I realize that some people are watching DH2 at this moment. I also wish I was one of them, but my work schedule won’t allow me to see it until Monday or Tuesday. And, yes, that sucks.
So, we grumblingly continue on with my unfinished attempt at book 8 with chapter 6, Aurors Alone.
Nearly an hour passed before Harry and the others made their way through the throng of well-wishers to Mr. Weasley. When they finally reached him, he stood amidst a small group of people including Mafalda Hopkirk, Reg Cattermole of the Magical Maintenance Department, and Perkins, Mr. Weasley’s former assistant. Arthur’s face had taken on a red hue in place of the green one from earlier and his relaxed manner had returned with him no longer on display in front of the entire Ministry.
All around, people were exiting the hall, talking about the work they needed to catch up on and where they would be having lunch. Harry scanned the departing witches and wizards again, hoping to see the blonde hair of Draco Malfoy, but failing to do so.
As they descended the stairs, Ron tugged on his sleeve and pointed over his shoulder. Thinking he had found Malfoy, he looked up quickly.
“Did you find him?”
“Find who?” Ron asked.
“No,” Ron pointed again and this time Harry saw what he was pointing at.
“What’s Dawlish doing?”
Dawlish stood on the stage engaged in a heated conversation with Kingsley. The Minister stood, his arms folded across his chest, listening to his former colleague’s outrage with a dour expression on his normally jovial face. Dawlish waved his arms and walked in tight circles, speaking all the while, and finally gave Kingsley an imploring look to which Kingsley said a few short, calm words and walked away.
“What do you think that was about?” Ron asked Harry as they moved through the queue toward the stage.
“I don’t know and I don’t think I want to,” Harry answered.
They reached Mr. Weasley at last as the last of the Ministry officials went off to resume their duties.
“Well, Molly,” Mr. Weasley said, beaming at his wife. “How about that?”
Mrs. Weasley, holding on to George’s arm for support, rushed forward and threw herself into her husband’s arms. The embraced and shared a kiss of such passion that Harry considered taking notes. He turned to Ginny, who looked back at him and smiled, apparently reading his mind.
“Oh, Arthur,” Mrs. Weasley gasped. “Did you know about this?”
“Not really, at least not until right before we came out here,” Mr. Weasley said, wiping a glistening line of sweat from his forehead. “I told Kingsley I had too much to do this morning, but he insisted I come to the meeting. Now, I’m glad I did.”
He turned and seemed to notice the rest of his family and Harry for the first time. In a flurry of movement, they all rushed in to offer their congratulations.
“Congratulations, Mr. Weasley,” Harry said, shaking his hand. “They couldn’t have picked a better person for the job.”
“Thank you, Harry,” Mr. Weasley said. “I–“
Mr. Weasley stopped and blinked at Harry. “I told you I would take you and Ron to meet with Dawlish after the meeting. I’m so sorry, I–“
“It’s all right,” Harry said. “You’ve had a bit going on here.”
“Well, let’s go right now,” Mr. Weasley said. “I’m sure we can catch him before he leaves for lunch.”
Harry knew the way to the Auror office, recounting in his memory turn for turn from when he had visited the Ministry for the first time before his fifth year at Hogwarts. Then, Kingsley Shacklebolt had been the head of the department and pictures of Death Eaters papered every cubicle wall.
Now, with so many Death Eaters captured or killed and the Dark Lord fallen, the Auror office had a much more mundane appearance. Gone were the scowling pictures of Voldemort’s supporters. In their place, new clippings hung tacked to the fabric covered walls describing events that Harry barely remembered reading about in the Daily Prophet. In one, several Japanese Muggles had been found dead on the top level of a double decker bus. In another, a Muggle train had been derailed over a gorge in Scotland, the tracks turned to glass that shattered beneath the weight of the engine.
“Good, he’s in his office,” Mr. Weasley said, peering over the low cubicle walls. “Harry, Ron, the rest of us will wait in the atrium. Come up there when you’re finished and we’ll all head to the Leaky Cauldron for lunch.”
Harry wanted to ask Mr. Weasley about the articles he had seen on the cubicle walls, but decided it could wait.
The office of the Head of the Auror Department was in a corner past the last of the cubicles the other Aurors used as work space. Through the windows and open blinds, Harry could see Dawlish sitting at his desk, speaking to an empty room. He still looked upset over the conversation with the Minister and appeared to be venting it to his office. As they drew closer, still unnoticed through the window, they caught pieces of what he was saying.
” . . . too valuable where I am . . . not the right candidate . . . not ready for that kind of power . . .”
Ron gave Harry a troubled look and asked, “Do we really want to do this now?”
Harry thought it over for only a moment before answering.
“We’ve waited years for this and we’re not waiting any longer.”
They had nearly reached the office door when Dawlish looked up and saw them. He stopped in mid-rant, looking at them as thought they might be Blast-Ended Skrewts about to enter his office, then stood as they reached the door.
“Hello, Mr. Dawlish,” Harry said from the doorway. Part of him was reluctant to enter the domain of someone so obviously angry, but he forced himself inside and held out his hand. “May we speak with you for a moment?”
Dawlish looked at Harry’s hand as though it carried some sort of disease. When he looked back up, his face bore a sneer that reminded him forcibly of Severus Snape. “Please sit down.”
Harry and Ron sat down in two chairs that Dawlish conjured for them. The Auror sat back down behind his desk and stared down at its shiny mahogany surface for a long while before speaking.
“Well, Potter, what do you want? I’m very busy, you know.”
“Well, sir,” Harry began. “Ron and I came to discuss our desire to join your office.”
Dawlish gave an almost imperceptible flinch and looked up from Harry to Ron. His eyes lingered on Ron’s red hair and freckled face for a long time, giving Harry the sense that their roles had been reversed. For years, he had been the one everyone stared at. Now, he felt Ron undergoing the same scrutiny that he had endured every day since entering the wizarding world.
“I was told the two of you would be applying,” Dawlish said, snatching a paper from a tray on his desk and pretending to read it to avoid making eye contact with them. “What makes you think you can become Aurors?”
Harry and Ron looked at each other. They had imagined several questions that might accompany their meeting with the Head of the Auror Office, but this was not one of them. Surely, they thought, bringing about the defeat of Lord Voldemort, the most terrible dark wizard in ages, made them good candidates for chasing other dark wizards.
“Well, sir,” Ron said. “We’ve been fighting Death Eaters since we were about eleven years old.”
Dawlish slapped the paper down on his desk. “And you think that alone qualifies you for my office,” he said, his voice too loud for the small room. “You think your recent great deeds make you fit to be Aurors? That an Order of Merlin is a free pass into the Ministry?”
Ron looked at Harry, then turned back to Dawlish. “Yeah, something like that.”
Dawlish stood up, knocking his chair over backward. He glared at Ron, then at Harry, then at Ron again, his nostrils flaring. His face had gone a vicious shade of red and Harry’s hand crept toward the pocket in his jacket where he stored his wand.
“Let me inform you gentlemen of something,” Dawlish hissed. “There is much more to being an Auror than luck and Disarmament Charms. There are necessary skills that you need not only to survive yourself, but also to avoid getting everyone around you killed. Being an Auror means being a team member. It means working with the Ministry to accomplish our mutual goals. Above all, it means discipline and following orders, something I’ve heard you both have a great deal of trouble with.”
Harry started to respond, but Dawlish raised his hand to silence him. He stared at them a moment longer, then sat back down in his chair, breathing hard.
“If you understand all that,” he continued, the sneer spreading to his voice, “then we can move on. I understand that you missed your seventh years at Hogwarts. Is that correct?”
Harry answered first, his own anger rising to match Dawlish’s. “That’s right, but we learned a great deal while we were fleeing the Ministry and you were being stunned and confunded left and right.”
Dawlish drew his wand and pointed it at Harry, who stood still, knowing that drawing his own wand might land him in Azkaban, or worse. Instead of hexing him, however, the Auror flashed the wand toward the window, snapping the blinds shut. With another flick of Dawlish’s wand, the office door slammed shut.
“How dare you!” Dawlish spat. “You think you can outdo me, little boy? I’m the top Auror the Ministry has left–“
This time, it was Ron’s anger that cut into Dawlish. “Looks like you need us, then, if you’re the best they’ve got.”
Dawlish turned his wand on Ron and for a moment, Harry felt sure that he was about to see his best friend struck down by an Auror. The tip of the wand vibrated as though itching to release some spell that would teach Ron a measure of respect.
With great effort, Dawlish sat back down, retracting his outstretched wand, though not removing it from sight.
“So it’s like that, is it?” Dawlish said, his voice suddenly calm. The even tone frightened Harry more than the obvious show of anger had. “Very well, let’s continue.”
Ron looked at Harry, his eyes wide. Droplets of sweat beaded on his brow and his hands, white-knuckled as they gripped the arms of the chair, trembled.
“Tell me, gentlemen,” the Auror said. “Do your N.E.W.T. scores meet the requirements for admission to this office?”
Harry looked at Ron, stunned. For a long moment, they sat in silence, feeling as though they had just been checkmated in a life-or-death game of Wizard’s Chess.
“No, sir,” Harry said, trying to keep the tone of bitterness out of his voice, “but in light of recent events we thought–“
“Apparently you didn’t think,” Dawlish said, giving them a wicked grin. “I’m sure you are aware that all interested persons applying to the Ministry must meet the N.E.W.T. requirements before being considered for a position.”
“Well, if you haven’t taken your N.E.W.T.’s, then you obviously can’t come work for the Ministry in any capacity, much less in my office.” Dawlish sat back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head, knowing he had won. “I recommend that you go back to Hogwarts for another year and try again next summer if,” he placed a large emphasis on the word, “you meet our requirements. Until then, I bid you goodbye.”
Harry and Ron turned to each other. At a loss for words, they stood and left the office.
Harry walked down the hall, completely unaware of his surroundings. From somewhere far away, it seemed, passing witches and wizards greeted him, but he did not, could not, answer them. He felt vacated from existence, as though Dawlish had performed a Dementor’s Kiss on him, sucking out his and Ron’s souls and crushing their dreams.
On their way to the atrium, they stopped in a deserted corridor and collapsed against opposite walls. Sliding down to a sitting position, they both stared at their knees, unable to move.
“What do we do now?” Ron asked.
Harry continued to stare at his knees as though the answer would appear etched in his skin like the words “I will not tell lies” was on the back of his hand. “He can’t do this,” Harry said. “We’ll go to Kingsley. Tell him what Dawlish told us. Or your Dad.”
“No way,” Ron said. “Do you think I’m going to ruin the best day of my dad’s life by telling him that I’m not going to be an Auror. That I have to go back to school.”
Harry saw his point. The last thing he wanted to do now was dampen the celebration that was, no doubt, already beginning with the Weasley family. He imagined them all sitting around a table at the Leaky Cauldron and explaining to them how he and Ron were being denied positions to the Ministry because they had been out trying to defeat Voldemort. He thought of the light dimming in Ginny’s eyes at his failure, the disappointment plain on her lovely face.
“At least if we go back to Hogwarts,” Ron said, chagrined. “You can spend the whole year with Ginny. Of course, I’ll only see Hermione if she goes back with us–“
“I said I wasn’t going back and I meant it,” Harry interrupted. He stood, drawing strength from his anger. “We’ll find some way around this.”
Ron stood, rising much slower than Harry. “I hope you’re right. I don’t fancy another year with Peeves. In the meantime, though, let’s not tell my family.”
Harry agreed and they set off for the foyer and the celebration that they would have to pretend to enjoy.
When they reached the atrium, the Weasley family was waiting for them, as was someone they did not expect.
“Hermione?” Ron asked as they exited the lift.
A mane of bushy hair turned and Hermione’s face glittered with excitement. With a girlish squeal, she bolted for Ron and wrapped her arms around him.
“The Order of Merlin,” she said, her voice muffled by Ron’s chest. “Can you believe it? My parents are so proud of us.”
Ron looked at Harry, who saw the pained look in his friend’s face, a look that not even a reunion with Hermione would help. He buried his face into the brown curls, hugged her tightly, and kissed the top of her head.
After a long moment, Hermione disengaged herself from Ron’s arms and hugged Harry. He hugged her back, feeling awkward to be so depressed while she was so ecstatic.
“And your Dad, Ron?” Hermione continued, taking Ron’s hand and leading him toward the rest of his family at the far end of the atrium. “Senior Undersecretary? Umbridge in Azkaban?” She stopped and smiled, doing a very un-Hermione-ish twirl on the black marble floor. “This may be the best week of our lives.”
“Doubt it,” Harry muttered.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione followed the rest of the Weasley’s out of the Ministry building, Mr. Weasley deciding they should walk the few blocks to the Leaky Cauldron. Once they were outside, George and Ginny began improvising a song in praise of their father’s promotion, forming a verse at a time to the tune of Celestina Warbeck’s “A Cauldron Full of Hot, Strong Love.” Even Mrs. Weasley, her arm interlocked with her husband’s and her head resting on his shoulder, mouthed a few lines as they walked.
Hermione, walking with her hand in Ron’s, looked hard into his face.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “Aren’t you happy that your dad got promoted?”
“Wha-?” Ron said. His thoughts had obviously been far away from promotions and impromptu songs. “Oh, yeah. It’s great. How was Australia?”
Hermione held her suspicious glare for a moment, then relaxed. “It was amazing,” she said. “I got to go to their Ministry. You know Ayer’s Rock in the Outback? It’s underneath Ayer’s Rock. I couldn’t believe it.”
Hermione, lost in her narrative, missed the bewildered glance Ron gave Harry over his shoulder.
“Their government seems a lot more relaxed than the one here. Maybe that will change with Kingsley and your dad in charge, but their Ministry is so easy going,” she continued. She stopped abruptly, nearly causing Harry to run over her. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, along with George and Ginny, walked on ahead without noticing that the rest of their party had stopped. “And Harry! They’ve heard all about you down there. When they heard we were friends, they didn’t believe me at first, but when the stories from the papers started circulating and they saw our pictures, I was swarmed with people asking questions about you.”
“Great,” Harry said. He looked up ahead at the distance between them and the rest of the Weasleys. With nearly a half block between them, he turned to Ron.
“Should we tell her now?”
Ron considered. “I guess so. Better tell her now so she doesn’t hex me later for not doing it.”
Hermione looked from Harry to Ron, then back to Harry. When she spoke, all the joy had drained out of her voice.
“Tell me what?”
Harry swallowed. To say it for the first time made it undeniable, a true event. “We’re not going to be Aurors. At least, not yet.”
Hermione’s jaw dropped open. “Why not? What happened?”
Checking again to see if their absence was noticed, Harry gave a rapid retelling of what had occurred in Dawlish’s office. When he finished, Hermione’s face was red and she was trembling with anger.
“He can’t do this,” she hissed. “You should go to Kingsley. Or your dad, Ron.”
“No,” Ron said, “that’ll just make things worse when we do get in.”
Hermione looked shocked. “Well, you’re not just going to give up, are you?”
“Of course not,” Harry replied. “But, until we figure out what to do–“
Harry was interrupted by George calling from the corner. “You lot coming or do you have some other Dark Lord to chase down?”
Ron made a rude gesture to his brother and the three of them resumed walking.
They reached the corner and saw the sign for the Leaky Cauldron halfway down the alley. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, waiting for the rest of the family to catch up, stood face to face, whispering to each other a little ways down the sidewalk.
“Stop that,” George told them, “or I won’t have any appetite left.”
“If we’d have stopped this,” Mr. Weasley said to his son, “you wouldn’t be here.”
Back together in one group, they all turned to walk down the alley, but before they could take more than three steps, the door of the Leaky Cauldron and a large portion of the wall around it, exploded in a ball of hellish, orange flame. The force of the blast threw everyone off their feet and a wave of intense heat flowed over them where they lay on the pavement. As the rushing roar of the flames died away, they could hear agonized screams coming from the hole left by the explosion. Great billowing plumes of black smoke poured into the alley, making it impossible to see more than a few feet.
Harry was the first to his feet. He started to rush forward, but a figure emerged from the smoke and ran into him, nearly knocking him back down. As he regained his balance, he saw the face of Tom, the barman from the Leaky Cauldron, except that even in his worst nightmares he could not imagine him looking so wretched. Every bit of exposed skin on the man’s face and arms was black and smoking.
Tom clung to Harry, not knowing where he was or who was supporting him. He opened his mouth and let out a wheezy breath. Then, his hands going slack, he fell at Harry’s feet and moved no more.
Behind him, Harry heard Ginny and Hermione crying with fear and revulsion. Mr. Weasley led them back the way they came to get clear of the smoke. Mrs. Weasley stood behind him and Harry could hear her crying as well.
“Dear God,” she breathed, coughing in the smoke. “Who–who would do this?”
“I don’t know,” Harry answered. “I don’t know.”