A Sensational Story
Author's Notes: No excuses for the delay. I hope you enjoy reading this chapter as much as I enjoyed writing it.
As always, massive thanks to White Squirrel for beta-reading this chapter.
Disclaimer: Recognisable portions in this chapter have been taken from the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. I neither own nor intend to make any profit from the use of Harry Potter and the associated characters of the series, in my story.
Chapter 6: Sprout
When the occupants of Hogwarts castle woke up on Tuesday morning, they were looking forward to half a day of excited reading of Harry Potter's second year at school, and another half day of lessons with their new teachers. Some of them had settled in surprisingly well; most noticeably, Professor Shacklebolt and Professor Tonks were being talked up by all those who had attended their classes yesterday afternoon.
Not one of them anticipated the news that was splashed across the front page of the Daily Prophet that morning.
MINISTER FOR MAGIC ASSASSINATED – MINISTRY OF MAGIC PLUNGED INTO CHAOS
'How did this happen?!'
'He's the Minister for Magic – he's supposed to have top-rated security by his side at all times! How did they get past them?'
'Was it You-Know-Who?'
'Maybe it was Umbridge!'
Whispers and rumours spread across the Great Hall as the students and staff of Hogwarts perused the article with great interest and fear. The ambiguous nature of the Prophet's reporting – no signs of forced entry at his Wiltshire residence, no Dark Mark found above his home, wife away on vacation, DMLE still undertaking investigations – only fuelled the wild speculation that built up around the incident. Indeed, by the time the Ministry contingent arrived for the day's reading, the theory was that Fudge had battled bravely with You-Know-Who and ten Death Eaters before dying like a hero.
Ron snorted loudly when he overheard an enthusiastic second year Ravenclaw tell his Gryffindor classmate about this theory.
'That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, and we take Divination with Trelawney.'
Harry wasn't paying much attention to Ron. He had finished reading the article – choosing to ignore the obituary that someone had already written about Fudge inside the Prophet – and was now staring at the photo of Fudge from some years previous. He was twirling his lime green bowler hat in his hands and was smiling jovially up at Harry.
'Who would want to assassinate Fudge?' he whispered to Hermione.
'Umbridge? Or maybe You-Know-Who wanted to make a statement,' said Ron, still chuckling at the theory.
'I can't see Umbridge pulling this off,' said Hermione. 'It's convenient for her, of course. She had the most to lose from Fudge's trial. She would have been sent to Azkaban straight away if Fudge came clean on everything. That's the most glaring motive.'
'But isn't she supposed to be under strict observation at the Ministry until her trial?' asked Harry.
'Yeah, she is,' said Ron. 'She can't have murdered Fudge, then.'
'If it's not Umbridge, it's got to be Voldemort – get a grip, Ron – or a Death Eater on his orders,' said Harry.
'That does seem to be the most plausible explanation,' murmured Hermione absent-mindedly. She was staring up at one of the high windows of the Great Hall, lost in thought. 'Why, though…'
'He must have done a lot of questionable things while he was the Minister,' said Ron. 'If you think of it that way, anyone who stood to lose from his trial would have wanted him out of the way.'
'That's all well and good, Ron,' said Hermione a little irritably, 'but how do you explain them eluding Fudge's security detail and assassinating him?'
'I dunno, do I? I didn't do it,' retorted Ron with a hiss.
'I still think it's Voldemort or his Death Eaters,' said Harry stubbornly. 'Maybe a Death Eater who stood to lose a lot if Fudge came clean. Someone who had access to the Minister without suspicion, who knew their way in the Minister's home, and head…'
He trailed off as his train of thought led him to a startling revelation.
There was a Death Eater who would stand to lose a lot from Fudge's trial. A Death Eater who knew the Minister personally; who spent time with him often enough to not arouse suspicion when making a house call; who had access to the Minister from a terribly unique and important position…
'It was Luci –' began Harry, but he was interrupted just then by Madam Bones' booming voice echoing across the Great Hall.
'Good morning! Before we commence the reading of today's quota of chapters, I would like to make an announcement.'
Everyone in the Great Hall ceased talking, muttering, whispering, or using their cutlery at once.
'As many of you are now aware, Cornelius Fudge, our Minister for Magic, was found dead in his home in Wiltshire late last night. The DMLE is currently conducting its investigations and will let us know if they have found anything. In the meantime, we urge the magical community to remain calm and vigilant, and to not spread any rumours or theories about the incident. Also, anyone with any sort of information is encouraged to provide details to the Ministry of Magic. Owls may be addressed to the Head of the DMLE for this purpose. Thank you.'
'Who's going to be the interim Minister?' came a shout from the Hufflepuff table.
'The Wizengamot is considering a few people at the moment,' replied Madam Bones. 'They will communicate their decision shortly.'
She looked around expectantly for any further questions; when none came, she nodded to Professor McGonagall and retreated to her seat.
'Thank you, Madam Bones,' said McGonagall. 'We shall commence our reading in five minutes, once everyone has finished their breakfast.'
As the school returned to the last few morsels on their plates, Hermione turned to Harry. 'What were you going to say earlier?'
'I think I know who did it, although I don't have any proof,' said Harry quickly. Ron, who was chewing on a last bit of bacon, looked around quickly to see if they were being overheard, then leaned closer to listen.
'I think it was Lucius Malfoy.'
Hermione and Ron stared at him.
'Lucius Malfoy? But why – oh!' Hermione gave a soft gasp as her eyes widened in realisation.
'Wait, what? What do you mean?' asked Ron impatiently.
As Hermione leaned over to explain, Harry looked back down at Fudge's picture. So, Lucius Malfoy thought of getting rid of Fudge to save his own skin. Fudge would have had information about loads of 'beneficial donations' made by Malfoy, and the 'favours' he would have called in from Fudge. Malfoy wouldn't have wanted that out in the open, not when he was this entrenched within the Ministry and this crucial to Voldemort's plans. The question was, did he do this on his own? Or did Voldemort ask him to do it?
'I don't think Voldemort – stop it, Ron – would have asked him to do it,' said Hermione, and Harry started slightly. He had apparently voiced his last question out loud. 'If that was true, the Dark Mark would have been found over his house, and the Prophet says there was no sign of the Mark there.'
'Maybe You-Know-Who didn't want it to be traced back to him,' said Ron thoughtfully. 'Maybe he's still trying to keep a low profile.'
'What would that achieve?' asked Hermione.
'More confusion, I'd think,' said Ron. 'Even if the Ministry says he's out there, if he doesn't do anything that attracts attention, people might not believe the Ministry stand anymore, would they? They'd wonder if the Ministry is telling them the truth. That would make it easier for him to do whatever he wants, because there's so much distrust everywhere.'
Hermione stared at him for a full twenty seconds, causing Ron to frown at her worryingly.
'D'you know,' she said slowly, 'that might actually make sense.'
Ron didn't know whether to look proud or grumpy at that. He settled for a half-frown and a shrug of his shoulders, just as Professor McGonagall stood up at the Head table once more.
'Professor Sprout shall begin today's reading,' she said. She passed the book down the row to Professor Sprout, who opened it to the correct chapter, cleared her throat, and began to read.
'Chapter 6,' read Sprout. 'Gilderoy Lockhart.'
Groans could be heard audibly throughout the Hall at the mention of the man's name.
'The next day, however, Harry barely grinned once. Things started to go downhill from breakfast in the Great Hall.'
'Oh no,' said Ron, looking worried all of a sudden.
'What is it?'
Harry gulped and looked at Sprout. She was describing Hermione's stiff greeting to Harry and Ron that morning.
'Any way we can tell her not to read it out?' asked Ron.
'I doubt it,' said Harry.
'Errol slumped, unconscious, onto the table, his legs in the air and a damp red envelope in his beak.'
'Oh no,' said Ron again, just as Ron said the same words three years ago.
Ron tried to disappear under the table once again, just as he had done three years ago, but he was so tall now, his head and shoulders were still visible to everyone in the Hall. Harry patted him on the shoulder sympathetically as Sprout, true to form, began shouting out Mrs Weasley's words in an exceptionally loud voice.
'Merlin's beard, Pomona!' spluttered Vector, who had almost fallen out of her own chair in shock. 'Do you have to read it out that loud?'
'Of course, Septima,' said Sprout with a smirk, and continued yelling.
'Me thinks Sprout is enjoying this,' said Fred from the Gryffindor table.
'I quite agree,' said George.
Ron groaned softly as Mrs Weasley brought up Harry's name in the Howler.
'– the voice that was making his eardrums throb.'
'I don't doubt that,' said Natalie from a few seats down. 'How is that even legal?'
'"AND IF YOU PUT ANOTHER TOE OUT OF LINE WE'LL BRING YOU STRAIGHT BACK HOME."'
Harry waited until Sprout had finished yelling out the Howler before answering Natalie, 'It's a grey area. There's nothing that prevents someone from sending a Howler. To be honest, it's just a question of whether you want to embarrass someone publicly or in private.'
'You'd think it would be better to do this in private,' said Natalie.
'Yes, but when you're angry, you usually can't think straight,' said Dean helpfully.
'"Don't tell me I deserved it," snapped Ron.'
'I still don't think I did,' said Ron in annoyance, now sitting properly on the bench. Hermione, rather wisely, chose not to comment.
The three of them making their way down to Herbology, where they heard Lockhart telling the students about "the right way to doctor a Whomping Willow".
'That obnoxious, narcissistic –' said Sprout, breaking off from her narration. 'How he thought he could teach me, a Herbology Master, in caring for a Whomping Willow!'
'We know, Pomona,' said McGonagall kindly, 'but please, do continue. Best not to waste time on this man.'
'Seconded!' said Vector.
'Oh, very well,' said Sprout, still disgruntled – just as she was in the book – and continued to read.
As they progressed to Lockhart's 'advice' to Harry about fame, many students around the Hall were shaking their heads in disbelief or pulling disgusted faces. The Weasley Twins mimed retching up their breakfast when Lockhart said, "it's not quite as good as winning Witch Weekly's Most-Charming-Smile Award five times in a row".
'I am so glad I didn't have him as a teacher,' said Natalie with a shudder. 'He sounds awful!'
'You can't say Umbridge did a better job, either,' said Seamus.
'Well, no, but we at least learnt a bit from her,' admitted Natalie. 'I doubt Lockhart ever taught you anything.'
'Well, he did teach us one thing,' said Ron.
'Yeah?' said Fred.
'What's that?' asked George.
'Never set Cornish Pixies loose in a classroom.'
The Gryffindor table guffawed with laughter, which was just as well – the rest of the Hall was chuckling from the remark about Hermione "sounding as usual as though she had swallowed the textbook".
Sprout continued with the retelling of her own lesson on Mandrakes. The first years, who had not yet dealt with Mandrakes in Herbology, gasped just as Harry did when they heard of the ugly baby that came out of the earth.
'What's Eton?' asked Lee, as Justin met Harry, Ron, and Hermione at their Mandrake tray.
'A really exclusive Muggle school,' said Hermione at once. 'Only the extremely rich and smart people can get in – it's quite expensive and very demanding in terms of its academics. A lot of its former students have turned out to be prominent members of Muggle society.'
'Justin's rich, then?' said Harry, looking over at the Hufflepuff table.
'Oh yes, his family owns a very lucrative shipping and export business,' said Hermione.
'Didn't you get into Eton, Hermione?' asked Lavender.
'No, Eton is a boys' school,' said Hermione. 'I did get into Cheltenham Ladies College in Gloucestershire, though.'
Dean let out a low whistle.
'Is that a good school?' asked Parvati.
'One of the best,' said Dean. 'Wow, Hermione. Cheltenham!'
Hermione blushed at the praise. 'Thanks, Dean. I think Hogwarts is a better school, though.'
'Except for the propensity for accidents, of course.'
'Yes, except for that,' she agreed with a grin.
The description of the Transfiguration lesson brought out a few laughs from the listening students and staff.
'Everyone filed out of the classroom except him and Ron, who was whacking his wand furiously on the desk.'
'Why did Mr Weasley think he could fix his wand by hitting it on the desk?' asked Babbling in surprise. 'He would have probably caused more damage to it.'
'You'll find that Mr Weasley does a lot of things before thinking through them, Bathsheda,' said Snape coolly.
'That will do, Severus,' said McGonagall sharply. 'Although I must agree with Bathsheda here – that was not smart of Mr Weasley.'
People groaned and laughed in equal measure when Sprout read out Ron's exclamation, "Why have you outlined all of Lockhart's lessons in little hearts?"
'You didn't!' said Ginny in horror.
'She did,' said Ron, shaking his head. 'It was –'
'Nauseating?' supplied Fred.
'Terrifying?' added George.
'Oh, that's a good one, Fred. How about unbelievably repulsive?'
'Nice one, brother mine.'
Everyone around them was laughing at the twins' rapid-fire exchange of adjectives for Hermione's heart-filled timetable. The girl in question had buried her face in her hands out of embarrassment.
'Hermione, you're exceptionally smart and everything,' said Neville, patting her on the back, 'but this was not your best decision.'
The reactions continued in a similar vein throughout the scene in the courtyard with Colin Creevey, Draco Malfoy, and ultimately Lockhart.
'I must say,' said McGonagall, 'Mr Malfoy has a penchant for creating trouble for Mr Potter, whatever the circumstances. The midnight duel, stealing Longbottom's Remembrall, this signed photos business…'
'Harmless schoolboy arguments,' said Snape with a dismissive air.
'I'm not so sure, Severus,' said Flitwick a little coolly. 'I'll admit that this signed photos affair was just a schoolboy argument, but the rest? I don't think anyone would like it if they were constantly singled out and got into trouble or made fun of. Why, even you –'
'Very well,' said Snape, cutting across Flitwick. 'Mr Malfoy's behaviour may have crossed the line, but I have no power to punish him for what he did in the past, Filius.'
'No, I don't suppose you do,' said Flitwick. 'But it would be good to ensure this does not continue in the present and the future.'
Snape glowered at the room, but no one paid him any mind. Sprout continued with her reading.
'"You could have fried an egg on your face," said Ron. "You'd better hope Creevey doesn't meet Ginny, or they'll be starting a Harry Potter fan club."
'"Shut up," snapped Harry. The last thing he needed was for Lockhart to hear the phrase "Harry Potter fan club".'
Down at the Gryffindor table, Harry's face was as red as it had been described in the book. 'Ugh, Harry Potter fan club.'
'Well…' said Ginny slowly, a smirk spreading across her face.
'Don't tell me,' said Harry in horror.
'I'm saying nothing,' she replied sweetly.
Harry's forehead fell to the table with a dull thud. Ron patted his back sympathetically.
'"Me," he said, pointing at it and winking as well. "Gilderoy Lockhart, Order of Merlin, Third Class, Honorary Member of the Dark Force Defense League, and five-time winner of Witch Weekly's Most-Charming-Smile Award — but I don't talk about that." Good heavens, he just did!' exclaimed Sprout in annoyance.
'What an arrogant young fellow,' observed Bragnam.
'He was like that when he was a student, too,' said McGonagall. 'Do you remember what he did in his second year?'
'Carved his name into the Quidditch Pitch, didn't he?' said Flitwick. 'And he was in Ravenclaw, what a shame.'
'And you say Potter is arrogant and attention-seeking, Severus,' said Sinistra shrewdly.
'I used to,' said Snape. 'Lockhart beats him quite comfortably.'
'Indeed, he does.'
If there were shouts of disbelief at the quiz that Lockhart had administered to the class, it was equally echoed, if not intensified, with his decision to let a whole cage of Cornish Pixies loose in the class. Even those students who had never experienced Lockhart's classes were of the opinion that he was the most incompetent teacher to have ever set foot in Hogwarts.
'Why did you even hire him, Dumbledore?' groaned Vector, as Harry, Ron, and Hermione were forced to stay back to round up the remaining pixies.
'I had no choice, Septima,' replied Dumbledore. 'He was the only one who applied for the job.'
'"Rubbish," said Hermione. "You've read his books – look at all those amazing things he's done –"
'"He says he's done," Ron muttered. Finally! I didn't enjoy reading that chapter at all, especially about Lockhart.'
'A good source of entertainment, no doubt,' said Vector with a grin.
'Yes, but reading about his incompetence is no fun,' said Sprout. 'I hope the next chapter is better –' she glanced at the name of the next chapter, '– oh dear.'
'What is it?' asked Flitwick and McGonagall together.
'Well, it seems I spoke too soon,' said Sprout. 'Here you go, Aurora. Sorry about this.'
Professor Sinistra took the book from Sprout, took one look at the chapter name, and sighed dismally.
The office was lit with a brilliant glow from the setting sun. It was not as spectacular as his old office, but it was quite comfortable all the same. Fawkes' perch stood in a corner of the slightly smaller room; the phoenix was snoozing with his head under one magnificent golden wing. A table next to the perch housed his delicate instruments, puffing and whirring serenely.
Albus Dumbledore took a sip of the oak-matured mead that Rosmerta had delivered just a few days prior and stared at the book on the table in front of him.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
His interest in these books about Harry had not dimmed with the conclusion of the first public reading. Rather, the way in which the dramatic events had led to Umbridge's ousting from Hogwarts and the public announcement about Lord Voldemort's return to power had made him wonder…could these books help even more in vanquishing Voldemort once and for all? If the rest of them were as accurate as the first one, maybe they would have all the information they needed to finish Voldemort for good…
No, he corrected himself, all the information Harry would need.
As much as he and the Order would do everything they could, he had little doubt that it would come down to Harry in the end, not least because of the prophecy and how much Voldemort set store by it, but more so because of the boy's own attitude. As it was, he had not forgotten about Minerva's insistence that Harry be told of the prophecy's existence and contents, but he was firm that Harry learn Occlumency first. He had to master protecting his mind before being trusted with such crucial information. Snape had been teaching the boy so far, and based on his reports, Harry seemed to be making a little progress.
Not enough, though.
Ought he to teach Occlumency directly to Harry? That could probably speed up the boy's mastery of the subject, but would it be worth the risk? Voldemort would potentially have access to Dumbledore through Harry, and if he exploited that…who knows what could happen?
This book does.
Granted, he had spent time alone with the boy when they had visited Budleigh Babberton to persuade Horace to return to Hogwarts, but there had been minimal eye contact at that time. And not a lot of conversation had taken place that day between them. Occlumency would be a wholly different situation, however: a lot of eye contact, a great deal of conversation, and access to Harry's mind – and with it, potentially a window for Voldemort.
So no, teaching Harry Occlumency was risky, but reading this book was not. He knew it would provide them with a whole host of answers to a great deal of questions about Harry, Voldemort, and the prophecy.
And the Horcruxes, too, but he did not want to bring that theory up just yet if he could help it. Madam Bones didn't need to know the details right away.
To be continued…