"Is it clear?"
There was a small, affirmative sounding squeak.
"It's clear. Move!"
"I'll move as soon as you get off my foot!"
There was a clamour of shuffling feet, interrupted by small curses and yelps of pain. These sounds weren't particularly strange in their own right, but they were made unusual by the fact that the corridor was (to all appearances) completely empty aside from a small rat. The rat was perhaps even more unusual than the three disembodied voices; it was standing on its hind legs, looking one way and the other down the corridor, as though it were a watchdog. It let out a sudden shrill squeak.
"Cripes, someone's coming. Which suit of armor is it?"
"Third from the left! Move!"
This last exclamation seemed to be a password, for as soon as it was uttered a suit of armor creakily swung aside to reveal an hidden passage. The muffled noises disappeared into the darkness, followed by the rat, and the suit of armor moved back into place. By the time Professor Deuteronomy reached it, there was no sign anyone had been in the area at all.
In the passageway, the noises continued. In fact, they grew even stranger. There was a short hiss of breath, followed by a quiet bark; it sounded like the canine equivalent of a laugh.
"Stuff it, Padfoot, you know there isn't space for me to transform in here as well. Besides, it'll be easier to sneak past Hagrid's in the cloak, even with two of us under it."
"Not to mention that if Hagrid found a stag lurking outside his hut, he'd probably shoot you with that crossbow and feed you to something nasty for dinner."
"No need to remind me, Moony. Here, we're almost through."
Moonlight glinted on tall weeds, which conveniently covered the passage's exit at the bottom of a large tree trunk. Moonlight also glinted on the sleek black fur of a large dog. The dog lifted its muzzle, tasting the wind, then trotted away. It was followed by the rat, which was followed by two remaining disembodied voices. There was a quiet shuffling as the four passed by the ramshackle hut in the middle of the field, then skirted the edge of the Forbidden Forest. At the point where the forest met the lake there was a small set of rocky hills. The dog bounded expertly from hill to hill, then disappeared. Had there been any onlookers, they would have sworn the dog had Apparated, little guessing that there was an opening concealed by the rocks. The entrance itself wasn't more than a small hole, but it led to a cave under the hill. The dog ran in a few quick circles around the cave, then settled itself near one of the back walls. By the time the rat and disembodied voices had caught up, the dog had disappeared, replaced by a lanky, brown-haired boy who lounged against the wall. He held up a wand, the end of which was glowing brightly.
The rat shimmered and shifted, only to be replaced by a short blond boy, who scowled. "You might have waited before lighting that, Sirius. You near blinded me."
"Stop whinging, Wormtail. Are we all here?"
"More or less." Fabric swirled through the air, and the two disembodied voices were suddenly no longer disembodied. A boy with light-brown hair flung himself on a rock, sweating. "It's hard to breathe under that thing. Can't you take time off from transfiguration to invent a better invisibility cloak, James?"
"Maybe," the last boy answered. He was tall and black-haired, and held the cloak in one hand and a rucksack in the other. "Would I have to learn how to knit?"
"There's an idea," Sirius smirked. "James Potter knitting. That'll drive the girls wild for sure."
"That cloak's not knitted, you gits, it's woven," Peter said contemptuously.
"Do I look like a dressmaker? Come on, we've got bigger fish to fry. I hereby call this meeting of the Midnight Marauders to order."
"What've we got from the kitchens tonight?" James was unloading a large sack of goodies; Peter grabbed the edge, peering inside. "Are those Peppermint Toads? Let me have one, James!"
"Shove off, Peter, I already bagsed them. Hey, let go!"
A good-hearted scuffle followed; while James and Peter were thus occupied, Remus deftly reached out and grabbed the peppermints, tossing one into his mouth. Sirius groaned. "Hopeless, you lot are. Looks like I'll have to come up with our next prank on my own."
"Don't even think it," James said, flashing a grin at Sirius while rubbing Peter's head with a fist. "I've got a real beauty this time. But I'm not saying anything until I get a Toad."
"I'll turn you into a toad, you--"
Remus lobbed peppermints at each of them. "Come on, lads. We don't want to be here all night."
"Says you," Peter grunted, wrenching himself apart from his antagonist. "This feels like the first free time I've had in weeks. I can't remember ever having had so much homework. Who replaced our teachers with sadistic maniacs?"
"They always were sadistic maniacs, lout."
"Remus is right." James dusted himself off and leaned against a wall. "Our teachers are indeed sadistic maniacs, and we should take advantage of their absence and get on with it. Chairman Padfoot has called the Marauders to order."
"Exactly," Sirius answered. "What's the business at hand?"
"How to convince Gwendolyn Delacroix to chase after me instead of Prongs," Peter quipped.
"That's not likely," Sirius grinned.
"Why? I might not be as popular as he is, but at least I'm smart enough to realize what a gorgeous bit Gwen is. Beats the hell out of me why he's on the run from her."
"If you're quite finished talking about me as though I'm not sitting here," James said dryly. He was popular, it was true. He didn't have to work at it; it just happened. He'd taken advantage of this the previous year, going on lots of dates, but the thrill of popularity had worn off before long. Most girls had gotten the hint and stopped throwing themselves in his way; Gwen, however, was particularly stubborn. Gwen was the Ravenclaw Seeker, and very used to getting her way about everything both on and off the Quidditch pitch.
"Oh, are you here, James?" Remus said with pretend surprise. "I thought you were still asleep up in the North Tower."
"Tempting, but no."
"You fell asleep in Divination again?" Peter asked, incredulous. "Why not just switch over to Arithmancy, if Trelawny's so boring?"
"I'm allergic to numbers," James responded lazily.
"Should've found a way to get out of the Foreseeing requirement, like me," Sirius drawled. "Then you could spend your time learning something useful."
"Mm, good idea. Need an assistant?"
"I could use someone to help with curses. Much better if the students see them in action, and they do tend to panic when you demonstrate on them. Want me talk to Dumbledore about it?"
"On second thought, I'll stick to Trelawny. Worst she can do is put me to sleep. You're likely to hex my legs off for the fun of it and forget to put them back on after." James grinned impishly, and Sirius made a face. Hogwarts students were required to study at least one method of predicting the future each year; but Sirius was getting around this by agreeing to be an assistant teacher in Defense Against the Dark Arts, his best subject. Professor Avverius was still teaching only as a favor to Dumbledore, who was having difficulty finding a replacement; most wizards skilled in fighting the dark arts were busy with the recent uprising of dark wizards. Sirius had taken over the first and second year classes so that the aged professor could focus on the more difficult levels; in exchange, Sirius was exempt from the Foreseeing requirement, and was taking less electives than the rest of his year. Sirius, who had no interest in anything except fighting the dark arts, was delighted by this arrangement, and spent a great deal of time taunting his friends with their lack of similar fortune.
Peter rolled his eyes in disgust. "Hopeless, you are. Has Trelawny predicted anyone's death yet?"
Remus looked sheepish. "Mine, actually."
"You?" Sirius asked, surprised. "Usually she goes after the girls; they shriek more. How're you supposed to bite it?"
"She said a tree would fall on me in January."
"Better avoid the Shrieking Shack then. The Whomping Willow would probably go out of its way to jump on you."
"Trelawny's full of chuff," Peter interjected.
"Wormtail! How can you possibly doubt the word of our most revered teacher!" James asked in mock horror.
"Because she's an old bat."
"Now now, Madame Trelawny is a respected member of the faculty," Remus said charitably just before breaking into a broad grin. "Even if she is an old bat."
"I still say she's loony. Watch, I'll write up a chart for you." Peter quickly wrote out a series of numbers and diagrams on the dirt floor with his wand, then sat back to examine it. "Hmm."
"What in store for him, Peter? Fame, fortune, a new broomstick?"
"Eaten by a gnu," Peter said with a straight face. "She got the January bit right though."
"What's a gnu?" Sirius asked.
"A sort of antelope. From Africa."
"Tragic," James murmured. "And him just sixteen..."
"Come off it!" Remus was almost laughing too hard to speak.
Sirius was staring at the chart, his expression half-puzzled, half-disgusted. "What's all this mean, Peter? It's just a bunch of lines and numbers. Makes even less sense than Trelawny's tea leaves."
"At least they stay put. A bunch of soggy tea leaves can look like a cat and a horse and an elephant all at once. A six is a six no matter how you look at it."
Sirius shook his head. "Beats me how you can stand all that math."
"You try growing up with two accountants as your parents," Peter retorted. "It was either get good at math quick or go mad."
"Shame you did both," James grinned. Peter lobbed a toad at him.
"This is all well and good, gentlemen," Remus said in a mock-serious tone. "But are we plotting or not? Peter's not the only one who's had a load of homework lately; I'm done in."
"Right!" Sirius barked. "I hereby pass control of the board over to Master Prongs. James?"
James leaned back, folding his arms behind his head. "Thank you, Chairman Padfoot. Fellow Marauders, our next mission will be one of particular danger and interest. For its execution, I will require the assistance of Doctor Wormtail. His small size and inconspicuous form will be absolutely essential."
"Me?" Peter looked surprised. Pranks were James and Sirius' forte; Peter and Remus were more inclined to set things up while the more daring members of the quartet did the dirty work. "What's our target?"
James grinned broadly. "The Slytherin dormitories. Hallowe'en's coming up soon. I thought it'd be a nice gesture to hang Snape's undershorts in the Great Hall, in place of one of the Slytherin banners."
"Brilliant!" Sirius crowed. "Can we color them pink while we're at it?"
"How am I supposed to get into his trunk while I'm a rat?" Peter wanted to know. "You know Snape; he's the sort of prat who'd fold all his clothes up perfectly straight and lock the trunk even if he's sitting next to it. Bet he throws a fit if it's moved an centimetre out of place."
"You're one to talk," Remus pointed out. "Our first day here you were measuring every centimetre of your bunk."
"The better to know which bits of the floor are mine to clutter, so I can curse anyone who sets foot in them. The point is, I want to know the plan before I agree to anything. Let's have it, Prongs."
"First of all, you're not going into Snape's trunk," James corrected. "I've reserved that dubious pleasure for myself. You're to run interference. At the crucial moment, you will skitter into the Slytherin common room and set off a smoke bomb of some kind, which will of course be assembled tomorrow afternoon by our dear friend Padfoot, leaving me free to rifle the dorms without interruption." Peter frowned and opened his mouth to object, but James held up a hand to forestall it. "Yes, Peter, we'll make sure none of the Slytherin cats will be in the area first."
"Even if they did, you'd have nothing to fear," Sirius snickered. "Lousy beasts are probably as stuck-up as their owners. Don't deign to chase rodents."
"Watch who you're calling a rodent, mongrel," Peter scowled.
"I meant it in the best sense, Wormtail."
James cleared his throat. "We were intending to do some marauding, weren't we, gentlemen? Back to the business at hand. Anyone see any flaws in the plan?"
"Do you know the password to get in?" Sirius asked.
"'Course. Followed one of the first-years this morning in the invisibility cloak and listened in; it's 'Wyvern Wing' this week."
"I don't know about setting the distraction in the common room," Remus said slowly. "If everyone's in there panicking it'll be easy for you to get to Snape's trunk, yes, but it'll also be almost impossible for you to get out again afterwards without running into someone."
Sirius waved a hand. "You worry too much, Remus. He'll be wearing the cloak; no one will notice him. James could probably raid Dumbledore's office without getting caught."
"There's an idea," James mused.
Peter groaned. "Don't even think about it, Prongs. The Slytherins are one thing, but Dumbledore?"
"Why not? He'd probably think it was funny."
"Not with my help you won't. I'm not about to play a prank on the best wizard in the world. He'd eat me alive."
"Take it easy, Peter, no one's asking you to rob Dumbledore."
"Just the Slytherins," Peter grumbled. "Break into the dorms indeed."
"But will you do it?"
"Of course I'll do it." He grinned. "It's a beautiful idea, James. Snape'll go spare when he sees the hall on Hallowe'en."
Sirius clapped his hands together. "It's settled then. I'll whip up a potion tomorrow during lunch. What do you need, James?"
"Like I said: smoke, and lots of it. Something purple, I think, with a lot of flash. The trick will be keeping their attention long enough for me to get in and out."
"Leave that to me; I'll brew you a beauty. Though I'll need to borrow the cloak to sneak into MacCavity's office for a few ingredients."
"What about me?" Remus wanted to know. "Do I get any part in this one?"
"Not just yet," James said. "We'll need you to pull the switch with the banner. You're better at Charms than the rest of us."
"Besides," Sirius said sneakily. "You've got better things to do than waste time sneaking around the Slytherins."
Remus looked simultaneously suspicious and embarrassed. Peter and James both looked at Sirius, who was smirking. "What's this?" Peter asked.
"Didn't you know? Reverend Moony has a flame."
"Sirius!" Remus protested.
"Oooooh!" Peter pounced on this information. "Who's the girl?"
"Tamatha Davis," Sirius intoned.
"Tamatha, Tamatha..." James pondered, trying to remember.
"Hufflepuff prefect. Brown hair, brown eyes. Spends a lot of time plotting to take over the Ministry of Magic. Completely barmy, so a perfect match for Remus."
"Peter and Trelawny are both wrong," Remus said with certainty, glaring at the other boy. "I'll die in Azkaban after murdering you."
Sirius grinned. "Temper, Moony, temper."
James intervened before the mock-fight could turn more serious. "We've all got our parts then. Tomorrow afternoon, Sirius will whip up a bomb for us. Tomorrow evening--during dinner, I think, there'll be less people around--Peter and I will raid the Slytherin dorms. Remus will spend the three days between then and Hallowe'en practicing his levitation and contemplating Tamatha Davis' charms." He grinned at all of them. "How's it sound?"
"You left out the bit where we use a love potion to make Gwen fall for me."
"Maybe next time, Peter."
"It's a plan," Sirius leapt to his feet, grinning wickedly. "Just wish I could storm the Slytherins with you, James. You get to have all the fun."
"It is my cloak," James retorted. "Besides, you're too enthusiastic. I want a nice, clean, in-and-out operation. I know you, Sirius; as soon as you were inside you'd run around spying on the girls and throwing things at the boys, pretending to be Peeves or something. The real prank will be on Hallowe'en; this is just preparation."
"You always want to plan things. Whatever happened to good old spontaneous mayhem?"
"It's alive and kicking," Remus said wryly. "Just ask that Ravenclaw whose clothes turned invisible last month. I hear that if she ever finds out who did it, she'll curse his arse off...among other things."
"Really?" Peter said, interested. "Did she say what she'd do for anybody who handed the bloke over to her?"
Sirius scowled. "Don't even think about it."
"It'd serve you right for calling me a rodent."
James laughed. "Come on, mates. Now that we've got a plan, it's time for a bit of celebration. Pass the Toads."
As Remus passed the peppermints over, Sirius attacked the rucksack; he pulled out several bags of food and a small keg of butterbeer. "Smashing," he exclaimed with delight, eyeing the keg. He uncorked it and held it in the air, grinning at James. "To Master Prongs and his plots: may his wits stay keen and his morals loose!"
"And to the humiliation of Severus Snape," James grinned back.
"I'll drink to that," Remus laughed. "Pass the butterbeer, Sirius."
The keg passed from boy to boy. "There's a lot that can go wrong with this one, though," Peter said thoughtfully. "We'll have to be careful."
"No, just quick on your feet." Sirius grinned wickedly. "Beats me what you're worried about, Wormtail; you've got the easy bit. Who'll notice a rat in all the confusion?"
James stretched out, closing his eyes briefly and letting the sounds of his friends' discussion wash over him. It was only a few weeks into term, but already it looked to be a good year. They'd finally solved the Animagus spell during the previous term, but hadn't had many chances to experiment with their new ability. James was anxious to spend more time exploring Hogwarts; all the area would be an open book to them now. As a rat, Peter would be able to find out secrets even Filch had never dreamed about the school. As a dog, Sirius would have free run of the village of Hogsmeade. He, James, would be able to cover the vast Hogwarts grounds in a flash as a stag. Remus, during his monthly transformations, would be able to explore the Forbidden Forest without fear; even in the Forbidden Forest, nothing wanted to mess with a werewolf or a werewolf's friends. And in addition to these explorations there were exciting new classes, not to mention Quidditch.
James smiled. He had a lot of plans for the year. But he could put them all on hold for a day or two to make trouble for his worst enemy. Some things, after all, were priceless. His smile broadened; he could already imagine the look on Snape's face.
Tomorrow couldn't come soon enough.