There is a Harry Potter plot I've been sitting on for over a decade. This one-shot would have initially been its prologue, but I think it stands quite firmly on its own. If you're interested, though, you'll find a few explanatory notes at the bottom.

Anyway: this is my take on the iconic moment of Fudge meeting Sirius Black in Azkaban. (Along with other stuff). I'm sorry, but Fudge has no tag on this site (?!)

Enjoy!


CROSSWORD PUZZLE

The long oaken table in the Minister's Parlour had been field to many battles. Ulick Gamp was rumoured to have hexed his concurrent Damocles Rowle over this very table in 1718, having occupied his office for the first time (and having discovered that Rowle had smuggled a dragon hatchling into the chest where he kept the copies of his law enforcement directives). It was over this table that Hephaestus Gore and Maximilian Crowdy had smoothed out their plans for the repulse of goblin revolts in the early 1770-s (the fact that the very same goblins then moved on to Paris and set half the continent on fire did not lessen the nimbus of Crowdy's insignia). It was over this table that Artemisia Lufkin had signed the contract for the organisation of the first modern Quidditch World cup in 1809… and today, on the 25th of July 1993, three-twenty-two in the afternoon, it was over this table as well that Bill Weasley and Lucy Dawlish both stared at Cornelius Fudge as if he had grown a second head.

"You want us to do what…?"

"…Minister?" Weasley completed the indignantly whispered sentence of his ex-colleague (in a not much less indignant voice).

The whole scene, in fact, would have been very comical if Fudge didn't need the pair to say yes before they could even start thinking.

"This could be a very important breakthrough," the Minister cleared his throat. "And, ah, in the light of the present circumstances…"

"You mean, in the light of the fact that the Ministry owes three hundred thousand galleons to Gringotts, or in the light of the fact that if this goes out you can sting your hook?"

"…Minister," Weasley barked again. He cast a sidelong look at Dawlish, but the woman did not seem to care.

"I mean, in the light of both," said Fudge, quite honestly. "This would not be the first time that the reigning Minister pays the price of his predecessors' acts…" His sigh turned out somewhat more theatrical than intended. "However, Miss Dawlish, much worse things could happen here than me losing my job, or you losing yours."

Dawlish raised her brows, ever so slightly. In response, a crease appeared on Fudge's forehead, and one who knew him well could have recognised it for the threat it was. If she was asking for a clue, she was about to get one…

"The whole series of safes in question belongs to the Magical Governance since year 1400, since even before the times of the Ministry. The treasure that is hidden there… it is… well, to say that it could solve all our problems is an understatement."

"Those safes have, however, been cursed," said Dawlish, her voice suddenly puzzled and careful.

"The goblins would much rather say that they have sealed them." Weasley threw back his long hair, and Fudge saw a strangle light in his eyes; it flared, then it died out immediately. "And if we as much as inquire about the Sequestrum, they will most likely consider that the Ministry wants to pay them with their own money."

"And they would not be that far from the truth," Fudge admitted half-heartedly. "Still, there is a loophole… tiny, for sure, but one that could help us a great deal. I have spoken to Griphook recently, and he admitted – well, slipped – that not even Gringotts goblins have been able to access the Sequestrum… since centuries. Since the very day it had been sealed. Something went awry, and in the turmoil of those days, there was no one to fix it."

"All right," Lucy Dawlish threw one shapely leg over the other and studied the Minister carefully. "Bill is a master curse-breaker with top-notch references and an impeccable achievement list. I understand why he is here. But why am I here?"

Fudge abruptly raised his head, unable to hide his astonishment for a moment – then ten years of political routine took over, and he smiled. Dawlish was just what he needed right now: quick, witty, and spontaneous, not to mention that she looked more attractive in a tweed dress than a woman had any right to do so. As she sat across him right now, blonde hair, grey eyes, rosy lips, she looked so perfectly and entirely innocent that if Albus Dumbledore had not warned him that she was a qualified dragon trainer, Fudge might have excused himself and backed out of the whole action, unwilling to endanger such a gracious young lady.

Albus Dumbledore did, however, warn him, so all the Minister said was,

"I have been under the impression, Miss Dawlish, that you were quite fond of perpetually enraged Hungarian Horntails."

There was a sharp intake of breath. Dawlish and Weasley exchanged a heated look, and Fudge knew that either he hit the jackpot or the whole operation was doomed to failure. Somehow, he managed to find a sensitive spot, a spot that connected these two people, who had history together, who somehow belonged together on a deep, yet estranged level – he could tell that from the way they sat well apart from each other, careful not to touch, yet seemed perfectly able to complete each other's sentences. He could not tell, however, if they knew that he knew.

"I thought…," Dawlish began, but Fudge raised his hand to silence her. Someone was approaching.

"Cornelius," The shaved head of Kingsley Shacklebolt appeared in the gap of the door. "I hate to cut off your meeting, but we need to go. I suppose you'd prefer a visit during daytime…"

"Oh," Fudge struggled to hide the slight tremor that ran down his spine (unsuccessfully so). "Of course. Let's... Well, then. Until next time, Weasley, Dawlish! Please do consider my offer."

"We will, sir," Weasley nodded dutifully, and was ready to go. A long strand of ginger hair stuck across his forehead as he reached out to grab his travelling cloak, and for the fraction of a second, Lucy Dawlish was about to remove it. Her hand, however, halted mid-air, and she made a very bad show of disguising the movement as an attempt to adjust her sleeves.

"Where are you going, sir?" She asked, a subtle tension in her voice, as if it was Fudge's fault that she'd made the movement.

"Azkaban," The Minister shrugged off another wave of tremor. He was no longer a green boy, for Merlin's sake! "Nothing out of the ordinary… I have to pay my yearly visit, ensure that the cells are still dark and wet, Dementors still suck the living soul out of people and the doors are still locked." He made an attempt at a nonchalant wink, but the gesture transformed into an uneasy frown somewhere on the way.

"Can Dementors really talk?" Lucy Dawlish asked, with a lot more enthusiastic curiosity than Fudge would have considered healthy. "I have rarely seen one, and they just… sort of… rattle."

"They can communicate…" The room suddenly seemed to grow quite cold as Fudge spinned his favourite green bowler hat around with his free hand. "Through images. They rarely have something to say, though."

"And they tell you what's going on?" Curiously enough, the fact that he was on speaking terms with the Dementors seemed to have earned the young woman's respect.

"They do… in their own fashion." Fudge caught Shacklebolt's urging glance. "Now, I truly need to go, Mister, Miss. I will send you an owl."

Both young experts nodded; and as Fudge studied his reflection in the large, golden doorknob, he saw the shady figure of Lucy Dawlish reaching out, and finally removing that stray hair from Bill Weasley's forehead.


It is working out, he smiled tightly as he raced along the corridors, trying to keep up with Shacklebolt's impossibly long strides, it really is.

He gave a curtsy nod to the portrait of Nicholas Flamel as he passed it, and, immersed in his thoughts as he was, it seemed to him that the portrait nodded its agreement in return.

Finally, after two years of fumbling around, the career of Minister Cornelius Fudge was on the right path, and he would not even need Albus Dumbledore's counsel to follow it. (After this one last time, that is). For once, he deeply and honestly appreciated the help of the eccentric old man… he acquainted him with the perfect sort of experts… If anyone was able to break the curse, then Bill Weasley was; and if anyone could tame those rampant Horntails, then Lucy Dawlish could. If the pair succeeded, he, Cornelius Fudge could finally award himself with a well-deserved Order of Merlin (First Class, indeed).

And if they failed…

Well, Fudge smiled darkly, worse things have happened before. A pair of promising young experts in the prime of their youth and success… so sure of themselves… so full of themselves… It would be very sad if something happened to them, wouldn't it? Yet who would stoop so low, who would dare to blame him, the Minister, for their failure? He never even knew they were working on the case…

Not that it would ever come to that, he promised himself as the cold vacuum of Apparating sucked him in and he concentrated madly on the very last place in this wide world where he wanted to be right now. They will succeed, and my power will protect them, for the good of us all. For the good of the wizarding world.

Just as this thought formulated in his mind, the Minister's feet stubbed against the cold, muddy gravel of some remote isle, far out on the North Sea. The location itself was unchartable, but if Fudge were to take a good guess, he'd have placed it somewhere between the Faroe Islands and the southern shores of Iceland. It was cold enough to be sure…

Shacklebolt Apparated next to him in a heartbeat, and another tall shadow joined them a few seconds later.

"Good afternoon, Cornelius," the second Auror nodded his greeting, and pulled his cloak more tightly around himself. Fudge realised that he should probably do the same; he could already sense the bone-clattering cold that the presence of Dementors omitted…

"Good afternoon, John."

He grabbed his wand in the shelter of his right pocket and tried not to imagine what would John Dawlish say if he knew that his daughter was being hauled into an illegal undercover mission… but the island of Azkaban was a very thought-provoking place, and as they walked along the makeshift path that led to the fortress, Fudge had plenty of time to meditate on possible outcomes, one darker and more unlikely than the other. And now, with the walls of Azkaban looming on the horizon in front, they somehow all seemed possible.


"So much for daytime visits," Fudge said when they arrived at the entrance. Shacklebolt gave a court nod, Dawlish made a sound somewhere along the wide range that separates a chuckle from a sob and Fudge himself abdicated his endeavour of maintaining quality discussion.

The enormous door-wings were open now; thick, rigid, impossibly solid, rolled along their hinges by some dark, ancient kind of magic. Two guardians of Azkaban came to greet them, hauntingly ethereal in the foggy day-darkness of the isle, and Fudge felt all traces of calm and happiness leave him in an instant. Instead, he heard the question of Lucy Dawlish echo in his mind. Can Dementors really speak?

I don't know. Can they?

Communicating with the guardians had always been… particular. They had to have some kind of a mind, as well as thinking capacities, since they were capable of focus, attention, concentration, and consideration. Somehow, Fudge comprehended what they wanted to say, and the answers he mumbled were instantly understood, which suggested that either Dementors had ears or they could read his thoughts as easily as they could possess his feelings. It did not really matter to Fudge how it happened, after all, as long as he could be sure that the conversation was soon over.

The seven towers of the fortress loomed above the three officials like greedy fangs as they entered the gate, and the suffocating aura of the Azkaban guardians became suddenly much more intense. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them around; icy, maddening despair whirled in the air, it drank into the walls, it dampened the corridors, it played along in the low-burning flameless lamps that were lighted on occasion of their arrival. Ridiculous as it was, Fudge suddenly wished that Dawlish and Shacklebolt would follow him more closely as they padded along the obligatory circles of control.

Today (as much as every single day he had ever come here), everything seemed to be in order. Now, on his third visiting, Fudge could more easily restrain himself from gazing into the cells he passed, staying the reluctant pity that welled inside him at the sight of clothed skeletons muttering in the dark. They were criminals, for Merlin's sake. They got what they deserved. Quite possibly, though, if they could imagine what Azkaban was like, most of them would have shied away from their crimes…

"Cornelius?"

Dawlish was looking at him.

"What?" He barked, suddenly aware of how his face must have betrayed the direction of his thoughts.

"Kingsley and I must take a detour…"

"The Lestranges," the Minister guessed.

"Routine check. Do you want to accompany us…?"

"I'll be fine, thanks," said Fudge quickly… so quickly in fact, that he immediately got very angry at himself, and the quiet, dutiful restraint with which Dawlish nodded and left infuriated him even further. Why the hell must Dawlish ask…? He could have simply let him do what he wanted. Besides, there was absolutely no need for him to climb the Seventh Tower. Not necessarily because the very thought made his insides crawl, but more because… well, because it was Auror business, for Merlin's sake! He, as the highest officer of the Ministry of Magic, shouldn't take unnecessary risks. Not there was any risk to be taken, of course… No one could thwart the vigilance of Azkaban's guardians…

Fudge sighed unhappily and leaned against the least humid-looking wall he could find. He tried to ignore the ghastly figure of the Dementor in charge as it floated along the corridor, from one dark confinement of a cell to another, and made those horrible rattling sounds… he could summon his Patronus, for sure, but that would suggest that he couldn't bear the Dementors' presence. And that was clearly not the case, was it?

His left hand sank into his pocket and retrieved a copy of the Daily Prophet. At least, he thought, he would read the thrice-damned newspaper… but as soon as he unfolded the Prophet and took the briefest look at the main page, he groaned in annoyance. Bill Weasley's now-known face was grinning at him, along with his family, on their recent vacation in Egypt.

It was yesterday's paper, and he had already finished it thrice over. He could have quoted the ads if he wanted.

Across the corridor, the Dementor finished its routine check, and halted at the last cell, in a quite uncomfortable proximity. Fudge pulled his cloak more tightly around himself, if that was still possible, and stuffed the Daily Prophet back into his pocket. His annoyed huff of breath traced a faint silver cloud in the air; it gleamed on for a few seconds, then it dissolved like fog on a spring morning.

It really was bloody cold.

After a few moments' hesitation, Fudge continued walking. Even the prospect of climbing the Seventh Tower seemed more entertaining than that of spending the rest of his visit in the company of a Dementor. At least Bellatrix Lestrange wouldn't suck his soul out of his body.

Most probably.


"Hullo? John? Kingsley?"

He had passed two Dementors at the foot of the tower, another two at the end of the main corridor where two slippery stairways diverged, and another four to enter the most remote corner of the magical prison – the cells of those with a life sentence. As much as the rest of Azkaban was geometrically proportional, straight and predictable to the point of madness, these quarters were darker, even more confined, frightening and mysterious. Every now and then, Fudge fought the urge to jump; there was a slight pulse radiating out of the floor beneath his feet, as if the building itself knew about him and his business.

And of course, he turned the wrong way, and ran right into the sight he'd been trying to avoid… the muttering freaks. He passed in front of a continuously humming witch, then a wizard who seemed to be perpetually whispering under his breath, the only intelligible element of his soliloquy being the stubborn repeat of the word chimney in a thick Russian accent. And then, he passed a messy heap of sour-smelling clothes in the far end of a cell, perfectly still if not for the shallow rise-and-fall of his (or her) chest. There was one last cell at the far end of the corridor, half-hidden in the deepening shadows, but Fudge had no intention to take as much as one step further in that direction.

"Damn," he muttered under his breath. "Must all Aurors have so unnaturally long legs?"

"One level below," said a croaky voice from the shadows.

"Wha… excuse me?"

A giant fiery demon could have materialised in the empty air in front of him, and Fudge would have been less surprised. But no: he wasn't mad, he wasn't hallucinating. The voice had come from a cell. That far cell.

"One level below," repeated the croaky voice, slowly and articulately, as if addressing an idiot. "They have already passed here."

"The Aurors?" Fudge whispered, taken aback.

"The A-u-rors. And now, I would really appreciate if you would sharpen your remarkable mind elsewhere. I'm trying to sleep."

Fudge felt his jaw drop. The convict was speaking in intelligible, complex sentences… even worse, he had the mental capacity of mocking him. Afraid as much as fascinated, he took six hesitant steps into the whirling darkness.

The last cell was even more humid, yet somewhat bigger than the three others. A man sat in its darkest corner, his feet huddled up against his chest, leaning into the wall with his back. He looked very similar to the other prisoners, in fact – unnaturally slim, almost skeletal, pale and gaunt-faced and weak and tortured… but as Fudge sneaked closer, the convict raised his eyes, and the Minister had to keep himself from screaming.

Those eyes. He knew those eyes. After all these years, they still made his skin crawl, they still made him remember the time when he was just a titch at the Department of Magical Accidents and saw a scene that no titch was ever supposed to see.

"I know you," he whispered in disbelief, "I know you! You're him! You're Black!"

"Everything is black in this hellhole," said Sirius Black. He looked away, as if suggesting that the conversation was over – and surely, Fudge agreed, it was over. His colleagues must be waiting for him by now.

Still, something made him stay, and look at this man, as his hand grabbed his wand in his pocket.

"You wanna hex me?"

His heart was pounding in his throat. The movement was subtle, so subtle… (at least, it had felt subtle…) how was Black able to see that? How was he able to comprehend it…?

"How are you like this?! This… normal?" Fudge realised too late that he'd spoken aloud.

"You think I'm normal?" The corner of Black's mouth might have curled suspiciously upwards beneath the pattern of shadows that the bars painted on his face. "Well, that's cute."

"I mean, you speak in entire sentences and all…"

"I know Osbert's monologue about blood-sucking canary birds by heart, if you'd prefer that."

"No, thanks… it's fine…"

Fudge threw an amazed glance towards the whispering wizard behind his back. Now that he payed closer attention, he could, in fact, discern the words blood and canary aside chimney. Then, knowing that he was completely out of his mind, he turned back to Black's cell, and knelt down, temporarily unaware of the fact that he was dirtying his new robe. Their heads were on the same level now; and the change of altitude deepened the shadows on the hideously skeletal face, that somehow, impossibly so, still bore some traces of haughty nobility.

"I'm the Minister for Magic," Fudge declared.

"And I'm the King of France," said Sirius Black.

Fudge considered actually hexing him, then he considered crying out for Dawlish and Shacklebolt to hex him, and then – then, he considered actually having a good laugh.

"You know," he finally said, puzzled, "it would actually be terribly convenient if you were. The French Ministry is…"

He bit off the end of the sentence, angry with himself. Was he really about to discuss diplomatic relations with a mass murderer…?

"…a bunch of morons, I know," Black completed his sentence nonchalantly. "Luckily enough, our Ministry is different. They don't make you taste snails."

Fudge bit his lip to restrain himself from grinning, but as he glanced up, hesitantly so, his eyes met Black's again, and fear crawled back under his skin. He remembered…

"Why did you do it?"

Black hesitated. "I had no choice."

"What do you mean you had no choice?" Fudge whispered, indignant. "Obviously, you had a choice!"

"Not quite. It was a big fancy dinner, and Crouch practically shoved those snails down my throat. They were terrible."

He's not crazy, Fudge decided. He's doing this on purpose. Out of boredom… or villainy… or amusement.

"The night you were caught," he tried again. "I was there."

"Oh," said Black. "Sorry 'bout that."

His voice was astonishingly sincere. Fudge leaned closer to the bars.

"Why did you do it?"

Silence.

"I did not do what you think I did," Black finally said, his brows knit in thought. "I've never actually had a hearing. Not that it matters, of course," he added, almost nonchalantly. "I deserve to be here. But I did not kill Peter Pettigrew."

Fudge blinked. "If you tell the truth… unlikely as it is… then why would you deserve to be here?"

"I just told you," said the croaky voice, in the same condescending tone as at the beginning of their conversation. "I did not kill Peter Pettigrew."

Maybe he was crazy, after all. And it was getting late. Dawlish and Shacklebolt were probably already looking for him…

Fudge rose without a word, and fought the urge to open up the cell, and give Black a nice punch in the face, as far as the gesture was from his naturally trouble-avoiding nature. Many years ago, Black had been an Auror, too, and an excellent one, until Barty Crouch caught him… until the whole world collapsed…

Whatever happened, the man in the cell looked far from broken. In fact, he looked positively bored. Was he so ruthless, so senseless? Or, Fudge mused, could he have acted under the Imperius Curse…? But no, no, that was impossible. He was a Black – naturally prone to darkness and devious ways. He was nothing more than a fallen star, a wasted talent, a missed opportunity.

And Fudge pitied him for being so. The longer he looked at him, the surer he became of it.

Clearly, they were both insane.

"Well," the Minister said, hesitating, "I need to go."

Black had no reply for him; he was gazing upwards, out of the tiny window of his cell, in a pointless search for stars.

"Hey," said Cornelius Fudge, plunging even deeper into insanity, "I have a copy of yesterday's Prophet with me. I – I finished it. If you want, I could… well, you know what? I'll just slide it in, okay?"

Black immediately suspended his star-hunt.

"You would leave your newspaper? For… for me?"

"Well… yeah, why not," Fudge muttered. The Prophet slid easily across the bars and landed on the hard stone floor. Black touched it, very cautiously, as if unfamiliar with the texture of paper.

"Thank you," he said, his voice suddenly very strange. "I have really missed doing the crossword…"

"Oh," said Fudge, dumbfounded. Sirius Black was the last person he'd have expected to swoon over an outdated newspaper. But then again, mass murderer or not, Death Eater or not, he'd been in prison for thirteen years now… he probably has quite the news to catch up with…

"You know what?" His own voice seemed to come from far away, from someone else's mouth. "I'll leave you… it is a Muggle device… Perkins gave it to me the other day, it's terribly clever… they call it a ball…pen? It's… you push the end, and there's a pointy thing coming out of the other end…"

"I know what a ball pen is," said Black eerily.

"Good," Fudge slid the pen across the bars as well, glad that he did not have to offer further explanation on a phenomenon he did not profoundly understand. "It will help you with the crossword."

"You're really leaving your newspaper with me?" Black whispered.

"Well, yeah, why not," Fudge shifted his weight uncomfortably from one feet to another.

"Thank you."

Several seconds passed in silence.

"…well, you know what? I'll bring you one next year too, if I'll remember… anyway, I always have a copy of the Prophet with me… just remind me…"

Black did not seem to hear him any longer.

"Well – er – hello," Fudge muttered, but there came no response, either. The convict was probably truly done with him now.

Fudge looked back one last time from the doorway; now that he knew what he was looking for (and if he squinted a little bit), he could see Black as he sat cross-legged on the floor, newspaper in his lap. He seemed to look at the main page, eyes wide and terrible, every muscle tense, like a hound that just caught scent. His hands were shaking.

Fudge turned to leave. Dawlish and Shacklebolt were surely done with the Lestranges by now. It was time to return to the Ministry, to Operation Sequestrum, to Lucy Dawlish and her tight tweed dress. Whatever he might need to do will be easier to bear knowing that he'd done such a simple act of kindness that no one could see. It's not like Black could use that newspaper to escape or something…

It is working out, Cornelius Fudge, Minister for Magic smiled quietly to himself, a gesture quite unseen in Azkaban Prison. It really is.

THE END


Author's Notes

"Operation Sequestrum" is a secret ploy of Cornelius Fudge. The story I have imagined around it involves Gringotts, forgotten treasure, goblins, dragons, vampires, werewolves, Translyvania, Bill Weasley, Lucy Dawlish, Sirius Black, the Order of the Phoenix (etc. etc. etc.) and quite a bit of adventure. Despite being an AU, it was made to fit into the timeline of PoA, GoF and OotP. I honestly have no idea if I'll ever write it or not – it would be quite long. To be sure, it would provide quite an opportunity to show (among other things) how I see Fudge – to me, he's not quite the devil people so often claim him to be.

Lucy Dawlish is an OC who have gone through quite a number of changes over the years. As of now, she is the daughter of the Auror John Dawlish. She started Hogwarts in the same year as Charley Weasley and Nymphadora Tonks, and she was, quite obviously, a Gryffindor. The main reason while I don't write about her that much is that she is, in my point of view, the perfect woman for Sirius Black, and we all know those Beloved Character/OC stories, don't we…?