DISCLAIMER: I DO NOT OWN HARRY POTTER.


Chapter Nine

Confringo

Causes anything that the spell meets to explode in flames


Lunch hour at the Auror Department in the Ministry of Magic was always a sight to behold. On a bad day, the entire floor will be devoid of human presence, all of them involved in a case. Such incidents happened very infrequently, the last time of which happened during a homicide in Hogsmeade. Many of them thanked Merlin that it was over the school holidays, so no Hogwarts student was implicated. On a good day, there would be a great deal of noise and colour. Brilliant sparks of red and green continuously spewed from the Magical Catastrophe section at the corner in the back. Inhumane howls and sly purrs set a tumultuous tenor line at the Magical Creatures Confiscation centre at the right. The higher-ups in the departments had a row of rooms for themselves lining the corridor for several feet, with permanent Silencing Charms, giving the illusion of a well-organised department in the Ministry. The lunch lady delved deep into the department corridor in with a trolley, hollering above the wails of the animals and frustrated Aurors, delivering their ordered lunches.

Moody, Kingsley and Fenwick had their own offices, nearest to the lifts for sanity's sake. The less fortunate had cubicles in a wide room the size of the Great Hall. Still, they were better off than the trainees. Their training rooms were on a different floor, but their lounge was behind the Magical Creatures centre. After a year of training, Tonks suspected the higher ups tampered with the room to make the Silencing Charm weaker than usual. It was like an initiation test of sorts, irritating and utterly useless.

James had his own private desk against the wall nearest to the offices. It was well away from the knot of desks in the centre of the hall. It suited him well – he rarely was at his desk, given his field assignments and his habit of bringing home his assignments where he could pour over them at his comfort. When he was at the department, as he was that lunch hour, he could savour some resemblance of privacy. He had his feet stretched out under the table lazily, chatting up with the lunch lady. Sirius bounced over to him, just as the lunch lady left with an extra portion of fried chips at James's table.

"Thanks Marie!" James called, waving his arm. The lunch lady, well-used to James's antics, simply shook her head and smiled as she walked over to the next Auror.

"Using your well-oiled charms, Jamesie-poo?"

Sirius smirked as his best friend tried to kick him from under the table.

"Why are you still at your desk anyway?" Sirius asked, standing well to one side to avoid another blow. "I thought we were going to Quigley's new café downstairs. You're not abandoning me, are you?" He hitched his voice in mock horror, but inside he was slightly worried. His plans to talk to James would come to naught otherwise. "I can't handle a lunch by myself, it ruins my reputation."

"Your reputation as a lady's charmer is sealed in cement, you dog." The offending words were lightened by the playful smile on James's face. Still, it was not like him to snap like that.

Sirius took a direct approach. "What's gotten into you?"

The mask on James's face cracked, and for a fleeting moment, Sirius saw how emotionally-drained James was. His eyes were dull and he lacked the enthusiasm for life he usually radiated with.

Then, the mask was in place again. The noise in the Auror Department rushed in again at full volume, as Edgar Bones yelled for the paperwork on the Welsh Green dragon incident. Sirius was reminded of the number of people who did not know of Harry Potter, and understood the need for James's pretence. It annoyed the hell out of him that James was quietly bottling up his emotions but he understood it.

"Fenwick wants all of us in the office today. He didn't say why, but news is going around about a tip-off on a raid in Diagon Alley." James rubbed his eyes with one hand, his other sneaking into the packet of chips left by the lunch lady. "He just had about fifteen Aurors go down to Diagon Alley."

Sirius momentarily forgot about lunch. He leaned on James's desk and whistled lowly. While their Auror force was about a hundred people strong, with another fifty in various stages of training, only about sixty Aurors were active in the field. Even less were very experienced combat fighters. To have a quarter of their team called on stand-by for a tip-off meant that it was very bad news.

"So lunch is cancelled," James continued. He put a fry in his mouth and chewed contemplatively. "I know what you wanted to talk to me with about anyway." His tone softened. "It's something I have to deal with myself. But…thanks, Sirius."

Deal with myself? "It's not a foregone conclusion that you'll be able to 'deal' with your emotions, James," Sirius said sharply.

"I'm a grown man-"

"It's not usual, what you're facing."

James growled at Sirius's insistence to talk, then threw up his hands angrily. When Sirius decided that he wanted to talk, he went to extreme measures to make sure that person listened. He might as well have it over. He pulled out his wand and muttered, "Muffliato". To any other listening in to the conversation, they would only hear a slight buzz.

"I don't want to talk about it," James said flatly.

"It? The boy who stumbled into your house has a name, James. You need to face it sometime."

James flinched visibly. Sirius stared at the reaction. The former had acted like an apathetic stranger to Harry the previous day. It seemed as though James had had a sleepless night, wrestling with the almost painful way Harry Potter was a spitting image of himself, and the uncanny similarities. It was apparent that James had reached a conclusion to force himself to forget that it ever happened.

"Harry," James said quietly, "is a fairly common name."

Sirius knew that as the best friend, he should keep his cool and reason out with James. It was infuriating to have a talk with someone who refused to acknowledge what the talk was about. The burning question Sirius wanted to ask burst out all of a sudden. "What if he's your son?"

James shot up in his seat.

"Yah!" yelled a deep voice. James and Sirius turned around. In a freeze frame moment, James found himself with his fist drawn back as though readying himself for a brawl. Sirius had his hand in his wand pocket, already ready to defend himself with a simple Shield Charm. Curious, wide-eyed glances switched from the two Aurors to the person talking.

Benjy was standing in the middle of the corridor, glaring at the two older Aurors. "There's a Death Eater raid in Hogsmeade, not two minutes ago." It was a testament to the Aurors' discipline that not a gasp escaped them. A deathly silence blanketed the office, occasionally punctuated by an odd animal howl. "We're following the usual drill. Team A will follow me, Team B with Kingsley. Now."

There was a flurry of action. They leaped to the emergency fireplaces.

Sirius brushed against James's shoulder. "We're continuing this conversation later."

James ignored him.


Remus looked down at his battered watch. He was dressed in his travelling clothes, patched up and neat. He had made the mistake of returning the medicated bandages to Madame Pomfrey in person that morning. It was meant to wrap over any bleeding scratches or open wounds after the full moon, as he had had the previous month, to prevent infection. He had been feeling under the weather lately. It obviously showed in his face since Madame Pomfrey snatched the bandages, wrapped it around the faint marks on his arms and demanded him to take the day off.

No Marauder would ever turn down a day off. Not even Remus Lupin. "Are you sure?" Remus had asked Madame Pomfrey, sitting on the edge of a bed, his bandaged hand outstretched.

"This would have nothing to do with the way a certain Auror by the name of Black barged into my hospital wing this morning to demand for a day off for you," Madame Pomfrey had mentioned in a disapproving, borderline scandalous tone. "Mind you, it looked like he needed the day off." Remus's laughter got cut off when she had continued, "And so do you, young man!"

Remus planned to spend the day looking for Harry Potter, and if the piece of parchment Fawkes brought every Order member was valid, Ron Weasley. He stepped into his office's fireplace, threw the green powder at his feet, and said firmly, "Grimmaulds Place".

There was a familiar motion of being swept of his feet and spinning to nothingness. He bent his knees slightly, focusing on his balance. When the dizziness stopped, he opened his eyes and found Marlene looking at him with an impressed look on her face.

"You landed on both feet!" she said. "Are you a cat or something?"

The blonde woman smiled at him gently, letting him know that she was teasing him. As a Healer, she had met with more than one werewolf. Most of them hated themselves for what they were. She liked the way Remus held himself, looking at the world in the eye, even if he was more morbid than a hormonal woman at times. She wanted him to continue accepting himself.

"Or something," Remus answered, returning the smile. "I hear we have two guests."

Marlene stood up from the chair so quickly that it fell over. She put her hands on her hips threateningly, in a motherly fashion. Considering that she was only in her late twenties, it was a very odd action for her. Remus put his hands in the air. "What did I say?" he said.

"You listen to me," she said authoritatively, reminding him why she was Head Healer in her department. "You've probably heard stories from Sirius and James. I just want you to know that there are just two thirteen-year-old boys in the upstairs library. They have yet to display any signs of danger despite being threatened about a million times yesterday by a herd of Aurors. If I hear a peep out of you that you have judged them before spending a moment with them, I'll put itching powder in your shoes before you leave."

Remus blinked. "You spend a lot of time with them?"

"Uh, no." She sat back down again, looking at her paperwork. "I'm just tired of everyone giving the boys an evil eye before they've met them."

"It's called caution, Marlene." Remus understood the Auror's point of view. Still, he knew that Marlene had a soft spot for children. To an Auror, it was a weakness. To a human, it was perfectly understandable. Remus took years struggling to find a balance between apathy and empathy in the world of war, despite facing discrimination for his werewolf status. He was still wary of the world, but knew better than to trample on other people's innocence.

"I know," Marlene sighed. "I just had to get it out of my system. You're the first person who's come here to check on them. See if they're real." She raised her eyebrows. "That's what you are doing, right?"

Remus nodded. "Upstairs library, you said?" He made to go to the staircase, before turning around. A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "Itching powder?"

Marlene looked down at her work, mumbling something about spending way too much time with Sirius Black. Remus kept the grin to himself and walked on.


The voices that echoed slightly from the dimly-lit room were young. It was a strange to hear how solemn the voices were. Remus put his hand in the pocket of his robes, just in case. He stood by the door, wondering how to approach the boys when he made out words.

"-how long do you think we'll be here for, Harry?"

Harry.

"I don't know," the reply came. He sounded like any other schoolboy. Remus almost laughed at himself. What was he expecting, the voice of Merlin to tremor throughout the house? "If we see the cloak, we have to grab it straight away. There probably won't be another chance."

"When will he come by anyway?" Ron, as he assumed he was, said. He did not sound like a manipulative, murderous Death Eater either. "He- mpph!"

Suddenly, silence was thick in the air. Remus frowned, and strained to hear the rest of the conversation. Only his sensitive hearing allowed him to catch the muttered curse, "Bloody hell, Harry, what did you kick me for?"

"There's someone at the door," Harry said clearly.

Remus raised his eyebrows at the astuteness of the young boy's observations. He prided himself in being quiet – cough, sneaking – which was a trait that the Marauders expanded upon.

"Hello," he began, when two exclamations of "PROFESSOR LUPIN!" cut him off.


There was only one thing Remus could remember, looking at the faces of two boys. It was Sirius in his second year. He got called out of bed in the wee hours of the morning. He had stood in the empty Great Hall, staring at his mother in disbelief. Mrs. Black had on a livid expression on her face. "You are an embarrassment to the pure Black line!" she shouted, her voice echoing angrily.

James shrank back slightly beside Remus under the Invisibility Cloak. Peter was not present, unwilling to sneak on Sirius's mother. He was in bed like the rest of the student population.

Sirius had the audacity to put his hands in his pajama pockets. Professor McGonagall stood to one side of the hall, her lips in a thin line. Remus noticed however she was looking at Mrs. Black with increasing hostility.

"Childish pranks!" Mrs. Black snapped. "Your father and I don't know where to show our faces! Good thing Regulus went to a noble House, instead of a wishy-washy one!"

Sirius jerked his head up. "Gryffindor isn't a wishy-washy House," he said defiantly. He glared at his mother.

"Don't you dare-"

"Gryffindor is better than Slytherin in any way," Sirius finished.

CRACK. James actually stumbled back at the same time as Sirius, as if he too had been physically hurt. Remus's left leg was exposed for a second before he hastily retreated too, adjusting the Invisibility Cloak. Nobody noticed. Professor McGonagall had raised her hand slightly for a moment, shock on her face.

"Mrs. Black! Please –"

"NO SON OF MINE DISRESPECTS OUR FAMILY'S TRADITIONS!" She shook Sirius's arm hard. "I SHOULD HAVE SENT YOU TO DURMSTRANG SO YOU WOULDN'T HAVE TO MINGLE WITH FILTHY MU- MUGGLEBORNS AND HALF-BREEDS!"

It was Remus's turn to shiver. There was raw hatred in the shrill voice. He wondered at the back of his mind, terrified, whether she knew his werewolf status. He had trusted Dumbledore!

"I don't care," came a mortified whisper. Then, as if gathering strength, Sirius continued. "I have friends. I don't care about blood status - pureblood or muggleborn. I'd rather not have a family like this than to give up what I have."

Mrs. Black stared at him. Her heavily-lined eyes bored into her son. Then she turned to Professor McGonagall. "You heard the boy," she said slowly, her voice still loud and slightly shrill. It seemed to force a lot of effort to talk. "I don't care what he does in his blasted House anymore."

She began to walk away, slow at first, then gaining speed. Her heels made loud thuds on the wooden floors. By the time she was gone, Sirius had already turned around fully, staring at the entrance of the Great Hall. His expression, so uncharacteristically lost and frightened, reminded Remus of an abandoned stray. James had pulled off the Invisibility Cloak before Remus could protest, and gave his twelve-year-old friend one of the first of many brotherly hugs.

In a different, but similar fashion, Harry and Ron had the same expressions on their faces. They were cut off from everything they were used to all of a sudden. They were looking at Remus with identical guarded anticipation, as if waiting to be guided.

Remus did the only thing he could think of. He could hardly offer comfort by words, or any other actions in the dismal house.

"Let's have Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream in Diagon Alley."


In bright daylight, wrapped in the warmth of the sun, ice-cream felt like the perfect solution to all problems. Ron and Harry shared a banana boat, a replica of a pirate ship with thinly-sliced banana as the wooden boat, cream to hold them together, and at least a dozen scoops of ice-cream in the boat. There were many passers-by, so there was a general air of busy bustling and cheerful dispositions.

In spite of it, Remus felt uneasy. "I think we should go back," he told the table.

"So fast? We just got here," said Ron in surprise, his upper-lip white with vanilla ice-cream.

"I know," he admitted. It was true that the boys looked much brighter and acted more like schoolboys their age as they attacked their ice-cream. He could not shake off the uneasiness that radiated from certain passer-bys. He was generally a good reader of body language, and being a werewolf heightened his ability to sense his prey's – people's – motions. Today was not a good day. I shouldn't have brought them here.

"Remus, isn't that Dawlish?" Marlene frowned, leaning forwards in her seat.

He turned around. Dawlish was a young Auror, in Marlene's year. The man was standing rigidly outside Flourish and Blotts, his right hand in his pocket. He was almost hidden in the shadows of the wide canopy outside the bookshop. His stance though…

Remus carefully followed Dawlish's gaze. Directly opposite Flourish and Blotts was the secluded entrance to Knockturn Alley. A man in black robes hurriedly walked past the entrance, throwing anxious glances at the passers-by around the area.

There was an alarming number of 'passers-by' for a morning in the middle of the week.

It all happened in a split-second. Dawlish's right hand moved as though he was scalded by something, his wand pointing forwards. People started screaming for what seemed like a long time before jets of light flew. Marlene had her back to the street – her back to the street – already pushing the boys into the shop out of harm's way. One of the boys yelled in shock as a tremor seemed to shake through the building. Half the archway of the shop gave way.

Then, everything came back to speed. Remus was already sprinting to help the boys, his chief care. Florean's red face appeared over the counter seconds at a time, crying out protection spells for his shop. Marlene's face was white and Remus felt like vomiting, smelling the blood in the air. She staggered forwards with Remus half-pulling, half-carrying her.

"Confringo!"

"Aguamenti! Aguamenti!"

"Avada Kedavra!"

Remus's brown eyes widened as he watched the green light pass his shoulder by inches. An unnamed man crumpled to the ground in front of him. Without realizing it, he turned around. The Death Eaters had their masks on, but the long blond hair was unmistakable.

"Expulso!"

It was hard to make out anything from the chaos. The Aurors danced around the shouted spells, putting up a ferocious fight. The Death Eaters were intent on mass destruction. While their spells were aimed at Aurors, the dodged ones caused the shop fronts to explode magnificently.

"I found one!" a Death Eater yelled nearby. A familiar man clutched his stomach, red staining his hands already, but his wand was still a blur as he dueled the Death Eater.

"Sirius! Impedimenta!"

Bodies were falling from all sides, and glass never seemed to cease to be exploding into sharp slivers at any end of the street. Remus leaped, his wand twirling like a baton as he attempted to take down as many black-cloaked figures as possible. The number of civilians remaining on the street had dwindled, but the black-cloaked figures seemed to be solid and everywhere.

He did not hear the curse – how could he, above all the screams and hoarse yells – but then the Dark Mark hovered in the darkened and smoky sky. A horrible cheer and raucous laughter rippled throughout the street. Desperate attempts to stop the Death Eaters from Apparating failed.

Everything faded to dead silence.

It was only in the unnerving silence did Remus hear the loud protests of his body. His shoulder was burnt with a somewhat juvenile but effective Stinging Hex. His boots glittered with glass that reflected red blood. His arms were covered with tiny cuts. He looked up to see Sirius being helped by another Auror.

Fenwick was shouting orders from faraway, his voice thick. Remus stumbled through the rubble, ignoring the sudden ache in his left knee, looking for the ice-cream parlor. He cursed his stupidity a hundred times over for coming to Diagon Alley. Please let them be alright.His voice sounded frantic even in his mind.

The rubble in front of the ice-cream parlor blocked most of the entrance. Just within his peripheral vision, Remus caught sight of the umbrella table where the four of them were eating in relative comfort mere minutes ago. It was squashed flat, rocks scattered all over, with a black-robed man half-lying on it.

"Marlene? Mr. Fortescue?" He pointed his wand at the rubble, taking a deep breath to steady his aim. He had been in battle before, but there was no such thing as an easy battle. "Reducto!"

It was reduced to dust. He scrambled inside. "Here," said a young boy, and it took Remus a while to recognize it as Harry's. "Professor Lupin, she's hurt her back."

It was dim, but Remus could make out the red-haired boy wearing a white undershirt. He was pressing his bunched-up shirt on the woman's lower back. Marlene's eyes were closed, but he could hear the continuous stream of whispers. "A little harder… Ouch! It's okay, it's okay… Good job Ron…"

Then, a white light brightened the room. "Anybody critically hurt?" a crisp voice said. "I'm a Healer."

Remus waved his hand. The Healer was in a lime green robe, its vibrant colour easily distinguishable. He swept forward. "Oh Godric, Marlene."

"Are you hurt?" Remus asked the boys. They shook their heads. Harry had dirt on his face, and Ron seemed shocked into silence, but they nevertheless looked normal. "I'm so sorry."

The words 'It's alright' flashed in Harry's mind, but he said nothing. There was nothing fine with the picture. What was this world?

"We'll go back first," Remus said quietly. Ron got up shakily. A silent spell spurted water gently from the end of his wand, washing Ron's hands.

Side-along Apparition. Baths. There were two showers side-by-side in the master bedroom. Not wanting to leave the boys alone after what happened, Remus sat down on the floor. As the rush of water came on, and steam fogged the mirrors and crept out of the slightly ajar twin doors, Remus began explaining to the boys.

"The wizarding world is not safe," he said, leaning against the bed, all the fight out of his body. "It hasn't been, not since Voldemort came out." There was a thud of plastic hitting the floor, and Remus knew someone had dropped a soap bottle. "There haven't been broad light attacks for nearly two years already. I'm so sorry."


An hour later, they were in front of the fireplace. To fill up the silence, Remus continued explaining little details. What did Ron's father do in the Ministry? ("He's in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts, I believe.") Did Harry have any siblings? ("No, they only had one son.") If Remus thought the questions were strange, he did not comment. At first, it was Harry hesitantly asking questions, then Ron followed suit. On Remus's part, he wondered at the back of his mind why the Order members seemed so wary of the boys.

In the middle of explaining his current lesson plan, a wild idea he had when they settled into moody silence again, the fire spurted green sparks, and a red letter fell on the carpet.

"We pass messages like this, using slightly modified Floo Powder."

"Do you usually get Howlers?" Ron asked, looking at the slightly trembling letter. The slight tremor in his voice had almost disappeared already.

"Ah… no."

"REMUS! HOW COULD YOU HAVE GONE TO DIAGON ALLEY?" With the letter naturally amplifying his voice, Sirius must have been talking very quietly, because the letter was talking in normal tones. "You're lucky I'm not there to strangle you!" There was a pause. "Marlene's fine, I just saw her at the Hospital Wing. Molly and Arthur are going to stay in Grimmauld Place with their kids for a while. The Death Eaters –" Sirius swore "– were looking for an Order member. I think they found one." There was another pause. When Sirius continued, his voice sounded thick. "Three Aurors didn't make it. There's a fourth missing."

The letter hovered in mid-air. There was a choking sound. "They took James."

Then the paper tore itself up.


Hermione felt the cold, hard floor under her fingertips first. There was a light pounding in her head. She curled her fingers into her palm, and then opened her eyes. She registered the dark cell dully. She was slumped against the grimy walls when she woke up. The shock had not worn off yet. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she was imprisoned by Death Eaters. She had read about them, in the Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts.

Her gaze fell onto a man sprawled on his side in front of her. He was in his thirties. The detached part of Hermione noticed coolly the darker areas on his knitted maroon pullover, and the awkward angle his right leg was bent. He had a shock of black hair. His glasses were broken but still in the cell, a few inches away from his outstretched hand. In the quiet, she could hear shallow breathing.

She closed her eyes.


A/N: Sorry if the chapter's a bit rushed, I just had to type it all out. "Marchin On", "Lights Will Guide You Home" and "Somewhere Only We Know" were the main tracks to this chapter.

Help me push the number to 400 :)

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!