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A Conspiracy of Cartographers: Year One [fic + podfic]

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James would be the first to tell anyone that he had a bit of an ego. Still, he was amazed by the change he seemed to have wrought in Sirius, turning the boy from a sulky snob to a fun-loving daredevil almost overnight. If he could manage that, then what couldn't he do? Not that Sirius didn't still have his moments of pure-blood elitism, but a kick under the table or a punch in the shoulder or a cry of "Oi, mate!" was usually enough to remind him to check his attitude.

Once Sirius had accepted the olive branch James offered him, he proved to be a steadfast and loyal friend. A good thing, too, since it didn't take long for the Slytherins to find out who had pranked them. Without each other to watch their backs, they both might have wound up in St Mungo's Permanent Spell Damage ward within a week.

"You should think about working on your Shield Charms," Lupin commented drily before disappearing yet again.

James and Sirius had been called into the office of a very grim-faced Professor McGonagall the day after Halloween.

"Professor Lindsay has informed me that you had some foreknowledge of the tainted stew at last night's feast, Mr Black," she said, thin-lipped and narrow-eyed. "When enquiries were made in the kitchens, a house-elf mentioned a visit from Mr Potter and his friends after hours the previous night. Investigation of the laundry room yielded similar results. The elves there insisted they had been visited by Mr Rosier from Slytherin House, but the descriptions did not match. What do you boys have to say for yourselves?"

"Erm --" said Sirius.

"Sorry?" said James.

"Sorry!" McGonagall snorted. "That you were caught, no doubt. I have never known first year students to cause such mayhem! Never! And why you felt the need to drag poor Mr Pettigrew along with you is beyond me. I cannot imagine that he had anything to do with the matter."

She looked back and forth between them, considering. They hung their heads, unrepentant, and bit their lips to keep from grinning.

"Twenty points from Gryffindor," she said at last. "Each. And detention in the laundry room next Saturday until you manage to reverse the damage done to the Slytherin robes."

James stared at her, dismayed. "But -- next Saturday is Quidditch! Gryffindor v Slytherin! We can't miss that!"

"I'm sure the Gryffindor team will manage well enough without your support, Mr Potter," said McGonagall, unmoved. "And perhaps next time you will think twice about the consequences of your actions."

"I can't believe she was heartless enough to make us miss the Quidditch," James grumbled, chucking another pink robe onto the pile under the mistrustful eyes of the laundry elves.

"Yeah," said Sirius. "It would've been nice to see Gryffindor kick some Slytherin arse."

"Nice?" James's tone was incredulous. "It's Quidditch, Black! Gryffindor v Slytherin! It would only have been the highlight of my whole bloody year!"

"Quidditch fan, are you?" Sirius asked, wrinkling his nose as he sorted through the pile of dirty laundry.

"The Falmouth Falcons are ace! My mum takes me to see them all the time." James glanced at him curiously. "Why? Aren't you?"

Sirius shrugged. "I've only been to a couple of matches. Mother and Father think it's 'common'. We went to the World Cup a few times, which was pretty brilliant, but we were mostly there so people would see us in the Top Box."

James whistled. "I'd give my Nimbus for Top Box seats at the World Cup!"

"You have a Nimbus 1000?" asked Sirius enviously.

"Yeah," James grinned. "Wasn't allowed to bring it, though, was I? Stupid first year rule."

Sirius pointed his wand at the robe he was holding up and tried the Dying charm he had used to augment his original potion. The robe turned from pink to aqua.

"Father promised me a broom for my birthday if my marks were good," he said gloomily, "but I guess that's off now."

"Sorry, mate," said James sympathetically. "It really stinks that they're so uptight about you being in Gryffindor."

"Yeah," Sirius sighed. "I just wish Regs would write. It's not like him to --"

There was a knock on the frame of the open laundry room door, and two tall, sandy-haired boys entered, distinguishable only by the prefect's badge one of them wore.

"Mind if we join you?" asked Gideon Prewett with a grin.

"It's been ages since we had detention," added his twin brother Fabian. "We've missed it so!"

James's brows rose in surprise. "Is the Quidditch over already? Who won?"

"Nah," said Fabian, prodding the pile of pink robes with his toe. "We skipped the match."

"To visit the laundry room?" asked Sirius.

Gideon grinned. "Quidditch means there's no one in the school. Which makes it a great time to do a little investigating."

"And today," Fabian continued, "we're investigating the mystery of the pink robes. I take it the two of you were responsible?"

James and Sirius grinned and nodded. The popular Prewett brothers were well-known pranksters themselves, and James felt it was something of an honour to have attracted their notice.

"They're saying it was you who did the Slytherin stew as well," Gideon said, looking back and forth between the two first years for confirmation.

"It was James's idea," Sirius told them.

"But Sirius helped with the potion," volunteered James.

Gideon whistled, impressed. "Some of them are only just now getting over it. I can't believe a couple of first years pulled off something as inspired as that! You two are all right!"

James and Sirius grinned wider than ever. The house-elves were shooting them disapproving looks and grumbling about work to be done, but the boys didn't care.

Fabian picked up a pink robe between thumb and forefinger. "Atratus." The fabric shivered and turned black. "We've been thinking --"

"-- me and Fabian --" added Gideon, picking up a second robe and performing the blackening charm himself.

"-- we've only got a couple of years left in these hallowed halls --" Fabian went on.

"-- and it seems like such a waste to let everything we've learned --"

"-- pass back into obscurity --"

"-- once we've gone."

"So I said to my brother Gideon, here --"

" -- he said, 'Gideon, what we really need --"

"-- are one or two promising young protégés to continue our work.'"

"And I said, 'But Fabian, most first years are complete rubbish --'"

"'-- too terrified of the professors to appreciate how delightfully bendy the rules are.'"

"We were worried, you see --"

"-- that we might have to pass our knowledge on --"

"-- beyond the hallowed walls of Gryffindor tower."

"But when we learned that a couple of first year Gryffindors were responsible for the farting Slytherins --"

"-- and just now that you did the robes as well --"

"-- our hearts swelled with pride, and we knew that our prayers had been answered."

"What do you say, lads?" asked Gideon.

James glanced at Sirius, wondering if his own eyes were as round as his friends'. The secrets of Hogwarts -- five years of accumulated knowledge about the school, the professors, their fellow students, not to mention a wealth of potential pranks and hexes -- offered up to them on a proverbial silver platter.

He fell to his knees, grinning and bowing down at the feet of the Prewett brothers, amidst the pile of pink robes. "Teach us, O Masters of Mischief!"

The older boys looked at Sirius. "What about you, Black?"

Sirius grinned and inclined his head towards James. "What he said."

Hands were shaken then, and the Atratus charm was taught, and in moments all four of them merrily re-blackening the Slytherin robes.

"So," James couldn't help asking, "what have you learned that's been was worth missing Quidditch for?"

"Oh, many things," Gideon said, smiling mysteriously.

"We learned that there's a colony of Acromantula -- giant spiders, you know -- living in the Forbidden Forest," said Fabian.

"And that Amelia Bones from Hufflepuff has bred a strain of magical weed so good that some of the professors buy from her. Maybe even Dumbledore."

"That Professor Flitwick writes steamy romance novels in his spare time, and publishes under the name Isabella Westwick."

"That Ludo Bagman doesn't care if he fails all his classes and his NEWTs this year because he's already signed a contract with the Wimbourne Wasps," said Gideon. "He's only staying on to the end of the Quidditch season to help Slytherin win the Quidditch cup."

"And," finished Fabian, giving Sirius a wink, "that Lucius Malfoy finally managed to pry your cousin's knees apart while everyone was in Hogsmeade last weekend."

"No!" said Sirius, looking shocked. "Narcissa'd never --"

"Only think," grinned Gideon, "if you'd made your stew just a couple of days sooner, you might have preserved her virtue!"

"Oh, Lucius!" said Fabian in a ridiculous falsetto. "That feels so --" He blew a long, juicy raspberry.

James and Sirius collapsed onto the pile of blackened robes in a storm of laughter.

"I am going to write to my parents tonight and tell them!" Sirius declared. "Uncle Cygnus and Aunt Druella, too. Let Narcissa see what it feels like to be in disgrace."

James clapped him on the shoulder. "You can borrow Quaffle," he offered. Quaffle was the very ruffled-looking owl that had been in James's family for years, so called because he had to be chucked through the air in order to get him to fly. James's parents had bequeathed Quaffle to him when he started school, and got themselves a new owl.

"Anything you're supposed to do besides fix the robes?" asked Gideon, looking around.

"Don't think so," said James, dropping the last one onto the pile.

"C'mon, then," said Gideon. "We'll show you a couple of things we've been working on."

"What d'you mean, 'working on'?" asked Sirius as they headed back up to Gryffindor tower.

"We're not just investigators," Fabian explained. "We're inventors, too."

"Modesty is not one of my brother's virtues," Gideon asided.

"Oh, as if it's one of yours!" Fabian rolled his eyes.

Gideon ignored him. "We have a nephew who'll be a year old this month. We're working on something for his birthday. Dragon Bogies."

The portrait of the Fat Lady swung open to admit them to the common room, which was empty except for Lupin and Evans, who appeared to be studying. On a Saturday. When there was Quidditch happening. As far as James was concerned, this went against all that was right and natural.

"What're you doing here?" he asked rudely as the Prewetts disappeared up the stairs to their room to retrieve their "invention".

The girl looked up at him with narrowed eyes. "We're getting caught up on History of Magic."

"Boring!" declared Sirius, rolling his eyes.

"Clear out," James told them. "That's what the library's for."

"It's our common room, too, Potter," bristled Evans, rising to her feet.

Lupin rose, too, and put a hand on her arm. "C'mon, Lily," he said quietly. "We won't get anything done with this lot in here."

She sighed. "Probably true. Library?"

They gathered up their books and parchment and departed, Evans shooting looks of annoyance at James and Sirius, Lupin keeping his eyes on the floor.

"Hey, Lupin!" Sirius called as the two exited the portrait hole. "Maybe you should ask Dumbledore if he'll transfer you to the girls' dormitory, since you like them so much!"

There was no response but the closing of the door.

"What a couple of boring, swotty girls," said Sirius, disgusted. "Studying all the bloody time."

"Yeah," said James, flopping down onto the recently vacated sofa. "Who can be bothered?"

"Guess they're just not as clever as we are." Sirius slumped down beside him.

"Well," James allowed, "not everyone can be brilliant. Mind you, if I manage to pass History of Magic, I may just have to run starkers through the entrance hall with my pants on my head."

Sirius grinned. "Better you than me, mate. But I'll be there to show my support."

Gideon and Fabian returned then, proudly bearing their creations. For their nephew Billy's birthday, they had made a tiny blue onsie.

"Watch this," said Gideon, eyes twinkling.

He tipped a glass of water he had brought down with him onto the fabric. Immediately, words appeared across the front of the garment: "Change Me!"

"It picks up on the baby's mood and needs," explained Fabian. "It also does, 'Feed Me', 'Sleepy', 'Pay Attention' and 'Playtime'."

"That's brilliant," said Sirius.

"You could sell that," commented James.

Gideon grinned. "Don't think we haven't thought about it."

"Is your sister the Molly Prewett who ran off with that blood-traitor?" asked Sirius.

James kicked him sharply in the shin. "He's sorry," he informed the Prewetts, narrowing his eyes at his friend. "Sometimes his brain forgets to remind his mouth that he's a Gryffindor now."

"Er -- yeah," mumbled Sirius, blushing. "Sorry."

Fabian shook his head, grinning. "Arthur's great. Really, Molly couldn't have chosen a better bloke. But he's utterly mad! Loves everything to do with Muggles. You should see the collections he's got. Sparkplugs and fuses and things."

James, who had no idea what a sparkplug might be, merely nodded.

"I still can't believe Dad was planning to sell her to the Malfoys," Gideon said, looking as if the thought still upset him. But then he grinned, too. "As soon as she found out, she jumped the broom and got herself up the duff so fast, Arthur never knew what hit him! Dad went spare, but what could he do?"

Fabian laughed. "I think Mum was pleased, though." He reached down beside his chair and set a second, larger object on the table in front of them.

"Wow," breathed James, reaching out a hand to touch it.

It was a clock of startling art and intricacy. But instead of showing the time, the points around the face said things like "Home" and "Work" and "School" and -- somewhat alarmingly -- "Mortal Peril". It also bore more than the standard number of hands, each with a small portrait at the end. James recognised Gideon and Fabian's pictures, and assumed the redheaded man, woman and baby in the other three were the twins' sister and her family.

"Did you really make this?" he asked, awed.

Twins beamed with pride.

"Does it really work?" asked Sirius, prodding one of the hands experimentally.

"Mostly," admitted Gideon. "We haven't quite worked out all the kinks yet, but as you can see, all three of them are showing up as 'Home', while ours are pointing to 'School', which is right for a Saturday afternoon."

"We're working on getting it to automatically generate new hands," said Fabian. "Molly's always wanted kids, and it would be nice if it could update itself without having to be taken apart."

"She worries, does our sister," Gideon explained. "Always wants to make sure she knows where everyone is. We just thought it would be nice for her to have a way to keep track of the people who matter."

"That's a really clever bit of magic," said James, impressed. "Nice of you, too."

"Well, it's not completely selfless," Fabian chuckled. "Not if it keeps her from fussing at us when we go more than a week without writing."

Gideon leaned towards the younger boys earnestly. "See, the thing is, you can do almost anything with magic. Anything you can think of, there's probably a way. You just have to find it. Think of all the books in the library. How many spells and potions are in there? And more are being invented all the time. I'm guessing the ones you used on the robes and the stew weren't straight out of any book?"

James shook his head. He had spent hours poring over his Potions textbook, noting all the ones that listed flatulence as a side effect, and cross-referencing which ingredients they had in common. Sirius, he knew, had augmented a standard Dying potion with a charm to boost its strength.

Fabian grinned. "You're inventors, too. Imagine the possibilities. If you've got the nerve for it, you could be legends."

Peter knew he should have been pleased that the two boys he admired most were friends now, but all he felt was left behind. In class, when partners were required, it was always James and Sirius now. Partnering with Lupin would have been all right, he supposed, but he was friends with Evans, and they worked together in every class except Potions, which she spent with her Slytherin friend, Snape. Since Peter was almost as bad at Potions as Lupin was, this was a less than satisfactory arrangement. The rest of the time, he found himself partnered with girls, and while Peter liked girls in a theoretical sort of way, he was also a little bit terrified of them.

And today, which should have been fun -- should have been brilliant -- watching Gryffindor play Slytherin at Quidditch, despite Gryffindor losing by two hundred points to thirty, had been rather lacklustre. James and Sirius had spent the match in detention, and Peter had spent it sitting by himself, surrounded by people he felt too shy to talk to. By rights, Peter should have had detention as well. After all, he had been with James and Sirius when they had planted their potions, and he was just the tiniest bit disappointed that no one thought him capable of that kind of mischief.

To make matters worse, when he arrived back in the Gryffindor common room following the match, he felt somehow like he had been the one who had missed out. The two dark heads of his friends were bent in close conversation with the popular Prewett twins, and it took them a few moments to notice he was there.

"Hey, Pete," was all he got from James, and a small nod from Sirius. They did not bother to introduce him to their new friends, nor did the older boys do more than glance in his direction.

At supper that evening, James and Sirius sat at the far end of the Gryffindor table, near the doors into the entrance hall, with the Prewetts. Peter sat next to them, but not really with them, since he wasn't included in their conversation. Lupin, as usual, sat halfway down the table with Evans. So Peter listened in to the animated conversation going on to his left, eyes on his plate, and felt alone.

"You lads want to see something cool tonight?" asked Fabian in a low voice.

James and Sirius leaned in, interested.

"You know how the seventh floor north wing isn't really in use?" Fabian continued, and they nodded. "Well, there's this painting up there. Pretty girl with her kit off."

"Fabian," his brother admonished. "Leave Greta alone."

Fabian ignored his brother. "She's usually pretty shy and demure, but she's taken a shine to our Gideon, and she gets a bit bolder when he's around. What d'you think?"

Sirius glanced at James and shrugged.

"Worth a look, I suppose," said James.

Definitely, thought Peter moodily. You'd think they'd invite a mate along to see a nice pair of tits. No charitable spirit, those two.

Even once they were all back in their dormitory after the meal, it was no better. In the absence of any Slytherins to antagonise, James and Sirius often turned their teasing on Peter.

When he attempted and failed miserably at the Floating charm they had learned the previous Thursday, Sirius chanted in a singsong voice, "Peter at all magic mings! Peter, worst at everything!"

"Am not!" Peter declared hotly as James giggled at Sirius's wit. "I'm better than you at Herbology, and I'm better at Potions than Lupin."

Lupin, reclining on his bed, gave Peter a Look over the top of the book he was reading, but forbore to comment.

"Well, who isn't?" said Sirius, rolling his eyes. "The giant squid is better at Potions than Lupin!"

He drew his wand and sent a string of little pinching hexes at Peter.

"Stop it!" Peter wailed, flailing at the invisible fingers that nipped at his arms and legs, fully aware of how pathetic he sounded. "Leave it out, Sirius!"

Sirius and James only laughed, but Lupin set down his book and sat up, glancing meaningfully from Sirius's wand to the ceiling.

"Not a chance, Lupin!" Sirius said. "You won't catch me out like that twice."

Lupin shrugged, drew his wand, and pointed it at Peter instead. "Protego."

Instantly, a bubble appeared around Peter, warding off Sirius's pinches.

"Basic Shield Charm," Lupin informed Peter. "You might want to work on it."

James and Sirius, looking disgusted, got out a deck of cards and began to play Exploding Snap to while away the time until their appointment with the Prewetts for late-night shenanigans.

"Thanks," Peter mumbled uncomfortably.

"'S OK," Lupin replied, turning back to his book.

Peter opened his Charms book, pretending to read, but continued to covertly watch and listen to his roommates. Secretly, he rather admired the way Lupin didn't care what the others thought of him. I wish I could be more like that, he thought wistfully. His problem was that he cared too bloody much what the others thought, which was why he never stood up to James or Sirius for himself, even when he knew he should. More than anything, he wanted to find some way to impress his clever friends.

Midnight approached, and James and Sirius pulled on their outer robes once more.

"Last time you lot snuck out, we lost forty points," Lupin reminded them.

James only shrugged. "They were mine to lose. I'd earned thirty already."

"You keep track of your House points?" Sirius asked, pausing in the midst of lacing his shoes.

"Sure," said James. "So long as I never lose more than I earn, I come out ahead."

Lupin looked pained. He had never lost a single House point, so far as Peter knew, though he had gained several through his performance in class. Peter had gained exactly five points for one especially good day in Herbology, but even his previous late-night escapade had not lost him any.

"Are House points really that important?" asked Sirius, who had yet to earn Gryffindor even a single point. "I mean, what d'you really get out of it?"

James grinned. "Mostly just the satisfaction of beating Slytherin out of the House cup. Isn't that a worthy cause?"

Sirius allowed that it was, and then they were gone, tiptoeing down the spiral staircase. Peter waited for a count of ten, and then followed them. He heard Lupin sigh as he closed the door.

The girl in the painting had been pretty enough, James supposed, but now that he was beginning to be old enough to think about such things, he wasn't sure he cared all that much for blondes. Still, the rest of her had been nice to look at.

As the four of them slunk through the corridors afterwards, twisting and turning to avoid Pringle and Peeves, Hogwarts' resident poltergeist, James asked what the Prewetts were planning to investigate this year.

"Well," said Gideon thoughtfully. "We've always wondered why the Bloody Baron is bloody."

"Whether the Defence Against the Dark Arts job is really cursed," Fabian nominated.

"If there's any truth to the rumours about Dumbledore and Grindelwald," suggested Gideon.

"What rumours?" asked James. Grindelwald, to him, was a name from a Chocolate Frog card -- a name that went in one ear and out the other in History of Magic.

"That they were friends," said Fabian delicately.

"More than friends," Gideon added, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

"Dumbledore's a poof?" Sirius sounded sceptical.

Fabian shrugged. "No one seems to know for sure. He's certainly never been married, and he hasn't got any kids. If he'd had a boyfriend when he was young who turned out to be evil and broke his heart, it would kind of make sense."

James snorted at the thought of Dumbledore having a boyfriend. It was almost as absurd as the idea of Dumbledore being young. It simply defied the imagination. "How could you prove it?" he asked. "Unless you were thinking of asking Dumble --"

James broke off, yanked sideways by one of the twins as they dodged into an alcove to avoid Peeves, who had popped through a wall not twenty paces away, fortunately facing the wrong direction.

"And for years," Gideon whispered, "we've been trying to find a surefire way to get Peeves to leave us alone."

"Not sure that one's possible," mumbled Fabian, peering around the corner.

After a tense couple of minutes, Peeves vanished through another wall, off to create mayhem elsewhere, and the four continued on their way.

"Where are we going?" asked Sirius, who, like James, had just noticed that even by the most circuitous route, they were patently not headed back to Gryffindor tower.

"To discover the truth behind one of the great legends of Hogwarts," said Gideon, hazel eyes sparkling. "Whether Professor Slughorn's liquor cabinet lives up to its reputation."

James and Sirius's eyes went round.

"You get one sip each," warned Fabian. "I am not getting puked on by a couple of first years, nor am I carrying you back to Gryffindor tower."

Sirius giggled and confessed to sampling his father's firewhiskey once or twice.

James, who had never been allowed to try hard liquor shook his head, laughing. "How do you blokes find time to do your schoolwork?"

"It's not all fun and games." Fabian's brows drew together, suddenly serious. "There's stuff going on out there --" he waved vaguely to encompass the world beyond the castle walls "-- and we're going to need to be ready for it."

"What kind of stuff?" asked James, dubious of the idea that the world of grownups could be anything other than deadly dull.

"Voldemort," said Gideon, spitting the name out as if it tasted bad.

"Who?" Sirius asked.

Fabian rolled his eyes. "Don't you two read the papers?"

"We're eleven," James reminded him. "Did you?"

"Fair enough," Fabian acknowledged. "But you should. And you should be practising defensive magic every chance you get. Because there's stuff coming, and you need to be ready."

"So educate us," said Sirius. "Who's Voldemort?"

Gideon shook his head. "No one knows, really. It's not his real name, and no one has any idea where he comes from or who his family are, but it's odds on he's a pure-blood, since that's all he talks about."

"He's all about how the pure-bloods are the elite, and should have all kinds of rights and privileges over everyone else," said Fabian.

"So?" said Sirius. "A lot of pure-bloods think that. My parents do."

"That's true," said Fabian. "And that's the danger of it. He's subtle, right? He's got this set of beliefs that looks like a lot of other people's, and people are listening to him because he's clever and charismatic. But he takes it a step or two further."

"Right," continued Gideon. "While plenty of pure-bloods act like they're something special and talk about how everyone else is scum, and wouldn't the world be better off without them, he's actually got plans to do something about it."

"He says pure-bloods should marry young and have as many children as possible," said Fabian, glancing around a corner before ushering them down a set of rickety wooden steps. "And he talks about how half-bloods and Muggleborns should be sterilised to keep them from 'polluting' the magical gene pool."

Gideon wrinkled his nose in disgust. "He believes laws protecting Muggles should be repealed, since they restrict the right of pure-bloods to use magic as they please. He's even been heard to mention Muggle extermination programmes."

"And," added Fabian, "he thinks that pure-blood children should be taken away from blood-traitor parents, and placed with 'proper' families, so that any Mugglish sympathies can be 'educated' out of them as early as possible."

"That's a bit creepy," Sirius admitted. "But isn't he sort of right that pure-bloods should be having more children? I mean, there's not that many wizards out there. Couldn't we use a few more?"

Gideon whistled. "You really have been indoctrinated, haven't you? I think a lesson in Wizarding genetics is in order, Fabe."

Fabian put out a hand to halt them. "Pringle will be along in a minute. Let's wait around the corner."

Once they were safely concealed behind a tapestry, Fabian turned to the two younger boys.

"It's like this," he began in a whisper. "There's what? About fifty witches and wizards born in Britain every year, right? And that includes half-bloods and Muggleborns. There's maybe fifteen pure-bloods born each year, and by 'pure-blood', I mean no Muggles for four generations. The more you breed magical blood with itself, the weaker it becomes. The purer the blood, the fewer children a couple is likely to have. Without regular infusions of Muggle blood in the gene pool, wizards would just become more and more inbred, and eventually die out altogether."

"Oh." James had sometimes wondered why he had no siblings, and why his parents had had him so late in life. He had thought maybe he was an accident, but perhaps this was the real reason.

"Genetic reasons aside," said Gideon, "it's stupid to try to keep half-bloods and Muggleborns from developing their magical abilities. For one thing, uncontrolled magic is really dangerous, and for another, there's no evidence that pure-bloods are any better at magic than anyone else who has it. How many important magical advances have been made by Muggleborns in the last century? How many by pure-bloods? You've got Muggleborns to thank for everything from racing broom technology to Wizarding medicine. Are you going to refuse to take a lifesaving potion just because it was invented or mixed by a half-blood? I don't think so."

"My mother might," mused Sirius.

Fabian grinned. "And that, my young friend, is why people with open minds are going to outlast those with backwards ideas every time. I think Pringle must have been and gone by now," he added, stepping back into the corridor.

"The point is," said Gideon as they continued towards Slughorn's rooms, "we're doing everything we can to be ready to face Voldemort and his lot once we get out of here. Defence Against the Dark Arts is key, but the other stuff we do -- intelligence gathering -- will be a big help when we start our Auror training."

"You're going to be Aurors?" asked Sirius, awed. There was a certain glamour to being a Dark wizard catcher to which young boys were particularly susceptible.

"I think I've heard my dad mention Voldemort," said James casually. "He's an Auror, too, and I think he said something about his department keeping an eye out for 'suspicious activity'."

Sirius stared at him, openmouthed. "Your dad's an Auror? That's so cool!"

James grinned, accepting the reflected glow of his father's status.

"You must be Joe Potter's son," said Gideon. "Your dad's really senior in the department."

"You -- er -- think you might put in a good word for us?" asked Fabian a little shyly.

"Maybe so," said James, still grinning.

"Shit!" Gideon muttered, peering around the next corner, then quickly ducking back. "Pringle's late on his rounds. He's headed this way."

Peter kept to the shadows, tailing the four boys in their meanderings as closely as he dared. He slunk from doorway to doorway, from alcove to tapestry, never letting them out of his sight for fear he would become hopelessly lost. The painting of the naked girl had been nice enough, but he wished he had had a chance to inspect it a little more closely. He doubted he could find it again on his own.

As he made his silent way on cold, bare feet, he caught little snatches of the other boys' conversation, but not enough to make sense of it. But when one of the twins muttered, "Shit! Pringle's ..." he heard that clear enough. The boys were shuffling back down the corridor towards the shadowed doorway that was his own hiding place, and Peter had only seconds to decide what do to.

Your innocent face saved you once already, he reminded himself.

Taking a deep breath, Peter stepped out into the corridor and hurried past the four startled boys, not looking at them. He turned the corner directly into the path of Apollyon Pringle, the elderly Hogwarts caretaker.

"Eh?" said Pringle. "Wot's this?"

"I'm sorry, Mr Pringle, Sir." Peter did not have to fake the tremulous tone in his voice. "I woke up in the hospital wing, and I got lost trying to find my way back to Gryffindor. Can you help me?" He blinked innocently.

The caretaker considered him for a moment. "I'll be passin' that way in about fifteen minutes, if you care to follow."

"Thank you, Sir," said Peter meekly.

When he arrived back in his dormitory, James and Sirius were already there, waiting for him on James's bed. Peter climbed up beside them.

"That was pretty cool of you," James whispered, patting him on the shoulder. Lupin's drapes were shut, and he was probably asleep long since. "Neither of us could have got away with it."

Sirius shook his head in agreement. "Thanks, Pete. We owe you one."

Peter screwed up his courage for the second time that night. "D'you -- d'you think maybe I could come along next time?"

James and Sirius looked at one another and shrugged.

"Don't see why not," said James. "Seems to me you could be dead useful to have around."

Peter grinned and leaned back against the pillows, basking in the other boys' acceptance as they continued the conversation begun before he came in. He wasn't a part of it, but somehow, he didn't feel like he was apart from it, either, anymore.

"All that stuff about Voldemort was a lot more interesting than some old naked painting," Sirius said.

"Sure," snorted James. "But I bet Voldemort's tits aren't as nice as hers."