It was midday, and most of the students at Hogwarts were at lunch or loitering in the halls, much more eager in the pursuit of entertainment than education. Generally, of course, they were being kept very busy. The professors at Hogwarts knew well that busyness was serious business. A bored student was a student who found trouble; a student whose schedule was packed with erratic class times, energy-consuming extracurriculars, and, of course, a generous dose of homework was a student with no time to be bored, and thus no need to misbehave. It was not a perfect system, but it kept incidents to a manageable minimum, and by the end of their first year, the students that needed extra attentive distraction made themselves clear.
Some, such as the unfortunate and newly declared Headmistress, Mme. Dolores Umbridge, thought rules were the solution. A pathetic sort of idealism, if one cared to be generous. She clearly had little experience in managing swarms of children armed with magic and imaginations when she began issuing her seventy-nine educational decrees.
Rules, as any long-term professor could tell you, were best kept to short and certain numbers. For example, the three cardinal rules of daily life at Hogwarts:
- Don’t go out of bounds or out of hours, unless with a professor.
- Don’t use spells on others, unless told by a professor.
- Don’t mess with magic you don’t understand, unless guided by a professor.
Short, to the point, and broad enough to cover just about any situation. When they did not, there was always the grand list, as found in Appendix C of Hogwarts, a History. Of course, among the professors there were also a handful of rules that went unspoken. Chief among those? Don’t tell students where to find the list of rules. Where there were rules there were loopholes, and in a school like Hogwarts, there were always students who would find ways to exploit them.
Professor Umbridge, in her pointedly brief tenure at Hogwarts, had taken to announcing her decrees (a glorified title for making legal matters out of pet peeves) at dinner and posting them outside the Great Hall, where they were slowly but surely wallpapering the stone around the notice board. Unfortunately for the Professor, her life of self-imposed estrangement from the muggle world seemed to have deprived her of some of its basic adages, such as Rules are made to be broken andWhere there’s a will, there’s a way.
Fred and George Weasley, two students to whom half of Umbridge’s decrees had been dedicated, observed them with crossed arms. The pair was tucked away in a window nook across the landing, not hidden but overlooked, as was their talent to be. Somewhere between decree number twenty-four—ALL STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS, SOCIETIES, TEAMS, GROUPS, AND CLUBS ARE HENCEFORTH DISBANDED—and twenty-eight—DOLORES JANE UMBRIDGE (HIGH INQUISITOR) HAS REPLACED ALBUS DUMBLEDORE AS THE HEAD OF HOGWARTS SCHOOL OF WITCHCRAFT AND WIZARDRY—their prankster’s pride had given way to spite. Every additional paper that had gone up in the three days since Umbridge's promotion had made them a bit angrier.
“You know what I’m thinking, George?” Fred asked.
George had an inkling. “Never tickle a sleeping dragon?”
“But is she the dragon, or are we?”
They chuckled and shook hands, as though making some sort of bet between themselves. Perhaps they were. With the Weasley twins, one could never be sure.
It was clear to anyone who knew anything of Fred and George—the whole school, that is—that Umbridge’s strategy was doomed to fail from the start. Perhaps that was why Dumbledore had not put an end to it before absconding Hogwarts. He was, after all, notorious for allowing fires to burn themselves out. In the previous five years, Dumbledore had declared but one major rule, and that had been bait more than anything else. Umbridge, on the other hand, had alongside her Decrees set Filch digging through his records for old regulations to reinstate, making contraband out of colorful hair accessories and turning skipping in the halls an offense punishable by three nights’ detention.
Then again, unlike Umbridge Dumbledore’s mind had been elsewhere, and it seemed to many of those who bothered with speculation that his expulsion from the grounds had actually been more convenient to the wizard than not. It was hardly responsible to go running off on some adventure, leaving behind his school-full of part-time wards in the hands of a truly abysmal babysitter, but he hadn’t exactly been keeping a close eye on them while physically present on the campus, either.
One of those wards, feeling very neglected and confused indeed, was Harry Potter.
Like the Weasley twins, Harry one of those students who often found trouble—though perhaps it would be kinder to say that trouble had a way of finding him—and so he couldn’t help having the whole school keeping tabs on him. Before he could even remember he had made the mistake of defeating the Dark Lord, an act which had imprisoned him permanently in the bedtime stories of magical children across Europe. Bolstering his unwanted legendary status, keeping tabs on the Harry Potter was quite simply a favorite pastime of the students and staff alike, as his life was decisively more exciting than most. There were several illicit betting pools running as to how soon the fateful boy would next face death, land himself in the hospital wing, prove the impossible possible, usher in the apocalypse, or at least earn another detention.
As such, it would surprise approximately no one that Harry was spending his lunch hour alone, in Gryffindor Tower, brooding. He’d become an accomplished sulk in the past year. Not that it was undeserved—most teenagers could sulk even in a true utopia, and Harry’s life was closer to ‘living hell’ than utopia. The student body, for the most part, understood that; they all had at least some sense that whatever had happened on the night of the final task of the Triwizard Tournament (a disastrous and of course Ministry-sponsored event the year before) Harry and the other Hogwarts champion had disappeared, and only Harry had made it back alive. If he hadn’t spent at least some portion of his time haunted by gloom, they’d have thought he wasn’t right in the head.
More so than they already did, that was. The papers claimed he was criminally insane, and now that he’d been reportedly caught leading Dumbledore’s secret student rebel army—well. Nine and a third out of ten students would have guessed he was brooding any time they were asked, with various degrees of snickering involved.
On that particular Thursday afternoon, however, Harry wasn’t worrying about the missing Headmaster or trying to forget the weight of Cedric’s lifeless body when he’d brought it home. No, currently he was stuck on something none of his peers could have guessed. Only one man knew anything of Harry’s current misery, and he, as a rule, would prefer Harry’s agony amplified.
It had all started the night before, when Snape had been called out during their usual occlumency ‘lesson’. These weekly encounters, which could accurately be compared to two rhinoceros charging into a solid brick wall for hours on end, were the only connection Harry had to anything related to the war, and yet they failed to shed any light on what was happening outside the castle and so entirely useless to him. When Snape left the room, Harry, in one of his brilliantly shortsighted moments, had chanced a look in the pensieve Snape used to store memories during their lessons. Why the professor used it, Harry had never thought to ask. What he had hoped to find—it hardly mattered: what he had found was a memory, and solid proof that every nasty thing Snape had said about his father for the past five years was at least somewhat true.
Harry didn’t want to believe what he’d seen. His father, James Potter, publically humiliating the disagreeable Professor back when the both of them had been Harry’s age? It struck almost too close to home. Snape had been defenseless, and James had jinxed him to hang upside-down in front of their classmates, robes leaving his bare legs and pants on display. And for what? Snape had been there, and the marauders had been bored.
Harry sighed and rolled onto his back. He’d already tried to convince himself that it had been some sort of trick, but couldn’t bring himself to really believe that. Snape had been mortified that he’d seen the memory—livid. And he had every right to be. Loath as Harry was to admit he had something in common with his potions professor, if it had been him, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to know about that, either. Least of all a student. Least of all the son of his tormentor.
The scars on Harry’s ankle from where Aunt Marge’s dog had bitten him, the one on his arm from when Dudley had wanted to know what would happen if he slammed his cousin’s arm in the door—Harry didn’t exactly go around showing them off. If the memory was real, Snape had every right to keep that private, which made Harry seeing it even worse.
If it was real.
Harry wanted desperately to get in contact with his godfather, Sirius. Sirius, who had been in the memory, who had been bored and said as much to James, prompting the whole incident. Sirius, who was one of the only adults who ever told Harry the truth about anything, who could probably put the memory out of his mind, if only he could contact him. He couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t. He wanted to contact Sirius, who was Sirius Black, who had a ministry bounty on his head and a penchant for risky behavior. Even if there was a floo he could use—Umbridge had all the fireplaces on lockdown after Harry’s last floo conversation—the Headmistress had an uncanny ability for showing up where she was least wanted.
Besides, the last thing Harry needed was for the ministry to find out he’d been in contact with a known fugitive. They were probably already debating having him formally tried for assisting Dumbledore. Not that he had. Dumbledore would have had to tell Harry what he was up to, for Harry assist.
That was it, though, wasn’t it? He couldn’t get in contact with Sirius, Dumbledore had run off and left Harry isolated at the castle, and Snape wasn’t exactly a font of information regarding the war—the war that Umbridge was hell-bent on convincing them didn’t exist. The Order of the Phoenix was up to something trying to fight Voldemort, but no one would tell Harry what.
He’d thought the pensive might have something—anything—that he could use. As for what he had expected to do with whatever information he gathered? Well, he hadn’t exactly had a plan. But he had thought he could do something.
Maybe he was as arrogant as Snape always said, not keeping his head down until Dumbledore returned.
Just like your father. Oh, that had so much more meaning to it now.
Now, left alone in the dark and distraught, Harry wanted to speak to Sirius more than ever. But every time he so much as considered it, he could hear Hermione’s obvious rebuttal ringing in his ears: It’s too dangerous, Harry! If Sirius is caught, he’ll surely get the kiss! He couldn’t even write a letter, because Umbridge was reading their mail, too.
Instead, Harry was left imagining how the conversation would go. Hi, Sirius; how are you; it’s been a few months; hey, I heard you and my Dad used to find it funny to hang kids by their ankles in front of the whole school, that true? Yes, he hoped that Sirius would be able to settle Harry’s mind, but he couldn’t imagine how. And even if Sirius could offer him irrefutable evidence that the whole thing had been some twisted plot of Snape’s, Harry would never be able to get the image of James Potter, bully, out of his mind.
Outside, the castle bells tolled, and Harry reluctantly rolled off his bed. He had Defense Against the Dark Arts to get to. Defense would have been his favorite subject—it had been the previous two years, when Hogwarts had mostly competent teachers—but now the class wasn’t worth attending, for even though she had been elevated to Headmistress Umbridge hadn’t deserted the role of Defense professor that she’d originally stepped in to fill. Merlin knows where she found the time; most Professors barely had a spare moment to get to grading, let alone dabbling in Headmastery. Somehow she managed to be an even worse Professor than she was Headmistress (she wouldn’t even let them use magic!) and Harry, outspoken as he could be, seldom made it through class without earning a detention.
Still, on this particular day Harry hoped she would provide the distraction he sorely needed. Unfortunately, going to class would involve meeting up with Ron and Hermione. He was avoiding them. That in and of itself wasn’t unusual for the sulking fifth year, but he was at it whole-heartedly that day, knowing that if he explained what he’d seen in the pensieve they’d both have questions he wouldn’t know how to answer. He’d hidden in Gryffindor Tower during lunch, claiming a headache. It had quickly proven a troublesome excuse; Hermione had started babbling on about practicing his occlumency or maybe going to see Professor Snape, even after he’d promised her it was just a result of not getting enough sleep. Ron had probably assumed he just wanted to take advantage of the empty dorm. There were five fifteen-year-old boys sharing their room in the tower, and some things went best unspoken.
Though he dawdled as long as he could without risking being late, sure enough when he reached the bottom of the stairs Hermione was there waiting for him. She was out of breath. “Harry! Professor Umbridge is doing bag checks!”
Harry’s hand jumped protectively to his bag, but he knew he didn’t have any of Fred and George’s joke products with him, and his invisibility cloak was up in his trunk. “Okay,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t have anything—”
“The D.A. Notes!”
Harry spun on tail, rushing up the stairs. If Umbridge found those, Harry would have no defense.
The Notes had been Hermione’s idea. Hermione had wanted Harry to take running Dumbledore’s Army (as their defense study group had oh so brilliantly called themselves), so she had advised Harry to write a list of everything they had studied and everything they had talked about studying in the future. With Hermione annotating it with references to their old, actually useful textbooks and Harry jotting down whatever he thought specific members would need to keep in mind, the notes doubled as a self-guided lesson plan, which they gave copies of to anyone who missed a meeting. Harry had been filling them out in his notebook for Defense, seeing as Umbridge’s mind-numbing lectures were practically his only free time between preparations for the upcoming OWL exams, occlumency lessons, and his near-constant detentions with Umbridge.
When Umbridge finally caught them only a few nights ago, Dumbledore had taken the blame and fled from the castle. The D.A. was disbanded; the Room of Requirements insecure. They couldn’t gather as a club anymore. Harry was sure he was going to have another month of detentions if Umbridge found the notes—if he wasn’t just expelled.
As he leaped up the stairs and back into the dormitory, Harry tugged the offending notebook from his bag. It wouldn’t be the best solution, but he figured if he just switched it out another…
Harry’s trunk proved to be in as much disarray as ever. He grabbed the invisibility cloak off the top and shoved it under his rumpled quilt, but everything else he tossed aside: books, tests and homework assignments marked in red ink, old clothes, his unused quidditch robes, sweaters from Mrs. Weasley, mismatched socks from Dobby, the charmed pocketknife Sirius had given him for Christmas. The Sneakoscope Ron had sent Harry from Egypt fell out of an old sock and started shrieked on the floor, only to be smothered by the whale-sized trousers Dudley had discarded that summer. Finally, beneath a handful of unread mail from the end of the Triwizard Tournament, Harry found his Defense notebook from the year before, filled with his nearly illegible handwriting. Shoving it into his bag, Harry ran back down the steps to the common room.
Hermione was waiting with the Fat Lady’s portrait propped open, craning her neck to peer up the stairs, when Harry came running down. They sprinted to the Defense classroom, slowing to a walk as they rounded the last corner and reaching the end of the queue just before the bell rang. Umbridge and Filch were checking each bag and had already confiscated what looked like several of Fred’ and George’s prank supplies, as well as a quill that was probably charmed to cheat or take notes and a copy of the Quibbler. When Harry stepped up, Filch snatched his bag and gleefully upturned it, dumping everything inside onto the table they’d set up. The caretaker barely caught a bottle of ink before it fell to the floor, and Harry’s good quill bent to a sharp angle as it was caught under his textbook.
Behind him, Harry could hear Hermione gasp, but he met and held eye contact with Umbridge until her smirk started to slip. Filch, it seemed, was disappointed in what his dramatic gesture had revealed, for he was checking the pockets of Harry’s bag, prodding a grubby finger into each one. At last Umbridge tore her eyes away from Harry’s and gave in to her obvious desire to rifle through his things.
She seemed to have a better sense of what she was looking for than Filch, at least, as she snatched Harry’s notebook and flipped through the pages, her tight smile growing thinner the further she got. When she reached the end of what Harry had used—‘Moody’ had been a practical teacher, so it was only about half-full—she stared down at his notes, her nostrils flared out, and brought her eyes back up in a beady glare.
“Mr. Potter,” she said in that grating, high-pitched voice. Harry had only been faking a headache before, but he hoped it was not a lecture day, as listening to her cloying tones would give him one in earnest, and nausea besides. “Where is your homework?”
Harry waited just long enough for the corners of her mouth to curl up again. “Marking the chapter in my book,” he said with false lightness. “Say, do you have a quill I could borrow? It seems mine is broken, and it would be so disappointing not to be able to take notes. You know, ‘cause they help the materials really set in, and all.”
Her eyes widened slightly, and Harry could see how she struggled not to glance down at his hand, where the hours of detention writing lines with her blood quill had carved I must not tell lies in his skin. But then she seemed to remember that there were twenty other witnesses around them, and she snapped his notebook shut, a wave of her wand enough to repack Harry’s bag, the broken quill returning to a rigid and unbent state. “Sit down. Miss Granger!”
Filch shoved the bag at Harry’s chest, and he stumbled forward into the classroom. Everyone was staring at him. Harry ducked his head and skulked forward, sliding into the open seat next to Neville, who jumped. Ron, leaning across the space left between them, mouthed, What was that?, but Harry just shook his head, and then the clicking of Umbridge’s heels grew louder behind them, and the door shut with a bang, and Hermione filled in the empty seat.
Harry, miraculously, kept quiet for the whole of class. He wasn’t sure what had gotten into him—well, he knew: he couldn’t help his mind turning back to Snape’s memories even as Umbridge droned on, but he wasn’t sure how it had manifested into this. Provoking Umbridge was a specialty of his. The whole lesson he could feel his classmates’ attention on him like he was some sort of bomb and they couldn’t see the fuse, only smell the smoke of it burning.
Is this what going to school with his father had been like? Had his classmates sat back, watching and waiting? Had they been safe in the knowledge that it was only Snape—it was only Umbridge—or had there been others? Had James been more like Snape was now, and preyed on whoever showed the slightest vulnerability? It was safe to say that Harry would never do something like what James had done, cruelty for the sake of entertainment, but he knew he could barely keep his mouth shut around Umbridge.
Of course, before this year it had always been Snape he would lose his tongue and temper with. Maybe Snape had been the same back then as he was now, hardly an innocent victim… but he hadn’t done anything, in the memory, and Sirius had been bored, and did it matter whether Snape was—well, was Snape or not?
The only benefit of these questions was that Harry was not paying enough attention to the lecture to get a headache from Umbridge’s voice. When the bell rang, he looked down at his notes. He had taken them automatically, and they were legible enough, but when Harry actually read them he realized he had somehow managed to write down only nouns. Whatever ‘green kappa cucumber snake basilisk library cat response’ meant, he had no clue, and he was unsure whether or not it had anything to do with the lecture. Professor Lupin had taught them against kappa and other magical creatures they might have to defend against in his third year, but Umbridge only mentioned creatures to remind them that goblins were not allowed wands because they were not human and werewolves and other ‘half-breeds’ were of pending status at the ministry and therefore ought to be handled like beasts.
That was normally where Harry would cut in, ruining whatever hope she had for getting through her lesson successfully. What she was teaching them was just wrong, in every sense. Beyond the outright bigotry, her closed-minded stick-to-the-book Ministry-knows-best methods were despicable to him, and Harry was never the sort to stay quiet, even when speaking out hurt him. Literally: detention with Umbridge meant using the blood quill to carve dogma into his hand. But he would rather make Umbridge’s life living hell than bend to the tripe she was feeding them.
Sighing, Harry closed his notebook and slipped it into his bag, tapping the half-dry ink off his quill into the bottle. The other students were streaming out of the classroom, eager to get out from under Umbridge’s oppressive thumb and back to their common rooms, or the quidditch pitch, or the library. Harry, not looking forward to any of these, hurried out anyhow.
Harry, holding back another sigh, turned around. He had hoped that he could slip out while Ron went off to quidditch practice and avoid Hermione altogether. He ought to have known she was more persistent than that.
“Aren’t you going to the library?” he asked.
“Yes, I have revisions for Runes to do, but Harry,” she looked around furtively and pulled Harry to the side of the hall. “I’ve been thinking—since there wasn’t anything else to do in that waste of a lesson, I just thought—we should finish the Notes. We could distribute them out, so everyone could carry on learning, even if we can’t meet anymore.”
“What?” Harry glanced back towards the open classroom door, where they could see the back of Umbridge’s gaudy pink robes. “If she found out she’d have my head put on display in the ministry foyer, or something.”
“Harry, that’s disgusting. I’m serious.”
“Look, it didn’t work, okay? We tried, but we failed. It’s over.”
Hermione shook her head, crossing her arms over her chest. “You think that just because Dumbledore’s gone it’s not worth trying to solve anything on our own?”
Harry winced. He’d spent all year wanting to do things on his own, but all the D.A. had accomplished was getting Dumbledore kicked out, and looking into Snape’s pensieve was only his latest mistake.
“Just, Harry… Promise me you’ll think about it?”
Harry replied with the noncommittal grunting noise that was beginning to dominate his vocabulary. Hermione just sighed.
“Do you want to come with me to the library?”
“No, I’m going upstairs.”
“Your head’s still hurting?”
“I’m just tired.”
“You really ought to go talk to Professor Snape.”
“Snape?” He felt himself recoil and tried to abort the motion, resulting in an awkward shudder. “Hermione, I didn’t tell you before, but… Snape’s discontinued the occlumency lessons.”
“WHAT?” Hermione shrieked.
Harry stiffened as every head in the hall turned their way. At least he didn’t see Umbridge in the doorway. “Hermione,” he hissed.
“No—Harry, you have to have the lessons. Remember what Dumbledore—”
Finally she noticed that they were drawing attention and grabbed Harry again, marching him towards the moving staircases that would (hopefully) take them up to Gryffindor tower.
“He says, you know, I’ve got the basics down, I can just study on my own,” Harry explained as they went up. He was lying through his teeth. Snape had never said anything remotely positive about Harry’s attempts at occlumency.
“Harry, you’ve said a thousand times that Snape is a horrible teacher!”
“He is,” Harry agreed. “So it’s better off this way, anyhow.”
“It is not!” Hermione snapped back. She was marching with such intent that they were already nearing the portrait of the Fat Lady. “You don’t even get your homework done if I don’t remind you—you know it’s true—and you’ve never really tried at occlumency—I’ve never seen you reading or anything—how could he possibly think that you could—Mibulus Mibletonia—keep up on your own!”
“Thanks, Hermione,” Harry said dully as the portrait swung open at the password and the witch pulled him through. “Look, you’ve not studied occlumency, have you? Snape’s the expert. If he says we’re done with lessons, we’re done with lessons!”
She spun on him when they were inside. “Harry, I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation!” she hissed. “If you can’t keep Voldemort out of your head, then—”
“Then what?” Harry demanded. “The next Mr. Weasley, we never find out?”
The common room was very, very quiet. Hermione turned her best prefect’s glare on the group of first years gawking at her and they fled, chatter starting up again as the few groups of students scattered about turned away.
“You know that’s not your responsibility, Harry,” she insisted quietly. “Dumbledore said that you need to study occlumency, and—”
“And Snape said we’re done.” Harry was growing impatient. Even if he was bending the truth, Hermione was ignoring him completely. “And he’s here, and Dumbledore isn’t.”
“Well I have half a mind to go down to the dungeons and give Snape a piece of my mind! You need those lessons.”
“Well maybe you should!” It was Harry, this time, who spun on his heel, wrenching his arm free of her bruising grip as he pivoted about to storm up to his dorm. “Since you won’t listen to anything I say!” He turned back again, registering her shocked expression and charging on. “Bet you’ll listen to him, won’t you. Oh, Professor, of course, how could I not see that. If only Harry had explained. Well, I am explaining, but you’re not listening to me, so bugger off, butt out, and leave me alone!”
With that, and the open-mouthed expressions of Hermione and everyone else in the common room, and his blood pounding in his ears, Harry started up the stairs to his dormitory, footsteps echoing angrily as his words against the stone.
“You know what, Harry?” Hermione snapped. Harry froze. He knew that voice. That was Hermione’s final straw voice, her shrill and past logic voice, her ‘I don’t know whether to cry or scream’ voice. “I have had it about up to here with you and your—your—your utter lack of maturity!”
He slowly turned to face her. On the other side of the room, Dean and Seamus, settling into their usual seats, were snickering at them. Hermione was bristling like an angry cat as she stalked forward to get level with him on the step, jabbing at his chest with a pointed finger.
“Everyone is trying to help you, and you’re brushing us off like you don’t need it. Fine! I’ll leave you alone, if that’s what you really want. It’s more than you deserve. I just hope when you finally get ahold of yourself you don’t come around expecting everyone else to help you!”
She spun on heel and thundered off, earning wolf whistles from the two boys—hastily aborted as she turned her glare on them.
Ginny Weasley, coming in through the portrait at a dangerous time, had to flatten herself against the wall to avoid being run through. She glanced around, greeting Dean and Seamus, and quickly found Harry, meeting his dumbfound look with a raised eyebrow and a jerk of her head towards the portrait slamming shut behind her.
Harry shook his head, biting his cheek. He didn’t need to get himself into trouble with anyone else.
“Oh, come on,” Ginny ribbed, moving lightly across the common room to join him at the base of the stairs. “You’ve got to give me something. The most interesting thing to happen today was Burbage calling in Umbridge to deal with a firework.”
The fireworks were Fred and George’s handiwork. They’d released hundreds of them in the school on Tuesday, and since then the magical creations had begun to breed, spreading through the castle and causing all sorts of trouble. They were relatively easy to deal with (once you had one cornered, a good thwack with a broom or hex was enough to dissolve it) but several teachers had sworn they just couldn’t get the knack of it and insisted on calling Filch or Umbridge to the scene.
“She—It’s just—Hermione—I…” Harry swallowed, not really knowing what he could say about what had happened. He’d rather say nothing at all. “I just can’t always… talk to Hermione, you know, about… things.”
Ginny glanced back at the portrait hole. “Dad would tell you to talk, not shout,” she said, rolling her eyes. “But she’s certainly single-minded about things. And Ron has the emotional depth of a brick.”
Harry would give his friend more credit than that, but he definitely did not think Ron would understand his current problems. He scratched the back of his head, tugging at his hair, and finally realized that Ginny was in her wet quidditch gear and should have been down at the pitch. “What are you doing up here, anyways? Don’t you have practice?”
“Well, it was a disaster, so we’re taking a break,” she said breezily. She sat down on the bottom step, and after a moment of shifting from foot to foot Harry followed suit on the third one. He wasn’t sure he wanted to talk to Ginny any more than he wanted to talk to his two best friends, but after Hermione’s accusations it didn’t seem right to just shake her off. The staircase was wide enough that they wouldn’t be in anyone’s way, even with Ginny’s long legs stretched out across the stone, her back to the wall as she faced him halfway, the trailing ends of her quidditch robes pooling on the floor beneath her.
“How do you mean?”
“Let’s just say that five minutes before we even started someone had half the pitch to himself and not a bludger in sight and still managed to knock himself off his broom. Angelina and Ron are taking him to the Hospital Wing.” Ginny huffed. “And that was our competent beater.”
They both cringed at that. Since Umbridge banned Harry and the twins from quidditch, the already hurting team had been outright disgraceful. “Which one’s the competent one?” Harry asked.
“Sloper. Comparatively. I still can’t believe, in practice yesterday…”
Harry let her go on, not really paying attention. His blood was still pounding from shouting at Hermione, and he pushed the thumb of one hand around the palm of the other, bouncing a foot. Had he really lost control like that? She hadn’t been listening, but that was just Hermione. Shouting at her never made anything better, and if he’d held his tongue in Umbridge’s class, he should have at least been able to argue without shouting…
Harry glanced at Ginny. She’d cut off her rant about Sloper’s ineptitude, and looked up at him uncertainly as she ran her fingers through her stringy wet hair.
“Sorry. I’m not really up for quidditch talk, Gin,” he said.
“Harry Potter, not up for talking quidditch. Call the press,” she said, laughing, but she didn’t quite seem sure enough of her sarcasm to make it work, and focused on extracting her fingers from a knot, lowering her voice. “You seem to be… really upset lately, Harry. Generally speaking. You’re not still on about that possession business, are you?”
Harry shook his head. She’d done a pretty good job of convincing him that he wasn’t being possessed by Voldemort back at Christmas, and thanks to the occlumency lessons he knew the dreams were some sort of mental link between them. He ground his teeth, trying not to think about occlumency, which might have worked if he were any good at it.
“Then it’s Cho, isn’t it. I mean, it’s just—you’ve known her for ages; if you just talk to her…”
“Cho…?” he echoed. To tell the truth, he had almost managed to forget about their disagreement the day before. Of course he was still angry with her—it had been her friend who had snitched on the D.A. and turned Dumbledore into a fugitive—frankly, though, the D.A. was proving more of a nuisance than a concern that day. “She—I don’t want to deal with her.”
Well, that wasn’t quite true. He wouldn’t mind being angry at Cho again, if only it would take his mind off everything else.
“Then what?” Ginny asked. “Because frankly, Harry, Hermione’s right. This is getting ridiculous. You spend almost as much time arguing with us as you do Umbridge.”
Harry glanced around the common room again. Aside from Parvati and Lavender, who were arguing loudly over a Witch Weekly article as if trying to get someone else to step in, everyone was absorbed in their books or chess games, or quiet conversations. Even the portraits had gathered together in one painting, seated around a round table and holding some sort of debate.
“I… I want to talk to Sirius,” he admitted, watching as a first year nearly upturned one of the lurking dangers of Fred and George’s expanding experiments, one of the several piles of packages near the fire that wobbled when anyone breathed too hard. Kenneth Towler, a seventh-year prefect sitting a few meters away and absorbed in a NEWT study guide, gave the girl a cool glance and went back to his reading. Their problems seemed so simple, compared to his.
“So,” Ginny said slowly, pushing her hair back over her shoulder. “Talk to him, then.”
“Ginny,” Harry said flatly, digging his nails into his palm. “I’d do anything to talk to him, but I can’t. Umbridge already caught us on the floo once this year. Two days ago she tried to get his location out of me—I think she tried to slip me veritaserum in my tea. And she’s screening the mail.”
“You’re going about this all wrong.”
“What? How am I supposed to get a hold of him—”
“You’re starting from the assumption that you can’t do something, and that’s a bad choice if I’ve ever heard one.”
Across the room, the portrait hole opened and let in a gust of cold air, and the wobbling pile collapsed, covering everyone around the fire in a cloud of fine pink dust. Kenneth, as pink as the rest of them, slammed his book shut and stormed out through the open entrance with curses for Fred and George on his lips. Most everyone else burst into laughter.
Ginny raised a hand and pointed at the chaos. “You think Fred and George would get anywhere if they listened when they were told what they can’t do? Hell no. They laugh in everyone’s faces and do it anyways. If talking to Sirius is going to solve your problems, then you need to figure out how to do it.”
“I can’t,” he repeated. “It’d get him arrested.”
“I’d like to see the Umbitch try,” Ginny said vehemently. “Actually, getting them in the same room together sounds great. We should do that.”
“Ginny.” Harry started to stand up—he didn’t want to listen to this anymore; it wasn’t helping at all—but she caught him by the wrist and tugged him back down.
“Sorry,” she said, searching his face. “Look, why do you need to get ahold of him?”
“I just—I just want to talk to him, you know?” Harry muttered. With the commotion, no one was paying attention to them, but Harry still felt his cheeks flaming as he tried to subtly scrub the frustrated tears threatening to escape his eyes. It was just the dust irritating them, surely. “It doesn’t matter. It’s impossible.”
Across the room, Ron came in through the portrait hole, no doubt to fetch his sister. He paused at the pink tinge to the room, and Harry tried to start up again, to get up the stairs before he was spotted, but Ginny’s grip was tight. “Nothing is impossible, Harry,” she said firmly, and used his arm to pull herself up before finally letting go. “We’ll find you a way.”
Harry shook his head even as he turned away, Ron having spotted them and given a little wave. “Have fun at practice,” he muttered.
“Harry,” Ginny tried again, exasperation in her voice, but he stormed up the stairs with listening, retreating back to the empty dormitory.
Exhausted again, he flopped back on his bed for the rest he’d been aiming at earlier and pulled the bed curtains closed around him. Ginny was one thing, but Ron was… well, as she had described him, sometimes. An emotional brick. He didn’t think he could face that.
At first, he found himself walking down a winding hall—not the hall of the Department of Mysteries, but a hall lined with the familiar stone walls of Hogwarts. No matter how he turned, the hall never ended; it seemed to go on for hours. He was walking in the shadow of the memory of Snape, who seemed not to notice that all the portraits had been replaced with mirrors, reflecting the book his hooked nose was crammed in back at him. There were other people reflected in the mirrors, too, faces Harry might associate with Hogwarts: teachers, classmates, some he didn’t know but wore the uniform black robes. When Harry caught his own reflection, he realized he wasn’t himself at all but rather the young James, and that Sirius was on his right, adult and very grim, and Lupin and Peter Pettigrew trailed behind, all just as he remembered them on that night in the Shrieking Shack two years before.
Finally Snape, nose still in the book, walked forward when the hall turned, straight into and through a mirror with backwards letters carved in it’s tarnished frame. Harry hesitated, trying to read what they said, for it was not the Mirror of Erised as he remembered it, but Sirius put his hand on his back to nudge him through.
On the other side of the mirror, they found themselves walking out of the Great Hall filled with desks, following Snape’s ever present back. When they followed Snape out into the sunlight, however, they all seemed to change, falling back into the memory. Harry stayed in the shadows, separating from James, who strode forward. Sirius, Lupin, and Pettigrew seemed to shed their age by stepping into the light, and they all waltzed laughingly on, settling on the grass under the tree James had chosen.
He didn’t want to hear what they were saying. He knew, of course, but he didn’t hear the words until James sprung to his feet and pointed his wand, shouting, “Levicorpus!”
Harry couldn’t take it: he ran forward. “Stop! Put him down!” As in the pensieve, no one seemed to hear him, but Snape’s glittering black eyes stared accusingly into his.
Another voice cried out: “Stop!”
Harry turned. It was Lily, jumping barefoot from the lake, red hair fanning out behind her as she barreled towards them, but as Harry watched, James, Sirius, and Peter turned into his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Marge, and Ripper the bulldog. Ripper charged past Harry, nearly toppling him, but when he managed to turn it wasn’t Snape in the tree, it was Harry: eight years old and clinging desperately on as the dog sunk its teeth into his ankle.
“Him,” he could hear Dudley’s unmistakable voice. Harry turned back, but it wasn’t an eight-year-old Dudley he was confronted with, but a fifteen-year-old, pale and cold, raising a shaking hand to point at Harry, as ghastly as he had been after the dementor attack in Little Whinging. Even as he watched, Dudley grew taller and narrower, until he had shifted into James again, as Harry knew him from the photos he had seen, but his kind face had turned as stony as Snape’s ever was. “Him.”
Aunt Petunia started shrieking.
“FREAK! WHAT DID YOU DO TO MY DARLING DIDDYKINS?”
Someone grabbed Harry and whirled him about. Everything else fell away but Lily—no, Ginny—who looked at Harry, that gentle, quiet, sad smile on her face.
“Nothing is impossible, you know.”
Thrown all at once back into Gryffindor tower, Harry leapt back—which failed to do anything but tangle his legs in his covers and knock his skull against the headboard. Harry groaned, rubbing at the tender spot and blinking up at the blurry figure indignantly.
“Oh Harry!” came Hermione’s most worried voice. “Was it—was it him again?”
“What…?” Harry fumbled about for his glasses, finding them on the side table. Night had fallen on Gryffindor tower, so he must have slept through dinner. “What are you doing in here, Hermione?” he asked as he found her face wide eyed and claustrophobically close.
“Harry, if it was another of—another of those dreams, you need to go talk to—Professor McGonagall, or Professor Snape!”
Harry blinked at her blankly and glanced around. The dorm was otherwise empty, but Ron was lingering in the doorway, extra pale beneath his freckles. It made Harry’s stomach twist. As far as Ron knew, the last time Harry had woken from one of his ‘Voldemort dreams’, Mr. Weasley had been bleeding out in the underbelly of the ministry. Of course, if could be that he was simply chilled from quidditch practice, since his hair was plastered to his face by the rain and there was mud splattered up his trousers, robes probably drying down by the fire.
“No,” Harry said firmly, meeting his friend’s eyes. “Just a dream. A normal one.”
Hermione didn’t look convinced, but Harry wrestled his legs out of the twisted bed sheets and slid out the side opposite her. He stretched, cracking his neck, trying to shake off the tension of that dream. A nightmare, really, just as much as he’d qualify any of the usual stuff. He’d always imagined Dudley growing up into a clone of Uncle Vernon, complete with an Aunt Petunia to dote on him, but now—the thought of Dudley growing up into his dad—or into Snape—or Harry growing into Snape…
“...and I figured we could all do it together… Harry?”
He tried to speak but was overcome with a yawn. At least he had a moment to try and push away the circulating thoughts. “Uh, homework? Sure. Let me just…” He glanced down at his trunk, still a mess from earlier. “Er… which class?”
Hermione just sighed, giving the haphazard heaps a disapproving glare, but her voice remained hesitant. “Charms, Harry; it’s on your revision schedule.”
For a moment, Harry stared at her, bleary-eyed, trying to figure out why she looked so nervous. She was twisting one of the curls falling over her shoulder around her finger, a habit she usually corrected. She’d accepted readily enough that Harry’s dream was a normal one, but…
Then Harry remembered their shouting match. He swallowed and looked away.
Luckily his charms books were on his nightstand, not buried. For once, Harry didn’t mind the prospect of homework: with Hermione focused on that, she wouldn’t be badgering him about occlumency and they wouldn’t have to follow up their argument. Besides, he didn’t think he’d be able to get back to sleep with that nightmare haunting him, so it wasn’t as if he had anything else to do.
Fate, however, had other plans for him. As soon as they managed to claim a set of seats tucked halfway under the staircase, Harry on a sofa and Hermione and Ron each in an armchair, two others joined them, climbing over the back of the sofa to slide in on either side of Harry and slinging their arms over his shoulders.
“Harry!” Fred said.
“Good man!” George added.
“We hear you have need…”
“…of some help breaking the rules!”
“Never fear. So long as the Umbitch is concerned, we’d do just about anything to rub her nose in shit.”
“Even if that means contacting a fugitive on the lam.”
Harry was confused until Ginny, out of her quidditch robes and small in one of Fred’s old Christmas sweaters, appeared, propping herself on the arm of Ron’s chair. He still gaped.
“I told you.” She smiled. It looked a bit like baring her teeth. “Nothing is impossible.”
Harry winced, half from the third repetition of the line and half from Hermione’s accusatory glare.
“Harry,” she scolded, though she still seemed hesitant to contradict him. “You know Professor Dumbledore needs to stay as far away from here as possible.”
“Not Dumbledore. I don’t have a clue where he is. It’s Siri—er, Snuffles. But I told you, Ginny, Umbridge will find out for sure.”
“Exactly.” Hermione seemed relieved that she was in agreement with Harry about this. “She’s got all the mail going through screening, you know? Who knows which of her ‘inquisitorial squad’ is reading it. And the floo is all locked down, too, and—”
“Not quite all the floo,” Fred cut in.
“There’s one that’s not being watched.”
“Heard her bragging about it to Filch.”
“How she can talk to the Minister any time.”
“Horrid thought, isn’t it? Imagine her calling up Fudge in her nighty…”
They were grinning, but Hermione shook her head. “Don’t be daft,” she said. “It’s far too risky to try to use hers.”
“Her office is all locked up, anyways,” Ron added, trying to yank his book out from under his sister. “How would you even get in?”
“The knife,” Harry realized. “S—Snuffles gave me a knife—can get through any lock. Could definitely get through anything Umbridge could cast.”
“Harry, no.” Hermione’s head was sinking, or her shoulders rising, and her eyebrows pushed together to carve lines in her forehead. “Professor Umbridge will catch you. What could possibly be so important that you would risk getting caught—getting Snuffles caught?”
The twins saved him from having to answer. “That’s the beauty of it, Hermione,” said Fred.
“What Harry needs is—”
“A diversion,” Ron finished for them.
“Exactly, dear brother. So the plan is this…”
“Tomorrow evening, just after supper, we’ll block off the whole Great Hall, except for one path…”
“…which we know leads to a trick passage in the dungeons, goes on and on no matter how far you go…”
That sounded familiar. Disturbingly so. Harry wondered if it was lined with mirrors, too.
“…where we’ll set off the big stuff.”
“You know. Boom. Umbridge will go running with Filch, and get trapped down there.”
“Snape isn’t going to warn her; she annoys him just as much as any of us.”
“And the brute squad is too dumb to realize.”
“Meanwhile, Harry here will be up in her office…”
“…chatting away with his beloved canine friend…”
“…and everyone will come away sunshine and rainbows.”
Hermione was unimpressed. “There are a hundred ways that could go wrong,” she said. “How, exactly, are you going to seal off the Great Hall? And what if Professor Umbridge doesn’t fall for your diversion? Or if she knows about this passage which, by the way, I’ve never heard of, and goes up to her office straight away?”
Harry felt the twins’ grips on his opposite shoulders tighten for a moment, but when he looked to his right Fred’s grin hadn’t slipped at all and was, if it was possible, even wider than before. He had the same halfway-feral look that Ginny had when she’d sat down. “Oh, Hermione; dear, sweet Hermione. You underestimate our bag of tricks. We didn’t say that was all we were going to do.”
“Dear Professor Umbridge is going to have one hell of an evening,” George agreed with low delight.
Harry wanted to agree, he really did, but the more he thought about it, the more it sounded like something his dad—the version of his dad that he’d seen in Snape’s memory, at least—would have done, and that was the root of the problem to begin with. Umbridge was a bully, it was true, and she deserved as bad as Fred and George could dole out. But there were still those lingering doubts lurking in the back of his mind. If Harry agreed to this, he’d be just as bad as—as bad as his dad. If Harry didn’t think Snape, who was about as awful a person as there was, didn’t deserve the sort of treatment he’d faced in the memory, who was he to say that Umbridge did?
“No diversion,” he said before anyone else could speak.
“Thank you, Harry.” Hermione brought her book pointedly up again. “So we can all put this nonsense behind us.”
“But Harry,” said Ginny, confused. “You said you’d do anything to talk to him.”
He shrugged. “We just don’t need to make a big production of it, is all. It’ll look suspicious.”
“Not to mention,” Ron added thoughtfully, “If Harry is missing when something as big as all that goes down, she’ll know. She’s always watching him.”
Fred and George were exchanging disappointed sounds over his head. “Come on, Harry,” Ginny said. “How are you going to be sure the Umbitch won’t come stomping in?”
He thought about it for a moment, but Ron spoke again. "We’ve got a gap tomorrow, ten until lunch. Do you have defense, Gin?”
She shook her head.
“We do,” the twins said.
“A double block,” Fred clarified.
“What do you have in mind?” George asked.
“Well, if you have Defense, then Harry doesn’t need to worry about that, because she’ll have to be in class with you.”
“That’s not enough to risk it,” Hermione insisted. “It’s not just these two causing trouble these days, and you know it. She could be pulled out of class at any moment.”
“Then we’ll just have to let Harry know as soon as she leaves,” George said, a bit shortly. The twins only had so much patience for Hermione’s rule-bound cynicism.
“I like it,” Ginny said. “More subtle than most of what we’ve been pulling.”
Ron gave her an odd look, but Ginny just rolled the hairband from her wrist and started braiding it. She had been helping out Fred and George with their pranks for years, as anyone who had seen her walking into the Gryffindor common room with a certain smug smile knew. It was unclear whether Fred and George had brought her into the fold following the disaster that had been her first year or if she had started providing it whether they wanted her to or not.
“And how exactly are you going to let him know?” Hermione snapped, clapping her book shut again. “Send an owl?”
“The D.A. galleons,” Harry said. He had his in his pocket out of habit, even though the D.A. was through, and fished it out to hold up. “It gets hot when you change the message. That’d be enough to warn me.”
Hermione opened her mouth to argue, but it had been her idea to pass the D.A. meeting times that way. She ground her teeth.
“Perfect,” Ginny said, pulling out her own. “Hermione, could you teach the rest of us the spell?”
“Well, yes, I could,” Hermione said. “But this is still a terribly risky idea!”
“I’m going to do it either way,” said Harry. He hadn’t realized he’d made up his mind until that moment, but when he spoke the words he felt himself committing wholly to the new plan. “But if you teach Fred and George the spell it’d go a lot more smoothly.”
“It’s a good plan,” George admitted, rolling his coin in the fingers of his free hand.
“But Harry,” Fred pressed. “We could—”
“I said no.” Harry shrugged the twins’ arms from his shoulders. “Look. I appreciate it, really. And if you don’t want to bother with the galleons, that’s fine too. I don’t want any of you getting in trouble for this. It’s not worth giving Umbridge the satisfaction.”
The twins deflated somewhat, but then they turned their attention back to Hermione, who reluctantly taught them the charm. She didn’t speak to Harry for the rest of the night, even when the twins and Ginny cleared out and left the three fifth years to sit up late together finishing their charms essays and then their transfiguration. In the end, Harry remained on his sofa far after Ron and Hermione had gone out on patrol, only moving up to the dormitory when Kenneth Towler came in and found Harry dozing on the sofa.
It wasn’t until the end of Transfiguration the next day, while everyone was finishing up a short in-class assignment, that Hermione finally caught his eye again. She tapped pointedly on her notebook, mimed turning the page, and started writing. After a moment, Harry looked down and flipped to his next page, where Hermione’s handwriting was appearing at the top, spelling out: You need to reconsider.
Harry nearly laughed, and ducked his head before Professor McGonagall noticed. Hermione, of all people, was passing notes in class; but of course she was doing it in the most complicated way possible just to lecture him for breaking the rules.
I’ve made up my mind, he wrote underneath. He wasn’t sure if that would work, but a moment later she wrote back.
You’re going to run into trouble.
Why didn’t you do this spell for the DA meetings
I did. This is another variation on the Protean Charm, but it wouldn’t have worked as well as the simple and subtle version we employed for the galleons. Like your plan, it would have been wholly impractical.
You already did your part, Harry wrote. So don’t worry about it. It’ll only be me.
Ron, glancing over his shoulder, nudged Harry like he wanted to add something, but the bell rang and their conversation was lost to the fray of chairs scraping across the stone floors away from desks. Harry turned to address Hermione out loud, but she had already shoved her things into her bag, and her hair was frizzing up with what he recognized as a particularly violent anger.
“I tried to warn you! Remember that when you’re expelled!” Hermione hissed, slamming the flap of her bag down as forcefully as she could. Harry turned to watch her storm out of the classroom.
“Blimey,” said Ron. “You’d think you’d told her you were marching out to face You-Know-Who on your own, or something.”
Voldemort, Ron, Harry almost corrected, just because Hermione wasn’t there to say it herself.
Filch came in through the door moments after Hermione stormed out, grinning horribly as he stopped students and probed their bags. Harry exchanged a glance with Ron. The invisibility cloak was in his bag, after all, and while it probably wasn’t a prohibited item (Dumbledore had been the one to give it to him, though that could mean anything) he certainly didn’t want Umbridge finding out about it. His knife, on the other hand, would definitely be confiscated. Harry wasn’t even sure if it was legal.
“Mr. Potter!” Professor McGonagall suddenly called. Harry looked at Ron again, who shrugged, turning to exit the nearly empty classroom. Harry moved to the front.
“Yes, Professor?” he said, not without a bit of quaver to his voice. He didn’t think he’d done anything she’d have heard about since the D.A. was caught Monday, but McGonagall had a knack for sensing trouble and could be trying to put an end to his plan before it even started.
“Take these and follow me,” she commanded, depositing into his arms a pile of books that nearly made him lose his balance. She grabbed another armful and marched purposefully past Filch, Harry trailing behind and narrowly dancing out of the way of the old caretaker’s swipe at his bag. McGonagall’s office was easily reached up a short stairway Harry had never taken before, and she led him inside, gesturing for Harry to deposit his stack on a squat armchair that sat in front of the desk. While he did so, she rounded the table and started gathering things for her next class, pushing her tin of biscuits toward him. Harry hadn’t spent much time in her office, but he imagined the tin was the same one she’d had at the beginning of the year when Harry had been sent to her by Umbridge for speaking out in class. “Biscuit, Mr. Potter?”
“Er, thanks,” he said, nibbling at one cautiously. “Was there anything else you needed?”
McGonagall looked up, and after a moment’s pause waved her wand towards the door. It remained open, but Harry thought he saw the telltale shimmer of magic stretching across the opening like a shield charm.
“Mr. Potter,” she said, sagging suddenly in the tall chair behind the desk. Harry blinked at her in alarm. “With Albus out of the castle, you cannot be too careful.”
“Er, yes, ma’am,” he agreed awkwardly. Did she know about his plan?
“Whatever you do, stay out of her grasp,” she advised warily. “Of course you have to attend her class, but do try to keep your head down, Mr. Potter.”
“I… I’m trying, Professor,” he said, and for once it was entirely in earnest. “Even she couldn’t complain at all about me in class yesterday.”
“I’m sure she would find something.” McGonagall’s voice was dry as she glanced up at him with the barest hint of a smile, but then she pressed her hands into the desk and slowly stood again, bending her body back to its usual rigidness. “I mean it, Mr. Potter. You’re on track to set the record for most detentions in a single year, and that’s only from one class.” She sighed as she added another book to the stack she was gathering. “Normally, at this point we would be taking steps to separate the two of you. Unfortunately, she has wormed her way into the headmistress position—” She cut herself off, glancing towards the door. “I’m afraid nothing short of You-Know-Who himself showing up in the middle of Diagon Alley will resolve this situation, and that would be far too costly.”
“Professor,” Harry asked suddenly, rubbing the back of his right hand with his left. “Hypothetically, if a Professor were caught trying to use veritaserum on a student without telling them, what would happen?”
“Veritaserum?” She raised an eyebrow. “That is a question for Professor Snape, Mr. Potter.”
Harry’s shoulders fell. He supposed he could get Hermione to look it up in the library. He knew it was illegal, but maybe that didn’t apply to Umbridge, as a Ministry official…
“Hypothetically,” McGonagall said after a long moment. Harry looked up and found her giving Harry a level look. “They could be arrested and tried for a number of different charges which, depending on which Professor it was, could range from possession and use of a controlled substance, interrogation without a warrant, improper investigation conduct, investigation against a minor without the presence of a legal advisor or guardian, and trespassing on the Hogwarts grounds following a violation of their contract. And probably a dozen or so more specific laws, depending on the case. I am not a legal professional, Mr. Potter.”
Nodding, Harry tucked away that information, unsure of whether or not he could do anything with it. Most likely not by himself. He wouldn’t even have a clue where to start.
“Hypothetically, Mr. Potter,” McGonagall went on slowly. “As Deputy Headmistress, it would be my duty to inform the appropriate authorities if such an allegation were made. However, without an appropriate amount of evidence, the investigation would be dropped, causing a great deal of stir without necessarily helping the victim or harming the accused. The ‘appropriate amount’ being declared by the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot which, as you know, is a role currently being filled in the interim by none other than Minister Fudge. Hypothetically, would you say the student you had in mind would have enough evidence?”
“No,” said Harry.
The first bell rang, and McGonagall picked up the stack of books she’d gathered. “You had better move along, Mr. Potter. If you are ever in a situation where you feel so unsafe, I would advise you to come find me immediately. But for goodness sake, keep your head down!”
Ducking into the toilet closest to McGonagall’s office and hiding in a stall, Harry pulled out the Marauder’s Map, Fred and George’s second contribution to this plan, since they had gifted it to him two years before. Black ink spread out from his wand as he whispered the oath: I solemnly swear I am up to no good. Harry peered down at it, following the names and trails of footsteps as they formed on the page.
Mostly students were getting settled in their next classes; he quickly found the twins in the DADA room, and Professor Umbridge nearby, stopped alongside Lee Jordan. The path to her office, which was a previously unused one on the second floor and closer to the traditional Headmaster’s office rather than the one connected to the regular DADA classroom, was mostly clear. Filch was still lurking outside the transfiguration classroom, where McGonagall was leading the students gathered outside in. He folded up the map without wiping it blank, shoving it into his bag.
Under the invisibility cloak, Harry’s trip was quick: most students avoided getting too close to Umbridge’s office if they could help it. Even easier was getting through the door. All he had to do was run the knife along the seam between the door and it’s frame, and it swung silently open. He hurried inside and closed it.
Making the call to Grimmauld Place should have been just as easy. A fire sprang to life in the hearth as the door opened, and a china bowl painted with pink bows held floo powder on the mantle. In his pocket, the galleon was cool to the touch. All he had to do was take a few quick steps—but he didn’t. He stood in the doorway for several minutes, until the class bell rang, startling him to nearly trip over the dragging bottom of the cloak.
Harry swore under his breath, rushing across the room. He didn’t have time to dawdle! He had committed to the plan and had to follow through. There was no time to let himself hesitate.
Ignoring the faint mewing of cats from Umbridge’s horrible office decorations and the temptation of his firebolt padlocked in the corner with the twins’ brooms, Harry took a small handful of floo powder from the dish, mindful not to spill any, and knelt on the hearth. He hated floo travel. Playing with fire was fine for wizards, but Harry had a muggle upbringing. This time it would only be his head he put through the fire, which was even stranger thought than usual. But he took a deep breath, hooked the hood of his cloak off his head, and grasped at the galleon in his pocket all at once, and with that he squeezed his eyes shut, cast the floo powder down, and shoved his head into the flames, calling clearly: “Grimmauld Place!”
When he opened his eyes again, Harry was greeted by the familiar sight of the dining room of his Godfather’s house. He blinked, getting used to the strange tint of his vision, and found the room had three occupants: Lupin, seated at the table but twisted in his seat to face Sirius, who was currently engaged in a sort of tug-of-war with Kreacher. He could hear the sound of Mrs. Black screaming in the hallway, but none of them seemed to be paying any attention to her.
“YOU BLASTED ELF!” Sirius was snarling.
“Sirius, please,” Lupin said, voice strained. “It’s just a photo. What harm could it do for him to keep it?”
“What harm—! It’s going in the bin! Better yet, the fire!”
“Master is destroying important heirlooms to the Most Ancient and Noble House of Black,” Kreacher wheezed, remarkably loudly for an elf of his age. “Master would replace them all with mudblood filth, Master and his wretched dog. Kreacher must protect the House.”
“Oh, for Merlin’s sake,” Lupin said, turning back around. When he did, he finally noticed Harry’s head in the fire and jumped from his seat. “Harry!” Behind him, his chair toppled to the floor, and Sirius turned in surprise. “Are you alright? What happened?”
Harry winced. “Er, I, uh, need to talk to Sirius. Both of you, I mean. But I don’t have much time.”
“Are you safe?” Sirius demanded. Kreacher took advantage of the distraction to pull with all his might, finally wrenching the picture frame out of Sirius’s grasp, the elf toppling over with the effort. Sirius rounded on him, jabbing his finger towards the door. “OUT! NOW!”
Kreacher slunk past the fallen chair, clutching the picture frame to the ratty pillowcase he wore and continuing to mutter to himself, but Harry couldn’t hear what he was saying. Nothing good, no doubt. In the hall, Mrs. Black’s screaming quieted, but before that and faster than Harry would have thought possible, Sirius and Lupin were racing across the kitchen.
“What happened?” Sirius repeated, sliding the last few strides on his knees to look down into the fireplace, scanning Harry like he expected grievous injury. “Are you alright?”
Lupin crouched beside him, looking just as worried.
“I’m fine,” Harry insisted. “It’s just— Umbridge is screening mail, and there’s something I needed to ask you about. I’m in her floo, so I haven’t got much time.”
He saw his godfather exchange a glance with Lupin, but it was too quick for Harry to read. “Fire away,” said Sirius.
Now that he was face to face with them, Harry wasn’t sure how to start. “Well… I’ve been studying occlumency, uh, with Snape, you see…”
The two men nodded as he trailed off. Sirius had been there when Snape told him about the lessons, but he wondered if Dumbledore had told everyone. More likely, Snape had been complaining about his lack of progress to the whole Order. Harry flushed. Luckily they wouldn’t be able to tell through the glow of the floo.
“Well, I… I made a bit of a mistake,” he hurried on. “Snape was out—there was an explosion upstairs, the twins—and I looked into—he kept a pensieve. I thought…”
He trailed off. He couldn’t bring himself to explain why he had looked into the pensieve now. It seemed foolish.
“You looked into Snape’s pensieve?” Lupin finished for him.
“Yes,” said Harry. “And I saw something that… it didn’t make much sense.”
Lupin and Sirius exchanged another glance. “Go on,” Sirius urged.
“It was…” Harry bit his lip. There was no avoiding it, and hadn’t he come here to ask? He was the one who’d gotten fixated on talking to Sirius, convinced it would help, and he’d gotten Hermione and all the Weasleys in on the trouble. “Just… it was a memory. Of Snape’s. From when he took his OWLs, and…” He licked his lips, thumbing the galleon, forcing himself to look at their faces as they dawned with recognition. “You guys were outside, and he wasn’t doing anything, and dad thought it would be funny…”
“Oh, Harry,” said Lupin with a sigh, settling back on his haunches.
“…and he, dad, he hung Snape upside-down by his ankles, and everyone laughed at it.”
“I remember that,” Sirius said.
“Just… why does one ever tell me these things? That my dad was a bully?” Harry managed to finish.
“I wouldn’t call James a bully, Harry,” Sirius said quickly. “Mean, sometimes, we definitely were a pair of little snots, but we were young, and stupid.”
“I’m the same age you were,” Harry pointed out, not sure how age was supposed to negate anything. “And mum seemed convinced. She hated dad. How could they end up married?”
Sirius laughed. It sounded a bit hollow. “Lily didn’t hate him. But James was a right prat around her. He was always chasing after her, but Lily couldn’t stand how immature he was. Rejected him for years.”
“He seemed like a bit of an idiot. With his hair. And that snitch.” The two men laughed a bit, which wasn’t what Harry was going for—“What changed?” he asked.
“He grew up,” Sirius said simply. “We all did. Never learned to like Snape or his nasty friends, though…”
“Harry,” Lupin took over. “You must understand—what we did wasn’t right, of course, but it’s not who we start out that makes us who we are. It’s how we grow and change, who we choose to be.”
Harry shifted his attention to the man. Suddenly more angry than before, he clenched his fingers more tightly around the galleon. “You didn’t do anything, in the memory,” he said flatly. “You were a prefect, and you just sat by and let them.”
“And I regret it. If I could change how I behaved, I would.”
Harry was unconvinced. “In third year, that day with the boggart, you knew Neville’s boggart was Snape. You let him make Snape into—in front of the whole class, you had him do that, and you knew it would get around.”
“Snape would be my boggart too, if I had him for a teacher,” Sirius grumbled. Lupin elbowed him sharply.
“I still have a good deal of growing to do, I guess,” Lupin said. “I’m afraid I went back to Hogwarts and fell back into my old patterns. I should have known better…”
“I told you before, Harry: the world’s not so clear cut in good and evil,” Sirius cut in. “Or good people and bullies. We were little shits, it’s true.”
“And being a good person isn’t a trait, it’s an act. Or a habit, really; an act repeated over and over again,” Lupin agreed. “Same as being a bad person. No one was born evil.”
“Even Voldemort?” Harry challenged.
The two men were quiet for a moment.
“I’m sure, at some point… Even Voldemort has probably done something selfless,” Lupin said hesitantly. “I’m afraid not much is known about the man behind the name.”
Harry thought back to his second year and the murderous diary of Tom Riddle. He somehow doubted Lupin’s sentiment—but that was off topic. Voldemort was definitely evil, no matter Sirius’s philosophy, but his dad…
“I just don’t get it,” he said. “How could you all be friends, if dad was… like that.”
“Well, I was just as bad,” Sirius said. “But—”
He was cut off by a loud crash in the hallway, and Mrs. Black started screaming again. It was Sirius who stood, using Lupin as an unsteady support, pulling out his wand as he hurried across the room. Harry stared at his back in disappointment.
“We were all just as bad,” Lupin said.
“Sirius was the one to urge him on,” Harry said darkly as his Godfather disappeared through the door. “It was Snape because… because he was there, and Sirius was bored. Were there others, too?”
Lupin hesitated again. “It was mostly Snape,” he admitted. That didn’t mean there weren’t others, Harry noted, a cold feeling settling in his throat despite the floo. “James and Sirius met him on the train, I think, and had it out for him from the first. What did he say, when he found out you’d looked?”
Harry winced. “He was angrier than I’ve ever seen him. Said the lessons were done. Threw a—”
“Done with the lessons?” Lupin echoed, straightening with alarm. “Harry, you have to continue. Promise me you’ll go to him. Apologize. Those lessons are the only thing—”
“Did you ever apologize?” Harry demanded. Maybe it was a low blow, but he was sick of people telling him to go back. First Hermione, now Lupin. Didn’t they understand that Harry had crossed a line he could never uncross? “Dad and Sirius humiliated him, and you just sat by and watched. You never even tried to stop them.”
Lupin looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Harry, it’s no excuse, but… I wasn’t exactly the most popular boy in school. Your dad and Sirius never judged me, not before they figured out what I was, and not after. And I—Harry?”
The galleon was burning in his pocket. Harry swore, glancing at the kitchen doorway, hoping in vain Sirius would come back through. “I have to go,” he said shortly.
Lupin nodded. “Harry, promise me you’ll talk to Snape. We can discuss this over the holidays, in person, but the lessons can’t wait for that.”
“Someone’s coming,” Harry said. He wasn’t about to make promises he couldn’t keep.
“Be safe,” Lupin said.
Harry pulled his head out of the fire, tugging up his hood with one hand as he pulled out the map with the other. There was hardly anyone in the halls, so Umbridge wasn’t hard to find. Nearly overlapping with her name was that of Colin Creevey.
They were still far enough away that he dared open the door to escape her office, and managed to get a safe distance from her office before she came into view. Sure enough, she had Colin by the ear, his camera in her other hand and a firework chasing after them, and was soon dragging the boy up the step and through the door.
“Sorry, Colin,” Harry whispered as he fled.
For the second day in a row, Harry decided to skip lunch, going up to the owlery where he was sure to be alone with all the rain, only to find a gate with heavy iron bars and a slot that would take mail to Umbridge to be searched. He couldn’t see Hedwig inside, either, so he didn’t bother to break in with the knife. It wouldn’t be worth it.
Harry wandered around inside for a while, but the usual haunts were inaccessible: when she got out of class Hermione would be in the common room or the Library, and Harry didn’t want to face her; the hallway that housed the Room of Requirements had been sectioned off; the house elves probably reported to Umbridge if anyone went in the kitchens now, and Harry didn’t think he could face the excitable Dobby’s particular brand of enthusiasm, anyways. In the end he found an empty room near Ravenclaw tower, too small to be a classroom but not used for storing anything, and settled down on the wide window ledge that took up the wall opposite the door. There were papers spellotaped to the walls here and there. The closest cluster looked like alchemy or runes homework, but the ink was faded and the pages yellowed and Harry wasn’t curious enough to take a closer look. He looked instead down the green slope. At the edge of the Forbidden Forest, third years were huddled in groups over flobberworm boxes, small dots of black next to Hagrid’s lumbering form. Beyond that, the forest stretched out into the hills, where it blurred into the gray of the rain.
Before he knew it, the bell was ringing for the three PM class change, and he had to race down to the grounds for his turn at the flobberworms. Ron raised an eyebrow when he came skidding to a halt in the mud, robes hiked up to his knees, but they weren’t about to have a conversation anywhere Malfoy could hear it and Hermione was ignoring them anyways, so they spent the hour trying to coax the flobberworms to eat more lettuce. One spit a glob of mucus onto Neville’s face, much to the Slytherins’ amusement and Lavender’s shrieking disgust, so he got to claim the most misery, but by the time their two hours were up the whole class was soaked through from head to toe.
After class, Hermione and Ron split off without Harry needing to slip away, Hermione to the Library and Ron to another try at quidditch practice. Harry returned to the common room and found himself at a loss. For once he thought he’d rather not be alone. Talking to Sirius and Lupin hadn’t provided the closure he’d hoped for and Harry wasn’t looking forward to dwelling on it any longer.
Instead, he took a free armchair next to Fred and George’s teetering piles and dug in his bag. He didn’t want to deal with Defense and didn’t think he could focus enough for Transfiguration. The only other textbook in his bag was for Potions, and he pulled it out, a furrow forming between his eyebrows as he considered the book.
When Harry had first started at Hogwarts, he had been excited for Potions. It had sounded like cooking to him, and he had been cooking since primary school, so he’d thought in that class at least he might be on par with the kids who’d been around magic all their lives. Snape had squashed that hope within minutes of the first class, and it hadn’t gotten any better since. He could count on one hand the number of ‘A’ grade potions he’d brewed that year, and he’d never earned an ‘E’ or an ‘O’ on an assignment.
He flipped through the book, looking at the different potions they’d already tackled. This one he had failed because Snape had made Hermione cry, and Harry had been so livid his hands had been shaking. That one, Crabbe and Goyle had been shooting spitballs across the room whenever Snape’s back was turned, and all the Gryffindors had been marked down for improper brewing. One, Harry’s hand had been so injured from detention with Umbridge he hadn’t been able to both stir and add ingredients at the same time.
Some of them he thought were just impossible. He still wasn’t sure how he was supposed to be able to chop ingredients and stir at the same time, which was necessary for one potion they’d been required to make alone. And the memorization and theoretical coursework—no, he couldn’t exactly claim he deserved better than he got on that. But the brewing itself? It always seemed like there was something preventing him from succeeding; Snape breathing down his neck with insults or Malfoy stirring up trouble. If it weren’t for the Slytherins, he thought he might have stood a fair chance.
He didn’t have any proof, though, and what did it matter, anyways?Harry sunk back into the armchair, letting the book settle on his chest and putting his feet up on the low table in front of him. Sure, Snape was horrible. Sirius claimed his dad had grown up and out of their bullying phase, but Snape, apparently, had grown up and into one. Was that their fault? Or was that just what Snape was bound to turn out like?
And what did it mean for Harry? If people who were bullied grew up to be bullies, did that mean every one of Snape’s Gryffindor students would turn out like he did? Even if Sirius was right about James, was Harry going to grow into bullying instead?
He shook his head and shifted in his chair, forcing himself to sit up and not sink any further into his dismally spiraling thoughts. It was the one time he had something worse than his Potions homework to think about, so he picked up the book again, flipping forward to the appropriate page, figuring he might as well get started on the pile Snape had assigned for the Holiday. He quickly realized he had no clue what it was talking about and flipped back to the beginning of the chapter, which he was supposed to have read earlier in the week, and began with that instead.
It was boring, and Harry had to read most everything twice to process it at all, but he wasn’t thinking about the memory. He was actually so focused that when Hermione returned to the common room, he didn’t notice her until she dropped a bag on the table in front of him.
“What are you doing?” she asked as he jumped.
“Really?” She looked absolutely bewildered, blinking several times—it was the day before the Holiday started, after all, and normally she’d be hard pressed to get him to start before the last Sunday before class. She leaned over and peered down at his book. Harry resisted the urge to press it into his chest again so she couldn’t read it. “You’re doing your reading ahead of time. For potions.”
Harry shifted under her look, trying to reclaim the comfortable position he’d had before she interrupted him. It wasn’t like he could blame her for being skeptical, but she could very well see that was what he was doing and didn’t need to make an event of it. “I thought you were going to the library.”
“I was and I am. You could come with, if you’re doing homework.”
He shook his head, hoping it would make her go away faster. “I’m fine here, thanks.”
She studied him for a long moment, lips tight, and finally gave a stiff nod, jerking her hand towards the bag on the table. She didn’t make any effort to show him what was inside. “Well, I brought you these. But before I go back—Snuffles?”
“What did you figure out?”
He looked back down at his book. “It’s not important.”
“Harry, you risked expulsion. ‘Not important’?”
“You didn’t care this morning,” he grumbled. “Can’t you lay off? I needed to talk to him is all, and I did, and that’s it.”
Hermione snapped her hand back to her hip. “Oh. Glad to know it was worth it to go against my own judgment and spend my time helping you with something that was ‘not important’.” Her nostrils flared, and Harry got the impression that she was the one trying to keep her voice level. “You know what? I’m done. I’ve made enough excuses for you the last few days, and I’ve gotten yelled at, ignored, guilt tripped, pushed away—we have OWLs coming up and I have enough to worry about without trying to deal with you. Have fun revising by yourself, Harry. I’m done.”
Harry gaped, each of her words dropping on him like a sledgehammer striking his gut, but this was Hermione. Even when Ron had ignored him at the beginning of the Triwizard Tournament she had stood with him.
“Hermione,” he said before she could leave. “Look—it’s personal, okay. I really don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, what do you want to talk about, Harry, because you never—no. You know what? No. I’m going back to the library.”
“No. I said I’m done.”
For the second time in as many days, Harry was stuck staring at Hermione’s back as she stormed out of the common room. Lee Jordan, coming down from the dormitories to fetch something from the pile of experiments Harry was seated by, laughed. “Trouble in paradise, Harry?” he asked.
“Something like that,” Harry muttered, sinking back into the seat again. Lee snickered, carefully pulling the box he was retrieving from the middle of the stack. It sloshed as he moved it. Despite the wobbling, somehow the tower did not topple, and Lee quickly retreated back up the stairs.
Hermione had left her bag on the table. Harry scowled at it. Just more proof she’d gone out of her way to help him—not that he’d asked for it! He didn’t even know what was in there. He hooked the handles of the bag with one foot and pulled it towards him, leaning forward to peer inside once it was close enough.
Books. Of course it was books. It was Hermione, and she had been in the library. He sighed and pulled them out, the first covered in fading black cloth unmarked except for a silver lattice pattern around the edges and the letters “M.B.” stamped into the spine, the second a plain looking book titled Succinct Secrets of Mental Mastery, by Anant Anand.
Frowning, he pulled it into his lap, setting it atop the potions text. It had the soft corners and battered appearance of a book well-used, though flipping through the pages the dense text made Harry’s head swim. Hermione, never one to write directly in books, had nonetheless annotated certain sections with scraps of parchment tucked between pages, her cramped handwriting familiar from years of doing homework together.
Harry sighed, closing the book. Annotating it must have taken hours—and he’d only told her yesterday his lie about studying occlumency on his own! She must have been working on it beforehand—but when? Hermione had the most gridlocked revisions schedule of anyone in the school. Another thing to thank her for later, if she was speaking to him again. If he was speaking to her.
As he stretched to put the book back in the bag, one of the little scraps of parchment fell out, fluttering to the floor. He set the book down and bent awkwardly until he could reach the note, snatching it up before it could slip between his fingers, his momentary triumph a quickly fading spark as he wondered what to do with it. He wouldn’t be able to tell where it came from to put it back where she’d intended it to be. He settled back into the armchair again, flipping over to read what she’d written:
It doesn’t mean you aren’t to feel at all. It just means you set things aside and get on with protecting yourself. Just because you’re angry or confused or upset doesn’t mean life is going to come to a convenient standstill while you sort it out. You have to keep moving forward, no matter what memories pop up.
Harry stared at it until Hermione’s handwriting started to blur, and let his hand fall into his lap. Whatever it was referencing—clearing his mind, he assumed, since that was the only thing Snape had ever told him to do for occlumency—it hit a little too close to home.
The note crumpled beneath his fingers.
Was he becoming like Snape, or his father? His father or Snape? James had humiliated Snape in front of everyone, but Snape had called his mother—his defender—a mudblood. He looked down at his hand again, wondering where all his anger towards Hermione was coming from. She had done so much for him, and he…
Beneath his hand, the potions book seemed to mock him. He ground his teeth, tension snapping.
Throwing the book out of his lap might have seemed to Harry the least violent expression of his frustration, but it very quickly proved to be a poor choice. There was nowhere for it to go but straight into the tower of experiments which, as they had the day before, crashed to the floor with a great burst of dust, this time swirling in silver clouds, reflecting every color in the room in the moments before Harry had to close his eyes to it. In his mouth it tasted slightly sweet, but it coated everything and made him choke with the sudden dryness of his throat. Around him, he could hear his housemates grumbling over their own sneezes and coughs. It wasn’t until he heard the laughter start that he opened his eyes again.
He was met with gray, as the dust coated his glasses. He swiftly scrubbed them clean with the fold of his robe and shoved them back on his face. Strangely, the sight that met him felt more like a Weasley family reunion than anything: everyone in the room, from Dean Thomas to Dennis Creevey, bore a smattering of freckles across their face and red hair atop their heads. It was a peculiar sight indeed, and, even more amusing, the laughter summoned the twins themselves, who looked down from the stairs onto their newly redhead peers in delight.
Harry stood, and use the sleeve of his robe to wipe a circle clean on the closest window. He couldn’t help but stare at the face reflected back at him. He looked… not like Harry Potter, that was certain. The freckles on his face were so dense he could hardly find his scar, and his black hair had lightened to a coppery red.
Laughter bubbled up in his gut, even as he felt Fred and George throwing their arms around his shoulders. He couldn’t stop, and soon they were laughing too, though probably more because of the uncanny resemblance between the three of them. Then Kenneth Towler the seventh-year prefect came in through the portrait, and as his face went slack and his eyes grew wide everyone else started laughing again, and the twins released Harry as they rushed off to pester their less-liked dorm-mate.
Harry, regaining himself, tugged his robe off over his head, leaving him in jeans and a ratty t-shirt, and watched with fascination as more of the dust settled on his arms and the skin bloomed with freckles before meeting his own eyes in the window again. He didn’t look like James Potter. Maybe a bit more like Lily, with the red hair, but he didn’t mind that comparison so much. It was proof to him, something he knew he should have already understood but hadn’t: no matter how much he normally looked like his dad, he was irrevocably his own person. He would never do what his dad had done in Snape’s horrible memory, and he’d be damned if he grew up anything like the git Snape had become either. Not if he had anything to do with it.
Still, as he sobered some he had to accept that the facts remained: he had been terrible to Hermione, and she’d had every right to storm out on him as she had. He would have to make it up to her. He would go to the library and apologize—no, too soon. He would read the books, and…
He considered what else he could to as he retrieved his potions book and gathered the rest of his things to take upstairs. In truth, he wasn’t sure what more he could do than hope she would forgive him and try to stop losing his temper. He still wasn’t going to tell anyone what he’d seen in the pensieve. His own confusion and shame aside, it wasn’t his memory to share. That also ruled out explaining his conversation with Sirius and Lupin. As he’d told her, that was personal, and it had been her choice to teach the twins to activate the galleon.
That left only one of their recent arguments he could concede on: the D.A. Notes. Considering what she had just given him, finishing the Notes was the least he could do. Really, it would be creating more work for her, as Hermione would insist on going through and annotating them with external sources, and Harry wasn’t sure anyone would actually want them. But if it made Hermione happy, he would do it.
The main trouble was finding them. That morning Harry had shoved everything he’d indiscriminately thrown about his bed back into his trunk in one great heap. It was exactly how he had left it, and Harry grimaced at the mess. He set the bags and his robes on the bed and levitated the trunk up beside it. He would have to sort through it to find the right notebook. Hearing Dean and Seamus coming up the stairs, laughing about Dean’s bizarre new look, he settled himself on the covers, drew his bed curtains closed, and began to empty the trunk.
It was amazing how much stuff had accumulated over the past five years. Harry never left anything at the Dursleys, knowing either Petunia would throw it out or Dudley would destroy it, so he had five years of textbooks, quills, scrolls, clothes, gifts, odds and ends, and rubbish gathered. Near the top of the pile, just under a Weasley sweater, the sneakoscope was still shrieking, and Harry quickly fished out one of the mismatched socks Dobby had given him to stuff it in. He set it aside and started pulling out his extra clothing, which took up most of the space, folding it with the quick hands of a child who had done chores his whole life, building little stacks around him. His quidditch robes, the dress robes he had worn at the Yule Ball the year before, and Mrs. Weasley’s sweaters were the only among them he really valued. The rest were poorly fitting hand-me-downs he saved for summer chores and robes that were far too short for him now; his regular clothes were separated out into the dormitory closet with his school robes.
With the clothes sorted, Harry turned to the rest of the trunk. He needed to get the books into some sort of order, but first he would have to work through everything else. It would give Hermione time to cool down before he apologized, he supposed, and he still hadn’t found his notebook. Sighing, he gathered the unread stack of letters from the Triwizard Tournament.
Several of the envelopes only had his name on them, so they had to be opened to make sure they weren’t anything important. Mostly, they were filled with exactly what had stopped him reading them all in the first place: congratulations for winning (as they had just known he would do all along), demands that Harry write them personally explain exactly what had happened (even when they were complete strangers), requests to borrow his earnings (never mind that he had given them to Fred and George when the Diggorys had refused them), and so on.
It was a troublesome task, and Harry was soon itching to give up and toss the whole lot of them into the fire. But one envelope caught his eye. It was somehow different from the rest. The handwriting that displayed his name in capital letters seemed familiar, though he couldn’t place where he recognized it from, and like the book Hermione had brought him it had the worn appearance of something old: a flattened crease where it had once been folded, corners dented, the whole thing yellowed and faded. When he flipped it over, he found it sealed with an unstamped glob of what looked like candle wax, and in the corner a date: 23 June 1995.
Harry frowned. The final task had been on the 24th, so had this letter had been sent before he ‘won’ the tournament? Before Cedric had died, and Voldemort had been reborn? Impatience forgotten, he broke the seal, surprised by the little shock of magic up his arm that must have come from a sticking charm holding it together. He pulled out the letter inside, a single piece of parchment, and unfolded it.
It proved disappointing. The letter was illegible, between the messy handwriting, ink splatters, and what looked like water damage. He held it close to his face, squinting, but it seemed to be getting worse, letters jumbling and the ink swirling, and—
Harry swore and let go, scrambling back, staring at the page in horror. The words disappeared slowly, ink bleeding until they faded away, and he was terribly, horribly reminded of a similar sight: Tom Riddle’s diary, which had nearly killed Ginny Weasley in his second year. He grabbed his wand out of his robe pocket and trained it on the letter, expecting the worse.
The worst didn’t happen, though. Nothing did. Within a matter of seconds, the ink was completely gone, leaving behind a crisp, clean, and more importantly completely inanimate sheet of parchment. That did not stop Harry from staring, though, wand held like he expected the specter of Lord Voldemort’s youth to rise up out of the page. He was still sitting there on his bed, folded clothes settled around him, the faint whistling of the sneakoscope coming from the sock by his left knee. Everything but the letter seemed exactly the same.
In fact, Harry might not have noticed any sign of change at all had he not suddenly been thrown back in an explosion of white light.