"So this is where you have confined the Dementors to?"
Minerva McGonagall wrapped her cloak tighter around her shoulders. The cold on this particular island in the North Sea was chilling to the bone even for someone used to Scottish weather – and the Dementors close to them certainly added their share of emotional iciness to the freezing temperatures.
"Yes," Kingsley Shacklebolt nodded gravely. "I know it is not the ideal solution, but it was the best we could do. We need to keep an eye on them."
Minerva shuddered again. The Hogwarts Headmistress and the Minister for Magic stood on the top floor of a huge, square prison compound, several stories high and with a large inner court. From their place, they were able to look down into the court which was roofed with an enchanted ceiling that appeared like glass.
The whole court was crowded with Dementors. Hundreds of them moved through the square, some gliding through the fog close to the ground, some floating a few feet high. Minerva had the impression of staring down into a black, eerie sea hiding dreadful creatures.
The prison block around the inner square was build of dark grey stones. There were several windows that opened to the court, and occasionally one could see the face of a guard watching the Dementors. Cold, silvery light shone from the windows into the inner court. After watching the Dementors for a while, Minerva observed that they avoided getting too close to the windows.
"Are these Patronuses?"
Minerva pointed to one window with a particularly bright light behind it.
"Yes – they are actually the main guards and the security system that keeps the Dementors in there. We only need wizard guards to produce the Patronuses."
"That makes sense. A rather clever design, I must say."
Kingsley smiled a little, obviously pleased with the compliment.
"Thank you. Nymphadora and I had this idea years ago, we presented it to Fudge immediately after Dumbledore advised him not to trust the Dementors any more. Of course, Fudge did not want to hear about it…"
Kingsley sighed. They continued to stare at the Dementors in silence. One especially bright Patronus appeared behind a window in the left wall and the dark creatures in the court became agitated. Rising higher in the air, they quickly floated away from the wall and the bright silver bird on the other side of the windowpane.
One of the creatures rose very high up and floated under the transparent ceiling close to the Minister and the Headmistress. Minerva's face froze while the Dementor drifted closer.
"Expecto Patronum…" Kingsley whispered and waved his wand in the direction of the Dementor.
His familiar silvery lynx appeared immediately and hurried across the ceiling. Close to the spot where the Dementor floated he crouched down, flicked its tail and finally pounced. The Dementor dived away instantly.
Kingsley smirked while he watched the big silver cat paw the ceiling where the Dementor had disappeared. After a few seconds the lynx gave up and returned to his master. Kingsley turned to Minerva again and noticed that she had relaxed a little, but still looked preoccupied. He wondered briefly what memories the Dementors evoked in her.
"Would you like to see the rest of the building? It's not pleasant down there, but now that you're here –"
Kingsley had asked Minerva merely to say something and noticed gladly that she seemed to snap out of her sad mood.
"Yes, do show me."
Minerva straightened up and they went to a staircase which took them inside the building – they had entered the platform on the roof not by climbing up inside the prison, but via an elevator on the outside wall.
The lynx dashed downstairs ahead of them.
"Maybe you'd better produce one, too," Kingsley advised. "It is a lot more comfortable then."
Minerva flicked her wand and muttered the incantation, and a silver cat appeared in front of her. Gracefully, she descended the steps, radiating elegance and style.
Kingsley grinned while they followed their spirit guides.
"Your favourite Disney film is 'Aristocats', right?"
"Sorry, I keep on forgetting that you never spent as much time with Muggles as I did. It's a film, one about cats…"
"I never heard of it," Minerva said dryly.
Their Patronuses now waited in the corridor ahead of them. Minerva's silver tabby sat proudly erect and did not even look at Kingsley's bigger lynx which now circled the tabby, trying to engage her in play.
"Your Patronus remarkably resembles your Animagus shape. It's quite pretty."
Minerva raised her eyebrow critically, but then she smiled.
"And your lynx also resembles you quite a lot – playful and daring."
The lynx had in the meantime tried everything from licking the tabby's ears to nudging her with his head, but the small cat with dark markings around her eyes remained unconcerned. Daintily, she returned to her mistress and fell in step with Minerva.
Kingsley and Minerva walked on trough the building. They met several guards while they descended to the lower levels, each guard accompanied by their Patronus animal. Kingsley's lynx made a playful jump at a silver raven, but the bird escaped easily and the lynx returned to the Minister.
Finally, they had reached the rooms on the lowest level that were immediately adjacent to the inner court. Through the huge windows, they saw the mass of dark creatures swirling on the other side. Both Patronus cats now kept close to Kingsley and Minerva, but the room still did not feel too comfortable.
"Working here as a guard must be very challenging," Minerva said after a few moments. "I do hope the Ministry pays them well."
"We do," Kingsley nodded. "And they work two-hour shifts only, then they leave the Dementor prison for the rest of the day – that is why I have employed so many guards for this place."
"Who are they?"
"The guards? – For the most part, very powerful witches and wizards who have worked in magical law enforcement before. You know, Aurors, guards from the regular prison here on Azkaban, some who have been with the squads who searched the houses of alleged Death Eaters in Fudge's time..."
"I cannot imagine that so many of them would have wanted such a job."
"Well, they get excellent payment, and every two weeks a week off from Azkaban – at least those who still have homes in Great Britain."
Another group of guards entered the room, and right away the atmosphere became less gloomy. Silver light radiating from their Patronuses flooded the room.
"Minister," one of the guards greeted Kingsley respectfully. His huge silver dog Patronus eyed their cats with interest.
Minerva's cat did not move, she only stared coldly into the dog's eyes. The dog took one step back and now concentrated on the lynx, which had already crouched down, ready to pounce. Dog and cat stared at each other, ready to begin a fight, each one waiting for the other one to make the first move.
Kingsley and the guard both called their silver animals back. When both creatures returned to their masters a little too quickly it became obvious that both had respected their opponent very much. Almost everyone in the room laughed, even Minerva smiled broadly.
Only a short, plump female guard who stood in the corner apart from the rest of the group did not join in.
The guards went on, the short woman moving slower and lingering behind them. Minerva did not pay her too much attention, she turned to Kingsley again.
"You were saying…?" she asked. "There are guards who actually live here on Azkaban Island?"
"Oh yes. We don't force them, don't think that. It's just that some Ministry workers have made themselves very unpopular during the period when imperiused Thicknesse was Minister."
"You mean like those who worked for that Muggle-born registration office? Or who supported those Dark Magic shops in Diagon Alley, and organised the Snatcher groups?"
"Exactly. Technically, they never did anything illegal. Some were forced into their positions, of course. But you know that some others became rather… enthusiastic when it came to spying on fellow wizards and employing the powers the new laws gave them."
Minerva moved closer to the window and gazed at the groups of Dementors on the other side.
"Nasty, but a rather clever idea, I must admit that," she said without turning around.
"We cannot punish them because they never did anything that was not legal at the time. They are Ministry employees still, and you could not even fire them without a good reason. But you could give them a job they would not enjoy… and offer them a horrible place to live in, a place they basically have to accept because few wizards home on the islands would want them as neighbours or lodgers…"
Minerva did not see the plump little guard come back into the room. The witch had lingered in the doorway all through their conversation. Kingsley now stepped up to Minerva and also regarded the Dementors in the inner court.
"Yes. It's not an idea I am proud of, but it works. It was not illegal what they did, but it was morally wrong – they deserve some punishment. And I've never forced them to spend all their time here. They can always move back to England if they decide they are ready to take the pressure of being disliked by their neighbours… and I certainly pay them enough."
Minerva's lips curled into something like a smile, but her eyes were cold.
"Oh yes," she whispered, "some deserve punishment. They are responsible for all those Muggle-borns who had to leave the country and lost all their property. They are responsible for the disappearances and deaths of Muggle-borns. People like –"
"Like me?" a high, girly voice asked behind them.
Kingsley and Minerva turned around. Behind them stood Dolores Umbridge, who had entered the room again and taken off the hood of her cloak.
"Yes, people like you," Kingsley quietly finished Minerva's sentence.
The three of them stared at another for a few seconds. Kingsley noticed that Umbridge's Patronus also was a cat, but hers was a fat, long-haired one – a Persian Longhair, most likely. She sat on her hind legs at Umbridge's feet.
Kingsley's lynx advanced on the fat cat and sniffed curiously, but Umbridge's cat immediately clawed at his face. Perplexed, the lynx retreated one step and eyed the long-haired cat curiously. Kingsley called him back with a wave of his hand.
The lynx returned and sat down at Kingsley's feet next to Minerva's tabby. Kingsley saw with surprise that the tabby had dropped her quiet and reserved demeanour. She had stood up; her back arched and her tail all fluffed up.
"Dolores Umbridge," Minerva then said softly, only a trace of malice showing in her voice. "I have often wondered what became of you."
"You cannot have wasted too much time thinking about me when you did not even recognise me here in this room."
Umbridge's squeaky voice was full of contempt. Her Patronus cat now also stood up and started flicking her tail while she stared at Minerva's tabby.
"Forgive me, Dolores," Minerva said icily. "You are wearing the grey uniform of a guard. I think the lack of girly bows and general pink fluffiness in your appearance is what prevented instant recognition."
The silver tabby now bared her teeth – like all Patronuses, she did not have a voice, but Kingsley saw her hissing so angrily that he almost heard the sound.
"Oh, rest assured, these are work clothes only," Umbridge sweetly replied. "Thanks to the generous salary I earn here, I am able to afford to have my robes tailored in France now. I think our dear Minister here pays us guards even more than he does the Hogwarts staff."
The Persian rubbed herself against her mistress's legs for a moment, then it slowly walked to Minerva's tabby. Its pupils had become slits now, but the tabby looked equally self-assured. The lynx watched the two female cats in bewilderment.
"You have not changed at all, Dolores," Minerva sighed. "You still care about the wrong things. Why would I want a higher salary when all I have ever cared about is teaching at Hogwarts?"
"Hogwarts," Umbridge spat out. "A place crowded with imbecile Muggle-borns and impertinent adolescents. The name of Hogwarts does not stand for greatness any more – why, the last Headmaster was a Death Eater and from what I hear, you have not even removed his portrait from the Headmaster's office!"
"I have not and never would do so. I am very proud to hold the position that dear Severus had before."
The two Patronus cats now circled each other slowly between the two witches as though trying to settle a territorial dispute.
"Severus Snape was a coward. He did not even fight to protect you in the Battle at Hogwarts, but remained behind the lines with his true master."
Hatred glittered in Umbridge's eyes. She clearly knew how to provoke Minerva.
"Severus was one of the bravest wizards I ever knew," Minerva retorted. "He went on with what he had to do, even though those who might have guessed the truth had turned from him until it was too late."
"Talking about yourself, Minerva?" Umbridge taunted her. "I always had the impression you liked him quite a bit."
The Persian cat suddenly leapt at the tabby and bit her hard. The tabby moved two steps away, her tail arched downwards between her legs, but her fur still standing on end. She was defensive, but not yet ready to retreat.
"I did like him," Minerva admitted. "And it was my mistake not to understand his true motives."
The short and the tall witch again stared at each other, Umbridge gloating with pleasure, Minerva looking equally angry and sad. Kingsley tried to intervene.
"Now, ladies…" he started, but both Minerva and Umbridge immediately turned on him and shot looks of pure venom in his direction. It was obvious that he was not to interfere with their discussion.
"Ah, Minerva, you have not changed, either."
Umbridge smiled again while her cat pranced the room in front of her, her tail high erect.
"You try to act the reserved lady, but deep down you are so passionate about your protégés. But you can't really help them, can you? What about that promise you made to help Harry Potter become an Auror – I don't think you ever kept that, did you?"
Minerva's anger increased when she remembered that conversation with Umbridge, which had ended in a shouting duel that had, allegedly, been so loud that the students in some classrooms had overheard them.
"Harry has never completed his education at Hogwarts, and without N.E.W.T.s, he cannot become an Auror. Anyway, I don't think he is interested in it any more."
"Then what does hero Potter do now?"
"I don't think that is any of your business," Minerva said coldly.
The Persian stopped her prancing and stared at the tabby again, who sat at Minerva's right, her tail swishing from side to side.
"Oh, yes, loyalty…" Umbridge mused. "Another one of the highly praised traits of Minerva McGonagall. Of course it's interesting how you are always loyal to those who are popular and powerful."
"And now what is that supposed to mean?" Minerva snapped.
The tabby now jumped to her feet again and approached Umbridge's fat, fluffy Patronus. The silver tabby now had flattened her ears sideways and bared her teeth. Her fur bristled with anger.
"I've told you before and it's still true," Umbridge hissed.
"You were close and loyal to Dumbledore when everyone thought he was the next Minister for Magic. When he fell, you stayed at Hogwarts and have even made it to Headmistress now – but again, you hang around with the Minister all the time. I haven't seen you in years, but the first time I meet you again, you are with the Minister and flatter him for his cunning plans!"
This time, the tabby jumped at the Persian. For some brief seconds, both cats clawed at each other, then they fell apart again. They stared into each others eyes, both heads held low, the sustained eye contact communicating nothing but aggression.
The lynx rose from his sitting position at Kingsley's feet again and walked to the other two felines. He carefully advanced on them, his tail held half-high. Finally, he gently nudged Minerva's tabby with his head as though asking her to get away from the fight.
"Miss Umbridge," Kingsley said firmly, "I don't think it is any of your business, but Minerva and I have known each other for quite some time. I would think it strange if she had stopped 'hanging around' with me now that I have become Minister."
None of the two witches regarded him at all. Their two Patronus cats quickly glanced at the lynx, simultaneously giving him a threatening stare. The big cat backed away defensively. Like his master, he had understood that he was not to interfere in this fight.
"I met Kingsley here on Azkaban by pure chance," Minerva said icily. "I am so sorry if it causes you any discomfort to meet us together."
This time, the Persian retreated one step. With narrowed pupils and ears flattened to the sides, she still showed every sign of aggression – but her tail now arching downwards showed that she had become a little defensive, maybe wondering if she had underestimated her opponent.
"So then how come you were allowed to enter this prison?" Umbridge screamed. "This is no place for tourists to visit! You don't come to Azkaban by pure chance."
"No, I came here intentionally – I came to see a prisoner in the old Azkaban prison, if you must know."
The tabby again bared her teeth in a soundless hiss. Her fur bristled so much that tiny silver sparks shot in the air.
"A prisoner? Who is kept here that you would like to see?" Umbridge asked suspiciously.
Minerva sighed with exasperation.
"Draco Malfoy. I was impressed with the way he insisted to bring up charges against himself and presented himself to the Wizengamot. His 5-month sentence is almost over now, and I came to offer him a job at Hogwarts. I think he would make a good assistant Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher."
The tabby advanced further on Umbridge's Persian, who retreated another few steps.
"And the Minister supports that? Draco Malfoy, another former Death Eater as a Hogwarts teacher – when loyal Ministry workers like me are forced to take on low-class jobs as prison guards?"
"Assistant teacher. And I don't think I need the Ministry's support to pick and hire my staff."
By now Minerva's cat had threatened the fluffy Persian so much that she had retreated into a corner of the room, the tabby standing one foot in front of her. The Dementors in the court had sensed the two Patronuses going away from the window and came closer. It grew colder in the room.
"But while we're on the subject, she does have the Minister's support for this plan," Kingsley said quietly while he directed his Patronus closer to the window.
The lynx obeyed and the Dementors retreated again.
"I was on my monthly inspection tour here when I met Minerva at the pier – she was just about to leave Azkaban Island, but I offered to show her around. I apologise if any guards here regard a tour through the Dementor prison as preferential treatment…" Kingsley explained dryly.
Umbridge looked from the Minister to Minerva, clearly defeated. Her face was red and flushed with anger, and she gasped for air. Her Persian made one last, vain attempt to scare the tabby away.
"You know," Minerva said softly, "I have always thought Patronuses an amazing form of magic. The way they act according to our emotions, they truly are spirit guides…"
The tabby leapt and for a few moments, the two cats were gone. All that could be seen instead was a ball consisting of eight legs, two heads and two flashing tails, silvery fur flying in every direction and evaporating in the air. Then the two felines fell apart for a moment before the Persian turned around and frantically attempted to escape.
The silver tabby charged behind the fat cat, chasing her trough the room. Umbridge screamed with anger. Finally, when Minerva's cat reached the Persian again, the fat and fluffy Patronus faded away and disappeared.
Kingsley laughed when he saw the smile on Minerva's face while she watched her Patronus. The tabby sniffed around the spot where Umbridge's Patronus had dissolved, but then she gave up and walked back to her mistress. Once she paused, turned around and again eyed the spot suspiciously, but finally she returned to Minerva's feet and sat down. One of her ears was torn and patches of her silver fur were missing, but the small cat was all dignity again.
"I think we are done here," Minerva said pleasantly. "Shall we go on?"
"Indeed," Kingsley replied, "let's go."
Minister and Headmistress started to leave the room together, their two Patronuses following suit.
In the door, Minerva turned around again and threw one last look at Umbridge. The plump witch in grey robes stood in the middle of the room, unguarded by any Patronus, and looking at the window with an absent-minded stare. The Dementors had already come close to the glass again.
The Headmistress flicked her wand and whispered the famous incantation another time. A second Patronus cat with distinct markings around her eyes appeared.
"Guard Miss Umbridge until she's fit to produce her own Patronus again," Minerva ordered the new tabby.
The silver cat obeyed and seated herself between Umbridge and the window. Umbridge shot a look of both surprise and contempt at Minerva.
"You know," Kingsley said to the grey-clad witch, "you are right that Minerva has not changed at all. She has always been a superb fighter. And she has always been one to avoid unnecessary cruelty, even with those who do not deserve such kindness."
Umbridge did not react but only stared at the silver cat in front of her, so unlike her own feline Patronus.
This time, Minerva and Kingsley left for good.
"I have never heard of anyone able to produce more than one Patronus at a time," the Minister said while they climbed the stairs behind their silvery cats – Minerva's tabby limping slightly and Kingsley's lynx still staring at her with a confused expression on his cat face.
"Oh, it's not hard. Albus taught me – you just have to be very aware that your Patronus really is a manifestation of your soul. If you are content with yourself, your Patronuses will be very close to your heart. You can then produce about as many as you want – and they will act according to your heart's desires."