This one took a long, long time. I don't spend much time on it, to be honest - most of my inspiration is for my Bleach fic. But at the same time, I don't want to abandon another story. So it IS being worked on. Slowly.

Anyway, on to the chapter.

Chapter 5: Return of the Toad

Harry, though deep in his thoughts, was no so preoccupied that he missed the existence of strange skeletal horse-like things that were drawing the carriages that took the students to Hogwarts. He approached a carriage with Ron and Hermione, closely followed by Neville, Ginny and Luna. "Um, Ron? If I told you that I'm seeing strange creatures pulling the carriages to school, would you tell me that I'm seeing things no one else can?"

Ron blinked, and looked at where Harry was pointing. "I don't see anything. Are you feeling alright?"

"I'm not sure," Harry responded slowly. "Hermione? Are there creatures that are invisible to some, but not to everyone?"

Hermione bit her lip. "I don't know… I'm sure there are, but why would they reveal themselves to you and not us?"

"I don't know…"

"Don't worry, Harry," Luna reassured him. "You're not going mad. I can see them too."

"You can?" Harry wasn't sure what to make of this – Luna seemed to believe in several creatures that he'd never heard of. Then again, for all he knew they could be real. "Have they…"

"They've always been there, pulling the carriages," Luna stated dreamily. "I've been able to see them since my first day here."

"So have I," Neville added quietly from beside Ron. "They're called Thestrals, Harry. You can only see them after you've seen someone die."

That killed the mood quite quickly as everyone was forcibly reminded of Cedric Diggory's demise. Harry lowered his eyes to the ground as his heart ached with guilt. Why did he have to die? He sighed, before suddenly realizing that if Neville and Luna could see them, then they had to have witnessed death too! But he couldn't think of a gentle way to ask…

"It was my grandfather," Neville spoke up, seeming to read Harry's thoughts.

Luna nodded. "My mother," she supplied. "She liked to experiment, and one day when I was nine, one of those went wrong."

Harry almost winced at that information. "I'm sorry to hear that," he offered.

"It was rather horrible," Luna admitted in a conversational sort of tone, as though she were talking about the latest news rather than a deeply traumatic event. "But while I still feel sad about it sometimes, I still have my Dad. Besides, it's not like I won't see her after it's my time to die. I'm just glad she didn't come back as a ghost, forever to haunt this plane… It'd be frightfully dull after a while."

Strange though her tone was, Harry's spirits felt a bit lighter at that. He hadn't remembered that the fact that there were ghosts provided solid – or rather, transparent – evidence that there was an afterlife. Who knows, maybe my parents are chatting with Cedric right now. Harrylet out a small smile at the thought. "You're right, Luna," he agreed, startling the others who had been quite solemn at her words. "We'll get to see them someday. Let's talk of happier things for now – I'm sure there will be time enough for gloom and doom later."

Harry clambered inside the carriage, closely followed by his friends – Neville and Luna told everyone about their summers, while Harry related his experience at the trial and how Dumbledore had turned things back around on the Ministry. But all too soon, they had arrived at the castle.

Exiting the carriage, Harry led the way to the Great Hall. As Luna drifted away towards the Ravenclaw table, Harry touched her on the shoulder and gave a simple, whispered, "Thanks…"

"Anytime, Harry…" With that, Luna pulled away gently and sat down at her table. Harry did the same at the Gryffindor table, sitting across from Ron and beside Hermione, while Neville sat next to Ron. Ginny had apparently been flagged down by a few fourth years, and had meandered to sit with them. Glancing up at the staff table, Harry's eyes widened as he realized there was a very important person missing.

"Hagrid's not here."

"What?" Ron and Hermione too scanned the table, though it was clearly evident Harry spoke the truth – Hagrid was simply far too large to miss, being half-giant.

"That's odd…" Hermione murmured. "You don't think he's… hurt or anything?"

"No," Harry replied at once. "Maybe just taking a while longer on whatever Dumbledore's having him do?"

Ron's expression cleared up at that, looking far more reassured. "Yeah… yeah, that sounds right."

Hermione bit her lip, not quite convinced. She looked up towards the staff table again, looking for something. "Who's that?" she suddenly asked sharply, pointing towards the middle.

Harry took a closer look. In the center, in his tall, high-backed golden chair, was Dumbledore, wearing deep-purple robes scattered with stars and a matching hat. He looks like the Muggle idea of Merlin more than ever now, Harry thought to himself, amused, before continuing on, trying to see who Hermione was talking about.

Dumbledore seemed to be listening to a woman quite squat, wearing a fluffy pink cardigan that did nothing to detract from her toad-like face… Harry gave a start as he recognized her. "It's Umbridge, that woman from my trial! She works for Fudge."

"Guess we know who is Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher now," Ron commented. "She doesn't look like much, does she?"

"Do you know anything about her?" Hermione asked Harry quickly.

Harry racked his brains for a few moments. "Not really. She voted against me, seems to really respect or suck up to Fudge."

Hermione groaned. "That's not good. Harry, if she's firmly on Fudge's side, she's going to do her best to make you recant that V-V-Voldemort's back, and make this year absolutely miserable for you!"

Harry's expression darkened as he stared up at the woman at the staff table. Perhaps feeling his eyes upon her, she turned to look at him, and the two locked gazes. She smirked, and Harry felt a flash of anger at her, despite Umbridge not having done anything yet.

"So, it's her turn, huh?" Harry muttered harshly. "I wonder if she knows about my history regarding Defense teachers…"

"One dead, one having lost all memory, one sacked, one Kissed by dementors…" Ron listed. "What next? Suicide by Potter?"

"Ron!" Hermione cried out, scandalized.

"What? It's true! Harry's had something to do with every single Defense teacher having lost their job since we came here!" Ron defended himself.

It was a harsh, but true statement, Harry mused, ignoring his two best friends as they bickered. So far, each of my Professors has left in a way rather ironic to them. Quirrel, who sought the Elixir of Life, died from the life-giving protection my mother left me. Lockhart, who made a living off of Memory Charms, Obliviated his whole life away. Lupin, who taught us how to defend against Dark creatures, was revealed to be a Dark creature himself. Crouch Jr., who helped resurrect Voldemort, was Kissed by the dementors that would soon join him. If the trend continues, I wonder how Umbridge will go… He snickered. Probably eaten by a giant toad.

Harry vaguely noted Professor Grubbly-Plank appear behind the staff table and seat herself in what should have been Hagrid's seat. Time for sorting, then.

Indeed it was, as Professor McGonagall opened the Great Hall doors a few seconds later, leading the new first years. The buzz of talk that had permeated the Great Hall faded, and McGonagall set down the customary stool and the Sorting Hat. The rip on its brim opened wide like a mouth, and the Sorting Hat began to sing its song.

"Branched out a bit, hasn't it?" Ron commented after it was done.

"Yeah," Harry agreed, looking pensively at the Hat. Usually, the Sorting Hat stuck to describing the qualities sought by the four Houses… He didn't remember it giving warnings before. Then again, he'd only been able to be there for two of his four previous years due to unfortunate circumstances.

"That's the advice it always gives, when the times are troubled," Nearly-Headless Nick, the Gryffindor House ghost, told them knowledgeably as he drifted by. "Be strong from within, unite the Houses."

"It's not a bad idea," Hermione said in a very thoughtful voice. "If the children are united, then it follows that their parents will as well, for their sake."

Ron snorted. "As if we'll make nice with the Slytherins," he argued derisively.

Harry frowned; that comment rubbed him wrong, somehow, despite how he could clearly see many of the returning Slytherins glaring in their direction. "I was nearly sorted into Slytherin, Ron. They can't be all bad."

Ron opened his mouth to answer, but Nick promptly shushed him – McGonagall was starting to call out the names of the new students, but Harry found he could hardly pay attention – his adrenaline had just been triggered due to the tingling sense of an unexpected mental invasion. Due to his weeks of practice with Thornetrope, Harry was able to clamp down on his instinct to panic and instead began his Occlumency technique, clearing his mind much faster than he'd ever managed before – this time it merely took him seconds.

In the end, Harry's mind was mostly cleared – the only thought left was his intention to find and identify the attacker. Most people's eyes were on the Sorting, so it was likely that whoever was digging around in his head would be the only one looking at him.

Sure enough, Harry found his eyes locked with Snape's. People were talking, someone had just been Sorted, but Harry couldn't hear them – he was too focused on Snape. Get out! he mentally snarled, flexing his mind and feeling his magic respond.

And then the presence was gone, and Snape had a surprised look on his face for a moment, before it was replaced by cunning calculation. But if he was surprised, it was nothing compared to how Harry felt – he had done it! He had managed to throw an accomplished Legilimens out of his head! And it was Snape to boot! Granted, Snape probably hadn't been trying with all his might, and it wasn't one of the more subtle varieties of Legilimency either, but it was still far better than Harry had done to date, and it was a tangible – or at least observable, as a meeting of the minds was hardly physical in any sense of the word – sign of progress!

Meanwhile, Snape was eyeing the son of his childhood nemesis critically. That was… a surprisingly strong defense. In truth, he had expected Potter to struggle and ultimately fail to clear his mind – he was far too emotional, and Snape strongly doubted that a single summer could convince him to think rather than feel, let alone be able to banish all but the emotions necessary at a given moment.

He had, of course, detected that it took Potter a measurable amount of time to clear his mind, and even then the boy hadn't fully succeeded. But it had proven sufficient to keep the Potions Master from accessing his mind as he wanted, at least with the minimal amount of effort Snape had been using. That Potter had been able to eject him forcefully was also admittedly impressive for someone so young and emotionally immature.

The look on Potter's face now was enough for Snape to determine, however, that it was his first time doing such a feat. Hmph. A fluke, Snape decided. He'll no doubt become even more arrogant, thinking that he's actually succeeded. I'll show him the falsity of that in our next class together. He could use some humility. Once more simultaneously satisfied and angry that Potter was as arrogant as his father, Snape turned his attention back to the Sorting.

Shortly thereafter, every new student was sitting with their respective House, and Dumbledore rose to address the school. "To our newcomers," he began with a beaming smile and wide arms, "welcome! To our old hands - welcome back! There is a time for speechmaking, but this is not it. Tuck in!"

Harry couldn't help but chuckle and clap his hands with the majority of the students as Dumbledore sat neatly and threw his beard over his shoulder to keep it from getting in the way of his eating, just in time for a delicious feast to appear on all the tables, making their magically-enforced joints groan under the weight.

Taking some steak and kidney pie, Harry kept quiet and tried to listen. He really wanted to avoid attention this year if it was at all possible, especially with the Ministry observing the school. With Fudge's refusal to admit that Voldemort had returned, Harry needed to work quietly to get stronger, make some allies, and try to cripple whatever threats he could.

At the last thought, Harry found his eyes fixed on Draco Malfoy at the Slytherin table. As if Harry's gaze were a magnet, Draco looked away from his plate and locked eyes with his archrival. The platinum blond paled again, pausing in his eating as he looked at Harry with hastily-hidden fear.

But Harry had caught the emotion before it could be locked away, and he looked back at his plate, hiding his expression. How was he supposed to feel? Was it right for him to feel satisfied that he'd hopefully cowed his school rival enough for Harry to focus on bigger problems, like Voldemort? Or should he be guilty that he'd done it in a way that made Draco fear him? The Malfoy scion was the son of a Death Eater, and had given every indication that he would be joining Voldemort when he reached an appropriate age. In fact, there was no way to know for sure whether Draco was working for them now, Harry realized, given that Lucius was in Voldemort's Inner Circle. But still, that brief look of fright… it troubled Harry.

Harry knew that the war with Voldemort was going to terrify pretty much everyone that wasn't on his side, but was it right to fight fear with fear? Harry looked up at Dumbledore, who had just risen to give his post-feast speech. It was said that Dumbledore was the only one Voldemort had ever been afraid of. But was that something that Dumbledore had cultivated? It was obvious that it had saved lives – Voldemort didn't want to chance fighting Dumbledore, or he would have already attacked and killed Merlin knew how many people. But Harry didn't want to equate Draco with Voldemort – while he despised the Malfoy heir, he didn't really want him dead, just out of the way so Harry could focus on more important things. So, what was the right way to take?

Harry would have continued to ruminate on the subject, but his thought process stopped dead when he heard Umbridge clear her throat and rise to her feet right in the middle of Dumbledore's speech.

"Hem, hem."

Dumbledore looked a little taken aback, but recovered gracefully at sat down smartly, attentively watching the Ministry-sent representative as though he would love nothing more than to listen to her speak. The other teachers, however, were not nearly so composed. McGonagall's lips were no longer visible, so thin they were that only a line could be seen, and Flitwick was outright staring incredulously.

Glancing around the Great Hall, Harry saw confused looks sent his way as well, though he didn't know why. But apparently his matching expression of surprise was enough answer for them, as they turned once more to Umbridge.

"Thank you, Headmaster," Professor Umbridge simpered, "for those kind words of welcome."

Harry stared. Did I miss something? Sure, he hadn't paid attention to Dumbledore's actual words, but he hardly thought that the Headmaster would give such an enthused welcome to warrant Umbridge's response.

Umbridge cleared her throat again, apparently only a little taken aback by the stark silence and stares of the children before her. "Well, it is lovely to be back at Hogwarts, I must say!" She smiled widely, but it struck Harry as very false. "And to see such happy little faces looking up at me!"

She must be completely blind, Harry thought to himself incredulously. No one's happy she's here except her and Fudge. And would you stop talking to us like we're five?

He hadn't realized he'd muttered aloud before hearing mumbles and nods of agreement from those within earshot. "You said it, Harry," Seamus whispered back.

But apparently the noise where there had once been silence had drawn Umbridge's attention, and Harry met her gaze stolidly, daring her to comment on it. But after a few moments, she broke the stalemate and readdressed the school in a dull, rehearsed tone, as though she'd been forced to memorize a speech for this purpose.

"The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of vital importance. The rare gifts with which you were born may come to nothing if not nurtured and honed by careful instruction. The ancient skills unique to the wizarding community must be passed down the generations lest we lose them forever. The treasure trove of magical knowledge amassed by our ancestors must be guarded, replenished and polished by those who have been called to the noble profession of teaching."

Professor Umbridge paused here and made a little bow to her fellow staff members, none of whom bowed back to her. McGonagall and Snape, much to Harry's surprise, seemed to be united in identical expressions, with white lips firmly pressed together as though struggling to hold back what they wanted to say, and furrowed brows that Harry knew meant that they were displeased but unable to do anything about it at present. He'd seen the look often enough on Aunt Petunia's face when she was forced to take Harry anywhere.

Umbridge once more cleared her throat with a "Hem, hem", and opened her mouth to continue her spiel. "Need a cough drop, Professor?" Harry muttered mutinously, unable to help himself. She'd made that extremely irritating sound several times in the last few minutes, and he had better things to do than to listen to Fudge's representative give pointlessly long speeches that threatened to put everyone in the Great Hall to sleep.

Ron couldn't help it and let loose a snicker. Hermione, for once, didn't even spare him a glance. She too was staring avidly at Umbridge as though she were trying to puzzle out something. The last time Harry had seen that look on her face, it was when she was figuring out what the monster in the Chamber of Secrets was. What needs figuring out? She works for Fudge and is trying to take me down. Maybe she's trying to figure out what angle Umbridge'll use? Deciding to listen closely as well, just in case there was some nugget of information that could be useful later, Harry opened his ears and paid close attention. Who knew when some tiny detail would come in handy?

"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, for without progress there will be stagnation and decay. There again, progress for progress's sake must be discouraged, for our tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation…"

Alarm bells rang in Harry's head as his eyes narrowed. Progress for progress's sake must be discouraged? Progress is only ever done because of a discovered flaw. What's she playing at?

"… because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognized as errors of judgment. Meanwhile, some old habits will be retained, and rightly so, whereas others, outmoded and outworn, must be abandoned. Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited."

Pruning practices that ought to be prohibited. She'll be deciding what we can and can't do? Harry met Hermione's eyes, matching looks of horror on their faces.

Hermione, however, had already jumped ahead to the next conclusion. "The Educational Decrees…" she hissed to her best friend.

Harry blanched as the whole picture revealed itself to him. The Educational Decree that allowed Umbridge in; it was a way to get a Ministry agent inside Hogwarts to create and enforce other Educational Decrees. They're trying to reduce Dumbledore's power as much as possible. And punish me for telling the truth.

Harry found himself clenching his fists as he glared at Umbridge. He'd had it with the Ministry, and he wanted her gone. He shifted his gaze to rest of the teachers. McGonagall looked almost angry, and Snape's mouth had twisted into a derisive sneer. Sprout's face was a mask of unpleasant surprise, while Dumbledore's expression gave nothing away, though the ever-present twinkle had diminished significantly.

Umbridge sat down, and Harry fell back into pensive thought as Dumbledore and the other teachers gave only a couple of claps. The students themselves seemed to have been bored stupid and were taken completely by surprise that it was over, as not one of the students applauded.

Harry was barely aware when Dumbledore dismissed the school, mindlessly getting up and following his friends as they guided the first years to the Gryffindor dorm. Noting the password – "Mimbulus mimbletonia" – and mumbling it under his breath a few times to help him remember it later, Harry waved goodnight to his friends in the Gryffindor common room and made his way up to his room. He wanted to some peace and quiet to help him work on his Occlumency; his head was feeling very loud with all the frustrated thoughts bouncing around, and Harry figured he should at least do something productive before bed.

Dean and Seamus had apparently made it in before him, and had just started digging posters out of their trunks. Dean was pulling out a Muggle football poster, but Harry was more curious about why they'd suddenly stopped talking – he'd heard their voices on the way up, but as soon as the door had opened they had silenced. Maybe it's a personal conversation? Harry mentally shrugged – he had bigger things to worry about.

"Hey," Harry muttered distractedly.

"Hi, Harry. How was your summer?" Dean asked.

Harry opened his mouth to say "Fine", but then paused and cocked his head, reconsidering the answer. In all honesty, it had been anything but fine – physically and spiritually attacked by dementors, politically attacked by the Ministry, psychically and emotionally under attack by Voldemort… those were the highlights, and while it was just another day in the life of Harry Potter, he was certain anyone else would not consider themselves fine afterwards. "Horrid. Yours?"

Dean blinked, obviously not having expected that as an answer. "I had an alright summer, but what was so horrid about yours?"

"Got attacked by dementors in a Muggle neighborhood," Harry said shortly as he opened his trunk. "Then the Ministry tried to expel me for underage magic without hearing my side of the story, and when Dumbledore called them on it they put me on trial in front of the Wizengamot."

Seamus turned around with a strange expression, one that Harry couldn't readily decipher, but it was obvious that he was incredulous. "You're kidding!"

"I wish." Harry pulled off his Hogwarts robes and sat on his bed cross-legged, closing his eyes. "Fudge didn't believe that there had been dementors there – after all, they're supposed to be under Ministry control. Worse, there wasn't exactly proof that they had been – no one got Kissed, and the only ones attacked were me and my cousin. I'm just glad that Dumbledore was there, even though Fudge changed the time of the trial on the morning of it."

Seamus laughed humorlessly. "Looks like you and I are both lucky to be coming back to Hogwarts this year."

That startled Harry out of his attempt to clear his mind. He opened his eyes and stared at Seamus, who wasn't looking at him, pulling on his pajamas. "What?"

"Me mam didn't want me coming back to Hogwarts."

"But why?"

"Well… because of you, I suppose," Seamus replied calmly.

Harry sighed. "She believes the Prophetand thinks I'm a liar, then? And Dumbledore's an old fool?"

Seamus fidgeted for a few moments before shrugging. "Yeah. Something like that."

Harry shook his head and didn't respond, instead closing his eyes again. He should've known this would happen – nearly everyone read the Daily Prophet, and most just preferred to believe what was written there. It was one of the reasons Rita Skeeter was such a horrible woman – no matter what manner of things she wrote, it seemed like everyone believed her.

"Well?" Seamus asked, his voice a little high.

"What do you want me to say, Seamus?" Harry answered with a question of his own, a little more coolly than he meant to say it. "You heard me and Dumbledore in June. I'm not going to waste my breath trying to convince you, or your mother, that Voldemort's back." He opened his eyes again and fixed a piercing stare at his roommate. "You'd think after four years of rooming with me, you'd know better than to think that I'm lying just for attention's sake."

Seamus stepped back as if he'd been slapped. He stared at Harry, his mouth agape, obviously unable to think of a response.

Harry snorted, and pulled back the hangings of his bed, secluding himself from his roommates. "Well," he heard Dean mutter, "He's got a good point. Remember the Chamber of Secrets? No one believed him then either, and he was proven right in the end. And last year, how he kept insisting he didn't enter the Tournament?"

"Yeah… yeah, I know," Seamus replied heavily. "Sorry, Harry."

Harry debated on whether to answer him for a few moments. In the end, he sighed and decided to forgive him. Not bothering to open the hangings, he answered loudly enough for them to hear, "You're forgiven. But tell everyone who asks what I just told you; I don't want to have to keep repeating it. I've got enough on my plate as it is."

So, Harry is finally back at Hogwarts. He's facing some ethical quandaries, and his speaking is getting more and more acerbic.

The conversation in the dorm came to me all of a sudden, actually. Why wouldn't Harry's roommates believe him, after the Chamber of Secrets and the Triwizard Tournament, where Harry was hated by most if not all of the school and then revealed to have been speaking the truth the whole time?

Anyway, Harry's got his mind on the mission ahead - he know he has to hurry and get ready, because Voldemort is out to get him.