Chapter 79 : Fallen Soldier
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“Black,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“And the girl,” she said. “McKinnon.” Robards, who was slumped in a corner, glanced up at the mention of Black, and again when McKinnon’s name was said. He looked proud that both were still out there. The man intended to rectify that, and soon. “Should I send-”
“No,” the man said. He patted his pocket to make sure his wand was still there, and then pulled his hood up over his head. “No; I’ll do it myself.” He stepped past the woman, and over to Robards. He held out his hand, and Robards looked torn. The man sighed, grabbed Robards’ cloak, and pulled his Sidekick out of his pocket. “Thank you,” he said, releasing Robards. The man said the password, and the device opened with a metallic click. Everyone was watching him now.
“I’ll be back soon, I imagine,” he said, smirking, as he pulled out his wand; it seemed McKinnon had her Sidekick on her, and so, using its pair, he’d be able to find her exact location. “Point me,” he said.
* * *
The ceiling, carpet and even the walls – on which rested ghastly, kitten decorated plates – were all the same, horrendous shade of pink, and various doilies and lacy pillows rested on every surface around the room. It wasn’t a very big office, either – Sirius suspected the occupant either didn’t work much, or had another job and office in another department – which made it all the worse.
Swallowing bile, Sirius stepped in further and had a closer look around.There was a pink filing cabinet behind the desk, and it had several keyholes in it, as well as – he was only guessing, but it seemed likely – spells to ensure the contents were kept private. Whoever owned the office obviously had a lot of secrets, but on the Ministerial administration floor, that wasn’t entirely surprising.
He sneezed as he passed a rather bright, unfriendly looking flower – he could have sworn it snarled at him – and crawled under the desk, which reeked of sickly sweet perfume.
But it’s safe, he thought, taking a deep breath, or it should be for the few minutes I’ll need to sort out what to do next.
He started by prioritising. Harry, and what he’d mentally dubbed The Remus Problem came first, but Marlene, injured and separated from him, was a close second.
Merlin I hope she’s okay, he thought. She was tough though; she’d be able to look after herself until Sirius got his thoughts in order.
Remus wasn’t coming. That much was obvious. Sirius no longer expected any help from his old friend, and that was like a knife in the gut. He’d given him the benefit of the doubt, he hadn’t pushed, he’d trusted that Remus would let him know anything important... well, people were dying, and the Ministry was falling and if that wasn’t important, Sirius didn’t know what was. There would be words – or likely spells – between him and his supposed ‘friend’ if or when Sirius managed to get out.
And if Remus was truly working for the other side, then that put Harry’s safety in doubt. Sirius had a hard time imagining Remus letting any harm come to Harry, but the man had just let his supposed best friend and girlfriend walk into a death trap... Sirius’ fists clenched, but he forced himself to calm down. Kreacher’d been off when Sirius spoke to him earlier, but Sirius knew he’d never let any harm come to Harry; he was reasonably sure Kreacher would blast him through a wall if he so much as tried, and that anyone else with malicious intentions would fare far, far worse.
I’ve got to make sure, though, Sirius thought. Earlier, when he’d Flooed, he’d been worried, but not scared. He was scared now. Level Two didn’t have fireplaces, because it was such a security risk – Aurors could be overheard discussing cases, and anyone or thing could be let into the headquarters of Ministerial defence without being checked first – but other floors had no such qualms, and this office, thankfully, rested on one such floor, though there wasn’t a fireplace in the office Sirius had chosen.
The Atrium had been a better place to attempt to Floo; Flooing was dangerous anywhere, but he’d thought it’d be safer from the Atrium, since it was so open that he – or, as it had been, Marlene - would at least see an enemy preparing to attack before they had the chance to do so. There were also several doors to other parts of the Minsitry leading off of the Atrium, which made it good for escapes.
Office levels were far less desirable; they were littered with offices and cubicles – perfect hiding places for even the most inexperienced attackers – and lots of dead ends. Anyone could creep up behind him, and have him backed into a corner before he even realised they were there. And if things had managed to get messy in the Atrium, he could only imagine how horrendously things had the potential to go if he attempted to use the Floo on an office floor.
But I’ll have to risk it, he thought, sighing.
He got up, wand gripped tightly, and crept to the door. Ostendere me omnia, he thought, and when he couldn’t see anyone’s magic through the walls, he let the sight fade and stepped out. He glanced up and down the corridor, and a shiny nameplate caught his attention. Fudge’s office. For the same reasons that there weren’t fireplaces on Level Two, there wasn’t one in Fudge’s office... there was, however, one in the office alongside; the one belonging to his Senior Undersecretary.
Sirius hurried across the corridor, unlocked the door, and slipped inside. This office was much plainer than the one he’d vacated. Barty Crouch had always been a very plain man, and his office reflected as much. There was a highly polished desk with nothing but a clock and an inkwell on it, a neatly packed, well-stocked bookcase, and a fireplace, above which rested a pot of Floo Powder, and an award for services to the Ministry during the war.
There were no photographs of his son or wife around the room, but then, Sirius wouldn’t have expected that; Crouch had sentenced his own son to life in Azkaban and probably wasn’t the sentimental sort.
Sirius tossed a handful of Floo Powder in, whispered the address, and then leaned into the flames. All that he saw, however, when the flames moved, was the back of the fireplace. Sirius jerked back without thinking, and then watched as a hand snatched at the place where he had been. He doused the flames with his wand and ran for the door, knowing it was only a matter of time before someone found him.
He retreated back to his hiding place beneath the desk in the pink office; it was far enough away from Crouch’s office that he wouldn’t be stumbled upon, but close enough that they’d assume it was silly to check for him.
So the Floo’s blocked, he thought grimly, and tried not to let that worry him; it seemed there were fewer and fewer ways out. Never mind.
“Kreacher,” Sirius whispered, but the CRACK never came. Chills raced down Sirius’ spine. “Kreacher!” he hissed, but several seconds later, he was still the office’s only occupant. “Kreacher, this is an order!” Still nothing. “Come here, now, or it’ll be clothes!”
It brought back rather unpleasant memories of Noddy – James’ old house elf – who’d been killed in their seventh year, so that she wouldn’t be able to locate James when he was taken by Death Eaters.
But Kreacher can’t be dead, Sirius thought, refusing to believe it. There had to be a reason for Kreacher to be ignoring him... maybe he was busy- You threatened him with clothes, Sirius reminded himself. He shook his head. Maybe he had orders not to. The voice in Sirius’ head snorted, and said, Orders? From who? The only people he has any real obligation to are you and Harry.
Shut up, Sirius told himself, cradling his head in his hands. He forced himself to focus, before he went mad with worry, and started mentally running through old lessons he’d learned in the Order, and as an Auror. One in particular, seemed appropriate.
Help who you can, he thought grimly. The Anti-Apparition wards still covered the Ministry, the Floo was down and he thought it was safe to assume the visitor’s exit would have been blocked or destroyed. And now Kreacher couldn’t help him either. And, given that they’d been so careful with everything else, it was probably safe to assume there were Portkey repulsion charms in action too... Leaving the Ministry wasn’t looking like a viable option.
That meant that Marlene was now his first priority. They’d been separated for the best part of half an hour, which meant she could be anywhere, and in any state, but Sirius suspected she was hurt; she’d been moving awkwardly in the Atrium, but had also jumped down a lift shaft. At the very least, she’d have a few grazes, and at the worst... well, he’d rather not think about it. But, given that, she was probably still in the lift shafts – which did, admittedly, span the entirety of the Ministry - either unable, or unwilling to move too far... though that relied on the assumption that the Serpent Sworn hadn’t managed to catch up with her already.
Only one way to find out, he thought, drawing his wand. Expect-
Marlene had obviously beaten him to it; for the second time that day, the silvery lioness appeared. This time, though, it didn’t snarl; there was a soft hum as she materialised in the office, and Sirius watched her huge paws through the space between the floor and the desk. She came to stand behind the desk, and look at him from the other side of the desk chair.
Her tail flicked and her ears swivelled around; Sirius’ experience with cats was limited to Tufty and McGonagall, but he still thought that she looked nervous.
“Sirius,” she said, whispered, “I’m-” Marlene’s voice faltered, and she made a small, pained noise. Sirius’ fists clenched. “Level Three, I think.” Another gasp. “Follow me.”
Follow...? he wondered, and then the lioness stood. When she didn’t disappear, and instead padded over to the door, Sirius worked out what she wanted.
“Okay,” he said, and pulled open the door. She slipped out, moving silently down the corridor toward the lift shaft. Sirius looked both ways and saw the hem of a cloak disappear around the corner mere feet away. He swore under his breath and watched as the lioness continued, oblivious.
Damn it, he thought. He glanced at the corner once more, and then hurried after the Patronus. They didn’t encounter anyone else between then office and the lift, and Sirius was quick to open the doors, conjure rungs, climb in, and shut them again. The lioness winked out of existance at the top, and then reappeared at the bottom, looking impatient.
It took Sirius five minutes to reach Marlene, through the maze of tunnels, and once the lioness almost led him straight into the clutches of a group of three Serpent Sworn, who were skulking about in the Level Two shafts. They were probably looking for Marlene as well, and so Sirius made sure he knew which way the lioness was headed before he sealed off the shaft. With any luck, they wouldn’t even know there was supposed to be a tunnel there.
Eventually, the lioness stopped, right where two shafts intersected. Sirius glanced around, and then the sound of movement caught his attention. Marlene was there, wand pointed at him, leaning against one of the shadowy stone walls.
“Lily’s cat’s name,” she said breathlessly.
“Tufty,” Sirius said. Marlene nodded and then winced, her hands jumping to her side. She slid a few inches down the wall, and Sirius forced himself to stay where he was. “The name I used when I came to break you out?”
“Ebony Hunt,” she said. Sirius hurried forward and pulled her into a hug that was as much to keep her upright as it was for affectionate purposes. She didn’t even protest; she just looped her arms around his neck, and rested her chin on his shoulder. She was trembling with the effort of holding on. Sirius awkwardly – because she was almost as tall as he was - lowered her to the ground.
“Where?” he said.
“Lumos,” she said in a shaky voice. Sirius almost dropped her; she had a huge, weeping graze that ran from her temple to the corner of her mouth. She had something similar on her forearms – both of them – and her hands were ruined; she had very little skin left on her palms, and her fingertips and fingernails were shredded. “When I jumped, I had to slide down...” she explained, as Sirius peeled her wand off her sticky palm. He pulled the bag of supplies off his bag, wondering why she hadn’t used hers. “I can’t get it off,” she said, guessing his question before he could asked it.
Sirius healed her hands with a combination of spells and Dittany. He had to trim her fingernails down since he didn’t know how to fix them with magic, and suspected they’d be tender, but that she would, at least, be able to use her hands. He fixed her face, and caught himself lingering at the corner of her mouth, rubbing in the last of the Dittany, when he probably didn’t need to. Marlene cleared her throat and Sirius shuffled back a bit. Marlene then reached down and lifted her jumper. Sirius turned away, but she smacked his shoulder, and then sucked in a breath, as if the movement had hurt.
“Firstly, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before,” she said, sounding a bit more like herself; irate, “and secondly, I’d rather like you to fix what’s there, and you can’t do that if you won’t look at me.”
Sirius looked, and then winced. Between each of her ribs was a long, thin cut – most were already drying – and none of them had bled too badly, but they definitely looked sore; it was the sort of injury that would be uncomfortable and restrict movement, rather than cause severe damage on its own.
“Hex,” she said. “In the Atrium.”
Sirius fixed her torso more easily than the rest of her; they were only shallow injuries. Marlene rolled her shoulders and stretched a bit, obviously testing her movement.
“All right?” he said, and she nodded, her dark eyes flicking up to meet his.
“Thanks.” She smiled, and it was a real smile, not the wry, lopsided sort of smiles he’s been getting from her since she’d left prison. Sirius smiled back, and reached out to squeeze her hand, which was resting on the floor between them. Marlene’s smile faded a bit, and she squeezed back, and then pulled her hand away. Sirius let her. “S-”
That was when the shaft rumbled; not a rumble, like the sound of a lift coming, but a rumble like an earthquake. In fact, Sirius suspected that was the type of spell which had just gone off. Marlene’s fingers dug into his arm – out of shock, or because she thought she might fall over otherwise, he couldn’t be sure – and Sirius himself sat very still, looking for the source.
He found it; a cloaked figure, moving through the shaft toward them, wand glowing in their hand.
“Hold my chain,” Sirius said out of the side of his mouth. “And keep casting every few seconds, before it can wear off.”
“Caligo,” he shouted, and then stuffed his wand away, and transformed. He pressed his nose into Marlene’s hand and she felt along his head to his neck, where his collar rested. Her hand tightened. Then Padfoot took off, with her stumbling along behind him. He used his nose, mostly, since he couldn’t see a thing, but he could hear the footsteps behind them – their attacker was in pursuit – and he had some idea of where the walls were, based on memory; he was running back the way the Patronus had led him.
They needed to get ahead, or at least find a better place to have this fight; if they started throwing spells around in the tunnels – which were only about as wide as Sirius was tall, and only about a foot taller than he was - one was bound to ricochet and hit them. They might get their attacker, but they’d also be just as likely to get each other.
“Caligo,” Marlene said. Padfoot heard a low voice – so they were a man, whoever they were – mutter a spell, and then sensed, rather than heard the spell coming toward them. He threw himself to the ground, and Marlene dropped down beside him and whispered, “Caligo.” The fog cleared for enough time that Padfoot could see the pale blue spell soaring over their heads, and then closed in again. He pushed himself upright, claws scrabbling for purchase on the stone, and trying to half lead-half drag Marlene with him. She got the point quickly, and lurched to her feet.
Another spell whizzed past Padfoot’s shoulder and a wall grew out of the floor up ahead. Padfoot turned down a side shaft, hating that he was letting the Serpent Sworn manoeuvre him, but really, what choice did he have? The rattle of the tags on his chain, Marlene’s strained breathing and her regular “Caligo” and their pursuer’s quick, uneven footsteps all echoed off the stone walls, like an eerie sort of battle music.
A cool breeze hit Padfoot’s face, and his instincts recognised the danger before his head did; he skidded to a stop, a mere three feet from the edge of a vertical shaft that went Merlin-knew-how-far-down. Marlene was a second late in realising the problem, and stopped two feet from the edge, and only because Padfoot dug his paws in to slow her down.
“Time to give up, I think,” their attacker said, stalking closer through the clearing fog; he had a Shield Charm held in front of him, and walked toward them slowly, as if he didn’t want to startle them. He held out his other hand. “Wands on the ground.” Padfoot glanced up at Marlene, whose jaw was clenched. “That’ll mean changing, Black.”
Padfoot morphed slowly back into Sirius, and pulled his wand out of his pocket. He had no intention of handing it over, but knew he couldn’t hurt the Serpent Sworn man through his Shield Charm – anything he used would come right back at him and Marlene – but also knew it was two against one... their odds were good if it came to a fight, and the man couldn’t hurt them without dropping his Shield Charm...
Marlene glanced at Sirius. Smouldering was really the only word he could think of to describe her eyes; he thought – if it was possible – they looked about ready to shoot sparks. But then, she stepped slowly past him, wand extended in obvious submission.
“Mar-” Her chin came up, in a way he knew meant don’t argue, and so he closed his mouth, tightened his grip on his own wand, and watched helplessly. The man didn’t lower his Shield Charm; Marlene reached through it – obviously it was a Shield Charm that stopped spells, not any object it came into contact with – her wand held out in offering.
Sirius realised what she was going to do about a second before it happened; as the hooded man reached for her wand, her other hand curled into a fist. Her punch passed through the Shield Charm without resistance and caught the man square in the side of the face. Sirius guessed it was roughly where his cheekbone would be, and that it had considerable force behind it, because his Shield Charm faltered and he staggered backward with a groan of pain.
“Marly, move! Procellus!” Marlene leaped aside and Sirius’ spell whirled toward the man, gathering speed and size as it went. Marlene’s hair and robes whipped around as the vortex of air passed her, and enveloped the Serpent Sworn member, who hadn’t been able to get his wand up in time to stop it.
“Up or down?” Marlene asked, gesturing to the shaft behind Sirius.
“Up,” he said. Since they were no longer trying to be sneaky, and they needed to be quick, he flicked his wand at the wall, and had a stone platform grow out of it. It caused the whole tunnel to rumble, and then cracked like thunder when he severed it. He was just about to step on, when lightning followed, bursting out of the vortex behind them, and crackled around the shaft. Sirius felt heat, and then was knocked off his feet by a sharp shockwave.
Marlene made a furious noise from somewhere on his left, and there was a clatter as a wand fell. Sirius rolled onto his side in time to see the man release Marlene. She fell to the floor, limp and unmoving, and Sirius crawled to her side, ignoring the man for the moment. He, Sirius realised detachedly, didn’t seem to mind; he just watched from beneath his hood as Sirius felt for a pulse and found none.
“No,” he croaked. He held his hand above Marlene’s nose, hoping to feel a whisper of breath, but none came. He shook his head, trying to keep it together. His eyes were stinging.
“Last man standing,” the Serpent Sworn man said softly, from above him. Sirius understood the implications; the Aurors and the trainees – Dora, Mad-Eye, Robards, Scrimgeour, all of them – were all either dead, or captured. He refused to think about that in any more depth. Not now.
“No,” Sirius said. He reached for Marlene’s hand, and hoped that the movement distracted the man from Sirius’ other hand, which had just curled around his wand.
“Ah, ah,” he said, flicking his wand, and Sirius’ hand – which he’d lifted, ready to cast a spell - spasmed. His wand rolled away, and Sirius tried to lunge after it, but was hit in the chest by a line of air that felt more like a bar of steel. He hit the wall, gasping, and wondered, not for the first time in his life, if he was about to die. “Better,” the man said, approvingly.
Sirius glared at him, and then his eyes flicked down to Marlene. She’d never been an overly restless person, but seeing her so still... she’d already escaped what he’d thought was a real death once, years ago, except this time, he didn’t think she was coming back. This time, he could see her body. His throat felt very thick all of a sudden.
“Harry,” he choked, unable to take his eyes off Marlene.
“Pardon?” the man asked, almost politely, picking at the large, golden ingisnia on his cloak.
“Harry.” Sirius’ eyes flicked up to the man. “Is he alive?” The man’s head was tilted to the side, as if he was trying to figure Sirius out. Sirius wondered why he hadn’t just killed him.
“Yes,” the man answered after a pause.
Hope flared in Sirius’ chest, stronger, and more desperate than any Patronus. He couldn’t die here, not if Harry was still alive, not if he was all that Harry had left. And where hope grew, so did magic. It burst out of Sirius, lighting up the shaft, blasting the Serpent Sworn man back and out of the way. Sirius felt his strength fade, the way it always did after accidental magic, but he forced himself up, snatched up his wand and shoved past to the tunnels they’d come through.
His legs trembled, and his sides hurt – he’d done a lot of running and climbing, and used a lot of magic – but he pushed on.
Until something hard and warm – a spell – hit him in the back and the stone rushed up to meet him.
* * *
“...mental... absolutely mental, the lot of you!” someone said loudly. Sirius stirred, and then flailed as something stung his face. A hand caught his and pushed it down. “For Merlin’s sake, sit still!” Someone chuckled, and Sirius, recognising the chuckle, forced his eyes open.
He was in a familiar office – Scrimgeour’s office, in fact – and the man in question sat opposite him, wearing a pair of Serpent Sworn robes. His hood, however, was lowered, and Scrimgeour’s tawny eyes surveyed him with interest through his glasses. Sirius’ hand jumped to his pocket, and whoever was fussing over his head made a noise of disapproval and flicked his ear. Sirius winced, and tried to stand up.
“Sit down, Black,” Scrimgeour said calmly. He pulled two wands out of his pocket - one was Sirius’, one was his own – and placed them on the desk between them. Sirius reached for his, but Scrimgeour blocked his hand.
“Yes-” Leatherby the Healer who’d wanted to Obliviate Harry following the Dementor attack on their cell before the trial, scowled down at him. Then, he put his hands on Sirius’ shoulders and forced him back into his chair. “-do sit down, Black!” He then poked Sirius’ forehead with his wand – far more roughly than was necessary – but that was the least of Sirius’ worries.
“It was you!” Sirius said, staring at the Serpent Sworn sigil.
“Very original, Black, we haven’t heard that epiphany thirty times today,” Leatherby muttered. Scrimgeour looked amused.
“Exhausted,” Leatherby said, in a clipped voice. “But he’ll live.” Scrimgeour nodded and gestured to the door. Leatherby left, talking loudly about how mental Aurors were.
“You?” Sirius repeated, still not entirely sure what was happening. The door clicked shut behind Leatherby, and Sirius fixed his full attention on Scrimgeour, who leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “It was you?”
It did, of course, make a lot of sense; Scrimgeour’s office was where he – or Harry – had first seen the symbol and had first heard the name... Scrimgeour was the one who’d fought about it with Amelia, after the trainees had been dismissed from their lesson.
Scrimgeour was in a senior enough position to secure the Ministry for an afternoon, was senior enough that any news of the Serpent Sworn would have gone straight to him, so that he could change tactics, so that he could stay one step in front... Scrimgeour, who was used to coordinating soldiers, would have no problem managing a fighting force...
Scrimgeour, who everyone trusted, because he was so fair, and so calm, who Sirius had trusted, because Scrimgeour had testified for him in his trial-
“Yes. Me,” Scrimgeour said simply, scratching his nose. He shifted. “Well, me, the senior members of our current Auror team, and a few others.” Sirius blinked.
“You’ve lost me,” Sirius admitted.
“Well if we called ourselves ‘The Aurors’, or ‘Scrimgeour’s Secret Society’, I think it would have been too obvious, don’t you?” Scrimgeour’s lips twitched up into a small smile.
“Probably,” Sirius said faintly. “But- you? Blackburn was killed, Mad-Eye and Robards were fakes and Marlene-” Sirius forced his voice to work, and when it did, it came out far louder than he’d anticipated. “You killed her, I watched her di-” Scrimgeour held up a hand, and Sirius fell silent because he was unarmed, and Scrimgeour seemed content to talk rather than kill him.
“Did you see Blackburn die?”
“No, but Hemsley told-”
“Yes, Hemsley; an Auror, told you.” Scrimgeour laced his fingers together and leaned back again. Sirius eyed the wands on the desk, but they didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and he was getting answers. “I’ll bet you never even questioned it.” Sirius clenched his jaw.
“And Marlene?” he bit out. “I watched-”
“Draught of Living Death on the tip of my wand,” Scrimgeour said. “Powerful potion; anyone examining the body – like you did – would assume she was dead, because magic conceals the pulse and the breath.” He checked his Sidekick. “She should be awake by now.” Even if Sirius had something to say to that – he was too busy trying not to get caught up in the desperate hope now sparking in his chest like fireworks – Scrimgeour didn’t give him the chance. “Robards was Robards; he only pretended otherwise when you became suspicious. And Moody took Polyjuice Potion to change, rather than being an imposter whose potion wore off.”
“And Amelia?” Sirius asked. “She was-”
“-able to put her time away from the office to good use, visiting family members, and catching up on paperwork.” Scrimgeour smiled. “I think she’s reluctant to come back.”
“Someone used a Killing Curse, though, in the Atrium-”
“I should hope not,” Scrimgeour said, rather coolly. Sirius crossed his arms. “Sparks, Black, in the exact shade of green. We were throwing a few dangerous spells around, I admit, but nothing like that. A few broken bones, or scratches, or burns are to be expected – on both sides-” Scrimgeour rubbed his cheek, which, Sirius noticed, was a shade darker than the rest of his face, and beginning to swell; Marlene had always had a strong punch. “-but we weren’t angling for fatalities. We’re all reasonable with healing, and we had a few real Healers-” He gestured to the door that Leatherby had exited through earlier. “-in case anything got out of hand.”
“All right,” Sirius said, thinking - very tentatively – that he believed Scrimgeour now. “So, other than the fact that you, and everyone else in this department is completely barmy... why?”
“Why stage this? Why hurt people – even if it’s not permanent? Why-”
“We are – as I do hope you’ve noticed and taken the time to appreciate – no longer living in wartime. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there’s real danger out there, and not just petty thieves and people too stupid to employ common sense to find the line between legal and illegal.” Scrimgeour curled his lip. “It’s all very well to practice everything that we do, but if a trainee can’t use it in a real situation, why bother teaching it in the first place?”
“So, you made me think my best friend had betrayed me, my godson was in danger, and made me watch another friend ‘die’ to-” Sirius shook his head, took a deep breath, and than asked, “It was a test?”
“Well, yes,” Scrimgeour said, not seeming bothered at all. Sirius supposed he shouldn’t have expected anything else; Aurors thought differently, brutally, and... well, not emotionally. That wasn’t to say they were cruel, but they certainly didn’t care about a few mental or physical scars... they’d say it was character building. “The biggest so far,” Scrimgeour added, looking proud. “Three years ago, we attacked each trainee individually, in their homes, and tracked them, and kept them on their toes for as long as we could, until they lost. Six years ago, we kidnapped them, again individually, gave them the opportunity to escape – to see if they could spot it - and then hunted them down.”
“Why the group this year?” Sirius asked. “Why not the same-”
“You,” Scrimgeour said. “After your trial there was no reason – other than you being out of practice – that you shouldn’t be able to have your old job back. Trust me when I say it’s not favouritism, on my part, in wanting you back, but more the fact that it’s unfair not to give you the chance...
“Of course ‘no problem’ in inviting you back, quickly becomes ‘many’ when politics are involved, and since I’m not opposed to naming names, neither Fudge, Crouch or Umbridge were pleased by my suggestion. I’ve managed to win the Auror Department a fair bit of independence since I took it over-” He nodded in a restpectful sort of way at Sirius, and Sirius knew he was referring to his predecessor, Charlus Potter. “-but not enough to go against them when I’ve been so clearly refused... But then, of course, Slytherins – like Gryffindors-” He gave another, respectful nod in Sirius’ direction. “-tend to view ‘No’ as a challenge.”
Sirius grinned, unable to help himself.
“Robards approached you for help with McKinnon without me knowing about it, but when I did find out, I gave him permission to carry on working with you. I think he was surprised, actually, but I was hoping that you’d find McKinnon and that I could use that to justify your return to the Department... And then McKinnon came back on her own.” Scrimgeour eyed him through his spectacles. “I have no doubt that you were involved, but Robards didn’t file an official report on how – and, frankly, I think it’s better we don’t know-”
“Probably,” Sirius agreed. Scrimgeour looked amused.
“-but because of that, there was no way to credit you for it. We could have pulled strings to get you into the Program, but you’ve done that, and I imagine you’d be insulted by the offer... so we had to test you, for different things than the trainees. On top of everything the trainees were assessed on, we had to see if you could lead, and that’s awfully hard to do in an individual task; that was why, this year, we kept everyone together.”
“I didn’t lead.”
“You tried to,” Scrimgeour said. “You stepped up, when no one else did, and the others would have followed you, if it wasn’t for Hemsley. Him showing up was a test in itself, to see whether you could submit to authority.”
“You lot,” Sirius said faintly, “have far, far too much time on your hands-”
“And you,” Scrimgeour said, “now have far less.”
“-Shouldn’t you be, you know, arresting gits in Knockturn Alley, instead of setting up conspiracies against your own trainees?” Sirius blinked. “Pardon?”
* * *
Remus and Harry were waiting impatiently in front of Grimmauld’s kitchen fireplace. Both were checking their watches every few minutes, and both spent the rest of their time sharing nervous looks with each other, and staring at the flames. Kreacher was pacing behind them, rubbing his ears; he’d almost twisted them off when Sirius had summoned him, even though Harry had been right there to offer counter-orders and to assure him there would be no clothes (though Remus noticed he was wearing a brand new, red and green tea towel, which much have been a Christmas present).
The floorboard by the front door squeaked, and Remus was on his feet in an instant. Harry gave him a worried look, and Remus sat down again; best to not be standing, because when Sirius punched him, he’d fall further.
Sirius’ shoes appeared at the top of the stairs, and then his legs appeared, and then his torso, and then, finally, his face, which was pale, and rather dirty. His eyes didn’t really seem to be focused on anything. Sirius collapsed on the bottom of the stairs. Remus and Harry exchanged shocked looks and leapt out of their chairs.
“Padfoot?” Harry asked, looking terrified. Kreacher stood behind him, twisting his ears again.
“Sirius?” Remus said, drawing his wand. “Rennervate. Sirius?!” Sirius stirred, but his face was still drained of colour, and his eyes were squinty. Remus leaned closer, just as Harry twitched and turned to Kreacher. “What happened?”
“Remus,” he said, feebly, coughing. Then he winced and pressed his hands to his side. They came away bloody. Remus sucked in a breath, and pulled the side of Sirius’ jumper up to check the wound. It looked rather like something had taken a chunk out of his side. Bile rose in Remus’ throat, but he pushed it down.
“Dittany, Harry,” he said urgently. “Quicky.” Harry, who was staring at the wound with a strange sort of curiousity, got up and made his way over to the pantry. He seemed far calmer than Remus. “What- Sirius, what happened?”
“It was a trap,” Sirius croaked, “Scrimgeour- he- I only just got out- everyone was dying, Remus; Marlene, and Dora-” Remus’ heart stopped, and tears gleamed in Sirius’ eyes. “-there was nothing I could-” Sirius whimpered and doubled over.
“No,” he said, his face crumpling, “no, Sirius, it was a test, it wasn’t supposed to- Dora’s not- she can’t be, it was only a test, Sirius-”
“Here,” Harry said, pressing the Dittany into his hands.
“A test?” Sirius gasped. Remus’ hands were shaking so much he was having difficulty opening the bottle. Harry was leaning against the kitchen table, watching calmly. “Of what?”
“The Aurors were going to test you and the trainees,” Remus babbled, giving up; he used his wand to open the Dittany. “That’s all it was supposed to-” Sirius’ ragged breathing stopped and he went still. Remus froze, the Dittany hold halfway between Remus and the horrendous injury on Sirius’ side. “N-”
“Catch,” Sirius’ voice said, from above him, and Remus looked up through blurry eyes to see something golden soaring toward him. He caught it reflexively, and set the Dittany down beside Sirius, who’d sat up and was looking more and more like his grinning girlfriend in his best friend’s too-big-robes as each second passed. The real Sirius trotted down the stairs in his socks, carrying Dora’s Balance Boots. He hugged Harry, who didn’t seem at all surprised to see him. Remus wiped his eyes, and flopped back onto the floor with a groan.
“Serves you right for sending us off without warning us,” Dora said, but she didn’t sound angry. In fact, when Remus glanced up, she was smiling down at him. “And I love my present, but the way, but do you know how bloody hard it is to try to sneak around with this-” She pulled the Sneakoscope out of her pocket. “-going off every thirty seconds?”
“I’m impressed it’s still in one piece,” Sirius said. Dora poked her tongue out at him.
“It’s wrapped in every unbreakable charm I could find,” Remus said. “It might as well be diamond.” Dora just arched an eyebrow at him. “I know it’s noisy... I just wanted to give you a warning, or, well, something that might help.” She smiled at him, and he returned it a little nervously; he didn’t regret not telling them – it had been a test, after all – but he worried they might hold it against him. “Not going to punch me?” Remus asked, semi-seriously, glancing at Sirius.
“Nah,” Sirius said. Remus tentatively got to his feet. “I was... uh... less than impressed when I thought you’d betrayed us and, well, sent us to our deaths-” Remus grimaced. “-but Scrimgeour told me he made you promise not to give anything away, or get involved.”
“I wanted to say something,” Remus said honestly, “but what sort of spontanoues test is it if you know it’s coming? And you were under a lot of scrutiny; if they even thought that I’d told you, they might have changed their minds about testing-”
“It’s fine,” Sirius said. “Really.” He grinned. “It worked out pretty well.” He nodded to the golden thing; Remus was surprised to find he was still holding it, but held it up for a closer look. It was a Sidekick, a shiny, new one, with Auror Sirius Black embossed on the front of it.
Harry moved around Dora to get a better look. Remus tossed it to him, and Harry caught it effortlessly, turned it over in his hands, and grinned.
“Congratulations,” Remus said, clapping Sirius on the back. “Well done, Siriu-”
“That’s Auror Black to you, Lupin,” Sirius said, smirking.
“Oh, here we go,” Harry muttered.
“Oi!” Sirius said, reaching over to mess Harry’s hair up. Remus didn’t see the rest; he knew it involved a yelp – he couldn’t say whose – and that Kreacher started yelling at them all for dinner, but Dora had caught his eye, and smiled in that happy, slightly silly way of hers. Remus honestly thought the only appropriate response was to kiss her.
“Happy Christmas,” he murmured against her mouth, and he felt her smile, and saw her hair turn yellow, like the sun, before she pulled him closer by his Prongs-covered tie.
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