Two long red-brick buildings with slanted moss-covered roofs greeted Jasper, James and Sirius as they appeared. The lack of windows, the rotting large wooden doors and the lack of neighboring constructs suggested an abandoned muggle farm, perhaps a granary.

The trio hurried closer. With a flick of his wand, Jasper led them through the wards. The illusion coating the buildings vanished, revealing a much less derelict place : the doors and roofs had been scrubbed and fixed and windows inserted in the sturdy walls. It still didn't look like much, but it was livable.

"He doesn't mark werewolves, " Jasper said. "Can't say if its because the spell doesn't mix with lycanthropy, or just politics. Many of the more influential Death Eaters would be more comfortable with Greyback dead, no matter how useful he is."

The Slytherin pointed his wand at the doors. A set of crude runes glowed purple. More purplish magic swirled in midair, taking the shape of a lock. Jasper conjured a key and inserted it inside the lock. The inner wards hummed as the key turned by itself. After a few seconds, lock and key vanished. They were in.

Without Jasper, it would have taken Sirius and James perhaps a half-hour to blast their way through. This was no safe-house, but the protections were enough to keep intruders out, alert of a breach, and prevent anti-apparition charms from being cast in the area. Death Eater had to care about little else than buying time for escape in case the place was compromised. The overgrown farm itself couldn't be of much value.

"Nobody around." Padfoot's satisfied smile did not quite reaching his eyes. He walked in a half-crouch, clutching his wand before him.

"Don't jinx it, man." But James was also relieved. Death Eaters had taken to using flats in inhabited muggle buildings, aware the Order would have scruples attacking a place where so many innocents resided.

As the got closer to the buildings, only Jasper walked on disillusioned.

A small short-haired woman in her fifties opened the largest building's door. Her thick robes had the rough look of clothes kept clean and mended with low-grade household charms. No, these weren't people Voldemort cared much for.

"Little Wilkes," she said, betraying neither alarm nor joy. Dark bags hung under her eyes. "What news?"

"Good ones, Fenella."

Wrapped in sound and smell-muffling charms, James still held his breath as he and Sirius squeezed themselves inside the building, taking advantage of Jasper's deliberately slow movements.

The inside was one large single room. It was clean and warm, with that peculiar non-smell of air cleaned by magic instead of natural means. The furniture was obviously conjured. Some chairs were fading already and wouldn't last the night. Only the four sets of double-beds at the back of the brick building looked like they had been made.

Uneasy, James' eyes made an inventory of the people present. As mages went, this was abject poverty : nothing permanent, nothing solid. Some of the werewolves' robes shimmered under the magical lights, betraying illusions and glamours. Small vanities that no doubt concealed very poor quality clothes.

Still, he stayed alert. Seven werewolves, seven wands. Three were obviously teenagers, and James had to force himself not to stare longer, not to try to match their faces to the names of those who'd vanished in the middle of the Hogwarts school year. The fact they had wands, that they were warm and fed and safe, might still make loyal enough to the Lord Voldemort to fight back.

"You smell strongly of strangers," an accusing voice said. Jasper turned to face a wiry middle-aged man with the rugged air of a long-time werewolf. Yellow-teeth bared, the man stepped closer. Jasper wasn't the only one who stiffened as he moved. "What do you want, Wilkes?"

James wasn't surprised when Padfoot tapped two fingers against James' arm. James answered back in kind. Him first.

"We've made contact with the Slav lycans, Lachlan, there's things you should hear."

James' attention was grabbed by a thickset dark-skinned woman in her eighties, by far the oldest in the room. He cast a detection spell and found no magic on her. Those jewels were real. Those thick rich-looking robes weren't glamoured.

They minutes, perhaps only seconds, before Moody and the others arrived. Everyone had to be disarmed and immobilized before that.

James tapped Sirius' arm again, this time with one finger, and silently transfigured all the robes in his line of sight in balls of ice. Throwing such a wide net was risky, as his power would divide among the various targets, but he was counting on the fact that unless proper precautions were taken, repeated charms use made objects less resistant to magic.

He had been right. Clothes and shoes became translucent ice. The drain of mass-transfiguration dispelled the disillusionment charm. Shouts and the clatter of furniture filled the room.

Two of the now half-naked werewolves had not had their wands in their robes. Lachlan's flew out of his hand as Sirius disarmed him. The other, one of teens, scrambled backwards, clutching it to her chest protectively. Huge gnarly scars split her upper thigh.

Teeth marks. They were all scarred.

"Slide it in your underwear and you can keep it," James said, feeling a little wretched as the kid awkwardly obeyed, terror evident in her green eyes. A lighter green than Lily's, and more beaten down than his wife's eyes had ever been.

His face tight, James began casting the standard detection spells for tracers. He immediately regretted his promise to the girl. Again, trackers were bound to the wands. Merlin.

Next to him, Sirius and Jasper had finished binding everyone's wrists in conjured ropes. James summoned the wands out of the ice spheres to return the shivering werewolves their clothes. The robes split for a half-second and reassembled themselves to slip back onto their wrist-bound owners. Instead of the six expected wands, James found five.

"Where's your wand, Ma'am?" James said, frowning at the older woman. She wore a modest under-robe, but her hands were empty and well on display.

"I haven't been allowed one yet," she replied with a thin smile. "Now stop distressing everyone and state your business."

"James Potter," Jasper said with a faint smile as he made introductions, "Donna Shacklebolt."

Shacklebolt? James and Sirius shared a look. Was this why Kingsley had resigned? Moody had been pissed to lose one of his best young instructors and James suspected the dark-skinned wizard had been on his radar as a potential Order recruit.

"We're getting you out of here, " James said quickly. "The Slavs agreed to help. You'll be safer. They'll help you be lycans, if that's what you want," strangled noises broke the silence. James struggled to keep fury out of his voice "and in any case, you'll be treated better than by any side here."

"Greyback's going to tear you all apart," Lachlan snarled, fighting against his bindings. "We're done believing your kind's promises. You think whisking us out of here makes you heroic? Do you have any idea -"

The wards suddenly screeched and buckled. It would have taken half-an-hour for James and Sirius to break the wards. Moody, Marlene and professional warden Dorcas Meadowes took seconds.

"Everything running smoothly, lads?"

Padfoot had been right, Moody looked ready spit them with a stick and roast them. Still, he wasted no time with them, scouring the room. He'd charmed his wooden leg silent and while it wasn't graceful, it didn't seem to hamper the veteran auror's speed.

"Is there a way to remove the trackers without breaking their wands?" James had to ask.

Dorcas took the bundle of wands. "Ah, " she said sympathetically. "Do we have twenty minutes, Alastor? Donna!"

Moody's stony composure cracked as he snapped towards the witch. James could see it, the moment it stopped being about werewolves and became about people. He clenched his jaw, because, they were all people, damn it! Still, he felt for Moody, who carried more weight on his shoulders than almost any of them and did his damnedest to keep them all alive.

"Hello, Dorcas," Donna replied with a genuine smile. "The Lestrange boys cast those."

The witch nodded, eyes glinting. Dorcas had lost family, friends and her house to Death Eaters, but James had never seen her anything other than determined. "Ten minutes, then."

Padfoot grinned. "Awesome. If you don't mind sharing, how does knowing the caster help?" Unlike James, the sight of their scowling boss (and a professional warden old enough to be their gran, and another witch who could out-duel them both blindfolded) did not intimidate him in the least.

Not that James felt guilty, only -

"I know their wards," Dorcas answered tersely as she began to cast. "Old families always use the same tricks. Powerful spellcraft if you don't know the counter, but once you do know it..."

"Each of you," Moody suddenly barked, "I'm going to put a portkey around your neck. I activate one. I activate them all." The portkeys floated across the now silent room. Moody pointed his wand at the youngest werewolf, a boy that couldn't have been fourteen. He undid the ropes. "You, go grab whatever you lot want to take from this place."

"You're going to get us killed!" Lachlan spat, his face murderous. "You blundering -" his eyes widened as Moody displaced himself right in front of him in a cloud of gray smoke.

"Legilimens," Moody hissed.

After a few tense seconds, he broke the contact. "You bastards are lucky this place is an afterthought to You-Know-Who. We do have ten minutes."

"Not a single signal left the wards in the last two hours," Marlene confirmed. Her dark eyes crinkled slightly, but her mouth stayed hard. "Clean rescue, boys, assuming you're braced for the payback."

"We need to teach this lot how to celebrate," Padfoot grumbled. "Merlin's breath, they're dull."

James grinned while Jasper cracked a hesitant smile. "This is all a day's work for you, huh?" the Slytherin whispered.

"A good day," James said, throwing his arm around Padfoot's shoulder.

At the Longbottom's Frank greeted them with a glare and took Sirius and James aside. "Insubordinate hotheads," he muttered. "Alice has better come back in one piece."

"Brilliant." James corrected as the werewolves were escorted to the dining room. Lily still wasn't back. He hid his fear behind crossed arms and a cocky grin. "We're brilliant."

"Who's going to tell Big Daddy his son is a Death Eater?" Padfoot said.

"Why don't you do it, since you love antagonizing people above you."

Padfoot rolled his eyes. "Sure, you cowards."

"We're not giving Junior back to the Dark Lord. We're giving him back to his father, to be tried."

"What," Sirius exclaimed. James was similarly shocked. Moody had said-. "You know marked Death Eaters don't stay locked up! Either we kill him, or we use him to save more lives than he can ruin!"

"You can't save more than he can ruin." Weariness slumped Frank's shoulders. "You can just decide the ones you save have more value."

James flinched, hearing the name that hung in the air. Marisa Fenwick. Voldemort himself had captured her after planting a polyjuiced decoy disguised as a six year old. Marisa... She'd been their best, except for Moody and Albus. They'd rescued her, but they'd been so late and the price... Nobody even knew if her mind would ever recover. It took all of James' Gryffindor bravery to not skive his weekly visits to her son. Benjy was just one year older than he was, wicked smart but never as scholarly as some other Ravenclaws, playing Keeper even into his OWLs and NEWTs years. Now he'd dived into healing magic with obsessive fervor (not that they'd stopped him: Benjy was good and getting better and the Order desperately needed healers).

A small warm hand grasped James'. He smiled instinctively.

"The lycans are full citizen in the Slav Federation," Lily said heatedly. She'd never had any scruples casting eavesdropping charms. "If we can score our first international alliance, it will change everything!" She jabbed a finger at Frank. "But we've got to do our part! We've got to use Barty, and you know it!"

Frank ducked out of answering by striding towards Alice.

"He knows you're right," James called after the older auror. He didn't imagine the smile tugging at Frank's lips. "So?" he added eagerly. Lily's happily flushed face meant good news.

Julia Lupin, Alice and Lily had gathered fourteen werewolves. Only four held wands. Soon, the families of the seven they'd rescued amounted to nineteen people. Even Lachlan stopped looking like they were hypocritical buffoons with no grasp of consequences when he saw his brother.

James' grin broadened when he realized Albus Dumbledore had joined them.

"Things started moving faster when he showed up," Lily admitted, eyes crinkling.

"Anybody else?" Moody said, his voice more level but his eyes still murderous. Merlin, what did one have to do to make that man happy? He harrumphed. "Dorcas, Marlene, take the Wilkes home and check their wards." Moody never liked having too many people in one place.

"As soon as the ladies return, we'll raise temporary wards on one of the houses so we can give Rok an adress." Albus said, his serene smile the calming balm they all so desperately needed. His twinkling blue eyes met James' and he tipped his head.

James' chest filled with pride.

The next hour had James feeling increasingly giddy. This was it. They weren't in over their heads anymore. They had enough people, enough experience, to succeed. Padfoot pranced around like he was Moody himself instead of a junior trainee, but James wasn't much better.

Take that, Voldemort. You can't just do what you want anymore.

A popping sound followed by flapping ears and panicked protuberent eyes killed all their smiles.

"Attack!" Kipper exclaimed. "The Manor is being invaded! Nincy being saving the portraits!"

"What?" Padfoot roared. "How many, who?"

"Many! The curly witch being there. And him."

Bellatrix Lestrange, Voldemort.

James stood frozen. It had been too easy. Death Eaters had no honor : they never met you front on, no. They held back, let you think you'd won, and struck on their terms.

"Come on, aurors, to the Manor!" Moody, cursing, and Dumbledore, silently grim, disapparated.

"Wait!" James cried as Sirius, Frank and Marlene took out their wands. "Kipper what about the Prewetts?" Fabian and Gideon had stayed behind to keep an eye on Crouch.

"They being taken. Kipper cannot being going too close or Kipper will be dead."

The room was silent as a grave. Blood pounded in James' ears.

"I'll send Kipper if I need anybody aside from Moody and Dumbledore," he said hoarsely. "It could be a trap."

"We can't let the house-"

James' jaw clenched at Padfoot's furious disbelief. "Stay here! This place is harder to defend!" Not that the Longbottoms' wards were shoddy, only recent.

His scowling best friend grabbed his arm. "You're not apparating in hostile ground alone," he growled. "Never alone, you tosser."

James took a slow breath. It wasn't a good sign when Padfoot was the careful one.

"Marlene, I think nobody here will mind you double checking everyone for trackers or the like," Lily said, with that flat calm voice she had when she was most certainly not calm. "The attack's timing is too good."

She met James' eyes, her tight nod a grudging permission. Together, he and Sirius apparated alongside the younger Potter elf at the edge of Potter Manor's grassy grounds.

A dark mass of something, a buzzing something, was eating at the roof. Thick wooden beams cracked and fell to the ground with heavy thunks. One of the walls seemed melted, consumed by slow-moving sickly blueish ooze. The stone ground-floor terrace was cracked open, the flower beds upturned, as if torn apart by a dozen tiny earthquakes.

James' eyes burned at the sight.

Dumbledore and Moody held back behind the small stream that marked the border of Potter land. "What's everyone waiting for?" Moody growled. "We're compromised: they walked right through the wards!"

"It's salvageable still," Dumbledore said sofly, eyes narrowed as he wordlessly moved his wand. "Century-old manors do not surrender so easily."

Walked through the wards. A traitor was among them. But because the Death Eaters had opened the wards, those were still intact. Their magic sought James, Lord Potter, and instantly told him there were thirteen people inside. For eight of them, the manor could identify the lineages: Lestrange, Travers, Flint, Crouch and, to James' great relief, Prewett. Ancient families who'd walked these halls as guests often enough for their bloodlines ring familiar.

"The twins are alive. Three Lestranges. Let's see what I can see."

James muttered spells passed down the Potter generations : a magical window appeared before them, revealing the reflections of every mirror in the house. Some were already cracked, useless. Fires ate at curtains and furniture, and someone had taken great pleasure in blasting his ancestors' collections apart. The writhing mass now invading the topmost floor from the roof and attic was a cloud of impossibly large, impossibly toothy, flying termites. Dark conjurations: Voldemort's weapon of choice.

Willing himself impassive to the destruction of his childhood home, James searched for movement.

He thought he recognized the Slav, Igor Karkaroff, among the masked Death Eaters, half-carrying a dazed-looking Barty Crouch. His breath caught when he spotted Voldemort. The Dark Lord froze and turned, as if he'd felt James' spell. His red eyes burned.

"Come, Potter, your ancestors' home needs you."

Twin snakes were wrapped around Voldemort's arm, stiffly, as if frozen with a body bind. Twin- Merlin. James forced a breath in his lungs. Fabian and Gideon are alive, that's what matters.

"Is Cousin Sirius there too?" Bellatrix waltzed into sight, her dark eyes glinting. Like Voldemort, she didn't bother to hide her face. "Did Dumbles tell you about traitor Baby Reggie? Pity he didn't think to flee to his big brother."

What? "Regulus is at Hogwarts," Padfoot snapped.

Voldemort's pale skin cracked into a sinister sneer. "Black," he tutted. "I marked Regulus years ago. Such a disappointing coward he turned out to be. His body has been cold for weeks."

"What?" Sirius exclaimed, turning to Dumbledore.

"Get away!" Moody snarled, yanking Padfoot out of sight of the manor's reflected mirrors "He's made them two-way."

Sirius shoved the older auror off him. "What's this about Regulus?"

Sirius winced when Moody slapped the back of his head. "Later," he hissed, trapping the mirror-spell in a bubble of silence. Bellatrix's vicious grin turned into a sneer when she realized she wasn't being heard anymore."There's enough left of the wards to block their exit, we must-"

At what cost? "Can you get the twins out?"

Worse than Moody's sudden scowl was Albus Dumbledore's pallor.

James' chest tightened as he realized what he had to do. Dad, I hope you would have approved. He began chanting words his father had taught him and that he'd never thought he'd say.

Invaders. The manor is lost. Do not let them leave. Protect the family and its guests.

It was like a rumbling you couldn't quite hear, like a chill or perhaps a tickle. It was all around them, and to James, like finally meeting a long-lost family member: foreign yet instantly familiar.

A manor's magic was layers upon layers, cast for comfort, for protection, but also for war. Potter Manor especially had been erected long before the Statute of Secrecy, when Dark Arts had still just been called magic and when many of the old blood families had looked upon the rich merchants building their own great house with hate, all too eager to teach them a lesson.

"What are you doing!"

"Not playing by their rules. They came for us, not the destroy manor. It's bad practice when you preach pureblood superiority." A ghost of a smile quirked James' lips. "Do you think any of the unmarked old blood manor-owners will believe them if they say they didn't mean to?" Too many still thought they could stay on Voldermort's good side.

Sirius' face fell as he caught on. He'd lived in Potter Manor for only two years, yet it was the place he meant when he said home. He grabbed James' arm painfully tight. "Get them out, Prongs, it's worth it if you get them out alive."

Fabian and Gideon were guests, the house turned against the others. Every enchantment, from the dusting charms to the inventory runes in the pantry, unraveled, sacrificing themselves to power the wards. To destroy the invaders.

"Shield us, Boss," James urged. Not that Moody had waited to be told.

A deafening blast of air and dust slammed against the sphere of protective magic around them.

Behind the mirrors, Lord Voldemort whirred in shock as the ceiling collapsed over him and Bellatrix. The large blocks of wood, stone and brick were covered by a sheen of burning magic. Rodolphus Lestrange fell, his chest sliced open by an animated curtain now hard as steel. A summons yanked to his wife by a summons. Soundlessly cursing, Bellatrix grabbed him and apparated out, immediately followed by Karkaroff and Barty Crouch. James flinched at the sight of Barty's splinched foot.

"They shouldn't even be able to apparate out," Sirius said darkly.

Eyes narrowed in hate, Voldemort gave up his counter-spell in seconds. Five masked figures had apparated to him in a cloud of dark smoke and were failing to apparate out, betraying increasing panic. It was only then that the self-titled Lord realized the snakes were gone from his arms. By incapacitating them completely, he had made it easy for the wards to treat the twins like objects and so now they rested, still transfigured, on the bed of the master bedroom, the only one still intact.

But not for long. The very walls shivered and cracked from magical strain. "Kipper, apparate Fabian and Gideon back here."

Voldemort had grabbed his Death Eater's robes and froze, unmoving. After a tense pause, he released three of them. Still, he didn't move. The Death Eater's shield spells buckled under the assault of murder-bent furniture. For the first time in James' memory, those nightmarish red eyes betrayed fear.

"He really thinks he had more than a second to get out?" There was a hysterical edge to Sirius' voice, equal hilarity and viciousness. "He thinks he's a match for centuries of wards? He's going to have to let Travers and that bastard Rabastan go too. Fingers crossed his Dark Mark won't be enough to let him out."

"Must be awkward to realize you're the expendable ones," James muttered as the three Death Eaters Voldemort had let go of struggled to keep their balance, and their limbs, under the collapsing manor's assault. There was no need of sound to realize they were screaming as they tried to flee.

Flint. And two of lineage mixed or unknown. James let the mirror-spell dissolve everywhere Voldemort wasn't, not particularly eager to see people, even Death Eaters, die. It was justice, he grimly told himself. By law, they would have been sentenced to death from the Dementor's kiss.

Something large and red suddenly flashed near Voldemort. Something that... flew? Dust and debris had made everything behind the mirror-spell blurred shadows. It looked like Bellatrix was back by her master's side. It couldn't be.

James stared in disbelief as they dying wards told him there was no one alive left in the manor.

"Oh, Tom, you never did know your limits," Dumbledore said, an odd, dangerous light in his eyes.

Something told James Dumbledore knew exactly how Voldemort and his three Death Eaters had managed to disappear. But he couldn't ask : the Headmaster was gone.

And before James now stood ruins: half-walls and piled up debris. Everything that had been home for so long, every memento from journeys made generations before. Erasmus' life work. Merlin, what would he tell the portrait? James' eyes burned.

"Hex yourselves with something impressive," Padfoot abruptly said. "You don't even have a scratch on you, it's embarassing."

James turned and realized Moody had fixed up the twins. The redheads looked dazed and a little yellow, but they'd already been yellow this morning. They'd need a couple more days to recover fully from those poisonous potion fumes Death Eaters had attacked Hogsmeade with last week (nobody had died, Fabian and Gideon deserved a medal for quick reflexes).

"Will you sack us, boss?"

"I would sack us."

Their tones were light, their smiles reassuring, and James had to grin. The two men had a knack for lifting people's spirits, even when times were rough.

"We've got a leak," Moody said gruffly. "One the seventy or so people who knew we'd be busy with the werewolves talked." James stiffened at the seventy or so jibe. "Whoever it is, Potter, they knew your wards or led him to someone who did. We need to tighten things up. Now move, before the Lestranges double back to ambush us."

Despite the late hour, James had volunteered to try to track down whoever their 'leak' was, but Moody had locked them up in the Longbottoms' guest room and told them to sleep the day's emotions off. James would have liked to think Moody had made that call because James was upset and exhausted, but he suspected that Moody was mad at them for not having been more careful.

He really hated being treated like a blundering kid. He hated thinking where did I mess up? even more.

"James, I... I'm so sorry."

James was getting fed up with the pitying glances. Lily and Moony looked like they were expecting him to cry and Padfoot looked like he was going to cry. "It was half a ruin already," he snapped.

Lily's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"

It had been a shock for James to learn upon graduating that the Potter fortune was only a few tens of thousand galleons strong, hefty savings for a working wizard, but not enough for a life in luxury. Worse, Father had left him his journals in his will, revealing that Potter Manor was crumbling.

Maintaining manors had never been about replacing materials: with magic, that was child's play. But anything new had to be integrated into the complex ecosystem of runes and enchantments of the domain. Every family had books full of spells defining what had been used and when. Such books were secret, often in code and never copied. The problem with close-guarded secrets is that they're too often lost.

But that was not the most common problem : the spells the books held had often been cast by the most powerful family members, eager to outperform their ancestors. Few of those mages had anticipated that, a century or two later, their more average descendants would take one look at the spells and realize they'd have to share their family secrets with at least two blood relatives to hope to match such crafting. Some families were close knit enough for it to work, but many heirs preferred to keep the family property to themselves rather than share their inheritance with more talented relatives. All too often, they would simply hope their own children would be up to the task.

Some expert mages made a career of figuring out building enchantments to tell their owners exactly what was where and what to do. It could nevertheless take years to restore a manor that was in a bad way and the costs were astronomical. Perhaps the reason mages so easily stayed in denial about their crumbling houses was that, until the strain from the enchantments grew too strong, the manors looked perfect.

Charlus Potter had admitted shortly before his death that he'd so readily volunteered to upgrade the wards at Godric's Hollow because he had never intended for James to make his life at the Manor. Past the first shock, James' respect for his parents and grandparents had soared. He appreciated that they'd preferred to use their money to support political endeavors such as the Squib Marches, rather than pour it all in a twenty-room 14th century home. Nevertheless, he struggled to let go of the anger.

Why coddle him like that? No doubt his doting parents had been afraid to upset him. And James would have been upset, but so what? At least he'd have known his parents better before they'd died. There had been no portraits of Charlus and Dorea, as tradition dictated they be made when one became grandparent, or for one's one hundredth birthday.

"Merlin's balls, Prongs," Sirius exclaimed, "how long have you been bottling that up?"

"Had to digest it. The point is, home's at Godric's Hollow. The Manor only existed because my many time great-greats were the kind to flaunt it." His shoulders slumped as he turned to his wife. Lily looked... sad. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier."

"Relax, I didn't marry you for your money." Still, Lily grimaced. "Those two thousand galleons I spent on potions ingredients..."

"It's war. You'll get an awesome job once this is over and Padfoot and I will be Moody's most decorated auror Captains. "

"Kicked out for insubordination that's what's going to happen to us," Padfoot said, his expression suddenly dark. "Guys, I need you to talk me out of shouting at Dumbledore."

James didn't have to guess. "Regulus?"

"Years. Red-Eyes said years. How the fuck was my brother marked while at Hogwarts and nobody noticed? He vanished weeks ago and nobody tells me anything?"

"The not telling could be to protect you," Moony pointed out. "It's not safe for you to go knocking at your mother's house and ask."

"Okay," Padfoot allowed. "I'll forgive not telling me. But years. At Hogwarts. I thought my idiot brother wanted to become a Death Eater not that he already-" Sirius shut his eyes and took a slow hissing breath. "Prongs, I can't do this. I'll say things I'll regret."

Yeah... So what? It's not like Sirius risked harming Albus Dumbledore and no doubt some shouting was warranted. Regulus had been a prick, but- Traitor. Bellatrix had said traitor. Voldemort had called him a coward. Regulus had been just seventeen, perhaps if someone had paid more attention-

"Let's go to Hogwarts." Lily decided. She yawned, reminding them it was well past 11 PM. "Let's. Let's sleep there like old times and tomorrow, we check all the students, every house, no exceptions, for marks or tracers or the like. Maybe we'll get answers, maybe someone will know something."

"I'll go track down my Head Boy's badge," James said with forced cheer.

Sirius' grim smile showed he appreciated the effort. "Damn it, Reggie," he muttered. "What did you do?"

They found two by the end of their first day of investigations. A sixth year Slytherin, and a seventh year Ravenclaw.

From the Ravenclaw, Iselda Greengrass, James learned that Grace Macmillan had been one of those who'd died at Potter Manor. Bad news : either the woman, an excellent dueler, was under the imperius curse, or the neutral families were growing increasingly not-neutral. Veritaserum had Greengrass admit that she was convinced that the Dark Lord would win. She had only scathing things to say about the ability of any of the Dark Lord's opponents and was disillusioned about Dumbledore managing much more than gain some time until he too was killed.

The Slytherin, Neleus Carrow, was of those dangerous fools that seemed to make the bulk of Voldemort's third-tier Death Eaters. He was convinced he'd been marked so young because the Dark Lord recognized his family's worthiness, and his own value above that of his older siblings. He planned to use the war to circumvent the fact he was third-born. Like Greengrass, he knew little of import and dutifully sent gossip to Rodolphus Lestrange. When Sirius demanded answers about Regulus, Carrow seemed genuinely shocked. Apparently Regulus had been high up, Lestrange's protegé. Carrow had no clue why Sirius' brother was dead and stared blankly when James volunteered that Regulus had been called a traitor.

Just after the interrogation, both students forgot all about having been found out.

"Let's give them something," Padfoot said, rage still stiffening his jaw. "Let's pretend say, that this guy overheard Prof. McG say something interesting."

In her office, Minerva McGonagall let them make their case. Unlike their Hogwarts days, she sat next to her desk rather than behind it, as if to acknowledge they'd outgrown her authority. As if they actually had, James thought fondly. He still struggled to call her by her given name.

"I do agree it could work. It should be outside of Hogwarts, and I will skip one of my own classes. It should suffice to convince our enemies that it is a matter of utter importance."

James blinked as he realized she meant to do much more than let a student report back on an eavesdropped conversation between teachers. "Why would you put yourself in such danger?"

"The pleasure of hexing some of my more unpleasant former students," She deadpanned. James bit back a smile, increasingly appreciative of her dry humor. Minerva's lips thinned. "Mr. Black and I talked briefly before he vanished."

"What, Regulus?" Sirius exclaimed. "What did he say?"

"He said we should have paid more attention. He sounded terrified. He was gone the next day. I... I'm sorry I didn't -." Her eyes were bright as she met Sirius' gaze. "We should have taken the time to monitor the students more closely. I-."

"The idiot's dead now," Sirius cut in stonily. "And if he was an active Death Eater, he was worse than an idiot. Let's focus on what we can do."

Padfoot was not alright. He'd hated his little brother, but he was not alright at all. But James had no idea what to say, so he just nodded along.

"We could pay Bartemius Crouch a visit." It was still late afternoon. "You did say you'd tell him about Barty."

"Moody hasn't bothered to yet?"

"Identifying who betrayed us, willingly or unwillingly, is more urgent." Minerva's lips twitched. "Do tell Crouch, Moody will thank you for it. Those two men argue enough as it is."

"The boss doesn't thank anybody for anything," Padfoot grumbled. He blushed slightly at his former teacher's pointed gaze.

Mrs. Crouch was the one who greeted them and led them to an empty room in the Ministry's most heavily warded area. She was a slight, elegant witch with a soft, almost subdued voice.

"Bartemius is so busy, so I try to help him where I can," she said with a slight, exhausted smile. "As you said it's about Barty, I thought it would be better. Their relationship is... strained."

"Can't imagine why," Sirius muttered as Mrs. Crouch summoned a tea-set towards them.

Not that either of them were upset to be dealing with her rather than her often bad-tempered husband.

Mrs. Crouch grew paler and paler as they spoke, her hands shaking. James felt wretched. It was obvious she loved her son.

"No, he- he must be-." An odd light entered her eyes. "Who else knows?"

"Moody, Dumbledore... we didn't broadcast it, but about a dozen people for now."

"You know them all?"

"Sure, but what-"

He wasn't sure who moved first, but he and Sirius realized at the same time their wands were gone. Not that they had been keeping them close, here of all places. Sirius slumped, struck by a wordless stunner.


Suddenly, James' surroundings stopped mattering.

"Morgana," the voice whispered. "It works. It really works..." The voice was important. James stood still, waiting.

"I'm going to teach you a spell. It locks out a fact. It makes you not think of it, you don't mention it. You never quite forget but it becomes utterly irrelevant. I like it because it stays irrelevant even if somebody brings it up to you. Repeat after me : Dedisco. Everyone will be safer this way."

James repeated. He wanted to please the voice. Mrs. Crouch. He had no reason not to. He couldn't remember ever having felt so calm, so content. No more fear. No more grief. Just the voice.

"Tell me who knows that Barty is a Death Eater."

Of course he told her. "Moody, Dumbledore, Edgar Bones, Anya, Rok, Igor Karkaroff, Vol-"

"Those who are not Death Eaters," the voice hastily said. "Tell me," she urged as he stayed silent.

He wanted to. For some reason, he couldn't. "I can't tell you the rest."


Now that she asked, the reason became obvious. "I am bound to secrecy to protect the identity of those who fight for Albus Dumbledore."

"Of course, it's sensible... But you know who knows and nothing stops you from hexing them?"

"Yes. No."

Mrs. Crouch's voice shook. "Then you will make everyone aside from Albus Dumbledore and the Death Eaters on that list forget that my son was the Death Eater. You will first hex those who are least likely to notice their memory was modified, and act as quickly as you can without arousing suspicion. Tell me, if I wanted to get Dumbledore hit with the spell or something similar, how would I do it without him noticing?"

James frowned. His mind felt a little sluggish, but he knew she needed that answer. "I... well, we've come to realize house-elves are underestimated..."

"Oh, oh ! that's clever. I'll take care of it."

The rest of the afternoon and the evening passed in a blur. Act as quickly as possible without otherwise behaving out of character.

Sirius, Remus, Lily, Minerva, Alice, Frank, Gideon, Fabian, Minerva, Edgar Bones, Dorcas, Marlene, Moody.

It's not that James wasn't there: he smiled and tensed up at the right moments, and if it wasn't quite right, the others dismissed it as grief over the manor. Inwardly, he felt detached, focused on making sure he obeyed the voice. When he had the opportunity to hex Lily, he hesitated. 'Everyone will be safer this way,' echoed in his mind, pushing everything else away.

Dedisco, he cast wordlessly.

He found an excuse to visit them all. He thanked Edgar for accompanying his wife with a bottle of fine wine. He pointed out that Dorcas should urgently look at what remained of the Potter wards because the traitor could have been fool enough to open them themselves. He sent Kipper to Moody at 10 PM, saying he wanted to clear the air. He signed it Contrite Insubordinate. It made Lily laugh.

When he cast Dedisco at Moody's back, James suddenly forgot what specific memory he had been locking away with the memory curse.

The auror spun impossibly fast despite his wooden leg, his thick fingers grabbing James' wrist. "Did you just hex me?"

"I... A prank." James grinned easily despite feeling somewhat at a loss. The voice hadn't said what to do if he was caught. 'Without otherwise behaving out of character.' But what reason could he have to hex Moody? "You'll soon see, boss, you should find it fun."

Moody wrestled James' wand out of his hand. "Priory Incantatem."

'Without otherwise behaving out of character.' James had done it. He had cast the spells. If Moody wanted to check his wand, James was duty bound to let him.

The dozen Dedisco poured out amidst the rest of the day's spells. It didn't take long for Moody to realize James was under the imperius.

James gasped as the whole of his mind was his once more. He swayed, his heart racing. "What -, why-... I" He shut his eyes, willing things to make sense. He couldn't seem to hold down a thought, like a migraine without the pain. "You should legilimize me, boss, I'm all over the place."

"I will if you tell me someone's about to get killed. Otherwise, it's not worth the harm I could do to you. The imperius makes the mind too fragile. Tell me what you remember."

"I spent the day until five or so at Hogwarts, then Sirius and I went to see Mr. Crouch. I saw Mrs. Crouch. I told her about the manor being destroyed. I said we made contact with the Slavs without saying it was lycans, or anything about werewolves. That's when things start being really foggy."

"Your second apparition of the day was as you left the Ministry?"

"Yes." That he was sure of despite the cotton in his brain.

"Then you hexed someone, no doubt Black, before you left," Moody said, finally handing back James' wand to him. "You must have been ambushed at the Ministry, or straight after."

"We went straight back to Hogwarts. I don't remember anything from the Ministry except seeing Mrs. Crouch," James said, panic making his voice a whisper. Who had hexed him? What had he made people forget?

"You wouldn't. The imperius curse shields its caster, unless explicitly made not to. It affects your memory, not just your will... I'll go speak to Mrs. Crouch." Moody looked grim but not angry, and he always looked angry when he felt they could have avoided a mess up. For some reason, it made James feel even smaller.

"Boss, why couldn't I shake it off?"

The auror suddenly looked older than his years. "Because deep down, lad, you're a trusting sort. Those who resist the imperius curse on the first attempt tend to have a massive authority issues. Usually because their upbringing was a nightmare. Shame whoever got you didn't try it on Black instead."

Moody's words should have helped, yet crushing guilt twisted James' guts."I'm so sorry, I- I'll say if I remember anything."

But none of them, not even Moody, ever suspected Crouch's soft-spoken wife. After all she had no Death Eater sympathies and stood staunchly by her husband. In the end, Voldemort wasn't the only one who underestimated the lengths a mother would go for her son. Unfortunately, Igor Karkaroff's trial erased Barty Jr.'s hope of escaping the war unscathed.

The following days were frantic. Everyone knew Voldemort would strike hard and soon.

James had been given time off. After two nights, he'd finally woken up feeling like himself, mentally, but emotionally... He'd hexed Lily. How could any spell make him hex his wife? He wished he could better remember being under the curse, then perhaps he could-

James and Lily stood in each other's arms in Harry's room, right now filled to the brim with sleeping portraits. It shouldn't be so hard, yet James had no idea what to do with any of them.

"We've gotten forty-seven people out of the country," Lily whispered.

"Worth a manor."

His wife leaned into his chest. "I didn't say that."

"No, I said it. We're not fighting this war for places." They all acted like he was insane and had willingly sacrificed his newborn. He was so fed up.

Lily abruptly smiled. The sight snuffed James's anger. "James, I am proud of you. Those purebloods, even the Order, can't wrap their minds around giving up a manor. You, not the Order, you, James Potter, saved the Prewett twins and won the day for us. You foiled Mr. Mort, by doing something he never expected."

James was grinning stupidly as she kissed him. Something about Lily had always made him feel invincible. Once an invincible arrogant showoff who struggled with boundaries, but Lily had been able to see past that, and he vowed, as he often did, never to disappoint her again.

Unfortunately the reason they were in this room didn't let the moment last.

"Let's just start with your favorite portrait. Or your least favorite, then you won't care if it shouts at you."

"I kind of like them all," James muttered unhelpfully.

They started when the wards alerted them of someone in the guest threshold. Nobody could apparate directly in the house anymore except for James and Lily.

Moody's expression made James' heart drop. The auror had rarely looked so weary.

"Who knew Edgard Bones was part of the diplomatic detail? Who exactly did you tell?"

James looked down. He'd - "I can't remember. I told... I guess I told..."

"You boasted like you were still at Hogwarts, you fool! Damn it, Potter, I don't ride you because I don't want to win this war! You cannot keep blabbing!"

"Can I offer you a drink, Sir?" Lily cut in with stiff politeness. She would have ripped the head off of anyone else for shouting at James that way. James squeezed her hand, thankful for her support as much as for her restraint.

"Your strongest coffee, please," Moody decided, bowing his head at Lily in a belated greeting despite his gruff tone. He abruptly clapped James on the shoulders and pulled himself a chair. "We did more for werewolves than we have in a decade, lad, and we got three Death Eaters. That's on you. Stand tall on that."

Cut out the moping, Potter, his pitiless gaze said, but James did stand taller. "Thanks for saying that, Boss."

"We also know there's a leak. That's valuable."

But the older man's face had darkened again, and that wasn't Moody brooding, that was something raw.

"What happened?" Lily said, her voice shaking as she clutched the coffeepot she'd just summoned.

"Susan Bones." Edgar's wife. Lily sucked in a breath. "She got a message, cheerful, from her husband, to meet him in front of his aunt's house. They struck before she could apparate. They could've cast a killing curse but no -" Moody slammed his fist on the table. "They left her there. Amelia did what she could, Albus showed up and left... She'll be dead in minutes if she isn't already, the fetus too. They wanted us to stand helplessly by as she died." He slowly breathed in, eyes far away. "We've moved the Bones."

James was glad he had been sitting. He had no words. The Bones had never been targeted before. Once James would have cursed and raged, now... it couldn't be a good sign, this shocked numbness, this hollow feeling of... of 'not again.'

"What will I say to Edgar?" Lily finally muttered, her green eyes wide in horror. "I asked him to come, I- Perhaps a letter... What do I write, James? What would you want to be told if -"

James knew his sudden grip on his wife's hand was painful. He couldn't help it. "Don't. Don't even think it."

"What can we do?" Lily breathed.

"Nothing. I didn't have to tell you immediately. I just needed an excuse to get away." Moody's eyes narrowed. "Tell anybody, this child will be your last."

James stared, not sure he'd heard right.

Moody barked at humorless laugh. "You've been beating yourself up over the imperius haven't you? Well, time you realize we're all fallible. We all need breathers. An auror who doesn't know when to stop is a menace." Moody's earnest expression made him look unusually... fond. "I might yet promote you. I need you to grow up fast, lad."

And so James got to see Moody weak? James sighed. Not weak, human. And that was the point. They needed wisdom more than pride these days.

"What's Black up to?" Moody said, reaching out for the biscuit plate.

"His fixing up a motorcycle at the Tonkses," James admitted after a pause, still rattled by his seemingly indestructible mentor's admission. "It's a flying war machine. You might want to check it out, Sir."

"The smokescreen enchantments are clever." Lily tapped three cups with her wand. The coffeepot levitated to fill them up with steaming coffee. "But I'm still not convinced breathing fire out of the exhaust pipes isn't more dangerous to him than to enemies."

Moody raised his eyebrows. "Black's got a flying fire-breathing motorcycle?" He huffed a laugh. "'Course he has. Doesn't suffer from a lack of guts, that one. Pain in my arse."

James grinned as he sipped his coffee. He grimaced at the bitter taste. Their strongest alright. "I daresay Sirius is a fine bloke considering where he's from."

"Fair enough. I'll tell him he's my favorite Black."

Moody's chair clattered backwards when a flash of fire filled the living-room. His petrifying hex shot forward before James had finished pulling out his wand. The hex seemed to dissolve in thin air.

"There you are, Alastor. Ah, sorry for the scare."

James gaped in wonder. Albus Dumbledore, with a... a phoenix perched on his shoulder. The fiery bird took off to settle on the back of one of the wooden chairs, its long tail feathers almost brushing the seat.

"The baby will live," Albus said softly, "she's sturdy for seven months. Edgar's naming her after her mother." He turned to the phoenix. "This one agreed he owed me a debt." His expression darkened. "It was too late for Susan, her heart was still pumping but the life had gone out of her. Even phoenix tears cannot cure everything. But young Susan, she should be fine."

"Albus," Moody said slowly, and for once he had been as speechless as the rest of them. "You mean to say it was this phoenix who apparated You-Know-Who out of Potter Manor?"

Merlin's pants, that was how Bellatrix had slipped back in the wards like they'd never existed?

The bearded wizard nodded. "It takes a special kind of arrogance to think one can enslave a wild phoenix. From what I could understand it is his tail-feather that powers Tom's wand. Tom used it as a summoning anchor."

"I could summon a phoenix?" Lily said, now staring at her own wand in wonder.

"No, you couldn't," Dumbledore said gently, his blue eyes crinkling.

"Shame, I'd treat them royally, I promise," she told the majestic bird. "I'm very glad Professor Dumbledore rescued you."

Wings half-spread, the phoenix extended its neck and let out a trill. The sound slid down James' throat like honeyed tea, suddenly he felt alert, and better than he had in days. The four shared awestruck smiles as the bird vanished in a new whirlwind of heat-less flames.

"You've got to befriend him, Professor," Lily said. "The Order of the Phoenix would take a whole new meaning."

"Oh he's very angry at Tom." Dumbledore's wistful tone betrayed he was just as charmed by the phoenix as the rest of them. "I suspect I'll be seeing him again."

Remus walked in standing prouder than Lily could ever remember seeing him. When he handed her a potion and a parchment, Lily's own smile grew to match his.

"Wolfsbane, and the recipe," he said. "Rok promised no Slav werewolves would help Voldemort."

"That's wonderful news!" And how they needed those. She hugged him and he chuckled merrily into her hair. "Great job, Remus."

"Mum said words is spreading. There are more people ready to reveal themselves, if they can be assured they'll get out. I'm going to have to convince Moody but-"

"Why would he need convincing?"

"The leak. He doesn't want to do anything that requires us to trust strangers. I'm going to give him another week to get over the loss of Potter Manor. He's been saying we need to cast Fidelius charms on all our safe-houses."

"Have you told him James is over it?"

Remus sighed, eyes still crinkling. "You tell him. Hopefully he doesn't growl at pregnant witches. This house was one of the places he mentioned wanting to ward up, by the way. Especially since the Fawleys, the Shafiqs, the Monmouthshire Abbots and the Oxford Bulstrodes publicly denounced You-Know-Who."

Funny how old-blood families responded more viscerally to a destroyed big house than to a hundred dead muggles and muggleborn. But this was not the time to be cynical, any advantage was a blessing.

Lily wanted to believe that if Voldemort was starting to specifically target James and her, it was because they'd delivered a true blow. That they weren't just puppies trying to take down an enraged hyena.

She cradled her barely swollen stomach, both excited and terrified for the future. We're going to win this, Harry. We are.

The werewolf arc is growing bigger than expected, but something caused a rift between Remus and the Order in canon, so we're building up to that.

And Fawkes is here ! Yay (Yep, I said the "Order of the Phoenix" be a thing before Dumbledore even got Fawkes, sue me^^). And I know Dumbledore told Harry Fawkes just "showed up" one day, but old Albus never volunteered much information to Harry about his parents or the last war so saying "actually, it was when Voldemort destroyed the Potter's ancestral home," wouldn't have been like him.

I admit the subplot with Mrs. Crouch happened because I realized I had written myself into a corner by outing Crouch Jr. as a Death Eater to the Order (why would anybody have been surprised by Karkaroff's reveal in canon if they'd all already known?), so I tried to figure out how to fix it and decided a woman ready to take her son's place in Azkaban would have no qualms doing everything to make sure he didn't go there in the first place.