Eighty-Three – Educational Decree Number Twenty-Four

"Must you smoke that ghastly thing in here, Wilhelmina?" McGonagall asked in the staffroom.

"You have your stress relief and I have mine," said Grubbly-Plank, lighting a pipe. "If you don't like it, you can go back to your office."

"You could just as easily go to yours, you know," McGonagall came back with, opening a newspaper.

"Mine lacks a certain personal touch. I don't want to get too attached to it, you see," Grubbly-Plank explained as she set to work grading assignments.

"I appreciate your willingness to step aside whenever Hagrid gets back."

"We're well under way for this semester. Where on earth is he?"

"Hopefully not in some snowy crevice somewhere," McGonagall said lowly.

"What was that?"

"Just muttering to myself," McGonagall sighed, then threw her paper aside. "I can't focus on reading right now."

Grubbly-Plank tossed McGonagall several papers. "At least make yourself useful."

McGonagall gave a dry laugh. "I can hardly get through grading Transfiguration and you think I'm going to help you with Care of Magical Creatures? I don't like you that much, Wilhelmina."

Grubbly-Plank shrugged. "Fine. Let yourself think."

After a moment, McGonagall grudgingly snatched up the papers thrown at her and began to look them over while grumbly darkly.

A knock sounded after a moment and the two witches looked at each other confusedly.

"You're closer," Grubbly-Plank said after a moment.

Rolling her eyes, McGonagall rose from her seat and opened the staffroom door to find Harry Potter waiting on the other side. In an instant, McGonagall felt her blood pulsing violently through her veins and her nostrils flare. "You haven't been given another detention!"

"No, Professor!" said Harry hastily.

McGonagall felt her blood pressure drop slightly. "Well then, why are you out of class?"

"It's urgent, apparently," said one of the gargoyles guarding the door. McGonagall elected to ignore the comment, which Harry seemed more than willing to do, also.

"I'm looking for Professor Grubbly-Plank," Harry explained. "It's my owl, she's injured."

Gears in McGonagall's mind began turning at a furious pace and her blood pressure began to creep back up.

"Injured owl, did you say?" asked Grubbly-Plank, rising from her seat and joining McGonagall at the door, though she had switched her grading out for a copy of the Daily Prophet, evidently having given up on accomplishing any work.

"Yes," said Harry, "she turned up after the other post owls and her wing's all funny, look – "

By now, McGonagall was able to feel her heartbeat in her fingertips.

"Hmm," said Grubbly-Plank. "Looks like something's attacked her. Can't think what would have done it, though… Thestrals will sometimes go for birds, of course, but Hagrid's got the Hogwarts thestrals well trained not to touch owls…"

As Grubbly-Plank became more absorbed in looking over Hedwig, McGonagall locked her gaze on Harry. "Do you know how far this owl's traveled, Potter?" she asked, trying to keep any excess inflection out of her voice.

"Er," said Harry. "From London, I think."

McGonagall had to focus all her willpower in order to restrain herself from whacking Harry upside the head. Before she could come up with a coherent reply appropriate for a professor of Hogwarts, Grubbly-Plank spoke.

"I should be able to sort this out if you leave her with me, Potter," said Grubbly-Plank, still ruffling through the poor owl's feathers. "She shouldn't be flying any long distances for a few days, in any case."

"Er – right – thanks," Harry bumbled as bell rang for break

"No problem," said Professor Grubbly-Plank somewhat absentmindedly as she made to return to her seat in the staffroom.

"Just a moment, Wilhelmina!" McGonagall said, fighting the impulse to snatch the woman's robes. "Potter's letter!"

"Oh yeah," said Harry. He turned back and gathered his letter. As he and Grubbly-Plank parted ways, however, McGonagall seized her opportunity.

"Potter!" she barked.

"Yes, Professor?" Harry asked, returning.

McGonagall quickly glanced up and down the hall to gage the amount of time she had. "Bear in mind," she said quickly and quietly, looking pointedly at the letter Harry clasped, "that channels of communication in and out of Hogwarts may be being watched, won't you?"

"I – " said Harry, but students were pouring into the hallway.

McGonagall nodded to indicate Harry's dismissal, reentered the staffroom, and shut the door heavily behind herself. "What's wrong with the owl, Wilhelmina?"

"Just a dislocation or two, I think," Grubbly-Plank replied. "Something must have gotten at her, though. Look here. She's got a bit of blood on her beak."

McGonagall stepped cautiously toward the owl and looked carefully at the creature's beak. Just as Grubbly-Plank had said, a drop or two of red stood out against the yellow. McGonagall glanced at Hedwig's eyes and, in a single angry glance, was sure she knew exactly what misfortune had befallen the bird.

"I'd best be going," McGonagall tried to say calmly, eager to run to Dumbledore's office.

"But I need your help!" Grubbly-Plank objected. "It'll only take a moment. If you just hold her down, I can pop these bones back into place and have her back to Potter in a day or two."

McGonagall glanced quickly at the door, but a loud squawk forced her to turn round. "Fine, you blasted bird, I'll help!" she snapped.

"Oi!" Grubbly-Plank bit out.

"Not you," McGonagall growled. Acting quickly, before Hedwig could react, McGonagall stretched one hand over the bird's chest and good wing, pinning the creature down. With the other hand, she clamped down firmly on Hedwig's beak.

"Is that really necessary?" Grubbly-Plank asked, poking about to find the bones she wanted.

McGonagall's mind flashed quickly to the night in Grimmauld Place when she had witnessed Ron, Hermione, and Ginny chasing Hedwig around, the former two complaining of being bitten. "I've had dealings with this animal in the past," McGonagall admitted. "I'm not eager for my blood to be on her beak."

Hedwig's eyes flashed and her feathers began to puff up.

"Don't you start that with me," McGonagall snapped. "I will fail him if you don't control your temper!"

"You realize you're arguing with a bird?" Grubbly-Plank asked. "And you realize that it's not going to answer you?"

"If only it wouldn't answer," McGonagall said lowly to herself, tightening her grip on Hedwig's beak as she felt the owl begin to strain to regain control.

Snape strode through the corridors unimpeded. Today, apparently, he was doing a better job than usual of assuring that he would be left alone. More than once he witnessed friends shove each other into walls in an effort to give him a wide berth.

The knowledge that he had successfully instilled enough fear into the students to assure he be undisturbed by either them or the staff after classes were done buoyed his mood slightly. Upon entering his classroom, his spirits took a dive once more. Dolores Umbridge had already made herself quite comfortable in a corner.

"Professor Umbridge," said Snape, forcing a greeting out of his mouth.

"Professor Snape," Umbridge said in her usual sappy voice. "If I understand correctly, I am about to witness one of your O.W.L. classes?"

"You have my schedule on that abominable clipboard of yours, you miserable Ministry marionette," Snape thought viciously. Somehow, he was able to respond civilly with, "You understand correctly."


"Have you any questions to ask before the students arrive?" Snape asked after several slow breaths.

"Oh, no," said Umbridge with one of her froggy grins. "Simply go about your business. I'm not even here."

"If only." Snape went to his desk before he made any rash decisions.

As Snape began settling himself into his desk, commotion sounded from outside the dungeon. Quickly, before Umbridge could go over his head, Snape strode across his classroom and ripped open his door to see Potter and Weasley restraining Longbottom, of all people, from getting up off the floor.

"Fighting, Potter, Weasley, Longbottom?" he asked, flashing back to a miserable memory from his own time at school. After glancing at Potter's undisciplined hair he announced, "Ten points from Gryffindor. Release Longbottom, Potter, or it will be detention. Inside, all of you."

Sensing, but not caring, that a good portion of Gryffindor would be muttering about their potions master more than usual later in the evening, Snape ushered his students in. As he watched the red and gold, the green and silver pass by him, Snape realized that his assignment to win Umbridge's grace might be accomplished by the time class was over. To top that, he would need to put no extra effort into the ordeal.

"You will notice," Snape said after closing the door to the dungeon, "that we have a guest with us today." He gestured to Umbridge at the back of the room and noticed that, simply by recognizing her before the students, he had fed her slimy, amphibious sense of pride.

"We are continuing with our Strengthening Solutions today, you will find your mixtures as you left them last lesson, if correctly made they should have matured well over the weekend – instructions" – he waved his wand – "on the board. Carry on."

Snape began weaving through the tables of potions, occasionally looking down into a cauldron, but made a point of keeping away from Potter and his sidekicks. Umbridge was busy writing notes in the corner, and he needed to restrain himself until she was paying attention to the students.

After nearly thirty minutes of class time had passed, Umbridge finally got out of her seat and strode towards Snape. Determined not to roll over completely, Snape acted as if he had not noticed, and put his attention toward Dean Thomas's cauldron.

"Well, the class seems fairly advanced for their level," Umbridge began. Still, Snape did not turn. "Though I would question whether it is advisable to teach them a potion like the Strengthening Solution. I think the Ministry would prefer it if that was removed from the syllabus."

"Yes, because the students of Hogwarts are going to storm the Ministry of Magic hyped up on Strengthening Solution, especially a brew they made themselves," Snape thought, wondering if anyone might see the sarcasm oozing out his ears from his musings. He finally turned his gaze on the short woman before him.

"Now… how long have you been teaching at Hogwarts?" she asked, her quill poised over her clipboard.

"Fourteen years," Snape replied. He found it marvelously convenient that Umbridge had not come up with her questions before class, when he had asked if she had any. He heard a potion nearby hiss and so desperately hoped it was some Gryffindor that he could chastise shortly.

"You applied first for the Defense Against the Dark Arts post, I believe?"

In an instant, all considerations of allying himself to Umbridge disappeared and Snape wanted nothing more than to throw the toad out a window for bringing such a thing up in front of his students.

"Yes," Snape answered, his voice beginning to sound like a hiss.

"But you were unsuccessful?"

"Obviously," said Snape, unable to hold himself back. At that moment he decided he ought to go to bed early. His self-control was waning.

Umbridge made a note on her clipboard before her next question. "And you have applied regularly for the Defense Against the Dark Arts post since you first joined the school, I believe?"

"I believe you're going to have an accident in this room full of incompetent potion brewers." Snape filtered his thoughts and managed to reply in the affirmative, though his lips seemed unwilling to form any words at all.

"Do you have any idea why Dumbledore has consistently refused to appoint you?" said Umbridge.

"I suggest you ask him," said Snape, vaguely wondering if even McGonagall could come close to the level of rage he felt at present.

"Oh, I shall," said Professor Umbridge with a sweet smile.

"I suppose this is relevant?" Snape asked. He had clenched his jaws so tightly he thought it a wonder none of his teeth had cracked.

"Oh yes," said Professor Umbridge. "Yes, the Ministry wants a thorough understanding of teachers' – er – backgrounds…"

And, dismissing herself, Umbridge turned to begin discussing the class with students.

Seething internally, Snape whipped his head around toward Potter and saw, to his delight, that the boy's potion was a spectacular failure.

"No marks again, then, Potter," said Snape. He waved his wand and felt a slight, but wonderful, sense of accomplishment as that accursed face looked at him hatefully. Searching for further release, Snape came upon his next decision. "You will write me an essay on the correct composition of this potion, indicating how and why you went wrong, to be handed in next lesson, do you understand?"

"Yes," said [Potter].

Eager to read whatever pitiful excuses the boy might manage to scrounge up in defense of his potion, Snape went to his desk, sat down, and buried himself in grading essays for the duration of the lesson, determined not to look at the vile spot of pink flitting about his room.

"I shall have the result of your inspection in a fortnight, Professor Snape," said Umbridge as the last of the students were leaving.

Snape merely looked up and nodded. He watched Umbridge carefully until, finally, the door shut behind her. After that, his fist clenched on the paper under his hand, damaging it considerably. Rather than repair the essay, however, he threw it into the air, set it aflame, and returned to the other papers before him.

"I understand, Miss Johnson," McGonagall said for what she felt was the hundredth time in the past ten minutes, "but I've got no power in this specific instance!"

"That's bull – "

McGonagall cut her student off sharply, "I suggest you think before you finish that sentence."

Angelina Johnson took such a deep breath the seams of her robes showed strain. "Professor, there's got to be something you can do! The only reason she hasn't given the Gryffindor team permission to reform is because of Harry's outburst!"

"Professor Umbridge has many requests to deal with at present – "

"Well that's her own fault for making such a stupid rule," Angelina huffed.

"Miss Johnson, at present you are doing nothing but affirming the notion that the team should not be reformed! If the team's captain can't keep control of her own temper, how is she supposed to train, or keep in line, those she's been charged with? Now, if you are able to leave my office without slamming my door and take a while to calm yourself down, and if you try approaching me again while acting like a civilized being, I will consider seeing what I can do about the situation. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Professor," said Angelina. Though she was clearly not pleased with the ultimatum posed before her, she seemed to have understood her professor's point. "I'll try again in the morning," she managed to say in a normal voice.

Angelina made for the door and opened it to reveal Professor Sprout. "Professor," she said courteously, holding the door open.

"Thank you, Miss Johnson," said Sprout. She stepped into the office and waited for Angelina to close the door before looking at McGonagall.

"You were listening at the keyhole, weren't you?" McGonagall asked dully as she began to massage her temples.

"Heavens no!" said Sprout. "That's for amateurs and Muggles. So what are you going to do about your team's situation?"

"Wait for Johnson to get herself together and apologize."

"We both know – "

"I'm as unhappy with Dolores's 'indecision' as the Gryffindor team, Pomona, make no mistake," McGonagall snapped. "I can't fight for them if they're going to throw tantrums all over the place, though!"

"Well, they learn their tantrum throwing skills from you," Sprout said, seating herself.

"You're about to get something heavy and dangerous thrown at your face, woman," McGonagall growled.

"Sybill's officially on probation," Sprout announced.

"I know that already," McGonagall bit out.

"How could you? I haven't seen you all day and I always learn things before you do!"

"Not this time. I had to go talk to Albus earlier today about a problem that arose with some mail," said McGonagall, reaching into the back of one of her drawers and pulling out a vial Pomfrey had insisted she take.

"If that's alcohol, you'd better share," Sprout demanded.

"It's something Poppy gave me to try to keep my blood pressure under control. She thinks that it's contributing to the severity of my headaches and my inability to sleep. Happy?" McGonagall asked before throwing down a dose of the potion.

"Well pass it over, then," said Sprout. "I haven't gotten a good night's sleep all week."

McGonagall obliged, passing the potion over her desk to Sprout.

"Have you heard anything about Severus's inspection?" Sprout asked, putting her feet up on McGonagall's desk.

"No. I don't much feel like dealing with him at present," McGonagall admitted, leaning back in her chair.

"She asked him about all his applications for the Defense job."

"Of course she did. She's a miserable and nosey toad that can't resist a nice juicy fly when she sees one," said McGonagall dully.

"Best not let her know that Poppy's put you on this potion, then," said Sprout. "This toad seems eager to rid the pond she inhabits of all the flies she can."

McGonagall took the potion and shoved it back into the depths of her desk.

"You've also heard that your fifth years – "

"Nearly got into a fight with Malfoy? Again? Yes I did, Pomona. Do you have anything positive to say? If not, I kindly request that you leave me be. My head is killing me," said McGonagall, beginning to massage her temples once more.

"I'll shut up, but I won't leave you be," said Sprout. "I can serve as your excuse to send away anyone that might come calling for you. Have a paper I can read?"

McGonagall managed a weak smile as Sprout began digging through the masses of paper on her desk in search of something entertaining.

McGonagall had fallen asleep at her desk, and Sprout in her chair after several hours of sitting in silence.

"Minerva," said a voice quietly.

McGonagall forced her eyes open as a hand shook her shoulder.

"Merlin's beard, Albus!" she hissed angrily. "I was actually sleeping and you saw fit to wake me up? What's wrong with you?"

"I've just had word from London," Dumbledore whispered significantly. "It's confirmed that our floo networks are being carefully monitored."

"Well it's a good thing I haven't tried to hire any assassins via floo network then, isn't it?" McGonagall quipped.

"Have you recently contacted anyone from the Order using floo?" Dumbledore asked after glancing at Sprout to make sure she was still sleeping.

"No. I'm not an idiot!"

"Well I had to be sure. It seems that Harry's mail has been opened more than once."

McGonagall took a moment to fit together the pieces floating about her mind. Her nostrils flared as she saw the full picture. "Sirius has been writing Harry? And arranging floo meetings? Does he want to get the Dementor's Kiss? Because he's getting dangerously close!"

"I doubt if Umbridge knows who Harry was communicating with," said Dumbledore. "It will not be happening again, however. She very nearly caught Sirius's head."

"Then how could she not know who Harry's been calling?"

"If she'd known that Harry was communicating with Sirius – "

"She'd have had him carted off to Azkaban already, guilty by association," McGonagall finished, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Alright, alright, you've made your point."

"Not in its entirety," Dumbledore confessed.

McGonagall blinked several times in rapid succession. "You mean you've got more marvelous news for me?"

"I have confided in you and Severus only," said Dumbledore. "The rest of the staff musn't know. If we all cease using the floo network – "

"Dolores will want to know why and we'll, somehow, be in even more trouble. Yes, I understand. Now are you finished?"

"You cannot inform anyone, Minerva," said Dumbledore, glancing over his shoulder at Sprout, who was oblivious to what was happening in front of her.

"There are days I regret not stashing my wand away under my bed, and today is one of them," McGonagall huffed. "Please leave, Albus."

Dumbledore left quietly, as requested.

Sighing, McGonagall woke Sprout and directed the herbology professor toward her own quarters. Once left alone in her office, McGonagall entered her room, fell onto her bed without changing, and somehow forced her mind to be silent long enough to fall asleep.

Author's Note

I LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE! My lovelies, it's been a long five months, and I've missed you dreadfully. I've given you my excuses before, and they still stand. I see no reason to repeat them.

I hope you all had a lovely holiday season, and that your new year is going well! Review!