A/N: Wow, this chapter turned into a beast. I wanted to give you a few glimpses into the wider world of this story, beyond the relatively enclosed world of Hogwarts, which means that there isn't much of Harry or Hermione this chapter. Still, I think there's plenty to keep you on your toes, with familiar faces and unfamiliar plots surfacing left and right.

Next chapter will pick back up with our favorite Hogwarts students, and the pace of events will start to accelerate. I welcome questions, theories, and bachelor-friendly recipes that take twenty minutes or less to prepare… I am tired of instant noodles!

Disclaimer: I don't own Harry Potter

Chapter Seven: Letters From School

Dear Mum,

No fair! I can't believe you set Sirius on me! I was going to write you in a week or two, honest! Gosh, I haven't even been here two weeks, and you're already on my case. I'm not a baby anymore, Mum.

Hogwarts is great so far. I made a friend before I even reached school! His name is Ron Weasley, and he's not like the other stuck-up Serpents at all. He's got a huge family, and some of his brothers are soldiers on the Border. One of them is a big fan of Dad's book – and speaking of which, did you know Dad wrote a book? Ron told me about it. Something about tactics in magical warfare? Why didn't you ever tell me about it?! If there's a spare copy lying around the house, would you mind sending it with Hedwig? I really want to read it!

Ron and I made another friend before we left the Hogwarts Express. Remember Dad's stories about Frank and Alice Longbottom? We met their son, Neville. He's a bit timid, but underneath that he's the genuine article. First time we saw him, he was standing up to six other Serpents to protect a friend, even though he can't duel for beans. We backed him up, of course.

I know what you're thinking, Mum, and NO I didn't fight anyone. But if that pasty Draco Malfoy starts anything else, I'm not going to sit back and take it. But about Neville – Ron and I are gonna work with him until he's a badass, spell-slinging duelist like his Mum and Dad. I can't imagine what it would have been like growing up without you or Dad… but Neville has us to watch his back now. Anybody wants to mess with him, they'll have to go through me and Ron. Any chance Ron and Nev might be able to visit over the hols? You should meet them!

The War Games are coming up – first match is this weekend, although it's between two older teams. I started a new squad, but it'll be a month before we take the pitch. It's supposed to give us time to train. I don't know who we'll be fighting, but I hope it's Malfoy's squad. That greasy little berk entered the War Games with some of his Serpent pals. I can't wait to show him that privilege doesn't amount to much on the battlefield.

I'm a little worried, though, because the last three members of my squad are a bit of a wild card. Remember that Serpent prick from Diagon Alley (and I AM watching my language, Mum, I'd rather say much worse!), and the fight that broke out? Well, it turns out that the girl who threw the pastry to distract him goes to Hogwarts! I asked her and her friends to round out our squad for the War Games, but I don't know if I can rely on her. She's fearless one moment, and meek the next. She made fun of me in class and refused to join my squad, then changed her mind a moment later. She treats people like they're beneath her, but her friends are as loyal to her as Padfoot was to Dad. I don't know what to make of her… but I know she gets on my last nerve. If she messes up our chances in the War Games, I'm going to hex her – I don't care if she's a girl!

We're going to have our first practice as a squad this Sunday, the day after the first official battle. It'll probably be a mess, but we'll figure it out. I'll let you know when we're to scheduled to fight. Padfoot promised he'd get you a Visitor's Pass, so you can come watch!

Love you, Mum!

-Your son, Harry-

Lily Potter chuckled quietly as she folded up her son's letter. She wasn't surprised that it had taken a reminder from Sirius to get her son to write, but it was nice – not to mention unexpected – to get more than a few lines about his first days at school. Harry was a sweet boy, but communication wasn't exactly his strong suit.

Although Harry's letter generated far more questions than it answered, it seemed that her only son was taking to Hogwarts like a fish to water. It was reassuring to hear that he had made friends already… and what friends to have! A Weasley and a Longbottom, sons of two of the most established Pureblood families in the empire. The Weasleys might not be the most influential family around, owing to their uncompromising and rather dangerous support of Mudblood rights, but that was something Lily could only applaud.

Lily guessed that Harry was largely oblivious of the political significance of his new friends' families. He was still ignorant of the currents of power that controlled wizarding society, believing that the only battles of significance happened on the Border against werewolves and Dark wizards, rather than in conference rooms and Pureblood mansions, where loyalties shifted in the blink of an eye.

James and Sirius had been much the same, until James lost his privileged position and Sirius became the Head of his House. One a victim of politics, the other an unwilling player in an arena where he didn't know any of the rules… both had been forced to grow very quickly. Until James' death, however, both he and Padfoot had preferred the straightforward war on the Border to the more insidious struggle against the avarice, self-interest, and ambition of their own countrymen.

As for Harry, despite his adorable desire to protect his widowed mother from the world, he was as innocent of real danger as a babe in the woods. Lily prayed he might stay that way for as long as possible, but in a place like Hogwarts, the breeding ground for the empire's next generation of warriors, scholars, spies, and aristocrats, he would likely be forced to grow up before his time… like his father before him.

At least Severus and Sirius are with him. They can watch over him as he learns, and keep him from falling into the sinkholes he doesn't see.

It was hard to judge without meeting Harry's new friends for herself, but Lily felt guardedly optimistic after hearing about their families. Harry's apparent rivalry with this Draco Malfoy, however, was both encouraging and distressing. Encouraging, because everything Lily had heard from Sirius about the Malfoys led her to believe that her son's taste in enemies was as discerning as his eye for friends. Yet distressing, because the House of Malfoy was as powerful as the House of Black, with quite a bit more popular support on the Pureblood Council.

Lily hoped that this was nothing more than a schoolyard squabble, and that it would be resolved with a bit of adolescent male posturing, possibly a bloody nose or two with no ill feelings. The alternative was that Harry could end up with a powerful enemy, and Purebloods like the Malfoys could hold grudges for generations without dulling their taste for revenge. If the worst happened, Lily only hoped that Harry would have equally strong friends ready to support him… just like James had had Sirius.

But more intriguing by far than the as-yet-murky consequences of Harry's schoolyard alliances was this mysterious Mudblood girl who was apparently causing her son such confusion. Lily vaguely remembered a small girl with bushy hair from Diagon Alley, and the trio of cream-filled pastries that had turned a potential disaster (for the Serpent, of course, since Lily had been more than ready to hex him into next week if he had actually attacked) into a bloodless escape.

Now this girl went to Hogwarts, and she seemed to be occupying Harry's mind more than he would likely admit. Lily noticed that Harry hadn't even supplied the girl's name.

I wonder if that was an intentional omission, or if he just forgot. Either way, I'll need to find out more about this girl. Harry would be cross with me for sticking my nose in, but what he doesn't know won't hurt him. Maybe I should call on Padfoot or Severus, although I still haven't seen Severus since before James died…

A tinny ringing noise came from the direction of the fireplace, rousing Lily from her half-formed plans. Her wand was in her hand an instant later, the survival instincts developed first in the Mudblood integration facility – and later in the military camp where she'd lived until meeting James – still very much alive. Life was rarely easy for a Mudblood woman with no education in Salazar's empire, and it was never safe. Witches who forgot that often learned a harsh lesson.

"Who is it?" Lily called. The bell sound was a spell on the fireplace to enable communication between visitor and host, since it was considered rude to barge in on a witch or wizard without 'knocking' first. Most households had additional protective spells to discourage unwanted visitors.

"It's Severus," came a familiar voice from beyond the flames. "May I come in?"

Lily lowered her wand with a relieved smile. "Of course, Severus. You're welcome any time, you know that."

Well, speak of the devil…

Her fireplace roared green for a moment, and then Lily's oldest friend in the Wizarding world appeared with a loud crack. His pale and rather sharp face, normally fixed with a sneer, transformed under the influence of an open, heartfelt smile.

"Lily!"

He pulled her into an embrace, which Lily returned whole-heartedly. "Sev!" she said, using the nickname that she had first coined when they were children together at the orphanage. "It's been so long."

When Severus reluctantly pulled away, Lily schooled her features into an expression of reproof. "Too long, Sev. I was beginning to think I'd have to visit Hogwarts in order to catch a glimpse of you."

The Defense Against the Dark Arts professor had the grace to look ashamed. "I meant to, Lily, really. But I… you were busy with Harry, after his father passed… I didn't want to…"

Lily let this stammering semi-excuse pass without further comment. They each had their share of old wounds, some still raw, and dwelling on the past would only hurt them both. Better to smooth over this awkwardness, and try to reclaim the friendship that, at one point, Lily had worried was lost forever.

"Well, sit down," Lily said briskly, gesturing to the dining-room table. "I'll put the kettle on, and we'll have some tea."

She busied herself in the tiny kitchen, purposefully taking long enough for Severus to regain his composure. When she brought out tea, using her wand to levitate a pair of cups and a tray piled high with biscuits, the Defense professor was sitting at her table with hands folded politely before him. His neutral expression had returned, but his rigid posture betrayed some lingering tension.

"So what brings you to my humble abode?" Lily asked, trying for a measure of lightness.

Severus sipped his tea carefully, watching her over the rim of the cup. "I came to see you, of course. As you said… it's been too long."

Lily smiled wryly. "And I suppose the fact that Harry is no longer living here has nothing to do with your timing?"

"Give me a break, Lily," Severus snapped. "You can't honestly expect me to love the boy."

I suppose not… he's too much like his father for that. But oh, Severus, if you'd only try!

"He's worth loving," was Lily's quiet response.

"So are you… as I've told you many times." Something flared in Severus' dark eyes, and his icy reserve melted away. "Lily, I've stayed away because the last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt you. I didn't want you to feel pressured, or worse, that I was only waiting for something to happen to your husband before I swooped in like some vulture. You chose him over me, and I've always respected that… as hard as it was at times."

Lily's eyes softened as she looked at the friend who had always wanted to become more to her. If the universe had an ounce of justice, this incredibly brave and selfless man would have found someone who loved him as he deserved. Perhaps he still would… but it could never be Lily. "I never made a choice, Severus. We can't command our hearts."

Severus surprised her – and possibly himself – with a laugh. "Technically untrue. There are many spells and potions that can manufacture the semblance and effects of love. I've had to use some of them, during my career as an Auror. In my… darker hours, I even considered using one on you. A simple love potion, administered weekly in your morning pumpkin juice, and you would be mine forever."

Lily supposed that it would be natural, at a moment like this, to be disgusted or afraid. She only felt bone-deep weariness, and sympathy for Severus. For this was no threat… it was a confession. Of shame, and of love.

"I know you would never do that to me," Lily said with absolute conviction. She cracked a smile, as something Severus said conjured a bizarre image in her mind. "You had to use love potions as an Auror? What, were you trying to convince a Dark witch to defect or something?"

Severus' eyes crinkled with honest mirth. He knew she was trying to change the subject, but he answered her anyway. "Something like that. I was in a werewolf slum in Romania, trying to track down information on Fenrir Greyback. He's one of Grindelwald's generals, and we received a tip that he was traveling without his entourage, for whatever reason. I, ah… cultivated… an informant there, and managed to get a fix on his whereabouts. He escaped our ambush, unfortunately, so the whole thing was a bloody waste of time."

"And you left a poor broken-hearted werewolf lady behind," Lily teased, enjoying the sight of Severus' face reddening. Not everything was broken between them, if she could still make him blush like when they were children. Not that she could ever have imagined her scrawny friend becoming one of the most effective agents ever to infiltrate Grindelwald's terrifying society. Even Sirius respected Severus' abilities… although he'd probably rather die than admit that to his colleague.

I will not lose another friend… not to war, not to Serpents, and certainly not to the ugliness of unrequited love!

"Do be serious, Lily!" Severus protested. "I'm baring my soul here, and you're making jokes."

"Better to laugh than to cry. Severus, you are and always will be my greatest friend in the world. But I cannot love you as you deserve. You understand, don't you?"

"You might not love me now," Severus replied too quickly, his words tumbling over one another, "but you care for me, I know that. Couldn't you grow to love me? I promise, I will look after you and Harry until the day I die. What do you want? For him to be safe? I'll train him until he's stronger than me, Sirius, and his father combined. Do you want to leave the empire? Just say the word, and I'll smuggle the two of you out tomorrow. The Order would take us in, I'm sure of it."

He spoke faster and faster, carried away by the force of his passion. He stood and began pacing, in order to vent his restrained emotion.

"Severus-"

The warning ring from the fireplace cut Lily off mid-stride. She and Severus whirled in surprise, staring at the dancing flames.

"Lily?" Sirius' voice came booming into the kitchen, hearty and full of good cheer. "I'm sick of these snot-nosed brats and in need of some intelligent company for a change. Put on the kettle and get out those tasty biscuits, 'cause I'm coming over!"

For a second, Lily and Severus were united in their twin expressions of utter exasperation. "Sirius," Severus spat, "how bloody perfect."

His timing does leave something to be desired, Lily thought ruefully. Still, maybe this would turn out to be for the best.

Sirius appeared in the dining room a second later. He did a perfect double-take when he saw Severus. "Snivellus, what are you doing here?"

The Defense professor seemed to quiver with frustration, and then he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. To Lily's eyes he appeared strangely calm, even resigned. His eyes met hers when he replied, and he gave her an apologetic smile.

"I was asking Lily to marry me."

Sirius swelled up like a puffer fish, his face becoming an alarming shade of red. "What? Why you sly, conniving little… I ought to rip you in half for even thinking-"

Lily's wand created a sonic boom that rattled the teacups on the table and silenced Sirius immediately.

"You ought to what, Sirius?" Lily asked with poisonous sweetness. "Did I ever give you permission to defend my honor, like I'm some faceless female out of a Muggle romance novel?"

"No, but- damn it, he- Lily!" Sirius stammered incoherently.

"I've known Severus since long before I met you or James," Lily said evenly. "He is my friend, and he should be yours as well. Or were all those stories of dangerous missions and desperate battles all lies? Didn't he warn you of an impending attack in time to summon reinforcements and save dozen lives? And didn't you lead a raid into enemy territory to save his life once? You must have thought him worth dying for then!"

"Yes," Sirius snapped, finally goaded into full honesty. "He's the best damn Auror James or I have ever worked with. But that doesn't give him the right to make up to my best friend's widow!"

Severus made a strangled sound of protest, but Lily replied before he could get a word in.

"I loved James with all my heart," Lily said, "but if I decide to remarry, it will be my decision, Sirius. Not yours, not Harry's, and not even James'. Mine."

Sirius looked from her to Severus, an increasingly hunted look on his face. "So did you accept this… this greasy spy?"

Lily sighed. "I did not. I have no intention of remarrying."

She looked back and forth between Severus and Sirius, and felt a slow, weary smile stretch across her face. The two men were eyeing each other like rival tomcats, and despite the emotional exhaustion of the last few minutes, Lily felt strangely optimistic. Since she didn't know the next time she would have her two closest friends together in her home again, she decided on the spot that she was going to make the most of this opportunity.

"Stop comparing the size of your wands," she snapped, "and come sit down. Sirius, I'll get you some tea."

"Lily," Severus protested, "I'm not going to spend a second more than necessary with this flea-bag. Besides, why would I linger after having my proposal thrown back in my face?"

"Because I asked you to?" Lily said. "Maybe that makes me a colossal bitch, but I don't really care. For years I didn't know what had happened to you. When I found you again, you were an Auror and I thought you would die a lonely death miles away, in some camp full of Grindelwald's supporters. Now you're back, and I won't give you up. Not even if you want me to. As for you, Sirius, you're welcome to stay as long as you keep a civil tongue in your head. The two of you can bicker as much as you want at Hogwarts, but my kitchen is neutral territory. Is that understood?"

Sirius gave her a hangdog look, but he – like Harry – knew better than to argue with Lily when she got like this. He looked at Severus with resignation and something akin to sympathy in his eyes.

"Might as well give it up, Snivellus. She's worse than a dog with a bone when she sets her mind on something."

"You're one to talk about bones," Lily shot back with a wide grin.

Severus held out a moment longer, then gave a snort of disgust and marched back to the table. "I'll stay… but only because you ask it of me, Lily."

"That's good enough for me."

There was a rather strained silence as Lily prepared a third cup of tea for Sirius, but Lily had faced far worse than awkward silence. She wasn't planning to let the professors return to Hogwarts until they had managed to exchange a few civil words.

And maybe I can find out a bit more about the girl Harry wrote about while I'm at it.

Sirius had gone through half a dozen shortbread biscuits by the time he received his tea, appearing oblivious to the increasingly aggravated glances he was receiving from Severus.

"You know," Severus said at last, in an icy tone, "I have to ask: are you actually going around telling people you saved my life?"

Sirius glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "Well… I did, didn't I? Or did you think you'd be able to take a half-dozen werewolves by yourself?"

"That is irrelevant," Severus snapped. "I would never have been in danger if you hadn't passed along falsified information!"

"How was I supposed to know our informant had been turned?" Sirius said, although his tone was defensive. "And anyway, James and I risked a court-martial to cross the Border and save your scrawny ass, so I think a little gratitude might be in order!"

"If you Army meatheads had the common sense to verify your informant's report with Veritaserum, there would never have been an issue!"

Sirius opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He crammed another shortbread biscuit in his mouth, and mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like sorry. "We always made sure after that…" he added quietly. "James insisted. I pulled some strings with my relatives to make sure our Outpost always had a supply of Veritaserum. It saved more than a few lives."

Severus looked extremely uncomfortable at this lack of outright hostility. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, as if searching for answers and discarding them one by one.

"Since I have you both here," Lily broke in, judging the time was right to speak up, "can I ask you about Hogwarts? I want to hear about Harry and the other first years."

"Harry's doing just fine," Sirius replied instantly, jumping at the chance to change the subject. "He's got a good little group of friends already, and they're entering the War Games."

Professor Snape's lip curled into an especially condescending sneer. "Why am I not surprised… I thought he seemed like one of your Battle Magic meathead types the moment he opened his mouth. Dense as a mountain troll, he is. Good for following orders and nothing else. No initiative to speak of, no intelligence."

"He's got plenty of both, thank you very much," Sirius said, affronted. "He's got a ways to go, I'll grant you, but it's early yet. He'll learn."

"I highly doubt that," the Defence professor scoffed. "He's even denser than his father… and that's saying something."

Sirius snarled. "Alright then, Snivellus… what'd you say to a wager? I bet that Harry will make you acknowledge his ability before he graduates."

Severus raised one eyebrow. "Really? What are the terms?"

"Harry has to prove himself good enough to enter your advanced class for future field agents by the beginning of his fifth year. Simple as that. If he doesn't, I'll owe you a favor that you can call in any time. No questions asked, short of murder."

"And if you win?"

Sirius' smile made him look distinctly wolfish. "If I win, you make an announcement at the start of term – to the whole school – that you stink and I rule."

"You haven't grown up since first year, have you?"

"Not a bit," Sirius agreed.

Snape ground his teeth together. Lily just watched the two of them, fascinated. She worried that if she made a sound, she might ruin this surreal moment. I wonder if the two of them realize how adorable they are… well, it's just a good thing they have me to bring them closer together. Bless the little darlings, they both just need a friend.

Lily had to stifle a snort at the bizarre direction her thoughts were taking.

"Fine," Severus spat. "I am confident enough in Potter's incompetence that I will accept your wager. I can think of a number of ways to make use of a favor from the Head of House Black."

"That's the spirit!" Sirius rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Ah, I can see you up behind that podium already… I, Professor Severus Snape, acknowledge my own lack of hygiene and wish to call your attention to the clear superiority of Professor Black… ah, I can hear the applause now!"

"As fascinated as I am by your masculine obsession with competition," Lily put in drily, "I wanted to ask about another student. Harry wrote that there's a girl on his squad for the War Games… who is she?"

Sirius flashed her a knowing grin. "Harry mentioned her already, did he? Her name's Hermione Granger. Bright girl. Picks up spells faster than any student I've ever seen. Not sure about her family, though… never heard of the Grangers."

"That's because she's a Mudblood, dolt." Severus sipped his tea carefully, enjoying the shocked glances he received from Lily and Sirius.

"Is she?" Sirius demanded. "How do you know? I thought the Headmaster didn't tell teachers who started out casteless, so there wouldn't be favoritism in the classroom."

"She gave herself away," Severus replied. "In her first class, she said that Harry wouldn't be able to 'magically' come up with an answer. But wizards would never use the word that way. Only in the Muggle world does 'magically' refer to something happening unexpectedly, without an apparent explanation. I don't think the other students would have noticed it, since they have no familiarity whatsoever with Muggle culture. Granger's a bright girl, though – her mind works the right way for a field agent, although she'll need more practice hiding her origins."

A Mudblood girl, brave enough to attack a Serpent and smart enough to impress Severus? Oh, I like her already… I wonder if she has any place to go for the Christmas holidays?

Lily steered the conversation away from Hermione Granger, though her curiosity was still burning fiercely. The rest of the afternoon went far better than she would have expected, although Severus and Sirius strained her 'no bickering' policy several times before they rose to leave.

"Wait a second," Lily said, as something occurred to her. She should have thought of it sooner, but Severus' appearance had driven it out of her head. "Padfoot… isn't today a meeting of the Pureblood Council? Every other Saturday, aren't they?"

Sirius' face darkened. "Yeah. I'm not going. Peter's addressing the Council on behalf of the Department of Information, and I can't look at that puling little sneak without wanting to rip his throat out."

"Ah." Lily knew all too well how Sirius felt about the lately-promoted Deputy Director of the Department of Information. Sirius' hatred for the man went all the way back to his Hogwarts days, and it was a hatred that James had shared, when he'd been alive. Lily didn't know exactly why, but she thought it had something to do with Repus Lupin. To this day, Sirius rarely talked about the wizard who'd once been as close to him as a brother.

"Can you afford to miss one of those meetings?" Severus asked, interested in spite of himself. "Won't you risk getting blindsided if any important information comes out?"

"I sent a representative."

"Who?"

Sirius snickered evilly. "The representative most likely to piss off Lucius Malfoy."

oOoOo

"…your son, Ronald." Molly Weasley finished reading the rather short letter that her youngest son had sent from Hogwarts via the family owl, Errol. Molly rolled up the piece of parchment, and exchanged a significant glance with her husband.

Arthur sat down at the table, coffee and a half-finished piece of toast by his right hand, with that day's edition of The Daily Prophet neatly folded before him. "What do you think, Molly? Sounds like our Ronald's managed to find friends, at least."

"I can see that," Molly replied with exasperation, shaking the piece of parchment emphatically. "This thing is practically a love letter to the Potter boy. I'm not sure I like the sound of him… Ron makes him seem like a proper hell-raiser. He'd better not lead my boy into trouble!"

Arthur's mouth quirked upwards with mirth, though his eyes hinted at old, familiar pain. "Ever since he was old enough to hear his brother's stories, he was headed for the Border, Molly dear. You'd have to break both his legs to stop him enlisting – even that might not be enough – so it's fairly redundant to try to keep him away from trouble now. Who knows, his friendship with Harry might prepare him better for the dangers he'll face. You remember how Bill always used to go on about Captain Potter's book? If the son turns out anything like the father, Ron will have made a very good friend indeed."

Arthur drained the remainder of the coffee in his cup, and sighed with satisfaction. "Besides, how much trouble can they get into at school?"

Molly tut-tutted at him. She did that quite well.

"You only say that because you don't read the twins' disciplinary notices, Arthur…"

Arthur bowed his head in acknowledgment of the point. Then he saw the time, and muttered a quiet curse. "It's time I left for the meeting, dear. Will you be alright here on your own?"

The glance he gave her gave the innocent question extra weight. Molly only waved him away, and levitated his coat over from the hanger on the wall. "Of course I will be, you silly thing," she reassured her husband. "Ginny's staying with the Lovegood girl for the weekend, which makes matters much easier. I'll take care of everything, and have dinner waiting by the time you're back."

"I've heard the Aurors are stepping up their patrols, so please… tell our friends to be careful. And I have my emergency Portkey prepared, so activate the warning spell if the worst happens and I'll be back in an instant."

"Of course," Molly said fondly, giving her worried husband a peck on the cheek. "Relax, dear. This isn't exactly my first time, you know. If I wasn't prepared to shoulder my share of the risk, I would have told you years ago."

Arthur walked to the fireplace, pausing with his hand extended for the bowl of Floo powder. He turned to his wife, quiet anguish etched in his features. "I… am sorry, Molly. For… all of this. For lying to our children, and endangering you all."

"You didn't make the world this way," Molly snapped. "We made our choices long ago, and now we have to live with them. Our children will have to do the same. It's a part of growing up."

I only hope that they come to forgive us if they ever learn the truth.

Arthur's expression softened. "I love you, Molly." He turned back to the fire and threw a handful of Floo Powder with rather more force than was necessary. "Pureblood Council Chamber," he called out in a firm voice.

"I love you too, dear!" Molly sang out as her husband disappeared.

She didn't linger long by the fire. There were things to be done, and no use putting them off. Molly busied herself in the kitchen, throwing together a tremendous amount of food and placing it in a hamper spelled to contain more than its outside suggested. It was all finger food, sandwiches and fruit for the most part, with one sealed bag of cereal that was excellent for babies old enough to start taking solid food.

When everything was prepared, Molly took the hamper and went out to the yard. The Burrow boasted quite a nice amount of land, which came in handy when you had as many children as the Weasleys did. In the far corner of the yard, shaded by several large trees, was Mr. Weasley's shed.

It didn't look like much – just a rundown, ramshackle contraption of wooden boards, with windows blocked by shades that were always kept drawn. In all of the Burrow and its surrounding property, this was the only place where the children weren't allowed to go.

Molly shook her head, remembering how long it had taken to convince the twins that 'off limits' applied to them too. In the end, Arthur had actually shouted at them, and brought Fred and George to tears. In the six years since that harsh scolding, they had never again attempted to see the inside of the shed, though there were dozens of spells in place to stop them if they tried.

Molly and Arthur had told their children that this shed contained their father's Muggle artifacts. The children understood that collecting Muggle things, while not illegal, was certainly not something to brag about. It became the family secret that none of them talked about, and in time it ceased to become strange. Sometimes Arthur would disappear for a few hours into his shed, and when that happened, the children just averted their eyes and played elsewhere.

The story was technically true – the shed did indeed have an impressive collection of Muggle gadgets and gizmos. The fact that it occasionally contained more than that was a secret known only to Molly, Arthur, and a very few other people.

Molly looked around the yard as she moved to the door of the shed, although it was a useless gesture. Anyone watching would have had to bypass the wards, which would have triggered the alarm. The only person who might have been able to see Molly's uncharacteristic behavior was Ginny, but she was away for the weekend – it had been hastily arranged by Arthur the night before, but luckily they had managed it in time.

Molly knocked four times on the door, twice slow and twice fast. "It's Molly," she announced, to further reassure the inhabitants of the shed. She tapped the door with her wand, and the thick padlocks that secured it swung inward. There were many spells protecting the shed, all keyed to either Molly or Arthur's wand – mostly as insurance against the twins, although the spells were supposed to hold against even trained Aurors, at least for a while.

The inside of the shed was dim, but the two figures huddling against the far wall were clearly visible. They were a man and a woman, and the woman cradled a blanket-wrapped form protectively against her chest.

"It's all right, dears," Molly whispered, moving slowly so as not to startle them. "It's time to go."

The man stepped forward first, staying between his wife and Molly, and Molly noticed that he gripped a Muggle tool in a white-knuckled fist. It almost broke her heart to see how willing he was to defend his family, when he had already learned exactly how helpless he was against trained witches and wizards.

"No one's found out about us?" the man asked – his name was Richard Dearle, Molly knew, and his wife was Samantha. They had been real estate brokers, once… whatever that was. Arthur had tried to explain it to her, but as usual he made a muddle of it all. All Molly knew was that they had been prosperous, and happy. Then their daughter, Grace, had levitated one of the blocks in her nursery, and life for the Dearle family had changed forever.

Samantha stepped forward hesitantly, cradling little Grace. "The people you told us about are on their way?"

"Yes," Molly assured them, moving slightly so that she wasn't blocking them from the door. She didn't want them to feel any more trapped than they already were.

Molly felt a sudden flare of heat from the pocket of her robes. She knew without checking that a certain Sickle she always carried – which wasn't really a Sickle – was now glowing cherry-red.

"Come with me, dears," Molly said, leading them out into the yard. She Summoned a blanket from where it lay on the floor, and draped it around the frightened mother and her ten-month-old child. "The Order is coming."

Understandably, Richard and Samantha were reluctant to venture out into the open. They had spent the last two weeks in Arthur's shed, while the search for them had cooled off. The open sky was no doubt a frightening sight for them by now. It broke Molly's heart to think how long they had been living in fear.

But then, I've been living in fear for more than twenty years, she reflected. It gets easier, with time. If they're strong enough.

"You're safe here," Molly assured them, not for the first time. "We may not have much money, but the Burrow has all the protections of any Pureblood mansion. Strong wards, it's Unplottable, and my husband is the Secret-Keeper for its location. This is possibly one of the few places in Salazar's Empire where you can be assured there are no ears listening."

The Dearles probably only understood one word in three of this speech, but it was Molly's reassuring tone that was really important. She coaxed them into the open air, where they waited anxiously.

There was a loud crack, and suddenly two figures were standing mere feet away from Molly and the fugitive Muggles. Each man held one end of what looked a dirty sock. Richard leaped in front of Samantha, brandishing his Muggle device.

Mad-Eye Moody, former Auror and a long-time member of the inner circle of the Order of the Phoenix, grunted in mild approval. His wild hair, bright blue glass eye, and wooden leg made for a striking first impression on the terrified Muggles, but Richard didn't back down. "You'll do, son," Moody growled. "Now put that wrench away before you hurt yourself."

"We're sorry we startled you," added the more soft-spoken Remus Lupin. He was an unassuming man, with kind eyes and tattered robes. One of the newer members of the Order, he had risen to notoriety very quickly under his pseudonym 'The Wolf.' Molly didn't know why he was called that, and she didn't care. As long as he helped bring the families of Muggleborn witches and wizards to a safe haven, he could call himself whatever he bloody well chose.

"Any trouble, Molly?" Moody asked, his glass eye whizzing on overdrive. Molly was glad to see it – if there was some threat that made it past the Weasley's wards, Mad-Eye would spot it.

"Nothing significant," Molly replied. "Arthur told me that the Aurors have been more active of late, but it probably doesn't connect back to these poor folk."

"In any case, we'll be careful," Remus promised. "Our Portkey takes us back to an isolated safehouse, and there are precautions in place in case anyone is on to us."

"Don't you worry," Mad-Eye growled to Samantha Dearle, who tightened her grip on her baby as if to protect her from this fierce wizard. "We'll die to the last man if it means keeping your girl out of the Serpents' clutches."

"Er… are you likely to?" Samantha stammered. "Die, I mean?"

Mad-Eye gave a rusty chuckle. "Not today, dearie. You're not the first family we've smuggled to safety, and you won't be the last. We can't get 'em all, but the ones we save stay saved."

"You'll be safe with the Order," said Remus. "Now, that's enough talk. We need to be going. We have a long journey ahead of us, even with Portkeys. The Order's security protocols can be time-consuming-"

"Worth it," Mad-Eye grunted. "Security is of the utmost importance. Constant-"

"-Vigilance, I know." Remus shook his head wearily, a small smile tugging at his mouth. "Still, all the better to get started now."

Samantha passed Grace to her husband, and wrung Molly's hands with desperate strength. Gratitude shone in her eyes.

"You've saved our child," sobbed Samantha. "We can never thank you enough."

Mrs. Weasley was beginning to feel a bit teary herself. She sniffed mightily, and thrust the hamper she'd prepared into the Muggle woman's hands.

"There there, dear. No use sobbing like a silly thing. Have a sandwich when you get where you're going, and make sure you bundle yourself up. It wouldn't do for you to catch a chill."

Mad-Eye prepared the Portkey for their return journey, while Remus explained the procedure to the Muggles and their magical daughter. Molly waved like anything, feeling happy tears trace their way down her cheeks, and kept waving until they disappeared.

One more family that will be able to see their child grow, and learn that not all witches and wizards are evil. It's not enough… it's never enough. But it's a start.

oOoOo

Dear Gran,

I'm enjoying Hogwarts very much, more than I thought I would. I like Herbology already. Professor Sprout is nice, and there's something very peaceful about the Greenhouses.

I've made two very good friends. Their names are Ron Weasley and Harry Potter. One is Serpent and one is Lion, so please don't worry about me fraternizing beneath our station. I think Ron Weasley's dad is even on the Pureblood Council with you, so you probably know the family. Both of them are dead set on joining the Army after they graduate. I don't understand how they can be so sure… aren't they afraid of dying? They're so brave, just like Mum and Dad. Maybe I'll never be as brave as they are, but I'll try.

We're forming a squad for the War Games! I'm going to work hard to make sure I don't let my friends down. If you're not too busy, maybe you could come see one of our battles? The War Games start in a week, although the new squads won't fight for a little while after that. I understand that you're busy with Council matters, though, so please don't feel any pressure to attend. I'll make you proud, Gran!

Your son,

Neville

Augusta Longbottom put down her grandson's letter and pursed her lips. Her frown was legendary with her peers on the Pureblood Council – when Augusta frowns, it was said, a storm forms at sea. Not that anyone would dare say it to her face.

Augusta rang a bell that she kept at her desk. A House Elf appeared before her, already bowing. "Mistress called?"

"I will be going to a Council Meeting, Dina," Augusta replied. "I expect it to take some time. When I return, please have dinner waiting. I will also require writing materials and an envelope. A red envelope, Dina."

The House Elf's face fell, and she shook her head miserably until her ears flapped. "Oh, what has poor Master Neville done now? I was knowing something terrible would happen, I was! That boy is being the death of me!"

Normally, Augusta would not permit anyone other than herself to talk about her heir in that familiar manner. But Dina had served the family since before Neville was born, and the elf had been nursemaid, playmate, and teacher to a young child growing up without parents. Augusta understood the connection the House Elf felt to the Longbottom heir, and she knew what was owed to her most loyal servant. It was a degenerate age, but Longbottoms always honored loyalty. It was their way.

"It is nothing too serious," Augusta told the elf, with patience that might have surprised those who thought they knew the steely matriarch. "I simply wish to catch a small problem before it turns into a big one. Remember the red envelope, Dina… it's the only one that doesn't disintegrate under the strain of the Howler spell."

She left for her fireplace, taking a pinch of Floo Powder from the bowl on the corner of her desk.

"Pureblood Council Chamber," she announced, before the fire swallowed her up.

oOoOo

Lucius stifled a grimace as he finished reading his son's letter. It was precise and informative, reading like an intelligence report. On the whole, Lucius was pleased with the thoroughness of his son's analysis of the Hogwarts environment, but there were a few revelations in the letter that made the Malfoy patriarch less than happy.

First and foremost was the troubling news that Neville Longbottom was thick as thieves with Ron Weasley and Harry Potter. Longbottom and Weasley together were bad enough, since their Houses historically had no connections. Augusta Longbottom was a firm Conservative and a staunch supporter of government policies, while Arthur Weasley was… not.

Arthur was Lucius' most common adversary on the Council, and the only reason he didn't have more support was that most people thought he was a crackpot. His fascination with Muggle life was considered more than a bit obscene, and very few purebloods were willing to bring suspicion on their Houses by siding with Weasley's radical notions.

That was why the news of Arthur's youngest boy getting chummy with the Longbottom heir was potentially so problematic. Hogwarts friendships often altered or reshaped the balance of power between Houses, as old generations gave way to the new. James Potter and Sirius Black had been best friends at school, to name one example, and if the idiot Potter hadn't married a Mudblood, the Houses of Potter and Black would still be practically joined at the hip. Augusta Longbottom wouldn't live forever, and if her son threw the support of his House behind Weasley and his progressive faction in the future, the man's lunacy would instantly gain a new measure of legitimacy.

Then there was Potter, who entered into Lucius' calculations as a distressingly volatile wild card. The House of Potter was no more, destroyed as completely as the House of Gaunt had been decades ago. But Potter's godfather was alive and well, and now that Sirius was the Head of his House, he could designate anyone he wanted as his heir. If Sirius never married, Harry was likely to inherit the reins of House Black directly from his godfather.

Lucius' mind, practiced in generating worst-case scenarios, envisioned a not-so-distant future in which three High Houses – Weasley, Longbottom, and Black – united to form a bloc as powerful as his own, or the old-blood Conservative faction currently led by Augusta Longbottom and Amelia Bones.

I shall have to write Draco with instructions. Perhaps he can avert this disaster before it has a chance to develop.

Not for the first time, Lucius cursed Arthur Weasley and his entire beastly brood. Arthur had long been a rallying point for Muggle apologists and radical notions, but his loyalty was unquestionable. The Weasleys had sacrificed more of their own in the war against Grindelwald than all of the other High Houses combined. Among long-time Border officers, there was even a drinking song about the military prowess of the Weasleys:

Some like 'em dark, some like 'em fair

But Bordermen love orange hair;

Charge, men, charge, and never fear -

The Weasley clan is here!

Lucius muttered a curse under his breath. No money to speak of, no respect for blood purity or tradition… the Weasleys were a blight on the empire, and he would see them destroyed.

Not that it would be easy. The one time he'd attempted to cast doubt on Weasley's loyalty, by saying that a man who opposed the Gathering couldn't have the best interests of the empire at heart, Lucius had been embarrassed in front of the entire Council.

"My wife and I made the choice long ago that we wouldn't hide our opinions," Arthur had said firmly, holding his head high and looking around at the assembled Purebloods. "We live by a creed, and we stick by our principles. Being a Weasley means more than red hair, lots of kids, and empty coffers." Arthur paused then, inviting laughter with his self-deprecating smile. Then he grew serious again. "My father sent my six older brothers to the Border, every one of whom died a hero. I've already sent two of mine. The twins say they're going to enlist as well, Percy wants to enter government service, and the only question concerning Ron is whether he graduates from Hogwarts, or runs away first to enlist under an assumed name. Weasleys serve, Lucius. I understand why that might be difficult for you to understand, since you've never served anything but your own interests."

The memory of that particular Council meeting still roused Lucius' ire, but it had taught him a valuable lesson. Attacking Arthur directly was a task left for a later day, after careful maneuvering to further erode the Muggle-lover's credibility with the rest of the Council.

Perhaps his sons are the key, Lucius mused. This may actually be the best time to act, when his children are still vulnerable. Hm…

Already composing his reply to Draco, Lucius looked up and scanned the faces gathered around the enormous round table that dominated the Pureblood Council Chamber. The walls behind them were covered with murals depicting the brave soldiers of Salazar's army in battle against creatures of darkness, including vampires, werewolves, Dementors, and Inferi.

Embossed on the dome that arched far overhead was a picture of the High Wizard Salazar, facing a wizened, disgusting creature that was supposed to be Grindelwald. It was a not-so-subtle reminder to the assembled Purebloods that their nation was at war, even if the front lines were far away.

Not that we're likely to forget it, with the War Fund eating into our coffers every damn year.

Lucius scanned the assembled faces, taking advantage of the few minutes before the meeting began to get a feel for today's atmosphere. Arthur Weasley, pox rot his eyes, seemed distracted and unusually fidgety. Lucius sneered at him, but the man didn't even notice.

Augusta and Amelia, the two steely matriarchs of the Pureblood Council, conversed in quite tones. Lucius' own strongest supporters, Nott and Rookwood, were close by, and returned his nod when they caught his eyes. Lucius was currently lobbying to get the Crabbes and Goyles admitted to the Council, appealing to their demonstrated loyalty and the purity of their blood. They were very minor families, but Lucius thought it was worth a try. He needed the votes, after all.

There was one relatively unfamiliar face seated at the table, and just looking at it raised Lucius' blood pressure. Sirius Black's position was filled by none other than his House Elf, Kreacher. It had happened once or twice before, when Sirius claimed he couldn't attend a meeting because he was 'unavoidably detained by his duties as a professor.'

He sent his servant instead, and the elf always took assiduous notes and voted according to Sirius' instructions if there were any motions on the docket for that evening. It infuriated Lucius to see a lowly creature sitting in such a lofty position, making a mockery of everything the Council – nay, even Salazar's empire itself – stood for.

Not that Lucius had complained. In the first case, it would be idiocy to challenge Sirius over such a trivial matter. The man was a loose cannon, and if Lucius tried to take him down, there would be repercussions. Sirius was respected for his military career, but he was also distrusted because of his association with the fallen House of Potter, and his erratic voting nature. He couldn't be relied on, couldn't be bought, and supported Arthur Weasley as often as the conservative faction.

So Lucius swallowed his ire and did his best to ignore the elf, knowing that the other Purebloods would feel similarly insulted. In the end, Lucius might only have to wait until Sirius went too far and destroyed himself.

I can be patient. I can watch that little monkey caper about as if it were truly a legal representative, and I can smile. Because one day, Black will fall, just like his precious Captain Potter. And I'll be there to see it.

A loud bell echoed in the chamber, signaling the beginning of the meeting and putting an abrupt end to the numerous side conversations. The double doors leading to the lobby opened outward, and a trio of Ministry employees walked in.

They were all from the Department of Information, which had requested time during today's meeting to address the Council. Lucius eyed the newcomers speculatively. He had several informants in the DI, a few of whom were very useful indeed, but not so highly placed as these three. It appeared that the Ministry had sent the big guns this time.

Leading the trio was Peter Pettigrew, the man recently promoted to the rank of Deputy Director. Only Bartemius Crouch, Sr. stood higher in the department responsible for controlling the spread of information within the empire.

Pettigrew was not as imposing as a man of his power and reputation might be expected to be. He had weak, watery eyes, a bald patch on his head, and a bulging belly. He didn't look anything like the Ministry's spymaster, but Lucius had it on good authority that this was exactly what he was. Pettigrew had a long and lucrative career as a Security Specialist – one of the Aurors tasked with rooting out informants and spying on the citizens of the Empire – and he had climbed the ranks of government service with astonishing speed.

The man and woman flanking Pettigrew formed a strange pair in their own right. Lucius recognized the man on sight – indeed, there were probably few people in the entire empire who didn't know Gilderoy Lockhart. He had his own radio show, by far the most popular program on the air, which broadcast everything from local news and weather updates to the latest reports from the Border – suitably edited according to the wishes of the government, of course. He was called 'the Empire's Voice,' and his golden locks and flashing teeth were recognizable in every corner of the empire.

What most people didn't know was that Lockhart was also the Chair of the Subcommittee for Public Outreach, which was a deceptively innocuous name for a fairly straightforward job – overseeing the nation's propaganda. Everything from newspapers to radio stations to the wanted posters placed in every major wizarding village were vetted by Lockhart and his people.

Lucius had never seen the woman before, but he knew of her. Rita Skeeter was Lockhart's second-in-command, responsible for everything printed in The Daily Prophet, the empire's only daily newspaper and the primary medium for spreading government-approved information.

Together, the three key players from the Department of Information made a striking contrast: the pudgy, balding Pettigrew; the resplendent, smiling Lockhart; and the bespectacled, sharp-eyed Skeeter.

Pettigrew arrived at the open space at the head of the circular table and cleared his throat loudly. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he began, jumping straight into his address without the slightest of introductions. "Thank you for making time for us. The Department of Information has been laboring to preserve the security of our nation, but the danger we face grows rapidly. The threat posed by the Order of the Phoenix has actually increased in recent years. It's been kept from the public, but the Order now recruits more Muggleborn witches and wizards than the government does. Whatever their sources may be, they manage to beat our Aurors to the homes of Awakened Mudbloods more often than not. They steal away magical children, the future of our empire, and disappear like ghosts. This must not be allowed to continue. We request and require your aid in tightening our security to fight this terrifying trend."

The Order is always a problem, but I trust these government hatchet men as far as I can spit a Hinkypunk. I'll wait for my informants before I believe a word of it.

But if it was true, then the situation was alarming indeed. Lucius had thought that the Order of the Phoenix concentrated most of its efforts on assassination attempts against government officials, and that they were largely unsuccessful. If they were actually mounting a successful attempt to subvert the Gathering of Mudblood children, then Lucius had to drastically revise his opinion of the threat posed by the rebels.

Lucius sighed quietly and prepared for a long meeting. It was always tiring trying to separate the truths from the lies.

oOoOo

-Decoded Excerpts from the Journal of Hermione Granger -

September 12

Still no luck finding anything in the library about mind magic. Will need to gain access to the Restricted Section. Not sure how to do this yet, as only upper-form students with permission from the teachers are allowed in.

Will keep looking for a solution. Even if the Restricted Section lacks the answers I need, it will have valuable spells and magical knowledge that will come in handy.

War Games coming up. First practice soon. Wonder if Potter will be difficult to manage. He will probably try to take control, which would be a disaster. Will think about how to convince him to follow orders.

First Potions class with Slughorn next week. Heard from Lavender that he 'collects' good students and helps them find connections in the government or business. Very interesting… will have to see if he can really be of help. If I impress him, maybe he'll help me gain access to the Restricted Section. Will have to see.