Previously in the story: Harry has been tortured – more than usual – by Umbridge; his friends only know part of the truth. Harry's interview for The Quibbler was just released and he is afraid of Umbridge's reaction.


Chapter 6 - Witnesses

Severus observed with a deep frown the cuts on the back of the boy's hand. So his vile colleague had kept using her wretched quill. What a nuisance. He would need to have a conversation with her as soon as possible.

The child in front of him was squirming, and Severus ordered, "Stand still and explain how this happened."

"I got detention with Professor Umbridge for talking back, sir."

Severus glared at the student. Had he no sense of self-preservation? "That was an imbecilic thing to do. You know who she works for; you should attempt to stay in her good graces as much as possible."

"But, sir–"

"Silence! I expected better from you, Rivers."

The small third-year Slytherin hunched his shoulders and Severus paused. The young teenager was one of the rare Muggleborn students in his house; he was quick-witted, often cheerful, and normally calm and respectful. Back-talking from his part was surprising, and the Potions Master did not like the defeated look on the boy's usually joyful face. Lecturing him was probably not the best course of action right now – certainly not until he was healed and gave Severus more information about what had happened.

"We are going to my office now. I will heal your hand, and as we walk, you will explain me, in detail, what possessed you to think that provoking your Headmistress and a high-ranking Ministry official was a fine idea."

"Yes, sir. It was… well, I had an argument with two other students, sir, and they called me… they called me a Mudblood."

Severus scowled. "You will give me their names and I will have a conversation with them. I will also speak with our house tonight. Whether those students were Slytherins or not, someone should have defended you. Slytherins look after their owns, no one should forget that. How did Professor Umbridge come to punish you in this, though?"

"Well, I might have insulted back the people who called me… that, sir," Rivers said sheepishly. "Professor Umbridge heard me, and I tried to explain what they had said, but she wouldn't listen. She asked if it was true that I was Muggleborn and when I said yes, she told me that I should not be angry at people for stating facts. I said that M-Mudblood was an insult but she told me no backtalk and that I should respect my superiors and she gave me a detention." The boy was obviously distressed; he was talking too fast, eating his words, and his voice was higher than usual. Severus' scowl deepened.

He observed again the words on the back of his young student's hand. The sentence "I must respect my betters" sounded truly gruesome in this context.

"She said that I was too sensitive and that people calling me that wasn't a big deal. She said… she said that they were just telling the truth and that I must learn where my place is." The boy was on the verge of tears, and as Severus struggled to find something vaguely soothing to tell him, he silently swore to himself that Umbridge would pay for this.

x-x-x


"You cannot give him detention for doing an interview! It doesn't break any rule, I checked!"

Three quarters of the Gryffindor table had seen the article about Harry and were excitedly commenting it; students were loud enough for the rumours to reach the other tables. Unfortunately, Umbridge had rapidly tried to discover the source of the agitation; she had then immediately confiscated Harry's edition of The Quibbler and forbidden him from ever returning to Hogsmeade. She was now threatening him with further punishment.

"Watch your tone when addressing your betters, Miss Granger. And it doesn't break any rule for now," the infuriating pink woman sneered.

"But you cannot punish someone for something that was done before the rule forbidding it was enacted! Rules cannot be retroactive; it is one of the first principles of penal law!"

"Please drop it, Hermione. It's okay. Don't make things worse," Harry muttered.

"But Hermione is right, you did nothing wrong! She shouldn't be giving you a detention!" Ron intervened angrily.

"Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley, ten points from Gryffindor for contradicting your Headmistress. Ten points, each. And for your information, Mr. Potter will not be punished for giving an interview; he will be punished for disobeying clear orders to stop spreading blatant lies. But if you are so worried about him, maybe you should both witness tonight's detention. After all, Mr. Potter usually seems to misbehave for the sole benefice of an audience; perhaps being disciplined in front of one would have more impact on him?"

"Witness tonight's detention? What do you mean?" Hermione asked, clear uncertainty in her voice.

Umbridge smirked. "I mean exactly what I just said. When Mr. Potter reports to my office tonight at 8 p.m., you and Mr. Weasley will accompany him and stay for the duration of his detention. Did I use words simple enough for you to understand or do you need me to make it more accessible to your limited intelligence?"

Hermione looked affronted, and Ron seemed outraged on her behalf; but Harry could not focus on anything. The pounding of his heart was deafening. In a voice which barely sounded like his own, he said, "I understand, Headmistress, I will be there tonight for my detention."

And he ran.

He sprinted out of the Great Hall as fast as he could, ignoring intrigued comments from the other students. He couldn't breathe. He knew he would never make it back to the Gryffindor Tower, but he hoped to reach a bathroom before the Breathless Fear rendered him completely useless.

As Harry reached the main doors, he heard Umbridge gleefully saying behind him, "My, my, this boy really is unbalanced, isn't he?"

x-x-x


Running seemed to have helped a little. When Harry managed to get to a bathroom and lock himself in a cabin, he was still panicked, but he was able to focus on his breathing and to avoid losing control completely. It still took several minutes before he could form a coherent thought, and when he could, his mind first went to his friends' reaction if they were to see the welts on his back.

Some scars on his chest were already hidden by his everyday concealment charm, but should he apply a second one to hide his current wounds? Umbridge would not force him to take off his robes in front of his friends, right? But what if she did? What would they think, learning that he had let her hit him with a belt? Would they pity him? Find him weak?

What if he did use another glamour and Umbridge thought he had gone to Madam Pomfrey, though? She would most certainly punish him for that. There was no good option.

Harry ended up deciding against hiding the injuries on his back; he could pray that Umbridge would not dare to use the belt or the necklace before witnesses. And between Umbridge punishing him more and his friends learning about the belt, the latter was probably a lesser evil. But Harry was ashamed enough to make this decision a close call.

At least with Ron and Hermione here, she shouldn't try to touch me, Harry thought before he could stop himself.

Come on, enough with that. It was a peck on the cheek and a hand on your chest! It's nothing! What's wrong with you? Why are you so obsessed with this? It's not as if she had really… But the young boy forcibly interrupted this train of thought. He did not even want to formulate the idea. And there was nothing to say, really.

No, nothing. Just a feeling of revulsion so deep I want to rip off my own skin. Harry sighed and, wishing his internal dialogue would stop already, opened a random textbook and started trying to memorise the words to shut any thought of Umbridge.

x-x-x


"Harry, we have to do something," Hermione said with determination. "We can't let her torture you again!"

Harry sighed. He purposefully had been almost late for Charms, hoping to avoid his friends as long as possible, but they had cornered him after lunch.

"She wouldn't do something illegal with you in the room," the raven-haired boy answered.

"And if she doesn't use the Cruciatus, everything is fine? I don't care if her bloody quill is legal or not! You think we want to just sit there while she forces you to butcher your skin? What would you do if Hermione or I were to have a detention with her?" Ron asked crossly.

"It's different." Harry obstinately said.

"You're so pigheaded sometimes, Harry! We need to go to a teacher, can't you see that? And it has to be Professor Snape. Professors Flitwick and Sprout are nice, but neither is very intimidating, and they are not in the Order. The other teachers are not Heads of Houses and they just wouldn't be able to oppose Umbridge. Professor Snape is our only option! I know you don't like him, but –"

"Don't like him? Merlin's pants, Hermione! You think this is about me liking him? Last time he spoke to me, he threatened me with corporal punishment! He hates me! He would be on Umbridge's side, one hundred percent!"

"What do you mean, he threatened you with corporal punishment? When did that happen? Why didn't you tell us?" Ron intervened.

Mortified, Harry confessed to his friends about his encounter with Luna and Snape. When he stopped explaining how much he regretted his words and was ashamed not to know how to apologise properly to Luna, openly acknowledging how much of an arse he had been, Ron and Hermione stayed silent.

"When did that happen?" Hermione eventually asked.

"Over a week ago. Just after I told Umbridge that Fudge was stupid, so… last Wednesday, I think."

"Did you talk to her since? Did you at least try to apologise?" The bushy-haired girl kept her tone neutral, but Harry would have preferred hearing her shouting. The deception in his friend's eyes, combined with her carefully controlled voice, was turning Harry's stomach.

"I… I tried. The next day, I went to talk to her, and I said I was sorry. But I… well, I didn't say much. Only something like, 'I'm sorry I was such a git yesterday'. And then I didn't know what to add, and she just looked at me and said nothing, and I felt awful, and I repeated that I was sorry, and I ran away. I've sort of avoided her since."

Hermione sighed. "You're a real prat. But I'll help you with your apology, if you want. You have to do better. And we'll need to talk about this, Harry. You can't keep taking your anger out on your friends."

"I know. I don't deserve you," Harry muttered.

"Don't be stupid," Ron intervened. "But let's talk about Luna later, okay? We should probably focus on the 'asking for help' issue here."

"I don't need help," Harry automatically replied. Seeing both his friends roll their eyes, he insisted, "seriously, guys, it's Snape you were talking about! There's no chance in hell he'd side with me, or even, you know, believe me! He'd probably decide that there's no Blood Quill and that I have been cutting myself for attention or something like that!"

"Of course he wouldn't, that would be ridiculous! Professor Snape might be slightly, erm… unpleasant, but he would not be that unfair to you!"

"Hermione, you're brilliant, but sometimes you say really weird stuff. Harry is right, when has Snape ever been fair to him? I think that for now maybe he isn't wrong to say we shouldn't speak to the old snake."

"But, Ron!"

"Let me finish, 'Mione. I said, "for now". I agree that we have no better option than Snape, even if I don't like this greasy git. I mean, I know that what Harry said was bad, but did you hear what Snape threatened him with? How can you not feel like hexing him right now?"

Hermione pinched her lips. "Ron, that's hardly helpful."

"Sorry, sorry, you're right. What I mean is: we should talk to him, but I don't think we should talk to him today. Waiting a bit would be a better move; then Harry wouldn't look like he's just trying to argue his way out of a detention. And if we have to be there tonight, at least afterwards it won't just be Harry's word against the High Bitch's anymore. Snape might fail to listen to him, but if the three of us have seen the Blood Quill, he won't be able to ignore what's happening; the two of us will be witnesses and we'll be able to back Harry up better. Besides, it's pretty bad already, but she won't do anything more tonight than having you writting lines with that quill… right?"

Harry silently nodded at his friend's question, the knot in his stomach preventing him from saying anything.

"I guess your reasoning makes sense, Ron," Hermione reluctantly admitted.

x-x-x


The day had flown too fast. Harry had been doing everything to keep his mind off the coming detention, but he knew it was still going to happen, and as he walked towards it with his friends, his stress level were reaching record highs.

"Please don't give her any excuse to hurt you. She's very peculiar with formalities – don't nod, always answer verbally, and don't forget her title."

"Okay, Harry," Ron answered, sensing his friend's nervousness – and probably nervous himself.

"And don't intervene – whatever she says, even if she's insulting me or something, just pretend this isn't real and don't react, okay?"

Hermione furrowed her brow. "Harry… What kind of things does she usually say?"

"It doesn't matter – just remember that however awful she is, she can always get worse, and don't say or do anything, please."

"That sounds really bad – is there more to her detentions than you told us?" Hermione asked in a worried tone.

Harry winced. "Doesn't matter, really – just promise me you'll stay silent whatever happens, alright?"

"No, not 'alright'! Certainly not alright, mate! You already tricked us with a promise like that once, and I'm not falling for it again! If she gets out of line – well, more out of line than her stupid quill, I guess – I'm getting you out of here!"

"Ron, listen, please–" Harry tried. His friend's support was heartwarming, but also frightening – how was he going to prevent the redhead from putting himself in danger?

"No, Harry, you listen!" Hermione interrupted. "Ron is right – we're not going to just peacefully watch her torture you! I already hate that we have to be silent witnesses for the Blood Quill, even though we don't really have much choice if you still don't want me to speak to Professor Snape today – but we won't let her hurt you more than that!"

"You shouldn't take risks for me," Harry muttered.

"Right, 'cause you're one to speak – you've never followed an alleged mass murderer into a dark tunnel or faced hundreds of Dementors to rescue a friend, for example, have you?" Ron asked, his voice heavy with sarcasm.

"It was –"

"Harry, if you even think of saying that it's different, I'm Silencing you for the rest of this conversation." Hermione looked ready to carry out her threat and Harry deemed prudent not to test her.

He still sulkily mumbled, "wouldn't be much of a conversation, then," and "Ron's twisting the facts," causing his bushy-haired friend to roll her eyes. There was a short pause which seemed to partly alleviate the tension, before Harry spoke again, "Seriously, guys, she'll do whatever she can to get a reaction from you; don't let her have what she wants. And I suppose I get your point about not wanting to see me hurt, but can you at least promise that you won't intervene to contradict insults or lies or anything of the sort? That you'd only say something if it looks like one of us is in immediate danger?"

Ron and Hermione shared a glance. "Yeah, I suppose we can agree to that," the redhead said.

They were getting near Umbridge's office and Harry felt queasy. His friends seemed to see it; they looked nervous themselves, and, when Hermione took Harry's hand in her, muttering, "It's going to be okay," the boy briefly wondered who she was trying to persuade. They walked the last corridors in silence.

x-x-x


Umbridge welcomed the trio in her office with a resounding, "Well hello again you three. I hope you feel like enjoying a pleasant evening in my company?"

She smirked upon seeing the teenagers' incredulous looks, but Harry quickly got a hold of himself and said flatly, "We are here for my detention, as you requested, Headmistress."

The teacher ignored him in favour of asking, "So Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley, would you describe yourself as Mr. Potter's friends?"

"Yes, Madam," Ron replied defiantly. "He is our best friend."

"I see. And would you say that Mr. Potter's 'friendship' pushes you to careless, foolish actions, such as joining a meeting of the now infamous 'Dumbledore's Army'?"

"It's not–"

Hermione briskly interrupted Ron and stamped on his foot. "The free of us are Gryffindors, a fact you are well aware of. Our house is renowned for the courage of its members, but we are also known for being a bit reckless at times. However, I hardly think Harry is to blame for the traits most Gryffindors have displayed throughout centuries."

Umbridge briefly frowned, and Harry felt a warmth in his chest. Despite knowing that the rest of the evening would hardly be pleasant, he was surprised to realise how relieved his friends' words were making him feel. Umbridge certainly was a despicable bitch, but at least this time he was not alone against her.

"And would you say it's the role of a Headmaster – or Headmistress – to protect students against their own recklessness?" Umbridge asked, a nasty smile back on her lips.

Hermione shifted uncomfortably. "Well, I suppose it is."

"I'm glad to see we agree on that." Turning also to Ron, she added, "And I guess you both reckon that antagonizing your Headmistress during Mr. Potter's detention – or at any given moment, for that matter – would be considered reckless and foolish, right?"

Ron shrugged and mumbled, "yeah", but, probably remembering Harry's warning, quickly corrected, "yes, Headmistress," which Hermione repeated.

"Then I believe that you will not object to giving me your wands and behaving yourselves for the duration of this detention? Or do I need to remind you that you are only here as witnesses? You are not to try any kind of intervention or back talk, or the consequences – for Mr. Potter as well as for the two of you – would be dire, is that clear?"

With a glare, Ron and Hermione reluctantly muttered their agreement and gave Umbridge their wands.

"Now that this is settled, tell me, Mr. Potter: why are you here?"

Harry cringed. "For my detention, Headmistress."

Umbridge watched him, her predatory smile wide as ever. "And?"

"To… to be punished, Headmistress."

"Mr. Potter, I am disappointed. Will you start acting like a good boy soon, or do you need more incentive?" Umbridge asked with a gesture towards the drawer containing her belt.

Harry shuddered. "No, Headmistress, I'm sorry. I…"

Shut up, Harry! Just say what she wants to hear! His face reddening with shame, he tried to steel himself and recited, "Please punish me, Madam, for I have been bad," cautiously avoiding looking anywhere near his friends.

"I will, don't worry, I will. Please start writing now, dear," the Headmistress said in her usual unpleasantly saccharine voice.

Harry clenched his jaw and started writing. Knowing that Ron and Hermione were watching felt awful. Even less than usual was he prepared to let his pain show, but there was nothing he could do to prevent the lines on his skin from getting bloodier. Umbridge had lifted his sleeve with a flick of her wand to make sure his friends would see the injuries clearly. Harry hated that they should watch him suffer. He was certain that they would care too much, whereas somewhere in the back of Harry's mind, a voice that sounded suspiciously like his uncle's repeated that his pain wasn't that important – that freaks should not be cared for. Part of Harry could not help but think that his making Ron and Hermione worry because of his pain was just another proof that he was toxic and a danger to everyone around him.

"Well, Mr. Potter, I believe now would be a perfect time to tell your little friends the truth about the night Cedric Diggory died, wouldn't it?" The look of horror on Harry's face when her words reached him seemed to delight Umbridge enormously. "And I shall have none of the lies you've been feeding everyone with your childish attention-seeking behaviour. I want the true version of it – the one you've finally accepted to tell me during our last encounters in this office."

Harry felt trapped. It was awful enough that he had previously yielded before Umbridge alone, but to be forced to repeat that in front of his friends… "P-Professor, I… I…" He could not articulate any thought. Shut up, you blubbering idiot. You know she won't let you off the hook before you obey her, he told himself.

"Yes, Mr. Potter? Are you actually going to follow my orders at some point today? Or perhaps do you need a little encouragement?" She said the last sentence with a direct, cruel look into Harry's eyes, and the boy shivered. She did not even need to motion towards her drawer again; he understood the threat perfectly well. Umbridge would probably not dare to use the Cruciatus curse or the necklace with Ron and Hermione present, but there was still the belt. Harry thought that he would do anything to avoid the sheer humiliation of being beaten that way in front of them.

"I am sorry, Headmistress. I'm obeying, of course," Harry said, carefully keeping his eyes on the floor to escape the judgmental look he was certain his friends would wear. But wouldn't earning more physical pain actually be better than having to sully Cedric's memory again, and before witnesses?

Harry glanced at the Headmistress. He knew there was no getting around this. Just imagine that you're not really there. That it's someone else talking. It's only a tale, okay? Pretend you're not speaking about any real persons. "Well, Cedric and I arrived at the centre of the maze…"

The young wizard used to think that there was not much Umbridge could have done to make talking about Cedric more awful, but he had been wrong – having to repeat her lies in front of Ron and Hermione was making everything feel much worse. Now his friends knew just how much of a coward Harry truly was. Well, at least they did not know about everything, he thought, although that was of very little consolation.

Harry kept his eyes on his parchment, trying his best to ignore Ron and Hermione's presence. Umbridge had seemed satisfied with his tale and had ordered him to keep writing in silence; the detention was probably far from over, but the boy's arm and hand were already burning.

Without warning, the Headmistress suddenly said, "Take off your robes now, Mr. Potter." In shock, Harry lifted his head; Umbridge was wearing one of her worst sadistic smiles.

"What did you just ask him?"

"Excuse me!?"

Harry barely heard Ron and Hermione's outraged reactions. Panic racing through his chest, he stuttered, "H-Headmistress, p-p-please, I swear I'll behave, please don't –"

"P-p-please," Umbridge scoffed, "take off your robes now. And do not make me repeat myself again. Unless maybe you wish to see Mr. Weasley or Miss Granger getting detentions too? After all, I imagine they are the reason you're so insolent tonight. You're usually much more submissive, although I'm sure you would prefer your friends to ignore that."

"Headmistress, this is completely unacceptable! You cannot order him to undress!" Hermione said, indignant.

"Miss Granger, if you do not shut up immediately, I can guarantee that your friend will regret it," Umbridge retorted, her voice reminiscent of something sweet and poisonous.

Harry closed his eyes. It's a nightmare, it's a nightmare, please let it be a nightmare, I can't… I can't… He realised his hands were shaking. Struggling to maintain the slightest pretence of composure, he slowly started to pull off his robes and put it on Umbridge's desk. Fear of pain was adding to the humiliation and dread, as Harry's back was still sore from Umbridge's last beatings. He was not sure he had ever suffered so many punishments in a row at the Dursleys'; his uncle sure liked to slap him around, but a real hiding with the belt was a relatively rare occurrence. Several thrashings on a not-quite-healed skin… it had maybe happened twice in Harry's life, and he was not eager to live through that kind of pain again. But he was powerless to stop it.

"Good boy. Unfortunately, your friends don't seem to have taken very seriously the warnings I issued at the beginning of this detention. Does any of you know of a spell called Mobilidolor?"

Harry and Hermione answered, "No, Headmistress," and "No, Professor," but Ron stayed silent, his eyes wide.

"Of course you wouldn't know about it," Umbridge disdainfully scoffed in Hermione's direction.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Ron asked hotly.

"Oh, don't give me that look, Mr. Weasley. Even your family has to know that there isn't much to expect from people with her… upbringing, if you see what I mean," the Headmistress said, giving Ron a knowing look that she clearly expected him to return.

But the redhead only glared at her. "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean, Professor. Are you trying to insult my friend's blood status? You do know that's considered discrimination, right?"

Umbridge huffed and muttered something which sounded very much like, "It's because of people like those that our society becomes more and more decadent." She did not even pause before waving her wand towards Hermione and incanting "Mobilidolor!"

"Stop that!" Ron yelled, getting up to try and reach his wand, which Umbridge had placed on the other side of her desk. "It's a dark spell! You can't use it on students! Free her immediately!"

Umbridge sneered and took both Ron's and Hermione's wands in her hand. "A dark spell? Don't be absurd. Pureblood families that are in any way respectable use it all the time to discipline children. And if I may, it would have done you and your brothers a world of good. Go back to your chair, Mr. Weasley, or you will have a very bad time."

"What is this spell? What are you doing to Hermione?" Harry asked, still half-shocked, half-panicked but desperately trying to grab his own wand from the bundle of his robes on Umbridge's desk.

"Mr. Weasley, Mr. Potter, I would advise you both to think your next move very carefully. Do you really want to physically assault your Headmistress and High Inquisitor? To point your wand at a trusted employee of the Ministry? I do not think that the consequences of such an action would be much to your liking. But you don't have to worry – your little friend is fine. The spell I used, Mr. Potter, forces turbulent children to stay motionless and silent, for it makes movements painful. It is not dark, despite what some distasteful people would have you believe. In a nutshell: if the child does not move, the spell does not hurt. It's different from a body bind – it does not prevent motion, it simply renders it… quite uncomfortable," Umbridge said with a shark-like smile. "Of course," she added, "staying perfectly still for a long time is not easy, but pain can be a powerful motivator, don't you think?"

"Please, Headmistress, don't hurt them. I swear I'll behave, and they'll obey too, they won't say anything again, but please release Hermione and don't punish Ron. It's my fault they're here, I'm the one who should be punished, not them," Harry pleaded. He hated the tone of despair in his voice, hated that he was actually begging Umbridge – he had been able to avoid that so far, or at least had he never uttered more than a fully panicked, semi-unconscious plea – but this was more important than his pride. He could not let his friends get hurt because of him.

"Interesting," Umbridge smirked. "You act as if you actually cared about them. But if that were true, you would not have dragged them into your lies, of course. You would have left them, for their own protection, because you know, deep down, just how dangerous you are to people around you. Am I not right? Or could it be that you care, but that you are simply selfish and cowardly?"

"Don't talk to Harry like that!" Ron shouted.

"Last warning, Mr. Weasley. If you are not back on your seat within three seconds, the spell will hit you in your current position, and you'll discover that staying perfectly immobile for a long time while standing is rather difficult."

Ron glared hatefully but retreated to his chair. He had almost managed to sit down when Umbridge muttered "Mobilidolor" again, leaving him hovering a few inches above the seat. It was clear from his wince that the position was straining. Hermione looked like she was in pain too, and Harry felt his hatred towards Umbridge flare with renewed vigour.

"It seems that the boy did not obey fast enough… What a pity, staying like that must be painful, isn't it?" Umbridge asked with a vicious smile towards Ron, who could do nothing but continue to glare at her.

"Now, Mr. Potter, I believe tonight's lesson would be most beneficial if your friends were able to fully observe your punishment, would it not? From their current standpoint, they may see your arm and your face, but not your back. They should, though. Turn around, dear."

Harry would have given anything, done everything, to just disappear. But he knew he had to obey the cruel order. At least you won't have to see their reactions. Come on, Harry, just go back to pretending none of this is happening for real. He did not see Ron's reaction, true, but he heard Hermione muffle a horrified sound. Shame was burning in Harry's whole body.

"Get back to your seat and to your lines, child." As he obeyed, she muttered the awful spell that made her belt float behind the young wizard's back. When it began to strike, Harry clenched his jaw and bit his tongue to avoid screaming. In a jolt of pain, he was unable to prevent himself from looking at his friends. Tears were running down Hermione's face and Ron was as pale as the night Mr. Weasley had been attacked by the snake. But both had their fists clenched – Harry briefly wondered if they had been clenched before the spell hit them or if that Mobilidolor curse had allowed the movement – and their white knuckles showed that they were having a hard time containing their anger.

The Headmistress circled around the room. Harry hated when she was behind him; each time, it added a whole new layer of anguish to his already excessively tense body. She was not touching him, nor was she doing anything besides watching his injuries, but feeling her in the back of the room without being able to see what she was doing, or to predict her next move, was unnerving. The teenager had since long learnt to always assess his surroundings, and even in the best of times, he could never feel fully relaxed if his position didn't allow him to see in advance people approaching him. A side-effect of Dudley spending years to try and hit him by surprise from behind, probably.

Harry wondered if Umbridge was aware of how much her pacing was adding to his stress or if she just liked to alternate between watching his face contorted in pain, his wounds, Ron and Hermione's faces. Observing the toad-like woman's satisfaction, the young wizard darkly thought that at least one of his theories about her was confirmed. He had suspected it since the first time she had used her belt on him but was almost positive now: Umbridge would have loved to hit him without magic. She simply had chosen to have the belt floating in the air because she loved even more to be able to see Harry's face when he was suffering. He wanted to insult her, but he could not find strong enough words. Sadist did not even begin to cover it.

The raven-haired boy was silently praying for the detention to be over soon. His whole arm was throbbing and his back felt on fire. He had heard a loud moan and a thump at some point and knew that Ron had at least been able to sit after a while, or rather to collapse into his chair. Harry hoped that Umbridge's spell had not inflicted him too much pain for that.

The teacher ended up asking Harry to turn and show his back to his friends again. Harry did not want to think about how it could look, but knew he had to comply. Once again, he was glad he didn't have to see his friends' faces, but he did hear a sharp intake of breath.

Umbridge then said, "I believe our time together is coming to an end. Something to say, Mr. Potter?"

Harry clenched his jaw. "Thank you, Headmistress, for giving an underserving child a well-needed lesson in discipline. I am grateful for my punishment."

The vile woman beamed. "Good." Putting her mouth near the teenager's ear, she whispered, "It feels nice, having an audience, doesn't it?"

Harry recoiled in disgust. Too close. She was too close. She was not even touching him, but feeling her breath was still making him want to rip off his skin. When, in a truly bizarre move, his teacher brought her mouth even closer to slightly bite his earlobe, Harry couldn't help a small cry.

Umbridge chuckled. Ron and Hermione looked concerned, but from their position, they had not seen her gesture, nor heard her whispered comment. The Headmistress cancelled her spells and ordered the two of them to go back to their dorms while she would have a word with Harry in private. Both looked ready to argue, but when Umbridge added that she would walk Harry back to the Gryffindor Tower afterwards and give detentions to the three teenagers if Ron and Hermione were not in the Common Room by that time, they obeyed.

When the door was closed behind them, Umbridge declared, "I am disappointed in you, Mr. Potter. Do you realise that? Giving this interview, after all my efforts to help you get rid of your delusions… Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

Harry kept his eyes on the floor. "Sorry, Headmistress."

"Tsss… Please bear in mind that if I hear any more lies from you, you will feel much sorrier. I hope you haven't forgotten the necklace I showed you, nor the identity of its legal owner? If you do not wish to bring more trouble to the people around you, I suggest you start behaving better. After all, your little friends might also like to try on jewellery in my company, don't you think?"

The teenager shuddered. "I will be on my best behaviour, Headmistress. Please don't hurt my friends. They're innocent in all this."

"That is very much debatable. But you may put your robes back on and I will bring you back to your common room."

At least she kept me behind only to threaten me further, not to actually hurt me, Harry thought as they were walking. But on the way to the Tower, he also had to endure her snide comments about his selfishness, his mental instability and his propension to bring harm to people around him. And they were hard to ignore. Because Harry himself had been thinking along those lines for a large part of the detention. When Umbridge turned back as they had reached the portrait of the Fat Lady, the boy was on the verge of tears.

x-x-x


Hermione and Ron were waiting for him anxiously in the Common Room. Harry would have preferred them not to be there. He did not think he could face their rejection now.

"Harry! Are you alright? I mean, obviously you're not, I just mean…" Hermione trailed off, and his green-eyed friend winced.

"Please don't. I know you probably hate me right now, and I understand," Harry said, loathing himself for the way his voice was breaking as he spoke the last words. "I just don't think I can hear it tonight. I'll go to my bed, okay? You don't have to ever speak to me again if you don't want to."

"What kind of bullshit is that?" Ron asked angrily. "You think we blame you for what happened with the toad bitch?"

"You were hurt because of me," Harry whispered, tears running down his cheeks. "And you've seen how much of a coward I really am. Why would you want to stay anywhere near me?"

"Because you're our friend! Harry, really, we don't blame you – at all! This woman is… I don't even have words. But… why didn't you tell us how it was like?" Hermione asked, biting her lips.

"I… Stop that! Please stop! Don't … Don't pretend everything is fine just because you pity me! I'd rather have you yelling at me than forcing yourself to act nice because you're afraid I'll break down or something, okay? I don't need your pity! I… I'm fine! Fine!" Harry yelled, conscious that his words were completely undermined by his inability to stop crying. "And you don't need to worry, I won't bother you anymore," he added, his voice breaking again.

"You stop that, mate! This old cunt has been torturing you, and we're not giving up until she's in jail! Nothing here is your fault, and we don't pity you, okay?" Ron retorted indignantly.

"Right. Whatever," Harry said, trying to keep his tone blank. "Really, you don't need to do that. No one will think less of you if you just back off now, so you can cut the act, you know. I'll be in my bed."

The young wizard did not miss the dismayed looks his friends were exchanging, but also saw the anger beginning to boil on Ron's face. The redhead moved towards Harry, who had started heading to the dorms, and grabbed his arm in an attempt to force him to stay in the Common Room.

"Don't touch me!" Harry yelled, breaking free of Ron's grip and violently pushing him away.

"What the hell?!" Ron sounded furious and his posture looked almost like he was ready to fight.

"Guys, stop! Harry, please calm down, we just want to talk! And Ron, please come back and sit with me, okay? In fact, why don't we just all sit by the fire, please?"

"I have nothing to say, Hermione. If Ron would just stop being an arse and let me go to sleep –"

"I am being an arse? Seriously? Have you looked at yourself, you absolute prat?"

"Ron, shut up and calm down! Insults aren't going to do any good!" Hermione pleaded with a mix of anguish and anger.

"Why are you telling me to calm down? Harry's the one who just shoved me away and insulted me when I was trying to help!"

"Stop being childish, Harry's just been through an awful–"

"Childish? I'm not being childish!" Ron retorted, sounding very much like a petulant child. "Like I said, I just wanted to help! It's not my fault Harry reacted like that!"

"Well I don't need your help! Neither yours, nor Hermione's, okay? I'm fine, or at least I'd be perfectly fine if you would just leave me alone!" Harry shouted.

"You're not fine," Hermione answered, her voice quivering. "And we want to help, because we care about you."

"Right. Like I'm going to believe that. After what you've just seen? I get that you're angry with me, but please, just – at least wait until tomorrow to…" the raven-haired boy trailed off, aware that his voice was likely to break again if he had to finish this sentence.

"Come on! We're not angry with you – well, I am now, but certainly not because of the detention! I mean, of course we care about you, and whatever Umbridge tries, it won't change that! Why can't you see it?" Ron asked, somewhat more calmly than before.

"Don't – you shouldn't – it isn't true," Harry muttered. Somewhere in the back of his head, a familiar little voice was whispering that freaks were not to be cared for. That he didn't really deserve his friends' kindness.

"Of course it's true! Merlin's bollocks, what's wrong with you?" the redhead said with clear exasperation.

It was probably not the best reply. Almost hysterical, Harry repeated, "What's wrong with me? What's wrong with me?" and produced worrying noises which sounded somewhere between laughs and sobs. He stuttered, "You've watched… and… and heard… I… Now you know… It's… Everything! Everything's wrong with me! I'm a terrible person! I put everyone in danger! If it weren't for me, Dumbledore would still be here, Voldemort wouldn't be back, and Cedric…" A real sob escaped the boy's lips, but he took a deep breath and continued, "And now you've seen… she turned me into a coward and a liar. Or – or maybe I've always been like that, and she just uncovered it. But in any case, I… don't you realise that she's right? I'm unstable and you'd be better off without me." He was openly crying at this point, and both Ron and Hermione also looked on the verge of tears.

"Harry! Don't ever say that again! She's most definitely not right about anything, and I'll hex you if you try repeating that!" Hermione answered hotly.

"Mate, I… I'm sorry I got angry," Ron said. "I mean, I'm still very much angry with her, but I'm not angry with you. And I… would you please just sit down with us? And Hermione can give you Murtlap Essence and we can just… you know… talk? Like in, we repeat that you're not to blame for any of the things you just mentioned, until the idea gets inside your stubborn head?"

Harry stared at his friends. "You… you really mean it? You… you don't… hate me?"

"Of course not, you prat! Seriously, did Umbitch also inflict you brain damage?" Ron saw Harry flinching at the question and immediately winced. "Sorry. I'm the prat. That wasn't remotely funny."

They all sat in a sofa in front of the fireplace; Hermione apologised profusely for not having more Murtlap Essence and made a sort of cataplasm on Harry's arm and hand with what little she had left of the product. The young wizard was unable to answer. That Hermione could imagine she had to apologise for anything was absolutely ludicrous, when he felt so much gratitude to simply have her and Ron still here that he wondered if one could burst from such an emotion.

Noticing how Harry was sitting on the edge of the couch, Hermione hesitantly asked, "And… do you need help with your back? I'm really sorry I don't know any spell to fight pain or to heal welts, but maybe a very localised Cushioning Charm could, you know, at least avoid additional ache when something comes in contact with your injuries…" she trailed off. Harry, who was starting to relax ever-so-slightly, had tensed again at the mention of his back, but he agreed to her casting the charm. Once it was done, Hermione added, biting her lips, "What did you use, the other time? Do you have a thing for the pain somewhere? A potion, maybe? Is there anything more we could do?"

"I… I didn't use anything," Harry answered, avoiding her eyes.

"But, Harry, it… it looks really painful," Ron said with a wince. "I mean, how were you able to, you know, just… move around and do stuff normally?"

"It's not that big a deal, once you're used to it," the injured wizard lied. "It probably looks a lot worse than it feels."

"Once you're used to it?! How many times… I… Mate, why didn't you tell us?"

Harry mentally kicked himself. "Sorry, Ron, it was a stupid thing to say, she didn't do it many times, of course I'm not really used to it, I was just trying to say it's not that bad." He saw Hermione giving him a suspicious look and winced. He was used to hiding injuries, even though not really ever to the pain of it, but having his observant friend thinking too much about how good he was at dissimulating was the last thing he wanted. She had enough doubts about the Dursleys as it was.

Ron did not seem particularly convinced either, and he insisted, "but really, why couldn't you tell us?"

The dark-haired wizard felt his face redden and did not answer.

Hermione broke the awkward silence by asking, "Harry… were you ashamed? You know you have nothing to be ashamed of, right?"

"Do you truly think that? You don't think I'm… weak, or broken, or freaky, or…" the young boy whispered.

"Of course not! Harry!" his friends exclaimed.

"I was so sure you would find me weak," he murmured. "I thought you would just see me as a victim or something, poor little Harry unable to defend himself, letting an old toad beat him up and staying silent like a coward."

"No! Certainly not! Nothing could be further from the truth!"

"I'm still ashamed," he whispered, his voice so low that he wasn't sure Ron and Hermione could hear. "But thank you for… for not looking like you think less of me."

"Never," Ron said. Hermione took Harry's uninjured hand in hers and they all stayed quiet a few minutes.

"Merlin, I hope we haven't woken anybody up by yelling earlier," Harry said sheepishly after a while.

"Don't worry, I had cast a Silencing Charm just in case before you came back in the room," his bushy-haired friend answered with a smile. The boy blushed but felt grateful.

"I didn't dare asking earlier but… Can you tell us why she wanted you to stay behind with her?" Ron suddenly intervened.

Harry stiffened. "It was nothing, really."

"Oh, please. If you don't want to tell us, say so, but don't act as if we were stupid, okay?" Hermione chimed in.

"Sorry… it's just…" the young wizard took a deep breath. "She just wanted to threaten me, that's all."

"Just?" Ron repeated angrily. "And what did she threaten you with?"

Harry winced. "She said… she said that if I didn't behave, she could hurt you too. Well, more than she has already. And… oh, fuck, I'm a terrible friend, I didn't even ask… Are you two okay? After this awful spell of hers…"

"Don't be daft, you're most certainly not a terrible friend," Ron answered. "And yes, we're okay. Her shit was painful, but it doesn't leave any marks or aftereffects, as far as I know."

"And you don't have to let her hurt you to protect us," Hermione added. "We're in this together, aren't we, Ron?"

"Yes, we are. We'll kick this bitch's arse so bad she'll never be able to sit again."

Hermione and Harry let out small chuckles at this.

"And she'll beg to be sent to Azkaban when we'll be done with her!" Ron continued somewhat cheerfully, obviously glad to have lightened the mood a little.

"Hum, I don't know about sending her to Azkaban," Harry said.

"What?! But –"

"No, no," Harry hastily interrupted, "I mean because, poor Dementors! Umbridge is so evil that they would be the ones feeling sick next to her, don't you think?"

"Yeah, she would probably end up sucking their souls and not the other way around," Ron sniggered.

"Dementors couldn't suck her soul anyway, 'cause she doesn't have one," Harry added.

"Can I just point that Dementors don't have souls either?"

Ron rolled his eyes. "We know, 'Mione – you do realise that it was the point of the joke, right?"

"Of course I realise, I simply wanted to–"

Harry tuned out, suddenly overwhelmed by a relief so deep he briefly thought the feeling might drown him. It was Friday night and he would not have to see Umbridge again before Monday. He was safe for now. His friends were here. With him. They did not hate him. They had not left. He was not alone.

He was abruptly brought back to the conversation when Hermione asked, "But seriously, Harry, she threatened you into saying all those horrible things, didn't she?"

All ideas of laugh gone, he answered, "yeah. But I still ended up obeying her. I'm not sure I deserve to call myself a Gryffindor anymore."

"Nonsense. Listen, we all know that Umbridge is an awful, awful person and that she would rather die than acknowledge You-Know-Who's return, right? So who cares if you had to lie to her? It's not like telling her the truth would change anything, and it's not like she deserves our respect either," Hermione said bluntly.

"I suppose," Harry muttered.

"I'm not saying it's easy not to feel bad about this, but the truth is: you've done nothing wrong. She has. She's the one who should be ashamed."

Harry did not answer. At some level, he knew that Hermione was right; but he still felt horrible, and it was not something he could just shake off with some logical argument.

The three friends quietly watched the fire for a moment. Harry wanted to speak but couldn't bring himself to do it. Listen to Hermione, he told himself, trying to summon his courage. She's the smart one and she thinks you shouldn't be ashamed, that has to count for something, right?

"Umbridge, she… she keeps telling me that I'm insane," the young boy ended up saying softly. "She repeats that I invented everything because I'm sick. That I can't trust my own memories of… of that night. But the worst part is… sometimes, I… I almost believe her. What if she's right? What if I truly am sick?"

"You're not," Hermione answered, her eyes filled with unshed tears.

"But how can you be sure? Isn't the simple fact that I'm wondering if she's right a proof that… that…"

"We're sure, because we know you, mate. You're not mental. You know the truth, and she's a disgusting lying piece of shit. And Dumbledore trusted you when you told him, right? And we trust you. We trust you and we're here for you."

There Harry couldn't help crying. He wanted to hug Ron for what he had just said but didn't dare to do so. He had received too little physical affection in his life to be comfortable initiating that sort of contact.

Hermione chimed in, "And Professor Snape has seen your memories during Occlumency lessons, remember? If you had made things up, he would have known."

Ron stared at her and asked in disbelief, "Are you seriously trying to use stuff about Snape to comfort him right now?"

Harry chuckled slightly through his tears.

"I'm merely stating facts! I know that reasoning and logics are not your strong suit, but–"

"Hey, I can still kick your arse in a game of chess whenever you want!"

Harry laughed louder this time. He knew from their tone that Ron and Hermione were not seriously arguing, just trying to lighten the mood with friendly banter, and it was heart-warming to hear them being just… normal… and still supportive after what they had witnessed.

"Guys," Harry said. His friends both turned to him. "Thank you. For… You know. Sticking with me. I… I don't know what I would do without you. I…" He took a deep breath. Why was it so difficult to say? "I love you, guys."

"We love you too, mate," Ron answered, and he pulled Harry into a hug, shortly rejoined by Hermione.

They stayed huddled on the sofa for a long time. Harry wished the hug would never end and was beyond grateful when a blushing Hermione asked if he and Ron would agree to remain here for the night. They fell asleep together, and despite his stiff muscles in the morning, Harry was not sure he had ever slept better.

x-x-x


None of them spoke when it was time to head to the Great Hall for breakfast. Doubts and dark thoughts about what was to happen next were progressively coming back to Harry, and judging by his friend's grim faces, he was not the only one in this.

Approaching them on the Gryffindor table, Ginny asked, "What's wrong? You three really seem down today."

"Umbridge is such an awful bitch," Ron said.

Ginny snorted. "Is that new? I thought even your poor deduction skills had already picked up that much information. But it never prevented you from eating before. Are you alright?"

"Yeah, yeah, don't worry" Ron answered, his words contradicted by the half-full plate he was watching as if it had personally offended him. Ginny shook her head. "Seriously, guys. Have you seen yourselves? Hermione, you look as if you were about to cry, and Ron is barely eating. Don't try to tell me that nothing happened."

"Ron already ate three eggs and a sausage, it's hardly a hunger strike" Harry deflected.

Hermione sighed. "Umbridge has–"

"Hermione, shut up!" Harry interrupted. "It's nothing, really. And even if there were something unusual, it wouldn't be any of your business, Ginny, okay?"

"I see. Well, I would hate to prevent you three from conducting your private business, so I'll be on my way. But let me just tell you one thing: Harry, you're a moron. What was the point of the DA, if we can't even trust each other?" Anger audible in her now ice-cold tone, Ginny left without waiting for an answer.

There was an uncomfortable silence before Hermione said, "She's right, you know. It's not just about you, and your friends are old enough to make their own choices. One member of the Order of the Phoenix is still in Hogwarts. And we need help. Whether you like it or not, Ron and I are talking to Professor Snape. Today."

x-x-x


AN: So, the big "Snape finally learns what is happening" moment will be in the very next chapter! I hope you're not too disappointed it was not in this one. I'm nervous people would feel that I'm dragging things on too much, because I know some readers are anxious for the Snape/ Harry bonding to start. I totally get that, and I very much hope it didn't feel too long; but I really enjoy building Harry's relationships with other characters as well. I especially liked writing the discussion with Ron and Hermione here, which is part of the reasons why this chapter ended up particularly long (9000+ words, it's my longest so far!)

What I'm trying to say is: I'm sorry if the rhythm seemed slow up to this point. I don't like to rush things and I'm not going to try; but this is the "natural" place where the story is going to start moving forward anyway. I hope you'll enjoy it!

(Oh, and the Mobilidolor spell is something I invented (mobilitas is Latin for, well, mobility, and dolor is Latin for pain). If someone wishes to reuse it in another fic, please specify where you read about it)

I still can't give a date for the next update, but I'll be as quick as I can. In the meantime, I would love to read your thoughts about this chapter :)

(Well, there seems to be an issue with the website – reviews not appearing correctly? But don't worry, I should at least still receive e-mail notifications, and hopefully it will be fixed soon)

o

Your random information of the day: did you know that the word "hysterical" comes from the Greek word for "uterus"? The Ancient Greeks believed that the uterus moved around inside a woman's body, like a small animal, and caused a mess when it was at the wrong place. Of course, Greek men saw wandering wombs as something which made women unreliable (while their own assessments were obviously so reliable here). Sexist dismissals of a woman's reaction as "hysteria" therefore have a centuries-old history. You're welcome!

(You can look up "wandering womb" if you find it interesting)