Chapter 6 - - Hogwarts, Fifth Year

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In years to come, Millicent would look back at that afternoon spent in Greenhouse Three as one of the best times of her school years and maybe of her entire life so far.

Because everything went to hell the next year.

She supposed she should have seen it coming. Unlike those stupid people with their heads in the sand, Millicent had believed Harry Potter when he came back from the Tri-wizard Championship bearing both Cedric Diggory's body and the news that the Dark Lord had returned. Millicent's papa had been hearing rumours - - as a Slytherin pure-blood, he had connections even though he had never been one of Lord Voldemort's supporters.

The summer between fourth and fifth year was an anxious one. Papa, when he was home, had been subdued and had spent even more time in his study than usual. Auntie Enna had been in a state of near-hysteria, and Millicent had once overheard her begging Papa to be more "diplomatic" and to "think of me and the Child."

So when, during the first week of term in fifth year, Millicent got an owl from her papa, telling her that he might have to go on an extended business trip, she had been worried. Worry had turned to fear when an owl from Auntie Enna brought a parchment filled with sentences in capital letters, with dozens of exclamation points and underlines.

"WE ARE IN DANGER!" Auntie Enna had written. "Your papa is under suspicion from the Ministry because he married a MUGGLE and because he foolishly REFUSES to take a stand in favour of pure-blood RIGHTS!" (That was how Auntie Enna saw the whole political uproar - - a matter of pure-bloods being denied their rightful superiority). "So now he is ON THE RUN! I am doing my best to show everyone that the Bulstrode family is ON THE RIGHT SIDE of things, but Millicent, you will have to do your part, too. You are a half-blood; you will have to be EVEN MORE obvious in your support of pure-bloods and of Slytherin than people like Draco Malfoy, who of course is above suspicion. DO NOT LET THE FAMILY DOWN! Do whatever you can to make it clear that you are not a threat to the new regime. Our lives may depend on it! YOUR FATHER'S LIFE DEPENDS ON YOU! Don't let him down."

And Millicent had tried. She'd joined the Inquisitorial Squad with the rest of her Slytherin companions even though she found Umbridge the Toad just as loathsome as the Gryffindors did. Papa was depending on her. He wasn't going to get into any trouble that she could save him from.

But when Pansy had burst into the Slytherin girls' dormitory on that June day just after O.W.L.s to cry excitedly that "the Squad is needed! Potter just broke into the Headmistress's office!" it had taken every ounce of Millicent's willpower to get up and follow the others out. Not even the prospect of holding Granger in a headlock had lightened the ordeal. Millicent hadn't forgotten what Professor Sprout had said about how maybe Granger was just trying to be helpful when she went into "know-it-all" mode.

And besides, it all seemed so childish, the feuds they'd had in the past, the things she'd punched people over. Stupid kid stuff. But this was different. This was real.

Still, she'd done her best not to call attention to herself. She'd stood there stalwartly in Umbridge's office while the Headmistress had questioned Potter and had lost her temper with Professor Snape. She hadn't even said anything when it looked like Umbridge was going to use the Cruciatus curse; she'd just closed her eyes. (A punch or a headlock was one thing, the Cruciatus was something else again. Something Millicent didn't like to think about. She still remembered the writhing spiders from Professor Moody-the-fake's lesson on Unforgivables.)

And when Granger averted the Cruciatus threat by starting her absurd sobbing performance about weapons in the Forbidden Forest, Millicent totally kept her mouth shut. (That the Toad fell for it was yet further proof that she was mental, because Granger was the worst actress on record. It was a clever distraction, though; Millicent would give her that.)

Yet after it was all over, she felt. . .well, she felt like she needed to spend some time in the greenhouses. She took herself over on the next afternoon, while everyone else was busy gossiping about how Potter and Longbottom and the rest of them had flown Thestrals to the Ministry and had fought off You-Know-Who himself.

There was no one else in Greenhouse Three when Millicent first arrived, and she spent a calming half-hour pruning the Alihotsy shrubs. But she was not at all unhappy when Professor Sprout eventually came in and thumped a large carpet bag onto the main work table.

Millicent was about to say hullo when she realised something: Professor Sprout seemed to be crying. Certainly her shoulders were hunched over, and she had her hand over her eyes, and there were odd snuffling sounds coming from her.

And her robes were clean. That was perhaps the most astonishing thing: Professor Sprout's robes were whole and unpatched. And clean.

For a wild moment, Millicent considered just dashing out of the greenhouse and then later swearing blind to Professor Sprout that she hadn't seen her. Because something terrible must have happened, and Millicent didn't want to know about it.

Then the idiocy of this plan occurred to her. Even if it would have worked, which it wouldn't have, she couldn't just run out and leave Professor Sprout alone when she was obviously upset.

Millicent cleared her throat. "Um, er, Professor Sprout? Is there. . .is anything wrong?"

Professor Sprout gasped and clutched her chest. "Oh, Millicent, dear, you gave me a fright. I didn't see you there, I'm sorry. No, nothing's wrong. . .well, nothing too serious, that is. I've just been to St Mungo's to visit Professor McGonagall."

"How is she?" McGonagall wasn't one of Millicent's favourite people, but she didn't want anything bad to happen to her. Especially not when she was one of Professor Sprout's friends.

"Oh, she'll recover - - she should be back to her old self in a month or so. It's just. . .well, she looked terrible, Millicent, so drawn and ill. She couldn't sit up and I just. . .I mean, I hated to see her like that, not Minerva. . ."

To Millicent's horror, the professor's face twisted, and she began to cry again. Millicent felt like a berk, just standing there like a lump, so before she could talk herself out of it, she stepped over and put her arms around her.

Professor Sprout felt warm and solid, and her springy hair was surprisingly soft against Millicent's cheek. For the first time Millicent could remember, she smelt like flowers instead of dragon dung fertiliser. Roses, in fact.

They stood together for only a moment before the professor gently disentangled herself with a sniff and a watery smile and a pat to Millicent's arm.

"Thank you, dear. It's foolish of me to give way like this, especially when I know Minerva will be all right. But there, it's been a difficult year for all of us. How are you doing? I've already checked on Mr Longbottom, and he'll be fine, but I haven't heard anything about you or the other Slytherins. How do you feel?"

"Oh. . .well. . ." Millicent felt all mixed up, hot and icy at the same time. And furious.

She was furious. Longbottom had been at the Department of Mysteries, fighting for his friends' lives, while she had been doing nothing but keeping her head down, letting some of her friends terrorise younger kids just because they were called "The Inquisitorial Squad" and could.

Millicent slammed her fist against a bag of fertiliser and shouted, "I feel like I want to punch something, that's how I feel! Everything is hopeless, Professor, and it's just getting worse! You-Know-Who is back, and my father is in danger, and everybody's getting hurt, and I've been part of that stupid Inquisitorial Squad, and when the Toad was going to cruciate Potter, I didn't do anything to stop it!"

She was horribly close to bursting into tears, so she punched the fertiliser again as hard as she could. And again and again, until her hand ached and her shoulder felt like it was on fire.

Professor Sprout waited silently until Millicent had quieted and her tears had started despite herself.

"Things are bad, Millicent, and not even a hopeless optimist like me would deny it. I wish I could promise you that everything will work out for the best, but I can't. The fight against You-Know-Who is just beginning, and it will be a long and costly war, I'm afraid. But there are still things we can feel good about, my dear, and we need to concentrate on those. We're going to need all the good feelings we can get."

"Good things? Like what?" Millicent demanded, knowing she sounded truculent and not caring.

"Like the fact that Minerva and Neville and the others will be all right. Like the fact that you seem to have learnt something important in the last few days: like where your loyalties lie and where you will stand about what's right and what's wrong."

She looked at Millicent solemnly until Millicent gave a tight nod. Then the Professor began to smile, and when she was beaming as brightly as ever, she added, "And let's not forget the fact that it looks as if the Toad will be leaving Hogwarts for good!"

Millicent stared. Had she just heard what she thought she'd heard? Had Professor Sprout just called Umbridge "the Toad"? Apparently so.

Professor Sprout, meanwhile, touched the split-open bag of fertiliser and waved her wand to repair it.

"Now, Millie, dear, what do you say to a cup of tea?" she asked, pocketing her wand and leaving a smear of dragon dung on her clean robes. "I could certainly use one, and I'm sure you could as well. Come along. I've got a nice, cosy tea nook in the back of the supply room."

Millicent felt an odd sensation bubbling up inside her and realised that she felt almost happy. She was with Professor Sprout, and they had hugged each other, and the professor was talking to her like a real friend, and she had called her "Millie," the only person besides Granny who ever had.

Yes, here she was, with her world on the brink of war and her father on the run and her own future anything but assured.

And she was feeling happy.

Millicent shook her head and grinned as she settled into a chintz armchair in Professor Sprout's tea nook.

Hopeless, she was. Positively hopeless.

~ ~ ~The End