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Shadows swirled between pale, crumbling headstones. Thick fog rose around his knees like smoke. Harry drifted past rows of dark-lettered tombs toward distant, flickering light.
James Potter. Lily Potter. Quirrell. Harry trailed his fingers along the smooth, cold marble as the fog closed around him. Barty Crouch Jr. Peter Pettigrew. Bertha Jorkins.
Bright, vivid green flashed through the mist like lightning across the sky. A shadow lingered where the white headstones stretched off into the fog, less than a spectre, yet the mist crept back from it as if burnt away by the sun.
Harry’s wand slipped into his hand as he paused beside another pale memorial. Dolores Umbridge. He strode on and left the ink-black letters etched into the marble behind.
The shadow darkened to a thin-limbed wraith of jet black mist and extended one skeletal hand.
The fog rolled back.
Frozen mud, black-stained pale pebbles, and a fouled river lay at his feet. Faces swirled in the water: snatches of Fleur’s smirk, Katie’s grin, his parents waving from the Mirror of Erised, and a thousand other half-recalled moments gleamed in its depths. The dead branches of a willow tree trembled upon the far bank and endless graves stretched from beneath its withered boughs, fading into a bright, golden dawn.
Above it all, the spectre hovered, a slim shadow before the rising crescent of the burning, amber sun; it spread its arms out wide and red light spilt forth past its shade like sunlight bursting through storm clouds.
The cold of the mud seeped into him. The endless graves sprawled so far into the dawn he could feel all the space stretching away into nothing and an awful emptiness clawed its way up inside Harry’s chest. No. He shoved it down. Never again. I’m not going back. I won’t be that again.
He raised his wand at the distant shadow, cold fury twisting in his breast. ‘Avada kedavra!’
A bright emerald flash washed the dawn away.
He jolted awake. Sunlight stabbed at his eyes through a gap in the curtains of his bed. Faint bird song drifted to his ears from outside.
‘Tempus.’ He squinted at the silver numbers. ‘Almost seven.’
And the Christmas holidays start tomorrow.
Harry pulled his robes and rubbed the last vestiges of sleep from his eyes, slipping down to the common room.
Flames crackled and logs popped in the fireplace, spitting small sparks and ash onto the surrounding stones. Harry settled himself down beside it and rested his feet close to the fire.
Now, what next? He spun his wand round on his palm, enjoying the little washes of warmth that rushed across his skin. I need to keep an eye on Umbridge. I need to find out about the Hall of Prophecies. And I need to pick a good moment to send Umbridge off to follow the spiders once I have.
Harry yawned and waved his wand at the fireplace, twisting the smoke into a writhing serpent.
But the only person who’ll tell me about the Department of Mysteries is probably Sirius and he’s still just about sticking with Dumbledore’s policy of not telling me things. He twirled his serpent of smoke in circles above the flames and drummed his fingers upon the arm of the chair. But if Dumbledore gets thrown out, then Sirius should be willing to tell me what I need to know, so it comes back to choosing a good moment.
‘And I can’t watch her myself.’ A small, thin smile curved his lips. ‘But perhaps Umbridge would like to have the focused attention of Hogwarts’s only free elf.’ His smile warmed a fraction. ‘And it’d be nice to have a reason to see the mad little elf again, even if Dobby’s a bit disturbing.’
Harry dragged himself out of the chair and cast the disillusionment charm, slipping out of the tower and toward the kitchens. He strode down the steps to the basement level, taking them two at a time, then along the well-lit corridor with its many paintings of food.
A large picture of fruit within a silver bowl blocked the corridor’s end.
And if what the twins have told me about Katie’s alcohol inspired kitchen trips is true, I just need to tickle the pear. Harry reached up and gave it a tentative tickle with his forefinger. They better not have been having me on, I already feel like an idiot doing this.
The green fruit giggled and shifted into a door handle. Harry twisted the doop open and stepped into the kitchens.
Endless shelves of brass and copper pans, and worn, stained wooden tables stretched beneath a high-vaulted ceiling. A horde of house elves bustled back and forth between the tables in a bizarre array of pillow covers, blanket patches, and mismatched cushion covers.
The door thudded shut behind Harry.
Hundreds of pairs of bulbous eyes swivelled to stare at him. The nearest elf lost his grip on his lemon and the yellow fruit rolled across the table and fell onto the floor.
‘I’m looking for Dobby,’ Harry said.
A pair of bright green eyes appeared with a loud crack. ‘The great Harry Potter called.’ Dobby bobbed his head up and down, setting his ears to flapping like broken bats’ wings.
‘I have something I need your help with, Dobby,’ he murmured. ‘There’s a teacher at this school who’s been harming the students—’
‘Dobby knows the one the great Harry Potter means, but Dobby can’t help, not while he’s an elf of Hogwarts. He made an agreement.’
Harry sighed. So much for that brilliant plan.
Dobby’s green eyes bored through Harry’s skull like a pair of little lasers. ‘Dobby could help if he had a different master.’
Does he ever blink?
‘If you had a new master, would you be able to watch her office and remove anything that could be dangerous to students from it?’ Harry asked.
‘Yes.’ Dobby nodded so hard his chin bumped against his chest. ‘If Harry Potter offers, if he wants, then Dobby will be accepting him as his master and serving him as proudly as any elf could.’
‘How should I offer?’ Harry enquired. ‘Is there something I have to do?’
‘Harry Potter has to offer Dobby his magic, once Dobby has touched and accepted a wizard’s magic Dobby is bound to them.’
That would be useful. And he’d be loyal. Harry considered it. But I don’t want him doing it out of some sense of obligation. Nobody should be forced to play hero.
‘Do you want to be bound to me, Dobby?’
‘Dobby likes working here, but an elf is best off with the magic of a master and a family. Hogwarts has enough magic to keep house elves alive and sane, but it’s distant magic, Harry Potter, not personal, it’s lonely magic.’
‘I’m not sure if that’s a yes?’
‘Dobby would most certainly like to have Harry Potter as a master. Harry Potter is a great wizard, one an elf would be proud to serve. Dobby heard how master Harry Potter dealt with his nasty former young master.’ A vicious grin crossed Dobby’s face.
Harry edged back a little. I forgot how much he hates the Malfoys.
‘Then I offer you my magic, Dobby,’ he said.
Dobby’s whole body trembled and he blinked hard several times.
He does blink. Harry released a small sigh. Thank fuck for that.
Dobby reached out with one small hand and grasped Harry’s wrist. Magic surged to the surface and subsided like a freak wave.
Dobby shivered and straightened up. ‘Master Harry Potter is a very great wizard. His magic is even stronger than Dobby imagined.’
‘Can you watch Umbridge for me, Dobby?’ Harry murmured. ‘And if she tries to harm a student, can you make sure she’s stopped? I know you can use your magic within the school walls and remain undetected.’
‘Dobby will stay and work at Hogwarts. He will make sure the nasty pink woman doesn’t hurt any of Master Harry Potter’s friends.’
Harry smiled. ‘Thank you, Dobby. Do you still want paying?’
‘Master Harry Potter freed Dobby from – from—’ Dobby’s face screwed up in hatred ‘—from the Malfoys and lets him touch his magics. An elf is greatly affected by his master’s magic and Master Harry Potter’s magic is strong. Dobby owes him a debt that he can never repay.’
‘Well, if you change your mind, you only have to ask.’
Gold’s only gold. Loyal friends are far more precious.
‘Dobby will go and start watching.’ Dobby vanished with a loud crack.
The other elves shuffled closer, crowding around Harry. One thrust half a slice of buttered toast wrapped in a napkin into his palm. Another placed the lemon in his other hand, nodding all the while.
‘Thanks…’ Harry gave them a wave and took a bite out of the toast. ‘Until next time, I guess.’
Though I’m not really sure what to do with this lemon. He finished his toast and drifted back up toward the tower, listening to the swelling noise as everyone else awoke. It’s a bit early for anything particularly lemony.
He stumbled into Katie in the passageway behind the Fat Lady, staggering forward as he held her to him to avoid knocking her over. The lemon slipped from his fingers and rolled out of sight.
‘Harry.’ Katie’s voice trembled. ‘We have a problem, a big problem.’
‘We do?’ He grew aware of a warm, damp feeling soaking across the shoulder of his robes and how Katie’s fingers curled tight into his robes round his back. ‘What’s wrong, Katie?’
Soft sobs came from where she buried her face in his robes.
A thick, hot knot clenched in Harry’s stomach. Merde. She’s really upset. I’ve not seen her cry since we split up.
He guided her back into the common room and took a seat. Katie slumped onto the arm of his chair, sliding down into a ball on his lap.
‘This.’ She held a copy of the Daily Prophet out.
Harry glanced down from her red eyes and tear-stained cheeks. Love Triangle at Hogwarts. Rita Skeeter sheds light! The bottom dropped out of his stomach.
‘Fuck,’ he muttered.
Katie jabbed her finger at the third paragraph. ‘This bit.’
Harry skimmed down to it. ‘Undeterred by the obstacle, I ventured to discover the truth of the matter. Ginny Weasley, a fourth year Gryffindor student and close friend of Harry Potter, whose sensational stories and history have often been a feature of my articles, has set herself on winning the heart of the Boy-Who-Lived. Your intrepid reporter has discovered that not only does Mr Potter appear to be allowing her affections, but, at the same time, is pursuing a relationship with former flame and ex-quidditch teammate, Katie Bell. The two were known to be briefly together before the Yule Ball last year, but separated under suspicious circumstances when the impressionable Mr Potter suddenly chose to abandon his girlfriend and accompany the part-human, French champion Fleur Delacour instead.’
‘It gets better.’ Fresh tears leaked from under Katie’s lashes. ‘Much better.’
‘It seems that having fallen for the allure of Miss Delacour, who subsequently abandoned him, Mr Potter learnt a few tricks of his own about manipulating the opposite sex. Now, he can be seen stringing along two young, innocent girls in his sordid games. Miss Bell, who according to reliable sources is often seen in close company of Harry Potter, was allegedly the slighted party when he assaulted and gravely injured a fellow student. You may remember, my readers, that this offence saw him rightly banned from playing quidditch. Since then, Miss Bell has become all but inseparable from him as he encourages her to bully and torment younger students.’
Harry scanned the first line of the next paragraph. Dark magic and debauchery in Hogwarts’s dormitories.
Katie curled into a ball on his lap with her head against his shoulder. ‘See. It’s awful.’
‘Well, Fleur’s definitely going to murder me this time.’
Harry’s heart sank somewhere down into a dark, deep void. And even if she forgives me one more time, Gabby and her parents will see this…
‘My parents are going to murder me,’ Katie whispered. ‘They believe the Prophet’s rooted in truth, even if it dresses things up to get people to read it.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured. ‘It’s being around me that’s dragged you into this. If you want to keep your distance or pretend to dislike me, then I understand.’
I’ll survive. I survived being alone before. I’ll survive it again. Dread coiled its tight sharp spines round his heart. But I don’t want to. I don’t.
‘The whole school is going to think I’m some kind of slut,’ Katie spat. ‘How did Skeeter even know about any of this?’ She stabbed her finger at the article. ‘That’s word for word what Ginny said outside the portrait last night, but there was nobody there but us. It was the same with all her other articles, too.’
It is word for word, isn’t it? She must’ve been there. Harry frowned. But how would she get through the wards undetected? Nobody’s managed it since Sirius came after Pettigrew. His mind was drawn to the beetle he had seen crawling over Ginny’s top. Maybe she did it the exact same way.
‘I think I might know how,’ he said.
‘What?’ Katie demanded. ‘I hope it’s illegal. I’ll destroy her.’
‘Perhaps she’s an unregistered animagus.’
‘Ginny had a beetle on her. It was bright blue.’ Katie beamed. ‘If she’s unregistered, she could be sent to Azkaban.’
‘I’m not going to try and expose her.’ Harry sighed. ‘She’s useful to the Ministry at the moment and she knows it. Until they stop needing her to discredit me, nothing will happen.’
Although there might be a chance to get back at her more subtly somehow.
‘So she’s going to get away with this.’ Katie seethed and balled her fists. ‘This article is going to make everything hell.’
‘It’s not exactly ideal.’
‘What if I tell everyone about Skeeter?’ Katie suggested.
‘You’ve been manipulated and tricked by me, remember,’ Harry said.
‘There’s really nothing we can do,’ she whispered. ‘We just have to live with it.’
‘Skeeter will eventually write something offensive about someone dangerous and get her just reward for it,’ Harry said. ‘It’s far worse for Ginny than us.’
Katie slumped and stared into the fire. ‘Because she loves you… And now everyone is going to know and think the worst of her for it.’
‘Exactly. I don’t think I’ll be seeing very much of Ginny for the foreseeable future.’
Katie smeared her tears away on her sleeve and dabbed her cheeks dry. Streaks of dark mascara smudged across the skin beneath her eyes. ‘Urgh. I bet I look like a complete mess, now, don’t I?’
Harry gave her weak grin and a thumbs up. ‘But a cute mess, if you had that seashell bra…’
She snorted. ‘Definitely can’t make that joke too loudly now.’
Footsteps sounded from the girls’ dormitories’ stairs. Katie froze and threw herself into the chair opposite Harry with a small squeak.
Alicia loomed out of the dark. ‘Oh, you’re down here, Katie.’ She frowned and shot a black glare at Harry. ‘Have you been crying?’
Alicia will cheer Katie up better than me. Harry smothered the slow swelling of freezing rage. And Rita Skeeter deserves some payback.
‘I’m going for a walk to think.’ He helped himself to some spare parchment, a quill, and some ink. ‘I’ll let you and Alicia talk about things without an unwelcome audience.’
I’ll send Rita Skeeter a letter and get hold of the address. Let’s see where that takes me.
He made his way out of the tower again, ignoring Alicia’s whispering, and headed for the Owlery. A yawning, upper year Slytherin holding a small basket of bright flowers crossed paths with him on his way back from the greenhouses.
Miss Rita Skeeter. Harry paused to lean on the wall and write on the envelope, then scribbled the same on his spare parchment. As a former friend of certain Hogwarts students, I’ve been privy to some of their actions. However, in recent times, their actions have grown offensive and dangerous. I’d be more than willing to share what I know with you, if you’re interested. He tore the bottom part of the parchment off and cast the protean charm to link it to the envelope.
‘And just one more enchantment…’ He pushed his magic into the envelope, imbuing it with the ability to mimic nearby similar objects. ‘An envelope to mimic the address on any mail nearby and the protean charm to copy it into my pocket.’ Harry turned it over in his head. ‘Should work.’
And I can’t ask Fleur for a clever way. He grimaced and buried a hot, sharp tangle of feeling. She won’t want to see me.
Harry trudged his way up the tower, folded the letter into the envelope and sealed it.
‘This is for Rita Skeeter, Hedwig.’ He offered the envelope to his owl. ‘Make sure you deliver it to her home, not to her work, or anywhere else.’
Hedwig stared at him with her amber eyes, fluffed her feathers, then let out a soft hoot, hopped toward the window and took off into the sky.
Time for breakfast, I suppose. Harry plodded back to the Great Hall.
Whispers pursued him the whole way. Katie and Ginny’s names echoed after him in hushed hisses.
Here we go again. He gritted his teeth and strode into the hall. But you won’t see me care. Fleur’s right. They just want to tear down anyone they fear might be better than themselves. Harry chose a spot close to the end of the Gryffindor table and helped himself to sausages, eggs and toast.
Katie came down a few mouthfuls later and headed toward him, but Alicia and Angelina trapped her in between the two of them and went to join the twins. Harry raised an eyebrow at her down the table. She gave him a small shrug and sliced a piece of toast into smaller and smaller pieces on her plate.
I shouldn’t have made that offer. He sighed and forced down another mouthful of food. I survived before. I’ll survive again. A cold fist clamped ‘round his heart. Just as long Fleur’s still with me.
Katie folded her arms on the table and flopped onto them.
It’s a shame I can’t make Rita Skeeter disappear under the Dark Mark. Harry stabbed the yolk of his fried egg and watched it spread across his toast. Maybe I’ll get lucky and she’ll write an article about Voldemort’s stub of a nose.
‘Has it offended you?’ Nev swung himself in beside him.
‘It’s not going to be a good day.’
‘Seen the paper, then. Well, it gets better, Umbridge first thing with ammunition to use against you.’
‘I can keep my cool around her,’ Harry said.
Even if it’s only by imagining how her little hike through the Forbidden Forest is going to end.
‘It still won’t be any fun,’ Nev said. ‘I’ve heard from Gran this morning that there’s another Educational Decree being passed today, something that lets Umbridge assess and dismiss the other teachers.’
‘Wonderful. At this rate the whole school will be carpeted and draped in pink, and students will be writing their exams in blood.’
Nev poured himself some orange juice and took a long drink. ‘Have you spoken to Katie or Ginny?’
‘I talked to Katie this morning. She showed me the article. Angelina and Alicia have since convinced her to avoid me, or are at least trying to make sure that she does.’
Nev winced. ‘Ouch. Sorry, mate. Can’t say I’ve ever split with anyone, but I’d guess it’s not great.’ He glanced down the table. ‘She looks miserable.’
‘It worries me when she’s quiet,’ Harry murmured.
‘So you haven’t spoken to Ginny, then?’
Harry shook his head. ‘I haven’t seen her.’
‘It’s a bit of a mess.’ Nev helped himself to bacon. ‘Ron’s furious about it, of course, Dean too.’
‘I take it they blame me.’
Nev shrugged and swallowed his mouthful of bacon. ‘I’m not sure, but probably.’
The other Gryffindors brushed past them, Ginny in their midst, and went to sit with Katie and the twins.
Guess I don’t matter, do I? Harry rolled his eyes and swallowed a flare of anger. Whatever. I’ve got more important stuff to deal with. Fleur’s pitch black eyes and heat-haze-wreathed palms flashed through his mind. And possibly a painful death.
He dropped his cutlery on his plate and swept out of the Great Hall, sweeping through the corridors, and taking his seat at the back of Umbridge’s class. She glowered at him through the straps of her pink handbag.
The other students shuffled in and sagged into their seats.
Umbridge simpered. ‘Wands away. This lesson we will be discussing the theory of dark magic and why it is so dangerous to practise.’
Says the woman who doesn’t even know enough magical theory to conjure some tasteful clothes. You don’t wear that shade of pink with that complexion. Harry wrinkled his nose at the pink cardigan and hummed. I think Fleur might be rubbing off on me.
‘Dark magic is labelled by the Ministry as some of the most dangerous magic in existence,’ Umbridge recited. ‘There’re a whole list of reasons that lead to spells being classified as dark, but the underlying similarity is that they are corruptive.’
Her gaze came to rest on Harry.
I suppose it will at least be amusingly contrived.
‘A wizard who practises or is exposed to dark magic becomes addicted to it. They’re twisted into dangerous, intolerable individuals with no respect for authority, society, or morals.’ Umbridge’s stare didn’t shift.
Harry gave her a long yawn.
Her face spasmed. ‘Half-breeds and dark creatures cannot be trusted for the same reason, dark magic affects them making them dangerous to their superiors. Things like werewolves, goblins, and veela influence all who consort with them.’
A ball of ice tightened beneath his ribs; it ground at Harry’s patience like the weight of a glacier, wearing it thin as paper. He clenched his fingers tight about the hot ebony of his wand..
‘Known dark spells to have this effect are of course spells like the Unforgivables. Those exposed to such magic become violent, amoral, and inhuman, influencing and perverting those around them until their infection can be purged. Sadly, such individuals often lead others very far astray from what could be considered proper behaviour, engaging in all sorts of lewd activities.’
We’ll have our revenge. Harry forced the glacier to fade into the endless void inside. Every insult now will make things sweeter. The more it hurts to have, the more satisfying it is to have it.
Ron’s jaw snapped shut with an audible snap. The tips of his ears and the back of his neck turned scarlet.
‘Do you have something to add, Mr Weasley?’ Umbridge’s tone oozed sweetness.
He’s going to explode.
The door creaked open and Professor Dumbledore stepped into the room. ‘I’m afraid, I need three of your students to come with me, Dolores. They will not be returning to the lesson.’
Two patches of pink appeared on Umbridge’s cheeks. ‘Might I inquire who and why, headmaster?’
‘You may.’ Dumbledore stood there with a serene smile on his face and studied the wall behind her.
‘Whom do you require, headmaster?’ Umbridge’s sweetness slipped.
‘Mr Weasley, Miss Granger and Mr Potter.’
Interesting. Harry picked up his bag, nodding to Nev and rising to his feet. But probably not good.
‘Why are you removing them from my lesson?’ Umbridge asked.
Dumbledore’s smile shifted into something stern. ‘I’m afraid that it’s a family matter, Dolores, and as you are neither their head of house nor the headmaster, I cannot discuss it with you, especially not in front of other students.’
A family matter. He grimaced. Ginny…
‘Follow me, please.’ Dumbledore led them to the stature that led up to his office. ‘Ice Mice.’
‘Is Ginny… okay? Hermione whispered. ‘Have you seen her?’
Ron clenched his jaw. ‘Shut up, Hermione.’
Mrs Weasley and all her children save Percy stood in the headmaster’s office. They turned sad, angry eyes and pale, drawn faces on Harry. Ginny clung to her mother’s sleeve, sobbing. Mrs Weasley patted her on the head.
‘Earlier this morning, while assisting the Order in guarding something very important, Arthur Weasley lost his life.’ Dumbledore’s tone turned quiet and grim. ‘He was attacked by Voldemort’s familiar, the serpent, Nagini, outside the Department of Mysteries. He died before help could reach him. I am very sorry for your loss. He was a brave, good man that we will all dearly miss.’
How many other brave, good people have died following you. Harry frowned. Why was his snake even there? Voldemort must be after something in the Department. That’s what the Order are guarding.
Quiet murmurs filled the office. Harry lingered in his corner and let the melancholy seep away into the abyss.
Dumbledore folded his hands on the surface of his desk. ‘I fear many of us will have to make terrible sacrifices to see Voldemort defeated.’
Meaning me, no doubt. Harry grimaced. Perhaps I should also get rid of whatever Voldemort’s after while I’m down there, instead of letting Dumbledore send people to die for it.
‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ he murmured, taking one last glance at the grieving Weasley family and Hermione and slipping back down the stairs.