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Harry stared up at the red and gold hangings as they rippled in the breeze from the window. A small part of himself urged him to charm them silver and blue. But best not to give Seamus anymore ammunition to throw at Ron. Their arguments are annoying enough as it is. He tugged his robes on and hurried down into a chair in the common room.
Nev staggered down after him with wet hair, his bag on his shoulder, and all his books in his arms. ‘Seamus and Ron are arguing again.’ He borrowed the arm of Harry’s chair to sort his things. ‘They were having a heated discussion on the express, but they’re just yelling stupid insults at each other in the bathroom now.’
‘About the Daily Prophet again?’ Harry stifled a yawn. ‘Does Seamus really believe that stuff?’
Nev shrugged. ‘Not actually sure he does, but Seamus’ mum agrees with the Ministry and believes it. Ron, being an insensitive idiot at times, insulted her along with everyone else who reads it. Seamus didn’t take it lying down.’
‘At least it isn’t about me.’
‘They weren’t too bothered about anything the Prophet said about you. Ron mentioned his mum being upset, but he didn’t care what they were writing about you. Said it was none of his business since you weren’t friends anymore.’
‘First intelligent thing he’s done in a while.’ Harry chivvied Nev’s books off the arm of his chair.
‘Second.’ Nev laughed and stuffed his books into his bag. ‘He believes Dumbledore, and by extension that you were put in the tournament by Voldemort, not hoodwinked by some dark wizard.’
‘You said the name without stuttering.’
‘It gave Gran an awful shock.’ Nev slumped down into a chair. ‘She was going on and on about how corrupt and useless the Ministry is and how there was no reason I could ever want to read anything in the Daily Prophet if it was basically promoting for You-Know-Who. I corrected the name and she stopped dead and renewed the subscription without a word.’
‘She must’ve realised you knew what you wanted, Nev.’
Ron stormed through the common room wearing a thunderous expression.
‘Do you think I should say I told you so to Ron?’ Harry quipped.
‘Not unless you want to start a fight and cause trouble.’
‘I’m only joking, Nev,’ Harry said. ‘It’d be silly to create animosity between myself and someone who’s fighting one of my battles for me.’
‘Breakfast?’ Nev asked.
‘Definitely. We’ve got Snape with the Slytherins first thing again, I need a full stomach to cope.’
The other students seemed to melt out of his path as he walked down the staircase toward the Great Hall. Neville stuck by him and most of the older students seemed content to ignore him, but anyone who looked younger than about fourteen scattered like pigeons from a hawk.
Gullible idiots. Harry settled himself down on the table near the door.
‘So where were you on the train this morning then?’ Neville asked, helping himself to the toast rack.
A few of the more nervous Gryffindor first years darted past their spot near the doors, huddling together as they passed Harry.
‘I came in by myself,’ Harry said. ‘Didn’t fancy sharing a compartment on the train with any of that lot, so I avoided everyone.
Nev nodded. ‘I’m impressed you managed to stay out of sight for the whole journey. I think Malfoy was looking for you the entire time.’
‘I’d’ve ended up like this.’ Harry pointed at the several metre gap around them at the table. ‘And Malfoy wasn’t really missed, let’s be honest.’
Nev wagged his finger. ‘Nobody wants to sit next to a dangerous murderer, Harry.’
Harry snorted. ‘Why’re you here, then? Safety in numbers?’
Hermione swung herself in next to Harry. Her bushy hair frizzed out like she’d woken up by sticking her finger in a plug socket. ‘What happened in the maze?’
‘Good morning, Hermione. Did you have a nice summer, Harry? How was the train journing, Hermione?’ Harry raised his eyebrows at her. ‘Why do you want to know?’
She gasped. ‘Viktor died in there.’
‘So I’ve heard.’ Harry grimaced through a twist of pity. ‘I’m sorry, Hermione. I know the two of you were friends.’
‘The Daily Prophet’s keen to spread the suggestion that you were responsible,’ Hermione pressed.
‘I’m not interested in what that paper says. I’ve honestly seen more truth in Trelawney’s weekly deaths prediction list.’ He sighed. ‘I didn’t see Krum die. I’m sorry.’
‘No. It’s okay, Harry.’ She chewed at her lip. ‘I just – I need to know what happened. Dumbledore said Voldemort was responsible, the Ministry blamed Ludo Bagman, but neither of them could have possibly cast the curse themselves.’
She’s not going to let go of this until she hits a real dead end or thinks she’s found an answer. Harry weighed up his options. Let’s hope Cedric shuts her down and she hits that dead end.
‘Have you tried asking Cedric Diggory?’ he suggested. ‘He’s the only other champion you can ask, but I don’t know how much he’ll remember. I stunned him when I came to investigate the screaming.’
Hermione paled. ‘The screaming?’
Harry swallowed down the ice tightening in his chest. ‘The Beauxbatons champion. Someone cast the cruciatus curse on her.’
‘Oh.’ Some colour crept back into Hermione’s face. ‘Not Viktor.’
A little cold crept into Harry’s veins. ‘Ask Diggory. The Ministry’s advised by Malfoy’s father and he’s probably not the only supporter of Voldemort in their ranks either.’ Harry cast a glance at the distant pink figure of Professor Umbridge.
Hermione traced his gaze.
So it begins.
She poured herself a glass of water. ‘So, Harry, did you have a nice summer?’
Harry raised an eyebrow at her.
‘Sorry,’ she muttered.
‘It was surprisingly tolerable.’
Harry grinned. ‘They weren’t any trouble at all.’
They tried once or twice. Harry let a broad smile creep across his face as recalled Vernon’s quality alone time with the asp in the cupboard under the stairs and Dudley’s horror as his steak turned into a pool of maggots. Petunia should’ve really thanked me for that, I think it helped his diet more than any number of grapefruit ever could.
‘That’s good.’ Hermione caught sight of Cedric and bolted from the table.
Bye, then. Harry helped himself to more eggs.
‘What did happen in the maze?’ Nev whispered.
‘You don’t want to know, Nev,’ Harry said. ‘I’d rather not talk about it either, I‘m afraid.’
‘Fair enough.’ Nev balanced slices of tomato along his toast and took a bite. He chewed it and groaned at the clock. ‘Potions…’
‘Potions.’ Harry rushed down the last few forkfuls of eggs, gathered his bag from under the bench, and followed Nev down into the potions lab.
‘Ah.’ Snape’s murmur echoed from the back of the dungeon as they found their seats. ‘At last we have the privilege of Mr Potter’s company again.’ He strode down the aisle between the desks, tutting under his breath. ‘This June you will all be sitting an examination in which you’ll prove just how much you’ve learnt about the composition and use of magical potions. Some of you…’ Snape’s eyes drifted past Nev to rest on Harry. ‘Some of you have not spent all of the last four years as wisely as they could’ve done.’ He waved his wand at the board, revealing the recipe to the class.
The Draught of Peace.
‘Partner up,’ Snape drawled. ‘And I suggest due diligence in the preparation of this particular potion, it requires a delicate touch.’
‘Come on, Nev.’ Harry began to arrange his things across the desk between them.
‘You want to work with me?’ Nev squinted at him. ‘In Potions?’
‘Why would I choose anyone else?’ Harry asked.
‘I’m terrible at Potions.’
‘You don’t think well with Snape looming over you,’ Harry said. ‘There’s no way he’ll be able to pass up commenting on me, so if we’re together, that means I’ll draw all his attention.’
‘Okay, then.’ Nev reached for the moonstone.
Harry caught his hand. ‘Make sure everything happens exactly as it says on the board. I don’t think Snape was joking about due diligence.’
Nev gulped and began to add the powdered moonstone in small sprinkles as he stirred. The potion shifted to a bright purple.
A Vernon’s-about-to-explode shade of purple. Harry admired the bright hue. I think I quite like it.
Nev’s hand strayed toward the syrup of hellebore.
‘Let it simmer,’ Harry murmured.
Snape stared at the pair of them from his spot in the shadows at the back, an unreadable expression on his face. Harry ignored him.
A startled yelp echoed across the lab. Ron and Dean retreated from a potion spitting bright, violet sparks and releasing a loud hissing. The bowl of powdered moonstone sank into the cauldron.
‘That will be zero, Weasley, Thomas.’ Snape sneered and vanished the contents. ‘Apparently when I instructed you to be careful, you thought yourselves above listening.’
The potion in front of Harry flared pink. Nev stopped stirring and stared at it, glancing back and forth from the instructions to the cauldron.
Is he really so surprised that it’s working? Harry got started grinding porcupine quills into a fine powder and left Nev to keep things simmering.
Snape drifted to loom over them. ‘Longbottom, you’ve found yourself a new victim.’
‘Add these, Nev.’ Harry passed the porcupine quills across and stepped around in between Nev and Snape, making a show of retrieving the powdered unicorn horn.
Snape fixed Harry with a piercing stare, turned on his heel and stalked to the front of the class.
Their brew came to a thin, ivory-hued liquid that, when Harry or Neville forgot to stir and it grew too hot, would thicken just enough to let off the merest hint of a shimmer. Around them, the rest of the class sat on their hands or continued to add more porcupine quills to yellow-tinted potions.
‘We did okay.’ Harry glanced around. ‘A bit better than most.’
Malfoy’s potion had reached a similar sort of state as theirs, though his potion retained an odd glow and looked more yellow than white. Hermione’s glimmered just as the recipe prescribed, but remained an odd silvery-grey.
It looks a bit like Bertha Jorkins’ hand.
‘If you are…. finished.‘ Snape’s eyes swept across the class, pausing only to rest on Harry’s, Hermione’s, and Malfoy’s potions. ‘Bring a flask of your potion to my desk.’
‘I’ll do it, Nev,’ Harry said. ‘You start tidying up.’
He filled one of the flasks with extreme care. Nev managed to weaponise a pepper-up potion, so best to take great caution with this one.
Snape slid the flask across the surface of his desk to rest next to Hermione’s and Malfoy’s. ‘Remain behind, Potter. I need to make sure your latest year of glory hasn’t dragged your grade down past its usual level of mediocrity.’
Well, it wouldn’t be potions without detention or points lost.
Harry leant against the corner of the bench nearest Snape’s desk and waited for the class to leave.
‘Why did you partner with Longbottom?’ Snape demanded.
Harry kept his face unreadable. ‘He’s my friend.’
‘Well, despite your choice of partner, your brew is marginally better than the only other two I shall spend my time grading.’ Snape’s tone shifted into something almost neutral. ‘It seems you might have a chance of continuing to learn from me after this year, so long as you keep Longbottom from destroying your work.’
‘Perhaps, sir,’ Harry said. ‘You might consider not standing over him as he works, he doesn’t need to be intimidated.’
Snape’s eyes flashed. ‘I have kept you behind, Potter, to inform you that you need to be much more careful. The headmaster believes you’ll somehow be very important in the coming war against the Dark Lord. I have warned him that he shouldn’t expect too much from a child, but he was adamant. The headmaster also insisted I gently remind you that apparating around your house and vanishing every other day is not a good idea.’
Harry scowled. How did he know? And why tell Snape of all people?
‘I will tell you that not only is it not a good idea to risk the justice of the Ministry, but it is a terrible idea to act so irresponsibly in the face of the Dark Lord’s return.’ Snape stalked round his desk and pulled out a thin parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with string with a sneer. ‘Black sends his love. He’d have got himself killed sneaking out to see you if we hadn’t promised him a way of communicating, so take this. It’s an enchanted mirror, two-way, speak Black’s first name to activate it and if he’s near the mirror, which I’m sure will be at all times, then you’ll get an answer.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ Harry took the parcel and slipped it inside his robes.
‘And Potter.’ Snape’s neutral demeanour returned. ‘Next time you want to distract the Dark Lord, it would be best not to do it by claiming to have killed his more useful servants.’
Harry’s eyes snapped up to the dark orbs of his professor and emptied his thoughts.
‘We both know that you lied to the Dark Lord, but he seems to believe you, despite any advice to the contrary.’ Snape swooped round the desk to grab Harry’s wrist. His fingernails bit into Harry’s skin. ‘Do you understand, Potter? He is taking you seriously now.’
Harry tugged his arm free. ‘He wasn’t before?’
‘Get out, Potter.’ No anger coloured Snape’s tone.
Time to see Madam Puddifoot. Harry drifted toward defence against the dark arts. I’m already late, so I guess how she acts will be a good indication of why she’s here.
He slipped inside. ‘Sorry I’m late, professor. Professor Snape needed to speak to me.’
The squat, pink-draped woman looked up from the front. ‘Mr Potter…’ She simpered. ‘Do you have a note?’
‘Sadly the professor neglected to burden me with one.’ He smiled and took a seat at the back beside Nev.
‘That will be ten points from Gryffindor for lying, Potter.’ Umbridge’s high, girlish voice grated on Harry’s nerves. ‘Lying’s a terrible habit to get into.’
He suppressed a wry smile. Ten meaningless house points isn’t a bad price for learning what you’re here for.
‘As I was saying before Mr Potter started spinning stories, your education in this subject has been unacceptably broken up. A new teacher every year, all very poor choices, and jumping all over the curriculum, with no regard to what the Ministry knows you need to understand.’ She tutted, pulled a short, thick wand from her handbag, then gave it a sharp flick.
The stack of books on her desk jerked into the air and drifted round the room to thud down before every member of the class.
Defensive Magical Theory. Harry flicked through a few pages of childish pictures and dense text. Well, anyone without outside help or a lot of natural talent can kiss their OWLs goodbye.
‘I have a question?’ Hermione waved her hand in the air and stared down at her open copy.
‘Is it about the book, Miss…?’ Umbridge adjusted her lurid, pink cardigan.
‘Granger. And not entirely.’
‘Well, if it isn’t about the book, perhaps you can wait to see me at the end.’
‘My question is about the aim of the course,’ Hermione said. ‘It’s our OWL year, Professor Umbridge, and I’m not convinced this book is sufficient to enable us to pass.’
Well, at least she was intelligent enough not to directly challenge her in her own classroom. I don’t think many others would’ve managed to phrase it as well.
‘The Ministry has consulted the opinions of several very experienced witches and wizards, Miss Granger, there’s no need for concern. I can assure all of you that this will be completely unlike previous years where you have been exposed to some very dangerous creatures.’
Harry had the feeling she wasn’t referring to Grindylows and Boggarts. A little ice trickled through his veins. A bigot, too. And most probably a pureblood.
‘There’s no mention of using magic,’ Dean called. ‘What are we going to be doing?’
‘Please raise your hand if you wish to speak…’
‘Why on earth, Mr Thomas, do you think you will need to use dark or dangerous spells in a classroom?’ Umbridge tittered. ‘It’s quite ridiculous.’
‘How else are we going to be prepared for what’s out there?’ Ron demanded.
Ah, here we go. Harry concealed a smile. Umbridge is about to kick off her manifesto.
‘Raise your hand, Mr Weasley,’ Umbridge snapped.
She recognises the pure-bloods, then. Harry leant back in his chair. She’s going to make herself very unpopular very fast.
‘There’s nothing out there.’ She plastered a sweet smile across her pallid face. ‘The Ministry is merely concerned for the safety of the children of our society.’
‘Then they should teach them defensive magic and let them practice it,’ Ron burst out. ‘Or You-Know-Who is going to wander across this country killing who he bloody wants, isn’t he?’
‘Ten points from Gryffindor,’ Umbridge hissed. ‘I will not tolerate such language or such lies in my classroom. The rumour and fear-mongering of a few questionable individuals is not to be listened to. The Ministry clearly stated the truth of events.’
Every eye in the classroom turned to him.
Oh no. I don’t need to dig Umbridge out of this hole. She can make a mess of it by herself and go back to waiting tables on Valentine’s Day in Hogsmeade.
Harry grinned. ‘I agree. You shouldn’t swear in class and listening to baseless rumours is ill-advisable.I’m sure the Ministry is doing its utmost to discredit them.’
Hermione pursed her lips, then gave Harry a small nod. A slow ripple of realisation crossed the classroom.
Umbridge’s eyes blazed as she fixed her smile on her face. ‘Turn to the first chapter of your books, please.’
Harry picked a point about midway through the first chapter and ran his hand along the spine to keep the book open there.
I’ll have to ask Salazar about legilimency. I need to practice it somehow.
He turned a few pages further and pushed his wand up the inside of his sleeve, catching it when it fell. Small surges of warmth shivered up his arm each time he touched it. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Ron, Dean, and Hermione muttering while Umbridge glared at them.
I’m not first in the line of fire now. And I imagine there’ll be a fair few who realise that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
‘There’s no way I’m going to pass this class’ OWL exam now,’ Nev fretted.
‘You aren’t going to learn anything useful here, but I promised to help you, didn’t I?’
‘You’ll help me pass?’ Nev abandoned his book to stare.
Harry tapped its pages. ‘Of course I will.’ He turned back to the pages of Umbridge’s textbook, flipping through the last few to the end of the chapter. ‘We can go up to the Room of Requirement again, Nev,’ he muttered. ‘We need to find a copy of the curriculum first, though. I learnt lots of practical spells, but I don’t know everything about dark creatures and the like.’
‘I’ll ask Hermione,’ Nev said. ‘She’ll know—’
Umbridge stood up from the front, peering at the back of the class. ‘No whispering! Whomever’s whispering is in detention.’
Harry snorted under his breath. Madam Puddifoot’s probably a better teacher.