Please note: the following contains some rather strong language because of the "realism" of the setting.
"Dawlish. Shacklebolt. You two are with me."
I look up from my desk to see Cornelius Fudge standing in the doorway of Auror Headquarters. It's getting late, and I was about to get off work. Damn it, this is going to take all night -- with Fudge it always does. I grab my cloak off the back of my chair and glance at Kingsley Shacklebolt. His tall frame is shrugging into a cloak of his own. His face reveals nothing about what is about to happen; but given Fudge's choice, I can tell he expects trouble. Percy Weasley is waiting in the hall with Fudge, his face alight with excitement. The two of them are nearly giddy. Shacklebolt joins us in the hall, and we begin the walk to the Atrium. I can tell by Shacklebolt's deep set scowl that he sees the same thing I do -- Fudge is itching for a fight; only he's not the one who's going to be doing the fighting.
The Atrium is basically empty, only Eric, the night watchman, is there. He has his feet up on his station, and his nose stuck in a Quidditch magazine. He doesn't even bother to look up as we sweep across the floor. We reach the line of fireplaces, and Fudge grabs a handful of Floo powder. A feeling of dread settles into my stomach. This is going to be a rough night. I can feel it already.
"Headmaster's Office, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
This whole thing started with a girl. Things like this always do. She was young; couldn't have been more than five years out of Hogwarts. She reminded me immediately of Kay. The girl's long, dark hair was pulled back from her pale, angular face. Her blue eyes were so dark they were almost black. She was thin – really thin. It was almost unhealthy.
Kay hadn't cared about the cause; she hadn't believed in it. She had just been a kid rebelling. Messing around with the Dark Arts to piss our parents off. She'd still had Half-Blood and Muggle-born friends that she'd kept in contact with. She hadn't truly believed and she'd paid the ultimate price. Voldemort had needed to set an example early on. She had been it. You believed - you followed -- you did it completely. There was no halfway.
They had dropped her mangled body in our front lawn, but only after she'd been missing for a week. Merlin only knew what they'd done to her. Kay hadn't cared about blood. She'd joined up for the fun, the adventure, the power, and the lure of the Dark Arts. She'd joined up because Mum hadn't wanted her to. Bloody ridiculous reason to die.
"Why you doing this, kid?" I asked forcing Kay out of my thoughts. I was working to break up a smuggling ring importing illegal potion ingredients. They weren't brewing or selling the potions, but most of these things were dangerous on their own. Combine or store them in the wrong way and they would become deadly.
"Fuck off and die."
We were in a seedy backroom of a dirty bar in one of the rougher parts of Wizarding London. What a lot of people don't realize is that not all of the wizarding world is Diagon Alley with its family friendly atmosphere. Even Knockturn Alley is relatively tame. It's impossible to get the really bad stuff that close to the centre of Wizarding London. There are too many people around, too many Aurors popping in and out, for anything really illegal to be safe or profitable. The bad stuff happens farther away from the prying eyes of the Ministry. Places where people like me don't often show up uninvited.
She was struggling against her bonds. Straining hard, trying to get a hand free. I wasn't worried though. There's no way she could get loose without a wand, and I had hers. The room was dark, lit only by her wand and a torch by the door. Crates were stacked in rows, filling the smallish room. I used my wand to crack one of the crates. Sheets of human skin lay piled neatly inside the crate. Merlin, this kid was in way over her head.
"You keep doing this you're going to end up dead, or worse in Azkaban. It's three months just for owning a piece this size," I said, grabbing the top sheet out of the crate. It's dry and rough in my hand, but it stays in one piece. "It's a year if you get caught selling it, and three years if you're trafficking it."
"Azkaban is worse than death?" she scoffed at me, rolling her eyes. She thought I was just trying to scare her. I wasn't, but I could. Maybe if someone had scared Kay, she would still be alive today. I moved back across the room to her, and sat on a nearby crate. She stared up at me in defiance.
"Let's imagine the worst case scenario. Let's say the rumors are true and You-Know-Who is back and gathering his Death Eaters to him. They come busting in here to ransack your little cache of goodies." I motion to the dark potion ingredients all around us, subtly reminding her that someone already has.
"You aren't anything to them. They'd probably hit you with a couple Cruciatus curses, and then they would end you. Ten minutes of agony and it's all over." I pause, letting the pictures form in her head, letting her imagination show her exactly what a Death Eater attack would be like: the panic, the pain, the terror, the torture, and finally, a flash of green -- then nothing more.
"That's nothing compared to Azkaban. The island isn't even really an island. It's really just a giant rock sticking out of the North Sea. The prison is made completely of stone. The cells are small, probably a third of the size of this room. The prisoners never get to leave their cell. The only things in the cells are a bed and a toilet."
I got up and moved to the crate I had opened, and took out a piece of skin the size of a page of parchment. I tried not to imagine where it had come from, or how it had been taken from the body it belonged too.
"Having something like this in your possession is three months. Selling it is a year. Trafficking is three. Three years in a room the size of a closet. It's always cold; the charms keep the prison livable, but nothing more. Can you imagine living three years of your life in a single room, never able to leave?" I let her think about that for a minute. I noticed she was a shade paler than she'd been five minutes ago, and I knew it wasn't the temperature getting to her. Maybe some of this was getting through.
"What's the worst thing that has ever happened to you?" I asked, changing tactics, knowing she wouldn't answer. I paused, letting every bad memory she had flash through her mind.
"The day you lost a parent? A sibling? A Lover? A friend? The day you joined up with this rabble to make a quick Galleon? You don't even need to remember it clearly or at all; the Dementors will drag it out of you." She gasped. She'd forgotten about the Dementors. I had her so worried about the little tortures of Azkaban that she'd let the biggest one slip away from her.
"Every day, all day, you'll relive it. The pain you felt then will be back, but this time it will be worse. There won't be any time passing to grieve, to move on, to accept what has happened because you'll see it again in the morning, and after lunch, and again just before dinner. No respite from the memories."
"People that go to Azkaban, come back changed. They've been to hell on earth, with the dark and the cold and the stone and the Dementors. There's no way to come out of that unscathed. People that are only there for a couple of months can usually get back a pretty good imitation of what their life used to be, but they're quieter. They don't smile or laugh as much as they used to." I went slowly, letting it all sink in as I explained just how bad Azkaban was.
"Just after a year is the first breaking point, the people with the weakest minds crack. They can't take it anymore, the pain and the sorrow, their mind shuts down and they go completely insane. The people that crack early, they crack hard. They usually don't survive the second year. Did you know that if you die in Azkaban, you don't get a real burial? Your family doesn't even get to see your body. They don't get to hold a proper funeral. You're buried in an unmarked grave on the island. The only people there are a pair of gravediggers. There is no ceremony, no flowers. No one says anything. A hole is dug, they put your body in and cover it up. That's it. Your family usually doesn't even find out until after it's happened. When they do find out, they get a letter from the Ministry, expressing their condolences; 'To Whom It May Concern, We are sorry to inform you that your son, daughter, husband, wife, brother, sister, whoever has died in Azkaban. We are extremely sorry for your loss. Sincerely, The Ministry of Magic.' Then it's signed by Fudge." She stared at me, open-mouthed, but I was not done. She was going to get every last detail.
"If you can survive the first year, you can usually do the first five. The five-year mark is the second breaking point. I've never seen anyone do five years and come out sane. The strong ones can still live some semblance of life, but not much more than that. Most of them are terrified of the dark by this point and have trouble getting more than a couple hours of sleep at a time. St. Mungo's has a whole ward that you never hear about, for people that survived Azkaban, but can't function in normal society. People like Sirius Black and Bellatrix Lestrange, who have done ten years or more, are complete nut jobs. I don't know how sane they were when they went in, but they're completely gone now. They rave and scream and howl like demons. The only thing they have left is pain, pain and the bad memories."
I stood and banished the crate I'd been sitting on. It would reappear in the impound at Auror Headquarters, where the crates would be marked, inventoried, and stored until trial. If the case never got to trial the Ministry would claim any restricted substances that they find useful; the rest would be destroyed. The girl hadn't moved or spoken since I'd finished talking. I continued to banish crates, while I kept an eye on her. I was trained by the best, Alastor Moody, he had taught me to keep an eye on everyone in the room, even if they were securely bound. My mind wandered back to Kay as I banished crate after crate. What if someone had given her a talk back when You-Know-Who had first come around? What if someone had sat her down and had explained all the trouble she was getting into? What if she had known just how far You-Know-Who would go?
My memories of her have faded, but you never completely forget your older sister. I remember watching her board the Hogwarts Express and wishing I could go with her. I remember her laughing and flying with me during the summer, her hair whipped into a wild tangle, but loving every minute of it. But mostly, I remember finding her battered corpse thrown, on our front lawn, her mouth wide in an endless, silent scream, her robes torn and bloody. It was more than just a couple of Cruciatus curses. They had physically tortured her. She had been so young when it had happened. Shit.
I looked back at my captive, who reminded me so much of Kay. Her dark blue eyes were downcast and her shoulders were slumped in defeat. All hope was gone for her; she knew she'd lost. Azkaban, hell, was the only thing she had to look forward to for the next three years of her life -- if she made it that long.
"Stand up," I commanded. She got awkwardly to her feet, not having the use of her arms to balance her. I sealed the door to the bar; no one would be able to use that door until the MLES got here. I led her to the backdoor. We exited and ended up in a deserted back alley. It had started drizzling since I'd busted into that dark back room. The cobblestones were slick and she slipped. I steadied her with a hand on her arm. We made brief eye contact, and Kay's smiling face was all I could see. Damn. I glanced around; there was nothing back here except wet rubbish and a bunch of rats. A flick of my wand sealed the back door the same way as I had the front. The MLES would be here soon to speak with the operators of the bar to see just how involved they were with this whole smuggling ring.
"This is your second chance at a real life. Don't blow it. Get out of this shit, get a real job, meet a nice boy and raise a family. If you get busted again, they aren't going to take pity on you. If I bust you again, I'll make sure you don't make it out of Azkaban alive." She looked at me with confusion written all over her pretty face. She didn't know that Kay had bought her a second chance to do things right. A slash with her wand undid the bonds that had been holding her for nearly an hour. She gaped at me astonished. I pulled out a small money pouch full of Galleons, and dropped it into her newly freed palm.
"Go home to your family if you can. If they're the reason you're into this, get a room in a hotel for a while. This will keep you going until you can get a real job and find a place of your own. Now get out of here, but remember this," I grabbed her robes and pull her close whispering this in her ear, "if you do get caught again, this will be the moment you'll relive over and over in Azkaban. The chance you had to change your life but didn't. The chance you had to make a clean break from this life but blew it. Do the right thing." I held out her wand, she quickly transferred the money to her other hand and grabbed it. She took a last look at me and was gone with a pop. I hoped to Merlin that I would never see her again.
She was picked up again just under a month later. Based on my find in that storeroom, a much larger investigation was launched. The higher-ups thought shutting down the smuggling ring would be really good press for the department. The girl was one of twelve that they picked up. During her interrogation she'd brought me up. She was trying to bargain down her sentence. It sort of worked. She got two and a half years instead of three.
What she had and knew about me wasn't much. She didn't know my name only a description, and not any real proof that what she'd said actually happened. No proof that I willingly let a prisoner go, not enough evidence to ask me to testify under Veritaserum. The Aurors couldn't and wouldn't do anything to me. I'm too valuable, too good at my job. Fudge was another matter.
He could somehow tell that what she was saying was true. He knew I had done something wrong. Fudge isn't stupid. He's fallen in love with the power and become terrified of losing it, but he isn't stupid. He knew I had something hanging over my head and he was going to exploit it in anyway he could. He could force me to testify under the truth serum, and we both knew it. Fudge had me at a disadvantage so I would have to pay the price. I became his personal Auror, bodyguard and enforcer. What he needed done, I took care of. I didn't like it, but it's what had to be done.
I was the last one out of the fireplace. Fudge had gone first followed by Kingsley then Weasley. The Headmaster's Office was almost exactly the same as I remembered it. The old man sitting behind the desk was exactly the same. I had received an award at the beginning of my sixth year for getting a perfect score on my Defense O.W.L.s. Dumbledore had chatted with me about my plans for the future, presented my certificate, awarded fifty house points, and sent me on my way. It was the high point of my school life.
Dumbledore was standing near the fireplace greeting Fudge kindly as I popped out of the fireplace. Minerva McGonagall stood by on the far side of the desk. It looked like we'd interrupted a meeting. Kingsley moved to his post by the door and I shadow him taking up post on the other side. Fudge was saying, "…I've just received some information that we might have to expel one of your students, Albus."
"Oh, really?" returned Dumbledore. "Which student might that be, Cornelius?"
"Harry Potter," crowed the Minister obviously thrilled to be dropping this on his "rival" so unexpectedly. McGonagall scoffed quietly, and Dumbledore didn't look in the least surprised. Everyone knew since this summers "trial" that Fudge has it in for Potter. Dumbledore probably saw this coming the moment Fudge's ugly, green bowler appeared in the fireplace. After greeting Kingsley, Weasley, and myself, Dumbledore returned to his seat behind his ancient desk. Professor McGonagall moved to stand beside him.
"So, why will we be expelling Mr. Potter, Cornelius?" asked Dumbledore. At that moment the door was thrown open and in walked Dolores Umbridge towing Harry Potter behind her. My scowl deepened. If there was one thing that could make tonight worse it was that toady bitch. She had a wicked grin on her face -- she was obviously extraordinarily pleased with herself. Merlin, I hate that smile. Every time I've seen it, something bad had happened.
In my time as "Fudge's Pet Auror", as my co-workers call me when they think I'm not listening, I have spent more time with Dolores Umbridge than is strictly healthy. She has a lust for power that is matched by few I've ever seen, and she has absolutely no scruples about getting what she wants. She attached herself to Fudge on his way up through the Ministry, and it has served her well. Her position has risen every time his has. Umbridge started at the ministry as a minor clerk, now she has a full seat on the Wizengamot. A smile on that ugly face usually means pain for someone; I just hope I can keep it from being me.
Damn. If I'd had any doubt about the message Umbridge's horrible smile sent, the look on Fudge's face would have told me everything I needed to know. The wicked glee there said to me that Fudge had something concrete. It was the same look he was wearing when we had had our "little chat." Potter is in trouble; I doubt there is anyway that he can leave this room as a student of Hogwarts. Fudge fully expects to take down the hero of the wizarding world.
"He was heading back to Gryffindor Tower," Umbridge said excitedly, "The Malfoy boy cornered him."
"Did he, did he?" said Fudge with satisfaction, "I must remember to tell Lucius." Lucius Malfoy. A right bastard if I've ever met one. He's so slimy I don't know how he keeps his robes from sliding right off. The Malfoy's claim that they were under the Imperius Curse, but everyone in the Auror Department knows better. The name Malfoy comes up so often in our investigations that you'd think we would have been able to make something stick. Then Lucius got cozy with Fudge, and he became off limits. "Well, Potter… I expect you know why you are here?"
I study the boy as he bickers back and forth with Fudge. He's a little taller than I expected him to be. I can see the famous scar peeking out from behind his untidy black hair. He holds himself well, upright and proud. He never flinches as Fudge grills him about some illegal student organization. Fudge fires questions at him, getting angrier and angrier as Potter's responses don't meet his liking.
"I think, Minister, we might make better progress if I fetch our informant."
"Yes, yes, do," says Fudge physically calming himself at Umbridge's words. "There's nothing like a good witness, is there, Dumbledore?" The anger is still there in Fudge's face. He's shooting daggers at Dumbledore with his eyes, but he's calmed his body language. Umbridge leaves the office quickly and things start to fall into place. Someone ratted out Potter to Umbridge, Umbridge passed it up to Fudge, Fudge sweeps in to boot Potter, and rub it in Dumbledore's face at the same time.
Umbridge blows back into the room, this time dragging a curly-haired girl behind her. The girl has her face hidden in her hands. I can't tell if she's upset over having to confront Potter and Dumbledore face to face about ratting them out, or if she's just scared.
"Don't be scared, dear, don't be frightened, it's quite all right, now. You have done the right thing. The minister is very pleased with you. He'll be telling your mother what a good girl you've been. Marietta's mother, Minister, is Madam Edgecombe from the Department of Magical Transportation. Floo Network office – she's been helping us police the Hogwarts fires, you know." I've met Madam Edgecombe, so when Fudge says, "Like mother, like daughter," he's not lying. Madam Edgecombe is the worst kind of gossip. She always has an eye peeled for the mistakes of others, and when she finds them everyone is quick to know.
I can't contain the smirk that spreads across my face as the word "SNEAK" becomes visible in large boils across the young Miss Edgecombe's face. The girl begins to cry loudly as the curse is revealed to the room, but she gets no sympathy from anyone. The only thing that crosses my mind is that 'payback is a bitch.' It appears to be a common boil curse with a clever, added twist to spell out the word. Dumbledore, McGonagall, Shacklebolt, or I could easily remove it. Hell, Weasley over there is just out of school and he could probably do it, but it seems to have stumped Fudge and his toad. Minister of Magic is a political position, other than having a little of it, magical ability doesn't really play a part.
Miss Edgecombe continues to hide her face and refuses to speak, so Umbridge continues with the tale. "You remember, Minister, that I sent you a report back in October that Potter had met a number of fellow students in the Hog's Head in Hogsmeade –" She is interrupted sharply by Professor McGonagall and Willy Widdershins name comes up. I can't help but cringe. Willy Widdershins is nothing more than a common criminal and Muggle baiter. His pranks are cheap, but dangerous. More often than not, the end results require a team of Obliviators be called in to repair damage to both people and property. Widdershins doesn't truly deserve Azkaban, but he does need to be punished. It hurts everyone working for the Ministry that he was let off for feeding Fudge's agenda against Potter and Dumbledore.
Weasley's large, forced laugh brings me back to the room, "Oh, very good, Minister, very good!"
"Cornelius, I do not deny – and nor, I am sure, does Harry – that he was in the Hog's Head that day, nor that he was trying to recruit students to a Defense Against the Dark Arts group. I am merely pointing out that Dolores is quite wrong to suggest that such a group was at that time, illegal. If you remember, the Ministry decree banning all student societies was not put into effect until two days after Harry's Hogsmeade meeting, so he was not breaking any rules in the Hog's Head at all."
"That's all very fine, Headmaster," started Umbridge, recovering quickly from yet another set back, "But we are now nearly six months on from the introduction of Educational Decree Twenty-four. If the first meeting was not illegal, all those that have happened since most certainly are."
"Well," returned the Headmaster, "they certainly would be, if they had continued after the decree came into effect. Do you have any evidence that those meetings continued?" As Dumbledore baits Umbridge, I see Shacklebolt raise his wand slightly. At first I think he's getting ready to prevent the curses that seem ready to start flying. If Umbridge gets much angrier she could easily forget herself, and try to hex the most powerful wizard alive. Kingsley doesn't cast any protective spells though; instead he shoots a curse at the Edgecombe girl. Potter glances around as he has noticed it too.
I decide to stay out of it, as I don't know exactly what is going on. Shacklebolt is hexing Hogwarts students, Dumbledore is baiting Fudge and Umbridge, Harry Potter, the bloody Boy-Who-Lived, is on the verge of getting expelled, and I'm stuck here in the middle of it without a clue. Some of the most powerful people in the wizarding world both politically, Fudge and Umbridge, and magically, Dumbledore, McGonagall, and if rumors are to be believed Potter, are in this room, and I don't want to throw my hat into either ring. I hate Fudge, and I hate Umbridge more, but I have trouble believing that You-Know-Who is back as well. All I want to do is make it to a bed that's not in St. Mungo's tonight.
"Evidence?" croaks Umbridge, "Have you not been listening, Dumbledore? Why do you think Miss Edgecombe is here?"
"Oh, can she tell us about six months' worth of meetings? I was under the impression that she was merely reporting a meeting tonight."
"Miss Edgecombe," says Umbridge turning back to the now silent girl, "tell us how long these meeting have been going on, dear." The momentary look of shock on Potter's face, as Miss Edgecombe shakes her head, is all I need to determine where Kingsley's allegiances lie. He's jumped on Dumbledore's bandwagon. Kingsley's spell altered whatever the hysterical Miss Edgecombe would have said. Potter's reactions gave that away to anyone who was paying enough attention, fortunately for him, Fudge, Umbridge, and Weasley were all focused on the wrong person. Umbridge's questions continue to be answered in the negative by a silent and glassy-eyed girl. Fudge and Umbridge are so worked up they don't even notice how she's changed in the last few minutes.
Suddenly Umbridge grabs Miss Edgecombe's robes and begins shaking her, hard. Shacklebolt steps forward quickly, but Umbridge has already been knocked back by the sheer power of Albus Dumbledore. The old Headmaster is on his feet, wand raised, and power dripping off of him in his anger.
"I cannot allow you to manhandle my students, Dolores," says Dumbledore tightly. Bloody hell, nothing that I've run into, during my entire career as an Auror, has ever been nearly as terrifying as an angry Albus Dumbledore. The room quickly returns to its previous, tense state as Dumbledore reins himself in and Shacklebolt speaks to Umbridge, but that glimpse is all I need to see.
I've heard stories about the amazing and powerful things that Dumbledore did in the war against Grindelwald. Many of them so outrageous they are hard to believe, but I believe now.
Fudge, clearly sensing that his plan is veering dangerously off track, brings everyone back to the subject at hand. "Dolores, the meeting tonight – the one we know definitely happened –"
"Yes, yes…well, Miss Edgecombe tipped me off and I proceeded at once to the seventh floor, accompanied by certain trustworthy students, so as to catch those in the meeting red-handed. It appears that they were forewarned of my arrival, however, because when we reached the seventh floor they were running in every direction. It does not matter, however. I have all their names here, Miss Parkinson ran into the Room of Requirement for me to see if they left anything behind…. We needed evidence and the room provided."
"See what they've named themselves," says Fudge reading the list of names Umbridge had produced. "Dumbledore's Army."
Dumbledore takes the list away from Fudge and studies it for a minute before smiling and offering a written confession. Fudge is flabbergasted, and Kingsley and Professor McGonagall are both wearing their displeasure plainly across their faces. I don't know if this is a good or bad turn of events. I can't imagine walking out of Hogwarts with Dumbledore in shackles, but after Dumbledore admits to organizing an army I can't see Fudge letting him leave any other way.
This seems to dawn on Potter the same time as it does me and he shouts in denial. "No – Professor Dumbledore!" Both Fudge and Dumbledore hush Potter. Fudge is so excited he can't stand still. He's bobbing up and down on his toes. Weasley's quill is moving so fast that ink is splattering all over his face and robes.
"Well, well, well – I came here tonight expecting to expel Potter and instead –"
"Instead you get to arrest me," says Dumbledore with a grin. "It's like losing a Knut and find a Galleon, isn't it?" Fudge shouts at Weasley to make sure this entire confession has been recorded. I don't know what is making Fudge happier, the fact that Dumbledore is confirming everything he believed, or that he gets to tell the wizarding world that very thing in tomorrow's Prophet.
"You will now be escorted back to the Ministry, where you will be formally charged and then sent to Azkaban to await trial!" says Fudge turning from Weasley to the Headmaster.
"Ah," returns Dumbledore, "yes. Yes, I thought we might hit that little snag." My heart freezes for half a second. Shit, he's not going to go of his own free will. We're going to have to take him in the hard way.
Dumbledore confirms my thought a second later, "Well – it's just that you seem to be laboring under the delusion that I'm going to – what is the phrase? 'Come quietly.' I am afraid I am not going to come quietly at all, Cornelius. I have absolutely no intention of being sent to Azkaban. I could break out, of course – but what a waste of time, and frankly, I can think of a whole host of things I would rather be doing." My heart is hammering in my chest, and my palms are sweating. We're going to have to take on DUMBLEDORE! I take a deep breath and step forward after Fudge gives me a look. He's at a loss of what to do, so he's calling for reinforcements. He wants Shacklebolt and me to end what he's started.
"Don't be silly, Dawlish," says the Headmaster looking at me. "I'm sure you are an excellent Auror, I seem to remember that you achieved 'Outstanding' in all of your N.E.W.T.s, but if you attempt to – er – 'bring me in' by force, I will have to hurt you." I freeze. Dumbledore has started leaking power again. I can feel it slowly filling the room, and I know this man could destroy me without batting an eyelash. I look to Fudge for instructions. If he really wants me to attack Dumbledore I don't know what I'll do. I know I can't beat him, but if I don't follow orders I'll be the one rotting in a cell in Azkaban. Thankfully, Fudge doesn't force me to make that decision.
"So, you intend to take on Dawlish, Shacklebolt, Dolores, and myself single-handed, do you, Dumbledore?" asks Fudge with a smirk. I don't know why he does. I know that even with the four of us, we would need to be lucky to even touch the old man with a spell.
I take another deep breath to steady myself, as Dumbledore admonishes McGonagall to not get involved. If this is going to happen I want to be sharp. At least I'll probably be able to avoid major injury this way. And then it happens, Fudge yells 'Take him!' and I'm down.
I stir, slowly, and open my eyes. The ceiling I'm staring at is unfamiliar. Everything that has just happened trickles back to me. I sit up cautiously; trying to shake off the curse Dumbledore hit me with. I look around and see Shacklebolt getting to his feet as well. Fudge and Umbridge are still on the floor. I look around the office; McGonagall has pulled the children back into a corner. Dumbledore is nowhere to be seen.
"Where is he? WHERE IS HE?" screams Fudge pushing himself off the floor.
"I don't know," answers Shacklebolt, who is once again completely upright.
Umbridge pipes up, "Well, he can't have Disapparated! You can't inside the school –"
"The stairs!" I cry, bolting for the door. Kingsley is right on my arse, and Umbridge isn't far behind him. We hit the bottom of the stairs, and I call out, "Left!" telling my partner which direction I'm taking. I keep sprinting until I hit a corner and am sure I'm out of Umbridge's sight. There is no way we're going to catch him in this castle. Dumbledore has been the Headmaster here for as long as I've been alive, and was a teacher here before that. He has to know the castle better than any living person; every shortcut and secret passage will be an advantage to him. Shacklebolt and I have been out of school for a lot of years, and Dolores' short and squat body isn't built for chasing down anyone. Dumbledore is gone. We never had a chance.
I slow to a walk, and take in some of the surroundings. The school looks pretty much the same as my memories of it. Some of the paintings have been moved and the suits of armor look like they've been polished recently, but overall the castle is the same as ever. It's almost like it doesn't know that Dumbledore has left yet. I have trouble imagining the school without the ancient Headmaster. He's been entrenched here for so long that he's become part of the school itself.
Umbridge is the obvious person to assume the role of Headmistress. Fudge has been feeding her more and more power within the school all year, and I can't imagine him not following suit here. My mind wanders as I stroll through the empty halls. It's been a hell of a night; a duel with Dumbledore that ends before any of us could raise our wands, getting an up close look at The-Boy-Who-Lived, Dumbledore forced to abandon his post as Headmaster, Shacklebolt casting a silent memory spell on Dumbledore and Potter's behalf.
I have a lot going through my mind, but it's still a huge surprise when I trip over a barely awake little girl walking in the other direction. Moody would be so disappointed in me. The castle always felt so safe, so familiar, that I had let my guard down completely for the first time in years.
I look down at the girl. She can't be more than twelve. I'm guessing she's a first year, second year at the oldest. The girl looks up at me blearily.
"Sorry, I wasn't watching out," she says softly.
"Are you all right?" I ask, ducking down to help her up.
"I'm fine," she says after taking a moment to actually assess the situation.
"What are you doing out in the corridors? Curfew was a long time ago."
"What are you doing here?" she asks ignoring my own inquiry.
"I'm looking for the Headmaster," I answer honestly, or at least somewhat honestly. I can't very well say that I had been trying to arrest the Headmaster, but he cursed everyone, including the Minister of Magic, and fled the castle. "What's your name?"
"Marly McKinnon. I was named for my aunt," she answers proudly.
"Well, Marly McKinnon, you'd better get back to your common room before anyone else catches you out of bounds." I give her a small shove in the direction she had been coming from, and continue down the corridor before changing course and heading down towards the Entrance Hall.
Merlin, these kids are in trouble. I've seen the material Umbridge is supposedly "teaching" in that class of hers. It's rubbish for the most part. Half of the course involves spells that are outdated; the other half preaches pacifism and bloody diplomacy. The worst of it is they aren't getting any practical experience casting even the crap spells. It's bloody ridiculous to think anyone could learn to defend themselves that way. I'm starting to get angry again at this whole damn situation. I take a deep breath and push it all away, but not before wishing with all my might that Fudge is right about You-Know-Who's return, while knowing, deep down, that he's not. I hit the bottom of the stairs, and see Kingsley has beaten me to the school's entrance.
"Did you find him?" asks Kingsley with a smirk. I let a smirk of my own answer him. He knows as well as I do what our chances were.
"What did he hit us with?" I ask.
"Never saw anything like it," returns Kingsley, "I'm not even sure I saw it this time." I can do nothing but agree with him. I move to the door and take up an Auror's customary position, flanking it to one side. He does the same on the other. We spend the next ten minutes in silence waiting for Fudge to descend from the Headmaster's Office, and excuse us from our duties for the night.
Author's Note: Anything that looks familiar is probably taken directly from canon. Most of the fic is my own, but I did take some of the dialogue in Dumbledore's office directly from OotP.
A HUGE thank you to Jen, this story wouldn't have existed without you. I never would have put this down on paper or hard drive or whatever without your encouragement.