Chapter 14 – Avoiding Detention

The rest of the week passed in relative quiet for the circle of friends. Harry went to the second potions class of the week, wondering if the treatment Fleur had received from Snape was due to the Headmaster coming down on him, or if she had merely been granted a reprieve. Happily, it appeared to be the former as, other than a few glares, Snape largely left Harry alone—in fact, he said very little to any of the Gryffindors outside of his normal instruction. This, of course, pleased the entire Gryffindor contingent, though perhaps Neville and Harry wore the largest grins.

Fleur and Harry received a letter from her father on Friday, asking how their first week of schooling went, though when they read between the lines, they could both see he was asking about certain professors in particular. Fleur responded positively for the most part, in that, though the woman had tried to bait Harry into a detention, nothing of note had happened, as he had kept his temper in check, and Snape was by that time a non-issue.

In Jean-Sebastian's letter, however, his frustration with the fact that Fudge was doing nothing about Voldemort's return was readily apparent. The group had been watching the Prophet closely enough to know that the Minister persisted in denying the Dark Lord's return, flatly refusing to hear anyone who tried to tell him otherwise. As a result, Auror recruitment and training continued to proceed at the same inadequate levels, and the Ministry forces were significantly lagging behind the Death Eaters, who were, without a doubt, not neglecting their own training and recruiting efforts. Though he was not explicit, Fleur was led to suspect that her father had been in more or less continual contact with Dumbledore about the situation, but that his own position as ambassador did not leave him any room to pressure Fudge, much though he would have wished he could.

Of note in the school, Umbridge had been seen speaking with to some of the more rabid extremist Slytherins—of whom it was not surprising that Malfoy took center stage. After discussing it at some length, the group could only assume she was intent upon ingratiating herself to them, and promising rewards for information and their cooperation. Thus far nothing had come of this cozying up, but Harry in particular was worried that whatever reason the toad had to curry favor with the Slytherins, it appeared to be preparatory for whatever she had planned for the future. An interesting side note, however, was the fact that though many would have expected Snape to agree with Umbridge in principle, the reality appeared to be the complete opposite—he in fact appeared to avoid her as though she carried a rather virulent disease, conversing with her in short, clipped language when discourse was unavoidable.

Harry, Fleur and Ron had their first official practice with the Quidditch team that weekend, and though Fleur was not actually a starter, she found that she enjoyed the practice, and more importantly, the camaraderie of the team. Though she certainly did not possess the skills or the familiarity with her teammates that Katie, Angelina, and Alicia had with each other, Angelina was still able to comment that either she or Ginny would make admirable substitutions, should they be necessary. The Quidditch team was supremely confident for the upcoming Quidditch cup—on parchment, none of the other teams appeared to stack up.

And of course, Ron continued in his attempts to get closer to Hermione, oblivious to the fact that she was not responding the way a young woman who was willing to be courted would be expected to respond. Or perhaps it was more likely that he was so set upon winning her that he was almost willingly obtuse to the fact that she simply was not interested. Hermione did not want to make a scene, nor did she wish to hurt him, but she felt he was ultimately going to force her to do so. It was a sticky business, and she was not certain how Ron would respond—not well, if she knew him at all.

At potions class the next Monday, Harry made certain to continue to keep his head down, do his potions work, and avoid drawing the professor's ire. And though he was feeling a little more confident in his brewing abilities—partially from his generally greater confidence those days, and partially from the better atmosphere in the class—he was not so confident that the professor would let up on him. Besides, he knew that Snape was so set against him that regardless of whatever had passed between professor and Headmaster, avoidance was still the best policy.

On that day, however, though Snape generally stayed away from him, Harry would often look up and find the potions professor's baleful glare fixated on him, accompanied by the man's customary sneer. It was truly annoying to the young man, but though he would have preferred to have called the greasy bat out for it, the warnings about not giving his enemies anything to hold over him still filled his mind, and he declined to incite a confrontation.

Unfortunately Snape was not of the same mind. The class was ending and the students were packing their things and beginning to file out when the hated man's voice rang out.

"Potter! Stay after class. I have something to discuss with you."

Harry exchanged a glance with Hermione, who whispered that she, Neville, and Ron would wait outside for him, before indicating his assent to the professor. He sat down at his desk, watching the other students leave, ignoring the almost gleeful derision on Malfoy's face. Once they were gone, he sat at his desk, waiting for Snape to begin. The man seemed disinclined to begin—he simply stared at Harry, showing his dislike and contempt. Harry said nothing. Harry was not uncomfortable—he refused to be uncomfortable!—but he would not start anything with the professor and give him the excuse to hand out the punishments he so relished.

At length Snape stood and approached Harry's desk. "So, you found it necessary to complain to the Headmaster about me."

"I did."

"And now I suppose you wish special treatment in my class, the same as you receive in any other class?"

Harry only refrained from rolling his eyes by the slimmest of margins. "I do not, sir. I expect to be treated the same as any other student."

"Your arrogance knows no bounds, Potter."

"How can it be arrogance to expect to be treated the same as anyone else?"

Snape said nothing. He merely continued to glare at Harry, his hatred and contempt still plain for all to see. The two emotions were ones which Harry felt he could return quite cheerfully, and in equal measure.

"I have done nothing to earn your hatred, Professor," Harry continued, still careful to refrain from giving this man any ammunition to use against him. "All I ever did was to show up on my first day of classes. You appeared then to already dislike me before you even knew me. Why?"

"You are too much like your father," Snape spat. "He was a blight upon this school, always running wild with those friends of his, always strutting around the school like he owned it."

"Sounds like a certain blond ponce I know," was Harry's sarcastic reply.

"Do not interrupt me! We were speaking of your father and no one else."

"Oh really?" This time Harry was not able to keep the scorn out of his voice. "I thought we were talking about me? I asked you why you hated me from the beginning, and you talk about my father's arrogance and how I mirrored him, but you did not even take the time to get to know me before you made that judgment."

Snape's eyes narrowed, and though Harry knew he had scored a significant point, he knew there was no way the professor would acknowledge it. He said nothing, however, which allowed Harry to continue.

"I'm afraid I cannot know how much like my father I am. You see, he's dead!" Harry barked. Though the admission that his parents were not with him had always been painful, Harry forced himself to be blunt with his recalcitrant professor. "I was too young to know my father when he died. So you see, Professor, any resemblance between my father and me is a result of genetics and chance—nothing more."

"Believe me, Potter, you are just like your arrogant father."

Rising to his feet, Harry fixed a glare on the man. "Professor, may I speak bluntly?"

A raised eyebrow met his question. "Are you not doing so now?"

"After a fashion. However, I'd like to be able to speak my mind as you are so obviously doing. No detentions, no point deductions—just you and me clearing the air."

Seeming to be intrigued, Snape peered at him contemplatively. "Very well then. Everything said in this room is completely off the record until further notice, or until you leave the room. Now, I believe you have something to say?"

"Yes, sir," Harry said with a tight nod. "It may come as no surprise to you, but I hate you as much as you obviously hate me. But where I am forced to show you respect as a professor—which you have in no way earned, I might add—you feel free to belittle me, and behave as though I am something disgusting you wiped from your shoes. You are a vile, bitter, and contemptuous man, with very few redeeming qualities, and your abilities as a potions master in no way compensate for your utter failure as a professor. Your behavior is atrocious, and in the Muggle world you would have lost your position years ago. You have disliked me because of something which happened between you and my father before I was even born, and you have never once attempted to look past my resemblance to my father and to see the person I am, rather than what you thought I would be.

"What you continue to fail to understand is that I don't know who my father was as a person, and as such, I can hardly emulate him, whether I want to or not. He may have been an arrogant git like you say. He may have acted like he owned the school and everything in it. In fact, he may have acted like the very world owed him everything on a silver platter. I wouldn't know. I can tell you that he could hardly be worse that that little Pureblood idiot you are so intent upon protecting, so it seems to me that on top of everything else, you are a hypocrite as well as a bully.

"The point of this discussion is that I've had to put up with every bit of abuse that you thought you could get away with, ever since I came to this school. I will not continue to do so. One way or another, your treatment of me will cease, or I will do everything in my power to see you lose your precious position, and I expect that an entire generation of Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, and Ravenclaw students will laud my name after you are booted from this school in disgrace!"

Silence reigned in the room after Harry's rant, and though he would have liked to break it, Harry had had his say, and he would wait to see what Snape said in response. It appeared that his outburst had done no overt damage—it was not like it was possible to further damage their relationship. In fact, the Professor's demeanor had softened slightly, and he now looked at Harry with a speculative eye.

"I suppose there is no disputing your courage," Snape finally said.

"I would imagine that is why the hat placed me in Gryffindor," was Harry's dry reply.

He was not going to touch on the fact that he had specifically requested that the hat not place him in Slytherin. He had no idea how Snape would respond to that piece of information. Perhaps dancing with joy that the hat had not placed him in Slytherin was just as likely a reaction as anything else.

"Quite," Snape responded.

After peering at Harry for a few more moments, Snape appeared to come to a resolution. "Very well then, Potter. As long as you keep your nose clean in class and do your work with a certain level of competence, I shall leave you alone. Will that do?"

"What about Malfoy?" Harry asked.

"What about him?" was the dark reply.

"Come on, Professor, you are not blind. Malfoy is a thorn in my side whenever he gets the chance. He taunts me and my friends, tries to get us in detention, and attempts to sabotage our potions whenever he thinks he can get away with it. Considering the fact that you are teaching this class, he thinks he can get away with it with whenever he likes. I can keep my head down and do my best in class, but I guarantee that if Malfoy tries something, my response will not be to his liking. I will not allow that little prick to attack any of my friends any longer."

"You are lucky that this all off the record, or you would have lost some of Miss Granger's hard-earned points."

"Which is why I asked," was Harry's response. "You don't think I'd be so blunt unless I was certain it was off the record, do you? I'm not that stupid."

Snape snorted. "Though I hate to say it, it's very Slytherin of you, Potter. I will deal with Mr. Malfoy."

"Very well, Professor."

Nodding his head, Harry picked up his backpack and sauntered from the room. The fact that Snape's eyes continued to bore into his back as he left did not escape him.

"What was that all about?" Hermione asked when he joined his friends.

"Nothing much," Harry said with a wink. "Just clearing the air a little with the Professor."

"Did you punch his lights out?" asked Ron with a grin.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Perhaps you should do that, Ronald, if you want to have detention for the rest of your time at Hogwarts."

"It might actually be worth it," said Neville. "At least it would be satisfying."

The group laughed as they started down the hall.

"I agree with Neville," said Harry. "But no, I didn't punch him. Like I said, we cleared the air a little. Hopefully, we'll have less trouble with Snape from now on."

By the time the fifth years had reached the Defense classroom later that afternoon, Harry had related the story of his discussion with Snape to all of his friends. Fleur in particular seemed to be extremely pleased by the turn of events. But though word that something had occurred between Harry and the potions professor had spread through the school very quickly, Harry asked those who were aware of the exact nature of the confrontation to keep it quiet. He did not want Snape to get the idea that he was spreading their private dealings to all and sundry—his new truce with the potions professor was too new and fragile, he sensed, to take it lightly.

Malfoy, however, appeared perplexed. He had obviously suspected that something was up when Harry had been told to stay behind, but seeing Harry laughing with his friends rather than seething at his treatment was clearly not what he had expected. As they were leaving the hall, Harry caught a look of discontent upon the face of his nemesis, which darkened even further when Harry flipped him a jaunty salute. At that moment, it occurred to Harry that he had still not heard what Malfoy's reaction had been to learning he had been assigned Harry's detention—that outcome could not be fueling any good temper for the Malfoy scion. Harry supposed that Snape had told the blond ponce to accept the detention and keep his mouth closed, though Harry was surprised that Malfoy had listened, if such had been the case.

Though one of his Monday classes appeared to have changed for the better, the other dreaded class—which ironically would have been his favorite in previous years, regardless of the Headmaster's inability to provide a proper professor—would prove that it still had the capacity to infuriate him.

Defense that day was much the same as it had been the previous week. Umbridge still demanded they put their wands away as soon as the students entered the class, and she once again lectured directly from the text. In truth, had the subject matter still not held some interest for Harry, regardless of the less than stellar textbook, he would have been in danger of considering Defense to be almost the equal of History for its ability to numb his mind into sheer insensibility.

What changed, however, was the fact that for the most part, Umbridge completely ignored him, even when he wanted to say something, which was very infrequent. It was nearing the end of class when Harry raised his hand to speak—and was ignored—for the third time, as Umbridge called on Hannah Abbot to answer a question she had posed. Harry raised an eyebrow at Hermione, who returned his gesture with a smirk of her own.

"Looks like someone has a new tactic," Harry whispered.

"It would seem to be so," Hermione responded.

Their short tete-a-tete, however, served to draw the professor's attention. She peered at him with her patently false and irritating silly smile, and asked him in her high voice, "Did you have something to say, Mr. Potter? Did I not instruct the class to raise your hands when you have something to say? Perhaps you would like to share with the class what you and Miss Granger were speaking of?"

Grimacing, Harry responded, "I was merely pointing out that I haven't been able to answer a question yet this class, Professor."

"Well, Mr. Potter, if I had known you were so eager to participate in class, I would have called upon you sooner."

"Thank you, Professor. It is good to know that I am a valued member."

Umbridge peered at him suspiciously, before she broke out into her sickly sweet smile once again. "Indeed, Mr. Potter. However, there is still the matter of your speaking out of turn, and I'm afraid that you and Miss Granger will have to serve a detention. It seems I must prove my point that I wish to have discipline in this class."

Very much wishing he could respond to the woman, Harry nevertheless calmed himself and kept quiet. It was no doubt part of the woman's plan to attack him, and though he was not certain if this was a detention which the Headmaster would overturn, he thought that at the very least it would be a good idea to inform him of what had happened.

"Very good, Mr. Potter—it appears you can control your trouble-making nature if you so choose. Perhaps we shall be able to make a proper wizard out of you yet."

Even that failed to raise a response from Harry—the woman's opinion meant less than that of a flobberworm to him, after all. Umbridge appeared to have a slight air of disappointment to her manner at being unable to obtain a rise out of him. However, her sudden change thereafter to studied nonchalance made him instantly suspicious.

"You shall serve detention…" she trailed off while tapping her wand on her chin in what Harry was convinced was a false show of considering the situation.

Her face suddenly lit up with glee. "Yes, your detention shall be served on Thursday, immediately before dinner." She all but sneered at Harry. "As I will be away from Hogwarts that day on Wizengamot business, you shall serve your detention with Professor Snape, and I will be certain to ensure he has something… suitable for you both to do."

"But that's the day of Sirius's trial!" Harry blurted out, immediately guessing the thrust of the woman's actions. "I've received permission to attend with Professor Dumbledore."

"Now, now, Mr. Potter," soothed Umbridge. "We can't have students who are scheduled for detention leave the school on an obviously unnecessary field trip—it's not fair to the other students."

"It's not fair for you to assign a detention on a day which means so much to me," Harry snapped in response.

"Perhaps one day is not enough for you," cooed Umbridge. "You and Miss Granger will serve your Thursday detention with Professor Snape, and then you will serve Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with me."

Harry saw red, and was almost ready to tear into the woman, but Hermione's presence by his side, coupled with the hand she laid on his shoulder, reminded him of the need to keep his cool. He looked away from Umbridge, while allowing an emotionless mask to descend over his face, and he ignored the woman for the rest of the class—she did not call on him either, though she did glance smugly in his direction several times before the bell rang.

At the end of the class, Harry slammed his textbook in his bag, and stalked from the room, barely aware of his friends attempting to catch him as he strode through the halls of Hogwarts.

"Harry, will you hold up a moment?" Hermione shouted.

He almost caused Hermione to run into him, he pulled up so abruptly.

"Where are you going?" she demanded once she had regained her balance.

"Dumbledore," was Harry's short reply. "What she did was not fair—I'm not going to let her get away with it."

Turning to look at Neville and Ron, who had hurried to catch up, Harry motioned them away. "Go ahead with Hermione to the Great Hall—I'll be there when I finish speaking with the Headmaster."

Ron and Neville nodded, but Hermione dug in her heels. "No way, Harry. You'll need someone to back you up—I'm coming too."

The fact that Harry felt he did not exactly require help with the Headmaster gave way to the idea of the comfort he knew Hermione's presence would bring. He nodded briefly to her before turning and marching off down the hallway which led toward the Headmaster's office.

Once they had gained admission to the office, they entered, earning a raised eyebrow from the elderly Headmaster.

"I take it something else has happened?" he inquired mildly. "Is this to be a regular occurrence, Harry?"

"I hope not, sir," Harry responded with a tight grin.

Dumbledore peered at Harry for several moments. "I did some checking earlier, and other than your rumored discussion with Professor Snape, nothing of significance happened in your potions class. Can I therefore assume that your current problem as nothing to do with potions?"

"Yes, sir," said Harry. "There was a bit of an incident in Defense, and Umbridge assigned me an unfair detention that I'd like you to review."

Nodding, Dumbledore said, "Very well, please proceed."

Being careful not to omit anything, yet give the Headmaster a detailed explanation of what exactly happened, Harry related the story of the confrontation with the Defense Professor. It took only a few moments for the entire tale to be related, after which Dumbledore sat back in his chair and regarded the teens thoughtfully.

"Unfortunately, Harry, there is nothing I can do about the original detention—it is the professor's prerogative as to how they run their class, and how they enforce discipline."

"But, sir," Hermione exclaimed, "that's completely unfair and beyond the type of punishment which should be assessed for whispering in class."

"I don't disagree with you, Miss Granger," said Dumbledore. "However, technically, she has the right to assess a detention. But that doesn't mean we can't modify the terms of that detention."

Feeling some relief that by Dumbledore's implication, he would not have to miss Sirius's trial, Harry asked, "You said the first detention. Can you do something about the other one?"

"That is a different matter," said Dumbledore firmly. "Though perhaps your protests could be construed as backtalk if one were to so choose, I believe the stress of the situation led to your responding as you did. As such, we shall call Professor Umbridge in to hear her explanation, after which I will make my final decision. After all, I am certain it is in our best interests that you not serve a detention with the professor for now. Wouldn't you agree?"

Agreeing with a grin, Harry watched as the Headmaster approached his Floo connection, and threw a handful of Floo powder into it, calling for the Defense Professor's office. After a moment, the fiery visage of Professor Umbridge, looking even more ridiculous than usual, appeared in the flames.

"Ah, Professor Umbridge," said Dumbledore in greeting. "Will you please step into my office for a moment?"

A moment later, the Headmaster had retreated from the fireplace to allow the Defense professor to step through. She immediately noticed the students sitting facing the desk and donned her simpering mask, though Harry would clearly see that she was not happy at all to see them.

"Yes, Headmaster? Is there a problem?" she simpered.

"I'm afraid there is, Professor," replied Dumbledore while returning to his chair. "Mr. Potter here has come to me to appeal a detention which you assigned to him in Defense class, and in the course of my investigation, I have called you here to hear your reasons for assigning this detention."

Umbridge's eyes narrowed. "I was not aware that I had to justify my decisions to fifth-year students."

"You do not to the students, of course," responded the Headmaster. "However, in the case where a student invokes the appeals process, you must account for your actions to me. Mr. Potter has given me his account of what occurred in your Defense class, and now I must hear your reasons before I render a judgment."

The familiar sweet smile once again appeared on her face. "Of course, Headmaster. Very well—I assigned a detention for speaking out in class. I have been trying to instill discipline in my class and these two students were speaking out of turn."

"Yes. Mr. Potter has admitted to whispering in class."

"Then why are we having this discussion?"

"Because you subsequently assigned another three days when Mr. Potter protested, not to mention you specifically assigned the original detention on the day you knew Harry would be absent from the school to attend his godfather's trial."

"I assure you I did no such thing, Headmaster, and I resent these two students," the word was almost sneered, "implicating otherwise."

"And I assure you, Professor, that I am well able to make the connection myself without Mr. Potter or Miss Granger's assistance," rejoined the Headmaster. "Have you anything further to add?"

"Not at all, Headmaster. I saw a violation of my classroom rules and I reacted accordingly. As for Mr. Potter's subsequent detentions, I will not tolerate any cheek in my class."

"Very well then," replied Dumbledore. "Obviously, though I believe your punishment for whispering in class is excessive, I will agree that it is your right to assign the level of punishment you deem fit. However, demanding Mr. Potter attend a detention on the day his Godfather is to be tried and thereby preventing his attendance is unreasonably cruel. Therefore, Mr. Potter and Miss Granger will instead serve their detentions this evening with their head of house and not Professor Snape."

It was easy to tell Umbridge was not happy with the Headmaster's decision, but she merely smiled before saying, "Very well, Headmaster. However, as I am available tonight, Mr. Potter and Miss Granger may serve their detentions with me."

"I have already made my decision, Professor Umbridge," Dumbledore snapped in response. "You will abide by it.

"As for the matter of Mr. Potter's subsequent detentions," he stated when the Defense Professor would have interjected, "there is no basis in fact for those detentions to be assigned, particularly in light of the fact that the subject being discussed was one which is highly emotional to Mr. Potter. Those detentions are hereby reversed."

"This is one of the reasons I was sent here," Umbridge hissed. "Your continual and blatant favoritism toward Mr. Potter and his friends must cease immediately, Headmaster!

"Or perhaps I should speak with the Minister about your blatant bias," she continued with an attempt at nonchalance.

Dumbledore's eyes appeared to flare briefly, but he made no response to Umbridge. He, instead, turned to Harry. "Mr. Potter, Miss Granger, I think we have dealt with the matter about which you inquired. Is there anything else you would like to say at this time?"

"No sir," Harry replied after glancing at Hermione. It appeared that whatever was to be said in the subsequent conversation between the Headmaster and Defense Professor was not meant for their ears to hear.

"Very well then—you may leave. Please report to Professor McGonagall at seven this evening for your detention. I will ensure she knows you are coming."

Agreeing to this, the two teens stood and retreated from the room. When they had made their way down to the hallway beyond the gargoyle guardian, Harry turned to Hermione with a grin.

"Looks like someone's in trouble," he said in a singsong voice.

"Harry!" Hermione scolded, though a matching grin was etched upon her face. "That's the kind of attitude that saw us in the office in the first place."

Harry shook his head. "It looks like she really wants me in detention. We'll have to be very careful."

Hermione agreed and together they headed in the direction of the Great Hall.

As soon as the door closed behind the two students, Albus allowed the mask of congeniality slip from his face. He fixed a stern glare at the Defense Professor, allowing every bit of his distaste for the woman to show in his expression.

"Madam Umbridge, must I remind you that I am the Headmaster of this institution?"

"A Headmaster who has perhaps passed his prime," said Umbridge in response. Her accompanying sneer would have made Snape himself proud. "And you will refer to me as 'Professor Umbridge,' Headmaster,"

Albus snorted with some disdain. "In public, perhaps, when I have no other choice. In private, however, I will not refer to you with an honorific which you have not earned."

Though her nostrils flared in anger, Albus watched her as she struggled to come up with a response. His rejoinder was the truth, after all, and there was little she could do to refute the fact.

"Let us not obfuscate, Madam," Albus continued after allowing her to stew for a moment. "You are not in this school to improve the quality of education or the atmosphere, or whatever other platitudes you are attempting to push on the student body or the public at large. You are here precisely to attempt to marginalize Harry and discredit me, all because of your narrow views of the world, and the Minister's short-sighted fear that I will attempt to replace him. You should remind Minister Fudge that I could have had the Minister's post had I wanted it when Minister Bagnold retired. I did not want it then, and do not want it now, as I already have more than enough on my plate.

"However, I am and will remain the Headmaster of this school, and as such, I am responsible not only for its running, but also for matters such as the adjudicating of appeals. My judgment stands as I have already said. In the future, if you feel you must make an object lesson due to such a minor breach of your classroom rules, I suggest that you deduct points from the offenders. For an infraction such as Mr. Potter and Miss Granger brought before me today, a detention is much too severe."

Though it was obvious Umbridge was furious, she merely nodded tightly. "Very well, Headmaster, but I shall warn you that if you continue to blatantly protect troublemakers such as Mr. Potter, you may very well find yourself removed from your position."

"And I will warn you, that continued attempts to attack Mr. Potter—or any other student at this institution—will result in your removal, Madam Umbridge. Given the fact that your very competence in the subject you teach is suspect—you do not even hold a NEWT in Defense!—I doubt anyone other than your precious Minister would protest such a move. Do I make myself clear?"

"Quite," snapped Umbridge.

Without any further words or even a glance, she returned to her own office via the Floo, leaving Albus to his thoughts. The necessity of having the woman at Hogwarts was galling, but at that moment, he knew he had no choice but to accept her presence. Regardless of his words to her, he knew he needed an airtight reason to remove her from the school, allowing him to replace her with a professor of his own choice. He had someone in mind, but the timing was not correct at the moment, not that he would have hesitated had he possessed a valid reason for her removal at present.

Thinking about the matter for several moments, Albus worried about the situation. He certainly did not need Jean-Sebastian's intervention in the matter, which would certainly come about if Umbridge could not be reined in. Perhaps at some point it would be prudent to allow Harry to have a detention with the woman—carefully controlled of course—to discover exactly what she wanted with him. He was not certain at present what the woman intended, but he would not put it past her to go too far—then maybe he would have his ammunition to have her removed.

After a few more moments of thought, Albus let out a weary sigh and rose from his chair. Popping a lemon drop in his mouth, he exited his office and made his way toward the Great Hall, his mind working the problem over and over as he walked.

Having made their way to dinner, Hermione sat down across the table from Harry, her mind chewing over the problem which Defense had presented that year. This year's class was turning out to be far worse than it had been in any previous year, which was saying a lot, considering the comedy of errors Defense had been for almost the entirety of her schooling career. How would they possibly pass their OWLs this year with Umbridge at the helm? Unfortunately, no answers came, regardless of her will to discover some sort of way to alleviate the problem. A part of her wanted to suggest anew that they try to have some competent adult join them on weekends to give them some tutoring, but having witnessed Umbridge's teaching thus far, and her Ministry-driven insistence that the students not be allowed to practice dangerous and unnecessary spellcasting, she knew that the idea of tutoring would not go over well. And Dumbledore appeared to believe that directly opposing the woman at the moment time was not prudent, so unfortunately, whatever they attempted would have to be done in secret.

Pushing the thoughts away for contemplation at some other time, Hermione focused on what her friends were saying, only to find out that her thoughts were similar to the topic of conversation. Evidently Harry had told Fleur of the confrontation in Defense, and the subsequent meeting in the Headmaster's office, for she appeared quite distressed.

"What are we going to do about Umbridge?" Hermione heard Fleur ask. "I've got NEWTs this year, and it's going to be difficult to pass the practical if we aren't able to practice the spells in advance."

"And we have OWLs," said Hermione, chewing her lip in agitation.

"That doesn't even account for Voldemort's return," added Ron. "At this rate, we won't even know enough to defend ourselves."

"We did learn some things from Moody this summer," Neville disagreed.

"Yeah, but we haven't been able to practice much of it," retorted Ron.

Neville held out his hands in supplication before returning his attention to his meal.

"We all know the problem, Ron," said Hermione. "We just need to find a solution."

"Hello everyone," a dreamy voice interrupted.

Hermione looked up and saw Luna standing behind Harry, smiling absentmindedly. Harry turned and, smiling at Luna, he scooted a little closer to Fleur. "Would you like to join us, Luna?" he asked.

Smiling, Luna sat down beside him, and greeted the entire group. "Thanks, Harry. It's a little disconcerting being the only non-Gryffindor in our group. But the Ravenclaws don't really like me very much—I'd much prefer to eat with you."

"Then the Ravenclaws are stupid, Luna," Neville replied seriously from her other side. "You're welcome to join us at any time."

A general murmur of agreement made its way through the group. Though perhaps a student sitting at any table other than their own was not something which happened often, it was not disallowed. They all truly liked Luna and considered her a friend, so everyone was glad to have her join them.

"Besides, the nargles told me you were speaking of a particular problem."

It was difficult, but Hermione just managed to avoid rolling her eyes. She liked Luna—she truly did—but sometimes the girl's whimsical nature and preoccupation with her creatures was enough to drive Hermione nutty. This was a serious issue they were discussing, after all.

"We're just trying to figure out what to do about Defense," said Harry. "We've got important tests at the end of the year that we won't pass if we can't practice."

"That and we need to practice more fighting like Professor Moody said," Neville chimed in.

"Why don't you start a defense club?" asked Luna, while filling her plate with food.

Hermione looked at Luna blankly. "A defense club?"

"Yes," replied Luna. "Anyone can start up a club with permission. In this case, I think you'd probably prefer to keep the club secret from all the staff, and I wouldn't blame you for that. It would provide us with the opportunity to the spells we need to know and learn how to better protect ourselves at the same time."

"Umbridge wouldn't like it," said Harry, voicing the obvious problem.

"Who says she has to know?" asked Fleur. "If we only invite certain people, she would never even have to know that it exists."

"That's got possibilities," said Hermione, beginning to become excited about the idea. "We could get Harry to lead it."

The general agreement at Hermione's statement did not, unfortunately, include the beneficiary of her largesse. Harry blinked in surprise, and then regarded Hermione with some befuddlement.

"Why me?"

"You're the best at defense, Harry," Hermione said, deciding that a simple reply was likely to go much farther with her friend. "You always get a spell after the first few tries, and you always help others get it after, which shows a certain flair for teaching."

Harry still looked skeptical. "I'm not so sure about that, Hermione. Besides, if we could form a club, I think it would be best to get someone in a higher year to run it—they have more experience than I do."

"Don't look at me," Fleur protested, noting where Harry had attempted to deflect the suggestion. "I can hold my own in defense, but Hermione's right—no one can match you, either in sheer power or understanding."

Harry's noncommittal shrug indicated an end to the discussion, and though Hermione would have liked to press the issue further, she sensed from Harry's demeanor that now was not the time. He was very stubborn, and this issue appeared to be one in which he would dig in his heels. They would need to discuss it further at a later date. For now, the two Gryffindors were due for detention, so they finished their dinner and bade farewell to their companions, making their way toward the Transfiguration Professor's office.

The very next day was Hermione's birthday, and as Fleur's birthday was also coming up a few days later, they had decided to make a joint celebration of it, even inviting Luna to join them in the Gryffindor common room for the celebration. Though she knew Harry would never forget her birthday—he never had in their previous four years at Hogwarts—the fact that the rest of her friends also pitched in to make her birthday a special occasion touched her deeply. She was certain Fleur felt the same way, if her brilliant smiles and warm words toward Harry were any indication.

They sat in a corner of the common room, drinking butterbeer—which the twins had somehow managed to procure—while eating snacks and birthday cake, provided by the ever-excitable Dobby. She had received presents from most of those with whom she was close, but none were as personal as the ones she had received Harry and Fleur.

Harry had thoughtfully purchased her a set of personalized etching tools for her Runes class, knowing how much she enjoyed the class. Each tool was exquisitely hand-crafted and the entire set was stored in a fine lacquered case of dark cherry wood, with her name surrounded in delicate electrum filigree emblazoned along the lower right corner of the case. Harry jokingly told her that it was also in thanks for assisting him with his understanding of Runes, something for which she was surprised to note he had some aptitude.

As for Fleur, her new friend had purchased her a fine French charm bracelet with several charms. In particular, there was a stylized heart charm which had the inscription 'Toujours Amies' etched upon its surface. It was a thoughtful gift indeed, which prompted Hermione's teary thank you, in which she captured the French witch in a fierce embrace.

As for Fleur, she also received gifts, though perhaps not as many as Hermione had, due, no doubt, to the fact that she had only been known in Gryffindor since the beginning of the year. Still, all their friends had procured presents for Fleur, though the finest by far was the finely crafted white gold locket in the shape of a stylized heart Harry had given her. And Hermione herself responded to Fleur's gift by purchasing her new friend a pair of designer jeans she had seen Fleur looking at one day while they had been shopping.

Fleur had truly begun to become a good friend, and the two were becoming very close. Hermione was also thankful to Fleur for not pushing her to accept the arrangement she had proposed on the last day of summer holidays. Instead, she seemed willing to allow Hermione to consider it on her own, while always being available to talk if she wished it.

It was truly the best birthday Hermione had ever had, and she stayed up quite late with all of her friends, talking and laughing, and for once, she allowed all thoughts of homework and classes to slip away in favor of simply having fun with her friends. It did not hurt, of course, that she had already finished everything due for that week.

As night wore on, more of her friends announced their intentions to retire, eventually leaving Hermione alone with Harry, Fleur, and Ron. Something about the way Ron had acted all evening—he had been quieter than normal, while watching her intently—suggested to Hermione that tonight would finally be the night he got off the fence and made whatever intentions he had toward her known. Hermione did not wish to hurt Ron—that was the last thing she wanted to do—but this continual doomed effort to get her to notice him was wearing on her, and she welcomed the opportunity to set the record straight.

Apparently Fleur had noticed the same thing. She glanced at Hermione and winked when the two boys were speaking together and she was certain they were not watching. She then stood and pulled Harry to his feet with her.

"I think it's time to go to bed," she suggested.

Harry smiled and nodded, turning to Ron. "Coming Ron?"

"That's… Well, what I mean to say is… erm…" Ron stammered incoherently, almost setting Fleur and Hermione to giggling. "I have… something… Yeah, something to… to ask Hermione," the redhead finally finished, his cheeks turning pink with embarrassment.

Finally, that seemed to percolate its way through Harry's eternal obliviousness. He slyly grinned at Ron. "Oh, okay. If I don't see you before I go to sleep, have a good night."

Ron mumbled his agreement, while Harry and Fleur headed off together, parting at the stairs to head up to their respective dormitories.

Alone with Ron, Hermione waited patiently for several minutes for Ron to finally get up the courage to make his move. However, Ron just fidgeted and eyed her in what he probably thought was a surreptitious manner.

"Yes, Ron?" Hermione prompted gently. "You had something you wanted to ask me?"

"Umm… Yeah," was Ron's reply. "You know… we've been friends for a few years now, and I really… umm… I really like you, Hermione. And I kind of thought, what better day to… ask the girl you… like… to be your girlfriend… What better day than on her birthday?" he finished in a rush

"That's sweet, Ron," said Hermione. And it was—she had not thought he had it in him. But regardless of how much of a gentleman he was trying to be, Hermione would not be swayed.

"Yeah," he said with a grin. "I figured it would be a good idea, though the b—"

He stopped abruptly and his cheeks slightly pinked. Hermione had no idea what he was about to say—it almost sounded like he had had some advice from some other source. Regardless, it did not matter—if someone was encouraging him, then they were not seeing the true situation.

"So, now that you're my girlfriend, can I kiss you or something?"

That brought Hermione up short.

"Hold on, Ron!" she cried. He looked at her puzzled, no doubt wondering what he had done wrong.

"I'm sorry, Ron," she continued more gently, "but I'm afraid I have to say no."

"What?" a befuddled Ron asked, appearing shell-shocked.

"I'm sorry, Ron," Hermione repeated. "I understand your feelings, but mine aren't the same. I see you as a close brother, but nothing more."

Though his mouth moved soundlessly for a few moments, Hermione could see a hint of redness working its way up Ron's neck and ears, a sure sign that he was working up a head of steam.

"A brother?" Ron demanded. "I've been acting like as much of gentleman as I can, trying to learn what you like, how to make you happy, putting myself on the line here, and this is how you treat me?"

Hermione sighed—she could have predicted this was how Ron would respond.

"Ron," she said very gently, "I'm sorry, but I can't return your feelings."

Ron's jaw worked as he tried to control his anger, but when he finally spoke, his words did not make a lot of sense. "It won't happen, you know." He was almost forcing the words out through his teeth, he was so visibly upset.

Nonplused, Hermione tilted her head to one side. "I'm sorry?"

"Harry is already taken, Hermione, but it seems like you still have designs on him. You may as well give up your fantasy—he has no way to get out of his betrothal, so he'll never date you."

"You think I'm holding out for Harry," Hermione slowly repeated.

"It's obvious," was Ron's offhand reply. "I've seen you watching him, you know. You and I can be really good together, Hermione, and you have no chance with Harry. I think you should go out with me."

Hermione forbore to mention that she knew about the possibility of a multiple marriage, not to mention the fact that Fleur was already trying to get her to enter into her own relationship with Harry. It would only make Ron even angrier and less willing to accept her rejection.

"Oh Ron, the reason I don't want to date you is not because of Harry," Hermione said firmly. "I am well aware of the marriage contract, and I know that Harry is tied to it. I am not hoping that Harry will date me when he already has Fleur—Harry is too honorable to cheat on her like that, and I wouldn't do that to Fleur, either."

"Then why won't you go out with me? I'm as good as Harry." His voice had taken on a slightly whining quality as he tried to wheedle her into a relationship.

"I told you, Ron, I don't think we are compatible. And you shouldn't compare yourself with Harry—it makes it very clear that you still have some jealousy issues with him. I was not comparing you and Harry, and neither should you."

"I am not jealous of Harry," Ron denied vehemently, his voice becoming rather loud.

"Ron, just listen to me," Hermione pleaded, leaning closer to him and lowering her voice. "I think that a lot of your behavior around Harry—especially since the Triwizard—has been because of your jealousy. You shouldn't feel jealous of him—he doesn't want his fame, or anything that comes with it, you know."

"You just have to bring up the tournament again, don't you?" said Ron. "I already said I was wrong—what more do you want?"

"I don't want anything, Ron," was Hermione's simple reply. "I was not the one who was hurt when you called Harry a liar. You may think that it's water under the bridge, but I can tell you that Harry still doesn't trust you fully like he used to. You never really discussed the situation or apologized to him, and I think that you should so you can both finally put it behind you."

"But… But… Harry told me just to forget it!" Ron said hotly.

"But that's just Harry, Ron," Hermione rejoined. "You know how he is. Despite what he said, though, he was still hurt by it, and you owe him an apology."

Ron's eyes narrowed. "You've been talking with Harry about this stuff behind my back?"

"No, Ron," Hermione responded firmly. "I know how Harry feels, but he has never told me."

"You're changing the subject."

"I think it's more proper to say that I've changed the subject, but I think you needed to hear this," said Hermione, injecting as much firmness into her voice as she could. "Regardless, my feelings for any of my friends are my private concern, and are not up for discussion.

"Ron," she repeated, kindly, "I am sorry to disappoint you, but I have no romantic feelings for you. We are so different—we would make a really poor match. Please get over this so we can stay friends."

But Ron was not about to let it go without a final word. "What do you mean we are a poor match?" he demanded.

"Think about it, Ron," said an exasperated Hermione. "We argue and bicker all the time, we have little in common, and we don't like to do the same things."

"But everyone says the arguing makes us sound like an old married couple."

Hermione shook her head. "They don't know what they are talking about. Real successful marriages are built on love and mutual respect, not on arguing. Do you see your parents arguing all the time like we do?"

"Mum and Dad argue," was Ron's defensive reply.

"Of course they do! All couples have times when they don't agree. But their arguing doesn't define their relationship. Our relationship is not the close, affectionate one that couples should share, and if we argue this badly now, it would just get worse after we start dating. We would eventually split up, and that might even ruin our friendship."

At his look of incomprehension, Hermione threw her hands up in the air. "Really, Ron, can you imagine us married to one another? What would you do if you came home one day and I wanted to discuss the latest Arithmantic formula I was working on? And you know how little I think of Quidditch. Do you really want a wife who could care less about your favorite sport?"

A contemplative look appeared on Ron's face—for the first time, he appeared to be thinking about Hermione's words, rather than only about what he wanted. It was a start, Hermione decided.

"Anyway, thank you for asking, Ron, but I don't think it's a good idea. I hope we can stay friends."

With that, Hermione bid her friend good night and headed toward the stairs and the dormitories. She hated hurting him, but knew it was for the best.

She stepped onto the stairs and made her way up to the fifth year girls' dormitories, and was surprised to see Fleur sitting on the landing, watching her approach, an expression of sympathy etched on her face.

"He asked?" she queried quietly.

Hermione nodded, feeling tears begin to run down her face.

"Ah, mon amie," Fleur said, while drawing Hermione into a hug. "It is hard, but you have done the right thing. He is a good friend, no?"

"Usually," said Hermione while dabbing at her eyes. "He can be a little flaky at times, but at the end of the day you always know he'll be there."

"Then if he is a true friend, he will accept your decision and allow your friendship to remain intact. If he is not…"

Fleur's final thought remained unvoiced, but Hermione knew what she was about to say in any case. It did not make it any easier to hear, but Hermione knew the older witch was correct.

"Thank you, Fleur, but I think I'd like to go to bed now."

"Sleep well," Fleur said, kissing her softly on both cheeks before she departed to her own dormitory.

As Hermione entered her own room, she reflected that the day had generally been a good one. And regardless of the way it had ended, she had faith that Ron would come to his senses and get over his disappointment. It might take some time, but he would eventually get there.

Updated 06/04/2013