"Damn Order," Scrimgeour muttered, settling down into his office chair, looking disgruntled.

"The Order of the Phoenix?" Dolores asked with sympathy, rushing over to his side, summoning a pot of tea and a cup as she did so. "What have they done now?"

"They tried to move Potter from his house with the Muggles to the Weasleys without us knowing about it," said Scrimgeour, accepting the cup of tea she had just poured for him with a nod of thanks. "Split up into tiny groups and flew there, stopping off at different locations along the way to keep their trail hard to track. Of course, it's understandable that they didn't want to use methods that could be easily tracked, for fear of You-Know-Who, but with our protection they wouldn't have encountered such problems . . ."

"What happened?" Dolores inquired curiously, sitting down next to him.

"The Death Eaters tracked them anyway. They attacked. The whole mess could have been so easily avoided, were they only willing to cooperate with us!" Scrimgeour sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Well, at least most just suffered minimal injuries, and only one was killed in the fray. Alastor Moody was shot by a curse and fell to the ground."

Her heart jumped straight up into her throat, throbbing as fast as a hummingbird beats its wings.

"What's exasperating is how little respect they give us," Scrimgeour continued. "The Order, that is. We're all on the same side now. None of us are pleased about You-Know-Who's reign, this divide with them . . . they are truly just being difficult, and it's such a shame."

"Yes," she echoed, her voice sounding to her as though it was coming in from distant mountains. "Yes, a shame. Such a shame."

"Ah, I must be going, Dolores," said Scrimgeour, checking his watch. "I shall see you later."

"Mmm. Yes." You are impassive, she told herself silently, you are immune, you are nonchalant, this news means nothing to you. You couldn't care less. You do not care at all.

Scrimgeour creaked to his feet, leaning on his walking stick, and began to hobble away before turning back around. "Oh, I nearly forgot – we were thinking of sending several of our staff to go and recover Mad-Eye's body, before the Death Eaters can grab onto it, you know. Whatever else he might have been, Moody was once an Auror, and should be treated with the proper respect of a Ministry worker, at least a small burial. Can I entrust the task of organizing that to you?"

She pressed a smile onto her face. "Of course, Minister."

He smiled back at her. "Thank you, Dolores," he said sincerely.

She nodded, smiling so determinedly she thought she might make herself sick. Scrimgeour rotated back around and limped out of view. Only then did Dolores' sweet simper falter, and the grief that she had been holding at bay came rushing forth, engulfing her in their midst.

One was killed in the fray. Alastor Moody.

Alastor . . . dead . . . Alastor . . . dead . . .

Alastor.

No, she reminded herself, shoving her small hands against her face, covering her eyes, blocking out everything, submitting to the cool black pressing in on her eyelids. No. You do not care. You are indifferent, you are apathetic, you are unfeeling – it means nothing to you, his death means nothing to you, because he was nothing to you.

Alastor.

He had been nothing to her. They had hardly had any contact in years. They'd had opposing views, they were on opposing sides. She hadn't known him at all, and therefore, he didn't mean anything to her.

But he once had . . . he once had meant something to her. What that 'something' was, it was hard for her to define now. Still, it was there. It was something. And something is a hell of a lot more than nothing.

She is eleven, a first year at Hogwarts.

(He is thirteen, a third year at Hogwarts.)

She has only been at school for a month, but she has already come to adore every aspect of it. She loves the classes, the teachers, the winding corridors, the moving staircases, the delicious food, the common room.

She loves everything but her fellow students, really. Sure, some of them are fine, but most of them are the most untidy, sloppy, lumbering bunch of oafs that she has ever had the misfortune to meet. She prefers people who actually care about being presentable, those who follow the rules and enjoy a certain order to their lives.

To be frank, there is one other thing she doesn't love about Hogwarts, and that is the homework. She understands its importance, of course, but that doesn't mean she has to like doing it. And the students seem to get so much of it!

That is what she is engaged in right now: a towering pile of homework. It is late at night, and she is very tired, but she knows she must complete this work, and so continues scribbling furiously on her Charms essay. She tries not to think about the fact that she has a Potions chart and a Transfiguration paper to finish after this. The clock reads a quarter past two in the morning, and no one else is in the common room, but she knows she must keep writing, she must keep writing . . .

The fire is very warm . . . her chair is quite comfortable . . . Dolores jerks her head up from her shoulder as she feels herself being carried along by the currents of sleep. She must keep working . . . she stares at the flickering flames in the fireplace. They look almost like little streamers, blowing and twirling in blurs of color . . .

The bright streamers slowly turn to shades of blue and green, as all around her the room fills with water, and the fire is suddenly not fire, instead it is seaweed. . . . Her Standard Book of Spells, Grade One bursts through the seaweed, swimming peacefully along, flapping its covers like fins . . . she stretches out her arms languidly and begins to swim after it, getting caught up in the current, allowing herself to float along in the water . . .

There is another thing swimming along close to her right shoulder. She turns her head to get a better look at it, and sees that it is a human, a boy, with dark hair falling all around his face, small inky eyes, and a subtle grin. His face is very close to hers, much too close. She pulls away from him, but he follows her movements and pushes closer. She draws back again, he moves closer . . . the water around him is swirling, fading . . .

Next thing she knows, she is back in the common room: the fire has become fire again, and the room is not filled with water – but the boy is still very close to her, staring at her with intent eyes as he sits perched on the arm of her chair.

She shrieks and jumps, her parchment and books sliding from her lap and landing on the ground.

"What are you doing?" she asks shrilly, leaping up from her chair and whirling around to face the boy, who stares at her with an unperturbed expression. "If you wanted to wake me up, you could have just tapped me, instead of just sitting there sticking your face in mine! What was that for?"

"Your guard was down," says the boy, shrugging. "You were putting yourself in a vulnerable position, and I wanted to get that point across."

"I – well, of course I was in a 'vulnerable position,' I was asleep! How could someone not be – "

"You shouldn't have fallen asleep in the common room," the boy replies.

"I was doing homework, I had to work, and – "

"Nearly anyone can come in here. Someone could have attacked you with absurd ease while you were sleeping in that chair."

"Oh, like you did?" she asks snidely, glaring at him. "Who are you, anyway?"

"Alastor Moody," says the boy. "And you?"

"Dolores Jane Umbridge," she says to him haughtily.

"I see. Well, g'night, Dolores Jane Umbridge," says Alastor, bounding up from the armrest. "And don't go falling asleep in open areas again. You never know when an attack might come. Remember – CONSTANT VIGILANCE!" he booms, making her jump again, before grinning and bowing himself out of the room.

"Are you feeling all right, Madam Umbridge?"

Dolores removed her hands from her eyes hastily and opened them, blinking fast to help her pupils re-dilate to the bright lights of the office. Percy Weasley stood before her, looking concerned.

"Oh, well, I am feeling a little off-color," she said, which was quite an understatement. She attempted a weak smile.

"Can I get you anything?" he questioned earnestly. "A headache potion? A cup of tea?"

"A glass of water might be nice, thank you, dear," she let out on a sigh, and Weasley hastened away.

She watched him leave with vague, unfocused eyes, and couldn't stop herself from wondering how Alastor had left, how he had departed from this world. He had fallen, according to the Minister's limited knowledge. How far? Where had he landed? Had it been a hard fall? Had he died instantly on impact, or had he lay there suffering for a while? Or perhaps he had never hit the ground . . . perhaps he had landed in the ocean, or had been blasted by another spell before he could touch the earth, a spell that tore him apart, or exploded his body into thousands of little –

She hid her face again, as though hoping to shield herself from her thoughts. Stop it, stop it, stop it.

Then again . . . perhaps he hadn't really died. Gossip was a funny thing; it could stretch and twist itself to the point of having become nearly the reversal of the truth. She knew the Minister would never tell her falsehoods on purpose, but maybe by the time the rumors had reached his ears, they had become so bent out of shape that the news about Alastor's death wasn't really . . .

She is just sixteen, a fifth year at Hogwarts.

(He is seventeen, a seventh year at Hogwarts.)

She is a Prefect now, and so is patrolling the hallways late at night, making sure no students are out wandering about when they are not supposed to be.

She hears soft footsteps behind her, so soft it might have only been a feather brushing against the floor; but her ears are so attune to every noise that she picks up on the sound. She whirls around, her lighted wand casting around for the source of the noise.

"I've taught you well," says an amused voice coming from a shadowed figure some feet behind her. "At last, after five years, you are finally becoming more alert to potential attacks. That's good . . . that's very good."

"What do you want, Alastor?" she asks wearily. Five years of knowing this boy and she is still continually exasperated by him. At least they aren't in the same year, which means their contact is limited to mealtimes and after class hours.

"I'm just patrolling the halls. I'm a Prefect as well, you know."

"Well, I'm already covering this corridor, so you'd do best to go elsewhere."

But instead he moves forward until he is side-by-side with her, matching her gait, and they stroll down the hallway together.

"Alastor, I'm serious," she says sternly. "Go patrol elsewhere."

"You know," he says thoughtfully, considering her with his dark eyes, "I'm not really sure how you ended up in Slytherin House."

She prickles, draws herself up to her full height (which isn't much of a height, to be blunt). His patrolling the same hallway as her has been completely forgotten in her indignation. "Excuse me?" she whips back tartly.

She is very proud of the fact that she is in Slytherin House. She can't imagine being in any other House. Most of her family in the past has been in Ravenclaw, and she is quite proud to not only break that tradition, but to prove she is a more than competent witch.

"Well," he says, "most Slytherins have something of a disregard to the rules. They view them more as suggestions, or ideas. You follow rules like they're a live-or-die by sort of thing."

"And you?" she shoots back. "Always acting the hero, running around saving a little first year from the giant squid, or protecting the smaller students from a 'bully' – constantly plunging yourself headfirst into situations without thinking it through whatsoever, with such a reckless attitude – I don't see how you ever landed in Slytherin. Seems to me you would've been a shoe-in for Gryffindor."

She expects him to snap back a retort, but he just nods his head. "Fair point," he says. "And that hat did think about putting me in Gryffindor, way back when. But I suppose my Slytherin traits won out in the end, considering where I stand now."

"I, on the other hand, am entirely Slytherin," she tries to convince him. "Determined – use any means to achieve what I desire – plenty of ambition – "

"What're you ambitious to do?"

She glares at him suspiciously, thinking he is mocking her, but his face is sincere and curious as he looks down at her.

"I – I don't know exactly. I'd like to work in politics at the Ministry, or close to them."

He nods.

"And you?" she asks.

"Auror," he says promptly. "And I don't think you're being fair about my House, by the way. I possess plenty of Slytherin traits myself. Cunning, driven, aspiring. And surely you've seen some of the things I've done as Prefect to catch those miscreants?"

"Well, your trap in the Charms corridor to catch Goyle stealing from Flitwick was rather impressive," she has to admit aloud.

"And that is the main reason why I believe the hat placed me in Slytherin," Alastor declares. "My mind works like the minds of all those riff-raffs, you see? That's why I'm good at catching them and figuring out their course of action. I think like them. The difference," he adds, shaking his head in disgust, "is that I don't act like them. I use my mind-set for bringing about good rather than wickedness."

Dolores would hardly call stealing Ice Mice from Flitwick's office 'wickedness,' which is what Goyle had been trying to do that day, but she keeps her mouth closed on this point.

"So, can we settle, then?" he inquires with the hint of a smile. "Can we settle, and agree that we both belong in Slytherin House?"

"I still think you would have done better in Gryffindor," she mumbles sulkily. He laughs at that, and she can't help but grin back.

"Here is your water, ma'am."

"Thank you," she said, lifting her head up and taking the offered water from Weasley, who was still looking at her with great worry.

"Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"No, dear, I'll be fine." She sipped the water. "It has just been a long day, that's all."

"Yes, yes it has. Perhaps you should turn in for an early night. I could cover any of your unfinished work."

"Oh no, Mr. Weasley, you have plenty to do without completing my work in addition to yours. I shall be quite all right."

"Are you sure that – "

"I am more than able to carry on with my work despite a little illness, Mr. Weasley," she said, her tone losing some of its patience and becoming more irritable.

Weasley bowed his head. "Of course, Madam Umbridge, of course. Good day to you." He sauntered off again.

She is seventeen, a seventh year at Hogwarts.

(He is nineteen, training to become an Auror.)

She is in Hogsmeade, doing some Christmas shopping for her friends and family. She has purchased most of her gifts, and is now doing a little window shopping. It is very cold out, and as a particularly drafty breeze blows by, she tightens her cloak around her and pulls her hat more snugly around her ears.

She is just thinking about stopping in The Three Broomsticks for a warm butterbeer when she hears a voice behind her.

"Why are you shopping alone?"

She swivels around. "Why is it your concern?"

"I'm not concerned," Alastor answers casually, "just curious. Most people don't shop alone in Hogsmeade."

"You're alone," she points out rudely.

He gives her a lopsided smile. "I guess neither of us have many friends."

"I have friends," she says defensively. "They're just – we aren't totally dependant on one another, we – "

"In other words, they're more like companions than friends," Alastor interferes. "It's okay, say no more on the subject – I get it."

She falls silent, glowering because that is not what she had been about to say. She is also glowering because his words are true. The girls she has spent time with all her years at Hogwarts have never been her 'friends.' She has never really had any friends. The fact has never bothered her before, and still doesn't, but something about Alastor's attitude on the subject makes her feel annoyed.

"What are you doing here, anyway?" she asks him, with an accusatory fringe to her tone.

"I was on my way to Hogwarts for a brief visit, since I haven't come by in nearly two years. Is it against the rule for old students to return to the building now?"

"Very funny," she says, in a voice that indicates she doesn't find it funny in the slightest. "So, you're training to become an Auror, aren't you? How's that going?"

"Quite well," says Alastor, and his face is suddenly transported, vibrant and alive with passion.

The pair of them have been standing stationary, but he begins to walk towards her now; absently, without even thinking about it, she makes a half-turn and ambles along beside him.

"Are you going to tell me about the training?" Dolores questions, eyebrows raising.

"Can't," he says importantly, "top-secret information, that is. Could cost me my life to tell you that, and you wouldn't want that, would you?"

"Oh, no, never," she says sardonically.

"Ah, don't act like that, Dolores, I know that you've missed me," he intones seriously, though when she looks up at him he is grinning again.

"Hardly," she sniffs. "It's actually very nice to not have to worry about being ambushed in the common room anymore."

"I only did that to benefit my peers," Alastor replies in a dignified tone. "It's very important to always be aware. Constant vigilance," he gnarls in her ear, his breath warm against her cheek, and she jolts from surprise.

They have reached the fenced outskirts of the Hogsmeade perimeter; no one else is around.

She turns halfway round, now facing him, so he can see the scowl on her face more clearly. He is smiling in that infuriatingly crooked, sly way, as though he knows something she does not – it seems he is quite pleased with her being startled by him. Again. "That's not funny, Alastor," she reprimands him. "It's not funny how you're always trying to scare people and make them jump."

He shrugs, moves a step towards her. "Part of being an Auror is protecting people. The way I see it, people need to be prepared for what's out there, and the only way for them to be prepared is to experience the possibilities before the real danger actually comes knocking."

"Nothing's 'out there,'" she snarls, taking a step back to match the one he just took.

"No?" says Alastor quietly. "You've heard the name Grindelwald, I'm sure?"

"He's been defeated," she returns sharply.

"But who's to say no one will ever follow in his footsteps? Or that there isn't still other danger lurking around?"

Dolores, lost for a response to this, merely frowns at him.

"It's just best to be prepared," Alastor concludes, and she still can't find a reply to this, so she remains quiet. "I know it's more comforting to think that 'nothing's out there,' but it's just not the reality."

"I suppose – I suppose that you're right," she admits, sighing and turning her gaze down to the snow on the ground, tugging at her scarf again. She hates being wrong, but what she hates even more is what he's saying: about how one should always be ready, prepared. It scares her. She doesn't think she would be prepared at all. There's only so far that knowing all the rules and memorizing all the spells can take you.

He seems to sense that he's frightened her again, for he says, in a mock brassy voice, as though trying to make her laugh, "Don't worry – if there's ever any danger where you are, I'll protect you from it."

"What a kind and generous offer that is. Especially since it would be your job to protect people like me," she replies dryly.

He chuckles, shifts another step closer; she matches him and steps backward. "Just trying to be friendly."

"You shouldn't try, it goes completely against your nature. Seems too unnatural."

He steps forward again; she steps backward again. "You're accusing me of being a fake?"

"No, just of trying too hard to get people to like you," says Dolores.

Another step from him; another step from her. "Well, as I mentioned earlier, I don't have many friends."

Step; step. "I guess we're alike in that respect."

He steps forward; she steps backward, feeling her back hit against something: the fence by the Hogsmeade perimeter. It's as she makes contact with the wire, Alastor standing less than a foot away from her, that she realizes something for the first time: he's cornered her. And she wastes no time in voicing this notion aloud.

"You've cornered me."

He looks down at her mildly. "Indeed I have. Took you long enough to notice."

"Will you ever tire of setting me up like this?" she gripes. "Trying to see how prepared I would be should an attack ever come?"

"You'll learn eventually to not be so vulnerable to traps. Until then, I've delegated it upon myself to teach you."

"I never agreed to these lessons."

"I never said you did," he retorts.

"All right, I've learned my lesson," she says irritably. "Can I go now?"

"Leaving so soon? The snowfall has just began, surely you don't want to miss it."

Blinking, she casts her eyes around at their surroundings, and sure enough, snow is drifting down from the skies. She hasn't noticed until he pointed it out to her . . . she has been too focused . . .

"I don't like snow," she lies as some catches in her eyelashes; she blinks it away.

"I see," he says softly, as the stuff peppers his hair.

"So, do I have permission to leave?" she wonders sarcastically.

"Oh, no, Dolores," he murmurs, growling the 'r' in her name in a way that sends shivers down her spine. "Standing in the snow is your punishment for being susceptible to basic trapping techniques."

Something strange seems to be stirring in the air between them, something she's never really felt (or been aware that she's felt) before; and absurdly, it suddenly dawns on her that Alastor is a male – not that she hasn't known this before, but it now seems a much more relevant fact – and she is a female . . . and they are in a position that, should it have been viewed by an outsider, would appear rather less than platonic . . . and also absurdly, she finds that she doesn't mind this fact . . .

He moves marginally closer to her; she can't pull back due to the fence this time, but doesn't think she'd be able to move even if there wasn't a wood beam pressed against her back. And he's still leaning closer to her, or maybe she's leaning closer to him, she isn't sure anymore, nothing seems really clear – her mind seems to have gone numb with the cold despite the hat sitting snug around her head. Her heart is beating loudly in her ears, and all around them the snow is swirling down in peaceful spirals like dandelion seeds being blown around in the wind . . .

His lips graze against hers, surprisingly soft and gentle, exploring her mouth with the lightest of touches.

Her first kiss. She's never thought it would happen like this, standing in the snow, leaning against the fence in the village, with Alastor Moody of all people. But life rarely happens as we think it will.

Cautiously, she kisses him back, not caring in the slightest as the snow begins to soak through her hat (not even noticing, to be perfectly honest). His hands are on her cheeks now, rougher than his lips but still perfectly welcome against her skin; she twists her fingers in his hair in an attempt to have him as close as possible . . .

She's convinced that she can stay like this forever, is convinced that they may have stayed like that forever, were it not for the snowball that smacks against the sides of their faces just then. The two break apart, looking around for the source of this unwelcome lump of snow, but they do not have to look far – several young boys, laughing loudly, are already running away gleefully from the scene of their crime.

Alastor makes a twitching movement as though considering going after them, but she places a hand on his shoulder. He gets the message, and remains where he is – though as he gazes down at her, he seems quite content with staying where he is.

"So, this was your plan from the beginning, was it?" she finally manages to say, relieved that her voice does not come out as a squeak.

"Well, no," he admits, and then grins. "But either way, it was damn cunning of me to manipulate your footsteps over here, ,don't you think?"

"I – suppose," she says uncertainly, not exactly sure where he is going with this.

"It was also exceedingly self-serving, going through a good deal to get what I wanted, wouldn't you agree?"

Catching on, she smiles benignly. "You could say that," she murmurs.

"And it took a lot of determination to go through with all that, hmm?"

"Hmm," she echoes, pretending to give this a good deal of thought. "Yes, I guess I have to agree with you on all those counts."

His mouth curves, eyes gleaming. "You see?" he whispers huskily, cradling her face in his hands again as he leans towards her. "Slytherin through-and-through."

For reasons that Dolores did not understand, most of the Aurors she asked to accompany her on the expedition to find Alastor Moody's body declined. Then again, perhaps she should not have started with the ones working for the Order. She had thought it would be kinder to offer the positions to them first, would thought that it would be a nice gesture, a way to perhaps bridge the gap between the Ministry and the Order before the two were completely and irreversibly severed from one another.

But, alas, this did not work out. Tonks and Shacklebolt both declined her with barely suppressed disgust. Perhaps the Order was already attempting their own means to find the retired Auror's body.

By the end of her round in the Auror department, she had managed to get a small team together: Dawlish, Savage, and Williamson all agreed to accompany her on the journey tomorrow afternoon.

With this arranged, she stepped into one of the Ministry fireplaces and returned to her home. It was dinnertime, but she was not hungry. A cup of tea seemed to be in order though. A very strong cup. No cream, and certainly no sugar. Perhaps a shot of whiskey mixed in. Yes, that sounded nice.

Focusing her thoughts entirely on this future cup of tea, not allowing her mind to stray anywhere else, she bustled to her kitchen to make such a cup.

When our mind (or rather, our heart) betrays us and does not contain itself to mundane issues, however, plans often go astray. It was for this reason that, five minutes later, Dolores was sitting at her kitchen table – not with a cup of tea with no sugar, no cream, and a shot of whiskey – but with a whole bottle of Firewhiskey.

She downed a third of the bottle in one go, pulling it away from her lips when the scalding in her throat became so great she truly thought she might be sick. Breathing hard, she stared at the rim of the bottle, tracing her finger around its edge slowly. It felt good, the Firewhiskey: the burning sensation spreading down her throat and throughout the rest of her body; the hazy numbness slowly fogging her brain; the tingle creeping through her limbs. It felt good not to have to think clearly anymore. It felt good not to have to feel.

Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.

The old words that Dumbledore had once told a room filled with silent students whispered inside her head. She had been fifteen, sitting through the most miserable dinner she had ever sat through. Grindelwald had recently killed one of her fellow students. She had not known him well – it had been a third year Ravenclaw – but the whole school had been shaken bottom-up by the news. Many of the students had been trying to forget the whole thing, skipping classes to spend hours attempting to sleep in their dormitories, or else trying to smuggle alcohol into the school.

Two nights after they all had heard the news, Dumbledore had stood up from the High Table, murmured something to their headmaster as though asking for permission, and then gave a short but powerful speech to all of the watchful students staring up at him. So many years later, she had forgotten most of the speech by now, but that line – for reasons unknown – had always stood out to her.

With a look of both longing and despondence, Dolores placed the bottle on the table, folding her hands in her lap so she would not be tempted to pick it up again. She leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes, and let the gut-wrenching feelings and memories have another go at tearing her apart. Why prolong and worsen the pain, after all?

She is twenty, doing gofer work for the Ministry.

(He is twenty-two, an Auror.)

She has been working at the Ministry for several years now, ever since she graduated Hogwarts. It is her dream to eventually be in one of the high power positions, but so far, no one seems to have recognized her talent. She has been stuff doing trivial tasks for two years now, filing papers and addressing envelopes and other mindless duties. It occasionally becomes discouraging as she wonders whether her career will ever take off or if she should just quit now and spare herself the heartache, but she is determined to rise beyond all these menial chores. She may not know when, but she is going to show them all that she is more than all this, that is for certain.

"Good afternoon."

She doesn't jolt, but she does twist her neck around at a rapid pace to look up at the person who is standing behind her chair. "This isn't your department, Alastor."

"It's great to see you too." He places his hands on the armrests of her chair, leaning over the back of the seat. "How're you doing?"

"As well as I could be," she expires on a low breath, casting her eyes around hopelessly at the paperwork she is currently filing. "And you?"

"Quite well. Slow day in the Auror department, but I'm not complaining."

Alastor has just recently finished his four-year Auror training. She couldn't be happier for him, but at times she can't help but feel a little resentful that he is doing what he has always longed to do while she is still stuck in her little 'assistant' role.

"I just wanted to drop in and see how you were doing," he goes on.

"I'm all right," she says, relaxing, leaning back into the chair and resting her head against his chest. "Thank you," she adds sincerely.

It is sometimes hard for her to believe that this wonderful person is really hers, even if they have been dating for three years. She knows that she is no great catch for a man; she's not attractive by any means, physical or psychological, really. It just amazes her every now and again that Alastor Moody has somehow managed to see something beautiful within her, something that she herself can't always see.for you."

He kisses the top of her head. "Keep your chin up," he tells her. "One day, all of these clods you're working for right now are going to be working

"They're not clods," she says defensively, but she's laughing. "Now get back to work before I let them know you're here."

"Fine," he says in a voice of mock huffiness, "I know when I'm not wanted." He makes his exit, brushing his fingers against the back of her hand as he goes.

She did not sleep at all that night, but instead squeezed her eyes shut with a determination that only years of working at the Ministry could have taught her, tossing from side to side. At ten past four in the morning, she finally deemed this whole sleep concept pointless, and decided to just get an early start to her day.

As always, she made her bed, smoothed the pillows, and straightened all the objects on her side-table. As always, she showered, freshened up, and slipped into her clothes for the day. As always, she sat down at the kitchen table with her dainty breakfast of toast, marmalade, and tea with two teaspoons of sugar and a dollop of cream. Not as always, she then sat staring at her newly prepared food and drink, not touching any of it.

She wasn't hungry, which was very odd, considering all she'd had for dinner was some Firewhiskey. She wasn't very thirsty either. But she was on a tight schedule, so she forced herself to eat and drink every last speck, despite the fact that it all tasted like cardboard.

Once that was completed, Dolores used Floo Powder to get to the Ministry. She passed through security easily, heading purposely for her office, where she sat down and began to idly examine the latest Daily Prophet, before turning her attention to some new laws on the brink of being passed.

The majority of her day passed like any other, with her sitting at her desk doing whatever needed to be done. It was easier, at least, to keep her thoughts about Alastor at bay with so many distractions in front of her. That's not to say, however, that there weren't moments when her guard went down and she found herself gazing at the wall with glassy eyes, her thumb absently flipping back and forth against the corner of a document, memories pressing before her eyes so vividly it was as though she were there again . . .

She is twenty-three, working for the Ministry in the Improper Use of Magic department.

(He is twenty-five, working as an Auror.)

She is sitting next to him in her house, settled comfortably on a couch, listening vaguely to the WWN playing. A song by Gemia Krypo slowly fades away, and the announcer's voice resounds throughout the room.

"That was Gemia Krypo, singing Enchant Me – and speaking of Gemia, we have some very exciting news that has just been released! Rodil Senoc , long-time beau of Gemia, has just proposed to her! The wedding will take place next summer . . ."

Dolores is distracted from listening to him when Alastor shifts his position on the couch.

"Something wrong?" she asks him.

He shifts again, stares down at his legs. "I . . . ah, that announcement about those two getting engaged seemed like the perfect lead-in to this conversation, but it's harder to say out loud . . ." He heaves a tired breath and looks over at her.

"Just tell me," she says.

"Well . . . I – I'm sure you've wondered why I've never proposed to you after all these years."

She shrugs. "The thought's crossed my mind," she confesses, "but I've never been terribly fussed about it."

"It's just . . . I care about you, but I wouldn't want to. . . . See, you and I, we would never work out as a married couple – we're too ambitious, too driven . . ." He grins then. "Too alike."

"You think we're alike?" she asks, surprised.

"Exceedingly," he says. "Don't you?"

"No."

He seems just as surprised by this statement as she is by the fact that he thinks them alike. "Really? Why's that?"

"Because we . . . because you're . . . well, you're braver than I am . . . you don't feel as much of a need as I do to boast when you accomplish something spectacular. You're able to respond well under pressure, in a fight or tough situation, I can never do that . . . you would willingly sacrifice yourself to save someone's life, even if you didn't know the person. You're tidier, more careful, thoughtful – more paranoid," she adds teasingly, and then turns serious again. "We . . . I don't think we're that similar at all, to be truthful."

He views her with considering eyes for a long moment, and then slowly shakes his head. "Dolores, we've known each other for years now; surely you can't honestly think we have nothing in common?"

"I do think that," she confirms.

"We're both not very social. We're both stubborn as mules. We like our meat rare."

"Those are trivial things," she interrupts. "I'm talking about things that really define who we are – "

"We both have tempers. We like to be in command. We lead with our heads before our hearts. We'd sacrifice everything for what we believe in." He looks at her hard. "How is that not alike?"

"I'd . . . never thought of it like that before," she has to confess. "But I still don't think . . ."

"It doesn't matter. The only reason I brought it up was because . . . it's just something I've been thinking about for a while – marriage, I mean . . . and I was worried that you were feeling . . . that you felt . . . as though I didn't care . . ."

"How could I possibly think you didn't care?" she asks softly, and scoots over on the sofa, wrapping her arms around his muscled torso. She leans into him, inhales, breathes him in.

He puts his arm around her back, pulls her nearer, and speaks to the top of her head. "Well . . . did you realize that we've been – that we've been – involved – together for almost six years? I thought that you would have worried . . . wondered . . . most women would've . . ."

"Most women would have, would they?" she repeats back to him, laughing, pulling back slightly to look at his face. "You're an expert on females now, are you?"

He grunts, which she is apparently supposed to take for a reply. Sobering again, she reaches up one hand and runs it down his stubbled cheek. "I agree with you. We wouldn't do well as a married couple – it's better to keep things as they are. But I never questioned how you feel about me, Alastor – you never needed to propose to me to prove that you cared."

He is visibly more relaxed now than before and smiles down at her tenderly. She threads her fingers through his hair.

"There are other ways of knowing that someone loves you," she tells him gently.

There comes a point when there are no more words to be exchanged, when there is nothing more that can be said. And so the two said no more as lips joined, as hands fumbled, as garments fell to the floor – for there are some times when words just aren't enough.


A/N: This story came together in strange, small bits and pieces, and I'd like to briefly tell you all how it came to be. The first piece was my reading Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet In Heaven. I thought it was a lovely book, and one of my favorite things about it was that the present was being told in past tense, and the past was being told in present tense. The second piece was my listening to PotterCast, a wonderful Harry Potter podcast. They were discussing what House various minor characters would have been placed in, and the end result for both Umbridge and Moody was Slytherin. And the third piece was my wandering through a store and glimpsing a movie titled Things We Lost In The Fire. I had no idea what the movie was about (and still don't, to be honest), but I instantly fell in love with the title and scribbled it in my handy dandy notebook.

All right, I suppose that's enough of me rambling. Anyway, I hope you liked this, and that you return for the second and final chapter of this story. Do let me know your thoughts about this chapter too.