Smoke rose up into the chimney, drawn in a faint swirl. The smell of burning pine filled the common room; the wood popped and crackled, spitting glowing sparks at the battered, dented bronze fire-guard. Harry rested his feet on the arm of the chair and stared into the flames. In the corner of his eye, he watched Hermione watching him over the top of her book.
Dean and Ron stumbled down the stairs, rubbing their eyes and yawning.
‘How was detention with Umbridge?’ Hermione asked.
Ron grinned. ‘Didn’t you hear?’
‘McGonagall cancelled it.’ Dean stuck both his thumbs up. ‘Apparently, she’d a blazing row with Umbridge on Friday about it.’
Interesting. Harry kept his eyes on the fire. She never cancelled any of the detentions I got from Snape, not even the ones for silent insubordination and malicious breathing.
‘Yeah.’ Seamus bounded down the dormitory stairs. ‘Umbridge can’t give you detentions and dock points for trying to practice spells we’ll be tested on this summer. That ain’t fair. ‘
Idiots. Trying to practice their shield charms where Umbridge will catch them. Harry shared a glance with Nev. Hermione must’ve not explained things to them.
‘Well, we’ve got her again after breakfast,’ Hermione said. ‘Try not to let her antagonise you into doing something she can actually give detention for.’
‘Still can’t believe McGonagall cancelled your punishments.’ Seamus shook his head. ‘I heard Umbridge was absolutely furious. I bet she’s even nastier than normal this morning. You should keep your heads down and stop standing up for him.’
Ah, that’ll be me. Harry rolled his eyes. They’re not even standing up for me.
Ron grunted. ‘I’m not defending him. I believe Dumbledore and I’m sick of the rubbish that hag spouts at us every lesson. Professor Lupin was our best teacher, nothing wrong with Hagrid, and Fleur Delacour was bloody hot and a champion for the tournament, even if she was kind of a bitch.’
Harry buried a flicker of ire. You don’t know Fleur well enough to judge her. Not that it’s stopped any of you before.
‘Well, you should probably keep it to yourself, Ron,’ Hermione suggested. ‘She’s going to be going after anyone who appears to advocate Dumbledore’s side. Harry’s being very clever in not openly disagreeing with her, but still clearly opposing Umbridge.’
Harry grinned. It’s nice to be appreciated.
Nev nudged him, picking up his stuff and moving in the direction of breakfast. Harry tipped his head in the direction of the other Gryffindors and mouthed Katie at him.
Hermione’ll sort them out. If they need to practise, she’ll organise something. He leant back in the chair and tugged the cushion into the small of his back. She can probably teach most of the spells if she has to.
A dishevelled, bleary-eyed Katie plodded down the stairs from the girls’ dormitories. Harry waved a couple of times until she stumbled over, smoothing her hair back.
‘Morning Harry,’ she grumbled. ‘Are we going to breakfast now? You can tell me about wherever it was you went on holiday and finally got a bit of tan.’
‘France. And I was waiting for you,’ he said.
‘Let’s go, then.’ She tugged at her uniform a few times, then shrugged, and bounced toward the exit.
Harry swept his stuff up from beside his chair in the common room and squeezed out behind the portrait of the fat lady next to her. The first years clustered outside edged away from Harry as he stepped out.
Katie cackled. ‘Ah, vulnerable children, ripe for sacrificing in dark rituals.’
The firsties scattered back into the common room.
Harry grinned. ‘You’re not helping, Katie.’
‘If you become a Dark Lord, I’m volunteering myself as Dark Lady,’ she said. ‘I love watching them run.’
‘I think you’re likely to get immolated by someone talking like that,’ Harry quipped.
Katie froze midway through stalking toward a group of second year Hufflepuff students. ‘Why would I be immolated by someone for being your Dark Lady?’ She cocked her head. ‘Harry?’
Fuck. Harry hunted for a good reason.
‘I mean, in order to protect my reputation, I’d have to do something about you, and everyone knows fire kills evil things.’
Katie’s brown eyes narrowed, then a wide grin appeared on her face. ‘Lovely weather in France, Harry.’ She sidled up to him and clutched his arm. ‘I can think of another lovely thing about France, too…’
Merde. Harry’s stomach churned and knotted itself. Headlines of the summer’s Daily Prophet articles flashed before his eyes. Nobody was meant to know.
‘Keep it to yourself, please.’ He pried his arm loose, and took her hands in his. ‘Seriously, Katie.’
‘I will,’ she murmured. ‘But, in return, you have to let me come and sacrifice a few first years in dark rituals with you.’
Harry laughed and stepped into the Great Hall searching for an empty space on the table. ‘It’s a date.’
‘So much better than Madam Puddifoot’s.’ Katie beamed. ‘Pink cushions don’t really do it for me, but dark magic, now that gets me hot under the collar.’
‘Have I ever told you that I sometimes worry about you?’ Harry asked.
Katie slid onto the Gryffindor bench across from the Weasley twins. ‘Oh, all the time.’
‘Morning, Dark Mistress.’ The twins bowed low over their breakfasts. ‘What evil deeds have you planned for today?’
‘She’s been scaring the first years.’ Harry grinned and waved a hand toward the nervous huddle by the door. ‘Look at them, they’re so scared of her they don’t want to risk walking past us to get breakfast.’
‘Ah.’ The leftmost twin sighed. ‘That’s our Katie, they won’t be free from terror until the quidditch season starts.’
‘It’s about time Angelina sorted try-outs, don’t you think?’ The rightmost twin spun his fork round in his hand. ‘Maybe you should tell her?’
‘Me?’ The leftmost wagged his finger. ‘She’s your girlfriend!’
‘You’re quite right, George. That’s why you have to tell her.’
‘Hush, idiots,’ Katie said. ‘I’ll remind her later.’
‘Yes, Dark Mistress.’ They bowed again. Fred dipped the front of his robes in his eggs.
Katie giggled and helped herself to toast.
Harry monopolised the mushrooms, scattering them over his buttered toast. A ragged ball of grey wobbled past his head and collapsed onto the table in front of the twins. Errol. Harry gave the bird a gentle poke with the butt of his fork and gave it a piece of bacon.
The twins skimmed the letter. Their eyes slid down the page, flicking from side to side in unison, then they screwed their faces up in disgust. ‘It’s from Percy. Does anyone have a copy of the Daily Prophet?’
Several papers appeared from all angles. They scanned the first few pages of the nearest, then tossed it across the table between Katie and Harry.
Katie plucked the paper off the table and glanced at the staff. ‘Dolores Jane Umbridge, formerly Senior Undersecretary to the Minister and newly appointed Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor at Hogwarts has, in a surprise move by the Wizengamot, become the first ever official to hold the freshly created position of High Inquisitor.’
Fred sniggered. ‘Percy decided to offer us some advice on the back of it.’
‘How kind of him,’ Harry muttered.
‘It’s time to let trouble-making and running riot come to an end.’ George adopted a fine, high falsetto. ‘Things are changing and we must change with them.’
Harry studied the rest of the article with a small ball of apprehension coiling in his gut. I quite liked things as they were. Umbridge was drawing all the attention and making herself usefully unpopular without actually doing much damage. Now she’s got some actual power to abuse.
‘Have you read this?’ Katie shoved the paper further under his nose. ‘The position of High Inquisitor, created by Educational Decree Number Twenty Three, also enjoys the ability to determine the sanctions scheme of Britain’s education establishments courtesy of the following decree, number twenty four.’
‘She must’ve written to Fudge over the weekend about McGonagall overpowering her and rescinding her detentions,’ Harry said. ‘Now we’ve got this to deal with.’
This is because of Ron and Dean, if they’d had some sense and not been caught, this wouldn’t’ve happened.
‘This is ridiculous.’ Fred and George exchanged a long look. ‘With that foul woman in charge of punishments who knows what will happen next.’
She’ll throw anyone who speaks against the Ministry in detention, that’s what will happen. Harry hid a grimace. If she’s clever, she’ll reserve the use of her power for situations in which it seems appropriate, but hopefully she’ll be too zealous and just turn everyone further against her.
Fred leant forward over his plate of eggs. ‘Well, you know what this means, of course.’
George pulled a serious expression on his face. ‘I do indeed, brother mine. It means we will have to listen to Percy and… not get caught!‘
The pair grinned and split the remaining half of the toast rack between them.
‘You’re incorrigible,’ Harry said. ‘You really don’t want to get caught, though.’
‘We never get caught.’ Fred wagged his finger. ‘We just get suspected.’
‘I don’t think Umbridge is going to distinguish between suspects and culprits,’ Katie said, buttering two pieces of toast to make herself a bacon sandwich. ‘She tried to get your younger brother and his friend put in detention for practicing spells that are in the Defence OWL. So be extra careful.’
‘Yes, Dark Mistress,’ George chimed. ‘We humbly obey.’
Katie beamed and looked down her nose at the Weasley twins. ‘As you should, lowly minions.’
Fred laughed. ‘You’re a bad influence, Harry. Look what you’ve turned our innocent Katie into.’
‘I did nothing.’ Harry raised his palms. ‘She was like this underneath the whole time.’
George gasped. ‘Surely not. Not our Katie.’
Fred shook his head. ‘All those quidditch practice sessions in the rain. The times when she would lovingly hurl the quaffle at us until she got her way.’
‘The threats to tell Angelina and Alicia if she didn’t get what she wanted,’ George added.
‘No, Harry,’ Fred said. ‘I just can’t believe it. I won’t.’
George brushed away fake tears. ‘And then there was the time she drank fire whiskey after winning the quidditch cup and hid all our essential pranking supplies in Snape’s office.’
‘No, that was us, George,’ Fred said. ‘Katie hid all our pre-prepared essays in McGonagall’s office.’
‘Ah, yes.’ George sighed. ‘Sometimes it’s hard to remember. She definitely warned the girls we’d switched on our date with them, though.’
‘You have a point, brother mine.’ Fred turned to Harry with a solemn expression. ‘Harry, you might be right. We think Katie has been evil all along, after all.’
Katie waved her butter-smeared knife at the pair. ‘Don’t you three have some classes to go to?’
‘No.’ The twins grinned. ‘We’re free all morning.’
‘Umbridge,’ Harry said. ‘Sure to be an interesting lesson today.’
‘You’d probably best get going.’ Katie laughed. ‘Don’t want to be expelled for being late, do you?’
Harry shot her a half-hearted glare, then helped himself to half her bacon sandwich in revenge. Katie huffed and tugged the remaining half close to her chest as he walked round her toward the exit.
I wonder if Umbridge will up her game. Harry drifted through the corridors. I don’t think she realises how unpopular she actually is.
Nev lingered outside the classroom. Harry poked his head in and found Hermione, Ron, Dean, and Seamus practising their shield charms. A faint, almost invisible bubble of light surrounded Ron and a bright patch of light the size of Harry’s palm hovered in front of Dean. A pink-faced Hermione demonstrated the wand action over and over again.
Seems like it’s going well.
Harry stepped back out. ‘Did they leave you outside to guard?’
‘I can already do the shield charm,’ Nev said.
‘Care to share?’ Harry glanced down the corridor. ‘No Umbridge yet.’
‘Protego,’ Nev commanded.
A glowing demi-sphere of translucent, silver light flickered into being around him.
He’s been practising.
The light trembled, shivered, and the shield wavered. Small gaps drifted across its surface, then faded away, reappearing and disappearing upon the shining silver surface like rain ripples upon a pond.
Not perfect yet, though.
The distinctive click of Umbridge’s pink heels echoed down the hall from ‘round the corner.
Nev darted inside. ‘She’s coming!’
Harry wandered in and joined Nev at the back of the classroom. A handful of other students slipped in, then Umbridge swept into the room, her pink cardigan flaring out behind her like a cloak and her lurid handbag bouncing on her elbow.
‘Good morning, class.’ She set her handbag down and stared at them like a frog at a cluster of flies.
Silence smothered the room.
‘Now that won’t do.’ The corners of her wide mouth turned down. ‘That’s not polite at all.’
‘Good morning, Professor Umbridge,’ muttered the handful of vulnerable-looking students at the front.
‘Today we will be continuing with our reading. Please turn to the next chapter and copy out all the relevant, key passages at the bottom of each page.’
A low groan rippled round the room.
‘Anything that’s not a picture a four year old could have drawn, then,’ Nev muttered.
The only use Slinkhard’s worthless compilation of nonsense has in defence is if it’s hurled at your opponent. Harry propped his book up on the desk and arranged his things on the desk as if he was working. And that’s only because they printed it in hardback.
‘I managed to get a copy of the curriculum off Hermione,’ Nev whispered when Umbridge turned away to loom over Dean and Seamus.
‘What does it say?’ Harry asked.
‘It says that if things carry on like this then the only ones who are going to even pass will be us and Hermione. There’s a list of almost twenty spells you can be asked to demonstrate, of which the shield charm is one of the simplest, and Umbridge isn’t going to be teaching us about any of them.’
Harry smirked. ‘She might have a change of heart.’
‘We had a peek at her lesson plan when we got here.’ Nev made a small disgusted sound in the back of his throat.
‘Once we’ve finished copying out every written word from this—’ a flicker of rage passed through Nev’s eyes as he glanced down at the pages of the book ‘—he’s going to teach us to run away from our problems.’
‘Officially, it’s called conflict avoidance and fleeing.’ Nev choked back a laugh. ‘There’s a bit on iguanas, too. I thought we’d be free of those lizards once Quirrell was replaced and his pet was gone.’
Harry let out a sigh. ‘I miss that iguana. It used to escape and hide on top of the cupboards. Parvati was terrified of it.’
Nev flushed. ‘I was terrified, too.’
‘It was a big reptile, there’s no reason to be ashamed.’ Harry reached out and patted Nev on the cheek. ‘There, there.’
Nev brushed his hand away. ‘You’ve been spending too long with Katie.’
‘The first years are almost as scared of her as they are of me now,’ Harry said. ‘Of course, they’re not that scared of me, just a bit jumpy, but it’s still quite an achievement, given I had to be accused of murder.’ He glanced up at where Umbridge was supervising Ron writing the chapter title one stroke of a letter at a time. ‘Can I have a look at that curriculum?’
‘Here.’ Nev slipped a sheet of paper to Harry under the table.
Umbridge let out a little titter. ‘The title is most certainly not A Hundred Ways to Let You-Know-Who Win, Mr Weasley. You-Know-Who has been dead for more than a decade. We’ll have a very long discussion about it in detention.’
Harry dropped his eyes back to the recommended list of books. ‘We can get some of these books out of the Room of Requirement. It’ll be easy to learn them on our own up there and I can help you if you struggle with any of them.’
‘Thanks.’ Nev’s eyes flicked up. ‘Incoming,’ he hissed, snatching the piece of paper off Harry’s lap.
Pink heels clicked toward the back row.
I’m not wasting my time writing any of this. Harry glanced ‘round, then knocked his ink pot over his blank parchment and made an extravagant show of trying to save his work.
Umbridge paused at the edge of his desk and a thick, cloying stench rolled over him. ‘What are you doing, Mr Potter?’
Harry held up the dripping piece of parchment and watched the ink trickle down the page and drip into the puddle on the desk. ‘I spilt some ink, professor.’
Umbridge tittered. ‘How clumsy of you. You’ll have to start again, won’t you?’
‘I know.’ Harry smothered a grin. ‘Would you mind vanishing the ink for me, Professor Umbridge? I’d do it myself, but I don’t want to injure anyone by using magic in the classroom.’
She simpered. ‘I’m sure your attempt will be safe, Mr Potter, but I’m glad you had the wisdom to ask for the approval of one more knowledgeable than yourself before attempting anything.’
‘If you’re sure, professor.’
Hook, line, and sinker. Harry clenched his jaw to keep his laugh from bubbling up. And now it’s going to be your fault.
He raised his wand. ‘Evanesco,’ he said, banishing the ink off the desk.
A spray of dark blue droplets spattered Umbridge’s pink cardigan and shoes.
‘Oh, professor,’ he gushed. ‘I’m so sorry.’ Harry raised his wand. ‘Let me try again.’
‘I think that’s quite enough, Mr Potter.’ Umbridge’s eyes burnt and her voice shook. ‘Finish copying out the chapter, class. I’m going to have to go and change.’
Her heels clicked away and the door of the classroom thudded shut. The class burst into laughter.
‘That was brilliant, Harry,’ Neville grinned.
One more barbed comment about part humans and how bad they are, and I might be tempted to do more than just cover her in ink.
The clock hands dragged round until the lesson came to a close.
Harry trailed Nev, Hermione, and Ron back to the common room. Nev waved the curriculum at the pair and they descended into a dispute of fierce whispers.
‘Why can’t you act more like Harry does, then?’ Hermione prodded Ron in the chest. ‘You don’t see him in detention every day and the Ministry’s trying to convince everyone he’s a murderer.’
‘Because she deliberately tries to get me in trouble,’ Ron spat. ‘It’s not even close to fair.’
‘Well you should just ignore her.’ Hermione sighed. ‘Now you have to have detention with her and I bet she comes up with something horrible for you.’
‘Mimbulus Mimbletonia,’ Nev said to the Fat Lady, who swung aside for them all to enter the common room.
‘We can’t just let her get away with spouting all that nonsense,’ Ron grumbled. ‘She’s poisoning the students against Dumbledore and when You-Know-Who attacks he’ll take everyone by surprise. We won’t even be able to defend ourselves because she just wants us to run away and won’t teach us any magic.’
‘So we practise the spells on our own.’ Nev slumped into the sofa.
Ron and Hermione joined him. Harry lingered, tossing his empty ink pot into the common room bin.
‘We tried that,’ Ron said. ‘We’ll just get detentions and now she’s in control of them. McGonagall can’t overrule her.’
‘So don’t get caught.’ Nev shrugged. ‘I know somewhere we can go she won’t find us.’
Hermione chewed at her lip. ‘Where?’
‘It’s on the seventh floor,’ Nev said. ‘You can cast all the defensive magic you want there and she’ll never know if we don’t want her to.’
‘Will you help us with our Shield Charms?’ Hermione asked. ‘Yours is pretty good.’
Ron laughed. ‘I never thought I’d see you asking Neville for help, Hermione, but seriously, Nev, will you?’
‘Y-yeah.’ Nev bobbed his head. ‘I’ll try. W-we can go now if you want?’
‘Let’s do it.’ Ron clapped Nev on the shoulder. ‘We can grab Dean and Seamus from the Great Hall on the way.’
If they’re all out, then I can talk to Sirius. Harry drifted up to the dormitories. That mirror sounds like it works a lot like the necklace Fleur made for me.
He pulled the mirror out of the bottom of his trunk. ‘Sirius,’ Harry whispered.
‘Harry.’ Sirius’ grey eyes brightened. ‘You took your time?’
‘I’ve been busy,’ Harry said. ‘Are you still safe under Dumbledore’s Fidelius Charm?’
‘Yes.’ Sirius scowled. ‘I’m tucked up all safe and sound in this awful, dirty house where I can’t do anything that might alert the Ministry to my location.’
Harry chuckled. ‘At least you’re safe. No dementors in there, are there?’
‘Had a boggart and a whole flock of doxies to get rid of when Remus helped me tidy some parts up over the summer, but for the large part this house is mostly danger free. Just as long as you remember not to go in the library or to touch anything in a glass display case.’ Sirius’ face darkened. ‘Still hate this place, though. Nothing good ever happened here.’
‘What kind of house are you in?’ Harry asked. ‘And what happened there?’
‘The home of a most ancient and noble family.’ Sirius’ grin didn’t quite reach his eyes. ‘I can’t tell you much about it, obviously, but I can tell you that the Order of the Phoenix is using it as its headquarters. Only useful thing I’ve been able to do.’
‘I have no idea what the Order of the Phoenix is,’ Harry said.
‘You don’t?’ Sirius’ brow creased. ‘Why haven’t you been told? Your father, mother, Remus, and I were all part of it in the last war. It’s a group Dumbledore started to oppose the Death-Eaters in ways the Ministry can’t.’
Dumbledore’s followers. Makes sense he has his own secret group. Snape must be one of them.
‘What did it do?’ Harry asked. ‘I’ve not talked to Dumbledore for ages.’
‘Mostly we warned the Ministry of where attacks would come and guarded places of crucial importance, but right now we’re trying to make sure the Ministry opens its eyes before it’s too late. Well, all the other members are, I just sit around here disposing of dangerous artefacts and priceless family heirlooms.’ A distant look crept across his face and a small smile appeared on his lips. ‘One day, I’m going to get that abomination of a portrait, too.’
Harry laughed. ‘Sounds fun.’
‘So why’ve you been so busy?’
‘The Ministry appointed Dolores Umbridge as the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. She’s here to make sure we don’t learn anything useful and to try and undermine support for Dumbledore in Britain’s next generation of students.’ Harry shot Sirius a sharp smile. ‘I’m making her life difficult.’
‘I’ve heard of her.’ Sirius’ face twisted. ‘She’s a half-blood obsessed with trying to be as pure as possible. Hates magical creatures, non-humans, muggles, and anyone who associates with them. Umbridge’s personally responsible for some of the most bigoted pieces of legislation ever to pass through the Wizengamot, including a law that makes it all but impossible for Remus to get a job anywhere.’
A small ball of ice tightened beneath Harry’s ribs. ‘I know how much she hates anyone she believes to be less than human.’
‘Be careful of her, Harry,’ Sirius said. ‘She’s only a half-blood, but still managed to rise quickly through the ranks of the Ministry from obscurity to a position that’s never been held by anything other than a pure-blood before. Fudge is a bumbling idiot incapable of seeing beyond his own aspirations as Minister, but Umbridge is a nasty, slippery piece of work with connections in all the wrong corners of the Wizengamot.’
‘Duly noted.’ Harry grinned. ‘So openly embarrassing her in front of a whole class would be a bad idea?’
Sirius struggled with a smile. ‘What did you do?’
‘I spilt ink everywhere and when I tricked her into giving me permission to try and vanish it, I sprayed it all over her instead.’
Sirius roared with laughter. ‘Good one, Harry.’
‘She didn’t look very happy with me, but I did nothing wrong.’
Sirius managed to suppress his smile. ‘It was a bad idea. Best to keep your head down until things get straightened out with the Ministry. We don’t need to make things worse than they are.’
‘I’ll stay out of sight as much as I can,’ Harry said. ‘Plenty of stuff for me to quietly do.’
A loud thud echoed from Sirius’ side of the mirror and a horrible shrieking started up in the background.
‘I have to go,’ Sirius said. ‘Use the mirror whenever you want. I’ve nothing else to do around here except try and think of new ways to destroy that painting.’
‘Bye, Sirius.’ Harry held the mirror further away and waved goodbye.
‘Shut up, you mad old hag,’ Sirius roared as the mirror faded back to normal.
Perhaps I should ask him to tell me how he gets rid of the painting. It could be useful for figuring out how to strip away some of the more annoying enchantments on Slytherin’s frame.