After Hermione's discovery, it was a wonder Harry had gotten any sleep last night at all. He was glad he did, though, considering how disgustingly early in the morning he had risen so he and Neville could accompany Shacklebolt into work today.
Hermione had gotten up to cook breakfast for him and Harry was doing his best to avoid looking at her and Ron from across the table. They were too busy shooting each other bedroom eyes to notice the shade of green that Harry was beginning to turn. The image of what must have transpired the previous night to make them act that way playing in his minds eyes, against his will, was not helping Harry's already debilitating nausea.
"Toast, Harry?" Ron asked innocently, offering him a plate piled high with rye toast. Harry took one slice and began nibbling the corner. His interest in food this morning, with his nerves the way they were, was purely obligatory. He didn't think he could honestly stomach anything but toast.
Harry couldn't help but chide himself for his nervousness considering he had already faced Voldemort, died, and come back to life. Acceptance or rejection from the Auror program could hardly hold a candle. This internal pep talk made Harry feel a little better. At least he was alive. Whether or not he became an Auror, he would be able to find a career doing something of worth, right?
Hermione deposited a full glass of orange juice in front of Harry. He drank it gratefully, savoring the tart, yet sweet juice, as it ran across his tongue and down his throat. The refreshment cheered Harry slightly.
With an unmistakable whooshing sound green sparks tumbled over the hearth followed shortly by Neville who looked slightly sooty as he stepped out of the fireplace. "Don't think I'll ever get used to that
" Neville muttered mostly to himself attempting to brush the ash off his twill sports jacket and khaki knickers.
"Neville!" Ron was the first to rush forward to greeting him with a brisk handshake that turned into a quick hug. Harry had a sneaking suspicion that Ron's unusually good humor was an attempt to break up the tension and nerves in the room. Neville returned the greeting politely and gave Hermione a hug as well before sitting at the table.
"Toast?" Ron asked shoving the plate roughly in Neville's direction sounding a bit like a broken record. Neville smiled awkwardly and took a slice as if he feared what might happen if he didn't. They ate only to the sound of Ron's noisy chewing for a few minutes before Hermione decided to open her mouth to speak. "I'm sure everything will be fine." She said, leaning across the table not at all looking like she believed what she was saying.
"I thought you said that Umbridge couldn't reject our applications?" Harry quipped with a puzzled expression.
"I did!" Hermione squeaked. Harry stared at her unconvinced. "Well, I mean, according to magical law she can't. But we all know how much stock Umbridge puts in the laws." The end of the sentence she trailed off indicating her uncertainty. Neville looked far more worried now than he had when he had first come through the floo. Hermione looked over and saw the concern etched in his features and placed her hand on the side of his shoulder.
"Neville, the ministry can only hope to acquire a wizard as qualified and brave as you. Likewise, any herbology school would be lucky to have you. And it would be their loss to turn you away." She smiled encouragingly at him.
Neville blushed a bit before he dropped his gaze to the table and smiled bashfully. Harry rubbed Neville's other arm in silent agreement. This was another moment where Harry was glad that Draco was not there. He would just be filled with all kinds of disparaging remarks that he wouldn't be able to keep to himself. Harry's thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. He put up his hand to halt Hermione who was already half-standing. "I'll get it."
Hermione sat back down without a word. Harry traversed the distance to the front door and unlatched the multiple dead bolts before opening the door to grant their visitor entry.
"Harry!" Shacklebolt smiled warmly at him. They stood for a moment in the lintel before Harry realized in his distractedness that it was his turn to speak again.
"Oh, yes! Come in." He smiled, stepped aside, and gestured towards the kitchen. Shacklebolt was massive standing in the narrow hallway. Harry had to flatten himself against the wall the let him pass. He followed Kingsley into the kitchen. Once he had entered the room, it gave Harry enough room to walk around him and back to his seat although he chose not to sit. He was anxious to get this day underway.
"Would you like some tea?" Hermione asked, quickly standing to fill the teapot with water to boil.
"No. Thank you, Miss. Granger." Shacklebolt grimaced and held his hand up to politely decline. She shot a look at Ron to wordlessly ask him if he wanted some. Ron shrugged in response and Hermione continued to fill the teapot and placed it on the stove. "I am actually running a bit late and was rather hoping you boys would be set to go?" He wrung his hands together impatiently.
"Oh of course
" Neville responded, jumping up out of his seat, nearly knocking over the bench, and stood next to Harry. Shacklebolt couldn't help but snicker at Neville's ash-covered ensemble. "Scourgify." He lazily waved his wand at Neville who looked slightly windblown from the force of the spell, but at least clean. "Want to look smart with Umbridge. The last thing we need is an excuse to invite her nastiness." Neville nodded curtly and straightened out his jacket.
With a nod Kingsley held out his hand palm-up as an invitation to Harry and Neville. They placed their hands on his and instantaneously the unmistakable sensation of apparition tugged at Harry's navel. Before he could register the nausea that washed over him every time he apparated, they had already reappeared at the public rest rooms that Harry remembered all too clearly from two years earlier. Neville looked at Shacklebolt questioningly.
"We have to flush ourselves-"
"Down the toilet." Harry finished Shacklebolt's explanation. The pair of them looked, puzzled, at Harry. "S'How Ron, Hermione, and I snuck into the Ministry during our seventh year." He explained in a monotone voice as he pushed the door open. The lines were short compared to what Harry remembered. It was late in the morning, so he wasn't surprised that most of the Ministry employees must have already arrived. Harry turned back to Kingsley with his hand outstretched.
"Coin?" He asked, to which Shacklebolt produced three golden coins with the Ministry of Magic 'M' emblazoned on them. He gave one each to Harry and Neville and kept one to himself. Neville looked uncertain about this plan, but nervously placed it into the coin slot next to the stall door. Harry did the same and opened the now unlatched door to enter. He stepped into the toilet, feeling the water seep into his socks and shoes.
"We flush ourselves." He heard Neville say from the next stall as more of a statement than a question as if he were bracing himself for what he had to do. "You sure?" He asked, presumably addressing Harry.
"I'm sure." Harry said, steeling himself, and yanked the pull chain. He felt himself spinning impossibly fast as his nausea came back full force, but just as he was certain he might lose what little breakfast he had eaten, he came to an abrupt halt in one of the many fireplaces that lined the wall of the main lobby of the Ministry. He stepped out, his hand on his stomach trying to hold himself back from vomiting. Neville stepped out from the floo beside him looking a similar shade of green to what Harry must have looked like as well. They smiled weakly at each other before Shacklebolt came out behind Harry with no hesitation and nearly knocked him to the ground with the force of his forward movement.
Shacklebolt grabbed the back of Harry's and Neville's arms to guide them away from the entrances before they created a traffic jam at the floos. Once they were safely clear of the congestion he released them. "Come. We're going to pay the Minister a visit." He said in a distinctly derogatory tone that Harry greatly approved of. It was common knowledge that Kingsley was easily the best choice for Minister of Magic as the Head Auror that saw Britain through Voldemort's second, and final, rise to power. However, for reasons that Harry could only speculate on, Umbridge had been chosen for the task instead.
His eyes lingered overlong on the still-standing 'Magic is Might' monument that disgraced the otherwise elegant main entry hall. They reached registration where Harry and Neville's wands were examined and there were given guest tags to wear on their lapels. Harry was certain by the prolonged examination of his wand by the security witch that she must have been sending some kind of warning to Umbridge that he was there. If Umbridge had the forethought to intercept his letters into the Ministry, surely she would have her security personnel alert her should he be so bold as to make an appearance. After, she handed it back to him with a suspiciously polite smile.
Shacklebolt then led them to a nearby lift in which they were the only occupants. "Fifth floor." Shacklebolt spoke aloud as soon as the door closed in front of them. The lift whizzed into motion. After thirty seconds or so Harry lost count of the different directions it had gone in. It certainly didn't only go up like muggle lifts did. Harry was sincerely hoping that he would be able to stand stationary for a little while once they arrived at their destination. He looked at Neville who had turned a distinct olive green color again.
"Main Offices." A pleasant female voice echoed through the lift as it stopped just before the door swung open. Neville stumbled out first nearly tumbling to the floor, but Harry caught him by the arm.
"Thanks mate." Neville muttered, bringing his hand up to his mouth and looking very ill.
"This way." Shacklebolt said curtly, oblivious to Harry and Neville's persistent wooziness. Only a twenty meter walk or so down a hall to their right brought them to the office of the Minister of Magic. Neville started to open his mouth to speak to Kingsley but he went unnoticed it as Shacklebolt knocked impatiently to be admitted entry.
Harry felt the hair on the back of his neck bristle as he heard Umbridge's characteristically obnoxious laugh before he heard her speak. "Enter!" Her voice was light and unaffected.
When they entered, Harry wasn't remotely surprised that the office was highly resemblant of the one she'd had at Hogwarts; horrifyingly pink with her porcelain kitten plate collection displayed on the wall. Once Shacklebolt closed the door behind them Umbridge looked up from whatever work she was doing. She placed the impossibly sharp, raven feather quill neatly on her desk.
"Kingsley." She said in a curt voice by way of greeting. The amount of tension and hatred in the room was nearly palpable. "Mr. Potter, Mr. Longbottom." Any minute amount of courtesy that she had managed to extend to Shacklebolt was gone from her tone as she addressed her two younger visitors. "I had a feeling you would come eventually." She said, her eyes settling on Harry over her thick-rimmed, half-moon reading glasses. Her lip curled into a nasty sneer. In his periphery, Harry saw Neville puff out his chest a bit.
"Yes, Minister." Shacklebolt said in his deep, velvety voice. "On that subject, Harry and Neville received some correspondence from you yesterday regarding their applications into the Auror program."
Umbridge slowly and deliberately removed her spectacles and placed them on the top of her desk. She rose, a good head shorter than Shacklebolt, and walked around her desk to face them fully. Her arms were crossed over her chest. "Yes, that's true."
Harry opened his mouth, but closed it once in doubt before finally working up the nerve to speak. "You can't deny our applications." He blurted out, and immediately felt a dropping sensation in the pit of his stomach as her tolerance at their presence clearly wore out with his announcement.
"Excuse me?!" She exclaimed, her voice a good octave higher than previously. "I am the Minister of Magic." She spoke as if each word were punctuated like the end of a sentence. "I am the ultimate authority in this place." She added resentfully.
"Not in this matter." Shacklebolt said firmly. Umbridge placed one hand on her desk bracingly and blinked. "You know as well as I that the power to deny or reject all academic applications rests in the Board of Magical Education."
"To keep personal opinions and vendetta's from playing a part in the decision." Neville added bravely. He shifted his weight uncomfortably realizing that he had added the information that Shacklebolt had originally intended to go understood rather than spoken aloud.
Umbridge looked, incensed, between Neville, Harry, and Shacklebolt. "Are you questioning my power and authority in my own house?!" She shrieked, getting into Kingsley's face as best as she could from her disadvantaged height.
Entirely unfazed by her advance he responded. "Not in the least." He said shortly, losing patience. "Simply reminding you of the rules and bylaws in place."
"Laws can be changed!" She shouted waving her hands wildly around.
"Certainly, Minister," he said briskly, "but, not today." He paused to take in Umbridge's annoyance before he continued. "And we would like the applications so we can bring them to the proper place since you are obviously intercepting owls."
"I don't like what you are insinuating!" She yelled and added in a derisive manner, "You and I both know, Kingsley, that that is an illegal action!"
"Accio Applications." Harry said plainly with his wand pointed at the partially opened drawer to her desk. His and Neville's applications flew out to Harry's waiting hand. Umbridge appeared to be trying to formulate a defense for herself, but Harry interrupted her attempt.
"You know I've never put much stock or faith in this institution, Minister." Harry said mockingly. "However, at least there was someone with the good sense out there to recognize that no matter much you may dislike me, you can't keep me from your ranks." He paused and looked back at Shacklebolt who, only with his eyes, seemed to implore him to continue. "I look forward to the day that Kingsley takes your job." Harry added with finality.
Umbridge gasped dramatically and placed her hand on her chest in outrage. She slammed her lips shut as if holding back a storm of speech and looked back and forth between Harry and Kingsley clearly unsure of who to give a piece of her mind to first. "Shacklebolt, I have so far tolerated your insolence and undermining of my authority. Trust me when I tell you that this will be the last straw!" She yelled after them. Kingsley simple cocked his eyebrow at her and placed his hands on Harry and Neville's backs again to begin leading them out of the office.
"And YOU!" She howled at Harry's back, pointing her wand at him. "How DARE you speak to the Minister of Magic like that! If you were in my employ I would dismiss you on the spot, you filthy Half-Blood!" At the final addition, Shacklebolt stopped short and turned around slowly.
Despite the fact that he was unarmed, Umbridge still lowered her wand, fear etched across her features. He walked purposefully towards her, and as he got within arm's reach of her he scowled, his teeth starkly white against his dark skin. "Thank you, Minister, for your time." His expression shifted instantaneously to one of barely contained anger.
Before she could wipe the look of puzzlement from her face, he left the office and slammed the door behind him. Harry couldn't even thank Shacklebolt before he spoke to them again. "Come. Now that we've put her in her place we're going to visit Angus Shelfner, The Head of the Magical Board of Education and giving these applications to the person they were originally supposed to go to."
They walked back to the lift and once inside, Shacklebolt spoke to the voice over the loud speaker.
"Destination?" She asked.
"Department of Magical Law Enforcement."
Harry wasn't sure why they were headed there. It hardly sounded like the place where the Head of the Board of Magical Education would have an office. He remained quiet and decided to simply wait and see where Shacklebolt was bringing them. Once they had arrived ("Department of Magical Law Enforcement" the voice sang out as the doors opened) they followed Kingsley through the department, filled with cubicles of aurors sifting through paperwork to a set of bathrooms that was right next to an office with a large window that peered out over the cubicles. The door had a plaque on it that read "Head Auror: Kingsley Shacklebolt".
Shacklebolt opened the door to the men's loo and gestured for them to enter before him. However, what waited inside wasn't a bathroom, but indeed a series of lift doors, rather than bathroom stalls. Harry was still trying to work out where exactly there were going and why there were concealed lifts next to the Head Auror's office.
"Sir?" Harry asked curiously. "Where are we going?"
Shacklebolt smiled knowingly. "The Ministry of Magic really does take the education of young witches and wizards very seriously; especially those that are educating themselves to work at the Ministry itself." He paused, his eyes twinkling with the secret of it. "The College of Magical Ministry Education is taken as one of the highest security places in all of wizarding London."
"Like Hogwarts?" Neville interjected.
Shacklebolt smiled. "Sort of." He paused so they could enter one of the lifts and spoke their destination. "College." He said simply.
After the door close and it began to move, all Harry knew was that the lift was going down. Fast. He had been to the courtrooms in the dungeons of the Ministry and had long thought that was the bottom and lowest level to the structure, but now he realized he must have been greatly mistaken in this assumption. Neville backed up and gripped the bar along the perimeter of the lift for balance, clearly fearing crashing at the speed at which they were moving. Shacklebolt was completely unaffected by their scary descent.
"Sir, I have to know." Harry said, gripping the bar on the adjacent wall. "Why is this lift in the bathroom in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement?"
Shacklebolt regarded Harry discerningly for a moment before carefully choosing his words. "To begin with, only students are informed of that entrance upon receiving their letter of acceptation into the college. In the off chance that someone should catch wind of its location anyway, that individual must make their way through a minefield of Aurors and me to even get to this lift." Shacklebolt handed Harry and Neville each one more golden coin like the one that had granted them entry in the bathrooms earlier. These ones, however, had the initials 'COMME' written across their front and back. The two of them accepted the coins. "Merlin, not more flushing? I hate wet socks
" Harry lamented feeling the squish of moisture in his shoes from the last trip down the toilet he took to get into the Ministry in the first place.
Shacklebolt laughed good-naturedly. "No, no flushing."
The lift came to a screeching, abrupt stop and the door opened. "The College of Magical Ministry Education." The lift informed them.
Harry exited and was immediately surprised by the amount of light in the massive entrance hall. It had no doors leading in or out besides the lift. There were giant windows on either end of the room that let in quite a bit of sunlight which reflected off the polished granite floor tiles brilliantly.
"I thought we were underground?" Neville perked up, turning around to face Shacklebolt.
"We are." He smiled. "Those windows are enchanted to appear like the countryside. Life in College would be quite dreary if we had no sunlight at all."
Neville squinted for a moment in comprehension. Beyond the marble wall where the lift was, the opposing wall was stone as well and in large brass letters on the wall was the name of the college. "The College of Magical Ministry Education. Est. 1673" The entire wall had a clear waterfall flowing over it.
"Is that--?" Harry began, but Kingsley finished his sentence.
"The Thief's' Downfall." He paused. "The College was founded nearly a hundred years before Gringotts. They took a few cues from us." He winked at Harry.
As they approached the waterfall, coin receptacles magically appeared, jutting out beyond the wall of water. Not needing any encouragement Harry placed the golden coin Kingsley had given him into the slot. The receptacle disappeared back into the wall and an archway just large enough for a single person to enter through opened up on the other side of the water. He shot a sideways glance at Neville for whom another archway had just opened ten meters away or so. They nodded at each other as unspoken encouragement and both walked through the waterfall.
On the other side of it they emerged, thankfully, dry and unscathed. They were faced into another lobby with the walls painted a cream color with similar colored marble flooring and cast iron grating, railings, and a gate punctuated by several podiums, one of which had a security witch sitting at it looking particularly bored. The room had the odd quality of being light and airy, yet antiquated and elegant at the same time. The lobby was only a partitioned area that lead to a long hall of similar décor with small chandeliers that hung in a line down the corridor. Lining the hallway were arched windows enchanted similarly to those in the entrance hall.
Shacklebolt pushed ahead of Harry and Neville as they took in their surroundings to greet the witch. At the sound of being approached she jumped to greet him. "Kingsley! So good to see you again! To what do we owe the rare visit?" She asked cordially with a pleasant smile.
He gestured back to Harry.
She gasped. "Is that
Harry Potter?" The woman looked positively fit to burst with her excitement. "And
?" She prompted unsure of who Neville was.
"Neville Longbottom, ma'am." Neville answered bowing slightly.
"Oh very polite, this one." She continued smiling.
"Yes, Thelma. Do you think we could enter? We are going to see Angus." Shacklebolt pressed onward impatiently with no obvious interest for pleasantries and handed her his wand. She took it and placed it on what appeared to be a circular glass slab on her workspace that seemed to shift to all the different colors of the rainbow. A quill magically scribbled something on the parchment in front of her. She read it aloud as it wrote. "13 ½ inches. Redwood with a dragon heartstring core. Purchased from Ollivander's. Kingsley Shacklebolt." Pleased with the quill's answer she handed the wand back to Shacklebolt. "Thank you and you may enter the college." She said, the tone of her voice very mechanized as though it was something she said frequently.
Harry and Neville followed and, again, satisfied with the results, Thelma the Security Witch magically opened the cast iron gate to allow them entry. Once past the gate, Shacklebolt walked quickly which, with his long legs, caused Harry and Neville to nearly need to jog to keep up. Harry noticed as they walked the empty classrooms that branched off of the main corridor. Upon closer notice he realize they were more accurately offices and meeting rooms for the staff and a recreation and relaxation room for students. Shortly they arrived at an office that branched off to the right of the hall with a brass door knocker and plaque on the ash wood door that read, "Angus Shelfner: Dean of Students; Head of the Board of Magical Education".
"Dean?!" Neville exclaimed.
"Never too soon to make a good impression." Shacklebolt said, clearly not realizing how nervous Neville was about this impromptu meeting. He tapped the door knocker slightly. A muffled voice behind the door shouted. "Come in!"
He pushed open the door and moved to allow Harry and Neville to enter before him. As they did, Dean Shelfner stood to greet them. His office was similarly decorated as the rest of the building they had seen so far, but with a large, deep crimson area rug that covered most of the floor. The furniture was mostly cherry wood; much darker than the rest of the room. "Ah, students!" He said smoothing his robe from the wrinkles it had acquired from how long he must have been sitting. Harry noticed a massive pile of applications strewn across his desk. "I don't think we've met before." He offered his hand for them to shake, but as Harry grew closer an expression of realization dawned on the man's face.
He looked younger than Harry was expecting and reminded Harry vaguely of Ludo Bagman with his sandy blond curls falling over his forehead. He had the look of someone who spent an unusual amount of time in the sunlight. "Is that
Harry Potter??" He said as a mad grin spread across his features revealing brilliantly white teeth. Harry placed his hand in Shelfner's and was nearly knocked over by the force with which he shook it and had to brace himself by grabbing the edge of the desk with his free hand.
"Not students, yet, Angus." Shacklebolt said, closing the door behind them with a smile.
"Kingsley! To what do I owe the honor of a visit from our Head Auror?" Shelfner offered his hand to Shacklebolt to shake as well. Harry surmised from the friendly way they spoke and interacted as a friendly handshake turned into a hug that must have been well-acquainted.
"I found these applications hiding not-at-all-suspiciously in Umbridge's office." He said sarcastically with a disgruntled frown as he handed them to the Dean.
"Hand delivered by Kingsley Shacklebolt, future Minister of Magic, eh?" Shelfner gave Harry and Neville a cheesy smile. "Must be pretty special applications!" He said as he perused the applications quickly.
"Harry Potter!" Shelfner exclaimed again, startling Harry a bit. "An Auror?!" He laughed a deep belly laugh that made Harry crack a nervous smile. He couldn't quite decide if the laugh was derisive or genuine. "The Ministry of Magic would be absolutely mad to not admit you, Boy." He said rounding his desk to slap Harry heartily on the back. Harry couldn't be sure if it was Quidditch or something else, but it was certainly obvious that Shelfner kept in good shape judging by how the Dean had nearly just knocked the wind out of him.
Longbottom, is it?" Shelfner said, turning to face Neville. "The son of Frank and Alice Longbottom?" He asked curiously, to which Neville simply nodded affirmatively. "I must admit your application is a bit lacking, but clearly Kingsley here thinks you must have some potential. Why do you think we should let you into the Auror program, Son?" Shelfner was standing intimidatingly close to Neville, but for reasons Harry couldn't guess Neville seemed to have gained some confidence in the last minute or so.
"Well, Sir, I think I would be a valuable addition to the department. Not only are my Herbology skills and knowledge exceptional, but I have considerable experience with dark magic from my last few years at Hogwarts as one of Harry's comrades in Dumbledore's Army and during the battle at Hogwarts."
Shelfner looked ready to pose another question, but Harry interjected. "Sir, Neville is one of the bravest, most talented wizards I know. He was instrumental to the defeat of Lord Voldemort. I couldn't have done it without him, sir. He is loyal to a fault and I would trust him with my life." Harry looked to Neville who nodded at him gratefully.
Shelfner looked back and forth between the three of them for a few seconds before answering. "Recommended by Kingsley Shacklebolt, Head Auror, and Harry Potter?" He raised his eyebrow in intrigue. "I'd say that's a pretty solid case." He pushed out his bottom lip contemplatively and waved the two applications above his head as turned and returned to his seat behind his desk. "I'd say your chances are pretty good."
"Chances?" Harry repeated, thinking for sure Shelfner would approve them on the spot.
Shelfner looked up at him from the papers on his desk. "Why, yes, my boy. Applications can only be approved by the Board." He smiled, detecting Harry's concern. He glanced back and forth between the pair of them. He winked at them. "But I wouldn't worry, Potter. I'll take care of it."