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Figurehead by ad astra
Chapter 4: Four
I was in a sour mood for the rest of the evening, due in part to my not figuring out the riddle to Ravenclaw Tower and having to spend time in my own common room. I tended to avoid it when I could – the Slytherin common room, with its dull green glow and lingering chill from the lake above it, was hardly an inviting place. In every year group there was at least one student who thought they were the lord of the entire house – Draco Malfoy in fifth year, Gaius Montgomery in sixth, Harriet Edgecombe in fourth, and, most amusingly, a kid called Tiberius Norton in second. They had their areas in the common room, surrounded by their followers and vying for dominance. First and third year didn’t seem to have any – they avoided gathering in the common room except to silently do their work in corners. What set the self-proclaimed lords of Slytherin apart from the rest of the house was their blatant disregard for the age-based hierarchy, and, to a certain extent, their lack of any redeeming features that could excuse it.
Tiberius was an excellent example – he had gathered his friends around one of the study tables in an alcove off to one side, reserved for those wanting to study. He refused the requests to move from a group of sixth-years wanting to do their homework and sat now at the head of the table, a smug smile on his twelve-year-old face.
I knew I didn’t have to intervene to sort Tiberius out – the others tended to do that for me. Sure enough, I had just settled into one of the couches beside the fire with my Transfiguration textbook when Draco Malfoy and his group arrived at the table. Barely two minutes later, Tiberius and his entourage had slunk off to their dormitories, scowling.
Draco knew connections were important. Once the younger boys had left, he summoned the sixth years who had wanted to study and left the table to them with a conspiratorial wink. I knew he wanted to win the favour of Gaius, and the sixth-years were a tight-knit group. Nobody ever did anything in Slytherin without an ulterior motive.
I wondered what mine was.
Slytherins were ambitious, everybody knew that. I had felt it all my life, that constant desire to be better at everything. It had made me unpopular as a child – I remembered countless meetings with my teachers and parents, as they discussed my competitiveness and ‘negative attitude in the classroom.’ I remembered arriving at Hogwarts and the feeling when I realised that ambition was a core value of Slytherin House. Competition was okay. School became a constant battle of trying to one-up my classmates; I would win some, I would lose some. But when I lost, I was allowed to be upset. When I won, I was allowed to bask in the glory. We found solidarity in opposition.
I knew I wanted to be the best. But what did ‘the best’ mean? I was climbing blindly up a mountain without knowing what I hoped to find on the top.
My eyes drifted up to the honours board, which held a list of Head Prefects from Slytherin. At the moment only the last one hundred names were visible, but I knew the charm which would display them all. My name gleamed at the bottom, the silver script tinted green by the panel behind it and the light in the room. Eleven names above mine was Dolores Umbridge.
Once upon a time, she had stood in this common room, gazed up at her own name glinting on the board. Once upon a time she had stepped onto the same pedestal I now stood on, surveyed her kingdom of Hogwarts and felt the thrill of authority. Once upon a time she had been me, and now she knew exactly how to bring my fragile world crumbling down.
My dorm was considerably quieter than it had been last night, now that the task of catching up after the holidays was complete. There were seven of us in my year, but only Penthesilea Hamilton and Isla Turpin were in the dorm when I arrived. Penny was already in bed, despite the fact it was barely nine o’clock. Isla muttered something about parents mixing up trunks again, departing with a Ravenclaw tie clenched in her fist to return to her younger sister.
“How was the first day?” Penny asked, not bothering to raise her head from the book she was reading. Penny and I got along better with each other than the other girls in our year, but she was so absorbed in her book I don’t think she even noticed who walked into the room.
“It was all right,” I shrugged noncommitally, sitting crosslegged on my bed and fishing around in my bag for my Charms textbook. “Good book?”
“Mm.” Penny closed the book, tucking it behind her pillow before I could see the cover, and turned to me. “Good job in DADA today.”
“Yeah, maybe.” After that meeting with Umbridge, I was beginning to think it was the stupidest thing I could have done under the circumstances. She wanted me to think that, of course. To second-guess everything I did in my role as Head Girl for fear of her taking that away from me. Ironically enough, that would destroy my power just as effectively as her taking my badge.
She didn’t have the authority to do that, I knew. But there was something about her ominous we’ll see about that in class today that made me nervous – it didn’t take a genius to work out that this shit with Harry Potter was designed to shake the public’s faith in Professor Dumbledore, allowing the Ministry to do what they wanted with Hogwarts. I didn’t know exactly what that constituted, but it meant Umbridge had certainly wasted no time in her threats.
The door flung open to let Joanna Crispin and Nerys Holt in, talking and giggling loudly. I rolled my eyes as they flopped onto their beds, speaking in hushed whispers and every so often erupting into fresh bouts of laughter. I turned to Penny, wondering what she had been about to say, but she just raised her eyebrows at me in a long-suffering look and remained silent.
Conversation turned to our plans after Hogwarts when the others in our dorm arrived – Isla, Morgana Flint and Iphigenia Rockwell. Joanna and Isla were discussing the Healer programme at St Mungo’s when the latter suddenly turned to me.
“So what about you, Amelia? You’ll be going to the Ministry, right?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, you’re like Head Girl and stuff. What else would you do?”
“Transfiguration researcher. Or I could always come back here and teach, whenever McGonagall decides to retire.”
“Where do you think our textbooks come from?” I asked pointedly. “There aren’t many Transfigurationers out there. Room for one more.”
“Huh. Cool. What about you, Penny?”
“Hmm, what? Oh, next year. I’m interested in the Department of Mysteries.”
“Now that is cool,” Isla said. “Know much about it?”
Penny shrugged. “My uncle’s an Unspeakable. He can’t say much about it, but he says it’s a great job and he reckons I’d be good at it.”
“Makes an informed decision about career choice a bit hard,” Joanna said. “I couldn’t do that. I’ve been into Mungo’s three times in the last six months to ask about the programme and go on tours and stuff. My cousin’s in his second year of training and I pester him all the time with questions.”
“That’s not really about informed career choices though,” Nerys pointed out. “You’ve been set on Healing since we were first years. You’re just obsessed.”
“Maybe,” Joanna conceded dismissively.
The discussion about careers went on for some time, but eventually the others drifted off to sleep, leaving me staring at the ceiling and wondering what to do about Umbridge. I was exactly where she wanted me to be – uncertain about what I was doing or what I could do. Obviously confronting her in class was stupid, I wouldn’t have done it with any of the other teachers – but if she was blatantly unfair in class, everyone else would expect me to call her out on it after what happened in class today.
“Amelia?” Penny whispered, and I turned to her, startled. I hadn’t even noticed she was still awake.
“Can I talk to you?”
Confused, I slipped out of bed to follow her into the bathroom, closing the door firmly behind me. We had discovered a few years ago that the bathroom door had been charmed by previous students to be soundproof, presumably for confidential gossip sessions, and whatever Penny wanted to say, she didn’t want anyone else to hear.
She stood in front of the mirror above the bathroom sink, hugging her dressing gown around herself to ward off the damp night chill seeping through the walls. She drummed her fingers against the porcelain, her black hair falling messily out of a low ponytail. She was biting her lip.
“I know we’re not really friends,” she began, “But you’re the closest thing to a friend I’ve really got since Polly.”
I felt suddenly awkward. Penny’s sister Hippolyta had been killed in a magical accident eighteen months ago. While I had done my best to help her at the time, I was useless at comfort and we weren’t very close.
“That’s not saying much,” I said, and instantly regretted it.
She managed a thin smile. “I know. But I needed to talk to someone, and I hope you don’t mind me dumping it on you.”
“I don’t mind,” I said cautiously, “But I’m useless at this sort of thing.”
She glanced in the mirror towards the door, made a move as if to turn towards me before thinking better of it. What kind of secret could be so hard to tell? Oh god, I hoped she wasn’t pregnant.
That seemed unlikely, mercifully. I didn’t think I’d ever seen her with a boy.
“I think I might be gay.” She spoke quickly, in a voice barely above a whisper, and her eyes flicked over to me to gauge my reaction.
“You what?” I managed, but my heart had started racing, pounding so hard in my chest it seemed to be all I could hear. I was panicking inside, but forced myself to remain calm. “Okay.” I nodded. “That’s…okay. Well, I don’t have a problem with it. So…you know.” I escaped as quickly as I could, not trusting myself to say any more, and climbed into bed with my heart still thundering.