius himself was in good spirits; it was his breakfast companions who were making the air thick with nerves.  Sirius was happy that everything seemed to be coming together in the big picture; the events that led to his shocked cousin hosting of two griffins and a Malfoy had gone remarkably smoothly all things considered. However, it was now a tie as to which Harold considered the more dangerous guest in his home.  Draco was exhausted and in a wonderfully foul temper by this time and was at his nasty best; the griffins were proving to be equally unpleasant once they figured out that they were to be locked in the wine cellar.

Harold seemed very unconvinced when Sirius assured him that Draco's evil purring was all for show these days and that Professor Malfoy was one of the most respected and well liked teachers at Hogwarts.  Harold appeared to take this as news that the entire student body had turned to the Dark Forces when nobody was looking.  Only the assurance to Harold that Draco considered hexing Hufflepuffs beneath his dignity placated Harold enough to be going forward.

"Right," said Sirius, in a cheerful tone his companions obviously found out-of-place. "Harold, pour me some tea while I borrow the fire for a moment."

Sirius went to the fire and contacted Grey Timbers.  He was surprised to see Annie's head greeting him.

"Good morning, Sweetheart!  Daddy up?"

"Certainly not. It's bloody early."

"Well you're up; and do watch your tongue, Miss Lupin."

Annie ignored this questionable chastisement and instead gave a smile. This made Sirius wary for some reason.

"Can I deliver a message?"

"No, thanks; I'll try later."

"Fine.  But I do have a message for you, Sirius."

Sirius raised an eyebrow, and Annie continued. "Liz may still be at your home, and I can see you're not. If she is, she won't be for very long.  She and Mum are going to the Ministry to do what they can and keep track of what is happening.  You and Daddy are not invited; they said you would be underfoot."  Annie looked as if she didn't believe a word of it, but Sirius just smiled and nodded.

"Most likely we would be.  Have you had any new news, Annie?"

"No.  I'm going to talk to Malcolm when it reaches a decent hour as it's his job to keep us in the loop."

"Good plan.  You are staying there and taking care of Remus, yes?"

Annie looked very neutral when she agreed with this comment. 

"Annie, we'll have them back very soon.  I promise; don't fret."

Annie nodded and commented rather mysteriously that Sirius was always good at keeping his promises.

Sirius said his goodbyes and extinguished the fire, then straightened up and moved back to the table.  Draco looked at him expectantly over his toast.

"Liz and Katie are going to the Ministry," Sirius said with barely controlled glee. "Having them busy certainly makes things simpler."

Draco coughed as his bark of laughter over that comment sent crumbs down the wrong pipe. When he recovered he shook his head at Sirius.

"You must be mad to underestimate Liz like that, Black! You think she's just going to go sit in her office clutching hands with Katie and the two of them moaning like some Victorian Muggle drama over the terrible fate of their children?"

Harold couldn't help but laugh slightly at that, and Sirius glared at him.

"Of course not, Malfoy; I've never been that mad from the day I met Liz and you well know it.  Obviously they have their own plan and are following it.  If they wanted me under lock and key I would be under lock and key.  So would Remus."

"He is," drawled Draco; "Annie is in charge.  Remus isn't going anywhere; Annie is not to be sweet-talked like Malcolm and Roarke could be under similar circumstances."

"Well, I actually have to agree with that one, Sirius," said Harold quietly. "Annie Lupin is a witch to be reckoned with to my understanding.  At least, that's what Griffin says."

Both Sirius and Draco laughed at this comment. Harold looked puzzled.

"Harold," said Draco, "Young Mister Black's read on Miss Lupin is somewhat biased if you haven't figured that much out yet.  But in this we all agree; she will not let Remus out of that house if she doesn't think he should be."

Sirius was about to retort when one of the house elves came in staggering against something struggling in its arms. 

"Mister Sirius sir; Tuddy is having something …for you…." The struggle ended as Sirius saw his favourite cat emancipate himself from the elf and shoot across the carpet to leap onto Sirius' lap.  Once there, the cat turned and gave the rather exasperated looking elf an extremely smug snarl. 

"Rubicon! Thank you, Tuddy.  When did he get here?"

"Only now, Sir.  Walked into the kitchens, just as you please!" Rubicon always did as he pleased, and Harold's elves had never cared for that sort of attitude.

"Well, thank you for bringing him to me," said Sirius, even as he caught the paw his pet was batting at him with.  His heart fluttered a bit when he saw a note attached to the cat's collar.

Draco's bloodshot eyes gave a little triumphant gleam at the sight of Sirius removing the message.

"Billet Doux from your wife, Black?"

Sirius chose to disregard the remark.  Owls he could dodge, the Familiar he could not and Liz knew it.  Wherever Sirius was, the cat would always find him.  Liz had relied on Rubicon's uncanny knack for this on several occasions.

Mr. Black –

Don't you think it would be far less obvious if you kept a very public profile at this time?  Say, reporting to your office?  I believe you are in the middle of something for the Minister.  Wouldn't do to keep him waiting. I'll check in with you later there at Norqueys House.

Love, Mrs. Black

Harold cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow at Sirius when Sirius looked up.  The letter was passed over rather crisply and Sirius gave a slightly aggravated stab at his eggs.

"Fine.  I'll go to Norqueys House and play nice for a while.  Malfoy, may I suggest a nap?"

Draco did not break his yawn to make any comment.  He did give a curt nod of agreement as he reached for his tea.

"Sirius?"

"What, Harold?"

"Not to be unsupportive of whatever you have going on, but are you sure of what you are doing?"

Sirius smiled. "Of course! Look, sorry about the occupants of the wine cellar; if they break anything I'll replace it for you."

Harold waved the hand holding the letter in a dismissive fashion even as he dropped the note on the table. "I'm over that shock, thanks.  I'm trying to be practical here…."

Draco gave very familiar dismissive little sniff as he glanced at Sirius with hooded eyes.  Harold seemed to be feeling stronger now and glared at the younger man before turning back to Sirius.

"I demand to know exactly what the griffins are for.  Otherwise, I rat you out to Liz."

Sirius stared at Harold, even as Draco finally looked somewhat impressed.

"Harold, that's uncalled for! Didn't you always claim it was better not to know what Remus and I may or may not have been doing under suspicious circumstances?"

"When I was considerably younger, yes that seemed the best policy.  However, though you may have fancied I was a bit of a thickie in the rash of your youth, I am certain that with hindsight you can now see that I was following the maxim of discretion being the better part of valour.  I'm now claiming family seniority and pulling rank.  Spit it out or there will be consequences.  And you better convince me what you have planned isn't so damn daft I am forced to call your bluff.  And, I assure you, I will."

Sirius stared at Harold even as Draco began applauding.  But it was Draco who replied to Harold before Sirius could.

"Mr. Black, allow me to educate you on a little Tuath magical practice while we finish our meal; and your cousin's rather unique but ultimately sound way for circumventing both political dawdling through diplomacy and…basic rules of nature."

***

Remus came downstairs and was rather startled to find nobody save Gary Weasley sitting at the kitchen table with The Daily Prophet.  It took him a moment, but then he remembered he had in fact asked the young man to stay the evening before.  Remus was never at his best first thing on the morning before a full moon.

"Good morning, Remus."

"Gary.  Where are Katie and Annie?"

"Katie has gone with Liz to the Ministry, and Annie…is about."

Remus gave Gary a rather questioning and somewhat bloodshot look, but Gary didn't so much as flinch.  Remus had to mentally remind himself that this young man knew how to get the better of Hermione.

Annie burst into the kitchen at that moment from the back and practically swooped at her father.

"Daddy!  Sit down, I'll get you some breakfast.  Gary!  Why are you just sitting there?"

"Analyise!" 

Remus' youngest daughter stopped mid stride at the uttering of the given-name-that-must-not-be-named and stared at him.

"Just because your mum isn't here is no reason for you to turn into her quite so early on in your life.  I can take care of myself."

The rest of the morning progressed in the same vein.  Remus snapped at all offers of help, Annie continued to attempt to fuss from time to time, and Gary seemed to just hang about the place with no particular purpose other than making sure he always knew where Remus was.  To further add to his nerves, Remus had received no word from Katie, Malcolm or Sirius for hours. The only contact any of them had with the outside world at all was when the Werewolf Support Unit Deputy came by for her standard check-in.  She seemed to be totally oblivious to what was happening; Remus found it startling that the news seemed to have been contained so well.  Not seeing anything in the Prophet was one thing; no scuttlebutt working its way through the gossip Floo Network was another. 

The rest of Remus' energy that morning was dedicated to trying to figure out the most unobtrusive way of slipping out of the house later.  Annie and Gary, no doubt under Katie's instruction, seemed to have worked out a method of covering every possible entrance and egress to the house without being overt about it. Remus had already come up with a simple yet effective way to leave everyone under the impression he was transformed in his room, but getting out of the room and away from his daughter and Weasley Junior was another thing entirely.  Annie would see to it that he was closed in his study when the hour of the transformation neared, and  by that point Remus would be in no shape to Apparate, and his fireplace would be removed from the Floo Network so it was out of the question to simply waltz into the flames and vanish.  At least, from the study; somehow he had to get to the kitchens.

Katie returned to the house at lunchtime, and brought an update as to what was going on.  The Aurors had Obliviated everyone in the alley so that was the reason no Wizard news had spread.  The Goblins had in fact closed Gringotts, but the official story was that there had been an imp infestation, and they were exterminating so had closed early for the weekend.

"That gives the Ministry and the Dahn-Senge four days to work this out," said Katie. "At least, it gives them four days until they need a new excuse. All Liz and I have seen today is a lot of running about and several near fist-fights between goblins and junior ministers.  But Liz and I are keeping busy helping to interview people who think they are coming in to the Ministry over their inland-tax revenues, but with a little 'help' are actually accounting for what they saw last night."

"Coffee cake or biscuits?" asked Annie with a faint grin.

"Biscuits; people are more inclined to eat them on impulse when offered, Sweetheart. Still, some people won't bite and I've learned more about tax law than I ever cared to.  And there have been two official complaints lodged over Junior Ministers wasting people's time for no good reason."

"Have you had a chance to speak with Malcolm?"

"Only for a very brief moment; he seems to be extremely pre-occupied with something but wouldn't tell me what it was.  Or rather, he promised me he'd be back when he had something more interesting to tell me.  Oddly enough, he had Magnus with him.  I suppose if they are calling in members of other departments to help they really are doing their best."

"Who's Magnus?" asked Gary.

Remus drummed his fingers on the table.  "He's a few years ahead of Malcolm, and left Hogwarts before your time.  He tutored Malcolm in Arithmancy for a bit, and now he works in the Office for the Misuse of Magic but only until he passes his banking exams. After that, the goblins will have some serious competition.  So will the Muggles, I expect."

They ate in silence for a bit until Remus asked in the most casual voice he could manage if Katie had seen Sirius at all.  His wife looked at him carefully then said that Sirius was at his office, under Liz's direct request.

"Why?  You haven't spoken to him today?"

"No, actually.  I've got a bit of a headache and have been resting quietly here all day."

Katie's eyes made it very clear she was not buying Remus' casual air, or the claim of a headache, at all.  Remus saw Annie and Gary watching his and Katie's interactions carefully; Katie was not showing any signs of giving 'Silent Consent' and Remus swore rather rudely to himself.  Obviously, she was using the children to corral him just as Liz was using the staff of Norqueys House to keep Sirius 'contained'.

Katie finished her lunch, and told Remus that if he was feeling poorly he had best go lie on a couch; she would clear up.  With that, she sent the lunch remains into the kitchen with a flick of her wand, and collected Gary and Annie and shooed them in the direction of the kitchens.  Remus waited a few moments before silently creeping down the hallway after them to try and hear what Katie's further instructions would be.  Katie, however, had closed the kitchen door and put a silencing charm up.

Feeling a little affronted, but having the sense to know that he deserved such caution, Remus opted to go lie down in the front room and try to figure out the best way of contacting Sirius.  He entered the room only to find all three of the family owls had retreated to the very top bookshelf and were scolding something outside the French doors loudly.  Remus crossed over, and was delighted to open the doors and admit Rubicon, who strutted in, ignored the owls, and jumped up on one of the end tables.

"Well, well.  A cat I am actually pleased to see!"

Rubicon gave Remus a haughty green stare and turned his head so Remus could access the note charmed to his collar.  Remus took it and even went so far as to give the animal a few soft pats on the head.  Rubicon flattened his ears out and shrugged away from the hand, giving Remus a look that clearly said 'idiot! I'm not a dog!'.

Moony –

Malfoy found what he needed.  Almanac says 7:43 is the zero-hour.  I'll be by at 7:13 to make certain you are all tucked in safely.  Make sure all witches are clear of the area, as I've nothing to say to any of them.

Padfoot.

Remus tossed the note in the fire, and was about to let Rubicon back out when he heard Katie calling to him and walking across the front hall.  Without giving it much thought, Remus scooped up Rubicon and quickly dropped the startled cat in the coal bin.  The owls seemed to cheer even as Katie came in.

"Remus…what are you doing?"

"I was just adding some more coal to the fire," Remus said.  Katie looked at the large roaring fire and raised an eyebrow.

"I'm cold, Katie-love."

"Then have some soup and get a good blanket to curl up with.  I'm sorry I'm not here for you right now, love.  But Annie and Gary are right here and if you need anything give your youngest daughter the chance to coddle you a bit.  That nurturing gene of hers needs a good workout now that Malcolm is through moping over the demise of his love-life."

"Certainly.  And I would much rather have you, and Liz, making sure they are not mucking about in getting Roarke and Griffin back. Oh, and that poor Muggle who has managed to put himself in the middle of this."

Katie actually laughed, and Remus was about to join in when he heard a distinctly furious low growl come out of the coal box next to him. Rubicon was over his initial shock at the indignity of his situation.  Katie missed it, but once Rubicon started to actually yowl, Remus was doomed.  He moved quickly to Katie and gave her a kiss even as he turned her back out of the room.

"Off with you; maybe Malcolm has made progress on his mystery…." Faint scratching noises could now be heard.  Were Rubicon just a cat Remus would no doubt not feel such a panic, but Rubicon was a Guardian, and it was only a matter of time before the coal box simply exploded from his fury and there would be little chance of explaining that away to Katie.

"Yes, Remus, I am going.  Any reason I need to rush?"

"None in particular."

"Right.  And for goodness sake let the owls out; how will you rest with that racket going on?"

Remus gave her another kiss even as he pulled her wand from her waistband and thrust it into her hand.

"Off with you.  I'll see you …well, tomorrow I guess.  Stay there, please.  Do what you can, and I promise I will let Annie fuss if I get too strained.  But it helps knowing that you and Liz are there, you know."

Katie smiled and then Apparated with a small 'pop'.  Remus practically flew back through the doorway and raced for the coal bin.  He flung open the lid and found himself face to face with a livid cat standing on now glowing coals. Out of instinct Remus reached for Rubicon but the cat gave a vicious sounding hiss and swiped at Remus' hand even as he sprang from the box. Remus decided it would be far safer to charm the door open from where he stood at the other side of the room.

"Alohamora!"

The French doors opened and Rubicon was gone in a flash, only a fresh track of cat-prints made of coal dust left.  Remus quickly cast a freezing spell on the coals before they set the room on fire and let the lid to the coal bin fall shut with a bang.

"Bloody felines," he muttered and collapsed on the couch for a nap.

***

Sirius buried himself in legal briefs and staff meetings all day, making a very public show of being far to busy to worry about Goblins or missing children.  It was a little easier to pull off since nobody had any idea what was going on; had Sirius spent the day ducking from condolences and sad 'knowing' looks he would have run screaming long ago, his wife be damned. 

The only mentions of what was happening outside of the office came from the hourly status reports sent by Harold on the condition of his home.  It seemed that muffled shrieks and faint suggestions of breaking glass were effectively communicating the griffins' increased fury over their confinement that morning.  By eleven o'clock Harold reported that Draco was venturing into the cellar with heaps of food to try and restore peace.  At noon came the report that the griffins had been emancipated from the cellar and into the salon, and Draco had successfully bandaged up both his hands.  At one o'clock the news was of the total destruction of all side tables and throw-pillows in the salon.  Harold acknowledged that was his fault, as it should have occurred to him to remove them. 

Rubicon returned from Remus' house in a filthy state, his fine black fur covered with a thick layer of what Sirius discovered to be coal-dust. Not certain as to how that could have happened, Sirius left his still livid pet to a bath he insisted on giving himself in the middle of the main sofa.  The note, however, was gone from his collar so Sirius went forward thinking that all was set in Exeter for this evening.

The update from Harold at five o'clock simply read COME BACK THIS INSTANT and Sirius dutifully slipped out the back with Rubicon tucked under his cloak. He Apparated the two of them to Harold's front door and was about to let himself in when the door was opened for him by an extremely agitated looking Tuddy.

"Mister Sirius, Sir! You is in a considerable amount of trouble!  This is not a house for such things!  Your own house, yes indeed Tuddy knows well this would be common, but not here.  We are a quiet house, Mister Sirius! You is very lucky the Missus is not here any longer, as she would hex Mister Sirius!  She would have indeed, gods rest her soul!"

Tuddy stopped his tirade as Rubicon poked his head out from under Sirius cloak and gave him a smug look.  The cat seemed obviously pleased over the house-elf's angst.  Tuddy stamped a foot and shook his head.

"No, Mister Sirius!  No! You is not bringing anymore creatures in this house!  Send the cat back to your own house, Mister Sirius.  Tuddy is not letting it in!"

Sirius opened his cloak and dropped Rubicon on the top step.

"Home with you.  You've been wonderful but I've no more need for you just now."

Rubicon gave the impression of considering running past the house-elf in the doorway purely for the sport of further infuriating the creature.  Sirius had the feeling that if the cat did try it, Tuddy would most likely blast the cat across the street and into the park behind him.  Luckily Rubicon seemed to have the same impression, so he simply ran down the front steps and disappeared.

"Can I come in now, Tuddy?"

Tuddy stepped aside and gave a little nod. "Yes you is best coming in.  They is all on the roof."

Sirius swivelled on his heel to stare back at the house-elf.

"The roof?"

"Mister Draco," said Tuddy with an even deeper tone of annoyance, "is saying that if those things can see the sky, they will be happier.  They is not.  They is still very badly behaved, and Mister Sirius had best apologise for this mess!"

"Mister Sirius does, Tuddy and he will help you with the mess when he can.  Still friends?"

Tuddy nodded and sighed. "Of course Tuddy is friends with Mister Sirius; he has been since Mister Sirius was smaller than Tuddy.  But Tuddy is still cross with Mister Sirius."

Sirius smiled and then went up the four flights of stairs to the door for the roof garden.  He opened the door slowly and peeked out to see what he would find. If the state of the garden was any preview of the state of the salon, Sirius had the distinct impression that once Gringotts was reopened he would be buying a lot of new furniture for Harold. And extra sweaters for Tuddy.

Harold was sitting on the ground, leaning against a garden bench with a look of utter exhaustion.  Most of the colour pots were upturned, and it was obvious something with large talons had gone digging in the rose-boxes.  Most startling, however, was the odd assortment of children's toys strewn about.  Sirius had a flash back to long days spent with Griffin when he was three or four years old; the garden rather appeared to have been attacked by pre-schoolers on a tear. No wonder Harold and Tuddy were at their wits end; they had never dealt with a force of this nature.

"Harold?"

Harold didn't turn but grunted an acknowledgement to Sirius.  Sirius stepped over the mess and came to squat next to his cousin.

"Tuddy is ready to blast me.  What about you?"

"I'm too tired to do it.  Or to stop Tuddy from doing it, come to think of it."

"I suppose pointing out that this is all for a good cause would be a little poorly received?"

Harold turned to give Sirius a long look. "Those griffins are lucky I love my own Griffin enough to put up with them.  Utter monsters.  You told me they were Malfoy's pets!"

"After a fashion; I never said they were indoor pets though."

"Really; I would hardly have guessed."

Sirius now caught sight of the perpetrators; they were actually sleeping next to each other with Draco propped up against one large red flank and his feet resting on the opposite creature. Sirius had never been able to tell them apart.

"Seem to be calm now," he tried in a conversational tone.  Harold didn't bite.

"You and I will discuss this later. Bastards wore themselves out finally, once Malfoy abandoned me for an hour to go any buy a small fortune of toys, which were promptly eaten.  At least they stopped nattering; I was going mad."

"Can't leave them alone for a second, can you?"

"No.  And they cried when Malfoy was out, no matter what I tried. Have you even had the adventure of trying to entertain a beast determined to be miserable?"

Sirius started to laugh finally, and only laughed harder at the incredulous stare from his cousin.

"Oh please, enlighten me as to what is so damn FUNNY about this!"

"Harold, sorry; I am laughing," Sirius said with a grin, "at what Malfoy is going to say about this when he wakes up.  You know he's getting married, right?"

"Yes."

"Well, I can't decide if it would be more wicked to tell him this was a preview of what children are like or let him discover that for himself."

Harold looked over at Malfoy and gave a rather dark smile himself.  "Let him find out on his own.  Then remind him of this day any time he complains."

"Deal.  Now, let's wake him and not the beasties to go over our next steps.  I need to get to Exeter and get Remus out of that house from under Annie's nose.  Personally," Sirius looked at Harold, "I think I would have traded you for the griffin-sitting had I the opportunity."

***

Remus woke up at dusk, and groaned at the familiar ache that was setting in to his bones and joints.  He looked at the clock to see it was just after five in the afternoon.  He sat up slowly and stretched, then looked to see Annie sitting in the chair across from him.  He had the distinct impression she had probably been waiting for him to wake up, but just smiled at her and held out a hand.  His daughter stood and came over to hold his hand.

"Hi.  Good nap?"

"Very nice, thank you.  Where is Gary?"

"I told him he really didn't need to be here anymore, and that you preferred having the house clear of guests on nights like this.  Even guests who know what's going on.  Want anything to eat?"

Remus shook his head and stood up.  "Let's take some light tea in the study if you don't mind.  I'm getting to that point where I really don't want to move very much," Remus said as he led Annie from the room.  He wasn't lying; he was getting to the point where he only wanted to sit quietly and wait for everything to be over with once more.  But he also wanted to start keeping as close control over Annie's movements as possible.  Gary having left seemed too good to be true; either he hadn't gone far or Katie was going to be home sooner than planned. Remus was betting on Gary's having not left at all, but rather being in the kitchen or the second study at the far side of the house. At least, that is what he would have done in a similar situation and he knew that he was at long last ruing the day he had not heeded his wife's warnings that training his children in 'clandestine behaviour' would come back at him one day. 

Remus forced himself to eat more than he cared to, knowing he would need energy.  He chatted a bit with Annie about nothing too particular and kept an eye on the clock.  Just before seven, he shooed her out of the room and told Annie not to bother him the following morning unless there was news about Roarke and Griffin. 

"And when mum gets back?"

Remus smiled quietly. "No doubt she will let herself in.  Goodnight."

Remus quietly closed the door and charmed it shut, as per the norm.  He was starting to feel shaky and decided to sit at his desk and just wait for Sirius to show up.  Remus must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew the clock struck the quarter hour and there was a loud 'thump' against the window looking onto the woods at the side of the house.  Remus sat there for a second, waiting to see if the sound had been something innocent or… he jumped up at the next 'thump!' and went to look outside. At first he saw nothing extraordinary, and then small glowing letters appeared reading 'GET BACK' near the top of one of the closer trees.

Remus stepped back just as a rock came crashing through the pane.  Remus stared at it, and then heard the soft sound of something knocking on the window frame.  He stepped forward to see Sirius' head appear in thin air.  He was obviously on his broom and had managed to get his hands on an invisibility cloak.

"What the devil are you playing at? What the hell are you doing sending rocks through the window?!" growled Remus crossly.

Sirius shook his head and flew up closer to the window, then reached through to unlock the lower panel and pull open the window.

"I couldn't very well charm it open, now could I?  Any magic performed on this end of the house and we'd have Ministry lackeys all over your rose beds, wouldn't we?  Needed a good old-fashioned approach."

"You daft git! Why didn't you just TELL ME to open the window?"

Sirius did look a little surprised. "Ah.  Well, you're right there.  Sorry, wasn't thinking about that.  Then again, could you have opened the window?"

"Of course I can open the window! The wards are on the outside of the property in case the potion doesn't work or something.  Why would the window be charmed when a werewolf doesn't have any opposable thumbs to OPEN it?"

Sirius tsked him even as he motioned for Remus to get a move on.

"Keep your temper, Moony; I'll fix the window when we get back.  Now hurry up; we still need to get to the kitchen and get past Annie."

Remus turned to one of the book cases and pulled a large box down.  Sirius peered through the window at it, giving it a very curious look when it rattled slightly as Remus put it on the floor.

"What's that?"

"Small piece of handiwork I did earlier to give the impression that I was still in the room.  Of course, I now run the risk of it jumping out the window!"  Remus took the top off of the box and a rather large stuffed toy wolf jumped out and went over to stand in front of the fire.  It gave a small bark to Remus, then turned its attention to pacing back and forth on the floor.  It even had little nails that clicked on the wood.

"Moony, is that some stuffed toy?"

"Indeed; I found it in a Muggle toy shop a few years ago and bought it as a joke.  I've charmed it so it acts like a real wolf for a few hours.  Well, so it acts like I do at least.  It will pace, mumble to itself and bark at anyone who knocks on the door to ask if it is okay."

"Very nice.  And rather cute, might I add.  Excellent touch."

Remus thanked him and started to haul himself over the window ledge and swatted at Sirius' offered hand.

"Back off, you menace; this is the first floor!  You can get off the broom and get out of my way!"

Unfortunately, as Sirius was still mostly invisible Remus misjudged where the edge of the cloak was.  As Sirius turned to dismount, Remus trod on the edge of the cloak that was pooled on the ground.  The result was Sirius being pulled back quickly with a slight choking sound as the clasps at the robe's neck strangled him and his broom mistook his movements as a command to shoot off at top speed.  Sirius fell backwards heavily, hitting Remus square in the chest and both of them fell backwards over the window ledge and into the study. The toy wolf gave a few offended sounding barks until Remus shushed it, looking worriedly at the door.

"Excellent, Padfoot.  We're back in the room.  First rate rescue, I must say!"

Sirius jumped up and leapt back out of the window, ignoring Remus.

"The bloody broom!  Where the hell did it go?"

Remus climbed back onto the window ledge and managed to make a far more graceful exit without Sirius in his way.  However, he quickly grabbed what he could see of Sirius' left arm and pulled him up short from running back into the woods.

"Leave it.  It'll be in a tree somewhere.  You can collect it when you come back to fix the window!"

"Do you have any idea what that broom costs? I can't leave it lying about in the snow!"

"Oh, and basically leaving a bloody great hole in my wall for all the snow to get in and coat my work is acceptable?"

Sirius started to say something, but looked at his watch and thought better of it.

"Come on, get under this cloak.  Best idea for distracting Annie to get her away from the fire?"

"If the shattering glass and the barking haven't distracted her by now I'm afraid I'm fresh out of good ideas."

"You are such a pain in the backside just before you transform, you know that?"

Remus grunted and took the lead in steering them around the corner of the house as Sirius seemed to keep stepping off the path and threatening to trip them.  They came to peer in one of the far kitchen windows, and saw nothing.

"Hmmm.  Either she is now trying to have a meaningful conversation with the stuffed toy or she's off in her room or something.  I'd rather know exactly where she is."

Sirius simply went for the door, dragging Remus with him.

"It doesn't matter where she is, does it?  It only matters that the coast is clear right now.  Alohamora!" They went into the kitchen and Sirius charmed the door to the rest of the house shut very quietly.

"Quick now; we're going to go to Harold's.  How are you holding up?"

"We're pushing our luck…I've got about 12 minutes left from the feel of things."

"Time to make it to Harold's and then to the gate, not a problem.  Besides, if you transform once we get out of here, not such a problem is it?"

Remus looked slightly aghast. "Not a problem, Padfoot? Not a problem with a wolf trotting through fashionable Muggle London?"

"They'll just think you are some fantastically expensive new breed of dog.  Now go!"

Remus grabbed a handful of Floo Powder and sent himself to Harold Black's house.  Sirius was just about to follow when he noticed they had left a very incriminating trail of melted snow between the door and the fireplace.  He sent a tea towel on the mess and then quickly took the lock off the main kitchen door before heaving a sigh of relief, and leaving through the fire himself.

***

It wasn't until the second flash of green light from the kitchen that Annie and Gary allowed themselves to burst into fits of laughter.  From their vantage point in the tree at the end of the garden next to the horse paddock they had had a superb view of the goings on.

"So much for making it 'easy' for them by clearing out of the house!" laughed Gary, even as he jumped to the ground.

"What a performance!  I can't decide what was better, the pratfall or the bickering like 3 year olds!

"I want to know what was barking at them, myself!"

Annie and Gary ran over to the broken window and looked in.  They saw nothing out of the ordinary until the enchanted toy jumped up onto the desk and started howling at them.  This made them gasp and then start laughing again.

"Oh, priceless!  Priceless!  We need a picture so we can share this when the fuss is over!"

Annie shook her head and started to walk to the back of the house.

"We can't right now, there's no time.  Too bad we can't fix that window for Daddy as it does look like it might snow a bit. Come on, we need to get to the gate to make sure they make it and then we need to get back here before Mum comes home!  She'll go into the study no doubt if I'm not here to make certain she doesn't, and then…well, I don't want to think about that one. We'll just go through at the Leaky Cauldron and then come right back here and no one will be the wiser."