Severus sniffed derisively as he entered The Three Broomsticks.

The hour was late but the tavern was still filled with a respectable number of drinkers. A young couple were squirrelled away in one corner on a date; two old wizards played dominoes by the fire; and a gaggle of women of a certain age, huddled around two tables on what was clearly some kind of birthday celebration. The ambience was one of cheerful and welcoming cosiness. Severus despised it on principle.

Severus sniffed again, unwound the scarf from his neck, and made for the bar.

Rosmerta smiled warmly at him. "Professor Snape. We don't often see you in here."

And Severus had no intention of making it a regular habit. "A private room has been arranged in the name of Prince."

It was his mother's maiden name and Snape wondered whether Crouch had looked it up or been told it by the Dark Lord. Either way it was a good cover. Crouch could pretend to be a distant cousin looking up his remaining family. There were some relatives still alive on his mother's side, Severus mused; his great-great-great uncle's progeny. They had left years before, moving to the States and Severus wasn't interested in tracking them down.

"Oh, of course!" Rosmerta's smile turned conspiratorial. "Room one, dear. The lady is already up there along with your refreshments." And she winked at him.

Severus glowered at her and left. What cover story had Crouch constructed, he wondered as he made his way stiffly up the stairs. He knocked on the door three times and waited.

"Enter!" A female voice called breathlessly.

Severus let his wand drop into his hand and opened the door. The smell of faint perfume hit his nostrils first; lilies. He controlled the immediate burst of anger, reminding himself that Crouch had no doubt chosen it on purpose hoping to evoke such a reaction. He stepped through the doorway and closed the door behind him.

A female figure lounged on the rose-petal strewn bed in a flimsy nightie, smiling coquettishly at him, green eyes peeking out from semi-closed lids. She was slim, pale and had a cascade of red hair. But even in a bad light and half-blind Severus would never have mistaken her for Lily Potter.

Or rather mistaken him.

"Bartemius Crouch Junior, I presume?" Severus sneered.

The female's smile turned predatory. "Severus Snape." He pouted. "You don't seem to like the surprise I prepared for you."

Severus glared down his nose at him. "I prefer to keep business strictly business."

"Pity." She – he slid off the bed and wrapped himself in a pale pink silk dressing robe. He grabbed a packet of cigarettes and lit up, blowing out a stream of smoke. "I haven't had a good shag in ages."

Severus arched one eyebrow and moved to sit on the comfortable wing-backed chair by the dresser. He didn't unbutton his outer cloak or take off his soft leather gloves.

"I assume you intend for our cover story to be a clandestine love affair?" Severus questioned tersely. It was a reasonable cover, he conceded to himself.

"And you have a known type, darling." Crouch grinned at him as he threw himself back on the bed. "If anyone asks a mutual acquaintance introduced us and we have been owling in secret since the beginning of the Summer." He gestured at a stack of parchment on the dresser. "Your evidence."

Severus swept his wand over the paper and found it benign. He sniffed to ascertain if there was something the paper had been steeped in but couldn't scent anything other than the infernal perfume Crouch had sprayed the room with. He picked the first parchment up with gloved hands and read the text with little fanfare.

Crouch had done a good job if the letter was any indication. Madame Albright was a widow with a gift for potions and the letter had one half of what appeared to be a lively exchange about a past article published in Potions Monthly around August.

Severus picked up the rest of the parchments and tucked them away into the inner pocket of his outer robe. He settled his gaze back on Crouch. "Does the Dark Lord wish for verbal or written reports?"

Crouch blinked. "You know Father never said."

Father.

Well, that was an interesting turn of events, Severus mused, and one Crouch wanted him to know.

"Verbal then." Severus said as though disinterested in Crouch's new status. He smoothed down his cloak. "You are aware that the Summers woman and your elf are now in the protective custody of Albus Dumbledore?"

Crouch perked up. "At Hogwarts?"

Severus inclined his head although only the elf was actually within the school. The Summers woman was with her brother in some DMLE safe house known only to Scrimgeour and Bones. "I have been ordered to find an antidote."

Crouch shrugged. "Why should Father be interested in that? The draught we used has no antidote."

And so the game began, Severus thought with amusement. "It is true that the Sleeping Beauty draught has no antidote except for the true love kiss of one with a pure heart. Something that is unlikely to happen to either female in this case."

He watched in satisfaction as Crouch's face stilled with shock.

"Well, well, well," Crouch said, "so you may be as useful as Father said you were, after all, Potions Master Snape."

Severus raised his eyebrow again. "The Dark Lord is aware of my skills and I can confirm that I will probably be able to determine an antidote within a few months." He lifted one shoulder. "I will be able to delay perhaps until May but no longer."

"You will delay until after the Summer solstice." Crouch snarled, lurching to his feet to pace. He looked a sight; an angry pinched looking redhead stomping about the room in a flimsy pink negligee.

And there was one more confirmation of the Dark Lord's ritual timetable, Severus noted.

"Albus Dumbledore was mentored by Nicholas Flamel." Severus said with an affected patience as though talking to a small child or a Gryffindor. "He is able to follow my process and determine cause and effect, review my results and know if I am prevaricating. May is the best I can do."

In truth, May was likely the time that he estimated he would have a working antidote. Any sooner just wasn't possible given some of the ingredients he believed he required. It was something that the Dark Lord with his own knowledge of potions might know and understand.

Severus watched as Crouch continued to pace, trailing smoke and ash. "The Dark Lord will need to move at that time as the elf and the Summers woman will be questioned about his whereabouts."

"They don't know." Crouch responded immediately.

"And your elf would not be able to find you once she's awake? Would not rush to your side?" Severus drawled. "Black has many tricks and more than enough house-elves to send after her to get a location."

Crouch stopped abruptly. He whirled around and pinned Severus with a hard stare. "So kill the elf!"

Severus simply looked back at him. "And expose you to the Black elves instead? You are connected to the House of Black through a marriage. If you lose the protection of your own elf bond, you become visible to them. Isn't that the reason why you've kept her alive?"

Crouch swept his hands through his hair. "Bloody Black!"

"Well, on that much we can agree," Severus said dryly, "he is superb at being the proverbial thorn in one's side." And Severus didn't even have to lie about that.

Crouch's brow lowered. "I will see him dead."

Severus took note of the anger written over Crouch's female features and hummed. "I was rather hoping for the honour myself."

"He killed Rabastan." Crouch snapped out. "He's mine!"

Severus shrugged as though unconcerned. "If that is the wish of the Dark Lord then so be it."

"Know this: I don't trust you." Crouch said bluntly. "From everything I've been told you had a thing for Lily Potter and I know the urge to avenge a lover."

Severus allowed a faintly amused smile to drift over his lips despite the rage that surged inside, the brief thought that Crouch was right about his trustworthiness and why. "Your source being Pettigrew the rat, I assume?" He shook his head. "I wouldn't believe much that passes his lips. It is true that Lily and I were friends once but I made my choice and she made hers." He let the smile settle. "And we were never lovers."

"You wanted to be." Crouch accused him roundly.

"Of course, I wanted to be at one time," Severus said lightly, "I was a teenage boy and she was an attractive witch. But she chose Potter." He gestured. "And I committed my life to the Dark Lord."

"Do you deny that you tried to prevent Father's attempt to obtain the Philosopher's stone?" Crouch argued, stubbing his cigarette out in an ashtray on the bedside table.

"I tried to prevent Quirrell from obtaining the Philosopher's stone." Severus countered. "Had I known it was the Dark Lord, I would have made every attempt to assist him. Since he never revealed himself to me, I can only assume he wanted to succeed alone and he would have done so had Potter not gotten in the way."

Crouch was barely mollified, Severus noted.

"I've watched you around the school. You are close with the old fool, with Moody, with Black." Crouch argued.

And that was confirmation that Crouch had access enough to Hogwarts to note the various relationships Severus had fostered.

"Have you never heard of keeping your friends close but your enemies closer?" Severus smiled cruelly. "As a spy I have to cultivate some relationships that I would prefer to avoid but cultivate them I must if I am to be of service to the Dark Lord."

Crouch glared at him. "I don't trust you…"

"But the Dark Lord does," Severus interrupted smoothly, "otherwise we would not be here, and since I have not brought the Aurors or worse, Black, to your door, one might assume that the Dark Lord knows best." He stood.

Crouch stared at him. "You're not leaving."

"I have imparted the information I have." Severus said. "Of course, if you have further instructions from the Dark Lord I will stay and listen." He gazed at Crouch questioningly.

The younger wizard looked perturbed but he drew himself up sharply, a keen gaze entering his too bright eyes. "I may need you for something we have planned for Yule." He waved towards Severus. "I will send you a parchment as Madame Albright when I wish to convey information rather than use Karkaroff."

Severus began to wind his scarf back around his neck and head. "Very well. I trust that you can leave the room in a state befitting a romantic tryst? I will ensure I'm not seen as I depart."

Crouch smiled sharply. "Goodbye, lover."

Severus scowled and walked out. A shudder ran through him as he closed the door on Crouch. He cast a Disillusionment spell on himself and went out through the staff exit down the back stairs and through the kitchen. He apparated to the Hogwarts' gates and hurried back to his quarters.

He needed a drink, Severus determined as he entered the living room, grateful for the warmth of the fire crackling in the hearth.

He divested himself of his cloak and scarf but kept his gloves on to draw out the stack of parchments Crouch had handed him and placed them in a wooden box. He would test them for poisons and potions the following day, he decided. He finally peeled the gloves away careful not to touch the outside of them, tossing them into the fire in case they had become contaminated.

Constant vigilance, Severus thought wryly. Moody would be proud.

He glanced at the clock as he poured himself a drink. Albus would be awake, probably Moody too, although he expected Black and Potter to have retired for the night. Still, his report could wait until morning. Apart from the news that something definitely was planned for Yule, something they had already suspected, there was nothing new to report.

Other than Crouch was indeed bat-shit insane and apparently thought the Dark Lord had adopted him.

Severus shuddered again and tossed back his whiskey. He wondered whether Crouch was aware that the Dark Lord was simply playing on his Daddy issues. He doubted it. And what would happen when he was faced with the truth of it, Severus mused. Possibly it would be enough to send him over the edge completely.

Which might not be a good thing.

The Dark Lord was evil and clever and cruel but he was sane. And a sane wizard could be predicted. A crazy wizard, on the other hand…

A crazy wizard did things like dress up like the ghost of a dead woman to seduce a spy and test his loyalties.

Severus poured himself another drink and tried to ignore the scent that lingered; the fantasy Crouch had guessed at so accurately. He grimaced at Crouch's tactics. There was always more than one way to torture someone and Crouch had succeeded in tearing open most of Severus's barely healed wounds, although Severus was assured that he hadn't allowed any of them to actually bleed in Crouch's presence.

Crouch was remarkably dangerous, Severus concluded with reluctant admiration. Crazy, dangerous and out for Black's blood; a lethal combination. For the first time ever, Severus found himself worried about Sirius Black. Merlin knew Black had wounds all over him ready to be ripped open and Black would bleed himself to death for Potter.

Severus shook his head. He'd talk with Black in the morning, warn him. Knowing Black he probably already knew Crouch was insane and dangerous but it was a point worth repeating. He glanced at the wooden box with its potentially lethal contents and picked it up, heading into his private lab to begin testing them immediately. Potions had always settled his nerves and he was prepared to admit, if only to himself, that he needed them settled.

o-O-o

10th December 1994

Boys, thought Hermione, reading the note from Harry explaining why he was grounded to his suite of rooms for the weekend (barring his mind healer session and duelling elective and other official commitments that Sirius deemed he had to do) with exasperation. Why hadn't he just waited and talked to Ron in the morning?

She shot Ron an annoyed look as he fed Hedwig a piece of bacon. It was just the two of them that morning as Neville had a date with Hannah, and the rest of the Gryffindor fourth year had apparently decided to sleep in.

"Don't blame me!" Ron said, not looking at her. "I didn't ask him to come to the dorm!"

That was true.

"And he promised me we'd do a Quidditch practice just the two of us this weekend so it's not as though I haven't lost out because Sirius caught him either." Ron complained, a faint look of disappointment on his face.

It was the disappointment that convinced Hermione more than anything that Ron hadn't been complicit in Harry's midnight run to the Gryffindor dorm.

"Why didn't he just wait?" Hermione wondered out loud.

Ron's freckled face turned sheepish. "He, uh, kind of picked up that I was upset about Percy and…" he sighed, feeding Hedwig another piece of bacon, "came to talk to me."

The last part was mumbled and Hermione was pleased that she'd had three years already of interpreting Ron.

It was sweet of Harry to have been concerned about Ron, Hermione sighed, finally letting go of the topic to tuck into her porridge. And just like Harry to have gotten the idea to go talk with Ron and instead of waiting just gone ahead and done it.

The risk had been minimal, Hermione thought. Harry had the invisibility cloak and while they knew Crouch and company had masqueraded as fake Durmstrang students, the patrolling security were also well aware and on the look-out for students out of place. The dorm and Harry's room were also both in Gryffindor tower so it was unlikely that Harry would have run into trouble, but…

But Harry had sneaked out.

It was that more than anything that had probably prompted Sirius to ground him. If Harry had woken Sirius up and just asked him, Sirius would probably have agreed and, OK, probably escorted him there and back just to be safe.

She couldn't really blame Sirius for grounding Harry for sneaking out. It was just annoying. She had hoped to talk to him about the whole Ron situation. And she guessed from Harry's offer to Ron to spend time just the two of them that Harry had noticed that things were awkward too, despite her and Harry trying to ensure Ron felt included.

Which created another issue, Hermione figured, in that in trying so hard to include Ron, both she and Harry had started resenting his presence at times.

They'd known, Hermione reminded herself briskly; they'd known when they'd started dating that the dynamic between the three of them would change. They'd just naively assumed it would be easy to deal with.

The truth was that her own changed dynamic with Harry made Hermione feel slightly breathless and dizzy with happiness every time she thought about it. Harry wasn't perfect, but he always made her feel important and special when they were together even if it was just holding her hand, or occasionally smiling at her across a classroom. He had turned out really good at romantic gestures too. The roses that he had given her on their dates and to ask her out initially had been dried and preserved by Dobby; the snow globe sat on her bedside table. It had been oohed and ahed at for a long time by the other girls in the dorm. He was very good at kissing too – not that Hermione had previous experience, but compared to some of the horror stories she'd heard (sloppy with drool, too hard and aggressive, too much tongue), she believed he was good enough, especially as it made her heart beat faster and her blood buzz with pleasure.

Hormones, thought Hermione logically, but it didn't take away the fact that she enjoyed kissing Harry.

So, she and Harry were good, great even; the problem was Ron.

It wasn't exactly Ron's fault.

Hermione knew that.

They had been the ones to assure him that he wouldn't be left out once she and Harry started dating, and perhaps that was just the problem; she and Harry were making every effort to make sure Ron was OK at the detriment to the time they should be spending together. And perhaps the truth was that it wasn't so much that Hermione wanted more alone time with Harry – although that would be nice – but that Harry had such limited time anyway.

She could understand Ron not wanting to let go of any minute to spend with his best friend, when said best friend was no longer living in the dorm and eating in the Great Hall, no longer on the Quidditch team, and was generally less available. If Harry had been dating anyone else, Hermione believed that Ron would have already been sulking over losing even more time with Harry. As it was, when she and Harry weren't officially on dates, it was still the three of them – four sometimes if Neville joined them at lunch.

It was a difficult balancing act.

Hermione still believed a lot of it could be alleviated if Ron would start dating himself and so had something – someone else to spend time with.

Lavender was perfect. She was very interested in Ron, thought he was adorable, and even thought his cluelessness was adorable. Maybe she wasn't going to end up Mrs Ronald Weasley but Hermione thought she was a good first girlfriend for Ron – one who genuinely seemed to care for him. Hermione had never thought she would be the type of friend who started dating only to push others to do the same but it was a solution to The Problem of Rarely Getting Time Alone with Harry.

There was no better time to start pushing Ron towards some kind of realisation, Hermione thought, then right at that moment. It was only the two of them at breakfast (she wasn't counting Hedwig who'd delivered the missives from Harry) and Lavender was nowhere in sight.

"So," Hermione set her letter from Harry aside, "have you thought about who you're going to invite to the Ball?"

Ron's head whipped around so fast she thought he might give himself whiplash. He paled under his freckles. "Well, we're all going together, aren't we?"

Hermione's heart sank because she had known on some level that Ron had been thinking that and she just wasn't doing it. She wanted a special night with Harry, and fortunately the tournament gave her an excuse.

"That's not going to be possible, Ron," she shook her head before he started to argue with her, "the Champions are going to open the Ball with a dance – something neither Harry nor I are looking forward to – and then we sit on the Champions' table and have to do the whole political thing of mingling afterwards." She looked at him sympathetically. "We'll spend time with you after, of course we will, but…"

"No, I get it." Ron said morosely. He crossed his arms. "What am I going to do?"

"Well, who do you like?" Hermione asked bluntly.

"Fleur." Ron blushed, red adorning his cheeks almost the same colour as his hair. "I mean, she's perfect and it would be perfect because then you, Harry and I would be together too doing all the Champion stuff I mean."

Hermione hummed. "I think she's going with Robert Ogden."

"Oh." Ron sighed heavily. "That's just the thing isn't it? All the good looking girls will have been snatched up by now."

"Not all," Hermione said quickly, swallowing the urge to ask him why looks were the only criteria he was basing his choice upon, "I know Lavender and Parvati are still looking for a date."

Ron frowned. "Maybe I'll ask Ginny." He said as though Hermione hadn't spoken. "She won't get to go unless someone asks her and it'll make up for, you know…"

It wasn't a half bad plan, and in other circumstances Hermione knew she might have encouraged it since Ron's silent treatment with his sister did need to be fixed.

"What's wrong with Lavender?" Hermione said pointedly.

Ron blinked at her as though confused. "We're talking about Ginny."

"You're talking about Ginny," Hermione said exasperated, "I'm talking about Lavender." She pushed her finished porridge to the side and reached for the fruit bowl.

"Why are you talking about Lavender when I'm talking about Ginny?" asked Ron, perplexed.

"Because you weren't listening to me tell you that Lavender is without a date." Hermione said firmly.

"I heard you," Ron said impatiently, "and I said that I'd ask Ginny."

Hermione took a deep breath and reminded herself getting frustrated with Ron would not be conducive to getting him to agree to ask Lavender to the Ball.

"Why not Lavender?" Hermione asked again.

Ron sighed. "Look, I know I've been a pain with Ginny since the whole thing with you getting attacked by Jessica and I want to make it up to her. The Ball's a good way of doing that, and I don't have to do all this poncying about getting a date. I saw that globe thing Harry gave you; I don't have time to do anything like that."

Hermione bit her lip. "OK, I see that it would be a nice thing for you to do for Ginny, and I'm sure she'd appreciate it as a gesture of reconciliation, but it's a special night and don't you want to spend it with someone other than your sister? And I appreciate that you don't have time," or skill, Hermione filled in silently, "to do something extra, extra special to ask someone else, but I doubt anyone will expect a snow globe. I'm sure the most they'd expect is something like Harry gave me for our first date – a rose or some other flower as a gesture."

"Maybe," Ron said doubtfully, "but still; I think I'll ask Ginny." He fed Hedwig once last piece of bacon and offered a letter to her. "For Percy, Hedwig. Harry said you wouldn't mind delivering it."

Hedwig cocked her head and stuck her leg out. Ron tied on the letter and Hedwig took flight.

"I wish you'd reconsider, Ron," Hermione tried one last time, "Lavender really likes you; she'd say yes."

Ron shook his head. "I told you; I'm asking Ginny." He brightened. "In fact, why don't I do that right now?" He was away from the table before Hermione could protest.

She battled the urge to hit her head against the solid wood of the table. Once Ron got that stubborn set to his jaw, there was no arguing with him. Well, Hermione told herself briskly, you could argue but it would only lead to angry words.

So, Hermione thought somewhat despairingly, her first attempt at match-making was a dismal failure.

Luna slipped into the seat beside her and started to help herself to breakfast fare. "You seem contemplative this morning, Hermione."

Hermione nodded. "I'm thinking I make a poor match-maker."

"But you're more worried that perhaps you make a poor friend." Luna said in the direct way she had that Hermione both admired and was shocked by in equal measure.

"Maybe." Hermione admitted, squirming under the observation. "It's…I don't want Harry all to myself, I don't. His friendship with Ron is important to him…" he wouldn't have sneaked out in the middle of the night to talk with him if it wasn't important to him, "and my friendship with Ron is important to me too," although perhaps secondary to Hermione's friendship with Harry never mind her relationship, "but I just…"

"It's hard to rebalance when one person steadfastly remains in the same position while the other two have moved?" Luna offered.

"Yes," Hermione said, "that!"

"But why would Ron finding someone to date move him from his current position?" Luna asked, her attention apparently on the mushrooms she was spooning onto toast rather than Hermione.

Hermione was caught by the question. "Well, he'd understand about needing time alone with his girlfriend."

Luna raised her thin blonde eyebrows and Hermione sighed.

"Or maybe not." She admitted ruefully. Especially if the choice was forced upon him rather than one that he wanted. "You're right. You're right." She threw her hands up in defeat. "I'm pushing Ron into something and it's not the solution." She sighed. "Not if I want to be a good friend."

"And a good match-maker." Luna added sagely.

Hermione chuckled. "That too." She pressed her lips together. "It seemed like such a good solution. Lavender really, really likes him and I think Ron would enjoy having a girlfriend of his own."

"What does Harry think?" asked Luna.

Hermione propped her head up on her hand, her elbow on the table. "He's kind of agreed with me when I've said we should get Ron together with Lavender but…"

Harry had a tendency not to argue with her when she put an idea forward; if he disagreed he just worked around her. In hindsight he'd often agreed with her about finding someone for Ron in a jokey way rather than a serious one. And hadn't Harry in terms of his actions gone to the trouble of seeking Ron out? Talking to him? Offering to spend one to one time with him? And that…that maybe was the difference between their approaches, Hermione thought with chagrin. Perhaps Harry had the right of it; maybe what Ron wanted wasn't to encroach on Hermione's time with Harry but to re-establish some time of his own with him.

Hermione sighed. "I think Harry thinks Ron would like to spend time with Harry on his own."

Luna hummed and finished her mouthful of food.

"And I should be thinking of ways to help them achieve that rather than trying to push Ron at Lavender." Hermione nodded briskly. Maybe Ron would get together with Lavender, maybe he wouldn't; but it was not for Hermione to decide and she felt lighter without it weighing on her. She'd talk to Harry when he wasn't grounded and figure out something. "Thanks, Luna."

"I haven't said anything very much." Luna pointed out.

"You asked all the right questions," Hermione replied dryly, "and it's definitely sometimes what you don't say than what you do that makes the difference."

Luna smiled brightly. "I did have another reason for sitting beside you."

Hermione straightened. "Yes?"

"I think I've noticed a new form of bug," Luna said cheerfully, "kind of related to a beetle perhaps but it flies and it has a peculiar facial decoration. It also seems to have strangely random habits and from what I've observed isn't that interested in eating but following humans around. I was hoping you might help me observe for a day?"

Since she owed Luna for the whole Ron-Lavender advice (because she had a feeling there wasn't an actual bug just another of Luna's imaginary creatures), Hermione nodded. "I have some electives this morning but we can go bug watching this afternoon?"

"Perfect." Luna beamed at her. "That would be perfect."

Feeling slightly better about the situation with Ron, Hermione practically skipped away from breakfast, returning to Gryffindor tower to collect a couple of books for her Healing elective. It was fascinating and it had reconfirmed to Hermione that it was what she wanted to do with her life.

Her sense of light-heartedness disappeared as soon as she entered the Common Room and walked in on Ron and Ginny centre stage yelling at each other.

She absently noticed that everyone else in the Common Room, the Weasley twins included, had taken defensive positions in the corners giving the squabbling siblings a wide berth.

"…and I say you're not going out with him!" Ron yelled.

"It's not your decision to make!" Ginny shouted back. "I can go out with whoever I like!"

"You haven't exactly been making good decisions lately!" Ron retorted.

Ginny's eyes blazed at her brother. "Don't you dare throw that in my face! You know Lydia and me didn't have any idea that Jessica was going to attack Hermione!"

"You didn't get detentions for nothing!" Ron shot back at her. "You admitted you'd all talked about it!"

"Talked, Ron! I didn't think any of us were thinking of doing anything seriously and neither did Lydia!" Ginny said hotly. "And yeah; we are punished for it anyway and Hermione has already forgiven me!"

"Leave Hermione out of this!" Ron ordered. "She has nothing to do with you dating Michael Corner!"

"You were the one who brought it all up again and I'm not dating Michael!" Ginny snarled back. "I just agreed to go to the Ball with him!"

"Over my dead body!" Ron said.

"That can be arranged!" Ginny muttered and stormed off up the girls' staircase where she knew Ron couldn't follow her.

"Bloody come back here!" Ron shouted up the stairs.

The faint reply of 'Bugger Off!" drifted down to the Common Room. It was probably best Ginny was wary of the anti-bullying policy after the whole thing with Jessica, Hermione considered hearing the anger that vibrated through the words; Ginny had a very mean Bat Bogey hex when she was riled.

Hermione assessed the situation and wandered over to Ron, noting everyone else was carefully continuing to keep their distance. "Ginny's going to the Ball with Michael Corner?"

Ron shoved his hand through his hair. "Bollocks!"

And Hermione wondered what Ron was most upset about; that Ginny was going to the Ball with Michael or that she wasn't available to go to the Ball with him. She placed a consoling arm around his shoulders.

"Come on," Hermione said gently, "I'll just grab my Healing books and we can go to duelling. It's our only chance to see Harry today."

Ron nodded, some of the colour fading from his face. "Yeah," he said gratefully, "let's go and see Harry."

"Maybe you can rearrange your Quidditch practice with him." Hermione suggested. "I'm sure he was looking forward to it too."

"You're brilliant, Hermione." Ron said grinning at her. "Just brilliant."

Hermione tried to hide her wince. "I have my moments." She said and scarpered up the stairs before he realised just how not brilliant she had been at breakfast.

o-O-o

11th December 1994

The Black farm near the River Batova was beautiful. It was a rural work of art; large rambling farm house, enough worker cottages and outbuildings to provide individual space for any number of people, and completely self-sufficient. It was easily defensible; had a good amount of land and was actually already surrounded by a nine foot fence which threw a lightning bolt at anyone who came near it – both from the inside and the outside.

It was the perfect place for a werewolf sanctuary.

Remus mused again at how forward thinking Sirius could be at times, remembering their first conversation about where to put a sanctuary…

"I don't think the chateau is right in the long term." Sirius commented, his image blurring slightly in the mirror.

Remus sighed. "I'd rather stay in France. I know the French Alpha, Robert, somewhat although it was many moons ago and I know he'll deal fairly with other werewolves," he forced himself to say the full truth, "another pack, encroaching on his territory."

"Hmmm. There are no other suitable properties in France." Sirius murmured, a crease forming between his brows as he thought about it.

"So the chateau it is." Remus said briskly.

Sirius shot him a look over the mirror. "Look, Remus, I can understand wanting to stay in France – you know the territory so to speak, and admittedly it will be easy for anyone from Britain to get there since portkeys are ten-a-knut to France and there's plenty of muggle transportation to boot."

"But?" prompted Remus.

"But at some point Greyback is going to learn of the exodus and frankly, the chateau is not set-up for either a siege or for defence. It was a holiday place for the Potters with the side benefit of producing wine." Sirius's expression grew fond and nostalgic. "Really, really great wine."

Remus ignored the last comment and focused on the main point. "I take it you have another suggestion?"

"The farms out in the Balkans you mentioned would probably be more suitable, particularly the Black one." Sirius said simply. "Look, let's start off in France. It's close, you have the relationship with Robert, and the chateau doesn't have a great deal of work to do on it before it could house guests. In the meantime, build up a relationship with…"

"Gregor." Remus supplied as Sirius floundered.

"…and take a gander at the Balkan properties. Choose one of them as a back-up plan for when Greyback finds out." Sirius said.

It had been a very good idea, Remus thought wryly, as he took in the delighted faces of the thirty-eight other werewolves around him as they settled around the large communal table in the farmhouse kitchen. He was infinitely more pleased when Clara slipped into the seat beside him. He allowed himself a moment of appreciation for her red cap of hair, warm brown eyes and wide welcoming smile.

"This place is great." Clara declared brightly. "I love it."

Remus nodded. "It's certainly more secure than the chateau."

And there was a hint of relief in his own voice at that. He'd known intellectually that he and Fenrir were heading towards a showdown but finding out that Voldemort had made his death a requirement for Fenrir to have Voldemort's support for his violence had rocked him a bit.

It had always bemused Remus why Fenrir followed Voldemort. Fenrir was definitely an Alpha; he was very much a leader and expected his word to be followed as law within the pack. When Remus had been involved with the pack peripherally during his spying days, he had steered clear of direct confrontations with Fenrir but he had gotten to know enough pack members that he knew Fenrir's leadership style. It seemed bizarre that Fenrir kowtowed to Voldemort.

But maybe there was an attraction at being given legitimacy, Remus mused as he dug into the beef stew the elves had prepared. With Voldemort, Fenrir was recognised as a leader by someone other than his own pack albeit a leader not equal to Voldemort himself. And there were the benefits Voldemort dangled in Fenrir's face; freedom to roam unmolested, unchallenged; permission to bite whomever and wherever he wanted…a heady temptation for someone who embraced the violence of his wolf, who was more the wolf than he was the wizard he had once been.

The dinner was a lively affair.

Remus watched over everyone to assess how they were settling. Cliques were beginning to form. The couples in the original group who had first been at the chateau had grouped together somewhat, forming solid friendships. The others, including those who had fled after Fenrir's call for volunteers for raiding, had formed into two other groups; one group of single werewolves who were all relatively young, and a second group of couples.

It was a good arrangement in some respects, Remus thought. Each grouping provided support and companionship in a relatable way for its members. There wasn't any sign of hostility among the groups or the individuals which was a relief. There would no doubt be conflict eventually. Thirty-eight different people meant thirty-eight different personalities and some would clash. He'd be expected as Alpha to intervene and make judgements in conflicts.

He needed a beta, Remus mused. His gaze shifted to the woman beside him. Clara was a strong wolf; very much like himself in her views and opinions, in her education. He felt deep down he could trust her to make the calls in his absence. Moreover, she was the exception to the groupings, seemingly content to drift between them and therefore held no allegiance to any other than the entire pack as a single entity.

There might be an issue with some of them with him choosing a female for a beta but Remus set his jaw stubbornly. If he was going to have a pack then his pack was going to be what he wanted. Of course, he was really going to have to think about it more because someone (Sirius) might claim that putting Clara as his beta was more about Remus fancying her than about her being right for the job. And someone (Sirius) might be right about that, Remus thought wryly.

He mopped up the last of his stew with freshly baked bread and sighed in contentment as the dishes were whisked away, the very excellent beer refilled, and a dessert of sour cherry tart appeared with sweetened natural yoghurt as an accompanying sauce.

It looked delicious and Remus was about to tuck in when Jugen the head elf at the farm popped in beside him.

"Honoured Steward," Jugen said in heavily accented English, "there be Balkan wolfy at the gate."

Remus frowned. He'd had a floo call with Gregor the day before to confirm Gregor's acceptance of the pack establishing its base in Gregor's territory. Perhaps he should have expected a personal visit of some kind. He nodded briskly at Jugen and stood up.

"You should not go alone." Patrick, the single wolf who had been with the pack since the beginning at the chateau, and who was probably the other natural candidate for beta, stood up.

He was a relatively young man; sixteen when bitten at the end of the previous war, he had fallen into the fringes of Fenrir's pack. He had been as unhappy with Fenrir as leader as Sian and just as seemingly incapable of challenging Fenrir himself. Despite that, Patrick was good at organising and had fallen naturally into helping Remus with the move to the Balkans. He was also very sociable and well-liked by all the werewolves in the pack; he loved pack life in a way that Remus couldn't grasp and was self-educated in a range of different eclectic subjects.

Clara nodded in agreement. "Patrick and I will accompany you, Remus."

And there, Remus thought with a sigh, was the pack's leadership team forming right in front of him, and it probably wasn't a bad thing because Clara and Patrick balanced each other out. As if in agreement, the others were nodding, content to stay at the table and allow the pair to assume the task of protecting the Alpha.

Remus didn't protest either Patrick's or Clara's presence; he led the way out of the kitchen and as soon as they were clear of the farmhouse, they apparated to the gate.

He recognised the werewolf standing there immediately and gave the command to allow him entry even as he went to greet him with a wide smile. "Tomas."

Tomas smiled back, easy and friendly. "Alpha Lupin."

"I've told you before; call me Remus." Remus instructed with a sigh as he clasped forearms with Tomas. He gestured at Patrick at his right shoulder and Clara at his left. "Tomas, this is Patrick Keefe and Clara Holliday. Patrick, Clara; this is Tomas Lubric. He serves in the Auror guard for the Bulgarian Minister and is a member of the Balkans' pack."

Tomas nodded at Patrick and Clara who nodded back warily.

Remus ushered them all back to the farmhouse, bringing Tomas side-along with himself. Within seconds Remus and Tomas were ensconced in the cosy den, plates of cherry tart served along with fresh beer for Remus and coffee for Tomas as they settled down to talk. Patrick and Clara had left to join the others in the kitchen and reassure them all was well.

"Alpha Popov sends greetings and well wishes to the Lupin pack." Tomas began after the elves disappeared.

"The Lupin pack thanks him for his consideration and his graciousness in allowing us to stay within his territory." Remus said formally. "We are in his debt."

"There is no debt between friends and family." Tomas returned. "Gregor believes this more than anything."

Remus smiled. He liked Gregor very much and he had a feeling the Slavic pack leader saw himself as some kind of a mentor to Remus.

"He has asked that I serve as a liaison between our packs." Tomas continued. "If that is acceptable to you, Alpha?"

"More than." Remus said. "I'll introduce you to the rest of the pack after our discussion. You should probably meet Sirius and Harry formally at some point too." He always made an effort to reinforce that he considered them his pack.

"I vould like that." Tomas said simply, rubbing his fingers on a napkin. "You have chosen your beta?"

"Not exactly," Remus said, shifting under Tomas's regard, "Patrick and Clara both volunteered to escort me to see who was at the gate. They're the prime candidates. If it was Clara I know there might be gender issues…"

"Probably not when in human form," Tomas interrupted, "but it is most likely when wolves."

Remus nodded slowly, reconsidering his earlier thought. He didn't think as a wolf, Remus mused, and that was a disadvantage as a pack leader.

"So…probably Patrick then." Remus said out loud.

"With your Clara as a den mother." Tomas added. "They will make a good balance, hmmm?"

And Tomas had put into words what Remus had subconsciously noted as they'd left the kitchen.

"I was just thinking that myself." Remus admitted with a chuckle.

Tomas nodded and drew out an envelope from his robes. "From the Minister's office."

Remus raised both eyebrows in surprise. He hadn't expected to get such a fast reply to his request for a personal meeting with Bogdan to discuss an issue of security with the Durmstrang ship at Hogwarts. He opened the envelope and scanned the letter; an invite to breakfast the next day.

That was fast.

"Wow." Remus murmured.

"He is eager to meet vith you to discuss the issue you stated." Tomas stated. "Gregor also has told him about allowing your pack to occupy the farm and I believe the Minister is looking to bid you velcome."

Remus nodded slowly. It wasn't unexpected that Gregor had informed his government but it set nerves flying in Remus's belly.

"I look forward to our breakfast." He placed the letter back in its envelope and set it aside. "Let's go introduce you to the others. I'll pen a reply while you speak with them." He declared.

An hour later, Tomas had departed, the pack was in their chosen accommodations sleeping and Remus was talking to Sirius on the mirror.

"You and Bogdan really did get on like a house on fire, didn't you?" Sirius commented.

Remus waved away Sirius's words. "I think it has more to do with us moving our pack to his country."

"Well, good, if it means we can speak with him quicker." Sirius said, pushing a hand through his hair and looking every year of his age.

"How's it going with Harry?" asked Remus, getting to the source of Sirius's concern. The mirror call the day before had been one long complaining session by Sirius about Harry sneaking out.

Sirius sighed heavily. "He's fine."

"Pissed?" inquired Remus. "Sulking?"

"No," Sirius shook his head, "he's actually fairly accepting that he broke the rules, put himself at risk and therefore has to pay the consequences. He's been quiet but…fine." He grimaced. "Do you have any idea how many times I sneaked out of the tower after curfew, Remus?"

Ah.

Remus repressed the urge to sigh himself. Sirius really struggled with being a disciplinarian. It wasn't Sirius's fault. Sirius had never said but it had been obvious even as kids that Sirius's parents had been abusive. Sirius tended to equate being disciplined with being hurt – and while he'd had a couple of years under Charlus Potter's system, Sirius had never lost that learned belief. It was likely that Sirius on some subconscious level felt he was hurting Harry disciplining him. Of course, some of it simply was Sirius feeling like a hypocrite for telling Harry off for breaking the same rules Sirius had broken as a teenager. Remus figured every parent had their own moment of hypocrisy and Sirius should stop dwelling on it. But then as much as he loved Harry and was invested in raising him, he had the freedom of not being the actual parent and therefore possibly had no idea how it felt punishing a child for doing something he'd done himself.

"He obviously knows you have to punish him even if you did do it yourself in the past," Remus reassured Sirius, "and besides, you didn't have people wanting to kill you when you sneaked out; Harry does."

"Snape." Sirius retorted.

"Not the same thing and you know it." Remus frowned. "Speaking of Severus, has he heard anything more about the Yule thing?"

"Now who's impatient?" questioned Sirius archly. He shook his head. "It's only been a couple of days and Yule is weeks away. He may not hear from Junior for quite a while."

"I still can't believe he told you to be careful." Remus said out loud.

Sirius shrugged. "His official diagnosis of Junior was that he's madder than a box of cats hyped up on catnip and dressed up in Easter bonnets and therefore unpredictable."

"Have you told Harry?" asked Remus.

"I've told him Snape has been informed that something is being planned for Yule." Sirius fidgeted. "I haven't said anything to him about Snape thinking Junior's definitely going to come after me in some way at some point. He already knows Junior blames me for Rabastan…there's no need to spell it out and ultimately it's only Snape's opinion. Harry has enough to worry about."

Remus nodded slowly. He agreed with Sirius's decision. "How's the second task planning coming?"

"The kids have done well pulling together a plan. Most of the alliance cooed over it. Daphne Greengrass sweet-talked her father into sending her half a library on sailing and magical spells for boats." Sirius said with a grin. The grin faded. "Harry's worrying over whether someone he cares about will be taken but we don't know what criteria were set in the task for the Goblet to choose."

"It could be a thing." Remus countered.

"It could be Harry himself." Sirius waved a hand, distorting the image in the mirror for a moment. "It doesn't make any difference to him brooding over it." He sighed heavily. "Healer Allen says it's natural enough and he'll work through it but…it's not as though I can promise Harry nobody will get hurt."

"I'm not sure anything we say will help take away his anxiety about losing someone he cares about, Padfoot." Remus said sadly. "He lost James and Lily; that's the root of it. Even if he doesn't remember losing them, he knows how his life was without love in it and he fears that history will repeat itself."

They all did. Remus felt a familiar tug of worry pull at his own gut; a tug that whispered that he'd lose his pack again, be alone again, be bereft again. And mostly he knew that it was because of his certainty that if Harry ever died, Sirius would either be dead from trying to prevent it from happening or die in the attempt to avenge him.

Sirius's grey eyes met his knowingly in the mirror. "We're a right bunch, aren't we, Moony?"

And that gave away Sirius's own anxiety over losing the people he loved again, Remus mused.

Sirius motioned for Remus to ignore his last comment. "Get some sleep and enjoy your breakfast with the Minister."

The mirror winked out without any further notice and Remus huffed in annoyance before conceding that Sirius probably had been upset at the last part of their conversation and needed to hide for a while.

He should be there, Remus thought guiltily. He should be there rather than in Bulgaria playing Alpha to werewolves who needed…needed a sanctuary and someone to stand for them.

Bugger.

Remus pushed a hand through his hair and took himself off to bed.

Breakfast at the Bulgarian Ministry was intimidating.

The Minister's dining room was huge, able to accommodate huge parties, and the large table claiming the centre of the room reflected that in its many, many chairs. Only two places had been set at the top of the table; the head place which Bogdan occupied and the seat to the right of him which the officious secretary who had shown Remus in, pulled out for him as Remus shook hands with Bogdan.

"Sit, sit!" Bogdan said in Bulgarian, ushering Remus into the chair.

An instant later, waiters arrived with a veritable feast of breakfast foods. Remus succumbed to Bogdan's obvious hospitality and accepted an array of bacon, sausage, fried potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes and a beautifully fried egg sunny side up. He noticed Bogdan stuck with a porridge like bowl of cereal and some fresh fruit.

"Diet." Bogdan said with a grimace, patting his rounded stomach. "My wife insists."

Remus nodded politely, his mouth full of sausage.

"I welcome you and your pack to Bulgaria." Bogdan said warmly. "I was most pleased when Gregor informed me you had requested permission to build a sanctuary here."

"Thank you and I'm glad you approved the move." Remus replied, patting his mouth with his napkin. He had a feeling Gregor would claim that he had told Bogdan than requested his permission but he wasn't getting in the middle of their relationship.

"How could I not?" Bogdan said with a good-natured smile. "You, I trust, Remus."

"Thank you." Remus said again, thinking back to how Bill had once commented that he'd be worried about Remus building a pack if it wasn't for the fact that it was Remus building the pack. It gave him a warm glow to think people trusted him so much.

"I have also received your request from Tomas regarding the Durmstrang ship." Bogdan's brow lowered. "You are certain that there are Death Eaters hiding on the ship?"

Remus nodded quickly. "Certain of it. Igor Karkaroff has admitted as much to our spy and the circumstantial evidence suggests that they used the ship as the base when they attempted to sabotage the first task. However, there isn't any official evidence that carries enough weight for the British government to present a formal request through international diplomacy."

"And in the meantime, these dogs continue to use the Durmstrang ship." Bogdan hit the top of the table with his clenched first. "Bastards!"

"Hence the informal request from Lord Black, although Cornelius – Minister Fudge – is aware that we are approaching you and supports us." Remus said seriously. "If we could have your permission to search the ship, we could find these men and arrest them."

Bogdan's face fell. He sighed and picked up a segment of grapefruit with a sour expression. "Unfortunately, it is not that easy, my friend." He waved his small spoon at Remus. "What do you know of Durmstrang, the school not the ship?"

Remus paused in slicing another piece of bacon up. "Very little." He admitted. "It has a very good reputation as an educational institution although its curriculum slides across some Dark magic too much for British tastes which skew to the Light."

"And it's location?" pressed Bogdan, glaring at the grapefruit as though it could change its taste.

"Well, I have to admit," Remus said hesitantly, "until it was confirmed it was Bulgarian territory for the tournament, I wasn't aware of the exact location. I know it's a well-guarded secret."

"It is because Durmstrang has no exact location." Bogdan said, giving up on his grapefruit and reaching for his strong black coffee. "The school will move year to year between the states commonly grouped under East Europe and the Baltics. This year, Bulgaria; next year it may be Russia; the year before Croatia held the honour. You see?"

Remus inclined his head. He saw only too well, he feared.

"It is to do with history." Bogdan said. "Durmstrang came into being because each state required a magical school but our populations were too small to build a school like Hogwarts ourselves. Our ancestors pooled our resources and no-one could agree on a fixed location and eventually one wizard determined that the school would move each year thus each country would share in the power and honour of hosting the school if only for a short period each time. It works well for us and is tradition now."

"I understand." Remus said. "What you're telling me is that you cannot make a blanket decision to allow the search because the Durmstrang ship is only nominally under Bulgarian sovereignty and in actuality involves the sovereignty of many states."

Bogdan nodded. "If it were my decision alone…" he jabbed his spoon as though it was a wand, "I would have my Aurors searching the ship now."

Remus rubbed his head, trying to think of another solution, another way to convince Bogdan but his mind was a terrifying blank.

"I want to assure you, Remus, that I will take the informal request to my opposite numbers and request their permission to allow my Aurors to search but…" Bogdan sighed heavily, "it will take many weeks. While only a few are sympathetic to these Death Eaters, diplomacy will take some time for pressure from others to come to bear especially as this is an informal request and not an official approach."

"Thank you," Remus hastened to say, grateful that Bogdan would pursue it, "something is better than nothing and in the meantime, we may get the evidence we need for a formal approach."

Bogdan smiled at him widely. "Now, enough talk of this! You must tell me all about the first task of the tournament!"

Remus was happy to oblige the Minister and they happily wiled away the rest of the hour. It was with a full belly that Remus apparated back to the farm. He decided a walk was in order to clear his head and physically make himself feel better about his very delicious breakfast.

It was almost half an hour later that he ran into Clara as he reached the treeline at the back of the farm. She was dressed warmly in sweatpants, a fleecy jacket, woollen gloves and hat. She had clearly been running and had stopped to stretch. She gave him a brilliant smile.

"Remus!" Clara grinned at him. "How was your meeting?"

"Good." Remus said, surprised to find that he meant it. Somehow on his walk he'd come to accept getting permission for the search of the ship would take time. "He's happy to have our pack here."

Clara waved at the farmhouse. "Heading back?"

"Yes." Remus said.

"I'll walk with you."

"I'd like that." Remus admitted with a smile. He had a whole stack of work to plough through. He really needed to think about finding an assistant. His eyes went to Clara. Maybe his idea of her being a beta for him wasn't appropriate given the pack dynamics but she was an educated witch who would be perfect in the role of his assistant. "Clara, have you thought about your employment situation?"

"I thought we were all going to be working on the farm?" Clara turned to him surprised.

"Yes," Remus said, "that is the plan but you're qualified to do a lot more than farm-work."

"Perhaps." Clara tilted her head. "Did you have something else in mind?"

"I find myself in need of an assistant." Remus said. "Between the organisation of the pack, my stewardship of the Houses of Black and Potter, the bloody tournament and…I'm drowning in work."

Clara hummed. "Patrick could assume most of the pack stuff as your beta."

"Agreed." Remus said. "I'll talk to him about that later but there is the rest of it. Believe me; there's more than enough work to go round."

"What does Lord Black say?" Clara asked directly.

Which was a good point. Did Remus actually have the authority to appoint his own assistant? He and Sirius had a rather loose relationship as Lord and Steward but possibly he should ask.

"He'd need to sign off on your appointment naturally but…" Remus shrugged. "I'm sure he'll trust me to use my own judgement."

"And what about the girl you've moved in with?" Clara said delicately. "I understand she's another werewolf?"

Remus frowned as he realised she'd heard the gossip about Sian before he'd had a chance to tell her.

"As far as the work goes, Sian has her own business as a jewellery designer and I haven't moved in with her," Remus corrected swiftly, "Sian came to us with information about Fenrir and the DMLE wanted to put her in protective custody. Sirius agreed she could stay in the same property where I'm currently residing as a compromise when Sian asked not to be in Auror custody."

Clara looked at him perplexed. "But the others were saying you're friends? Close friends?"

"Sian and I are just friends." Remus said firmly, drawing them both to a halt before they reached the farmhouse and someone decided to interrupt them. "Old friends – Sian was someone who tried to get me to join a pack back in the 'eighties." He smiled a tad shyly. "And beyond, I can assure you there's nothing between us."

Clara gave a startled laugh. "I'm sorry, Remus. It's none of my business, really."

He reached out and took her hand. "Isn't it?" He asked hopefully.

Colour flooded her cheeks and a host of things flashed in her eyes; regret, chagrin and concern for Remus…enough to know that he'd read her all wrong and she had no interest in him romantically.

"Well," Remus said before she could speak, "this is awkward." He let go of her hand and gave a rueful smile. "I'm sorry I…"

"No, Remus," Clara hurriedly reached for his hand and held it tightly, "I'm the one who is sorry." She looked down at their clasped hands and back at Remus. "As a wolf…I find you very attractive. You're an Alpha…my Alpha. I can feel it here." She placed her free hand on her sternum just above her heart. "But as a witch…I prefer women, Remus."

"Oh." Remus blinked at her.

Clara gave another small laugh. "I thought you knew." Her eyes met his meaningfully. "I did talk about my ex, Allison, a lot."

Allison? He'd assumed she was just a friend.

Remus shook his head. He remembered Tonks's graciousness at his rejection of her, how she had made it easy for him, and determined he could do the same for Clara. "Since I clearly lack the right gender, I guess I'll settle for being your Alpha then and your friend." He gave her a crooked smile and squeezed the hand she held.

She shot him a grateful look back. "And if Lord Black agrees, my boss." She said wryly. She nudged him and released his hand. "Perhaps it's best if I do work for you that things aren't going to get complicated with a romance."

"That's possibly very true." Remus concurred. He waved at the farmhouse. "Shall we?"

"Tell me more about this job then." Clara invited looping her arm through his as they started walking again.

He felt a momentary pang of regret at the loss of his possible romance as he began describing the duties he thought his assistant would assume and pushed it away. Still, the ache lurked and he couldn't deny he was relieved to reach the house and have an excuse to draw away from Clara's presence as the elves demanded his attention.

No doubt, he thought ruefully, Sirius would laugh himself silly when he told him.