It Only Takes a Drop of Blood
Chapter 10: Umbridge
Dim morning light shone through the open dormitory windows and Harry pressed his face into the pillow. Staying in bed sounded more than delightful. His whole body felt heavy, like his arms and legs were secured to lead weights, and his eyes refused to open.
"Get up, Harry!" Ron's voice floated over his head. "You're going to miss breakfast."
Harry didn't even have the energy to twitch his finger.
"C'mon mate," Ron said, shaking Harry's shoulder. "Let's go."
The black-haired teenager groaned and let himself be rolled over on his side.
"Bloody hell!" Harry blearily looked up at Ron's concerned face. "You look awful Harry. Should I tell McGonagall that you're ill?"
He paused and grimaced. "No, I'm alright. Thanks Ron," Harry said, slowly sitting up. "I'll be down in a mo'."
Ron raised an eyebrow and stared at him intently before nodding. "I'll wait in the common room."
After his best mate left, Harry pushed himself up with shaky arms and stumbled to the bathroom. His movements were slow but he managed to get clean without walking into too many walls. Looking at himself in the mirror, Harry grimaced at the dark circles that blackened his eyes and skin that was thin and wax-like. His hair fell limply on his forehead. Harry couldn't help but agree with Ron. He did look awful.
"Stupid cancer," he muttered under his breath.
Harry made his way back to his bed and plunked down on it. He opened his trunk and pulled out a small box—he'd stuffed it under a pair of Uncle Vernon's old socks—and his dragon-hide gloves. Part of his chemotherapy treatment included a particularly nasty medicine called cyclophosphamide that was harmful to touch; so he used the strongest material known to wizard-kind for protection.
Three pills were laid out on the blanket, oblong and colourful. They seemed harmless on the outside but, from experience, Harry was wary of the drugs they contained. He scowled and swallowed them.
"Oi, mate! We're going to be late!" Ron's voice echoed up the stairwell and Harry's head snapped to the door.
Harry threw everything back in his trunk, grabbed his bag and hurried downstairs.
"Alright Harry?" his best friend asked as they walked shoulder to shoulder.
Harry smiled and nodded. "I'm fine."
"Great." Ron grinned. "I'm starving!"
Hermione had saved them both seats so it didn't take long before Ron was stuffing his face with breakfast.
"Here's your schedule Harry," Hermione said with a disapproving look at Ron. "McGonagall brought them 'round before you came down. What were you two doing anyway? We have class in ten minutes!"
"Hafee lild'd gef ub!" Ron protested through a full mouth of toast and bangers.
"It was my fault," Harry said quickly, heading off an argument. "I overslept."
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "You do look a bit peaky," she admitted. "Maybe you ought to go to Madam Pomfrey?"
"It's probably nothing," he said quickly. "And anyway, it's the first day of classes, I can't bunk them."
Harry waved his schedule pointedly and looked at it. He groaned. "On second thought..."
Ron grabbed his own schedule and swore.
"Binns, Snape and Trelawney in one day? Dumbledore's lost it this time," said Ron seriously.
"And don't forget that Umbridge woman," Harry pointed out.
Ron nodded. "I wonder what her class'll be like?"
"I dunno," Harry said, looking at the woman emitting a fake high-pitched twitter at the head table, "but I have a bad feeling about it."
Harry's bad feeling continued throughout the day. Binns lectured on goblin rebellions yet again and he and Ron played hangman. After another awkward run in with Cho, Harry went to potions and fouled his potion so bad that Snape vanished his cauldron.
Lunch brought the usual arguing between Ron and Hermione, sending him running to the North Tower. The culmination of his miserable day formed a dull headache in his temples, which was only made worse by the cloying smell of incense and Trelawney predicting his death for the thousandth time.
As a result, Harry's disposition was a mixture of exhaustion and frustration upon entering the Defence classroom. Their new professor sat at her desk wearing a pink cardigan and a bow in her hair. The twisted smirk on her face sent a shiver down Harry's spine.
"Hem, hem," Umbridge cleared her throat and spoke in a sickly sweet voice. "Well, good afternoon!"
Harry looked in askance at the new professor as a few people muttered responses. His head throbbed as her shrill voice rang in his ears.
"Tut, tut," said Umbridge, "That won't do, now, will it? I should like you, please, to reply, 'Good afternoon, Professor Umbridge.' One more time please. Good afternoon, class."
"Good afternoon, Professor Umbridge," most of the students chanted. Harry didn't say anything, choosing instead to stare dully at the woman.
"There now. That wasn't too difficult, was it? Wands away and quills out, please."
Harry stuffed his wand in his bag and pulled out his ink, quill and parchment to a chorus of groans. Umbridge waved her wand and notes began to appear on the blackboard.
"Well now, your teaching in this subject has been rather disrupted and fragmented—" she started reciting.
Harry listened to her words with a growing sense of annoyance as her high-pitched voice rang shrilly through the room. His head throbbed and he felt the exhaustion creep over him. It was only when his eyes were blurring over the assigned reading that he noticed Hermione had her hand up.
"Did you want to ask something about the chapter, dear?" Umbridge asked after ignoring Hermione for a full minute.
"Not about the chapter, no."
"Well, we're reading just now." Umbridge showed her pointed teeth that looked surprisingly cruel in that wide mouth. "If you have other queries we can deal with them at the end of class."
"I've got a query about your course aims," said Hermione.
As Hermione pointed out the flaw in Umbridge's lesson, Harry's back stiffened and he listened carefully for the professor's answer.
"—You will be learning about defensive spells in a secure, risk-free way—"
"What use is that?" Harry said loudly, his voice in time to the pounding of his head. "If we're going to be attacked it won't be in a—"
"Hand, Mr. Potter!" Umbridge crowed, clearly enjoying her superiority.
Harry stuck his fist in the air but she didn't call on him again. He watched as the whole class reacted and spoke up. Umbridge's smile only grew wider as she deflected each question.
"Your hand is not up, Mr. Thomas!" trilled Umbridge.
Perhaps it was her smug smirk, the headache or the fact that he felt like he was going to fall over if he didn't crawl into a bed soon, but Harry snapped.
"Fuck the hand!" he shouted, getting to his feet.
His friends gaped and stared in horrified fascination, as Umbridge's smile became deadly.
"Detention, Mr. Potter," she said sweetly. "And sit down."
Harry slowly sat, glaring at the woman.
"I will not tolerate these outbursts in my classroom," she said, addressing the whole class. "It is clear that your previous instruction was severely lacking—" Several students began to protest. "And that you have been told several lies about your safety."
Harry scoffed loudly, his head throbbing painfully. The professor's voice grated and for some reason everything seemed foggy and vaguely distant. His vision swam and his ears began to ring. These symptoms were all too familiar.
Harry was mere minutes away from fainting in the middle of Defence and if he didn't leave immediately, he'd have a lot of questions coming at him that he couldn't answer. He needed to get out in the quickest way possible. Harry looked up at Umbridge, who was still carrying on, and gulped. He knew what he needed to do.
"I'm not a liar," he said, letting his voice carry.
"Harry, shut up!" Hermione hissed, but he ignored her.
"Voldemort is back—"
"Detention for the rest of the week, Mr. Potter," Umbridge said, "for spreading such blatant lies in my classroom."
"Oh, so I expect Cedric Diggory just dropped dead of his own accord, did he?" Harry countered. The ringing in his ears was almost deafening, such that he could barely hear his own voice.
Delores Umbridge smiled dangerously. "Come here, Mr. Potter," she said, "and bring your things with you."
Harry stuffed his book in his bag and made his way to the front of the room. It felt like he was walking through water. He paid careful attention to his feet, making sure that he didn't trip or stumble into anything. If he fell over, Harry didn't think he'd be able to get back up.
Umbridge handed him a note and sent him to see McGonagall. When the door shut behind him, Harry felt nothing but relieved. He stumbled to an empty classroom in a nearby corridor and shut the door behind him.
The room was musty and empty, but Harry barely took notice as he sunk to the ground and lay back on it. He felt the pounding in his head that meant that his ears were ringing, but he couldn't really hear anything anymore. With his eyes closed, he felt as if the world was spinning beneath him. The stone floor was blissfully cool against his hot skin. It was only when the chill began to seep into his bones that Harry realised he felt better.
He peeked out through heavy eyelids and then opened them fully with a relieved sigh. He could hear the faint murmur of voices beyond the walls and everything looked normal again. Harry pulled himself to his feet, measuring his movements so all the blood wouldn't rush out of his head. He grabbed his book bag and made his way into the corridor.
While much improved, Harry's limbs felt weak and his head still ached. He only wanted to crawl into bed and sleep the rest of the day, but he still had to deal with the consequences of getting out of Defence early. McGonagall was not going to be pleased.
Whispers followed Harry through the Great Hall that evening as he sat down for dinner. His screaming fit and subsequent ejection from class had already passed through the whole school. A grimace adorned his face as he heard the story start again for the umpteenth time. Harry knew that this was only going to add to the stories that he was an attention-seeking liar who'd completely lost his mind.
Just wait until it shows up in tomorrow's edition of the Daily Prophet, he thought acidly, stabbing a potato with his fork.
"You can copy my notes," Hermione offered half-heartedly through the tense air, "although I don't know how helpful they'll be. That woman didn't teach us anything."
Ron nodded. "All we did was read the book," he said morosely. "After she told us what a liar you and Dumbledore are, of course."
"What is it with these people?" Harry growled. "They believed Dumbledore last year! What changed?"
"I don't think they did," Hermione said, glancing around nervously. At Harry's confused look, she shook her head. "Not here. Up in the common room."
With that, the trio hurried up the stairs to the nearly empty Gryffindor common room. Hermione pulled them to an empty corner and started whispering.
"I don't think anyone really believes that Voldemort's back," she said. At Harry's outraged expression, she hurriedly added, "Except us, of course."
"I think they're too afraid," said Ron. "I mean, you should have seen the looks on my dad and brothers' faces when mum told them what Dumbledore said in June." He shuddered. "It's stupid, but they probably find it easier to believe you and Dumbledore are liars than accept the truth."
Hermione's mouth dropped open. "Wow, Ron," she said, "that was really intuitive!"
"You don't have to look so surprised about it!" Ron exclaimed indignantly.
"That still doesn't explain what Umbridge is doing here," interrupted Harry. In the corner of his eye, he saw people start to come in from dinner.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Don't you remember what Umbridge said at the feast?" she said.
"What?" said Ron. "That thing about 'progress's sake'?"
"Yes," Hermione said succinctly. "The Ministry must think that Dumbledore's—oh, I can't believe those two! They've gone too far."
Harry was about to ask what she was talking about when he saw Hermione storm off to confront the twins, who were handing out sweets to first-years. Two of them had already fainted. Hermione was yelling at Fred and George, not fazing them in the slightest as her Prefect badge gleamed in the firelight.
He looked to Ron and smirked at the reluctant look on his face. "Want to start Snape's essay?" Harry offered, pulling out a roll of parchment.
His friend grimaced but copied his movements. "The properties of moonstone and its uses in potion-making," said Ron as he read the assignment from his planner. "Do you know what moonstone is?"
Harry shrugged helplessly and turned to his textbook with a sigh. Just as he turned to the page on moonstones, Hermione's row with the twins grew in volume. The two boys turned to stare as their friend came stomping back to join them.
"Thanks for the help, Ron," she said sarcastically.
Ron looked away. "You handled it fine by yourself," he mumbled.
Hermione looked at their books and quills, and threw up her hands. "Oh, it's no good, I can't concentrate now." She grimaced. "I'm going to bed."
Harry expected her to storm upstairs but instead, Hermione started taking out misshapen lumps of wool—her attempts at freeing the house-elves. This, of course, started a minor row with Ron. Harry watched as his friend uncovered the hats and scarves behind Hermione's back and had to smile at Ron's sense of fairness.
"They should at least see what they're picking up," Ron said. "Anyway..." He started packing his bag. "There's no point trying to finish this now, I can't do it without Hermione, I haven't got a clue what you're supposed to do with moonstones, have you?"
Harry glanced half-heartedly at his book as a dull throb rang through his temples. He looked up at the empty table and shook his head. "I'm going to bed too, I think," Harry said, packing up as well.
He'd probably regret not doing his homework in the morning, Harry knew, but he'd much rather relax in bed after such an awful day. Perhaps he'd read a letter from his dad; that would cheer him up.
With that thought in mind, it wasn't long before he was in bed holding the stack of letters from his dad. He picked the one on top and carefully unfolded the parchment. His father's graceful handwriting stood out on the parchment. Harry took the time to savour it, a letter his dad had written to him. Opening it, it almost felt like he was just another kid getting post at school from his dad.
Harry let out a breath and started reading.
August 1, 1980
Welcome, my dearest baby boy, to the world. You were born yesterday but I've only just now been able to sit down and write this letter, what with all the well-wishers who came to meet you. Your Godfather's in the chair across from me and your mum is still sleeping. You made her work quite hard, you silly boy.
Harry couldn't help but smile at the words.
I still can hardly believe that I'm a dad. That I'm your dad. I'm so scared that I'm going to do something wrong and mess you up somehow. Your mum and Sirius believe in me, they say it's just nerves, but I don't think they realise how much I love you. I couldn't bear if I did something to hurt you, ever.
The ink was blurred just there, like water had spilled on the parchment.
And look at me, getting all mushy and crying over your first letter. Harry's fingers ghosted over the dried blurs, as if he was touching his father's tears. Sorry about that Harry. Don't think that your old man is a sissy now! I'm a very manly man. Yes. Just ask your mother. There was a splotch of ink on the parchment. On second thought, don't.
Anyway, I should probably tell you why I'm writing this letter. With the war going on ten years now, I want to make sure that you have a little something of me, to remember me by. Your mother writes in her diary, but I just can't imagine sitting there and just writing into a book. So your mum suggested that I write letters to you. If anything, these'll be interesting to look at years from now!
So Harry, here's the first of many letters from me to you. I hope you have thousands more and that this war will end soon, so I can send real letters to you when you go off to Hogwarts.
I love you, Harry.
- Your Dad
A choked sob made it past his lips and Harry curled into his side. Tears ran down his cheeks and he scrubbed furiously at them. The letter in his hands crinkled and Harry desperately smoothed it out with shaking hands. He sat there, staring at it, and finally realising what he'd lost so many years ago. The teenager dissolved into tears and cried until they carried him into sleep.
The second day of school was quite possibly worse than the first, even if it didn't start out that way. Harry woke up feeling refreshed, despite his gritty eyes and the dried tears on his face. He got to breakfast at a decent time and while he was chewing his bacon, Hedwig arrived with a letter.
"Who's it from?" Ron asked, grabbing another two slices of toast.
Harry glanced at the Muggle notepaper and grinned. "Clarisse!" he said, finger on the flap of the envelope.
Ron leaned in eagerly. "What's she say?" he asked.
Just as he was about to open the letter, Hermione set down her coffee cup and grabbed her bag. "No time for that," she said. "We need to hurry or we'll be late for Charms."
The boys cursed and Harry stuffed the letter in his pocket for safekeeping, intending to read it at the break. But when the stress of classes and ever-mounting homework proceeded to bury him, he forgot. It was only when they got down to Care of Magical Creatures that he remembered it.
"What's this? Potter's got a letter!" Malfoy crowed, holding a familiar envelope in his hand. Harry patted down his pocket but came up empty. "Let's see who's been writing the Boy-Who-Lived-To-Lie..."
As Malfoy began to rip it open, Harry drew his wand. "Accio!" Harry roared and snatched the letter out of the air.
The smirk on the blonde's face drooped but his nasty smile didn't go away. "You've got no family, you've got barely any friends," he sneered at Ron and Hermione, "so who'd want to write to you?" Malfoy laughed.
Harry's wand was still clenched in his fist and he took a step towards the slimy snake. Hands wrapped around his arms. "Let go!"
"What's going on here?" Grubbly-Plank's stern voice rang out. "Break it up! Go on, get to class!"
Hermione and Ron let go and Harry hastily stowed his wand. By the time the crowd cleared, the woman could only peer at the group suspiciously.
"Well, come on, then," she ordered, scowling.
With one last glare at Malfoy, Harry straightened his robes and followed his friends. He tucked his letter more securely in his pocket and reminded himself to be more careful about his post. What if Malfoy had actually read it!
Unfortunately, Harry didn't have a spare moment to read his letter until after his detention with Umbridge. Almost dropping from weariness, he laid on his bed, hand stinging, and unfolded the Muggle paper.
I'm finally home! The doctors finally released me, so mum came and got me on Friday. I miss everyone on the ward, but it's good to be home and in my old room again. My little brother's already trying to drive me mad but I can tell that my mum and dad are really pleased to have me back.
How's school been? Mum's letting me stay in the home study group until I'm well enough to go back to normal school. I'm glad because I'd miss our friends too much. Everyone already misses you. I hope you can come visit during Christmas. That would be brilliant!
I'm so happy that you're in remission! Mind, consolidation therapy isn't the easiest either, but at least you're on the mend. Didn't I tell you that you'd be alright? I'm glad that we're both okay.
Anyway, I should go, Mum wants me to go shopping with her. Write soon, okay? And take care of yourself, Harry!
Harry smiled and carefully tucked the letter between the pages of his old History of Magic textbook. He pulled out a spare piece of parchment and started writing a letter to his girlfriend, an absent smile on his face.
Harry flexed his right hand with a wince as he cut into it for the four hundredth time that week. Umbridge's detentions were beyond sadistic and there had to be something seriously wrong with the woman as she derived pleasure from seeing him cut into his own hand.
"Keep writing, Mr. Potter," her sickly sweet voice reminded him from her desk. "We want to make sure the message sinks in."
He pursed his lips and put quill to paper once more, desperately trying to focus on something else. As he bent forward and felt the press of metal between his shirt and skin, Harry's mind wandered to earlier that day.
He and Ron had spent their free period in the library, trying to tackle the small mountain that their homework had become. Hermione was too busy doing her Arithmancy homework to give them patronising looks but her tutting that morning at breakfast had been enough to set the boys to ignoring her.
Harry had managed to get to the end of his Transfiguration assignment and was starting Charms when he recalled another charm that he needed to be working on—one that had a more important deadline than Flitwick's essay. On the pretext of finding a book, Harry had ducked into the stacks to find the book he needed. It took him almost an hour but eventually he found it, deep within the stacks.
Portkeys: More Than You Ever Wanted To Know.
He sat down and flipped the pages. Harry had used the Portus spell before, which worked well enough, but it wasn't a permanent solution to his travel problem. The spell only worked once and Harry had to cast it on two different objects every week. He turned a page and it opened to the Portus Redeunt spell. Just what he needed. Harry figured that if he could make something like his parents' rings a two-way Portkey, the magic would last longer and he'd only have to cast the spell every few weeks.
Brandishing his wand, Harry prodded the gold rings, whispering the spell as loudly as he dared.
The scratching of his quill and searing pain in his hand brought Harry back to his present predicament. The lines on his hand had begun to bleed and already he had a couple streaks of red dripping down his thumb.
"Well," Umbridge said, suddenly appearing over his shoulder. "It looks like it's settling in nicely, don't you think, Mr. Potter?" she cooed. "That should be enough for tonight, but I shall see you tomorrow evening, at the same time."
Harry nodded tersely and beat a hasty retreat out of the office. The corridors were dark and silent, the hour being late and most students in their common rooms. His hand was still bleeding, so he wrapped a handkerchief around his fist to stem the blood. Harry then hurried to Gryffindor Tower, hoping not to get caught by Snape or Filch for returning late from detention. They sure weren't going to excuse him for that.
He turned to see Ron coming around the corner, his Prefect badge gleaming on his chest.
"Are you just getting back from detention?" his friend asked.
Harry grimaced. "Yeah," he moaned. "I'm never going to catch up with my homework at this rate."
"Ye—hey! What's that?" Ron said, alarmed, grabbing Harry's wrist. "Your hand's bleeding!"
"It's nothing," Harry said hastily, trying to pull away, but he was too late. Ron had unwrapped the bloody handkerchief to reveal the reddened cut. I must not tell lies.
"What is this?" Ron looked as if he might vomit.
Harry pulled away and tucked his hand in his pocket. "Nothing," he repeated. "Let's just get to the Tower before Snape finds us."
"Prefect, remember?" His friend said absently, pointing to his badge. Ron's gaze was focused on Harry. "What's Umbridge having you do in your detentions?"
"Lines," Harry muttered, not looking at Ron.
"On your hand?" Ron said, outrage growing on his face. "That is sick!" His freckled face was tinged with green. "Why haven't you told McGonagall or Dumbledore? They'd sack Umbridge in a second!"
"They've got enough to deal with," he returned stubbornly. "It doesn't have anything to do with them anyway. This is between me and Umbridge."
"I can handle it, Ron!" Harry shouted, whirling on his friend. He softened his voice at the startled expression on Ron's face. "Look, I only have one more detention with her and then it's over. There's no need to bother them with this."
He levelled a fierce glare at his friend until Ron gave in, reluctantly. The two turned toward Gryffindor Tower and Ron spent the whole way muttering obscenities under his breath. Harry couldn't agree more with every single one of them.
The weekend rushed all the concerns of Umbridge out of Ron's head as the Quidditch trials took over his brain. Umbridge had refused to excuse or reschedule his detention, so he was forced to watch the Keeper trials from her classroom window.
As he copied I must not tell lies, his hand seared and leaked drops of blood that splashed the parchment. Harry idly wondered what Umbridge was going to do with the parchment when he finished his detention as it looked too gruesome to just chuck on her desk.
"Let's see if you've gotten the message yet, shall we?" she said, breaking the silence.
Harry tensed as her bejewelled hand grasped his. Suddenly a flash of pain ran through his forehead—no, his scar—and he jerked out of her grip and onto his feet, clutching his arm to his chest. He stared wide-eyed at her, wondering where that had come from.
"Yes, it hurts. Doesn't it?" Her satisfied smile was enough to turn Harry's stomach. "Well, I think I've made my point, Mr. Potter. You may go."
Harry couldn't get out of there fast enough. He tried not to jump to conclusions, but the thought danced just out of reach. Was Umbridge a Death Eater? He hurried up to the Gryffindor Common Room and said the password robotically. He was so in his thoughts that he literally jumped when a wave of noise hit him.
Ron rushed up to him, sloshing butterbeer everywhere. "Harry, I did it, I'm in, I'm Keeper!"
"What? Oh—brilliant!" Harry forced out a smile as he was swept away into the party.
Harry woke early on Saturday morning and quickly jotted a letter to Sirius, making sure to write in code, just in case. He then ran up to the Owlery just after sunrise. Harry wanted to be mindful of his time, since he had to get breakfast, go to a doctor's appointment and get back before Quidditch practice started.
He went down to the Great Hall and noticed that Ron and Hermione hadn't come down yet. Harry started helping himself to bacon and eggs when his friends arrived and sat down next to him.
"Good morning Harry! You're up early," Hermione commented as she grabbed a piece of toast.
"Yeah," Harry said, "I needed to send off some letters before Quidditch practice."
"Oh...yeah..." Ron put down his fork and took a gulp of pumpkin juice. "Listen... you don't fancy going out a bit earlier with me, do you? Just to – er – give me some practice before training? So I can, you know, get my eye in a bit..."
Hermione protested, citing their mountain of incomplete homework, but was cut off by the arrival of the Daily Prophet.
"Anything interesting?" said Ron as Hermione flipped through the pages.
"Not really..." Hermione said, murmuring something about the Weird Sisters and marriage. Harry helped himself to more bacon and eggs.
"Wait a moment," Hermione said suddenly. "Oh no... Sirius!"
"What happened?" Harry exclaimed. He grabbed the newspaper and it tore down the middle with his force. He held one half while Hermione held the other.
The short article Hermione read out proved that Sirius had been spotted by Lucius Malfoy at the train station. Harry's heart sank in his chest, especially when Hermione reminded him of Dumbledore's previous lockdown. There was no way Sirius was going to get out of that house now.
Harry was then distracted by an article next to the Madam Malkin's advertisement. "Look at this!" he said, showing Ron and Hermione.
The short article claimed that Sturgis Podmore had been caught trying to break into a room at the Ministry at one in the morning and was now being sent to Azkaban for six months. Harry recognised his name from Moody's rants at King's Cross last week and Ron confirmed his suspicions.
Harry wondered what Sturgis was doing at the Ministry and if the Order was involved. Did it have something to do with what they'd overheard in that meeting? Had Sturgis been on guard duty?
"Hmm?" Harry looked up, startled, to see the quizzical expressions of his two friends.
"Are we going flying?" Ron interrupted, to Hermione's annoyance.
Harry bit his lip. He really wanted to, but he was due in Dundee in twenty minutes. "Er, look Ron, I want to, really, but —"
"We all need to do our homework!" Hermione crowed, cutting Harry off. "You see, Ron! Harry has his priorities in order."
"Er, right," Harry said slowly. He glanced at his watch and hurriedly wiped his mouth with a napkin. "Tell you what, I'll meet you both in the library, okay?"
He barely let them finish answering before running out of the Great Hall. Ron and Hermione stared at his back and shared puzzled looks.
"Is it just me, or has he gotten weirder?" Hermione asked Ron.
"Not just you," Ron said.
Ron and Hermione finished their breakfast and headed upstairs to grab their books. But when they got to the library, Harry was no where to be seen.
"Do you think we missed him?" Ron asked, craning his neck for his best friend.
Hermione sighed—he'd asked the same question six times already—and answered, "No, Ron. I don't know where he is." She pulled out her book bag and started laying her textbooks out. "Look, let's just get started."
Ron copied her, reluctantly, and pulled out his Herbology work. He fiddled with his quill for a moment. "Hermione?"
"I think something's going on with Harry. Something he's not telling us."
Hermione looked up, an expression of relief on her face. "So you've noticed it too!" she exclaimed in a whisper. "I thought I was the only one. He's been acting strange ever since he came back from the Dursleys'."
Ron nodded. "I just can't figure out what it is," he said quietly. "He's always told us everything before."
Hermione worried her lip. "Do you think it's about V-Voldemort?" she asked, fear creeping into her tone.
"Dunno," Ron shrugged, "but whatever it is, I'm worried about him. He's not acting like himself."
"He looks so tired all the time," Hermione agreed, "and he's always running off and disappearing for ages. When he comes back, he's always out of breath, like he's been running or something."
Ron's eyes widened. "You don't think..." His voice trailed off. "What if Dumbledore or the Aurors are training him to fight Voldemort? And he's always running off to defence practice or something?"
Hermione pondered the idea for a moment and then shook her head. "Why wouldn't he tell us about that?" she countered. "No, it's something else."
"But what?" Ron asked.
Hermione sighed, fingering the edges of a book. "I don't know, Ron," she admitted. "I just don't know."
"Ron!" Harry called out as he spotted his friend just outside the castle. He ran to catch up and breathed heavily as he hefted his Firebolt onto a shoulder.
"Mate!" Ron exclaimed. "Where've you been? Hermione and I waited in the Library for you for ages."
Harry grimaced guiltily. "Sorry," he said, "I got caught up in the Tower and by the time I got there, I couldn't find you. Guess we just missed each other."
The redhead frowned suspiciously and turned his head to the Pitch to hide his expression. "Guess we should get down there, then," he said after a pause. "Don't want to be late to my first practice."
Harry clapped a reassuring hand on Ron's shoulder. "You'll be great," he said, grinning.
Ron returned the grin weakly, but even that attempt fell as the drew closer to the stands and saw the Slytherin Quidditch team and hangers-on crowded there. Harry's good feeling sunk to the tips of his toes as Malfoy started the jeers the moment he saw them.
"What's that Weasley's riding?" Malfoy drawled. "Why would anyone put a Flying Charm on a mouldy old log like that?"
This was not going to be a good practice at all.
Sure enough, the Gryffindor Quidditch practice was an utter disaster that led into an intense homework session for Ron and Harry. Harry, especially, was suffering as he hadn't done any work that morning like Ron and Hermione did. The three of them worked well into the night but the two boys didn't get much work done, which led them to spend all of Sunday in the common room.
Harry fervently promised that he would never postpone his work this much again as he forced down the last few inches to his Astronomy essay that evening. Percy's letter, which had arrived only an hour ago, had only increased his headache and Ron's irritation. Hermione saved them both by offering to look over their essays.
"What?" Ron said dumbly.
"Give them to me, I'll look through them and correct them," she repeated.
Harry felt relief wash over him and he gratefully handed her his essay. "Thanks a million, Hermione," he said.
He sunk back into his armchair and let his gaze wander aimlessly. He was exhausted, it was well past midnight after all, but Percy's letter left a sick sensation churning in his stomach. Somehow that one letter had managed to make everything from the last few weeks in the Wizarding World that much more real. A person he'd known well for the last four years thought he was a lying lunatic. Maybe it wasn't so unreal that everyone else did too.
Sirius is probably the only person who can understand what this feels like, Harry thought, as he stared into the fire. A fresh wave of sympathy for his godfather washed over him.
And then Harry blinked, because he could've sworn that he'd seen Sirius' head in the fireplace. He sat up and it was gone.
"...Europa's covered in ice, not mice—Harry?" Hermione's voice filtered into his ears as he knelt in front of the fireplace.
"Er—Harry?" Ron asked hesitantly. "Why are you down there?"
"Because I've just seen Sirius's head in the fire." His voice was calm and even with an underlying tone of hopeful impatience. As dangerous as it would be to have his godfather Floo his head to Hogwarts, Harry desperately wanted to see him, to talk to him. After all, the last time he saw Sirius, Harry thought he wouldn't see him again.
"—Sirius!" Hermione exclaimed.
Harry grinned widely as he saw his godfather's cheery face surrounded by flames.
"I was starting to think you'd go to bed before everyone else had disappeared," Sirius said, starting the conversation.
It was quite informative, Harry thought, as Sirius assured them that despite being a nasty piece of work, Umbridge was more than likely not a Death Eater. Still, what Sirius did have to say about her didn't leave any doubt in Harry's mind that the woman (and probably the Ministry too) was a nutter.
Sirius also brought them news about what was going on with the Ministry and Hagrid, but Harry could sense the undercurrent of bitterness in Sirius's voice. He was still being shut up in the house with Kreacher and there clearly hadn't been anymore outdoor excursions since London.
That, of course, probably precipitated Sirius's offer to sneak into Hogsmeade that they furiously declined, which led to an argument.
"All right, all right, I've got the point," Sirius said, a displeased expression on his face. "Just an idea, thought you might like to get together—"
"I do, I just don't want you chucked back in Azkaban," Harry shouted, feeling a hotness behind his eyes.
Sirius paused, staring at Harry with a creased forehead.
"Guys," Harry said hoarsely, "can you give us a minute?" He glanced over his shoulder at his friends and met Hermione's eyes imploringly.
"Yeah, sure," Hermione said slowly. "Come on Ron."
She dragged a faintly protesting Ron to the dormitory stairs and Harry turned back to Sirius, who face had dropped into concern.
"What's wrong Harry?" he asked.
Harry let out a breath and swallowed thickly. "Look, Sirius," he said. "I can't lose you, you've got to understand that." He stared earnestly into his godfather's eyes. "If you got Kissed or worse—" Harry took a deep breath. "We've been given a second chance, Sirius. I just don't want to lose it by taking too many risks."
Sirius looked guilty now. "I don't either kiddo," he said. "It's just—this house and Kreacher are driving me mad!" He took a deep breath to halt his own rant and let it out. "I'll try and be more careful," he offered with a winning smile.
Harry nodded and gave a weak grin, his eyes still burning. "Thanks," he said, letting the subject drop. "How're you doing on those diaries?" he asked tentatively.
"Er," Sirius's face dropped and paled. "I haven't—" he choked, "I haven't been able to bring myself to read them." His voice had dropped to a whisper.
The teenager's own throat closed up and he nodded. "I understand," he said hoarsely. "Take your time."
Sirius's eyes shone gratefully and then brightened with mirth as Harry let out a deep, jaw-cracking yawn. "Looks like you should head to bed," he chuckled.
"Yeah, guess I should," said Harry reluctantly, a sheepish grin dawning on his face.
"Go on," Sirius said with a smile. "We can talk more some other time."
"Okay." The teenager got to his feet.
"Oh, and Harry?"
Harry turned to look down at Sirius's floating head. "Yeah, Sirius?"
"Be careful about what you put in your letters," Sirius warned, his face serious. "Someone may be watching your post."
Harry nodded gravelly. In the next moment, the fireplace was empty and he swore he could hear Sirius's voice faintly saying "Goodnight!" With a sleepy smile, he tumbled up the stairs and into his four-poster bed. Ron was already snoring away, so Harry just flopped forward, promising himself to tell his friends everything in the morning.
He was in a room, lit only by a roaring fireplace. The rug was threadbare and mouldy wallpaper peeled on the walls. The faint hissing of a serpent permeated the room and Harry's heart clenched when he realised who had answered.
"Do not worry, Nagini," Voldemort hissed from a dark red armchair. "You shall feast on the brat's bones soon enough." He smiled. "I almost have what I need—"
"M-My Lord?" Pettigrew's squeaky voice appeared at the door.
"What!" Voldemort snapped. Harry saw his long fingers slide across his black wand.
Pettigrew cleared his throat noisily. "I have your potions, Master." He held out a silver tray with shaking hands. Harry's eyes widened at the number of vials.
Voldemort took them one by one and swallowed, dumping the empty glass back on the tray. "You will need to buy more ingredients tomorrow," he said oily, grasping another potion by its neck.
"M-Me?" Pettigrew squeaked.
"Yes, you imbecile!" Voldemort shouted. "Severus has grown suspicious of my orders and his loyalty to me has not been proven. I can't risk him telling the old fool." His red eyes glared at Wormtail. "You will fetch what I need from the market and then you will brew my potions. If you fail, Nagini gets to eat you."
The snake hissed menacingly at just the right time and Pettigrew whimpered. "Yes, my Lord," he said, bending down to kiss the hem of Voldemort's robes.
"Now get out of my sight!" Voldemort barked. Wormtail scurried out of the room and Harry felt his vision start to blur. As it did, he felt a wave of weariness wash over him, something familiar that he hadn't felt in weeks. He looked up and saw Voldemort's hunched figure. Harry felt ice seize his heart. Am I feeling him?
Harry didn't have a chance to tell Ron and Hermione about his latest vision before news of Umbridge's new position pushed all worries of Voldemort out of his mind.
"'High Inquisitor'?" Harry repeated, reading the Daily Prophet article over Hermione's shoulder, as his half-eaten toast slipped from his fingers. "What does that mean?"
Hermione read it aloud, her eyes bright and breathe quickening with every paragraph. "So now we know how we ended up with Umbridge! Fudge passed this 'Educational Decree' and forced her on us! And now he's given her the power to inspect other teachers!" she exclaimed. "I can't believe this. It's outrageous…."
Harry fervently agreed as his clenched fist on the tabletop shone with the faint white outline of his newest scar. This woman was out of control and Fudge was only giving her more power.
"What?" Hermione asked, staring at Ron's grinning face. Harry glanced up at his friends.
"Oh, I can't wait to see McGonagall inspected," said Ron happily. "Umbridge won't know what's hit her."
"Well, come on," Hermione said, jumping to her feet, "we'd better get going. If she's inspecting Binns's class, we don't want to be late."
Harry followed them to their History of Magic lesson but Umbridge was nowhere to be seen. Nor was she in Snape's class, where Harry managed to get a D on his moonstone essay.
Lunch was slightly more eventful as Hermione nattered on about OWLs scores and Fred and George added their own helpful advice. Harry's mood was steadily turning downwards and wasn't helped by Umbridge's presence in Divination that afternoon.
"We shall be continuing our study of prophetic dreams today," Trelawney announced, trying to valiantly ignore Umbridge's scratching quill in the corner. "Divide into pairs, please, and interpret each other's latest nighttime visions with the aid of the Oracle."
Harry slowly opened his book, watching Umbridge out of the corner of his eye. When Umbridge started to move around the room, he ducked his head, trying to look busy.
"Think of a dream, quick," he whispered to Ron, "in case the old toad comes our way."
"I did it last time," Ron protested. "It's your turn, you tell me one."
Harry's mind wandered to last night's dream and his worries about Voldemort came rushing to him. "I had a dream last night," he said quietly, glancing furtively for any eavesdroppers and his eyes landed on Umbridge. He definitely didn't want to be having this conversation within her earshot. "I'll tell you and Hermione later, okay?" He desperately cast around for another idea. "How about we say I was … drowning Snape in my cauldron? Yeah, that'll do…"
Ron snorted, although his suddenly-vivid freckles said he was anything but amused. Harry was just glad that his friend held his tongue. Whether Umbridge was a servant of Voldemort or not, he didn't want her to hear anything about his dreams.
"It's getting worse," Harry whispered to Ron and Hermione over his pork chops that evening. "I'm having flashes of what he's feeling, I think."
"Harry, that's not good!" Hermione said, her face white. "I really think you should tell Dumbledore!"
"And what's he going to do?" he returned, stabbing a potato with his fork. "It's not like he can just go in my head and stop them from happening. He would have done it by now if he could." Harry shook his head. "It's not like there's much to tell him anyway. I doubt he really wants to know that Voldemort sends Wormtail out to get his biscuits."
Ron snorted loudly. "Sorry," he mumbled, at Hermione's glare. "'S just funny. What if he makes Wormtail wash his grundies too?"
The three of them laughed and shuddered at the same time, breaking the tension hovering over the table. Harry stuffed the last bite into his mouth and glanced at his watch.
"I should be going," he said, hastily grabbing his bag, "I wouldn't want to be late for detention." Harry grimaced as the words left his mouth.
Ron nodded sympathetically and Harry ignored the strange expression on Hermione's face. He'd have to deal with her in the morning.
"Bye," said Harry, waving over his shoulder.
He hurried out of the Great Hall and took the stairs two at a time. His hand had barely healed after last week and now he was going under the quill again. Harry ground his teeth together and steeled himself. He wouldn't give Umbridge the satisfaction of making him give in. He refused.
Harry succeeded at keeping his mouth shut in detention, but it seemed his brain had other ideas outside of Umbridge's office. McGonagall and Angelina scolded him thoroughly at breakfast and Hermione threw her lot in with them when he asked about her opinion. Harry then managed to add another day of detention onto his current week when he spoke up for Hagrid during Umbridge's Care of Magical Creatures inspection. The unfairness of it all stung at him as he wrote each line in detention that evening.
Umbridge didn't release him until midnight and, by then, Harry's hand was bleeding through the cloth he'd wrapped around it. He'd planned to clean it properly and go to bed, but his friends surprised him by staying up to wait for him.
"Here," Hermione said anxiously, sympathy etched on her face, "soak your hand in that, it's a solution of strained and pickled murtlap tentacles. It should help."
Harry carefully dropped his aching and bleeding hand into the bowl of yellow liquid and felt a warm, relaxing relief sweep over him. He'd really have to remember this stuff for later, he thought, loving how good it felt. Crookshanks hopped up onto his lap and began purring, almost echoing his feelings.
"Thanks," he said gratefully, leaning back in his chair. The orange cat mewled and pushed his head under Harry's free hand, urging him to pet.
"I still reckon you should complain about this," Ron insisted in a low voice.
"McGonagall would go nuts if she knew—"
Harry sighed. "Yeah, she probably would," he said dully, absently scratching Crookshanks' ear. "And how long d'you reckon it'd take Umbridge to pass another Decree saying anyone who complains about the High Inquisitor gets sacked immediately?"
Ron opened his mouth to protest but closed it defeat after a moment.
"I'll be fine," Harry said. He didn't fool any of them.
"She's an awful woman," said Hermione. "Awful. You know, I was just saying to Ron when you came in… we've got to do something about her."
"I suggested poison," Ron said grimly.
Hermione leveled a flat look at him. "I meant something about her teaching," she said. "We're never going to learn any defense from her at all!"
"Well, what can we do about that?" said Ron, yawning. "'S too late, isn't it? She got the job and she's here to stay. Fudge'll make sure of that."
Hermione bit her lip. "Well, you know, I was thinking today…" The look she shot at Harry unnerved him slightly. "I was thinking that—maybe the time's come when we should just—just do it ourselves."
"Do what, exactly?" Harry asked suspiciously, sitting up slightly.
"Well—learn Defense Against the Dark Arts ourselves," she said.
Harry's ominous feeling started to grow as Ron and Hermione argued about her proposition, especially when her face began to alight with S.P.E.W.-like fervor. He wasn't sure what she was thinking but he was sure he wasn't going to like it.
And he didn't, when he realised that she was talking about making him their teacher.
"But…," Harry said to Ron and Hermione, his eyes wide. He really hoped this was all a joke, "But I'm not a teacher, I can't—"
"Harry, you're the best in the year at Defense Against the Dark Arts," said Hermione.
"Me?" he said incredulously, grinning broadly. "No I'm not, you've beaten me in every test—"
Hermione and Ron presented their argument and ignored him as he tried to explain the flaws in their reasoning. With each ignored plea, Harry grew angrier until he exploded at them, raining the floor with murtlap essence as Crookshanks darted under the couch.
"You don't know what it's like!" he shouted, going off on them. You—neither of you—you've never had to face him, have you? You think it's just memorizing a bunch of spells and throwing them at him, like you're in class or something? The whole time you know there's nothing between you and dying except your own—your own brain or guts or whatever—like you can think straight when you know you're about a second from being murdered, or tortured, or watching your friends die—they've never taught us that in their classes, what it's like to deal with things like that—and you two sit there acting like I'm a clever little boy to be standing here, alive, like Diggory was stupid, like he messed up—you just don't get it, that could just as easily have been me, it would have been if Voldemort hadn't needed me—"
Harry's voice choked, his eyes hot and his chest heaving. He gulped air and tried desperately not to let the tears fall. They had no idea what it was like to be the one Voldemort wanted, the one who had to watch others die when that sick bastard tried to get to him. They had no idea what it was like to have the burden of his secrets, just in the hope that they might end all that suffering, torture and death. Harry sniffed and stared at the fire, letting his friends' stricken voices wash over him.
"…this is exactly why we need you," Hermione said carefully. "We need to know what it's r-really like…facing him… facing V-Voldemort."
Harry looked at her and felt calmer, just hearing her say Voldemort's name for the first time. He slid back into his chair, hand throbbing horribly and nodded quietly at Hermione's question, not aware of what he was agreeing to.
She and Ron beat a retreat to the dorms but Harry stayed downstairs, mulling things over in front of the fire.
His plan was working so far. Voldemort was growing weaker every day and that could only be a good thing. But Harry was wary about the increasing frequency of his visions and dreams. He'd had two in just a few weeks and now he was starting to feel what Voldemort was feeling—and it wasn't just strong emotions anymore. What if it was getting stronger because Voldemort was getting weaker?
Harry's brow furrowed and he felt a packet of fear grow in his chest. He wanted nothing more than to talk to Sirius but he knew that if he did, Sirius would just rush out to Hogsmeade and get himself caught or worse. And Harry didn't think he could live with himself if anything happened to his godfather because of him.
As the fire began to die, Harry firmed his resolve. If the connection's strength was a result of Voldemort weakening then there was no reason to get anyone else involved. He'd just have to wait it out and, sooner or later, Voldemort would die. Harry had to believe that.
Disclaimer: Several portions of dialogue and description in this chapter were copied from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Anything that you recognize belongs to J.K. Rowling!
A/N: Thank you, everyone, for your reviews! I'm so glad to know that people are still reading and enjoying this! I'm going to do my level best to update quickly because I do want to finish this sooner rather than later. I apologize for the very, very long wait. This chapter had to be rewritten a couple of times and my crazy life kept getting in the way, as it is prone to do. The good news is, I spent the better part of an evening writing out an outline for the next several chapters of this fic, so I'm hoping that'll make it easier to keep on task!
And just a couple of notes to those who may not have read my disclaimers and notes thoroughly enough. I know that so far this fic follows OoTP closely, despite the cancer angle. That is intentional. This fic is an exercise in taking canon and seeing how things change if one aspect was different. I promise you that things will begin to change once we get farther into the fic. They have already. Please give me a few more chapters before you start passing judgments. And if you don't like it, you don't have to read it. Please don't accuse me of plagiarism. I've put this note in several disclaimers and A/N's already, to make it perfectly clear that I don't intend to copy Rowling's work and pass it off as my own. As a serious writer, I take accusations or implications of plagiarism very seriously and very personally.
:D Anyway, thanks everyone for reading, reviewing, faving and alerting! As always, please continue to do so, as encouragement always helps me to update faster.
Have a great Father's Day!