"Have you been clearing your mind daily?"
"And again at night before you sleep?"
"And you've been developing your thought-chains?"
Snape's gaze darted back and forth between Harry's eyes, and Harry felt himself begin Occluding automatically.
"Good," Snape said. "Where exactly do the headaches begin?"
Harry frowned and pressed his fingers against his own temples, and began pressing slowly along the width of his forehead until he reached what felt like the origin of the pain.
Harry nodded and continued rubbing at the spot. Snape stood and swept over to his desk to thumb through a book that sat open on the surface.
"This is not ideal," Snape said. "To my knowledge, the Dark Lord does not know of the connection between the two of you."
Harry's eyes widened. "Sir?"
"As far as the headmaster and I have been able to surmise, your headaches last year correlated with the Dark Lord's gradual return to power. The Dark Lord was unaware of the connection as of less than a week ago, but if your headaches have returned, we can only suspect the worst."
"What should I do?" Harry asked, watching as Snape referenced the book again.
"For now," Snape said, glancing up at Harry, "Continue to clear your mind and practice your Occlumency, especially when you feel the beginnings of a headache. There are intelligent ways of exploiting this information, and there are thoughtless ways. Allow me to determine which is which before we move forward with any plan of action."
"It's absolutely useless, that's what it is."
Hermione threw her quill down on the table and glared at it for good measure.
"I agree," Harry said, throwing his own quill after hers perhaps a bit harder than necessary in support. "Defense is a joke this year."
As it was still the first week of school, the library was fairly empty but for Harry, his Gryffindor friends, and a few other frantic fifth and seventh years. Even Ron hadn't shown up today, leaving only Harry, Hermione, Neville and Dudley to their work.
"We'll never pass the O.W.L.s with lessons like these," Hermione muttered, pouring over the syllabus Harry had lent her. "Secure, risk free way, my foot."
Harry had another class with Umbridge later on today, and he wasn't looking forward to it at all. The only silver lining was that it was Friday, and though he'd probably spend the entire weekend doing homework, it was better than having to deal with the constant stares and whispers from the students and the pressure about O.W.L.s from the professors and Hermione.
"It's about more than just O.W.L.s, Hermione," Harry said, leaning back in his chair and scrubbing his hands through his hair. "It's about being prepared if and when Voldemort stops hiding and starts killing people."
Neville twitched, and Harry frowned at him, misplaced anger boiling under his words. "It's true, Neville. I saw him."
"I know you did, Harry," Neville said with some surprise. "I didn't say you didn't. You caught me off guard with the name, that's all. I don't know anyone else who just blurts it out like that!"
Harry relaxed somewhat, and shrugged a little, still on edge but willing to be contrite. "Sorry, mate."
"I know it's about more than O.W.L.s, Harry," Hermione interrupted, still glaring at page after page of the syllabus. "Something has to be done. We can't waste a whole year we could be using to learn to defend ourselves, you're right. I'm going to find a way around this."
Hermione flipped the syllabus over and began scribbling on the back, grimacing every so often and glancing up at Harry, Neville and Dudley appraisingly once or twice. Knowing her, she'd not let them hear the end of it once she worked out a plan, so the other three left her to it and went back to their own work.
"We have more homework already in a week than we did in three last year," Neville said, flipping through his Transfiguration text woefully.
"This year is going to be awful," Harry agreed, still in a foul mood. He was working on Charms, personally. He glanced over at Dudley and realized his cousin wasn't using any books at all. Neville spotted this anomaly as well, and asked what Harry hadn't wanted to.
"What class is that for, Dudley?"
"Oh, it's a letter to my mum," Dudley explained. "Which reminds me. Hermione?"
Hermione glanced up, still mentally embroiled in whatever strategy she was concocting. "What?"
"Do you know if there's a post address muggles can use to send mail to Hogwarts, or do they have to use an owl?"
Blinking, she glanced from Dudley's inquiring expression to Harry's increasingly dark frown.
"I don't know, Dudley," she said slowly. "My parents always just use an owl. They bought one just to send me letters."
"That's odd," Neville joked, glancing uncomfortably around at the suddenly tense atmosphere. "Hermione not knowing something, I mean. Must be a first."
Harry stood up abruptly and gathered his things. "I had better get going," he explained when the three of them turned to him, startled. "I'll see you all later."
He took the time to Occlude as he left the library, though he wasn't certain if the headache he was experiencing at the moment was actually scar-based or not.
"Mr Potter, remove that unpleasant expression from your face at once."
Quite against his will, Harry's glare redoubled. He had been minding his own business, reading listlessly through the next chapter of Slinkhard's book and practicing nonverbal curses on a rolled up bit of parchment under his desk when Umbridge called him out. He might also have been glaring at her from time to time, but he hadn't disrupted the class in any way!
Umbridge frowned sternly at him. "Ten points from Slytherin, Mr. Potter. Would you like to share with the class what has you in such a foul mood?"
"Harry," Blaise said out of the corner of his mouth. "Do not do it."
Harry managed to school his expression into neutrality and met her gaze. The rest of the class was watching by now, books happily forgotten in favour of this new drama.
"Nothing, professor," he managed to bite out. Umbridge raised an eyebrow at him from beneath a frilly purple bow.
"Did you disagree with something Mr. Slinkhard has to say about defensive measures?" she asked sweetly. Harry bristled, and Blaise jabbed him with his wand under the table, hard.
It was too late, though.
"Yes," Harry snapped. "Slinkhard doesn't sound like he's had to defend himself against anything more dangerous than a Puffskein in his entire life. We aren't going to learn anything about facing danger from him!"
"Do you expect to face danger in this classroom?" Umbridge sounded politely concerned. Beside him, Harry heard Blaise groan. All the other students were wearing absolutely impassive expressions, though their eyes darted back and forth between Harry and Umbridge as though watching a tennis match. At the next desk over, Pansy closed her eyes briefly, ashamed.
Harry knew he should stop himself, but he just couldn't. It had to be said.
"No! That's the whole problem! If we're not practicing, how are we supposed to learn to defend ourselves?"
Umbridge placed her hands on her desk and leaned forward. "Defend yourselves from what, Mr. Potter?"
"Harry, no," Blaise muttered. Harry opened his mouth, and despite all the hopes his friends had for him, said it.
"Detention!" Blaise exclaimed. "I can't believe you did that!"
"Did you expect me to just deny what happened last year?" Harry inquired, still outraged. They were in Care of Magical Creatures, but there was a substitute so the three of them stood toward the edge of the group and held their conversation in furious whispers while diagramming bowtruckles.
"Of course not," Pansy said. "But choose your battles! If we had to pick one person you shouldn't get into shouting matches with about the Dark Lord, just one, Harry, it would be the new Ministry plant who is both a professor and an unknown quantity! Shout at everyone else if you must! But not her!"
"But she said- I'm not lying!"
"We know that, Harry," Blaise said in a soothing voice. It struck Harry that he and Pansy were actually getting along for the moment, standing one on each side of Harry and berating him while pretending to pay attention to the lesson. It was almost a nice change of pace. They had been nearly unbearable since classes started again. "But this is not the way to convince anyone else."
"Well, what should I be doing to convince everyone else?" Harry asked. He raised an eyebrow at the extended pause that followed. "You don't have a clue, do you? Neither of you!"
"No, Harry, it's just-" Pansy paused, pursing her lips. "You need to keep your options open."
"That means you don't know," Harry pointed out, labelling one of his bowtruckle's legs with a flourish. "Neither of you has any clue what else I'm to do."
"That doesn't mean you should do this, Harry," Blaise tried to reason. "We've barely been back a week and you've got detention. At this rate, the rest of the year isn't looking good."
Harry sat down to detention determined to keep silent, if only because he'd promised Pansy and Blaise. That morning, there had been an article in the Prophet announcing Umbridge's promotion to High Inquisitor, and his friends were more determined than ever that he not catch her attention any more than he already had.
It was only lines, after all. It couldn't be too bad, even if the walls were covered with decorative plates with disturbing little kittens prancing around on them.
"Not with your quill," Umbridge told him. "You're going to be using a rather special one of mine. Here you are."
She handed him a long, thin black quill with an unusually sharp point, and told him to write 'I must not tell lies' until it sunk in.
Harry had several rather rude responses in mind, but managed to keep himself silent and began to write instead.
A searing pain cut through his hand as he wrote the first letters. He gasped and paused, watching the lines of blood fade from his hand. The words appeared in red on the parchment, and Harry stared.
'I must' shone back at him in what was undoubtedly his own blood. Harry watched the blood dry on the parchment, and knew that if he looked up, Umbridge would have something to say. His mouth twisted, and he kept his head down. He traced the letters with care, thinking furiously as he split his own hand open.
This was not keeping his options open. If he had pushed himself into this battle of wills with Umbridge by being an idiot, then silently cutting his own hand open for lines was losing that battle.
He just couldn't think of anything he could do that would let him win.
Harry spent the night Occluding while he wrote, his resentment building with every slice of the quill into his skin. The Occlumency kept the pain manageable, and allowed Harry to focus on thinking of ways out of the situation. He couldn't come up with any, and the knowledge that he was currently helpless only stirred his ire further. Even going to Snape with this issue didn't seem wise, not now that Umbridge was High Inquisitor and had the power to sack any professor at will.
After he was finally let out of detention around midnight with an infuriatingly sweet goodbye from Umbridge, Harry stomped off in the direction of the dungeons, his temper at a boiling point. A loud meow cut off his internal rant, and Harry rounded a corner in time to see Mrs. Norris leaping down from a windowsill.
"Hey," he said ungraciously as the cat wound around his ankles, purring. He slid down into a crouching position against a nearby wall, in order to better waste time petting Mrs. Norris. He really didn't feel prepared to go back to Slytherin and face his friends with his hand still raw and smarting.
"What are you doing out of bed at this hour, Potter?"
Harry glanced up from Mrs. Norris. "Hello, Filch. I had detention with Umbridge. Just got out."
Filch nodded in comprehension. "That's right. She specifically refused to let me take it on."
"Did she?" Harry glared at the floor. "Maybe if you had told her you wanted to string me up by my ankles or something, she would have been more accommodating."
Filch perked up. "Is that so?"
Harry nodded jerkily and showed Filch his hand, explaining about the detention.
"I might go have a talk with this woman," Filch said, rubbing his chin. He looked far too excited for Harry's peace of mind. "It's about time someone brought back the old punishments, if you ask me. Put some murtlap essence on it, boy, it'll be fine."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Yes, sir."
"And I'll be wanting you to focus on the seventh floor this week," Filch said. "Peeves somehow got hold of a bucket of frog spleen."
The two of them shuddered in tandem. Harry felt a little more calm as he stood and bid Filch goodnight.
When he got back to Slytherin and Pansy asked him how detention had been, he told her he'd had to do lines, and left out any talk of cutting quills or his conversation with Filch.
"Just promise me you won't do anything to get another detention, Harry," she said, taking his hand and fixing him with a worried expression.
Harry managed to avoid calling attention to the raw skin on the back of his hand by not looking at it, and nodded. Like his friends always said, he was a Slytherin. He needed to act like one.
"Draco, could you tell Pansy that the only way her Vanishing Charm is going to work with that pronunciation is if she's trying to get rid of an etymographer?"
"Draco, could you please tell Blaise that if he has something to say about my charm work, he can come over here and I can practice it on him instead of this mouse? The mouse is unquestionably better company, at any rate."
Harry heard this exchange as he walked down the hallway from his dormitory to the Slytherin common room Sunday afternoon, and didn't so much as pause to glance at his friends as he made a beeline for the exit.
When he reached the library, a quick once over told him that Anthony and Luna were not in residence, and that Hermione had both Dudley and Neville near panic with whatever she was saying. Probably O.W.L. talk then.
Harry turned around and left the library. A quick glance out the window told him that it was unlikely that Hagrid had returned from wherever he'd gone, but then Harry hadn't really expected him back any time soon. Grubbly-Plank seemed to be settling into her position.
He Occluded automatically as a stress headache settled between his eyes. His hand still hurt, which only reminded him again how little he could do about Umbridge, and as he climbed a staircase, a solitary third year nearly toppled over the railing in his haste to get to a different staircase before Harry could come too close.
Harry reached the part of the seventh floor Filch had told him about earlier in the week. He could tell because there was frog spleen everywhere. On the floor and walls, on the portrait frames and the tapestries, and even on the high ceilings. Filch had obviously made progress at cleaning it all up, but only enough that Harry wasn't slipping in the stuff as he walked.
He cast a few perfunctory cleaning charms, cursed Peeves' name, spirit, and general appearance, and slid down a clean patch of wall to sit on the floor, which turned out to still be slick where Filch hadn't expected anyone to walk.
Having stood up and cleaned off his robes as best he could, Harry cast a wide reaching scourigify, hoping to get at least the top layer of the mess off the hallway. It looked marginally better, so Harry called it a day, pacing back and forth to be certain he hadn't missed any particularly offensive patches of spleen and thinking about how much he didn't want to be where he was. He just wanted to hide, really.
On his third turn through the hallway, a door appeared in the wall. Harry stopped in his tracks and stared at it, remembering that Filch had told him once about a rather fickle supply cupboard in this area of the castle. He had found it before, but it didn't look quite the same.
He pulled the door open and poked his head inside.
If this was a supply cupboard, it was very large and strangely stocked, Harry decided. The room was enormous, and filled to the brim with all manner of odd objects: furniture, books, boxes, statues and more were piled haphazardly as far as Harry could see.
Harry lifted the lid of a box that sat on a desk right near the entrance, and found a mystifying assortment of metal blocks. They looked like they fit together in some arrangement, but Harry didn't spend too long fiddling with them. He moved further into the room, avoiding a wobbling mountain of chairs and opening a cupboard to examine the contents.
He felt himself relaxing more and more as he investigated all the strange trinkets the room held. He relaxed even further when he found a solitary, comfortable couch sitting in the middle of an intersection in the mounds of stuff.
He would have to figure out how he'd found it, and come back some time.
Harry found himself in the library more often this year than any other, and given that he had always used it for socialising with his Gryffindor and Ravenclaw friends in addition to actual work, that was saying something. He might as well bring a pillow with him and sleep in the stacks by this point.
"I think a study group is a great idea," Neville said, scratching the back of his neck. "I need all the help I can get, myself."
Hermione beamed at him. "We'll need to meet somewhere we can practice spells," she said in an undertone. "I've been putting the word out that our first meeting will be in Hogsmeade; maybe someone will have some idea of where we can work. We'll need to be careful not to get caught. Umbridge wouldn't appreciate the implication, I don't think."
Ron grinned. "We could just owl her and explain outright that she's an awful teacher, if you think that'd go over better."
"You don't want detention with that woman, trust me," Harry said. "This is a great idea, Hermione."
"I'm glad you think so, Harry," Hermione said, leaning forward and fixing him with a hopeful smile. "Because I want you to be a big part of it."
Harry lifted an eyebrow and waited.
"I was thinking," she continued, sounding more hesitant now. "You get a lot of private tutoring from Snape, right?"
"Right," Harry said.
"And you're friendly with Professor Lupin, too," she said. "He must still have his lesson plans, don't you think?"
"It's possible," he allowed. "Just spit it out, Hermione."
"I was thinking you and I could sort of run the group together," she said in a rush. "You could write Professor Lupin and ask him for his lesson plans, and combined with the extra reading I've done and the tutoring you get from Snape, we'd be able to get a lot done. Obviously it would be a collaborative sort of group," she continued as Harry stared at her. "The sixth and seventh years especially would probably have a lot to teach. But I thought we could sort of guide it together until it gets off its feet."
Harry frowned. "I don't know, Hermione. I'm not exactly popular this year."
"Oh, but this could help change that, Harry!" Hermione pressed her hands against the table and nodded at him. "If people spent more time around you, they'd get to know the real you instead of the version they read about in the papers."
All his friends were trying to boost his PR, Harry realized. He wondered if Hermione and Pansy had sat down together over the weekend and had a conversation about his abysmal people skills.
Harry shook his head. "Fine," he said, to Hermione's obvious delight. "We can try it. I can't guarantee anything, though."
"I know, Harry," she said, scribbling something down on a sheaf of parchment in front of her. "Will you write to Professor Lupin?"
"Yes, alright," Harry sighed. Hermione beamed.