AN OVERSTAYED WELCOME?

Time, tide, and the tyrant-for-life of the Auror's Office.

The Daily Prophet, London- Thirty years have passed since Harry Potter vanquished Voldemort, and twenty-five years have passed since he ascended to the role of Head of the Auror's Office. Now an unprecedented push from inside the Ministry of Magic seems aimed at replacing the longest-serving Head in the Office's history.

"We think it's high time for a change," said one Ministry official who asked the Daily Prophet not to report his name. "He was absolutely the right man for the job at the time, and he's done a bang-up job running the Office, no doubt, but new blood can be a very healthy thing."

All officials the Prophet has interviewed on the subject share this opinion: while the work of the Office continues to be most satisfactory, the man most closely associated with that success has been in place for far too long.

"These jobs don't come with tenure," grumbled another Ministry worker. "If he had his way he'd be there another thirty years."

"It's professional jealousy inside the Ministry," said Kingsley Shacklebolt, himself a former Auror and served Minister of Magic. "An entire generation of Ministers has had to face this unpleasant fact: Harry Potter was there before you took office, and he'll still be there after you leave."

The invincibility of the Office's Head has made the Auror's Office fiercely independent. Some analysts say that this new push is an attempt to bring the Office back under Ministry control. Others, however, hint that the ever-popular Potter is the beginning and the end of the problem.

One of the central issues is Potter's controversial practice of personally interviewing each Auror candidate. Every year, prospective Aurors troop through Potter's office, and only a handful emerge with the Head's approval. Many candidates believe Potter didn't give them a fair shake.

"It was all the interview," complained one failed candidate who declined to give her name. "I had six NEWTs and OWLs in three other subjects, I flew through the other qualification tests, but when I went through the interview, the Head decided I wasn't suited. I couldn't believe it. Now I don't allow my kids to celebrate Harry Potter Day."

Indeed, the extremely high failure rate of the present screening process has seen the number of Aurors on active service drop to a level not seen since before the Goblin Rebellions of the 18th century. At the same time, the Aurors seem more effective than ever.

"Yes, yes, they clear their caseload briskly," conceded the Ministry official. "But that's the whole problem. If there were more of them, think how much more they could do."

Those candidates who have gone through the interview process occasionally hint at another reason for the Ministry to consider sacking Potter: he seems to be coming unhinged. Although none of the ex-candidates would say exactly what Potter asked them, one of them put it like this.

"When I went into that office, I had no idea what he would ask me; he has a reputation for asking anything. The first question made me laugh, I thought it was a joke, but no, he was completely serious. I came out of it thinking he must be daft, or maybe loony."

Wizarding psychologists agree that unrestrained power can have the effect of separating a wizard from reality, which would seem to apply to a Head who's outlasted seven Ministers of Magic thus far.

However, so long as Potter retains his present levels of popularity- and so long as his few remaining Aurors continue to display such a high level of proficiency- the possibility of removing him appears dim.

"Harry Potter, crazy?" said housewife and explorer Luna Longbottom. "Of course he isn't. I'm a good friend of his. He's as sane as you or me. Incidentally, why does your newspaper never run items on the crumple-horned snorkak?"


Miles was sweating beneath his robes. It's not that it was hot. The underground Ministry of Magic was always cool, and the Auror's Office likewise. It was because he was in the Auror's Office that he was sweating. More specifically, where in the Auror's Office.

Four steps away was a large sycamore door. On it was a brass plaque that read simply:

HARRY POTTER

HEAD

This was where he wanted to be. Ever since career day back at Hogwarts, when the possibility of becoming an Auror was mentioned, he'd been captivated by the idea. His professors had cautioned him away. They'd warned him about the high failure rate, and the difficult and dangerous work that awaited him even if he succeeded. In a way, that had only made him want it all the more.

OWLs, NEWTs, and preps later- applications and preliminary screenings later- examinations and demonstrations later, here he was, four steps from the sanctum sanctorum. He'd thought that all that work would have jaded him. He'd thought he'd be prepared. What a laughable notion.

He was about to meet Harry Potter.

This was one of the most important men in wizarding history. This was, arguably, the most powerful wizard in Britain. This was a wizard who'd refused being kicked upstairs to the Minister's position on multiple occasions.

Miles was about to present himself to this wizard. He would submit himself to Harry Potter's singular judgment. How arrogant did Miles think he was, to think he could be a part of Potter's world-renowned Aurors?

So his stomach gurgled, and his toes curled up inside his shoes, and his hands clenched until his knuckles turned white.

What would Harry Potter ask him?

He'd been fourth in line when they all gathered. This year's crop of applicants, they were told, was larger than usual, yet only eight of them had been invited to the Ministry for further testing, and those eight had been whittled to five finalists. Five final applicants were all that remained to be judged by Harry Potter himself. His word was final, binding, and unquestioned.

Miles was fourth in line. He'd seen the others going in, just as the applicant behind him would see him go in. They hadn't seen the others emerge- apparently his office had another door to exit through. Either that or the tales of Potter's pet dragon were real after all.

What would Harry Potter ask him?

It could be anything. That was the one piece of information that was passed out by previous generations of applicants. Not a one of them said exactly what he was asked. All they said was the same message: it could be anything.

Would he be asked to perform magic? The Aurors hadn't taken their wands, perhaps judging that anyone foolish enough to attempt anything inside the Aurors Office would get what he deserved. So he had his wand. Yet that was a cold comfort. One of Miles' quirks was a tendency to twitch with his wand when his hands were idle. He'd had to stop that, here, because his nervousness was so high his wand was sparking in his hands.

If Harry Potter demanded he do magic- what could he possibly do to impress him? What spell would possibly make a good impression on someone who had defeated Lord Voldemort- who some wizards still refused to call by name- at age 17? Even if Miles could think of something suitably impressive, there was no way he could pull it off in his state. As it was, he didn't feel he could accomplish even a simple summoning charm without injuring himself.

But if Harry Potter didn't ask him to perform magic, what would he ask? Some obscure question about magical theory? One of the proprietors of a joke shop in Diagon Alley was reputed to be a friend of Potter's. He'd made it public knowledge that Potter had a soft spot for History of Magic. Potential Aurors had started cramming in that otherwise disfavored subject before the whimsical claim was debunked. Miles had missed that debacle. He almost wished he hadn't; it would have been nice to have some sort of focus, no matter how improbable.

What would Harry Potter...

The sycamore door opened. A chair was visible inside, a chair that turned invitingly towards Miles.

"Come in," said a voice that must have been Potter's.

There was no time to think about it. Part of Miles wanted to run and hide and never be heard from again. The rest of him was too panicked to think. He entered the room on auto-pilot. He didn't sit down, to the visible disappointment of the chair.

There he was, in the holy of holies, with Harry Potter.

He was instantly recognizable. There was the famous lightning-bolt scar. Every year, on Harry Potter Day, wizarding children the world over were allowed to wear magical imitations of that scar. They did so proudly, and spent the day running about, playing games based on Potter's famous exploits. There was the permanently disheveled dark hair, which was beginning to gray but never to diminish in volume. There was the greyhound-lean build of a born Seeker, still intact despite decades behind a desk. In fact, a broomstick was mounted on a wall behind where Potter sat.

Miles had heard that the Nimbus Broomstick Company had offered Potter a new broomstick every year for life, just so that they could use that fact for advertising. Odd, that Miles should think of that now. His brain seemed to be running everywhere to avoid the reality of being before Potter.

The walls were covered, not in the vast array of awards and medals Potter had earned, but mostly with pictures of his large family. The only other framed object was his graduation diploma from Hogwarts. Miles couldn't even begin to understand the choice.

One thing was clear. Unlike many pretenders, Harry Potter didn't need a wall of honors to impress his visitors.

Behind Potter were two doors. That explained how the other applicants had left without coming back out. But which door had they taken?

"Miles Taylor," said Potter without rising. His eyes were skimming over various parchments that, no doubt, contained everything one could know about Miles. "Please sit."

Miles did with vast reluctance. The chair made a happy cooing noise when he rested his weight into it. It was supposed to be relaxing, Miles guessed, and in other circumstances it might have been. But any chair would have felt like an Iron Maiden when placed across from Harry Potter.

"Have a biscuit," Potter said, gesturing to a tray on the corner of his desk. Miles didn't move. Too many things could go wrong if he did. He not only wasn't hungry; he felt like he might never be hungry again.

Potter looked up. His famous green eyes focused on Miles for the first time. He flashed a disarming smile. "So, we're here to discuss your suitability for the Auror's Office."

"Yes, sir." Miles' saliva had dried up completely. He fought down the urge to cough after speaking.

Potter laughed at himself. "Sorry, I can see that was a bit direct. Let's ease into it. Did you have much trouble getting here?"

"No, sir." Harry Potter was trying to make small talk? Miles couldn't think of a single interesting thing to say, about himself or any other topic. It occurred to him how drab and boring he really was.

Potter seemed not to notice. "Nice weather, isn't it? What a beautiful orange sky we had this morning."

Miles' racing thoughts came to a screeching halt. "Orange?" he said.

"What, don't you think this morning's orange sky was beautiful?"

A few more cars plowed into the multi-lane disaster in Miles' mind. "The sky isn't orange," he blurted.

Potter laughed. "Of course it is! I suppose you were too pre-occupied this morning to notice."

Miles was sure he would have noticed that. He said as much.

Potter reacted as if Miles had told him a wonderful joke. "Would have noticed... that's a good one! In all seriousness, though, it was a lovely orange sky. Better than yesterday's, I'd say."

"The sky wasn't orange yesterday, either," said Miles. Some anger was rising in him to match his confusion.

The humor fell from Potter's face instantly. He sighed. "Well, I guess I'm to blame. Clearly you're suffering. Probably a lack of sleep and over-studying, I'd bet. The stress has gotten to you."

Part of Miles wanted to agree, wanted to take the offered sympathy. That part of him was dwarfed by the part that was insulted. "I'm not under enough stress to make me hallucinate about the color of the sky," he shot back.

Potter's face went from compassionate to outraged in the blink of an eye. "Hallucinate? Are you trying to tell me I was hallucinating the color of the sky?"

"I don't know what you were doing, sir," Miles said, backing off quickly.

Potter rose to his feet. His voice was harsh and hard. "Well, I very well saw an orange sky! And you said you didn't? What's wrong with you? What kind of wizard would I want in this office who doesn't even know what color the sky is?"

"Everyone knows the sky is blue," Miles said weakly.

"Everyone? What everyone? What nonsense is this? Why do they send me such incompetents? It's as if they think anyone can be an Auror these days! Are you telling me, Miles Taylor, that if I went outside right now, the sky would be blue?"

"Yes!" said Miles, caught in a maelstrom of confusion. Dread settled over him. Maybe the rumors were true. Maybe Potter had lost it. Maybe years of unequaled power had turned him loony, after all.

"Idiocy! Stupidity! I can't believe they expect me to run an office with candidates like you. I say the sky would be orange!"

"And I say you're wrong!" said Miles. He didn't realize until afterwards that he'd risen to his feet. Disgust welled up within him. This was the man he'd idolized all those years? This was the copiously decorated Head of the Auror's Office? He was nothing- a little man in a big job.

The fury evaporated from Potter's face. He smiled easily. "Oh, peachy, then." He relaxed back into his chair. "Do sit down," he said, gesturing to the guest chair again.

The change in attitude was so sudden Miles got mental whiplash. Without taking his eyes off Potter- whom he felt, at this point, might do anything with no warning- he tried to sit back down on the chair. It took him two tries and made the chair stamp impatiently.

Potter placed his thumb on a pad near the corner of his desk. It looked like the sort of ink pad you'd use for rubber stamps, except that it was divided into three sections, one blue, one black, one red. Potter's thumb was in the blue area. As Miles watched, the black region became blue.

"Have a biscuit," Potter said.

Miles didn't move.

"I suppose you're wondering what just happened," Potter said.

It was the understatement of the century. "Yes," was all Miles said.

"I examined your suitability for the Auror's Office," Potter said, looking back up at Miles.

Miles frowned. "That was... an examination?"

"Not like the others you've had, hm?" said Potter with a grin. "You were never going to perform magic for me. Everyone who gets this far has the magical abilities to become an Auror. The early screenings take care of that. No, my examination looks at your personality."

Miles couldn't muster a response. "So that was all... deliberate?"

"Between you and me, it's harder than it looks," Potter said in hushed tones. His face wore a mischievous smile that would have looked at home on a teenager. "Getting angry on demand isn't a skill I use often."

What Miles wanted to say, more than anything, was, "Help!" That wouldn't have been appropriate, he decided, so he settled on, "Oh."

"Listen, Miles. You've done well, so I'll let you take a peak behind the curtain. Everyone knows part of my story. They know that I defeated Voldemort, and for most, that's about it. What they don't realize is this: I made a ton of mistakes."

"I believe that," Miles blurted, for reasons he couldn't explain.

"Do you?" said Potter with an eyebrow cocked. "The truth is, I had loads of help. I had friends who were all too eager to point out when I was doing something wrong. They saved me. But after I came here... as boss..." he shrugged. "No friends."

"You want me to be your friend?"

"No, no, no!" said Potter hastily. "But I do need people who aren't overwhelmed by my fame and reputation. Too many are, and they'll let me blunder along when I'm being stupid. Believe it or not, I still make mistakes, despite all my experience and what everyone says about my skill. To paraphrase one of my teachers, the cleverer we are, the bigger our mistakes tend to be."

Miles thought he could see the outline of it. "So... the test is... to tell you when you're wrong?"

Potter smiled. "Very close. The test is to know when you're right, and be able to tell me to my face. It's harder than it sounds."

"So that we can catch your errors?"

"And your fellow Aurors'. We have to be able to see things as they are, in this line of work, not how we wish them to be. We have to be firm in our convictions. And we have to accept it and change when someone else is right."

"That contradicts being firm in your convictions," Miles said, frowning.

"No one said being an Auror was easy."

"These interviews... the Daily Prophet says that they're a sign you're losing your grip. Is this a case of being firm in your convictions, or open to being wrong?"

Potter's face slipped into memory for a moment. He smiled. "The Prophet has been telling stories about me my whole life," he said. "Most of them half-truths, or less. I would never completely ignore the Prophet, but I keep a salt shaker handy whenever I pick up a copy."

"But... it's so ridiculous," said Miles. "The sky is orange?"

"It has to be ridiculous or it's not a very good test," said Potter. "If it wasn't obviously wrong, it'd be too easy to agree with me."

"I suppose," Miles admitted. "It's still ridiculous."

"It's not always the same question. I have to vary it up some. But it's the same sort of question. Speaking of which... I would really quite appreciate it if you wouldn't tell anyone about the nature of this test."

Who would believe him? "Of course, sir," he said. "My lips are sealed."

Potter pointed to an object on his desk that looked like a golden spindle. "Would you mind putting your hand around that and saying that again?"

The spindle was cold to his touch. "I won't tell anyone about the test," he said. His entire hand went cold for a moment. He recognized magic in the process.

"Dreadfully sorry," said Potter, in such a tone that Miles was inclined to believe it. "But I can't have anyone blabbing about this. It would spoil it, and I'd have to work twice as hard to find another way to check for the same qualities."

Miles looked at his hand. It seemed normal enough. His mind whirred along. "Is this a Muddle-tongue Charm?" he asked.

Potter looked mildly impressed. "Yes it is," he replied. "A very specialized version- hence why I need a focus to limit the spell's application." He pointed to the spindle. "There is, of course, a counter-charm, but I trust you aren't spiteful enough to research it just to thwart me."

"I suppose I'm not."

A bell rung inside one of Potter's desk drawers. He sighed. "That would be my secretary informing me that this ten-minute interview has gone fifteen. Any last questions?"

A huge question bubbled up in Miles' mind- so huge he wondered why he hadn't thought it before. "Did I pass?"

Potter smiled. He raised his right hand and flicked his wand over his shoulder at one of the doors. It opened. "Go find out," he said.

Miles rose hesitantly. The bell in Potter's desk rung again. "Yes, yes," Potter said, and began shuffling parchment. Miles had dropped from his attention altogether. Feeling like an intruder, Miles wandered through the open door.

He was greeted by applause and a sign that read, "Welcome Home".

Disclaimer: This story uses characters and situations copyrighted by J.K. Rowling. This story is copyright Bryon Nightshade, a.k.a. Sam Durbin.