delphi: Mod icon for the HP Beholder exchange. (HP Beholder)
[personal profile] delphi posting in [community profile] hp_beholder
Recipient: [personal profile] fluffyllama
Author/Artist: ???
Title: Straight On 'Till Morning
Rating: PG-13
Pairings: Rufus Scrimgeour/Alastor Moody with mentions of Rufus Scrimgeour/Gawain Robards
Word Count: 20,000
Medium: Fic
Warnings/Content Information (Highlight to View): * None*.
Summary: Two wars teach Alastor the old maxim was wrong. You keep your enemies close, but you keep your friends closer.
Author's/Artist's Notes: This fic has been one of the most daunting projects I've undertaken. Consequently, there're several people to thank.

Fluffyllama, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Your signup was absolutely phenomenal, and provided so very much inspiration.

Delphi, thanks so much for running such a fantastic fest. And for being the most amazing mod possible; your endless patience is immensely appreciated. Also, thanks also for all the lengthy conversations about rare characters; so many of your thoughts were invaluable to shaping this.

And to r: Fantastic cheerleader and even more brilliant beta. Thanks so much for all the brainstorming, and the handholding. This fic is immeasurably better for your input. Thanks especially for all the Dumbledore assistance, and for helping me keep my timelines straight.

The first scene draws heavily on details released in JKR's Pottermore biography for Remus Lupin. For anyone unfamiliar with it wanting more context, a page with the full text of the bio



1965

He wove his way through the cafe, moving instinctively toward the back. Lupin wasn't likely to want this conversation overheard, and an untrained man would forget the noise of a crowd could cover something just as well, if not better, than being in a corner. He caught a motion out of the corner of his eye and turned to see a man waving him over.

"Lile Lupin?"

"Alastor Moody?" The other man rose to pull out a chair as he nodded. Ruth was there a minute later to refill Lupin's coffee, and set a plate of scones in front of Alastor so forcefully enough he knew there was no point arguing when she insisted they were on the house.

"Man sits outside my door for a week so those bastards don't get ideas about coming back, least I can do is feed him." had been the only thing she'd say on the subject the first time it had happened, and she hadn't been budged since.

Alastor studied the other man; looked like coffee fumes were about the only thing keeping him upright. Lupin swirled his spoon through the liquid, dragging out the silence. "McDermid said you wanted someone to check the Wards on your place." He'd been on the hop since yesterday afternoon, and if he didn't finish this meeting, he'd be asleep in the cream, soon.

"I read about the Fiendfyre when you were stopping those people from kidnapping the woman in Wales." Alastor looked up, wondering what the bloody hell that had to do with anything, and found the other man's gaze riveted to the dressing peeking from beneath his cuff. "I had no idea they would drag an injured man out of bed."

"I've been out of bed a week, Lupin." He was laughing, despite himself, and Lupin tried a hesitant smile.

"They weren't very pleased with me for bothering the Aurors, and I worked at the Ministry long enough to know how they use Senior Staff to placate members of the public who could be difficult."

"And you thought they dragged me out of my sickbed to come and meet you. Now that that's cleared up, what's this about, Lupin?"

"Did anything make its way to your office about a recent failed obliviation and escape-"

"The werewolf, Greyback?” I've heard of it. Dearborn is a good man. He didn't deserve what Greyback and his mate did to him. Neither did your son."

He and Caradoc met when Alastor had put an end to his ambitions of joining the ranks, and they'd somehow managed becoming mates despite it. Officially, of course, it wasn't Auror jurisdiction, which would have been fine under normal circumstances; the blokes in capture knew their job, by all accounts. But, when more than a month went by with nothing, he'd had a chat with their head. Whole lot were practically wetting themselves thinking about a confrontation with Greyback. If Greyback showed up on the beach outside Azkaban one morning, there wouldn't be any complaints. Or too many questions about the circumstances, come to that.

Luckily, Albus had an uncanny knack for ferreting out information, and wasn't half so averse to using it for a friend as he'd expected.

Lupin raised his cup in acknowledgment. "If you want the truth, I think it's far harder for us than for Remus. We forget, sometimes, how brave and resilient children are." Alastor made a noise he hoped would pass for agreement. "It's actually my wife I'm here about. She's a Muggle. God willing, Greyback will have gotten his pound of flesh, but if he hasn't, she would be a prime target."

He reached across and gave the other man's shoulder a brief squeeze of reassurance. "It's been over a month since he attacked your boy; he's not likely to have waited this long for a second go at revenge."

"He waited weeks to attack my son. Granted, the full moon played a large part, but you can't tell me it is entirely improbable he is lulling us in to a false sense of security."

"She scared you can't protect them properly?"

"Greyback's become her Boggart, and when we encounter one, I can't vanish it." He put a hand over his face, and his voice was barely audible when he said: “Really,
Can you blame her? All my skill, and I couldn't stop him turning our son in to a werewolf."

No one deserved to suffer like this. And constant vigilance was never a bad thing.

Rufus would throw a fit, but Alastor had more than one way to deal with that. "I can ward the place tighter well enough. But I'm rubbish at teaching warding to civilians. There's a man in the office; I'll give him some overtime and he can come and walk you through it so you can shore them up around full moons."

Robards had been appalled by the coverage of the Lupin boy's recovery; Alastor doubted it would be a hard proposition to sell.

"He can come whenever he likes. Unemployment is one more gift Greyback graciously bestowed." His mouth twisted. "Though Merlin knows if the rumors are true, I've no right to complain; did they really sack Dearborn when his wife was expecting."

"Aye." Ten years he'd spent clawing his way up through Obliviation for nothing.

"It wasn't even the full Moon. A third year Defense text could have told them he would pose no danger unless the bite was inflicted then."

"Seems the cafeteria has an aversion to making rare steaks." At Lupin's appalled expression, he barked a laugh. "We haven't become quite that bad, yet. It's the scars. Can't have obvious ones if you're mingling with Muggles; they'll bolt before you can get close and perform the Charm." Greyback had always intended to make Caradoc an example, always intended him to survive and carry the tale of what happened to those that got in his way. Annie, his youngest, had cried herself sick the first time she saw him with his bandages off, according to Lydia.

"I understand why they sacked Dearborn; but you can't tell me even the idiots in Regulation think you can catch lycanthropy from being in the same room as your son."

"As you said, they haven't become quite that bad." He sighed. "My wife, Hope, is a teacher. One of us needed to stay with Remus; no one would agree to care for him now. She's already given up so much; I couldn't possibly ask her to sacrifice her vocation as well. I complained from the moment I agreed to take the Regulations post that I wanted to do scholarly research again, even though the pay's spottier. I can coordinate publication and lecture engagements around the full moon and whatever else Remus needs."

"Decent of you."

"My carelessness already cost my son."

"Lupin, you can't think a burst of temper caused this. You found him out when he was doing everything he could think of not to be discovered. The moment you named him a werewolf, this was likely to happen, no matter what you said after."

Lupin pushed to his feet, scrabbling in his pocket for some Galleons. "I said he was a soulless monster and-"

"The least I can do is pay, since it will be a few days until Robards can set your wards," he said gruffly.

Subsiding back into his chair, Lupin said, "Logically, I know you're most likely right. I just can't help but wonder if that insult was the final straw, as it were."

"Dumbledore always says that werewolves, if you raise them the same as other children, don't turn out any worse or better than they would have without the bite. With parents like you and your wife, I've a feeling your son will turn out well enough. You ought to owl him when the boy gets closer to eleven; if anyone knows someone willing to home school a werewolf, it's Albus."

Lupin drained the last of his coffee and stood. "Thank you, Auror Moody. I'll do that, and I'll look forward to...the man you'll send."

He'd make certain to tell Albus, in case the man forgot or decided it wouldn't come to anything; Albus didn't forget things like that. "Robards, Gawain Robards."

"I'll look forward to Mr. Robards visit. It's only fair that I split the bill."


***

He cracked open an eye, and glowered blearily at Albus's latest birthday present, currently playing a cheerful jig beside his left ear. If he'd needed a reminder why he rarely used this, he'd have had it now. Cursed thing would keep at it until he rolled out of bed, no matter what button he pushed. If an emergency came in from the office, he was up and dressed in three minutes, same as everyone else. On the days there wasn't something, he wanted to wake up slowly, even if it did put him a few minutes behind. But he'd not miss this for anything, not with how hard Rufus had worked for it, and the coffee he should've known better than to indulge in while he talked to Lupin had kept him from falling asleep when he should have; if the clock could turn off, he'd have slept through the whole party.

He rolled out of bed and got presentable as the clock skipped back to its spot on the dresser. Five minutes later, he was pushing open the door of the hall that had been rented for the occasion.

The place was already nearly three-quarters full, and he scanned the crowd until he spotted the host of the proceedings.

"Well, aren't we making a name for ourselves already? Man of the hour not here yet?"

His most recent trainee grinned, pushing a lock of wavy hair back from his eyes. "Gawain Robards, always prepared to leap into the breech; isn't that what you said? I thought planning my team leader's first trainee surprise party would be a good way to start. And not quite yet; he should be here in a quarter hour. The perils of planning a surprise. He decided he just had to be in the middle of Graves' raid on those ingredient suppliers."

"Regretting taking my advice yet?"

"You know I'm not. If I were the sort of person who would, you would’ve never given it in the first place. He's as hard as you claimed, but I'm doing important work."

"Body guarding Minister Leech, I hear."

"If you ask me what it was like to meet the Minister, I'm not answering. Nothing I could say would keep me from coming off like a trite idiot. I still just...it's been three years, and I can't believe a Muggle-born actually won."

He was loosened up enough to make his favor about Lupin a nearly guaranteed yes. "I've got a proposition for you."

Robards leaned across him and ladled up a bowl of stew from the pot with its perpetual warming charms resting on the buffet table. "Not before you've had some lunch, you don't."

"You make that?"

"Sure did, and remember every single thing I was doing while I did; no blank spots or tampering."

He shrugged and took a spoonful. "Always worth checking, Robards."

"What is?"

"Late to your own party, Rufus?"

"Seeing as there was no indication of a party being planned, I was working, Alastor."

"You're the youngest Auror to have a trainee in the last half century, and you didn't think we would plan you a party." Robards rolled his eyes, throwing up his hands.

"This is all far too lavish to come out of the office budget-"

"For Merlin's sake, Rufus, we all know you want to be Deputy Head; save it for when you have the badge." Rufus glared at him, but then, that was a given.

"Collections are a wonderful thing, sir, and the office seemed remarkably willing to contribute for free food. A friend of mine just got on the staff here and gave us a discount to use the hall." Rufus looked along the buffet and then back towards Robards.

"Did you make scones?" Robards had done the least paperwork of any trainee he'd ever heard of. He'd learned quickly that if Alastor's work was too dangerous, a constant supply of pastries guaranteed he'd be out with another Auror before he could say please.

"Cranberry included, and they've stayed wrapped in anticipation of your arrival, along with the bread." Rufus stopped fussing at that and got down to the business of filling his plate with everyone else.

"Proposition I mentioned," Alastor said, lingering a moment after Rufus and most of the others had drifted away.

"I owe you one for steering me in Rufus's direction when it came to choosing a team; what is it?"

"You following the Lupin case at all?"

"Not really; they haven't caught the bastard, and that would be the only important piece of news. I don't suppose you know what in Merlin's name is taking Werewolf Capture so long? He seems a prime example of someone who would ally himself with whoever this Nocturn malcontent is."

"Which is why they're wetting themselves and making a good show that doesn't accomplish a damn thing."

"Whoever he is, he's getting bold as brass." Werewolf Capture weren't the only ones having a fright by the sound; Merlin knew he couldn't blame the man with the way whoever this was was going after Muggle-borns. "We thought they were simply upset by Leech's election and would make a mistake before now.
But he's not slipping, and the sooner we can capture a likely suspect, the sooner we can get information and subdue him. Surely they understand-"

"Greyback proved with Lupin he'd go after their kids, Robards. Most everyone has a family; if not kids of their own, nieces, nephews. Hard to go for a man that fights that dirty if you lose."

"Fair enough."

"It was Lupin I wanted to talk to you about," he said, and Robards raised an eyebrow. "He put in a request with McDermid to have someone take a gander at his wards. Could do it myself, but you have a knack for teaching the spells. And if we teach him to do it-"

"He'll calm down and stop jumping at shadows, which will cut down on false alarms for us and Capture which may help them regroup and raise morale. Of course I'll do it; even if it doesn't help, it'll set their minds at ease, and his son has enough to be getting on with. They all deserve to feel safe in their own home."

"I'll do my best to convince Rufus to put you in an overtime request, since he did come to us, but no promises."

"Merlin knows I won't turn down more Galleons, but I'll do it on my own time if necessary. It's not as though it will be a terribly time-consuming task."

Truth be told, that was a relief with the fuss Rufus was likely to cause. He'd been half afraid he'd take Rufus's view that it was none of their concern.
"I'll let you know one way or another."

Robards nodded and turned to speak to a gangly woman Alastor recognized after a moment as Rufus's trainee...Meadowes, if he wasn't remembering wrong, and he went searching for Rufus. He found him without too much trouble in a corner, morosely nursing a glass of juice and picking at a scone. "Don't much like the look of Meadowes?" he asked, dropping into the empty seat beside Rufus.

"Would you, in my place? Everyone tells me what an opportunity I've been given, having a Trainee at twenty-five."

"Year before I did; that's impressive, if I say so."

"You've seen her aptitude scores, Alastor. She barely passed the Practical in Defense, and her investigative skills are appalling. We both know there is more to this job than wielding a wand effectively."

"Those are the bits you're supposed to convey to the trainee, Rufus."

"They don't think it appropriate for me to have ambitions this early in my career and are giving me an incompetent they know will wash out within the year to remind me of my place. We both know there are some things one understands instinctively to succeed at this. If you do not, and she doesn't, no training can substitute."

"Idiot. They're not putting you in your place. They want to start grooming you. To do that, they've got to know how well you work with all sorts and if you can handle failure without cracking or being stupid. Yeah, she's a washout, which is a damn shame, because she's a fine duelist. What they want to see is what you'll do about it. Will you try and teach her against your better judgment, or take a black mark for failing a trainee so you can get a better one next round? That's all this is, Rufus."

"They should be far more concerned with what I can do given an adequate trainee." He wasn't a patient enough sort to respond well to it'll come, Alastor had learned over the last few months, so he changed the subject; not that he'd take it well, but at least he'd stop sulking.

Briefly, he explained the Lupin situation, and what he wanted with Robards. By the end of it, he was about as pleased as Alastor had expected. Through clenched teeth he said, "If Robards chooses to undertake it on his own time, it is none of my concern. But, there is no need for him to do so as a Ministry representative. Allowing Lupin to panic over his Wards merely reinforces Capture's ineffectiveness, and if Greyback is determined, they will do no good anyway."

"Rufus, listen. Unless they've got their head up their arse, everyone knows Capture's ineffective anyway. Keeping up Ministry morale's well and good, but not when you're lying and no one bloody believes you. I could have sung their praises all day, and it wasn't going to reassure Lupin or his Muggle wife and son."

"If you had simply refused to humor his concerns-"

"If the world were perfect, the shite they teach us in training would work. But it's not, and we've both been doing this long enough to know that unified front rubbish only works on certain people."

"So allow Lupin to be frightened. I doubt he'd want to frighten anyone else by speaking out. And with his son as a werewolf, he's likely to simply be written off as paranoid about Greyback having another go. You know that." They'd been having this argument since Rufus graduated and moved into the cubicle across from his five years ago. He was just bloody glad Rufus came into the program the year before he'd been given a trainee because teaching that one would've made him a lunatic. "What they may guess and what is confirmed are different things. What if someone sees Robards warding Lupin's property and recognizes him? You could send them in to a panic regarding Greyback, and they could speak out."

"Robards is smart enough to say he’s an old family friend who’s concerned and to transfigure his appearance before he goes to look like Lupin’s contemporary.”

"People need to learn to respect the officials of the Ministry enough to take their word at face value; if Capture told him there was no need for security, he needed to trust their expertise and not come to us on a matter which is not even our jurisdiction; Greyback's links to this Nocturn malcontent are tenuous at best. If we undermine other Departments, all our credibility suffers."

He would've kept going if they'd been alone. Of course they all knew Lupin had grabbed the flimsiest reason he could think of to bring it to their attention because they knew more about securing properties than Capture. But, it was Rufus's moment, and starting an obvious scene was crass. And much as he'd enjoy the benefits of a quiet alcove once Rufus decided he wanted to channel his irritation into something other than sniping, obvious involvement with another Auror was a foolproof way to get knocked off the list for promotion, which Rufus would never forgive him for.

"I'd best be off. Long day tomorrow." Rufus nodded and stood to follow him toward the door. "If you can stop sounding like a training manual, come to my place later; ordered a good bottle of whiskey, and we'll do this congratulations business properly." Rufus's skin was weathering from all his time in the sun, but Alastor liked the flush it was still pale enough to show very well.

"Perhaps." He tried for dismissive, but he still had a thing or two to learn to fool someone who'd started interrogating suspects when he was still in school.

"Have it your way. Can't say I'd mind keeping a bottle of 1900 to myself." He opened the door and stepped out into the noonday sun.

1980

"Now there's a sight I never thought to see. I'd almost call that primping, Rufus." Rufus growled something under his breath, tugging at the high collar of his dress shirt as though that would make it loosen. "Nice job on the press conference with Crouch."

"I'm surprised you know, as I didn't see you there." He'd been organizing Black and Potter's surveillance in Tinworth and slipped in the back near the end.

"Couldn't find a seat in the front, but I was there." As Rufus stepped away from the mirror he reached out, setting his collar to rights; for all his fussing, it was still crooked. "Looks nice," he said softly, curling a hand at Rufus's nape.

"I've got to go an-"

"They won't have your new cubicle cleaned before tomorrow, and you know McDermid won't resent you celebrating; he'll be doing the same thing once he's done with his shift. No one will think your slacking off."

"He'll make a good new head if Bodsworth had to go."

"He was tired, same as the rest of us from this war, and he'd earned his retirement."

"I can't imagine how one would fill one's days."

"You'll notice I didn't say I'd do what he did."

"I didn't expect it, not this soon; I'm barely forty; I'll be the youngest Deputy Head in the last few years."

"They need a good field leader, and you're one of the best."

"There's you."

"Couldn't pay me enough galleons to deal with all the politics. You'll do fine, with all of it." It was true enough; he was a little too eager to use
the Unforgiveables for Alastor's taste, but the war had hardened them all in different ways. Much as he didn't agree, he wasn't surprised. He knew most of the Order was concerned Rufus's loathing of vigilantes would be a problem; but what Rufus didn't know wouldn't get his wand in a knot or keep them from doing what needed to be done. What would happen if Alastor ever wasn't able to keep him in the Dark about exactly who was a member or how extensive their activities were was something he wasn't keen to think on.

He realized Rufus was glaring silently at the cane propped in a corner. The Healers told him the limp should be manageable as long as he stayed off it for several hours every day, but Rufus hated even that concession to weakness, and the cane was worse. And his work for the Order wasn't helping. He'd been staying in his flat more than here. There were only so many excuses he could give for talking to Albus if he Flooed here, and Rufus was already furious he'd told him about their relationship to begin with. Unfortunately, Rufus's shocked look when he came through the Floo told him Rufus had another explanation for why he was staying away. Now that he'd kept Rufus away from the office for the day, he could start showing him how wrong he was.

He leaned forward, slowly, and after a long moment, Rufus met him halfway.

As he was struggling with the endless buttons on Rufus's dress shirt (he'd just about decided to pull the thing over his head and reattach the damned infernal buttons later), he heard the whoosh of the Floo and then silence. He ignored it, suckling the spot under Rufus's right ear that always made him begin to shiver under his hands. The Auror on desk duty would've identified themselves and kept calling until they got an answer if it were an emergency.

He finally managed to slip the shirt off Rufus's shoulders. There was another whoosh, and he cursed. Only person it could be was Albus, though Alastor was damned if he could think what he wanted. Everything was fine in Tinworth and Albus wouldn't bother him about reviewing the Defense post applicants when he knew Alastor was celebrating.

Slipping out of Rufus's hold and ignoring the frustrated sound behind him, he went down the hall. One look at Albus's head sitting in the flames and he knew. "Tinworth?" he asked, wondering why in the hell he'd ever thought things would be fine leaving those two hotheads alone. Albus nodded and started to speak. "Let me go make my excuses to Rufus."

Albus sighed. "I am s-" Alastor didn't wait for him to finish; there wasn't time and they both knew it.

"Looks like the Board of Governors wants Albus's choice sooner than we thought," he called, putting his clothes in order even as he stepped back in to the bedroom.

"And of course when the vaunted Albus Dumbledore calls-"

"He's a friend, Rufus, and I said I'd do this. Give me an hour, and we'll be done."

"You claimed you would be done days ago."

"Two candidates both have good qualifications. He reinterviewed them both." They were fortunate in the applicants this year, even if most of the time they should have been working on this'd been taken up with Order business. Forcing his tone to stay light he said, "And that's a hell of a way to glare at somebody doing you a favor."

"What favor would that be, exactly?" The growl in that gave Alastor a good idea what he'd see if Rufus had shucked his robes already.

"You're Deputy Head; you've got to review applications. We've all been saying for years that we need more recruits and nobody wants to lower the admissions standards." And half the reason Albus formed the Order was to utilize the duelists that couldn't make the cut. "Only way the Newt scores are going to be decent enough to get more recruits is if there's a good Defense instructor that can focus on what they need, and maybe get them a little ahead so we can shave off some training time and get them in the field." Cover for spending so much time with Albus or no, he was doing his damnedest to peg who could get them ahead without getting them killed.

"So, your assistance to Dumbledore is mostly a favor to the office."

"And what the brass are going to remember is that when you and McDermid started leading, recruitment went up." Thank Merlin Rufus shut up after that, because he didn't have time for this.

Once he was inside the study with Imperturbable Charms up, Albus said: "Sirius and James-"

"Engaged the bloody Death Eaters when I told them to wait to provoke them until I was in the area on official business tomorrow! You have any idea what it looks like when I'm always running off to investigate attacks on those boys and the Prewetts? Everybody else waits unless it's an emergency, but not those six!"
"I know, Alastor, but you know his brother's death has made Sirius more impulsive of late. They set a Muggle-born woman's shop on fire, and Sirius reacted."

"Was the woman inside?" he asked, stomach sinking. Albus shook his head.

"Sirius was concerned that a large law enforcement presence would frighten off the Death Eaters, and that before we could find them, they would reek more havoc. He and James provoked them in an attempt to incapacitate them." And he'd been the one who told them injured Death Eaters were easier to keep a tail on. "I would have had James call the Aurors, but I suspect Sirius may have lost his temper and used a Spell not approved by Crouch."
Which was just about anything that was even a little morally gray for civilians.

"I'm on it. Do I need to call Caradoc to obliviate anyone?"

"James contacted Remus our way, and he handled it swimmingly; you know his propensity for charm work." And Lupin could better protect himself than Caradoc if there was an attack by more of You-Know-Who's people, which was likely without an Auror on the scene.

"Sorry." If he'd been alone at his place, Albus could have sent a Patronus and he would've been there immediately.

"I believe it is I causing you complications, which I have been doing since the moment I requested you join us."

"I said yes, didn't I? Anyone injured?"

"Sirius, I believe."

"Figures; he at Mungo's?"

"Miss Vance has agreed to come and stabilize him for transport once I tell her you have arrived. James is guarding him for the moment, and would have said if his injuries were life-threatening."

"Give me five minutes and then tell her I'm there."

"Thank you, Alastor."

The fire went cold, and he pushed open the door, calling, "We got interrupted. Alert from the office."

"I'll-"

"No. They'll want to save the surprise of displaying that shiny badge for something bigger. Raids Bagnold's got planned on the Pure-blood families, if
I don't miss my guess; throw them off balance when they expect the old Head and Deputy to be there. I've got this one."

He came in to the hall, and Rufus met him halfway. Tangling his fingers in Rufus's hair, he pulled his head down the few inches it took to kiss him.
He let himself feel the warmth of Rufus's skin, take in the scent of his hair, enjoy the barest scrape of teeth when Rufus thought his attention was wondering.
No one had ever accused Rufus Scrimgeour of stupidity or moral flexibility; he was damned lucky for every moment he could steal where Rufus didn't know. Because when he did, that would be that.


***

He and Vance arrived simultaneously, and he only needed to glance at her face when she rose to know Potter had held out on Albus, or Black had held out on Potter.

"We can fix it all," she said at his furious glare at the boy. "I can even do it without him needing to go to Mungo's; it's just going to take a little while." Black tried to force himself up on an elbow, and when Vance bent to push him back down, looking angry herself now, he kissed her knuckles. "Not as graceful as I would've liked," he whispered, "But it'll due, I guess. You deserved something for keeping me out of the hospital."

"Move again, Sirius, and I'll take you there myself and recommend you be on bed rest for a week," she said without the hint of a smile. Alastor could see him nearly biting back the urge to make some sort of display, probably of wounded dignity, but he restrained himself.

He plucked Black's wand off the ground and passed it to Potter. "I'm going to have to file this; Aurors deserve to know Rosier and Wilkes are injured. They suspect them as much as we do, and getting proof and arresting them without Order intervention will give them a victory."

"And get them off our backs?" Potter asked. He nodded.

"You take Black's wand. They'll do Priori Incantatem, but they won't keep it up past the last few spells, if they look plausible. Defensive and Offensive, but only what you learned at Hogwarts; Crouch hasn't gotten round to outlawing those, yet."

Potter nodded and got to work.

Vance's wand hand remained steady, even as she kept a wary eye on their surroundings. "Don't drop your guard; always a chance they've missed something, but detection spells aren't picking anything up."

"Mmm," she glanced up for a moment and gave him a fleeting smile.

"You sure we don't need to move him?"

She pushed sweat-soaked hair behind an ear and sighed, not pausing a second as she answered. "For our safety, yes. But...he's provoked them or been attacked three times in as many months. They hate him; he's a Blood traitor that can beat them at their own game. I'm almost afraid that, if we sent him there, they'd target the hospital to get at him. Once I finish the initial healing, all he'll need are people to monitor him, enforce bed rest, and pour Potions down his throat. His friends are as capable of that as we are. And they won't expect a Healer not to follow procedure and send him home without at least a follow-up with a Senior Healer. If he never shows up on the records, they won't realize how badly he's hurt. And he sent them off smarting; they'll not be in a hurry for a rematch if they think he's in top form."

"Fair enough." He lapsed into silence, watching the elegant spirals her wand made across the boy's torso.

"You're not in a shrine, you know." His head jerked up. "Silence isn't a requirement for successful healing; you won't break my concentration...should I leave some of the minor burns alone so it'll look as though he's just taking care of them without a Healer's assistance when you take his statement?"

"Not a bad idea; might throw the Office off their suspicions of an Order Healer."

"For future reference, being told the Aurors suspect your involvement while engaging in illegal activity isn't terribly comforting, Moody."

"They don't suspect you, and you know I'd give you enough warning to leave the country if need be."

"Brighter and brighter; a chorus of birds will appear over my head at any moment." If the situation weren't so dire, he would’ve provided one to pay back that bit of cheek.

Ten minutes later, she was packed up, and Potter was hauling Black to his feet. He waited until she'd vanished around the corner and then signaled Potter to Side-Along-Apparate Black. "Remember what Vance said and-"

"Take it in slow stages, two or three miles at a time with lots of rest in between. I've got it, Moody."

"I wanted to be sure, since you don't seem to be remembering orders as well as you should, today." At least Potter looked sheepish before they vanished.

If he hadn't been planning to file this, he'd have needed to clean up the blood and repair the damaged cobblestones. As it was, he wanted evidence of an attack; maybe they could finally get traces of Rosier and Wilke's magical signatures. So, once they were gone he Disapparated to his place. He'd Floo Rufus, tell him he needed to pick up some forms and collect Black's statement. Once he'd spoken to Potter and Lupin for enough details to make a good cover, he'd write it up, and he and Rufus could get back to a proper celebration.


***

The first thing he heard when he Apparated back to Rufus's place two hours later was the clink of glasses. It only took a glance at the cloak hanging by the door to guess Robards had come to celebrate. He moved down the hall, stomach tightening as he glanced into the kitchen; none of Robards' trademark baked goods, and it was too quiet for a festive occasion. He wondered if they'd had the awful luck for Airmid's birthday to have been today.

Looking at Robards’ drawn face as he came to sit beside Rufus on the sofa, he had an awful suspicion his guess was right. Pausing, he clasped Robards's shoulder; Merlin knew the man had had little enough to celebrate since his sister's death. Looking to Rufus for queues (last thing he wanted to do was mention an occasion, judging by the lack of baked goods, Robards hadn't come for), he found his expression completely blank. Before he could ask how the hell they were handling this, Rufus stood and moved to the sideboard, staring at the bottle like it was the most interesting thing in the world as he poured another drink.

"There wasn't an alert at the office." The conversational tone in Robards voice had all Alastor's instincts shouting for him to flee; he knew how to lull suspects as well as anyone.

"No; told Rufus, McDermid wanted it kept quiet, and I've got a rapport with Black."

"You really must; this is what, the seventh time you've taken his statement after an attack in the last two years. They must desperately want to kill him."

"They want to kill you more, but not by much; Blood traitors are right below Muggle-borns in their book. You remember how tedious the paperwork gets after the first one; I was just moving things along for him." Since he'd moved the last five assault reports Robards had needed to make when his swiftly rising successful captures and blood status had started bringing him to You-Know-Who's attention along, that should be the end of that. A low blow to mention them, but when the man got something between his teeth, he didn't let it go, and Rufus's silence was starting to be unnerving.

"You have something to contribute?"

He shook his head, gaze distant. "I will let Gawain finish, I think."

"If I'd realized I was coming to an interrogation, I'd have stayed home."

"Dumbledore was meeting with Black recently in the Hogs Head."

"Bit of advice, and you're free to take it or leave it. But you're a good Auror, and you're the person I have to thank most for keeping Rufus out of a grave the last decade; I'd rather not see you jinxed and made a fool of. Don't use your spying talents on Albus."

"Awfully protective, aren't you, of a man who claims he has no knowledge of vigilante activities and nothing to hide."

"Albus is a private man who’s done nothing wrong; he won't take kindly to you watching over his shoulder."

"I wasn't, actually. Meeting with a contact; I just found it curious that he was meeting with a recent student."

"Curiosity got the cat's nose stung, Robards."

"Killed it, actually."

He rolled his eyes. "Been telling you for fifteen years; adapting to fit the situation is a useful skill for an Auror."

"I've been trying to learn it from the first moment you brought it up." An expression flitted across Robards’ face he couldn't identify.

"It's been a long day, and I'm tired of the entire office being paranoid about Albus; constant vigilance's one thing, but tailing an innocent man is a waste of time none of us can afford."

"I wasn’t suggesting tailing Dumbledore originally. I was wondering if he knew something about Black. After all, Black's Magical signature was near Airmid's house, one of the ones that masked the Death Eaters." Robards' voice was tight.

"He wasn't covering for comrades, Gawain; I'll steak my life and reputation on it." The use of his given name seemed to give the other man pause.
"I'm sorry civilians mucked up the case; you know I did every spell I could think of to try and pick out traceable evidence, but there were just too many signatures."

"If the vigilantes you've trained hadn't meddled, there wouldn't have been."

"You'd best have had a hell of a lot more of that bottle than it looks like you did, Robards."

"If Black isn't a Death Eater, then he has to be a vigilante. There's no other explanation as to why he would've been at her house. They must have believed she was a target as my sister. And the vigilantes can stand up to Death Eaters too effectively, and they know spells from our arsenal. Either Dumbledore is training them; we all know he knows something about combat from his duel with Grindelwald, or it's an Auror."

"So: I take black's statements about his attacks. His signature's near your sister's body. And you put those two things together and think I'm training him to be a vigilante. Do you hear what you sound like, Robards?"

"McDermid never sent you an alert," Rufus said suddenly. "But you did speak to Dumbledore just before, who we've suspected for months."

Alastor whirled. "I have had just about enough of this shite. He comes up with some mad theory, and you rush to defend it. There something you've forgotten to tell me, Rufus."

Robards spoke softly, clearly trying to break the tension. Alastor would've appreciated the effort more if he hadn't been the one to create it. "I was in the office all morning. Rufus used the new two way mirrors you invented to ask me if there'd been an office alert." He thought for the hundredth time how furious they'd all be if they knew the invention they'd come to rely on so heavily had been made by two vigilantes when they were in school. "He didn't just want to sit on his hands and wait for the opportune moment to be paraded out as Deputy Head. I told him there hadn't been anything. He said McDermid had sent you an alert, and he was worried about you because you’d left your mirror, which you never do. McDermid was at lunch, so I asked Gladise, the new secretary, if he had the mirror he'd had made when Rufus became Deputy. I knew that would be the quickest way to learn where you were. She said he hadn't brought any of his mirrors in today."

One little thing; but then, it always was. Get away with something long enough, and you'd inevitably get sloppy. He'd said the alert came from McDermid because if it had come from the Auror on desk duty for the day, she'd have tried the Floo in the sitting room when she couldn't get through in the study and Rufus would've heard it. And as long as the alert logically could have come over a Mirror, everything would've been fine. In hindsight, he should have considered that McDermid might not be carrying any of his. But he'd thought Rufus still trusted him enough to not check his cover. Though why he'd thought Rufus would sit out a fight was beyond him now.

"Suppose the only question is, what are you going to do about it?" He'd lain, more nights than he could count, feeling the even rise and fall of Rufus's chest beneath his cheek, watching the sky slowly lighten, and thought about how fragile what he had was. One curse, and either or both of them could be gone in a second. Of course, he'd known well enough that this bit of news would shatter everything just as easily. But, somehow, he'd never really believed it would come to this. He'd been ten kinds of fool, but he and Albus had constructed everything so damn carefully that he'd let himself forget Albus's plans were as vulnerable to human error as the rest of them.

If all they'd had was suspicions, he'd have brazened it out. Not just because of Rufus, though that was a larger part of it than he had ever planned. But, the Aurors needed every able body they could get. And if he was sacked for vigilantism, his entire caseload would get retried, and inevitably, at least some of the bastards would walk free. It made his fists clench, but there wasn't a damn thing he could do; Quaffle was at their hoop, now.

"Why? Why turn to a bunch of civilians; why decide they were better than the people you'd trained for three years?" Rage would have been so much easier to deal with than the hurt in Robards' voice.

"They're not, and they never will be, Robards. They're different is all."

"If you mean untrained fodder, I'll grant you that," Rufus snapped. "But then, I suppose a man who waited years to challenge Grindelwald even after the need for his intervention became apparent wouldn't care overmuch about fodder."

Robards's hand gripping his arm didn't do a thing to stop Rufus's temper. "Ministry's losing, Rufus. We're all working ourselves past what we ever thought we could, and we're still bailing a boat with a cup. He can hit us at too many places. The Ministry's expected to keep us under the notice of the Muggles, and keep the worst of us from destroying the rest. We never expected to fight a civil war, and it shows. Not just because nobody's got the experience, but we don't have the laws to deal with it. As long as they stay under those bloody masks and don't get stupid or cocky, we've got nothing to prove who any of them are. Best we can do is catch the people who work for them that aren't marked."

"Which is what we're trying to do; brewers and Charms masters that are providing them with the new Potions and curses. And we're succeeding." Robards was trying to stay calm to balance Rufus, and only managing it by the skin of his teeth.

"And if they'd give anything away, we'd be getting somewhere. Both of you know as well as I do that's what we've always done; catch one member of a ring and lock them in Azkaban until they're ready to give up the rest for reduced sentences. Doesn't work so well when they're more afraid of You-Know-Who than us."

"Fine, I think we can both grant you all of that," Rufus said, grudgingly. But a mob does absolutely no good."

"The other problem we've got is that as long as those masks stay up, even if we do manage to frighten someone in to talking, that isn't enough proof to tail someone. And to get the kind of proof we need, we'd have to tail them."

"So, you simply compile a list of civilians and follow them? How, precisely, can we claim to the public you are fighting for similar goals to the Ministry when your methods are as arbitrary as the Death Eaters."

"Because they're not arbitrary, Rufus. You remember we caught the Avery boy skulking round Ruth Wilkins diner the day before it nearly burned down?" Rufus nodded, reluctantly. "Asked him what he was doing there at midnight in the pouring rain-"

"And he told us he was taking a stroll, I remember." Rufus still sounded as frustrated as he had when he'd reported the results of Avery's questioning.

"All of us thought it was suspicious that Rodolphus Lestrange was there five minutes after we
Flooed him when Avery wanted him as an alibi with that story," Alastor went on. "But, there was nothing we could do. They're both prime Death Eater candidates the way they go on, and we had to let them leave whistling."

"There entire circle from school would be prime candidates if the opinions they put on public display were evidence." Robards's face was tight, with two red patches high on his cheekbones, and Alastor remembered a recent letter to the editor from Simon Wilkes about the weakening of the Ministry with inferior employees; he'd tried to pretend inferior meant incompetent, of course, but no one with a brain believed that.

"They'll escalate beyond words, and then we will have them legally." Rufus's hands flexed involuntarily round the arms of his chair as he spoke.

"They're already escalating, Rufus, but there's no way to prove it if they don't take off their masks." Potter had seen Avery slipping out of Wilkes's place with the mask beneath his arm the last time he'd been following Wilkes. "You know it as well as I do. You know someone bold enough to write that rubbish won't be content with just that for very long. But, if Crouch tried to enforce letters as probable cause for warrants, he'd come off looking worse than You-Know-Who."

"All of which either of us will grant you, Alastor. That still does not explain what Dumbledore, or you think a bunch of untrained civilians can contribute," Rufus snapped. Any patience he'd had at the beginning of this had frayed a long time ago.

"Minimizing damage. Ministry laws about who can be tracked don't apply to them. They can eavesdrop where we can't, and half the time, they're ready to meet the Death Eaters before we know there's an attack."

"If they are so conscientious, why not send the Department a tip?"

To Alastor’s shock, Robards answered, sounding like he was working one of the complicated logic puzzles he was so fond of. "Wizengamot evidence. If they say they overheard the Death Eaters planning an attack, and the Death Eaters advocates counter that it was only discussed on their property, they walk free on a technicality because this....Order of yours is trespassing."

"Right in one."

"So...they can't give us tips, but we can't gain the information legally. Which is why they always stun only Death Eaters wearing masks if they get to an attack before us; the masks themselves give us enough proof for reasonable search and seizure. They go in and cause enough chaos by engaging the enemy that the Aurors are called, and the Death Eaters are preoccupied enough engaging them that they're often prevented from going after their original victims." Alastor nodded, cautiously. "Quite an ostensibly well thought-out set-up."

"Ostensibly?"

"If it were as flawless as you claim, I would still have a sister. Theoretically, it makes a wonderful kind of sense. But, if I ever need an example of why it's the most ill-conceived idea to come from this war, there's a convenient tombstone in Cardiff."

"Robards, it was a fluke."

"Oh, the one example of Dumbledore's brilliant plan not falling in to place," Robards said through clenched teeth.

"You were up in Dublin with Andrews, trying to make sure no one else got Imperiused to empty their vaults. Airmid sent a letter through the Muggle post, addressed to the office, and one of our people picked it up. Said she'd been getting some threatening letters after you captured Nessbit. There wasn't anything we could do; she was a Muggle. We put Wards around her place, but those wouldn't stand up to a determined assault. The Muggle Prime Minister isn't fond of us, and she'd never allow Wizards to officially protect a Muggle citizen. I knew the Death Eaters wouldn't rest until they made you pay for capturing one of theirs, especially since this was the third one in nine months, so I talked to Albus. He said he'd take care of it, and he sent Potter and Black. Death Eaters beat them there; she was still alive when they came in, and they started fighting them off. One of them managed to circle around Black and cast the killing Curse. Black and Potter went into a rage after that, and the Death Eaters Apparated while they still could. And then, they cocked up. They wanted to be respectful of the body; had no idea about contaminating crime scenes, either of them. So, they closed her eyes, arranged her hands, cleaned some of the blood out of her hair from when the Death Eaters threw her around some. There was nothing any of us could do; if those boys could've reversed it, they would have. But, I taught them never to contaminate a crime scene, and there's never been another mistake like it."

"I'm so glad my sister could become a training exercise for vigilantes-"

"Which they never would have needed if they were not civilians," Rufus interjected.

He could have reiterated that they were losing ground every minute; could have said that there were capable witches and Wizards like Meadowes and Dearborn that the Ministry deemed unfit and that with the world split down the middle between You-Know-Who and them, they couldn't afford to just write people off. But, there was nothing that could erase his sister's corpse. Every time Robards looked at him now, all he'd see was the man who'd gotten her killed.

"You were always the Auror I wanted to emulate." He stood. "I think I've overstayed my welcome. I'll see you for the McGuffin case, Rufus?"

Rufus nodded, and Robards turned on his heel and vanished.

"You going to say anything?" he asked, after a while.

"What happens, Alastor, when your brave mob gets themselves picked off because no matter how much you train them, they will never think like law enforcement? You say they minimize damage, but I tell you, they will only maximize it later. People will see an illegal mob seemingly protecting them better than the Ministry; you say we're losing, and you're putting us on even wobblier broomsticks. How long before some fool decides there is no need to call the Aurors; he will just wait for Dumbledore to sweep in and protect him? And then, your little mob will destroy itself, but there will be nothing to replace it, because they have undermined public confidence in the Ministry. And you are helping them do it. And you will continue to do so, no matter what I do as Deputy Head, no matter what McDermid does as head, because you trust Albus Dumbledore more than you trust us. Never mind that we are the ones dedicating our lives to protecting the Wizarding World. Never mind that we gave you our respect. I gave you my respect, and you will still follow him, even if you make us all look like asses and get your civilians killed. What can I possibly say, in the face of that?"

1995

He woke to the rustling of paper. Fortunately, they hadn't given him Dreamless sleep, just a mild calming draught, and he remembered Albus, sitting in a chair by his bed at Hogwarts saying that he wanted to transfer him to Mungo's, merely to be certain there was no lingering damage from Crouch's Imperius Curses.

"Eye's in a water glass on the table, and the leg's propped by the bed." The voice was hoarse with exhaustion, and Alastor struggled to sitting against the pillows so he could retrieve the eye and have a proper look. He popped it in, and stared, dumbfounded, for what felt like a minute.

"Robards?"

"There was a Prophet released last night after what happened to Cedric Diggory; there was a report in it about Barty Crouch Jr. I...I thought....I wanted to make sure there was someone here in case there was any more trouble, and today's my day off. There weren't any visitor restrictions, so. I'll go, now that you're awake and-"

"Why in Merlin's name did you come?"

"I cocked up." Alastor stared at him. "In October, I got a letter from y-Crouch."

"Yeah, guess you would have." Crouch had asked about old friends, colleagues, all sorts of things to ensure he could keep up with Albus. "Suppose he would've loved to have a spy within the Ministry for his master; told him we hadn't spoken in years, but I suppose he thought extending an olive branch was worth a try, if that was the prize."

"I threw it in the fire."

"I'm not surprised, and it's a good thing, overall."

"If I'd bothered to read it, I'd have known something was wrong. You wouldn't just send some newsy bit of tripe when we haven't spoken about much beyond work for years, and you hadn't sent anything since you retired last year. Hell, if I'd even bothered to wonder why you were sending me a letter, red flags would've gone up."

"Beginning of the year is a long time ago, Robards."

"I could have stopped him; you would have stopped him, if you were in my place. You would have known something was wrong, if I sent you a letter after a decade; wild hippogriffs couldn't have kept you from reading it."

"No way to know that."

" I know it; you would've opened it, and when you realized it was some newsy bit of tripe, you would've gone to whoever you needed to until you got them to listen when you said something was wrong. And if they wouldn't listen, you'd have broken into the office and dug until you knew what was wrong."

"So you're sitting at my hospital bed because you're not a saint or a seer and didn't read a bit of parchment from a man you think was responsible for your-"

"Thought."

He rolled his eyes. "And now you have it in your head you never should have thought it."

He flushed and muttered something. After a while he said, "I'm here because of more than that, Mad-Eye."

He waited. "Before you left Hogwarts, did Dumbledore tell you anything about what happened with the Minister?"

"The Minister? What, did he come to see Crouch before you lot transported him to Azkaban."

"We didn't transport him to Azkaban."

"They planning to give him Veritaserum? Rufus's being a damn fool if he thinks a Ministry holding cell's a guarantee of keeping that one until they do."

Robards sighed and rubbed at his eyes. "The Minister made a cockup of everything. He came in to interview the prisoner, and brought a Dementor. It saw Crouch and..."

He didn't need to say anything else; only one thing could have happened if they hadn't transported him. "That's it? That's all he gets; I was in a bloody trunk for ten months, and he got five bloody seconds to be afraid before it sucked his soul out!" At the alarmed look on Robards's face, he realized he was shouting and went quiet.

"Mad-Eye, for Merlin's sake, you're not even supposed to know any of this! Try not to bring the whole wards worth of healers down on my head, will you?"

If this was classified information, that brought up far more questions than Robards had even started answering. "Rufus know where you are?"

"Not...exactly."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I never told him outright where I was going, or what I'd do when I got there. But since he's not stupid and we were in the middle of dinner last night when the Prophet showed up so he saw me read it, I imagine he has a pretty good idea I'm about to tell you what I'm telling you."

"Which is?"

"For the record," he said softly, "The whole office is furious that Crouch just gets to be in limbo and not face trial for anything.”

"Appreciate the sympathy."

He sighed again. "Unfortunately, there's a bigger problem than his escaping justice. He was the only one who could confirm He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's return."

"The plan was to take Potter." Crouch thought it a grand joke to tell him that after the third time he'd failed to break the Imperius and it was clear no one had realized anything was wrong and he wouldn't be enlightening them.

Robards reached out, resting a hand on his shoulder, and he realized he was shaking. If anything, Robards' hand made it worse; in all the years since he'd been his trainee, Alastor had only seen him make that kind of gesture a half dozen times. For a minute, he thought he was going to be sick all over the sheets, because whatever this was, it was bad; Robards must've been thinking along the same lines, because there was suddenly a basin. He retched, but of course nothing came up; food hadn't been Crouch's priority that last night, and he hadn't had anything that he knew of since Albus had gotten him out of the trunk.

"Fuck." It was a lost, miserable sound, and Alastor realized he was gaping; he'd never heard Robards curse like that. "I wouldn't even be telling you any of this, but I don't want you to say the wrong thing to the wrong person."

"Wrong thing about what?"

"I know the plan was to take Potter; Dumbledore put Crouch under Veritaserum. The problem is, Fudge doesn't believe it. And before you ask, he doesn't believe Potter either. Mad-Eye...he doesn't think he's back."

It was as incomprehensible as if he'd said Fudge was going to dance on the moon in his pants. "But Albus would've asked Crouch; Crouch would've told
him about showing up with Pettigrew. How does he explain a dead man coming back to life?”

"I don't think Dumbledore had enough time to explain the circumstances before Fudge dismissed his claim. But even if he had, I can guarantee that Fudge would've countered Crouch hallucinated Pettigrew, that he got someone to help him subdue you and then hallucinated Pettigrew. As long as he believed it, it'd register as true with Veritaserum."

"Fine. He doesn't want to believe Albus or Potter; fine. I'll...as soon as I'm out of here, I'll come down and give a statement; all the bells and whistles, Veritaserum, if that's what it takes." That was harder to say than it should have been.

"Youhavearecordofbeingunreliable."

"Excuse me?" If he were honest, he could admit that boredom had made him...a bit more jumpy than normal the last year, but that wasn't enough to dismiss a statement out of hand.

"Mad-Eye. Please. Please don't make this more difficult. It's hippogriff shit, but Fudge doesn't want to believe. He's convinced himself that Dumbledore's using Crouch's delusion to give himself more power."

He didn't even realize he'd tried to stand until Robards's hand pushed him back down. His arm stayed pressed on his shoulders as he leaned down to whisper,
"He's a coward, Mad-Eye. He was elected in peacetime, and he's done a decent enough job. He's started to think he'll be remembered as one of our great Ministers, and if he realized we were at war, he'd have to face how inadequate he is. He likes the prestige, Mad-Eye, and if he manned up and admitted he had to resign, he'd have to give it all up, just be an unimportant little man with awful taste in hats. And for God's sake, don't repeat any of that to anyone." He'd come closer than Alastor would've ever dreamed to spouting treason, and he shook his head even as he dislodged Robards arm from his shoulders.

"Sorry," the other man said, staring at the carpet. "I just had this awful vision of you in a hospital robe storming in the Minister's office to punch him."

"Don't tempt me."

"It's going to get bad, Mad-Eye. When I talked to Dumbledore-"

"You talked to Albus? Outside of official business? Voluntarily?"

Robards rolled his eyes. "How'd you think I knew he gave Crouch Veritaserum? All Fudge's saying in the Prophet is that he impersonated you on He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s orders. The rest, I got from Dumbledore."

"I bet Rufus was thrilled."

"I was sleeping on the sofa," he said, curtly.

"You'd better go, or you'll still be there when your hair turns white." Even as Head of Training, he'd heard whispers. When Robards hadn't added being with Rufus to his list of sins, he'd begun to think they were wrong. Not that it mattered one way or another; Robards had nothing to apologize for. He'd never even looked at Rufus too long when they were together, and Merlin knew he would've had plenty of opportunities. Rufus had worked his team nearly into the ground near the end of the war, and between that and the Order, he'd seen far more of him than Alastor.

He was apparently ignoring Alastor's last comment because he continued with his earlier thought: "When I talked to Dumbledore, he said he thought Fudge's next move would be to discredit him with the Wizengamot and ICW. He wanted me to tell you none of it was your fault, and that he was sorry." Alastor snorted at that; it'd been his job to protect Potter and he'd left the boy vulnerable, let him be taught by a Death Eater for a year and have to witness that bastard returning from the dead. Wasn't much worse of a cockup he could imagine.

He hoped Albus was wrong about Fudge's intentions. One of the things they'd needed desperately the first time around and never gotten was International help, and he'd hoped that would change with Albus on the ICW. Worse, if Fudge really would go that far, he wouldn't scruple at other things. Alastor had intended to Floo Albus's office as soon as he was home to discuss things; it was probably still safe enough. But probably wasn't good enough. One word, and Fudge could have Albus's Floo traffic monitored. And they couldn't afford to wait until the end of term for Albus to have the free time to come and brief him.

He'd thought he'd seen the last of Hogwarts, but it seemed he wasn't quite that lucky. Every member of staff was allowed at the leaving celebrations, even if they hadn't served the full terms of their contract. It would be as good an excuse as any. If anyone got curious, they could put it about he'd Flooed into the staff quarters instead of home tomorrow and had been recovering in peace, though he didn't think anyone would ask enough questions to make it necessary. And after the children were all off to their Common rooms, he and Albus could begin to plan.

"Look, I do need to go before the Ward gets busy. Anyone seen to be loyal to Dumbledore at the Ministry can as good as clear out their desks, and I'm not sure how my being here would look to Fudge if any Ministry workers were visiting family. Will you pass a message to Dumbledore the next time you see him?"

Alastor nodded, dubiously. "The Senior Aurors-" there was an audible click when the other man swallowed, and he saw a bead of sweat roll down his temple into his hair. "We-if you can confirm that a case we're working was orchestrated by the Order, we'll do everything we can to turn a blind eye. Well, everyone but Dawlish. We can't ask the Junior Aurors to wreck their careers, but all of them were smart when they started, and we spent three years training them to be better.
So, if they figure out what's going on and take the initiative, we won't stop them. The only ones we're keeping entirely out are the trainees; they won't go into the field on anything that has a whiff of Order involvement."

The man was scared to death. "Who came up with this?"

"I did. Dumbledore's story makes too much sense to be a lie. There's no way Crouch could have subdued you by himself; at McDermid's party last year, you trounced me in that sparring match, and I train with Rufus two or three times a week. And if he'd recruited help, I’d have heard about it down Nocturn. Rufus got me working in Covert Intelligence when Philips retired and there wasn't anyone else on the team to replace him. I trained with McGrath; you remember how good he is, and he thinks I'm just as good. I've got a good pulse on the alley; if he were going to hire someone, I've got several likely personas, and there wasn't a nibble for any of them around that time." Alastor had always known this one would be the best of his trainees.

"I would say to try and recruit some Hit Wizards, but if the Death Eaters attack your people, they'll use Dark Magic; I'd wager my vault on it, and that'll make it our jurisdiction."

"What does Rufus think about this?"

"He knows Fudge's lying, and why. He thinks the only thing left to do is wait him out; eventually, he'll get enough rope to hang himself, and Rufus wants to be ready to step in when he does. He thinks the only way to win the war is to have someone as Minister that knows what it is to work in the field."

Robards would have a hard time of it if he succeeded; the Death Eaters hated Rufus like poison. He'd put far too many of them in Azkaban, and as Head Auror, he already symbolized everything they were afraid of. They'd go after him without mercy. "At any rate, he can't do anything that'll get him sacked. He'll let us proceed, as long as we don't endanger his chances. If we do, he'll let us hang out to dry."

"Even you?"

Robards laughed. "You know Rufus well enough to answer that. He's married to his job; everything else's just affairs. Passionate, intense affairs, and if I have anything to say about it, he'll die of old age in my bed, but I don't delude myself about which comes first."

"I'll tell Albus, then. We'll try and make it worth it, Robards."

"You always do, Mad-Eye."


***

He'd barely drifted off before he smelled bread, and a hand was gently shaking his shoulder.

"Alastor?" He looked up (he'd kept the eye in as a precaution after Robards left) and blinked, slowly.

"Vance?"

"I'm the head of Spell Damage now," she said, softly, perching gingerly beside him on the bed. He let the eye roll to look at the plate balanced on her knees, thinking its most wonderful feature was that he didn't need to turn his head to see.

"I got you some proper food. No coffee, I'm afraid, and all bland foods, because I'd rather be safe than sorry. But there's rolls and rice pudding and no porridge."

"My last conversation was surreal enough I'm beginning to entertain the idea I'm dead."

"Just a favor to an old friend, Mad-Eye, and you're very much alive." She pointed to a row of tiny glass panels on a chain around her neck. "These are all the patients that need observation. I've got Wards around your bed that are linked to this panel-" she pointed to the one on the far left of the row. "And if anything went wrong, it'd turn red." He stared at the bright blue for a long time. "Yours hasn't turned red since you came in late last night.
If it stays blue like this, you can go home in the morning."

"Least painful hospital stay I've ever had," he said, wrapping his hand tightly around the spoon's handle, relishing the feel of cool metal beneath his fingers. If he wanted to take all night to eat the rice pudding, no one would stop him. He wouldn't, of course, but it was the thought that counted.

"I do my best." She leaned back against the pillows, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "Mad-Eye, do you kn-"

"Yeah."

"Your friend from earlier?" He nodded. "Is he in?"

"The Order. No. He's the Deputy Head of Aurors. But he'll do what he can from his end, if Albus's called the Order yet?"

"Called it just a few hours ago."

"You in?"

She nodded, tightly. "St. Mungo's isn't under Fudge's control, Thank Merlin, so I've got a lot less to lose than Arthur. And Merlin help anyone else we recruit from the Ministry" He was glad there were no reporters about; she was being clever and sitting close, but they'd best finish this now. The last thing he wanted was her sacked for impropriety with a patient.

"We'll talk tomorrow?" She nodded and sighed.

"I suppose this means I have to move now. The pillows are so comfortable, and I keep thinking if I just sleep, he'll have come to his senses when I wake up."

"From what Robards said, you'll be sleeping a long time." She laughed and squeezed his shoulder gently. "It's good to see you, Alastor, though I do want the next time to be out of hospital; it's been too long. I was so glad we won the war, until I realized the price was losing touch with so many people."

"Didn't realize I was so important."

"Clearly. Remus was by earlier; he couldn't come in, because of the new werewolf laws about visiting people in "vulnerable states" but he paced around outside the ward looking like he'd hex anyone suspicious into the bed beside you. I thought the Chief Healer was going to throw him out when he suggested bringing his dog in to keep you company."

Damn hotheads; the both of them. Those two would never grow up. He knew what his first task would be once he was away from watchers.

Looking down, he realized he'd polished off his bowl and the plate she'd held while they talked. "Should've asked if you wanted any of those," he said, looking at the crumbs.

"I'm ambulatory and can get my own. I'll forgive the insult, this time." He smiled, and she went about her business.


***

He woke again to fingers combing through his hair, and someone murmuring Merlin knew what. His pulse was pounding, and he was drenched in sweat. Even the left eye wasn't any use when it was this dark. He could still feel the weight of it, though, which at least told him he wasn't back in the trunk.

"You back with us?"

He made a sound he hoped they'd interpret as yes. "You know where you are?"

"Somewhere that's not my trunk."

"Mungo's." He took a deep breath.

"That panel Vance wears must've been bright red; suppose I won't be out tomorrow at this rate."

"The panel stayed perfectly blue until you started having a flashback, so you're still on schedule for tomorrow. I wish you weren't; I'm tempted to hex you just to keep you longer, because I know damn well you don't live with anyone. But, the Chief Healer says I have to find a better solution."

"I think you'd best take there advice." Robards had tucked his wand beneath the pillow before he left, and Alastor's fingers gripped it just in case.

"I will, Alastor." She sighed. "If anyone looks at you oddly in the morning-" she cleared her throat "You were threatening to ring my neck. And before you start telling me how I should've gotten out of here, I had a Shield Charm up until you calmed down, but by God, I was not just leaving you to scream your head off."

"You all right?"

"My shield Charm was very effective, and you didn't come anywhere near me."

"Not what I meant."

"If I'd been in a trunk, I'd be threatening to ring people's necks, too. It's a healthy response from where I'm sitting. I'm fine. Were you dreaming of anything in particular?"

He shook his head. "I'm not going to put it in any report, Alastor."

"I believe you. Just don't remember anything in particular."

"Was there an incident that you can remember you might've been dreaming about?"

"You think it took something special for me to want to ring his neck?"

"Well...no, on consideration."

"He's back, Vance, because I was in a trunk and couldn't protect the one person Albus asked me too. I've only been retired a year, and thought I'd go mad from boredom. Albus gave me a job, the way he always does for people he thinks need looking after, and the one bloody thing he asked me to do, I failed at. Before I'd even taken the job at that."

"Merlin's balls, I want to lock the both of you in a room until you stop blaming yourselves. Dumbledore, unsurprisingly, takes the exact opposite view. He made a target of one of his oldest friends and everything that happened was because he felt he needed your help protecting Potter. Not that he said it in so many words, but Minerva came by a couple of hours ago while you were sleeping to find out how you were for him, and what she told me as good as confirms it."

"How're things at Hogwarts? And how's Potter?"

"Recovering. Both Dumbledore and Minerva think he'll be as fine as someone can be after an experience like that; he's resilient, according to Minerva, which will help. Hogwarts is...in shock; you can guess that. But Dumbledore's intending to address the students and at least try to get the real version of events out there-"

"Vance, be-"

"I put a Ward up to tell me if anyone's approaching. Get the real version of events out. I suppose it's lucky in a way they were having the tournament because any of the international students that believe him can take it back to their home countries."

"Fabulous silver lining, that." She didn't respond to the sarcasm.

"I was tempted to answer for you, but decided I wouldn't. Minerva also wanted to confirm that you're in the Order. Apparently, Dumbledore said that not having you would be a tremendous loss, but he couldn't simply take your presence for granted after everything. You can tell how much he thinks you made a mess of everything."

"Tell either of them of course if you see them before me, and ask why in Merlin's name they're wasting their time asking stupid questions. He can't think I'd sit on the bloody sidelines with the Ministry having its head up its arse!"

"I'll do that. I'll endeavor to even remember an exact quote of that last bit." She held out a vile. "Dreamless sleep." At his mutinous look she said pleasantly, "I'm going home for the day, and I'll be back tonight. I'd hate for my second, Annie, to see that panel go red with another nightmare and countermand my release order for this morning, but it's your call." He took the damned Potion and glared at her until his eyes closed.


***

The next fortnight went as well as the fortnights after being released ever did, mostly thanks to Tonks willingness to brew Dreamless Sleep. She'd shown up at his place the morning after he got back, with her hair as bright a pink as ever. But there were bruises beneath her eyes, and her "Watcher, Mad-Eye." was more subdued than it had been when the office got the first reports of Black's escape.

"What's really going on?" she asked, once there was a mug of tea in front of them. He stared at her, and she rolled her eyes. (He had a feeling she'd morphed them larger to increase the effect, which made his lips twitch despite himself.)

"The Prophet comes out with some story that doesn't make a bloody bit of sense. The Senior Aurors stay closeted for hours. When they come out, all Scrimgeour says at assembly is 'The Minister has the best assessment of the situation, as he was on the grounds just after these events occurred.' And then some rubbish about how the Minister was sworn to ensure public safety, and if he had used the resources at his disposal to determine that he wasn't back, we weren't to feed any rumors that contradicted him, even if those rumors came from Ministry officials or Wizengamot members. Then, he told us what Dumbledore said happened, so we'd know what to deny if anyone starts asking. Nothing about not believing it himself; nothing about working with the Minister to make sure it wasn't true. Not really the most ringing endorsement, Mad-Eye."

"Maybe not, but it didn't cross any lines, either."

"Because Fudge is saying that anyone loyal to Dumbledore can clear their desks; yeah, I know." She stared at her lap. "I don't know what I'd be if I weren't an Auror, Mad-Eye. But if I just believe whatever drivel the Prophet and Fudge put out there, I'm not much of one to begin with."

"Prophet's story seems plausible enough."

"The lack of one, you mean? He says that Crouch impersonated you because he believed You-Know-Who told him too. To do what; undermine the tournament? If he'd wanted to do that, he wouldn't have needed to Conjure You-Know-Who to give him an excuse; loads of people were skeptical about it starting again. Even if he were going to enact some plan, and Cedric's death was the end result, Fudge could've just said it was a tragic death brought about by Crouch being mad. There's got to be something else going on, something Fudge can't stop and he's afraid of people finding out about."

She was too smart to stop asking questions if he didn't answer them. So, he did, briefly, and then she asked what Dumbledore was doing about it, which he'd known she would.

He told her he'd tell her when he could, and she was one of the things he brought up to Albus after the leaving feast. A few days later, he took her to meet Albus in London. After she left the private parlor Albus had gotten them at The Leaky, he nodded. "You are very lucky in your trainees," was all he said, but that was as much a stamp of approval as she'd need. All he could do was nod; most Aurors hoped to get one trainee as good as Tonks or Robards. How he'd gotten two he'd never know. Especially when she managed to bring in the man in charge of Black's manhunt. It would destroy the alliance with the Aurors when Rufus and Robards knew, but especially with Black offering his place for headquarters, the least they could do was keep him away from the Dementors, and having Shacklebolt in their ranks made that a hell of a lot easier. Not that he'd been thrilled in the beginning at the idea of using the Black residence. But, the Security Charms were some of the best he’d seen, and the Magic was so tightly intertwined it would take them months to figure out what all the Spells were, much less cast them on a new place.

And nowhere else came anywhere close to giving them what they needed. Molly and Arthur's place came up of course; he wouldn't have expected anything less of the Prewetts sister, and Arthur had always been a good man. But no one wanted to make a target of a family with children. And so many of the rest of them had large social circles that were always dropping by.

Someone suggested his place, but he wasn't about to key them all into his Wards; not with the havoc one traitor reeked the last time around. And if he forgot to disable anything before they arrived, someone would be dead on their way to supper.

Which didn't leave them with much of a choice. Molly was a marvel, and the place was in working order, if not as livable as any of them would've liked long before he expected.

Their first order of business seemed to be getting Potter away from his relatives, especially after the Dementor attack. He was horrified by the number of people that volunteered. That large of a party moving through the sky was tempting fate. He organized a smaller rearguard and asked Vance to volunteer because he'd been certain at least one of them would be injured if not dead by the end of the trip. But, against all logic, it was a success.

In fact, she got a reprieve on using her talents for the Order until late September, which in this war, had to be counted something of a miracle. You-Know-Who was taking full advantage of Fudge being an ostrich, and while more Ministry cooperation wouldn't have gone amiss, at least they had more time to prepare without getting constantly harassed. It'd been bad luck; a Bedazzling hex wearing off a cloak; if Podmore had returned his best Invisibility cloak before he got himself arrested, it never would've happened. But, Alastor loaned the other to the guard for the Department that night, which left Lupin making due with whatever he could Charm.

Avery and Knott spotted him, and while he managed to Apparate away without either of them catching hold of him, he came back with all the bones in his wand hand broken. Vance wanted to send him to St. Mungo's, but it was only a few days before the Full Moon, and Lupin came as close as Alastor had ever seen him to pleading with her to fix it herself. He loathed the cages there werewolves were forced to Transform in. She knew as well as anyone how fowl they were, and he could practically see the moment she cracked.

He'd always loved watching a competent Healer at work as much as a competent dueler at practice or in a fight. Her wand never faltered, beautiful rainbows of light forming, only to sink into his flesh. In the end, it took nearly two hours, and if she was ever tired or frustrated, he didn't see it.

"Fine bit of wandwork tonight," he said as she pulled on the green shawl she always wore.

She nodded, smiling faintly. "I'm glad someone thinks so; all I could think was what a mess his hand would've been if he'd gotten back an hour later; he could've lost quite a lot of function if I hadn't gotten to it when I did. Still could have, if I'd made a mistake."

"But you didn't, and it's done with now."

"You can't tell me you don't refight your duels, Alastor. Realize the ten things you could've done better."

He nodded ruefully. "We never had time in the first war, but it might not be a half bad idea for all of us to learn some basic Healing while he's giving us a lull."

"I agree. I'd even be willing to give a lesson, for a price."

He raised an eyebrow, intrigued, and she chuckled. "Double Ogdens."

"I can manage that well enough."


***

It became something of a routine; a bit of Healing Magic and drinks afterwards. There weren't as many of them with the time to spare as he'd like, and even fewer that had the aptitude to learn anything past mending minor breaks and the like. It came down to him, Shacklebolt, and Lupin.

After that first night, they met at her place. There were more chairs than he had to offer for one, and fewer wards to dismantle and recast when they arrived and left for another.

For some reason, he'd been picturing somewhere with a feel like the Burrow, if less crowded. But it was small and neat as a pin. The only things that looked out of place were the piece of knitting always spread over the coffee table (it took her nearly three months to finish a pair of socks; not that he expected anything else, with her being the Head of Spell Damage), and the photos on the mantelpiece. All of a woman and little girl. The woman looked a bit older than Vance, and he wondered idly who they were to one another.

"My sister and niece," she said one day, when he'd been looking at the newest edition to the collection. "Hellen's a Chief Inspector in the Muggle police, and she adopted Mary six years ago."

"Didn't realize you were Muggle-born." Explained a few things, though. He'd always wondered why she was in the Order; she did more good than most at her regular post.

"I'm not. My parents were Half-blood, and so were my grandparents from everything I've been told. Hellen's a Squib." She sighed. "Let's just say there was a reason I wasn't averse to working with Remus even after I put together that the nights he couldn't work patrol always coincided with the lunar calendar. You know from Arabella how it is; she didn't get a Hogwarts letter, and it was like her value simply vanished for them. She was 22 in 67 when the Squib Marches happened; she was never one of the stated leaders, but I think she did a lot of work behind the scenes. You know after Leech 'resigned', the Ministry couldn't get the top people in the movement into the Muggle World fast enough. She asked for the credentials to become an investigator. Went to their school to be what we'd think of as a Hit Wizard. She's one of the senior staff in Aberdeen now."

"She's done well for herself."

"I'm certainly proud of her. Lived with her until she adopted Mary once I graduated; that's why we could never have meetings at my place the first time we had to do this. But, I'm better as a long-distance aunt than a second mother. I just wish we weren't both cursed with vocations instead of jobs; I never see either of them."

That was familiar enough; work as an Auror long enough and you drifted away from just about everyone except your colleagues, unless you were lucky enough to have a partner outside the office. Never meant to, of course; there was just never any time, and people's lives went on without you.

"I'd say you ought to see them more, with the war on, but Merlin knows I never had time to take my advice the first time around." You never know what could happen, but she saw living reminders of that every day; there was no need for him to say it.

By Mid-September, Rufus was putting pressure on Shacklebolt to get results on the Black case, which put him spending hours at the office trying to look productive. No one blamed him when he wanted to spend what little time he wasn't working or on guard duty with his wife. None of them said it was for the best, but they all knew it. Rufus had already started asking questions when Tonks had started to lose sleep after Albus realized they needed to guard the Prophecy You-Know-Who wanted so much. He'd been afraid that'd happen; a tacit alliance was one thing. Aurors not on top form was an entirely different one. Shacklebolt had a higher capture rate than some of the veteran Aurors, which was the whole reason he was assigned to the case even though he was so young. Problem was, when that faltered, Rufus started watching him like a hawk, and coming and going from the house of a Healer he hadn't been close to before was likely to bring suspicion down on all their heads.

After his stunt at the station, it was even more important Black be kept inside, and by the time Shacklebolt bowed out, Lupin mostly kept him company if he wasn't on Order business or trying to pull together enough research for an article.

By the state of his robes, he could well believe what Lupin's father told him about spotty pay all those years ago. That that was still the best Lupin could get was a damn shame, but Umbridge's bloody law kept him from doing the bits of home school tutoring he'd done before being Defense Professor to supplement some. They all knew it wouldn't be long before Greyback started in sighting the werewolves to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's side over that rubbish getting passed, but there wasn't anything they could do.

They kept up the Healing lessons, though he sometimes suspected they both did it as much for the company as anything else. Keeping secrets formed bonds, and they were all keeping more than one. After a day of patrolling in disguise and feeling impotent at how much Fudge had tied their hands with his obstinacy, it was good to laugh at something light. One of the best was the idiocy of the fool that had tried inventing Floo Powder by mixing Dragon scales with powdered Fire Salamander and was still wailing about how fire-resistant scales mixed with a creature of fire should've protected him. He'd reciprocated with Dung's latest misadventure. He'd forgotten what Transfigurations Alastor was making to patrol Diagon for the day and had attempted to sell him a batch of Cauldrons down a side street.

He found She had an interest in wardssmithing, both for its own sake and to better protect her sister and niece; after a while, they alternated. She was as quick a study as most of the trainees had been, though the few times he tried dueling, it didn't carry over. She chuckled and told him there was a reason she'd gone into a career where wandwork mattered more than agility.

Bad as she might be about inflicting spells, she made up for it by inventing them. He'd known Diggle had a side interest in Charms (those bloody shooting stars left him filling out more paperwork than killing a man), but he'd not known she shared it. They needed all the help they could get. Like he'd told them all at the meeting before she'd started working with Diggle, without the Ministry actively trying to catch any of You-Know-Who’s Charms Masters, they had an always increasing arsenal to worry about, and nothing new to fight it with. He was glad enough to give his input on what would be practical in the field when she started asking, and she and Diggle started testing out some clever bits of spellwork; though, he'd freely admit they'd be better when the kinks were ironed out, especially the third time what was supposed to be a gust of wind to knock an opponent back had him spinning in a miniature cyclone.


***

The morning of his birthday, three owls swooped in when he opened the window to retrieve what he thought would be one bird bringing something from Albus. The first was from Albus--a fine bottle of 1800 Ogdens. How he'd managed to scrounge something that rare and expensive was a mystery, but Alastor wasn't complaining. The second was from Tonks--a bright blue tie with phoenixes Charmed to run around its edges. The note that came with it was typical of Tonks:

Mad-Eye,

Happy birthday! Thought you could use a bit of color. I promise this isn't hexed or cursed or jinxed. The first case you let me help with when I was a trainee was Ormond Graves' disappearance, and his wife never wanted me in the room. I knocked over a two hundred-year old bottle of mead the first time I was there.

He shoved it into a bottom drawer anyway; it might not be cursed, but he wasn't going out in public wearing that. Unless he ever got invited to a Ministry function. It would be worth the embarrassment to watch Fudge turn purple and not be able to say a word without drawing attention to the problems he wanted to ignore.

The third was from Vance. He could understand Tonks, even if her taking the trouble was unexpected, but Vance was intriguing. He checked it thoroughly, of course; handwriting could be forged easily enough, but there was nothing wrong with it.

He opened it to find a cashmere jumper; she'd always preferred good fabrics--raw silk and cashmere and the like. But, he'd never heard of her spending the Galleons on someone else.

There was a small card, printed in that meticulous hand of hers:

Alastor,
Many happy returns. I hope you'll forgive the fox pas of gifting you clothes when we've so recently become reacquainted. I saw this while shopping the other day, and thought it a good time to repay you for all the good Ogdens and better company. The runes embroidered down the front protect from moderate Hexes, Curses, and Jinxes, though they won't help much if you have a cloak over it. Still, I would prefer to put my friends back together as infrequently as possible. I've had a trying week and am in the mood for cake at the end of it. If you'd like to make it a duel celebration, feel free to come by around eight.

He was enough of a target it was a downright useful gift, and cake sounded like a rather good prospect, all things considered.

A month later, she sent him another unexpected note, inviting him for Christmas dinner. Hellen was working on boxing day, so she and Mary would be leaving early, and she didn't much feel like joining the celebrations at Grimmauld Place, which didn't surprise him much. From what he'd seen, she never was much of one for crowds. Kind as it was, he'd had to refuse. As large a party as wanted to visit Arthur needed a good escort, and for all Lupin's skill, one man wouldn't be enough when defending that many Underage Wizards. When he told her what he was doing, she asked if he'd stop by after and let her know how Arthur was doing. There wasn't much cause for Spell Damage to work with Creature-Induced Injuries, and she hadn't wanted to be seen lurking outside the ward. He agreed; he hadn't opened the bottle Albus gave him yet, and a Christmas nightcap with a friend seemed as good a reason as any.

Mary and Hellen stayed later than Vance expected; she opened the door with a pile of dirty dishes floating behind her. He could just see Hellen getting Mary into her coat in the sitting room, and he started to slip out and come back later, but Vance gestured him inside, and before he could make up his mind what to do, Mary caught a glimpse of his eye from down the hall. He sighed and shrugged; Merlin knew she hadn't been the first to be curious about it, and she wouldn't be the last. She was curious and clever. She didn't seem put off by the scars, and Hellen laughed at his surprise.
"Two years ago, I got injured. It was driving Emmy bonkers; Muggle weapon, and Magic didn't do a bit of good. Mary came and stayed with her for a week, and the only thing Mary kept asking her was if Mummy would have a scar. One of the other detectives had to pick her up from school when it happened. I had to say Emmy's phone wasn't working and just give them the address to drive Mary too. You've no idea how glad I was it happened during the day and they caught Emmy before she went on the nightshift. Anyway, she was scared, and the idiot told her scars tell you when someone's a hero, so now she's fascinated with them."

"Well, your friend's not wrong in this case. Merlin, Hellen, she's growing like a weed."

They left soon after that, and he and Vance spent the rest of the evening enjoying Albus's present.


June 1996

Looking around at all the people mingling in the kitchen of Number Twelve, he wasn't surprised Vance sought him out. They were both the odd ones out, in a lot of ways. Neither of them had known Black very well, though they'd both admired his skill as a duelist and thought the way he'd needed to spend the last year was one of the worst effects of fudge's blindness. But, there was nothing they could do, and the drinking they all saw increasing wasn't any of their business, so they had both held their tongues.

He'd seen her try to talk to Lupin earlier, but he'd answered in monosyllables from what Alastor could tell. No wonder, really; Black and Potter had been the first to accept what he was. What they'd done by becoming Animagi was clever and kind, and they were both gone now. He'd seen what was building between Tonks and Lupin, and if she hadn't been injured, he thought she could have reminded him of the benefits of being the one who survived.

But, with her still in hospital, he'd shared his reminiscences of Black and then gone to sit in the kitchen chair Black had favored to read a book Alastor doubted he'd remember a word of in the morning.

He'd given his own reminiscences, of course. Much as he'd sometimes believed the only way to make Black obey an order was to put him on his arse first, he'd worked harder than some Aurors to bring You-Know-Who down.

Vance had spoken, half fond and half exasperated, about his stoicism when he received an injury and his ill-fated flirtations whenever she had forced him to stay in the Hospital for more than a day.

"I feel so sorry for Hestia," she said softly as she came to sit beside him. "I really think he was seriously considering monogamy with her."

"How is she?"

"Dedalus and Elphias are tending to her. I've never been much good at comforting the living. The only real comfort I could give was that he protected Potter, and we all know how important he is. I couldn't even say he'd been instrumental in uncovering You-Know-Who early, because he was likely to reveal himself soon anyway."

He nodded. You-Know-Who had gotten about all he could manage out of hiding. Everyone he wanted to track was most likely tracked; he'd made his alliance with the giants, and Albus thought he'd sent someone to speak with Greyback. He'd proved he had the Dementors in January. In the silence, he wondered if she was remembering the other wakes they had attended, usually in Dorcas's sprawling farmhouse. The Bones and the Prewetts and the McKinnans. Eventually, it had been Dorcas herself. No one felt entirely comfortable using her place when she was gone of course, but it had been headquarters, and she'd been murdered away from the house, so her wards were still intact.

They had all believed that You-Know-Who's hiding would give them enough time to get ahead, but he'd been ahead of them all along. The breakout from Azkaban was proof of that, and his breaking to the Ministry just solidified it. It was happening again, and he knew Black wouldn't be the last friend or colleague he would mourn. At least he'd died on his own terms, unlike so many others they had both known You-Know-Who had killed.

"I'm surprised," she said after a while, "That Dumbledore didn't want us to wait until the end of term so he could offer his own remembrances." Alastor had been, too, if truth be told. Though, he'd been more surprised they all didn't want to wait until Potter could leave his relatives so he could join them. But, when he'd realized how much chaos the Ministry was in, he'd realized why. When Fudge fell, which was looking more and more like a certainty every day, they'd need to be ready to adapt to whatever their status would be under a new Minister; there'd be no time for grief.

And judging by Robards uncharacteristic appearance at his door, and his even more uncharacteristic request for several drinks, Rufus's name was coming up frequently, which didn't bode well for the Order. Or him personally, come to that.
Much as he wanted to throttle the man on occasion, Rufus had always been there. Not a friend, precisely, but there was too much history for them to be entirely distant. He wished he could have given Robards some decent advice about how to dissuade him from taking the post if it were offered, but they both knew he wouldn't miss a chance to be on the frontlines, even if it made him a prime target.

"There's something I think you need to consider," he muttered. Professionally, he had to hope she'd disregard what he needed to say, but he had a duty personally to warn her. "If he's targeting Healers, being in the Order could put you at more risk. Albus claims Snape wouldn't sacrifice any of us to advance his cover, but I don't trust him as far as I can throw him. Forty years I've known Albus, and it's the one thing we disagree on. Well that, and those bloody lemon drops. Why he's as fond of them as he is, I'll never know."

"I'm the one Healer you have."

"Which means if Snape did turn traitor, you'd be one of the first ones they tried to eliminate."

"Can you really tell me all of you wouldn't think far less of me for sitting on the sidelines. I certainly would, if I were in your shoes. And for Merlin's sake, I couldn't simply stay at Mungo’s and wonder if any of you were injured or dead because you didn't dare call for Mediwizards. With Fudge's stance towards Dumbledore, it'd be as good as sentencing yourselves to prison and all of you know it. If I joined the Order in the first place because I couldn't bear the idea of anyone being hurt, I'm certainly not leaving it now."

"You never did tell me how Marlene convinced you to join."

"If we're sharing past stories, I insist on quid pro quo. You never told me how you and Dumbledore met." He shrugged and nodded. "She'd protected a shop; I don't even remember which sort now. But, she got burned, and she didn't dare go to Mungo’s. The Aurors were swarming the scene, and they already knew fire spells had been used; Crouch would've had her arrested for vigilantism before she could claim to have been a bystander. She'd tried to heal it herself, but you remember how she was with Healing spells; somehow, she'd made it spread. She Flooed me. She explained everything while I was working on her. I knew Marlene was as far from a Death Eater as you'd ever get, and if she trusted the rest of you, you were worth trusting. And helping. Terribly simple, I'm afraid, and not a very good tale; I'm afraid I've never suffered any particular guilt for my illegal activities." He laughed, and told her about working alongside a German Auror as Albus's security for the ten year anniversary of Grindelwald's defeat and being dragged to an alchemy lecture. Albus'd been so engrossed he only realized later Alastor hadn't followed the lecturer past his introduction.

July 1996

The worst travesty was the perfect sky. Relentlessly bright sun without a cloud in sight. He stared along the front row. The Order had taken all of it, except for the two empty seats beside him for Mary and Hellen. It was only right; aside from those two, they were the closest thing to family she had, and she'd saved their lives more times than any of them could count.

There was a quiet sound to his right, and he smiled. He'd known Albus was taking the duties of officiating from Whimple, the way he always had if one of the Order had died. He turned to face him and froze.

"What the hell happened to your hand?""Merely an accident while investigating." Something dark, the way it was twisted and black.

"Why didn't you tell me you were going somewhere dangerous and needed help?”

"I went the day after we learned the news. It would have been intolerable to ask after you identified the body."

Not long after Black's impromptu wake, she asked if she could put him as her next of kin on the Mungo's paperwork. The Chief Healer had always complained about the difficulty of contacting a Squib. And, if the Death Eaters killed her, she wanted someone who had experience with their kills to see how they left her before the undertakers did their work. He agreed readily enough; he'd done the same for Meadowes in the first war and he was closer to Vance than he'd been to her. "Fighting a bit of Dark Magic would've been a good distraction, if you want the truth."

"I fear you would not have found it as diverting as you might have wished." There was something bitter in Albus's smile he didn't understand. "My hand is of no immediate concern, in any case."

No immediate concern; what the hell did that mean?

"What do the Healers say?”

"They are doing everything that is required, Alastor." Any other day, he would've pushed until Albus stopped being so bloody cryptic, but Hellen and Mary had just slipped into the chapel, followed by Rufus. Cuiff would love nothing better than to get photos of the solemn Minister consoling the grieving sister. And with the state Fudge had left the Ministry's credibility in, he doubted that decency would win out over politics where Rufus was concerned.

She needed a buffer, and he hadn't yet congratulated Rufus on the promotion. As he moved away, he saw Albus smiling as he went toward the front.

Reaching Helen, he put a hand on Rufus's arm and motioned for she and Mary to keep going to their seats.

Rufus was dressed in the Minister's robes, and he looked as uncomfortable as he had in the Deputy Head's dress uniform all those years ago.

"Looks nice," he said softly.

Something that might've been vulnerability on another man flickered across Rufus's face. "You think so?"

"You'll do as well as anyone can, Rufus."

He knew Albus was beginning to suspect the Death Eaters used Fudge's obliviousness to start putting their people in the Ministry. He was beginning to think it himself; they had to have been doing something other than planning an Azkaban breakout for an entire bloody year. But Rufus wouldn't put stock in vigilante speculations, especially if they came down to him failing before he ever started.

"Figured you'd be too busy to be here."

"She was the first confirmed death since Fudge admitted He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was back, and it happened the day before I was sworn in. It was only fitting that I come." He stared across the sea of faces, looking for photographers. "Cuiff will have someone waiting outside the gates to take a photo of me leaving."

"Thanks. The family will be grateful."

"As I told him, it's a funeral, not a carnival!"

"Wanted to make a front page spread, did he?"

"A little more tasteful than that; something in the centerfold."

"It's a bloody miracle."

"I am sorry, Alastor. Gawain said she claimed the two of you had known one another in the First War when he visited you in hospital." His tone said he knew perfectly well why, and hated it as much now as he had then. But now wasn't the time for that argument, so he shrugged and nodded.

"I'm surprised he's not here as your guard."

"He is recovering from an engagement near Kent. He also wanted me to give you his condolences; and his apologies."

"Aurors got there as fast as they could; there wasn't anything else he could have done. And how the hell did he get himself injured his first week as Head Auror."

"They were trying to smuggle in more giants; he dodged a giant's club and fell into the path of a curse." Rufus stared toward the casket, and Alastor knew he was thinking that not all his injuries would be that accidental in this war. Head of Aurors and a Muggle-born; he'd be one of the most targeted Ministry officials.

"You're as mad as Skeeter keeps accusing me of being if you think he would've turned down the post, Rufus." The better the Aurors were led, after all, the quicker they'd win this, and Rufus would stop being a target.

"I never wanted him too." Rufus smiled bitterly. "There is no one I would trust more to lead the Aurors." The one man all the conventions said he should want to protect, and he had to shove him front and center to have any chance of winning this before they were all dead.

"Well, tell him there's nothing to apologize for. I hope the new h-head's not being difficult." Rufus shrugged and looked down. Alastor squeezed his shoulder once before going to join Hellen and the others.

"After he notified you, Shacklebolt said you wanted to give the eulogy. You still all right for it?" he asked, once he was beside Hellen again. There were plenty in the Order that would say a few words if she wasn't, but she was her sister, and it was fitting she give it if she could.

"Can you watch Mary when I do?" she whispered, as Albus began to speak.

He nodded, and when it came her time to step forward, he reached out to put a hand on Mary's shoulder.

She turned to him, fingers squeezing his like a vice, and he let her press her face against his shoulder so she wouldn't have to see.

"My sister would've been welcome in the Muggle world in a heartbeat. When I realized all this was starting up again, I begged her to come back. But she wouldn't leave anyone to suffer while there was breath in her body."

And the Death Eaters knew it. Rookwood's mistress had called in a domestic dispute under a false name. Said her husband was injured by his son. And Vance hadn't even had another Healer with her. Her second was under the weather; she'd been discussing Potions with Snape at the last Order meeting because whatever she had wasn't clearing up.

He hadn't even known she was on a call, much less that the address she had been given was a Death Eater safe house. And then, the Chief Healer Flooed, because he couldn't contact her. No patient had arrived, and she hadn't filed a report saying the injuries were minor enough he'd been left at home. Clearly, the man had assumed that as next of kin, he might know where she was.

"My sister was more than a Healer, of course. She was a beloved aunt to my daughter, Mary, and an appalling knitter. She gardened, and she loved gingerbread. But, when I picture her, it'll be with a wand in her hand, doing what she loved. I can't imagine what it is to fight your war; but if any of you think a group of bastards who'd kill a woman who swore to 'do no harm' and never broke that oath can be let stay free, whatever the cost, you're a fool. Every person my sister saved they wanted to kill was a victory, and I couldn't be prouder of her."

She was crying silently as she fled the stage, though petting Mary seemed to help.

"I'm sorry," she whispered after a while, "That I couldn't identify the body. I shouldn't have left that to you."

"It isn't something I'd want you to see." From a distance, he'd almost been able to fool himself that her blouse was red. But there was no pretending she'd died peacefully or well; not the way her limbs were contorted, and her hair was matted with blood. If there was one silver lining, it was that it looked like the killing Curse was cast while a Cruciatus was still in effect; she hadn't had time to be more afraid than she'd already been, but that was poor comfort to the living.

Staring at the dirt being shoveled over the coffin, he could barely believe there had been a time when he thought You-Know-Who was nothing more than a Nocturn
Malcontent.


***

It was a fortnight after the funeral when Robards appeared at his door. "I know I'm probably the last person you want to see. But, I have a proposition for you."

"No reason I wouldn't want to see you, Robards. Never did thank you for how you got the Aurors organized as soon as I Flooed."

"I did everything I could to track her from what they left at the safe house when they moved her, Mad-Eye." The likelihood was that she'd been dead when the Death Eaters brought her to the alley near the Ministry where the Aurors finally found her, and they both knew it.

"I know that. What's this proposition of yours? I'd think if the Ministry needs some kind of statement from Helen absolving them, they got it at the funeral."

"It's not anything to do with that. It has to do with the Order."

"Whole office's done nothing but give Tonks hell for hiding Black for a year; what could you possibly want to talk about."

At least he didn't try to apologize or make excuses about Tonks.

"Intelligence sharing. Whoever your intelligence people are, and no, I'm not asking for names, they've always been able to gain it ahead of us."

"And? I seriously doubt Rufus is going to authorize you to share classified information with vigilantes in exchange for ours."

"Three favors. Anything I can provide as Head Auror, off the record, in exchange for being notified of threats to Rufus's safety."

"Three favors. You realize the scope of what you're offering? You prepared to give us access to the archives; ward a safe house without questions-"

"Whatever I can do with my security clearance as Head Auror. Much as your intelligence network outranks us-" Snape would be so flattered if he ever learned the Ministry considered him as capable as an entire network. "We have things you don't have access to. Security enchantments the confidentiality agreements forbid you to reveal. Potions and curses that the Experimental offices just finished that haven't been seen in the field yet. Informants willing to leak false information. I'll do anything you ask, as long as it doesn't break the law beyond what I'm already doing by sharing resources with vigilantes."

"And what does Rufus-"

"I'll tell him when the war's over; as long as he's alive to hear it, he doesn't have much room to complain."

"And you're offering three favors, to be used at our discretion, and trusting that we'll provide information about Rufus, even when they run out."

"If the war is ongoing and those three have been used, we'll renegotiate. But I trust that the Ministry's resources are enough of an incentive for you to keep to the bargain. And I trust you to not make a bargain you know Dumbledore will break later.

I know the chances of a wartime Minister from what's happened in the continent's skirmishes, and I will do anything to keep Rufus from becoming another statistic."

He wanted to refuse; Robards was spending precious coin grasping at straws, and they both knew it. But, he'd done nearly the same thing after the Chief Healer Flooed about Vance. He'd Flooed the Auror office and shouted for Robards, over the protests of whoever was on desk duty, until it penetrated even the solid door of his office. With the reputation the Prophet created for him, convincing anyone else would've taken too long, and he'd had no qualms about playing on their past connection to give her a fighting chance. After going to those lengths for a friend, he'd be a hypocrite to try and dissuade Robards from doing it for a lover. And he was tired of loosing the people he cared about in this war. It had barely begun, and Black and Vance were already gone.

And what Robards was offering could be useful; there was no knowing what they'd eventually need to protect Potter. If it could help the Order, and keep him from attending another funeral...He reached across the table to clasp Robards' hand. "Three favors, and we'll do everything we can to tell you what you need to keep him alive."


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