The majority of Harry's first ever ride on the Hogwarts Express back when he was eleven had been spent hiding in the loo, and it was still better than what he experienced on his way into fifth year.
"...And then mum said I could try driving the car when we come back for winter holiday, even though you aren't technically allowed until you're seventeen."
Ron unwrapped one of Dudley's pumpkin pasties and shrugged. "I've driven a car before."
Dudley was outraged. "No you haven't! Wizards don't even have cars!" He paused and glanced at Hermione. "Do they?"
"Sometimes they do," Ron said defensively. "My dad modified one. It even flies and goes invisible and things."
"I remember that car," Harry said, glad to be talking about something that wasn't Aunt Petunia. "Professor Lupin drove me to his house in it, once. It was terrifying. Brooms should be in the air, and cars should be on the ground. And if they're not, you should at least be able to see what you're doing."
"I think that's highly illegal, anyway, Ron," Hermione cut in. She was already dressed in her uniform, prefect badge pinned to her chest and sparkling proudly.
"I bet you haven't driven it at all," Dudley said, and puffed himself up. "Mum says usually teenagers aren't responsible enough to drive, but she thinks I'd be fantastic."
"I have driven it," Ron disagreed. "Fred and George and I take it out when Dad won't notice, and we even fly it sometimes!"
"Fred and George wouldn't let you fly it," Neville interjected from the other corner of the compartment, where he was fiddling with a pot of some strange looking plant. His own prefect badge shone in a more subdued manner on his lapel. "I bet they don't even let you sit in front when they're flying."
Ron's ears were getting red. Dudley took the attention off him by, unsurprisingly, turning the conversation back to his mother. "Yeah, but mum says she's going to train me up so I can pass my test on my birthday and everything."
Dudley hadn't stopped talking about his mother since they got on the train. Harry was ready to yell at Hermione to get her to stop sending him worried and sympathetic glances every time he did.
"I'm going to go find... Anthony and Luna," Harry said, having decided to avoid the inevitable conflict. The Gryffindors called their goodbyes to him as he hurried out the door, which he closed with a sigh. He didn't fancy poking his head into dozens of other compartments, but there wasn't really much of a choice if he wanted to find his Ravenclaw friends. He set off down the corridor and got to work.
Every compartment Harry looked in on met him with hostile or wide eyed expressions when they realized it was him. He'd been to ten compartments and was starting to seriously consider giving up and taking a nap in one of the loos until they arrived at Hogwarts.
Going back to Dudley and his gushing over Aunt Petunia and every single unfailingly muggle thing they'd done together that summer wasn't an option. He was almost afraid he'd find Blaise and Pansy, since they would either be alone, or they wouldn't be. Neither option sounded appealing. Anthony and Luna were a safer bet, if only he could find them without also finding out exactly how many of his fellow Hogwarts students had a subscription to the Daily Prophet.
Easier said than done.
Harry wandered up and down in the corridor, filled with indecision until he found himself at the end of the train and turned around to see Draco exiting a compartment and sliding the door shut with deliberation. Harry glanced at the compartments on either side of him and spent a second longer than he should have debating which one to duck into.
"Harry." Draco was looking right at him, now, and standing directly in front of him.
He was saying something, and he looked so worried and upset that Harry wished he had another train car to back into. The last time Harry had seen Draco looking that concerned, Harry had been broken and bleeding and had just escaped from the graveyard where Crouch Jr had cut off his own hand and forced Harry to lean over a cauldron and bleed bright red blood into the diamond coloured water...
Harry shook his head a few times, blinking against his tunnelling vision and hoping distantly that Draco wouldn't notice his state. Draco's eyebrows drew together as he spoke. He looked paler than he had been last year, which was a feat.
"I just wanted you to know," Draco said, gesturing vaguely. "Blaise said you didn't read any of my letters, so I just wanted to..."
He trailed off and looked more closely at Harry. Whatever he saw made his mouth tighten. "Right. I'll... I'll just go."
Draco hurried away, and only once Harry had the corridor to himself again did he finally take a sharp breath and lean back against the wall. The loo was looking better and better.
At the feast, Draco sat next to Theodore Nott, though they didn't seem to speak to each other. Harry decided not to notice either way. He was partially successful, considering that he was still incredibly disconcerted by the skeletal horses that had been pulling the school carriages this year. He had liked it better when he thought the carriages were charmed.
The new Defense teacher was an unpleasant looking, pink clad woman from the Ministry. Harry remembered hearing Tonks and Remus discussing her appointment a couple days ago. She had sounded awful then, and from the long, dry speech she gave as she cast her pouchy gaze over the Hall, Harry wasn't holding out much hope.
"If you're going to sit with Harry and I, you can at least be enough of an adult to pass the water jug when asked," Pansy hissed.
That was another thing.
"I'm sitting with Harry," Blaise responded, glaring at her and pouring more water into his already half full cup. "I don't see how it's anything to do with me if you decide to sit with us. And I thought we agreed not to be petty about this."
If the Defense professor hadn't still been speaking, Harry was sure Pansy would have yelled her next words. Her harsh whisper was loud enough to garner a few glares from the sixth year prefects. "I am not the one who won't pass the water jug, Blaise."
"So you two broke up, then," Harry said unnecessarily. "That's awful. When did that happen?"
"Last week," Blaise said, raising his eyebrow at Pansy and pointedly ignoring the water jug sitting in front of him. "Pansy said she couldn't stand me anymore."
"Yes, well Blaise called me an awful harridan, but no one's pointing fingers," Pansy retorted. "Harry, it's okay. Neither of us wants to put you in the middle of this."
Harry didn't even bother to point out their current seating arrangements. He picked up the water jug and set it in front of Pansy on his other side. She seemed far more pleased than the situation warranted.
At least Anthony and Luna looked fairly cheerful over at the Ravenclaw table, or at least what passed for cheerful for them. As Harry watched, Anthony slid easily into his 'I Have A Book Open Under The Table And Am Ignoring You' slump, while Luna hummed next to him and tugged at her radish earrings occasionally. She saw Harry looking and waved.
"...Every headmaster and headmistress of Hogwarts has brought something new to the weighty task of governing this historic school, and that is as it should be..."
The Weasley twins were playing a baffling game involving a ball of parchment and a fork, and Harry spent a few minutes trying to puzzle out the rules before giving up. Hermione seemed to actually be paying attention to the new professor, and her expression made Harry frown and tune in again.
"...some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognised as errors of judgement..."
Harry shook his head and resolved to ask Hermione later what the new professor had said to get her looking like she'd smelled something foul and was trying not to let on.
In the meantime, he went back to pretending the rest of the hall wasn't scowling at him whenever he accidentally made eye contact. Because they definitely were. Skeeter had done a lot more damage than he'd thought.
He didn't even know most of the students he was being glared at by. Granted, it was worse at the Slytherin table, but that was no surprise after all the hate mail he'd gotten over the summer.
"I don't think Harry wants to hear you tapping your fingers on the table like a troglodyte, Blaise," Pansy muttered under her breath. "Do try to be considerate for once in your life."
"Hey, remember that time in third year when we all went to Pansy's dorm?" Harry asked abruptly.
"To look at the Map, you mean?" Pansy frowned, obviously trying to work out what Harry was getting at.
"Yeah," Harry said. "Do you remember that, Blaise?"
Blaise gave him a funny look. "I remember you and Draco got covered in boils."
"Yeah," Harry said, and took a sip of water. "Yeah, that time. That was fun."
The two of them blinked at him, waiting for more, but Harry just turned his attention back to the blathering from the head table. He was exhausted already. If only the new professor would stop talking, he could go up to his dorm and fall straight to sleep. Things would hopefully be better in the morning.
"Wands away and quills out, please."
Professor Umbridge's high-pitched, girlish voice was grating on Harry's already frayed nerves. On his way up to the classroom, people from every House had seen him and run in the opposite direction. Some of them had sneered. Some of them had pulled out their wands or walked closer to their friends. None of them had said a word to him. It was like they thought he was nutters or something.
Pansy and Blaise walked with him to classes, determinedly silent in the other's presence, but still there. It was better than being alone, anyway, which wasn't saying much.
And now they were all turning to page five of Defensive Magical Theory by Wilbert Slinkhard, and reading the most agonizingly boring first chapter Harry had ever encountered. He gave up quickly and looked around the room instead, realizing almost immediately that he wasn't the only one. Daphne Greengrass was taking the opportunity to plait her hair, though she kept her eyes on her book and made a big show of turning a page every once in a while. Umbridge was sitting at the front of the class, smiling pleasantly and pointedly at every stray eye.
Another twenty minutes passed in painful silence, until finally, Theodore Nott raised his hand.
Umbridge ignored him, and Theo propped his chin up in his other hand, letting his arm dangle aloft as he stared down the top of their professor's mousy brown head.
Finally, she gave in. Theo had clearly settled in for an entire class period of keeping his hand in the air, and everyone else had settled in to watch.
"Did you want to ask something about the chapter, dear?"
"Oh no," Theo said amiably. "I've just finished, is all. I think we all have."
The rest of the class murmured their agreement. Harry joined in and discreetly flipped to the last page of the chapter.
"Is that so?" Umbridge said. "Lovely. Then I should like you all to turn to page nineteen and begin Chapter Two, 'Common Defensive Theories and Their Derivation'."
The whole group of them exchanged incredulous glances.
"Professor..." One of the girls, Tracy, raised her hand as she spoke. "I have a question."
Umbridge raised her eyebrows. "In the future, dear, wait until you are called on to speak."
"Yes, ma'am, of course, my apologies," she said, ducking her head and continuing in an anxious tone before Umbridge could reply. "My name is Tracy Davis, ma'am. It's only, I sometimes have difficulty in keeping up with my coursework, and especially as this is our O.W.L. year, I wonder if it might be possible if you please, ma'am, for you to provide a Ministry-approved syllabus that I could follow, in order to apply myself more efficiently?"
Umbridge blinked at her for a long moment, but Tracy's face was beautifully earnest. Several other students nodded and a positive murmur floated through the room.
"I believe I provided you with the course aims at the beginning of the lesson," Umbridge said. "Do you not find that sufficient to your needs?"
"I'm terribly sorry ma'am." Tracy ducked her head again and managed a blush. "I'd like to begin my revision schedule as soon as possible, you understand. I find that the other professors don't always have the most predictable or stable lesson plans, and I thought perhaps your curriculum could provide a sort of solid base to work from."
Umbridge thought this over and pressed her hands together, letting out a girlish giggle that made Harry shudder unexpectedly. "Well I suppose a Ministry-approved syllabus would be an effective learning tool, dear."
"Thank you so much, ma'am," Tracy gushed as Umbridge moved to the front desk and waved her wand over several sheets of parchment. "I really do believe theory and tradition are the finest tools of a successful education. We really are long since due for some structure at Hogwarts."
Harry glanced at Blaise, who had a small smirk playing around his mouth. He couldn't be the only one who thought Tracy was laying it on a bit thick, but Umbridge was up at her desk now, creating a syllabus and even wearing an sickly sweet smile as she did it.
"Tracy's good friends with some of the Ravenclaws," Pansy told him after class as they watched the other Slytherins crowd around Tracy's syllabus and make disgusted faces at it. "They had Defense first thing, read through four chapters in one class, and there was never any need to talk."
"Try and get a copy of that," Harry said, hanging back as he watched the rest of the Slytherins gather around. Draco broke out of the pack just as Pansy squeezed Harry's arm and stepped away. She stopped when she saw Draco coming and waited for him.
"So thoughtful, Draco," Pansy said with a smile, plucking his copy out of his hands while he was busy looking anxiously at Harry. Harry stuck his hands in his pockets and examined his feet more thoroughly than he ever had before. He needed new trainers. "We'll see you in Herbology, darling?"
"Yeah," Draco said, looking back at her and hitching his bag up on his shoulder. Harry's shoelaces were fraying, too. "I'll see you there."
He fled in the direction of the Great Hall. Harry relaxed once he turned a corner out of sight and glanced at the syllabus.
"She really means to keep us reading that book all term," Pansy muttered, running a manicured finger down the rows of dates and assignments. "Well, I'm going to be catching up on my Witch Weekly subscription."
"This is... insane," Harry said, glaring at the paper. Pansy glanced up at him with a quirk of her mouth.
"We've had useless Defense teachers before, Harry. Somehow we'll manage."
"No," Harry shook his head, all the anger and frustration of the day boiling up and demanding to be released. "The Ministry put her here. They hand picked her, I heard about it over the summer. They've got her teaching us how to sit quietly while-"
Pansy shushed him. Harry ignored her and, indeed, raised his voice. Several of the Slytherins in the group crowded around Tracy glared at him.
"Voldemort, Pansy! I'm allowed to say it! He's back and he's killed people already, and we're reading in the one class that's supposed to show us how to protect ourselves?"
Grabbing his arm, Pansy leaned closer. "Yes, I know, Harry. But do you know what's not going to help?"
Harry glared at her and opened his mouth. She lifted her 'I-dare-you' eyebrow and continued.
"What definitely won't help is yelling about it in the corridor like a madman," she said. "Instead, we're going to do what we've always done, which is deal."
"Got dropped from the Wizengamot for publicly supporting you, didn't you hear?" Pansy led him down the corridor by his elbow to a quieter spot. "You're not popular, Harry, face it. You're more infamous than famous, and you almost always have been. We need to work on your public relations, and that starts with tactical thinking, and not shouting."
Harry slumped. "Yes, fine," he grumbled. "I'm going to the library."
"Good!" Pansy said, beaming. "You go and you practice using your indoor voice."
"O.W.L.'s, no time to talk," Anthony said when Harry arrived at the library. Harry made a face at him.
"It's the first day of school, Anthony," he said, as though Anthony might have forgotten.
"Of fifth year, Harry," Anthony said, as though Harry might have forgotten. "I should have gotten started on this weeks ago, but I got that three volume treatise on Game Theory as a back-to-school present and I couldn't put it down. I have more than sixty optional texts to get through before May, and right now I have to come up with a combinatorial proof to decide where to start."
Harry sighed and sat down next to Luna while Anthony buried his nose in his lists and books again, looking far too pleased with it all. "How was your summer, Luna?"
"Strenuous and invigorating, Harry, thank you for asking." Luna smiled up at him from her own hefty tome. "I'm afraid I may not have much time to speak with you this year, either, unfortunately."
Harry let his head thump down on the table. "Why, Luna? You don't have O.W.L.'s."
"Not technically, no," Luna said from above him. "But I've been in the habit since the end of first year of reading for all of Anthony's classes in addition to my own. It's fascinating to be able to compare two of my own essays on the same topic with a year of personal and academic development separating them."
Harry lifted his head up and looked at her. "So, wait. You're doing all your assignments twice?"
Luna nodded and tilted her head so that it was parallel to his. Harry let his head thunk back on the table.
"It was Anthony's idea initially, but I do enjoy it," she explained with an absent sort of smile in her voice. "Though I imagine I will be quite busy this year."
"I have a headache," Harry told the table.
"You have bumped your head twice since you sat down," Luna said helpfully.
Harry groaned and made a face against the wood. "Maybe I was doing one of your puzzles and the answer turned out to be Ludenwic again."
"I thought it was usually Ludenberg?" Luna tilted her head curiously. "It's good to see you anyway, Harry."
"It's good to see you too, Luna," Harry said pulling his head off the desk and sitting up straight. "You too, Anthony."
Anthony waved a quill at Harry in tacit agreement.
"Anthony." Harry waited until Anthony finally paused in his writing and glanced up. "You and I are going to go flying this year, okay? Before it gets too cold out. I don't want to go flying in the snow."
"You've made me go flying in the snow before," Anthony said. "I didn't think you minded it."
Harry leaned back in his seat, satisfied. "I don't, but it's still better when it's nice out," he explained.
He sat with Anthony and Luna for the rest of lunch, basking in the comfortable silence and the near-empty library. He really did have a headache, and not from hitting his head on the table.
Clearing his mind helped, and he focused on maintaining that level of calm in the hallways on the way to his next class, Charms, where Flitwick shattered his peaceful interior by telling them they needed to come up with career goals. Harry hadn't given much thought to the topic at all, and had no idea where to start. Most of the adult wizards he knew were either professors or aurors, and neither of those sounded particularly appealing.
"Weasley Wizarding Wheezes," Fred proclaimed, displaying the logo for Harry's perusal. "Home of the finest tricks, gags, and pranks a wizard could ever ask for."
"Nice," Harry said, frowning at the pile of sweets. "How did you pull all this off so quickly?"
George shrugged. "We've had a lot of stuff in beta testing for a while. It took your funding to purchase the ingredients to let us work with our products on a larger scale."
"More importantly, we can really get a start on the antidotes to a few of these," Fred added. "And build up some word-of-mouth advertising while banging out a bit of market research at the same time."
Harry picked up a bright purple candy and sniffed it. "So, these actually work?"
"So far," George shrugged. "Right now we haven't moved past animal testing, but once we've figured out the proper dosages, we'll be looking for volunteers to test them out."
Harry hurriedly put the candy back down. "I'm going to say no in advance." The twins shared identical expressions of disappointment. "And what kind of animal testing?"
"Oh, well, that's actually a euphemism," Fred said with a wink. "George here is what the lovely female population would call a stallion-"
"And Fred's a lion, from what I've been told."
George waggled his eyebrows at Harry for good measure. Harry snorted.
They saluted him as he left the empty classroom they'd been meeting in. Getting updates about their joke shop was one of the few things Harry had insisted on when he agreed to front some money for the venture. They seemed to know what they were about, and there were more steps to move through to get to the point where they could start selling their products than Harry had imagined. It was entertaining and a good distraction.
He did have Quidditch practice to get to, though, and when he arrived, his teammates were already pulling on their gear. Harry sat down and strapped on his kneepads with haste, ignoring his normal locker in exchange for one that wasn't situated five feet from Draco's.
"Men! Focus!" Pucey, their Keeper and Captain, stood at the entrance to the showers, holding a whistle aloft as though he might blow it. Experience told them all to shut up and pay attention, immediately. The echo and the tile in here didn't create gentle acoustics. Harry felt his headache return at just the thought of it, and straightened up.
"Gryffindor House is vulnerable this year," Pucey told them. There was a murmur from the group. "They've lost their captain, and they are out of practice due to last term's... interruption."
The Slytherin team was just as out of practice, as Pucey (the replacement for the captain they'd lost) knew, but it was hardly relevant. It didn't matter to his mind that they weren't strong. Only that the opposition was weak. His leadership style was hardly a surprise.
The piercing blast of the whistle that came next was also very Pucey-like, and Harry scrambled with the rest of the team to finish changing and get out onto the field.
"This year we take the Cup, or I will personally spike every Slytherin Quidditch player's pumpkin juice with enough Impotency Elixir that your children's children will be sterile!"
There was sense in that threat somewhere, Harry was sure. He was switching to water until he found it, though.
A/N: This'll be the last update from me before I go to Kenya! I'll be gone for two months, and I'll have someone update a few chapters in my absence. For more on that, see the poll on my profile. I know, I'm not just abandoning you all for the two months that I'm gone! Aren't I getting better at this? :]