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Figurehead by ad astra
Chapter 1: One
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“Are you sure you’re up to this?”
“It’s not going to be like anything you’ve experienced before, Amelia. It’s a big enough commitment as it is, but these days…”
“I can handle it.”
Mum stopped fussing with my Head Girl badge long enough to meet my gaze, and I realised, suddenly, how much she had aged. As if ten years had suddenly caught up with her overnight, weighing her down with fatigue and filling her eyes with apprehension.
“I know you can, sweetheart,” she said with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, as her maternal faith in me battled with the knowledge that maybe I was facing a challenge I couldn’t meet.
I didn’t let her see my apprehension, giving her a cheerful smile and picking my trunk up off the kitchen floor. “Seven years later and I still don’t understand why we have to go all the way to London to catch a train that stops an hour’s drive from here.”
Although I had gotten my Apparition licence over the summer, Mum still held her hand out to me and Apparated us both to Kings Cross. I think she did it more for normality than anything. That, and the fact she wasn’t quite willing to accept I was growing up and this was the last time she would see me off on the Hogwarts Express for the start of the year.
I ignored the sideways glances of the Muggles as I strode through the station, knowing full well that no matter how much attention I drew to myself by wearing my Hogwarts robes, they would never realise who or what I was. My father’s new wife was evidence enough of that – she thought I was just inventing stories to entertain my half-sister Clara. And Dad wondered why I hadn’t been to visit in two years.
I pushed that thought from my mind as we crossed through the barrier onto Platform 9¾. As usual, it was pandemonium as nearly a thousand students were seen off by parents and siblings. Mum didn’t stick around – she gave me one quick hug, whispered ‘Be careful’ in my ear, and was gone. I didn’t mind – she had to get back to Hogsmeade to open the school and my duties started the moment I arrived on the platform. I walked through the crowds, continually being stopped by parents or students asking questions. In addition to the usual questions (What kind of supervision is there on the train for my children? When does the train get to Hogwarts? Does that badge mean you can give me detention?) one mother pulled me aside and asked what I thought about Harry Potter.
“I’m neutral,” I told her firmly.
“But the Prophet is saying—”
“I know what the Prophet is saying, I subscribe to it. But there are two sides to every story and it would be inappropriate for me to choose one.”
“Do your views reflect that of the school’s?”
“I don’t know what the school’s views are. I know what Professor Dumbledore’s are, obviously, but that has no impact on mine.”
“Listen,” the mother continued, pulling me closer. “It’s my Emma’s first year. She’s my eldest. I need to know she won’t get any dangerous ideas.”
“From my experience, the views of the Ministry aren’t something eleven year olds are likely to spend a lot of time discussing. The Hogwarts curriculum doesn’t cover current events, so whatever the school’s viewpoint is on the return of He Who Must Not Be Named, your daughter won’t hear it in her classes.”
The parents were beginning to disperse and the Hogwarts whistle sounded, signalling it was time for me to board as well. After a quick scan of the platform to make sure no lost-looking firsties were about to miss the train, I entered the Prefects’ Carriage to join my best friend and Head Boy, Oliver Hobbs.
“I think we’re in for a rough year,” Oliver said in an undertone.
I nodded in response, not wanting to pursue the conversation when two dozen Prefects were watching us, and turned to them. “First things first, welcome back to Hogwarts. If you’ve been a Prefect before, I’ve just got a couple of quick notices before you start your rounds. The first is that Filch has asked us to confiscate any Zonko’s or similar products if we see them on the train, and not give them a chance to get through the school gates. The second is that, due to the controversy around whether He Who Must Not Be Named is back or not, I encourage you to keep your personal convictions to yourself and present yourself as neutral. The last thing we want to do is promote division within the school.”
This last statement prompted a flurry of whispered discussion among the prefects, which I quickly interrupted. “You’re free to start your rounds of the train now. Rosters for castle rounds will be owled to you tomorrow. Fifth years, stay here while Oliver outlines your responsibilities as Prefects.”
Oliver shot me a glare – he hated explaining things, and walking eight fifteen-year-olds through the details of Prefect duties was a particularly arduous process – the Prefect Code of Conduct alone was nearly two feet of parchment long.
Oliver introduced us – I had forgotten to do that, I tended to assume people knew who I was – and as he launched into a description of castle rounds I took the opportunity to survey this year’s new crop of Prefects. It came as no surprise that Harry Potter was absent from the group – Dumbledore wasn’t stupid enough to invite that kind of controversy, even if Potter was his favourite student. Instead, the Prefects from Gryffindor were Hermione Granger, the apparent genius of that year group, and one of the Weasleys – I didn’t know his name, but figured I would learn it in time. Hufflepuff’s prefects were Ernie and Hannah, friends of my cousin Susan, but I thought she should have gotten the role instead of Hannah. I didn’t know much about the Ravenclaw prefects, but Oliver had said they were definitely the best choice.
And then there were the Slytherins. Being in Slytherin, you see a lot of obnoxious pureblood kids (It had taken three years of getting top of class before my classmates had accepted that maybe a half-blood was worthy of being in their midst) but this year’s prefects really were little shits – Draco Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson. There hadn’t been a lot of competition, granted – the 1991 intake had held slim pickings for Slytherin – but in cases like that I quietly thought they should take a couple of extra Prefects from Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff and just bypass Slytherin entirely.
As usual, a large chunk of the questions posed by the new Prefects (responsible, carefully selected students in positions of authority, supposedly) were to do with what they could take points off for, particularly from junior students, and how many points they could take from a particular group before they started noticing they were being victimised.
“Say we took points from a Slytherin,” the Weasley boy began. “But they didn’t stop doing whatever it was, so we take more points from them. Then we see them again and they’re doing something different, so we take more points. Then a bunch of their friends are also breaking rules, as we just see Slytherins breaking rules because they’re gits…”
I leveled a glare at him, maintaining the glare until he noticed the house colours on my badge and stared at his feet, looking sheepish. “Misconduct on the part of prefects,” I began, still keeping my eyes on him, “Is determined and punished by myself and Oliver. If we hear about it, we can take points off you. In extreme cases, we can ask your Head of House to have you removed from the position. I should also point out, in response to your comments, that it was Gryffindor who lost the most amount of points last year due to student misconduct, not Slytherin.”
“Right, so I think that’s it for now,” Oliver declared in the silence that followed. “As Amelia said earlier, rosters for the castle rounds will be sent to you by owl tomorrow morning. We’ll have a Prefect meeting in about six weeks’ time, just to check back on how things are going. You’re free to go. And we’ll be monitoring the points you all take from students. We have ways to do that.”
We watched the fifth years file out, and Hermione Granger pulled me aside on her way out. “Don’t worry about Ronald,” she told me earnestly. “I’ll keep an eye on him, and make sure he’s fair.”
“Much appreciated, Hermione.”
She gave Oliver and I another quick smile, promised to make us and the school proud, and was gone.
“Ah, the self-righteous ones,” I commented, leaning back on my chair. “They’re my favourites.”
“They police themselves,” Oliver agreed. “Good call with the neutrality thing about You Know Who, by the way.”
“We can but try,” I sighed. “That’s going to be an impossible task with the newbies though. Did you see them? Harry Potter’s best friends and Draco Malfoy.”
Oliver shrugged. “So who do you believe?”
Chapter 2: Two
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“I don’t understand how you can be neutral,” Oliver said frustratedly.
“Would you prefer ‘undecided’?”
“You must be leaning one way or another. I know you, you have an opinion on everything.”
“My mum believes Dumbledore,” I offered instead.
“Without any proof.”
“The Ministry doesn’t have any proof either. It’s like trying to prove the existence of God.”
“And what do you think about God?” Oliver asked, seizing upon a chance to prove his point.
Oliver rolled his eyes, throwing himself across the bench he was sitting on and exhaling loudly, causing his blond fringe to dance in the air for a moment before flopping into his eyes.
“You need a haircut.”
“I’m trying a new look. The messy intellectual.”
“That would require you to be an intellectual.”
“Charming as ever, Amelia.”
I noticed he didn’t fall back on his ‘Well isn’t it funny that the Sorting Hat deemed me worthy of Ravenclaw and you not,’ retort, which meant there was something else on his mind. I waited for it.
“Heard much about the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher?” he asked conversationally.
“Not a lot.”
“She’s from the Ministry of Magic.”
“Sounds like a barrel of laughs.”
“She’ll be sticking to the curriculum, at least. I thought about dropping Defence Against the Dark Arts this year, we’ve only had one decent teacher the entire time we’ve been here. Figured I might as well give her a chance.”
“You can always drop it if she turns out to be crap,” I pointed out. “We’re allowed one subject drop if ‘balancing our Head Prefect duties with a full load of courses proves too difficult.’”
“Yeah, maybe. You’re taking DADA, right?”
“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be using my course drop for History of Magic.”
“I don’t even know why you took it last year, you hate History of Magic.”
“You know perfectly well why I took it,” I muttered.
In our fifth year, around the time we were choosing our subjects for NEWTs, Oliver and I were debating which of us was the more intelligent. He told me it was easy to appear intelligent at Hogwarts by getting high marks in subjects using applied magic, like Charms and Transfiguration, but that didn’t prove anything unless I could back it up with high marks in academic subjects where I ‘couldn’t fall back on my ability to wave a wand.’ So I took History of Magic to prove him wrong, but of course he cared about the subject and I didn’t, and he ended up top of class with a smirk smug enough to rouse the Fat Friar to anger.
It was a common misconception that Ravenclaws were the ones who got top of every subject and applied themselves diligently to their work, but in reality they were the most annoying and disruptive in a lot of my classes. Particularly in subjects like Charms, they decided that plain spells were beneath their intellectual capacity and sat at the back of the classroom alternating between annoying Flitwick and flourishing their Ancient Runes textbooks and Arithmancy equations at everyone, loudly discussing translations and theories.
Oliver was a less extreme example. He was still capable of academic snobbery (You got an O in Transfiguration? Well I’m sure you’re very proud, I can only imagine how it would feel if I got an O in Ancient Runes, but of course those are much harder to come by…) but he at least pretended to focus in his other classes, and didn’t sulk when he got a spell wrong. He dated a girl last year, Diana Lattimore, who threw a tantrum in DADA because somebody caught her mouthing her non-verbal spells. She’d thrown a hedgehog at the girl who had called her out on it, hexed George Weasley when he turned said hedgehog into a Pygmy Puff mid-air, and stood there shaking with rage until Oliver steered her out of the classroom and broke up with her. We could hear her screaming profanities all down the hallway.
“What are you laughing at?” Oliver asked as I giggled at the memory.
Oliver cringed. “Don’t remind me.”
“And Sarah Abernethy.”
“Hey, there was nothing wrong with her.”
“No,” I agreed. “Except she was twelve.”
“Fourteen, actually. And I was sixteen, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“You were seventeen.”
“She was a third year.”
“When you took her to Madam Puddifoot’s it was her first time to Hogsmeade.”
“I didn’t use deceit to go out with anyone though.”
I rolled my eyes. “That was in fourth year. And only because you dared me to.”
“No. Correction. You were saying how house divisions didn’t matter. I told you to befriend a Gryffindor to prove it. I didn’t say ‘Pretend to be in Ravenclaw and go out with Lee Jordan.’”
“Except he broke up with you when he found out you were in Slytherin.”
“It wasn’t working out. I figured it was easier than actually breaking up with him.”
Oliver merely shook his head, and I used the break in conversation as an excuse to seek out the food trolley. It didn’t come to the Prefect Carriage – usually by this time all the Prefects had dispersed to their friends’ carriages and it wasn’t worth coming down on the off chance there might be someone in there. I suppose it said something about Oliver and I that we didn’t have any other friends to spend time with – we had our classmates, sure, and we were widely respected by our peers, otherwise we wouldn’t have ended up Head Prefects – but when it came to people we would willingly spend several hours with on a train, it was just us.
I handed several Sickles over to the lady at the trolley in return for a couple of bottles of Butterbeer, a liquorice wand and Chocolate Frog myself, and a Cauldron Cake for Oliver.
“You’re feeling generous,” Oliver noted, eagerly taking the Cauldron Cake. “Dad send you money for your birthday?”
I snorted with laughter, choking on the Butterbeer I just opened. “Yeah, that’d be the day.”
“Stranger things have happened.”
“He remembered it this year though,” I continued in a tone of mock reverence. “Imagine that. He sent me a card – one of those crappy ones you get in supermarkets. Sweet sixteen themed.”
Oliver wrinkled his nose. “He got the day right, but not the year?”
“Apparently. It arrived two days late, but it said ‘Happy birthday for the fourteenth of July’ so points to him for that I suppose. Then when Mum sent him a letter saying he got my age wrong he replied with ‘At least I didn’t miss her eighteenth.’”
“Eighteenth?” Oliver repeated, puzzled. “What’s so special about your eighteenth?”
“Muggle equivalent of seventeen. Would be excusable if Mum hadn’t told him that seventeen’s the big deal for wizards. Multiple times.”
“Your dad’s a bit useless.”
“Thanks, I hadn’t noticed.” I opened my Chocolate Frog, peered at the card – it was of Bathilda Bagshot – and passed it on to Oliver. “So what did you get up to these holidays?”
“Oh, thanks,” Oliver said cheerfully. “I’ve been looking for her for years…And as for my summer, I would tell you, but you’d just tell me I’m a pretentious nerd.”
“Which you are, so you should take no offence to me pointing it out. I know you went to Germany, your birthday letter was sent from Munich. If it was anything less than one of those joint UK-Europe magical history field trips, I will be disappointed in you.”
Oliver stared at his feet for a long time. “It was an archaeological tour. Runes. Translating inscriptions in the field. It was the most amazing—”
“Okay,” I interrupted, seeing he was moving from the sheepish oh-god-my-holiday-was-geeky tone to the oh-god-that-was-the-best-thing-of-my-life-you-wouldn’t-even-believe tone, and I had no desire to listen to him geek out about ancient runes for the next three hours. At the same time, I had asked, so I felt obligated to ask him for the more tolerable details.
“So was it organised by the Ministry or…”
“Yeah. I applied for it at the end of sixth year and got my letter a couple of weeks later. It was three weeks’ long, got back in early August.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were going for it?”
He twisted his hands in his lap. “Well, I knew that you’d be working over summer, and I didn’t really want to sit there and boast about going abroad when you were stuck in Hogsmeade…”
“You felt sorry for me.” It was a statement, not a question. It was the only reason he didn’t tell me things like this – the same thing happened when his dad took him to the States over Christmas in fifth year. I didn’t mind Oliver’s pity so much – he was the only one I could stand to take it from. Oliver and I were equals in every sense. He could feel sorry for me if he wanted to, but at the end of the day we were both as successful as the other, and he knew it.
“I would have taken you with me—”
“Shut up, I hate runes. You don’t need to justify your trip.”
“Right, yeah.” He cracked open his Butterbeer. “So what are your plans after leaving Hogwarts?”
“Oh, you know. Fight Voldemort.”
Oliver flinched at my cavalier use of the name and scowled at my deliberately winding him up, and I grinned. I’d never been as sensitive about the name as my peers, mainly because I had grown up in the Muggle world. That was hardly a heritage I was proud of, but despite my best efforts I couldn’t bring myself to be afraid of a name that had never meant anything to me.
“Don’t let the rest of the school hear you joke about that,” was all Oliver said in response.
Chapter 3: Three
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The highlight of my year was always the welcome feast, and this year’s did not disappoint. The Sorting Hat’s song was a lot more cautionary than usual and we gained a fresh crop of the most spectacularly sullen and weedy-looking of the first years, but I pasted a smile on my face, welcomed them to Hogwarts and the noble house of Salazar Slytherin and made small talk with the other members of my year, who seemed to be the last group of truly ambitious, resourceful Slytherins before the Sorting Hat decided to start throwing all the bitter, vengeful purebloods our way instead.
The new DADA teacher wasn’t anyone to write home about. She wore a lot of pink, was short and squat and reminded me of an early childhood teacher who hadn’t realised the students she was talking to were a good five to ten years older than her usual target audience. I took an instant dislike to her because of her patronising tone, but forced myself to consider the possibility that maybe that was the way she talked to everybody and I shouldn’t take her high-pitched voice as a personal affront.
She was also a typical politician in that she made a lengthy speech with a lot of buzz words and not much substance, with no regard for her adolescent, hungry audience who weren’t paying the slightest bit of attention to her. Even Lycurgus Landon, the other seventh-year prefect and a stickler for rules, had slumped onto his empty plate and was openly snoring. I figured it was his way of showing the world that he didn’t get Head Boy and therefore no longer gave a shit about anything.
I poked Lycurgus awake when the new teacher, Professor Umbridge, concluded her speech and Dumbledore let us eat. The table was full of gossip about what everyone got up to in the holidays, so I piled my plate high and used that as an excuse to stay out of the conversation. Slytherins were an elitist bunch, and the news that I’d spent three months working at Tomes and Scrolls in Hogsmeade was likely to be met with disdain. I was forgiven a certain number of social transgressions on account that I was a half-blood and therefore unfamiliar with the aristocratic pureblood ways, but I preferred not to draw too much attention to the fact that, in regard to blood status, I was the odd one out of my house.
As far as I knew, at least. Maybe one of these weedy first-years shared my heritage. I hoped, for their sake, they were capable of rising above it.
I had my first Defence Against the Dark Arts class the next morning, claiming a seat next to Oliver. As usual, there was excited chatter before the class – while we’d had the same teachers for most of our subjects for the past six years, DADA changed every year, so it was always exciting to come in on the first day. I didn’t know what I expected from Umbridge – she was totally inexperienced with teaching, so my best guess was that she would try and teach precisely from the curriculum, but be useless at class control. We’d probably drive her to a mental breakdown at some point (and by ‘we’ I was being all-encompassing, seventh-years tended to be better behaved than the younger ones) and she wouldn’t stay another year. None of them ever did. It was an unbreakable pattern.
I was right on the first point. She handed out introductory level textbooks on defensive theory and quietly informed us that we would have no need for wands until we got the basics down.
“Excuse me, Professor,” Fred Weasley began in the most polite voice I’d ever heard him use on a teacher.
“Students will raise their hands when asking questions,” Professor Umbridge responded.
“Yeah, sorry,” Fred said, and raised his hand.
“Yes –” she paused to consult the roll, “Mr Weasley?”
“Gonna have to do better than that, miss, there are two of us,” George called.
“And so it begins,” Oliver whispered with a long-suffering sigh.
“Yes, I can see that, dear,” Umbridge said patiently.
“It’s just, you’re going to have to be a bit more specific, y’see,” Fred continued.
“Wouldn’t want to call me Fred, or him George, or any of that.”
“Ah, yes. The other teachers warned me about you two. Fred and George, yes? Apparently you’re quite the comedians.” Umbridge gave them a little smile, her voice becoming even more sweet. “If you disturb my class, or give me cheek, or try to switch names, you will both receive detention. Am I clear?”
The boys nodded, and George raised his hand.
“What I think Freddie was trying to say, was that this is a first year textbook—”
Fred’s hand shot up as he finished his brother’s sentence. “And, well, we’re a bit bigger than first years—”
“I know you probably don’t see many kids at the Ministry, miss—”
“But the little ones with the knobbly knees and the bewildered faces are the first years—”
“Always look at the knees, miss, can’t go wrong—”
“And the difference between us and first years, miss—”
“Is that we’ve been studying magic six years longer than they have.”
“Enough,” Umbridge interrupted, the smile on her face now unnervingly large. “Ten points each from Gryffindor.”
The other students exchanged glances, a fair number turning to Oliver and I. Remembering the clause in our Head Prefect contract which named us as representatives and advocates of the students with the right to question unfair treatment, I looked from the twins to Umbridge, rolled my eyes, and stood.
She turned to face me, eyes narrowing. “Who gave you permission to stand up?”
“Just making a point. With regard to the twins, the Hogwarts code of conduct states that points may be taken from students for breaking of rules deliberately set out in the code of conduct, and for disruption in the classroom. Fred and George were merely pointing out a legitimate concern about the curriculum, and, aware that you are a new teacher, chose to give you the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming you were deliberately negating the last six years of our magical education by starting us from scratch. This was in no way disruptive, particularly as it took place during the period of time allocated to teachers for the discussion of the curriculum – the first half hour of the first day.”
“And who do you think you are?”
My name had never been anything special. It wasn’t impressive sounding, and it certainly didn’t have the same history behind it as the purebloods belonging to ancient families. But for the first time my name had authority and power, and that knowledge gave me a thrill like no other.
“I see,” Umbridge said slowly. “The Head Girl.”
“And as I understand it, you’re the representative of the students, yes? With the ability to question the way I teach my class?”
“If it goes against the principles of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, yes.”
“Hm.” She smiled sweetly at me. “We’ll see about that. Twenty points restored to Gryffindor – for now. Sit down, Miss Greenslade.”
All eyes were fixed on me by this point, and as I sat down and Umbridge turned away, they grinned and gave me the thumbs up. Fred reached over and clapped my hand in his in a half high five, half handshake, and during the break Oliver declared me Champion of the People.
I was in a good mood for the rest of the day, especially as I walked through the corridors and first years stood aside to let me pass, whispering to each other, “Look, that’s the Head Girl.” I had been under the impression last year that my ego couldn’t possibly get any bigger, but I was proven thoroughly, gloriously wrong. My good mood didn’t abate until a second-year girl approached me in the common room after dinner with a note from Professor Umbridge, written on pink stationery with flowers along the edges, asking me to please come to her office for a little chat.
I knocked on the door of the DADA office, startled at the sight of the walls, charmed an alarming shade of pink and decorated with hundreds of pictures of cats. They were all meowing at me, and I felt somewhat unnerved. I didn’t have anything against cats; I had one of my own who was likely as not currently lounging in front of the fire in the Slytherin common room (I had no idea how he kept escaping from my dorm, but that was his business) but there was something about Umbridge’s forced, over-the-top benevolence which set alarm bells off in my head.
“Sit down,” Umbridge told me, gesturing to the chair opposite hers. “Tea?”
“No thank you.”
She stirred milk and sugar into her own and leaned earnestly forward. “We have a problem, don’t we, Amelia?”
“I don’t like you and you don’t like me?”
Umbridge laughed – a high, mirthless giggle – and took a sip of her tea. “Bold words for a seventeen year old girl, don’t you think?”
“Age has nothing to do with it.”
“Oh, I think you’ll find that it does. You see, you’re nobody. You may think you’re special, wearing that little badge, but I am the Ministry. And no badge gives you the right to contradict the Ministry.”
I eyed her carefully.
“That little stunt you pulled in my classroom – I’m sure you’re very proud of it. Made you very popular with your little friends.”
“If you want something from me, Professor, a good place to start would be to stop patronising me.”
“You’re not in a position to negotiate, Amelia.”
I folded my arms. “Then neither are you. Is there any purpose to this conversation other than trying to intimidate me, or should I be going now?”
“The tide is turning at Hogwarts. You may have special rights and privileges now, while Dumbledore is in charge. But the Ministry is stepping in, Amelia. And I can take what power you have away from you like…” she snapped her fingers, “that.”
She smiled, triumphant.
She had played her trump card. She knew it. I knew it.
“What do you want?” I asked finally, not allowing my words to sound like a concession.
“Oh, I’m sure we can come to an arrangement later on,” she told me. “For now, I just want to make sure you know where you stand.”
She leaned back in her chair, a gesture I took for dismissal. I stood to leave, nearly walking into Harry Potter, who was lingering outside the door.
“Ah, Mr Potter,” I could hear her singsong voice exclaim behind me. “Here for your detention?”
Chapter 4: Four
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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.
Chapter 5: Five
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Neither Penny or I mentioned what she had said the next morning. I tried to keep things normal, but it meant our conversation seemed forced and eventually I gave up and just focused on my breakfast, vaguely wishing that we weren’t confined to our house tables for meals. I felt like talking to Oliver, but I didn’t know exactly what I would say. Or whether I would say anything at all.
I didn’t have Defence Against the Dark Arts on Tuesdays, which made me happier than it should have and made me think that maybe I should drop it instead of History of Magic. But I was more likely to get good marks in DADA than History, so I reluctantly sought out Snape before classes started and told him I chose History of Magic as my course drop this year.
“Not Defence Against the Dark Arts?” he queried as he scribbled over my timetable. “I heard from Professor Umbridge that you and she had already…clashed heads.”
“We have. But I’ll do better in Defence than History of Magic.”
“So long as you don’t mind a theory-based course,” he warned, his lip curling slightly. “The Ministry doesn’t seem to value good mastery of wandwork…Far be it from me to criticise the teaching methods of a subject that isn’t mine, of course.” His last words were laced with bitter resentment, and I decided it was my cue to leave. I was one of the few students who seemed to like Snape, and in return he gifted me a kind of grudging tolerance, but I knew better than to hang around him when certain topics came up.
I got to Transfiguration fifteen minutes early with the express purpose of catching Professor McGonagall for some career advice. Over summer I had become increasingly certain I wanted to take Transfiguration further, but I didn’t really know a lot about the magical research fields and what I had told the girls in my dorm last night was based mainly off guesswork.
Professor McGonagall was already in the classroom when I got there, flicking through a textbook at her desk.
“Good morning, Miss Greenslade,” she greeted me without lifting her eyes from her book. “How can I help?”
I perched on one of the desks in the front row. “I was wanting to ask you for some careers advice.”
She glanced up. “Heads of Houses meet with students in fifth and seventh years. You should be having an interview with Professor Snape in the next few months.”
“I know. But I’m wanting to make Transfiguration into a career and I figured you would be the best one to ask about that.”
“I see.” She pushed the textbook aside, taking a pile of parchment from her desk. “I’m glad to hear it, Miss Greenslade. I don’t know many students who have proven themselves so naturally adept at Transfiguration.” She fixed a stern eye on me. “And I don’t say such things lightly.”
“I know, Professor,” I assured her, feeling a glow of pride at her words. No teacher at Hogwarts was as sparing with praise as Professor McGonagall, not even Snape. There were exceptions to the rule – Snape never said a kind word to the students he decided he hated, but for the most part a compliment from McGonagall was the rarest of all.
“There are a number of career options available in Transfiguration,” she said briskly, sending me several sheets of parchment with a flick of her wand. “You can work in the Ministry’s research committee –” the pamphlet at the top of the pile fluttered a bit – “Or as a freelancer, Transfiguring items for various companies, they advertise in Transfiguration Today –” the magazine in the middle of the pile opened and flicked through its pages, sending the Ministry pamphlet drifting lazily to the ground – “Or you can work abroad for another Ministry.” Seven pamphlets similar to the Ministry’s one lay underneath the magazine and I flicked idly through them.
“What do you recommend?”
“Personally?” McGonagall glanced towards the door; satisfied we were alone, she nevertheless lowered her voice. “I would recommend getting out of the country if you can, Miss Greenslade.”
“You believe You Know Who’s back, then?”
“Yes, I do,” she replied curtly. “I would not advocate seeking employment in Britain as it is, but with the Ministry’s attempts to keep everyone safely in the dark about his return—” she cut herself off abruptly, continuing, “Of course it’s up to you, Miss Greenslade. Far be it from me to push you in one direction or the other.”
“What do you think will happen if I stay here?” I pressed.
“Then you will find yourself tangled in a war.”
“I will not speak any more on this matter, Miss Greenslade.”
I wanted to ask her more, but the door swung open and a group of my classmates trooped in for Transfiguration. Reluctantly I slid off the surface of the desk and took my usual place in the middle of the classroom.
“What are you doing next year?” I asked Oliver as I joined him for lunch in the courtyard.
“Inginnag’Gim’ny,” he said around a mouthful of sandwich, holding a hand over his face to shield himself from the sun as he reclined on the grass.
“Chew, swallow, try again.”
“I’m gonna go to Germany,” he repeated after hurriedly forcing his mouthful down.
“Germany?” I repeated. “For Runes or something?”
“Yeah.” He nodded vigorously. “I’m going to do a one-year course in magical archaeology in Berlin, then start an internship. D’you know what you’re doing?”
“Transfiguration research for the Ministry,” I said decisively. “I’m just not sure which Ministry it’ll be at this stage.”
“What do you mean, ‘which Ministry’?”
“I’m thinking I might go overseas.” In all honesty I had never considered living anywhere but Britain, but Professor McGonagall’s advice had weighed heavily on my mind all morning.
“Oh, cool. Where to?”
I shrugged. “Haven’t gotten that far ahead.”
“How come you want to go overseas?”
I hesitated. Oliver didn’t believe Voldemort was back, which meant Professor McGonagall’s warnings about a war would mean nothing to him.
Oliver raised one eyebrow. “You’re worried about war, aren’t you?”
“It was just some advice I was given,” I replied cagily.
“I always thought she had her head screwed on straight.”
“She does!” I said, irritated. “Just because she doesn’t agree with you doesn’t make her opinion less valid than yours.”
“Where’s the proof that You Know Who is back?” Oliver asked, sitting up. “Other than the words of a fifteen year old boy who, let’s face it, has had his entire life revolve around You Know Who?”
“Where’s the proof that he’s not back? I’m not saying that he is. But I just think it’s a bit stupid to decide either way when there’s no proof.”
“If you’re running away to another country because you’re scared of war, that seems pretty decisive to me.”
“Better safe than sorry.”
Oliver slumped back onto the grass, exhaling loudly. “This You Know Who stuff is just scaremongering. First years are having panic attacks, I’ve had to call Professor Flitwick in the middle of the night up to Ravenclaw Tower twice already. It doesn’t matter what you think personally, Amelia, if people think he’s back then sooner or later they’re going to start seeing monsters in the shadows and a school full of terrified teenagers is not a good place to be.”
“You were the one who said we need to remain neutral.”
“I know. And I am still neutral. I haven’t said anything that contradicts that.”
“Just make sure you—”
“I. Know.” Irritated, I picked up my bag and stood, slinging it over my shoulder.
“Where are you going?” Oliver asked, peering up at me.
“The library. Common room. Somewhere, I don’t care.”
“Suit yourself,” he called after me as I strode back into the castle.
My eyes took a moment to adjust to the gloom of the corridor having been in the bright afternoon sun, and I nearly bumped into a group of first years.
“’Scuse me,” I muttered, slipping through the middle of the group.
“Are you the Head Girl?” one of them asked me.
She glanced around at her friends. “Is Dumbledore getting fired by the Ministry?”
“What?” I asked, startled.
“It’s just…Melissa’s sister said that Angus who works in the Ministry said that Dumbledore’s been kicked out of the Wizengamot and Hogwarts is next.”
“The Ministry doesn’t have authority over Hogwarts,” I replied briefly. “Even if they wanted to fire Dumbledore – and I can’t imagine why because he’s a brilliant Headmaster – they couldn’t.”
The girls seemed dubious, but nevertheless nodded and walked away again, chattering in hushed whispers. I turned onto the staircase where Professor Umbridge was standing, hands clasped and a simpering smile on her face.
“I’d watch what you tell those girls, Amelia,” she murmured as I passed. “I’d hate to see you proven wrong.”
Chapter 6: Six
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I’d never had such a stressful first week at Hogwarts, which was understandable given it was NEWT year, I was second only to the staff in authority and Professor Umbridge existed. I didn’t want to leave the common room during the weekend, but conversations with Penny were still awkward and I didn’t really have any other friends in my house. Instead, I roamed around the castle ‘keeping order,’ which admittedly just involved me stalking through the corridors avoiding anyone I knew.
On Monday morning, slumped over coffee and a bowl of cereal, I was scribbling the ending to a Charms essay when Isla’s Daily Prophet was dropped on the parchment in front of me. I was pretty sure her owl was going senile, and smiled apologetically to Isla as I passed the paper over. She spread it open and I saw the headline – something about Dolores Umbridge being appointed Hogwarts High Inquisitor.
“D’you mind if I—”
“Go ahead,” she said, shuffling over so we could both read the front page at the same time. As I scanned the article my heart sank – this must be what Umbridge warned me about on Tuesday. The article, talking about ‘Educational Decree 23,’ stated Umbridge, as the High Inquisitor, now had the power to inspect teachers. The article also said Umbridge was originally appointed to the teaching position because Dumbledore had been unable to find anyone, and the Ministry was empowered to choose someone for the job.
I ran my hands through my hair, exhaling slowly. Something told me inspecting teachers was only the beginning of Umbridge’s privileges, and I began to wonder how much power Dumbledore would actually have over the school if this continued.
I turned to see Snape looming behind me, holding a small piece of pink parchment distastefully. He thrust it at me with a slight curl of his lip, saying, “Professor Umbridge wishes to see you in her office.”
“Yes.” He spun on his heel and stalked away, obviously annoyed at having to play messenger. I cast an eye over the parchment:
I would like you and the Head Boy to join me in my office for a nice cup of tea so we can discuss matters. Please be prompt.
Dolores Umbridge, High Inquisitor
I reluctantly finished my breakfast, rolled up my essay without finishing my conclusion, and walked down to the Defence Against the Dark Arts office, meeting Oliver on the way.
“See the Daily Prophet today?” I asked.
“Of course.” He brandished his own copy. “I assume that’s what the meeting is about.”
We entered the office, and once again I cringed at the visual assault of pink and kittens.
Umbridge beamed at us. “Tea?” she offered, beckoning us to sit down across from her.
“No thanks,” I said quickly, and Oliver shook his head.
“Very well,” she said sweetly, spooning sugar into her own cup and leaning forward. “Have you seen the Prophet today?”
Oliver waved his copy again in response. “High Inquisitor?”
“That’s right,” she said happily. “I am sure you agree with me in that standards of teaching at Hogwarts need some serious attention.”
“Some teachers,” I responded. “Most of mine have been exemplary.”
“Yes, but there are others. Teachers who only remain at this school because Professor Dumbledore has some kind of sentimental attachment to them—”
“Please don’t get rid of old Binnsy,” Oliver said quickly. “I know the students complain about him, but that’s the juniors and they’re too young to appreciate his knowledge—”
“I have no problem with Professor Binns,” Umbridge interrupted. “He teaches a thorough, consistent course of magical history. I was taught by him, myself.”
“What do you want from us?” I asked.
Umbridge smiled. “Yes, that’s the sort of question I like to hear you ask, Amelia. I want your opinion, before I start my inspections. After all, you are both students, and have the students’ best interests at heart. Are their any teachers who you feel aren’t…up to scratch?”
Oliver and I exchanged glances. We’d had many discussions about substandard teachers in our time, but complaining about them over lunch in the courtyard and dobbing them in to a Ministry official who might have the authority to act on it were entirely different matters.
“There was an incident a couple of years ago with Professor Hagrid,” I said reluctantly. “A kid in my house was attacked by a Hippogriff. I think he blew it out of proportion a bit out of contempt for the teacher, but I have heard stories about dangerous animals in that class.”
“Thank you, Amelia,” she said. “Anyone else?”
We were silent for a long moment.
“Professor Babbling is amazing,” Oliver said. “I’ve never had a better teacher than her. Just…so the record shows. The entire class loves her and she’s gotten us through all our exams brilliantly. We’ve had the highest marks in Europe, comparatively speaking, for the last three years.”
“You might hear bad things about Professor Snape,” I added. “He’s very strict and not very…uh…personable. But he’s a brilliant teacher, knows his Potions inside out and pushes us to achieve at the highest level…”
“And just so you know, Professor Flitwick really isn’t as soft as people make him out to be. He’s lovely, but he really knows how to motivate a class and everyone works hard…”
“Professor McGonagall is the most amazing witch I’ve ever met in my life.”
“There’s no one in this school more intelligent than Professor Vector.”
“Enough,” Umbridge interrupted us. “I didn’t ask you to defend your favourite teachers. I’m sure, in my inspections, I can observe their skill for myself. Rubeus Hagrid, you say, Amelia?”
“Just basing it off rumours I’ve heard, I’ve never taken Care of Magical Creatures myself.”
“You don’t need to hide, Amelia. I’ve heard the same things from concerned students, but thank you for confirming it. Now, you best be getting to class, shouldn’t you? I’d hate to make you late.”
“We have Defence Against the Dark Arts first, Professor.”
“Oh, we do! And I can hear your classmates already!”
She ushered us out into the classroom, giving that little girlish giggle as we took our seats. A few people glanced curiously at us – no doubt wondering why we seemed to be on such good terms with Umbridge after I’d stood up to her last week and she’d all but threatened me in front of everyone.
She’d probably timed that deliberately – students were less likely to approach me about Umbridge if they thought I was on her side. My morning, which hadn’t exactly started out promisingly, was going from bad to worse.
“What should we do about Umbridge?” Oliver asked as we sat in our usual spot in the courtyard.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, she’s got a lot of authority now, and I assume the next step will be that she’s allowed to fire teachers.”
“I still don’t see how we’re meant to do anything about it.”
“If she and Dumbledore have opposing ideas on how the school is meant to be run, who do we take orders from? Maybe we should meet with Dumbledore – we’ve been back a week and haven’t seen him yet.”
“Maybe there’s a reason we haven’t heard from him. Maybe we don’t need to.”
“Is there any reason why you’re disagreeing with everything I’m saying?” Oliver asked, exasperated.
I closed my eyes. “I’m just tired. I don’t want to deal with any of this right now.”
“Why, what else do you have to deal with?”
“Are you sure?” There was an edge to his voice now, and when I opened my eyes I saw he was looking at me with a mixture of suspicion and concern. “Because if this is anything like fifth year…”
“It’s not,” I said curtly, cutting him off before he could finish his sentence.
Fifth year was one of the worst for me. The escape of Sirius Black meant Dementors were keeping guard over the castle, and while I seldom had any close encounters with them, I could feel their effects far more than anyone else, it seemed. While others would encounter a Dementor, freak out a bit, eat some chocolate and recover fully, I felt their presence constantly. When I got too close, I could hear my parents arguing – Mum trying to convince Dad to let me go to Hogwarts, Dad shouting back that he wasn’t throwing away his daughter’s only chance of being normal, and eventually storming out of the house after telling Mum that if she wanted a witch for a child she could damn well raise it herself.
He’d tried to apologise to me for that, but there was no erasing how he’d disowned and dehumanised me in one simple sentence. It was a long, slow process that turned me from ‘his precious little girl’ to ‘it,’ starting, I knew, when a team of Obliviators had to come to my primary school after I accidentally performed magic. Dad was pacing back and forth in the sitting room while Mum poured them tea, talking about how he’d hoped exposing me to ‘normality’ would eventually get rid of my magical ability, and he didn’t know how better to stop things like this from happening again. One of the Obliviators had set his cup down, looked Dad in the eye and told him, “Look, mate. These things happen, and she’ll grow out of it when she learns to control herself a bit better. But no matter how hard you try you’re never going to take the magic out of the kid. She’s born with it.”
Dad hadn’t said anything, just looked at me with thinly disguised confusion and fear as if he was realising for the first time that I was somehow fundamentally different from him, and it didn’t matter that I’d inherited his hair, and his eyes, and that strangers were always coming up to us and saying how alike we were, and how much I was my father’s daughter.
After he left us, he married a Muggle woman and they had a daughter – a rosy-cheeked, curly-haired, blue-eyed cherub, Clara, whose fourth birthday party I’d been forced to attend a couple of months into my fifth year. I was introduced to everyone as “Steven’s other daughter” and expected to fawn over the child like everyone else. When Elle, Dad’s wife, commented about how imaginative the stories I told Clara about magic were and how much thought I’d obviously put into them, Dad told her, in front of me, that it was escapism – a coping mechanism.
“I got a letter from her school,” he’d told her in a low voice. “She’s being treated for anxiety and depression.”
“Oh, poor girl,” Elle had said, sounding mildly concerned. “How old is she, fifteen? That’s always a difficult age.” And she’d smiled at me, as if just noticing me standing there.
I had walked out at that point, and hadn’t been back since.
“Amelia?” Oliver prompted, bringing me back to the present.
“You know, if there is something, you can talk to me and…stuff,” he said awkwardly. “I mean, if the depression thing’s happening again maybe you should go talk to McGonagall and I’m not saying I’m a replacement—”
“It’s not happening again,” I told him firmly.
“But something is,” he insisted. “You’re Head Girl. You’re top of Transfiguration and even the Weasley twins are saying that with the way you stood up to Umbridge you might actually be a tolerable authority figure. Your ego should be bigger than Hagrid right now.”
“Yeah, maybe there is.”
“Feel like sharing?”
“I’ve sort of realised something,” I began, putting into words for the first time something I hadn’t really been willing to admit to myself, “Well, I’ve sort of known for a while…well, not really known but guessed, sort of, since about fourth year but I haven’t figured it out until recently—”
“That you like girls?”
I froze. “Are you guessing?”
“It’s more a statement of fact. I’ve known for a while. Longer than you have, it seems.”
“Don’t tell anyone,” I said immediately.
“Who do you think I am, Joanna Crispin? Your secret’s safe with me.”
“How did you know?”
“Come on,” he said with a grin. “We’ve been best friends for what, three years now? And for three years you’ve managed to resist this dashingly handsome face…”
“I’m gay because I don’t find you attractive?”
“Well, you can’t really argue against it because you are gay.”
I scowled at him. “Seriously though. How did you know?”
“Your complete lack of interest in the opposite sex is a bit of a giveaway.”
“I dated Lee Jordan in fourth year.”
“And looked thoroughly uncomfortable when he so much as held your hand. And you left the Yule Ball early because that boy from Beauxbatons was getting too close and, even as a straight man, I can appreciate that he was good-looking. And,” he said finally, with the air of someone delivering his trump card, “You’ve suddenly become way more awkward around Penny Hamilton and you keep glancing at her when you think she’s not looking.”
My eyes widened. “But—”
“Is she gay?”
“Lucky you,” he said wistfully. “She’s gorgeous.”
I couldn’t believe how normal he was acting about this, especially given he was a pureblood and purebloods were notoriously traditional and old-fashioned. I also couldn’t believe that it had so quickly gone from a terrifying, closely guarded secret that I’d tried to avoid thinking about, to something I was discussing openly with Oliver.
“Ask her out,” Oliver told me. “There’s a Hogsmeade weekend coming up soon…”
I gaped at him. “Hogsmeade?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“There isn’t a single out gay couple in the entirety of Hogwarts and trust me, the first one isn’t coming from Slytherin.”
“Oh yeah,” he said with a teasing grin. “You have a reputation for cowardice to uphold.”
The bell rang and I snatched my bag up, eager to get to Potions and focus on something familiar for a change.
Chapter 7: Seven
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Oliver, while not saying a word to anyone else, was incredibly persistent in asking me every time we met whether I had talked to Penny. After half a dozen one-word responses, I finally asked him why he was so interested.
“Because I’ve never been able to do this before!” he explained with a grin. “Three years where you’ve been allowed to tease me mercilessly about girls and finally I get to do it back. I still think you should ask her to Hogsmeade. Pretend you’re just going as friends.”
“I’ve never spent time with her outside of school.”
“God forbid you want to spend time with your classmates in our final year at school. Everyone’s making friends with everyone, did you see Isla and Nerys hanging out with Angelina the other day?”
“Angelina’s a Gryffindor.”
“Exactly. Togetherness! Unity! That’s what seventh year is for. Perfect cover for a secret girlfriend.”
I glared at him. “She’s not my girlfriend.”
“She could be.”
“I’ll shut up if you at least come out to her.”
“She came out to you. Fair’s fair.”
“Promise you’ll leave me alone if I do?”
“Promise. Cross my heart.”
“No pestering me about what she said?”
“Not at all. Though I do expect you to tell me.”
“No telling me to ask her out?”
“I swear on the name of Rowena Ravenclaw.”
I raised an eyebrow, momentarily sidetracked. “You deified your house’s Founder?”
“She is a goddess. The House of Ravenclaw is actually a cult. Studying is ritualised worship and we offer our first-gained Outstandings to her.”
“Slytherin prefers sacrifices of pureblooded virgins,” I responded solemnly. “Thank God for the dirty Muggle blood that runs through these veins.”
“I hear the aroma of burnt detention slips is particularly pleasing to Gryffindor.”
I snorted. “I thought that was failed IQ tests?”
“Either or, I don’t think he’s too picky. You can sort of tell by the people in his house.”
“Speak of the devil,” I murmured as the embodiment of Gryffindor walked towards us.
“Afternoon, Heads!” Fred Weasley greeted us cheerily.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” George added.
“What do you want?” Oliver asked dubiously.
“Just a moment of your time.”
“Heading to Defence Against the Dark Arts?”
“Course they are, George, they’re in our class.”
“It was a rhetorical question, Freddie.”
“We heard tell that Umbridge has a bumper reading for us today—”
“And we have a way of getting out of it—”
“We’re hoping for a mass boycott, see, then she can’t punish us all—”
“It’ll just cost you a few Sickles each—”
“Hobbs, your face looks like a cat’s bum.”
George was right – Oliver’s face had a pinched, disapproving look. Any credit with the twins I had won for us was about to be lost.
“We should probably still show,” I said reluctantly. “It’ll look bad if we don’t.”
Oliver looked distinctly relieved.
“How many other people have you convinced?” I asked the twins.
“The whole class.”
“Literally the whole class.”
“Except you, that is.”
“Even the other prefects.”
“We’ll cover for you,” I told them. “Are these your make-everyone-sick-to-get-out-of-class things?”
“Skiving Snackboxes, yep,” Fred said proudly. “So you won’t tell, then?”
“No. We’ll just tell Umbridge that all the seventh-years had a shared lunch as a year-group bonding thing and got food poisoning.”
“You’re brilliant, Amelia Greenslade.”
“Thanks. See you guys – briefly – in class. If anyone gets vomit on my robes the deal’s off.”
The twins saluted and walked away, beaming.
“What did you do that for?” Oliver demanded once they were out of earshot. “Standing up to unfair treatment is one thing, pandering to the Weasley twins’ stupid tricks is another—”
“Togetherness! Unity!” I trumpeted in a sing-song voice, mimicking Oliver’s tone a few minutes ago. “That’s what seventh year is for.”
Umbridge bought our fib that everyone was off having a shared lunch and got food poisoning from it, probably due in part to our stunning performance when she asked why we weren’t there. Oliver let out a loud, bitter laugh that sounded more like a bark than anything else, and I, with an overly cheery demeanour that said I was masking some deep hurt, told her that Head Prefects aren’t usually the most popular people in the school and we preferred each other’s company anyway, so we really didn’t mind and hey, they got food poisoning and we didn’t. It was improved even more by the fact that Peeves was floating around at this point and, never passing up an opportunity to rip into the Head Prefects, seized upon the comment that we ‘preferred each other’s company’ and was now spreading a rumour through the school that Oliver and I were madly in love and spent our lunchtimes doing naughty things behind tapestries.
“Y’know, I could probably come out right now and everyone will just assume it’s a cover story,” I mused as we wandered through the corridors after class.
“Should I drape myself in a rainbow flag as well?” I asked, rolling my eyes. “I don’t get why you’re so keen for me to be out.”
“Because I live vicariously through you,” Oliver replied matter-of-factly. “I’m a boring pureblood kid obsessed with Ancient Runes. You’re a half-blood lesbian Slytherin raised in the Muggle world. You’ve got to admit, that’s a lot more interesting.”
“You live vicariously through me?” I repeated, unsure whether to be annoyed, offended, flattered or to burst out laughing. “I’m sure there are better people to live vicariously through. Harry Potter, for one. You could fight Voldemort by association.”
Oliver snorted, glancing at the poster for the Hogsmeade weekend we were passing. “Got any plans?”
I recognised his tone. “Yeah, I’ll probably meet up with Mum.”
Oliver and I usually went to Hogsmeade together, but on the occasions when we didn’t, he usually happened to like a girl and wanted to ask her to Hogsmeade. That was probably one of the reasons he was eager for me to go with Penny – he adhered to the “bros before hoes” policy religiously, and only went on a Hogsmeade date if I’d already made other plans. I usually worked out when he liked someone and would arrange to meet up with Mum on Hogsmeade weekends so he would be free to go with a girl, but I’d been a bit slow on the uptake this time.
“Oh, okay,” he said. “Might not go this time…unless I can find someone else.”
“Who is she?” I asked, abandoning all pretence.
So did he. “Er…Katie Bell.”
“The one on the Gryffindor Quidditch team?”
He nodded. “She’s…”
“Yeah. And she’s really nice and she has this laugh—”
“Yeah all right, Romeo. When are you going to ask her?”
“Soon,” he said determinedly. “But I don’t know what I’d talk to her about…I know nothing about Quidditch! I know she plays Chaser…but I don’t even know what a Chaser does…”
I rolled my eyes. “Talk about her. Just get to know her. Ask her about herself. When you find common ground, go with that.”
“How do you even know this stuff?”
“Because I am a girl. It may have escaped your notice—”
“But you don’t have a soul.”
“Yeah, Sorting Hat sucked it right out of me when it put me in Slytherin. I propose a deal. You ask Katie to Hogsmeade and I come out to Penny before the end of the week.”
“It’s Thursday. That’s one day.”
“No time like the present,” I told him bracingly, feeling slightly better about the whole situation now that I had something to pressure Oliver with in return.
With a long-suffering sigh, he agreed.
“You’re in here early,” Penny observed when I entered the dormitory shortly after seven, kicked off my shoes and sat on my bed.
She was right. I’d been avoiding the dormitory since she talked to me, coming in just before curfew when the other girls would be there so I wouldn’t have to face her alone. I was perfectly happy admitting I was a coward – in Slytherin it was almost a badge of honour and nobody could suspect you of being a Hatstall with Gryffindor.
The others wouldn’t be back for another couple of hours at least – the age-related hierarchy was back in place in the common room and as seventh-years, we were entitled to the prime spots. Penny and I were the only people in our year group who didn’t enjoy spending time there.
“You’ve been avoiding me, right?” Penny asked matter-of-factly, looking over at me. I took a moment to take in the sight of her – dark hair falling in messy waves around her face and down her shoulders; slim, elegant face; brown, almond-shaped eyes holding my gaze unflinchingly. She was strikingly beautiful – how had I missed it? I had always known she was attractive – you would have to be blind not to notice – but…
She was still staring at me, waiting for an answer. Feeling slightly flustered, I broke eye contact. “Yeah, I have.”
She blinked, surprised I had admitted it. “I assume it’s got something to do with what I told you.”
“Yeah.” I picked at some lint on my tights. Maybe I could just keep giving one-word answers until she guessed the truth. That would make my life infinitely easier.
“You haven’t told anyone, have you?”
“No. Why would I do that? And more to the point, who would I tell?”
“Your boyfriend?” Penny shrugged. “I don’t really care, but it would have been better to tell me you had a problem with it rather than say you’re all good and avoid me like the plague from there on in.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“You’re not going out with Oliver?”
“Why not? He seems nice.”
“And you get along and stuff.”
“He’s my best friend.”
“And he’s all right looking,” Penny conceded.
“I s’pose. If you like that kind of thing.”
“What kind of thing?”
“Let’s rethink the situation,” I began. “Say I’m not homophobic. Why else would I react the way I did?”
“Well,” she said skeptically, “You could be deep in the closet yourself, in denial, and I hit a nerve.”
“The denial part’s over, but otherwise you got it in one.”
I risked a glance at her again, and couldn’t help grinning at the look of shock on her face.
“No way. You?”
“Is it really that hard to believe?”
She thought for a moment. “I guess not. But I thought I was the only one in the entire school, let alone our dormitory.”
“We can’t be the only ones in the school.”
“I guess. Not that we’ll ever find out.”
“So what made you realise?” she asked.
“A range of things,” I said cautiously. “I dated Lee Jordan in fourth year and it was weird. I went to the Yule Ball with a Beauxbatons boy and it was weird. I thought about all the boys in our year and who I’d want to date and came up with nothing. So I looked at the girls instead. What about you?”
“Any particular girl?”
“Don’t deflect my question with your question.”
“Fine. I liked this girl for a while. A year, maybe. And so over summer I talked to my aunt, who’s a lesbian, and she told me to tell the girl I was gay and see how she reacts.”
“Wait a minute,” I said slowly.
“She freaked out at first,” Penny continued, staring resolutely at her green bedspread, “But it turns out she’s actually gay as well.”
“And that she likes you too,” I concluded. “And, in hindsight, has done for a while.”
There was a very long silence. I could hear the distant, muffled sound of the lake lapping against the walls of the castle and the faraway buzz of conversation in the common room. Neither of us made eye contact with the other and the silence rang in my ears. Any moment now, someone would come in and the chance to talk would be lost.
“So,” I said, startled at how loud my voice sounded. “What now?”
“I’m not really ready for other people to know.”
“Neither am I.”
“I gathered as much.”
“So where does that leave us?”
“Well,” Penny began, “We’ve shared a dormitory for the past six years, but I still don’t feel like I know you. Other than the fact that you’re good at Transfiguration, alluringly charismatic and generally beautiful.”
“I—” I managed, unable to respond. I knew I should tell her something in return, but her words had caught me off guard and my brain wasn’t cooperating. “We could go to Hogsmeade,” I suggested. “Just as friends. Well, not really…but not like…nothing official or anything, just…Three Broomsticks, maybe? Just to hang out…” I was tripping over my words, unsure of what I was even saying, and felt my face reddening. She had called me alluringly charismatic and now I couldn’t string two coherent sentences together.
I looked up at her and she smiled. “Yeah, that sounds good.”
“Good.” I turned my attention back to my feet, but a smile was tugging on my lips and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I didn’t know how Penny could look so calm and composed, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, but when I glanced over at her she still had a little smile on her face and her cheeks were tinged pink, and the fact that I made her look like that made me feel all giddy inside.
“Just so you know, I think you’re beautiful,” I blurted. “I always have, even when I didn’t realise that I liked you in that way, even when I didn’t realise I liked girls in that way, and I wish I had some meaningful observation to make but that’s all I really notice…Oh, God, I’m awful at this. Um…” I struggled to my feet. “I’m going to remove my alluringly charismatic self from the room now.”
I fled for the door. “See you later,” Penny called, and I glanced around long enough to meet her eyes once more before hurrying out of the dormitory and in the direction of Ravenclaw Tower.
“You saw me where I never was and and where I could not be. And yet within that very place, my face you often see. What am I?”
I sighed at the bronze knocker on the door to Ravenclaw Tower. This was the annoying thing about going to visit Oliver – but it was easier than him having to come to the dungeons and stand around outside until someone happened to let him in. The knocker was in a bad mood – it always was when it asked questions like this with right or wrong answers. I much preferred when it asked philosophical ones and you would pass if you reasoned well enough.
“I don’t know,” I told the knocker. “A shadow?”
“Incorrect,” it said smugly.
“Correct,” it said grudgingly, and swung open to let me in. “But if you cross to where you do not belong, no effort will be spared to correct your wrong.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I muttered. It often said things like that to me, but I’d never heard it say anything to Oliver. The thing must have figured out I wasn’t a Ravenclaw, but why it was still letting me in was anyone’s guess.
I entered the common room, making a beeline for Oliver. He was tucked into one of the window ledges with a spellbook, practicing what appeared to be a Patronus charm, and jumped when I tapped him on the shoulder.
“Thought I would take advantage of my good mood.”
“Katie said yes, then?”
“Yeah.” He grinned. “We’re going to the Three Broomsticks. Did you arrange to meet up with your mum?”
“I may have made other arrangements.”
His eyes widened. “Really? With Penny?”
“Keep it down,” I hissed. “Yes, with Penny.”
“Good for you,” he said sincerely. “I expect a full run down of events later on.” He turned back to his spellbook, whispering incantations under his breath. Slightly miffed that I hadn’t gotten a better response from him, I took my leave.
Chapter 8: Eight
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A few days before the Hogsmeade weekend, my mother’s owl Gubraithan dropped a letter into my cereal at breakfast. Too tired to feel any sense of excitement or trepidation at the prospect of mail (I was not a morning person) I wearily cleaned up the mess the letter had left and tossed it aside, scanning the contents idly on my way to Charms. Mum wanted to meet up ‘to dicuss an important matter,’ and asked if I would be free at the next Hogsmeade weekend. I was tempted to say no, I had plans, but that would lead to too many questions. She knew I only ever went to Hogsmeade with Oliver or to meet her, and she wouldn’t buy the idea that I was just spending time with a friend. “Sweetheart,” she would say matter-of-factly, “You don’t have any friends other than Oliver who you would spend a whole day with. Is it a boy?”
No, it’s a girl. By the way, Mum, I’m a lesbian.
I didn’t think coming out by owl was the best way to go about things. So I scribbled a response, saying I would be free at around 1pm because I wanted to sleep in and have a poke around Scrivenshafts before meeting her.
I told Penny this, and she suggested we leave the castle at ten. Allowing half an hour to walk down from the castle, it would give us two and a half hours at The Three Broomsticks and wherever else before I had to meet Mum. I agreed, and spent the remainder of the week wondering what on Earth Penny and I would do for three hours. It was a nerve-wracking prospect, even though I told myself that I had lived with the girl for six years and really, three hours in Hogsmeade was nothing.
Saturday dawned (I said this figuratively, I did not wake up in time to see anything dawn) fine and windy, and the dormitory was already half empty by the time I got up, grudgingly, at nine for breakfast. Already a line of students, mostly overexcited third years, waited in the Entrance Hall for Filch to check them off on their way out.
Penny was finishing her toast when I slumped into a seat across from her. I briefly contemplated trying to look more cheery and alive than I was, before remembering that she had seen me in the mornings for six years.
“How do they do that?” I asked, nodding at the line of third years. “Why would you get up early enough on a Saturday to leave the castle at nine?”
“They are third years,” Penny pointed out, twisting her head to look at them. “Aw, bless. They’re so excited. Remember our first trip to Hogsmeade?”
I thought back. “And we all bet that nobody in our year was brave enough to touch the Shrieking Shack, and the Weasley twins actually went inside?”
Penny nodded. “And we all had to pay them a Sickle, except Morgana and Lycurgus ran off to tell a teacher and they had to give it all back.”
“Weren’t they dating?”
“Morgana and Lycurgus?” Penny chuckled. “Yeah, I think they were.”
“I’m not sure who I feel more sorry for.”
“Well, Morgana looks like a walrus.”
I snorted, almost choking on my coffee. “That’s the best description I’ve ever heard of her.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t heard it before. Anyway, I’m gonna go get ready. See you in the dorm.”
She left and I finished my breakfast, idly watching the third years file out the door. They were joined by some fourth and fifth years, and I noticed Filch giving Harry Potter a good sniff on his way out.
It appeared the sniff was unique to Harry, as he gave everyone else a cursory glance as they shuffled out. He peered at my name on the list, and light seemed to dawn on his sagging face.
“You’re the Head,” he said with what was clearly supposed to be a smile. “You keep these nasty kids in line, you hear? Countin’ on students like yourself to maintain order.”
“Will do, Argus,” I responded, quickening my pace to get away from him.
“That’s Mr Filch to you,” he called after me.
“So we’re heading to the Three Broomsticks?” Penny asked once we were clear of the Entrance Hall.
“Yeah, unless there was anywhere you wanted to go?”
“I want to have a look in Tomes and Scrolls, there are a couple of books I’ve been wanting to get and they didn’t have them at Flourish and Blotts.”
“Decisive Discoveries: A History of the Developments of the Department of Mysteries, and…er…Love and Monsters by Helen Halicarnassus.”
“We have those. But Love and Monsters?” I repeated, raising an eyebrow.
“We?” Penny repeated.
“I work there. Well, I work there over summer. But that’s beside the point. Love and Monsters?”
“It’s for my sister,” she explained with a grimace. “Antianeira. She’s turning fourteen in a few weeks. Hufflepuff.”
“How many sisters do you have?”
“Four. Hippolyta was older, then there’s Antianeira, Tecmessa and Androdameia. Sensing a theme?”
“Yeah.” She smiled ruefully. “Mum and Dad had an agreement that she would name the girls and he would name the boys. I have no brothers.”
“Didn’t your dad say something after the fifth child was named after an obscure Amazon?”
“He did. Mum told him to think of something better, and the baby was lying in her arms, red, splotchy and crying, and he couldn’t think of anything fast enough. He ended up yelling ‘Cleopatra’ after she’d told the Healer her name was Androdameia, so that’s her middle name now. We call her Cleo though, because you can’t really shorten Androdameia without making it sound stupid.”
“What do you call Antianeira?”
“Ants-in-your-pants,” she replied, her lips pressed firmly together in an effort to keep herself from laughing. “Polly and I gave her that one, and it stuck.”
“What do her friends call her?”
“Ants. She hates it. But her middle name is Mildred, so she can’t win…”
“Mildred doesn’t sound like it fits the theme of pretentious pureblood names.”
“We had an old Muggleborn tutor growing up called Mildred. Mum thought it’d be nice. Unfortunate that Ants turned out to be the dumb child, becase she was a clever old witch.”
We reached the Three Broomsticks, which was thankfully not too crowded as all the third-years had either migrated to Honeydukes and Zonko’s or not finished their rounds of them yet, and claimed a table beside a window overlooking the High Street.
“What about you?” Penny asked, cracking open her Butterbeer. “You have a sister, right? I’ve heard you mention her before.”
“Sort of. She’s my half-sister, and I’ve only met her a few times. Haven’t seen her for two years.”
“Oh.” Penny looked out the window, furrowing her brow. “Since when do Hogwarts kids go into the Hog’s Head?”
I peered through the glass. A group of Gryffindor girls were heading into the dodgy old bar, including Katie Bell. “Huh. I thought she was meeting with Oliver.”
“Katie Bell. Oliver asked her out this week.”
“They’re probably meeting later. It’s still early.”
“I suppose. So what do we do now?”
“Well, the main reason for this was to get to know each other better, right? We could play a question game.”
“What kind of question game?”
“We just keep asking questions. If you repeat a question, can’t think of one or don’t answer it, you owe the other a Butterbeer.”
“Sounds good. You can start, seeing as it’s your idea.”
“All right. What’s your sister’s name?”
“Clara Indigo Greenslade. What do your parents do?”
“They’re both in the Ministry. My dad’s head of the Spirit Division of Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Mum works in Public Information Services. Same question.”
“Mum runs the primary school in Hogsmeade and breeds Aethonian horses on the side. Dad’s a high school physics teacher. What’s your worst memory?”
“Getting called into Dumbledore’s office and told that Polly had been in an accident. Same question.”
“The night Dad left. What’s your middle name?”
“Electra. What’s yours?”
“Amelia. When’s your birthday?”
“November eighteenth. Okay then, what’s your first name?”
“Briony. Favourite food?”
“Roast potatoes. Why do you go by your middle name?”
“Briony’s what my dad named me, and I never liked it. Mum named me Amelia after her sister. When he left, I just started introducing myself as Amelia. Worst way anyone has shortened your name?”
“I got called Thistle by one of my cousins. Why do you drink coffee?”
“To make myself feel older than I actually am. Have you ever read any of your sister’s god-awful romances?”
“I’ve seen the covers, that’s off-putting enough. Did you go to Muggle school?”
“Yes. What was it like having a tutor?”
“I dunno. Normal? What was Muggle school like?”
“That’s not an answer, you owe me a Butterbeer.”
“Fine. Question still stands.”
“It was all right.” I shrugged. “Getting the Obliviators in when I did accidental magic was a bit stressful, but other than that I just thought I was better than everybody else.”
“You still think that.”
“Is that your question? Then no, you’re a perfect Slytherin. Did the Hat consider any other house?”
“I was a Hatstall with Ravenclaw. I chose Slytherin. What about you?”
“It thought about Hufflepuff. Why the hell do you have a long-haired cat?”
“I came to Hogwarts with the express purpose of pissing off all my dorm-mates by letting him shed everywhere. Do you have a pet?”
“An owl. Named him Loki because every other damn thing in my house has a Greek name and I wanted to mix it up again. What are your parents’ names?”
“Laurel Bones and Steven Greenslade. Yours?”
“Philip and Ariadne Hamilton. Are you related to Amelia Bones in Magical Law Enforcement?”
“Yes, she’s the aunt I was named after. Who are you closest to in your extended family?”
“Mum’s sister Tam, the lesbian. Her name was originally Alcestis, but she didn’t like the connotations of a woman who died for her husband so changed it to Clytaemnestra. How many people have you come out to?”
“You and Oliver. When do you plan to tell your parents?”
“Probably over Christmas. Where do you live?”
“Over there somewhere.” I waved my hand out the window. “About an hour out of Hogsmeade. What’s your favourite subject?”
“Charms. What are you most proud of?”
“Being Head Girl. What would you do if you failed your NEWTs?”
“Something outrageous. Like become a hit wizard or an artist.”
I actually did choke on my Butterbeer at that point, and when I finally recovered Penny was grinning widely at me. “Because there’s really not much difference between the two.”
“I don’t know who you’ve been going to for careers advice,” I began, “But I’m a little concerned.”
She grinned again. “Yeah. We should take a break and get some lunch if you’re meeting your mum at one. And I owe you a Butterbeer, right?”
Penny went up to the bar, leaving me to look after our seats which would have been immediately snapped up due to the throngs of people now entering the pub. In my position beside the window I could see people leaving the Hog’s Head – Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws from about fourth year up. The last to leave were Harry Potter and his friends, but by this point Katie Bell had met with Oliver outside Scrivenshafts and I turned my attention to them, watching as they chatted for a bit – they both seemed happy, Katie seemed to be laughing and Oliver was smiling down at his shoes, and they set off towards Madam Puddifoot’s.
“What are you smiling at?” Penny asked, returning to the table and sliding a Butterbeer towards me. “I got us both fish and chips, by the way, it’s cheap and you always seem to wolf it down when we have it at school.”
“How much was it?” I asked, rummaging around in my purse.
She shook her head. “Don’t worry about it.”
I looked at her suspiciously. “Is this a date?”
“What’s the etiquette for paying in this situation? I know it’s usually guy paying for girl, but—”
“Whoever gets there first, so that’s me.”
“Remind me to beat you to it next time.”
Our conversation died down once the food arrived. Having finished, a glance at my watch told me I was running out of time, so we relinquished our table to a group of hovering sixth-year Ravenclaws and headed down the road to Tomes and Scrolls. I showed Penny where to find the books she was looking for and we had a good giggle over Love and Monsters. Old Mrs McLeary, who owned the shop, wanted to know if I would be working next summer, and I told her I’d let her know once I had decided what I was doing after Hogwarts.
“And you must be a friend of Amelia’s,” Mrs McLeary said cheerfully to Penny, before turning back to me. “I don’t know why you don’t come in here with big groups like the other students, Amelia, you must have more friends than the rest of them put together. Lovely girl,” she added as an aside to Penny. “Isn’t she? A real charmer. Bet she breaks all the boys’ hearts.”
“I’m sure she does,” Penny replied, raising her eyebrows at me. I wasn’t sure if I would burst into laughter or spontaneously combust from embarrassment first, but at any rate I hustled Penny out of the shop and we collapsed into giggles once clear of the door.
“She’s a fan of you, isn’t she?” Penny managed.
“I’m a real charmer?”
“I bet you will break the boys’ hearts,” Penny continued. “When you tell them you’re actually into girls.”
“I’ll break their hearts?” I repeated. “Oh, Penthesilea Hamilton, you have no idea. Half of Hogwarts is in love with you.”
“How d’you know that?”
I tapped the side of my nose. “Looks like yours don’t go unnoticed.”
“Really?” she peered at her reflection in a shop window. “I always thought I was a bit…skinny. I mean, I don’t exactly have a big bum or big boobs, do I?”
“I think you’re stunning.”
She blushed bright pink at that, looking down at her feet, and I felt a flash of triumph. I was a real charmer. I could make a pretty girl blush. Ten points to me.
At quarter to one we met Isla and her sister Lisa, who had been shopping for a present to buy their dad but, having finished this, invited us to wander around with them. I excused myself by saying I had to go and meet Mum, but Penny turned off down the street with them.
“See you later!” she called to me, and the three of them disappeared into Honeydukes.
Part of me was disappointed she had left, but another part of me was just relieved we’d pulled off appearing so casual about hanging out. As I turned down the road to Hogsmeade School, I grinned to myself. I had managed a secret date on a Hogsmeade weekend. Maybe this whole thing wouldn’t be as hard as it seemed.
I was a few minutes early, but Mum was already in the schoolhouse, hunched over her desk as she planned lessons. Colourful artwork lined the walls, alongside various posters about grammar, magical creatures and safety. I found myself reading one entitled “Never Play With Mummy’s Wand” while I waited for Mum to finish whatever she was doing.
“Amelia, sweetheart,” she said finally, setting down her quill and coming around the desk to give me a hug. “How’s school?”
“It’s all right.”
“And your classes?”
“Yeah, they’re good.”
“Still doing well in Transfiguration?”
“Sure am. Going well in the other ones as well.”
“And how are you finding being Head Girl?”
“Does wonders for my ego.”
Mum chuckled, stepping back and examining me with concern. “You look worn.”
“How do you even see these things?”
“A mother’s eye sees all,” she told me firmly. “You’re not working yourself too hard, are you?”
“No more than anyone else.”
“You are and you know it. I don’t want you burning yourself out barely a month into the year.”
“I know. I won’t.”
“Still friends with Oliver?”
“Mum, some things you don’t need to ask. The sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, and I’m still friends with Oliver. What did you want to talk to me about?”
Mum sighed. “Sit down.”
“Did someone die?”
“No. Sit down.”
I reluctantly sat on the nearest desk and looked up at her. She looked tired, wary, and very reluctant to say what she was about to. I felt a wave of trepidation.
“Your father wrote to me,” she began.
“This can’t be good.”
“He wants to see you.”
“No he doesn’t.”
“He’s asked that you spend Christmas with him.”
“Tell him I’m staying at Hogwarts.”
“You haven’t seen him for two years.”
“There’s a reason.”
“Times change. He wants to see you.”
“I don’t want to see him. My choice.”
“Actually, it’s not.”
“What?” I demanded. “How is it not? I’m of age—”
“Not in the Muggle world.”
“This isn’t the Muggle world! I don’t belong to the Muggle world! I’m seventeen, I’m a legal adult!”
“You’re not eighteen. That’s what matters. And because you’re not eighteen, if I tell Steven you’re not coming, he can accuse me of keeping you from him.”
“You’re still his daughter, Amelia!” Mum was silent for a moment, taking a deep breath and lowering her voice. “Whether you like it or not. And you’re spending Christmas with him. You don’t even have to stay the night. Just go over there in the morning and come back after Christmas dinner.”
“I don’t want to,” I told her, trying to be firm but knowing I just sounded like a petulant child.
“I know you don’t.”
“He calls me Briony.”
“Sweetheart, that is your name.”
“Not anymore. He denies magic. He doesn’t even want me around, it was probably Elle’s idea.”
“Please don’t make this more difficult than it already is,” Mum said wearily.
“Was there anything else?”
“Not that I can think of, but—”
“Okay,” I said, cutting her off. “I’ll see you at Christmas. Before you give me to the Muggles, that is.”
I walked out of the schoolhouse, letting the wind slam the door behind me. I knew I was being unreasonable but I was too angry to do anything about it, which in turn frustrated me more. I strode down the road towards the village, hating my father for demanding to see me and my mother for letting it happen, and my own reaction, and how any good feeling I’d had from spending time with Penny had evaporated so swiftly. Clouds were gathering in the sky, matching my thunderous mood so perfectly I almost wondered if I was causing it without knowing. I reached High Street, wanting some form of retail therapy, but the shops in Hogsmeade never changed and there was nothing I wanted. Unwilling to go back to the castle and mope, I found myself walking towards the Hog’s Head on a half-formed impulse.
“Firewhiskey,” I told the barman shortly, slamming my Apparition licence on the counter as proof of ID. He grunted in response, pouring the amber liquid into a grimy shot glass. Handing him four Sickles, I tossed it back, wincing as it burned the back of my throat. Replacing the glass, I took my licence back and swaggered out of the pub, feeling marginally better.
A/N: 'Love and Monsters' is the name of a Doctor Who episode (2x10).
Chapter 9: Nine
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The common room was always tolerable on the Sunday of a Hogsmeade weekend as everyone was silently completing their homework at the last minute, having not thought about it since they were assigned it on Friday. The aftermath of Hogsmeade weekends were evident all around – lovesick girls and boys wandering around with silly smiles on their faces, having gone on a first date the day before; third years surrounded by Honeydukes wrappers, looking slightly ill; Zonko’s products stuffed surreptitiously into bags or behind couches. Nobody dared to bring them out while I was around, allowing me to both revel in my power and complete my essays in relative peace.
Occasionally I would be summoned to the common room door to let students in who had forgotten the password – Prefects were expected to at least be able to recognise the faces of everyone in their house, and all the other Prefects were prone to second-guessing themselves or at the very least were unwilling to give out the password, so they gave the task to me. I didn’t mind – far from it, I relished the fact that, apart from Snape, I was the highest authority in Slytherin House and bratty third years didn’t use their Zonko’s products in the common room because of me, thank God.
I didn’t spend usually spend a lot of time in the common room, but requests from senior students meant I came here more often – apparently I was the most effective way of maintaining order, something Snape backed up on his occasional forays into the common room. I was not above taking points for disruptive behaviour, and while I originally thought it would make me supremely unpopular due to our intense rivalry with all the other houses, Joanna Crispin helped set a precedent the first time I took points: she really disliked the kid I’d taken the points from, Lionel Barton, and yelled “Hey, thanks a lot, Barton!” from across the common room. As a result, I never got the blame for the point-taking, which I knew had happened quite a lot in previous years or with other Prefects. Seniors thanked me for making the common room an okay place to study, and juniors would often stop their friends from doing something stupid by hissing, “Oi, Amelia’s watching. If we lose any more points we’ll be behind Gryffindor.”
I was starting to think I was becoming the ultimate lord of Slytherin, and the best part about it was that it was never self-proclaimed. I reveled in it, certainly, but I had never sought it; and in that sense it was the most genuine power of anyone.
Observing all this was certainly helping to lift my mood after Mum’s announcement yesterday, as well as the memory of my sort-of rebellion with the Firewhiskey. Well, it was a pretty big rebellion – students were strictly forbidden from drinking anything stronger than Butterbeer unless they were with their parents, regardless of age, and I was Head Girl, but at the same time nobody had actually seen me and one nip wasn’t enough to have an effect. It had done what I intended it to do – restored my own authority after Dad had tried to take it away by making me visit him for Christmas. I even talked myself into thinking it was my decision – Dad may have asked but I really only said yes because I wanted to see Clara. Two years was a long time, after all, and judging by the badly-spelled message she scrawled in my birthday card, she still thought the sun shone out of my bum.
It made me smile to think of Elle’s face when Clara talked about me, and that helped me work out my agenda for the holiday. I would do my best to make Dad and Elle thoroughly uncomfortable, yet secure Clara’s affections enough that she would keep demanding I come over, and they would have to keep acquiescing no matter how much they didn’t want to. It felt mildly diabolical, using a small child’s affections to achieve my own ends, but I really did want Clara to keep liking me and I figured Dad had dicked me over enough that he deserved some payback.
It was times like these that I wondered why the Sorting Hat ever deliberated over me. Sometimes I felt like I could have sat under it forever, completely torn between Slytherin and Ravenclaw, sometimes I wished I had chosen Ravenclaw instead of Slytherin, and sometimes, like now, I wondered why it hadn’t yelled ‘Slytherin!’ at the top of its voice before it had even touched my head.
I hadn’t seen Oliver all weekend, and when he hurried up to me in the Great Hall on Monday morning I realised I hadn’t yet interrogated him about his date with Katie Bell.
“How was—” I began, but he cut me off.
“Seen the latest from Umbridge?”
“The noticeboards,” he said impatiently. “There’s one in every common room, you haven’t seen it?”
“Of course I haven’t, I don’t notice anything in the mornings. Why, what’s it about?”
“She’s disbanding the clubs,” Oliver muttered through gritted teeth, striding out of the Great Hall. “All sports teams, interest groups, study sessions – all disbanded from now until she can interview the organisers of every single one so she can grant individual permission for them to reform.”
“Why has she done that?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, teeth still gritted. “But she doesn’t have the authority to do that—”
“Clubs are meant to be our responsibility,” I protested. “Teachers don’t have anything to do with them unless they’re borrowing a classroom. We monitor the clubs, and whatever reason she’s come up with for shutting them down, we would have noticed first. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, they’re not breaking any rules—”
“It’s just another way she can exert her power all over the place,” Oliver concluded. “I heard a rumour the Ministry’s afraid of students ‘training for combat,’ which I think is a bit bullshit, but we don’t even have a duelling club, haven’t had one since fourth year. The closest we get to anything like that is a Quidditch match between Gryffindor and Slytherin.” He shot me a sideways glance. “Been talking to Katie, apparently your Beaters are brutal.”
“Where are we going?” I asked, realising we were on the way to Defence Against the Dark Arts. “Class doesn’t start for another half an hour.”
“Going to talk to Umbridge.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“No, but I’m going to anyway.”
Given Oliver’s annoyance and the speed at which he was walking, I half expected him to burst through the door of Umbridge’s office and demand to know who the hell she thought she was, but he knocked politely and waited for her to invite us in.
“Ah, Oliver, Amelia. I thought I might be seeing you this morning.”
“We wanted to know why you’ve shut down the clubs,” Oliver began, making an impressive effort to remain respectful. “Traditionally, the Head Prefects have overseen extra-curricular groups, with the occasional help or extra input from a teacher as required.”
“We haven’t seen any problems with the clubs as they stand now,” I continued. “So we were wondering what grounds you have to do this.”
“What grounds?” she repeated, smiling. “Why, I thought that much would have been obvious. As High Inquisitor it is my job to take any steps necessary to ensure this school functions as it should.”
“So what about the clubs is stopping this school from functioning as it should? Is there something inherently disruptive about second-years playing Gobstones at four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon?” I couldn’t keep the edge from my voice, but if Umbridge noticed she chose not to say anything.
“Not at all. They will be reinstated, once those organising them have sought and obtained permission from me to reform.”
“So what’s the point?”
Glancing at each other, Oliver and I reluctantly perched on the armchairs across from Umbridge’s desk.
“What I am about to tell you does not leave this room, am I clear? Or there will be…consequences.”
The way she said the final words sent shivers up my spine. We nodded.
“The Ministry is at war,” she said darkly. “We believe Albus Dumbledore, using his considerable…influence within the wizarding community and feeding off the fear he has created with his lies about a certain Dark wizard, is planning to take over the Ministry. While I believe the use of children in such a hostile takeover is deplorable, we believe Dumbledore may attempt to raise an army from his loyal students at Hogwarts. That is why Cornelius Fudge appionted me to the job this year – to keep an eye on Dumbledore and prevent any such army forming.”
Choosing not to say anything about the likelihood of this scenario, I pointed out, “But we don’t even have a duelling club. We monitor all the groups – there’s nothing remotely combatant about any of them.”
“Of the ones you know of,” she said. “I received word of a large gathering of students at the Hog’s Head last weekend, intending to start a group to study dangerous and age-inappropriate magic. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about it?”
Oliver and I exchanged glances again. “I saw a bunch of kids going in there, but didn’t think much of it.”
“Did you, Amelia? Did you happen to recognise any of them?”
“No, I was too far away.”
She scrutinised me, as if looking for any sign of a lie, and I quickly changed the subject. “So what are we supposed to do about it? I assume you had a reason for telling us.”
She beamed, pleased that I seemed so willing to help her cause. “You are my eyes and ears in the school. If you hear anything about any secret organisations, you come to me. Nobody will know if you give me names. I will give you a list of all the groups I have permitted to reform. I want you to watch them. Consider this a task of national security and remember, a glowing reference from me at the end of the year will certainly help you in any career you choose to follow.”
“Of course, Professor,” Oliver said. “We’ll do our best.”
We left the office, Umbridge’s sickly sweet voice ringing in my ears. The corridors were filled with students and we had class to get to, but Oliver raised his eyebrows at me in a ‘talk later’ face and I nodded, eager to discuss these latest developments.
At lunch we sat in our usual spot in the courtyard, despite the fact it was overcast and freezing.
“Good chance to practice conjuration,” Oliver said bracingly, taking out his wand. “Conjuro blanket.”
The result was a mostly threadbare tartan picnic blanket, and I shrugged. “It’s a start.”
“Ugh, the ground’s damp. Impervius.”
We settled on the now waterproof blanket and wrapped our robes around ourselves, shivering. Oliver kept trying to conjure blankets for himself, each just as straggly and thin as the last, and layered them one over the other around his shoulders until he looked positively homeless. I had offered to conjure one for him, but his pride wouldn’t handle such help from me. I watched him, snugly wrapped in a quilt I had conjured for myself and extremely grateful that my best subject was so practical.
“So how was Hogsmeade?” I asked, taking a sandwich out of my bag. “You and Katie seemed happy.”
“Yeah, it was good.” He didn’t look particularly excited about this though – he was too busy hunched over against the cold looking extremely sorry for himself.
“Just put a Heating Charm on one of them then,” I said impatiently, gesturing at his mound of blankets. “You can do those.”
“Hey, yeah.” He brightened considerably, tapping one of the blankets with his wand, and smiled contentedly. “Ahh. That’s good.”
“What about it? Um, I met up with her around twelveish—”
“I saw you out the window.”
“Creepy. And we had lunch at Puddifoot’s, then we had a poke around Honeydukes and Tomes and Scrolls, and tried out all the quills at Scrivenshafts by writing stupid things all over the paper, you know, and we headed home.”
“And?” I pressed.
“And apparently she’s had a bit of a crush on me since last year—”
“And it just went really well,” he concluded. “She said she’s going to teach me to fly next weekend.”
“So are you two a thing then?”
“I think so,” he said thoughtfully. “Unofficially, you know? But yeah, she’s great. Really, really great.”
“Ollie’s got a girlfriend!”
“Well, yeah. Maybe. Hopefully. Hey, don’t give me that look. How’s Penny?”
“Went well then?”
“Do I have to drag every detail out of you, Amelia Greenslade?”
“Where’d you go?”
“Three Broomsticks for a while, then popped into Tomes and Scrolls for a bit.”
“Well, are you together?”
“Um, I dunno. Not officially, obviously, and we’re not going to be telling anyone, but it was kinda like a date, yeah.”
“Good for you! I kept your secret, by the way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Katie was asking what the deal was with you – you know, because we’re always together and stuff – and it would have been a lot easier to just tell her you were gay and that’d be the end of it, but I spun some elaborate yarn about how we’d known each other since we were toddlers and our mums were friends and therefore we were basically siblings.” He gave me a triumphant grin, evidently proud of his secret-keeping and improvisation skills. “I even told her that you were really jealous because I did my first magic when I was five and you didn’t do yours till you were seven, and I spent two years convincing you that you were a Squib.”
I scowled at him. “What other stories did you come up with?”
“I don’t think there were any others. We didn’t spend the entire time talking about you. Much as it may astonish you to hear, there are more important things.”
“Oi. Leave my ego out of this.”
“Your ego never gets left out of anything.”
He was clearly in an Amelia-baiting mood, one that I wasn’t particularly keen to indulge. “So. Umbridge.”
“Not a fan. What is it, October? That’s not too late to drop DADA, is it?”
“You haven’t used your course drop yet?”
“No. Didn’t think I would at all, actually. The course drop, you see, is designed for students whose capacity for leadership far outweigh their academic ability, providing them with a handy excuse to lighten the intellectual load on their ever-so-slightly inferior minds.”
“You’re a pretentious prat, you know that, right?”
“So, that mystery meeting at the Hog’s Head. What do you know about it?”
“More than I told Umbridge. You?”
“Same here. Well, just the fact that I could definitely recognise the people going in there.”
“You’re just fishing around so I’ll tell you what she said.”
Oliver sighed. “She didn’t give me too much detail about it, just said it was a study group for Defence Against the Dark Arts to practice the spells we’re not being taught in class. I hope she doesn’t think I said anything…she probably thinks that’s why Umbridge shut the clubs down…”
“You’re not that much of a nark.”
“Well,” he fidgeted uncomfortably, “I do sort of have that reputation. Teacher’s pet. Prefect. Whatever. Y’know how they pick the Head Boy and Girl, right? One of them’s a leader, one of them’s a nark. And you’re not the nark.”
“Neither are you.”
“Maybe not, but people think I am. Ever wondered why I’m not very popular?”
“I thought that was because you’re a pretentious twat.”
“I’m in Ravenclaw. We’re all pretentious twats.”
“Look, if it’s worrying you that much, just talk to Katie.”
“She barely knows me. I mean, we spent three hours together yesterday but why should she believe me? I’m the most likely person to go running to Umbridge about suss activities and she told me she was at that meeting.”
“If it makes you feel better, pin it on me. She’s a Gryffindor, she’s way more likely to blame a Slytherin. I can take the fall.”
“No way. You’re actually getting along with people this year. Everyone in our year likes and trusts you because you covered for them in DADA.”
“Could have been Lycurgus Landon,” I mused. “His mum was…disfigured in an accident a few years ago and hangs out in the Hog’s Head all shrouded up. He could have met with her and overheard something. And he’s bitter with Dumbledore about not being Head Boy so he’s likely to be sympathetic to Umbridge.”
“Yeah,” he said, brightening a little. “That seems likely, actually…”
The bell rang, signalling an end to the conversation. With a long-suffering sigh, Oliver Vanished his pile of blankets and trudged off to History of Magic while I headed for the common room, wondering if we had silently and unanimously agreed not to tell Umbridge anything.
Chapter 10: Ten
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In addition to the workload of NEWTs and our usual Head Prefect duties, from that point on Oliver and I were expected to keep an eye on every single club approved by Umbridge to reform and ensure no others formed without her knowledge.
“Does she have any idea how many clubs there are at Hogwarts?” Oliver sighed, shuffling through the stacks of parchment detailing each club. “And she wants us to individually supervise them all…okay. If we claim by interest first…then divide the others based on meeting times…”
He passed me a pile of parchment, and I took the top sheet. “Apparition classes – well, these are run by the Ministry and they’re in the Great Hall, so I don’t think we need to supervise those.” I tossed it aside, taking the next one. “Ancient Studies – you can have that one.”
“I’m part of that club anyway.”
“Still?” I asked. “I gave up my clubs this year. Not enough time.”
“Well, you can have yours back.” He passed me the parchment for the Transfiguration Club. “If you think you can stand watching your successor running it.”
“Emma Harris is all right. I chose her to take over, you know. And besides, overseeing it as Head Girl is slightly better than running it as a volunteer.” I kept flicking through the parchment. “Why the hell do we have so many music groups? Can’t they just have one and leave it at that?”
“I’ll take them, you cultural plebeian.”
“Want the art ones as well?”
“Fine, but that means you get all the other subject ones. And Gobstones. And the Chess Club. Wait a minute, I want the Chess Club.”
“All right. And the Quidditch teams?”
“I get Ravenclaw, you have Slytherin.” He said this matter-of-factly, as if confused there was any question about it.
“There are four houses.”
“Damn. The Quidditch teams never want people from other houses at their practices – can we just ignore them?”
“I don’t think Umbridge will let us ignore Gryffindor – Harry Potter’s on the team, isn’t he?”
Oliver grumbled. “That woman is just ridiculous.”
“I think we both knew that already. You can have the Gryffindor team, I’ll take Hufflepuff.”
Having divided up the clubs and with an increasing sense of trepidation, we planned out our daily timetables including each club and our fortnightly rounds.
“Christ,” I muttered. “Transfiguration Club on Mondays, Potions and Charms Clubs on Tuesdays, Hufflepuff Quidditch team usually practices every second Wednesday, Gobstones, Ghoul Studies and Advanced Arithmancy on Thursdays, Slytherin usually practices on Fridays, and we’ve got rounds from seven till eleven every second Friday…Earth Magic club meets at nine am on Saturdays – who the hell does that? – and oh, look at this, Umbridge has asked us to accompany students to church in Hogsmeade on Sunday mornings.”
“I thought we had a Prefect already doing that,” Oliver asked, confused.
“Yeah, Ernie Macmillan. But he’s a Hufflepuff and apparently he was in the Hog’s Head meeting the other day – I’d love to know where Umbridge is getting these names from, but apparently he’s untrustworthy. Can you take Earth Magic?”
He glared at me. “You’re not the only one who likes a Saturday morning sleep-in.”
“Maybe not, but you can function without one. And if you want to spend the rest of the year working with me when I’m getting up at the crack of dawn every morning…” I let the threat hang in the air, and he conceded defeat. I knew I was horrendous when I was tired – horrendous enough that he would forsake his own sleep-ins to make sure I got mine.
“You owe me.”
“No, I don’t think you realise. You owe me. I’m talking first-born child owing me.”
“Good luck with that one.”
“Well, I won’t be having kids, will I?”
“Oh.” Oliver was silent for a while. “No, I guess not.”
It was an off-hand comment, but I found myself dwelling on it as I walked back to the common room. I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to kids – I was seventeen for God’s sake – but I suppose I always had a vision in the back of my head that I would one day get married, buy a house and have kids. At leat three, close enough in age that they would all get along. A big, close family like the one I’d never had growing up.
Considering I had never really thought about it, I found myself more disappointed than I should have been. Maybe I just always took the option for granted.
I could always adopt. There might even be some weird fancy fertility magic that would – no. Magic had its limits, and I didn’t think there were enough gay couples who wanted kids to justify exploring such magic.
I didn’t know why I was thinking about this. Dropping my books onto a table, I turned my attention to a particularly gross DADA essay – all theory based, of course. I was so absorbed in bullshitting my way through the importance of non-verbal spells (if magic must be used in a situation where a Muggle may be present, it was infinitely better for the caster to perform his or her spells silently to preserve the integrity of the wizarding world) that I barely noticed Penny coming to sit opposite me. The moment I was aware of her presence my heart skipped a beat and I laid my quill aside mid-sentence.
“Evening,” Penny said matter-of-factly.
I had always thought of Penny as quiet and reserved, but around me she seemed to emanate confidence. She took charge of things – I hadn’t expected her to pay for our ‘date’ the other day, and she always seemed to initiate conversation in a self-assured manner I wasn’t used to seeing from her. I assumed I had something to do with the change, but it didn’t seem fair when she had the complete opposite effect on me.
“Umbridge’s essay?” she asked, nodding at my parchment.
“Yeah.” I pulled a face. “Nearly finished though, just need to finish this paragraph and do my conclusion.”
“It’s nearly midnight,” she pointed out. “I assume you’ve been doing something either equally gross or mindblowingly fun for the rest of the evening.”
“The second one, without a doubt.”
“Should I be jealous?”
“Oh, yeah. Sat in the library with Oliver for three hours dividing up every single club in Hogwarts so we can individually supervise them and report back to Umbridge.”
“She wants to make sure they’re doing that they told her they were doing,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “And she can’t have anyone but us doing that job, apparently.”
“Does she expect you to pass your NEWTs? Because that’s like, three or four hours a week that you should be spending studying…”
“How are you going to do that?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Sleep less? I suppose I could talk to my teachers – some of them might give me extensions for things…”
“I guess I won’t see you much, then?”
“Nobody’s going to be seeing me very much,” I replied, still annoyed that all my spare time and a large chunk of my study time was going to be taken away.
“Yeah, I suppose,” she said quietly, and in the ensuing silence I regretted my dismissal of her words. Obviously I should come up with an idea for how we could spend time together, but I couldn’t think of anything. I really wouldn’t have time for anything come next week, and my resentment towards Umbridge only grew.
“I could come with you,” she said, breaking the silence.
“When you supervise the clubs,” she continued. “Obviously I wouldn’t go to all of them, but just a few of them a week…”
“But that would just mean you have less spare time, and I don’t get any more. We can’t delegate this job…”
“But we’d still be spending that time together. If…that’s what you want. I understand if it’s not…”
The uncertainty that crept into her voice in those last few words made me stop. This wasn’t about the stupid clubs, this was about her wanting to spend time with me. And she was worried that I didn’t want to spend time with her.
She really did like me.
Resisting the urge to sit in astonished silence at this realisation for the rest of the night, I scrambled to respond. “Yes. Yeah. Definitely. Sounds good. Sorry, wasn’t thinking straight – um, have a look through these and tell me which ones you want to come to.” I scrambled in my bag for the piles of club applications, sliding them across the table to her.
The next several weeks were just as awful as I imagined them to be. Most of my teachers, after I spoke to them, let me off detentions if I didn’t get my assignments done in time, but they still expected me to hand it in after a day or two. On my occasional free afternoons/evenings, I shut myself in the quietest, most abandoned corner of the library and powered through a week’s worth of homework in a matter of hours. I spent lunchtimes in the library as well, sometimes managing to write an essay in the hour before an afternoon class. I didn’t talk to Oliver much – he was in the same situation, and on the rare occasions where we both had a spare moment for homework we worked side by side in focused silence. The exception was walking the church kids down to Hogsmeade – it was the only real break either of us got and we had a good chat while we walked. Oliver stayed in the service – he tended to doze off and said that a half-hour nap at mid-morning made it much easier to focus on weekend homework in the afternoon – and I would skip out to meet Mum for a cup of tea. Despite the early mornings, I found myself living for Sundays – being able to do nothing but lounge on a cushy armchair in the schoolhouse while Mum fed me cake, biscuits and tea with three sugars ‘to keep your energy up.’ We didn’t mention my going to Dad’s for Christmas again, though sometimes I felt I was spending all this time with her to make up for the fact I wouldn’t be home for Christmas.
Mum would be spending Christmas with her family – apparently my aunt Amelia had gotten Christmas off for the first time in years and there was quite a large get together planned at my uncle Albert’s. I found this out from Susan first, who had seemed more than a little disappointed when I told her I wouldn’t be around. We were the only members of our generation of the Bones family left – my uncle Edgar and his three kids had been killed in the First Wizarding War, and Amelia never had children.
Late in November, I asked Penny to do my weekly report back to Umbridge as I had a Transfiguration essay due which McGonagall had made clear she wouldn’t give me an extension for. Apparently Umbridge had decided Penny was trustworthy, and told her to take on a couple of clubs from Oliver and I to do her own supervision.
“I agreed,” she told me reluctantly. “I couldn’t really explain that I was only going to spend time with you, and she said she would write me a reference for the Department of Mysteries. I have a few family connections there already, but one from her would pretty much guarantee the job.”
I gave her the Charms Club and the Hufflepuff Quidditch team, which was an extremely easy one due to the fact the Hufflepuff team could never get the pitch booked for practice – Slytherin pretty much had a monopoly on the damn thing due to their upcoming match with Gryffindor. It meant I was out there almost every day, hunched over in the stands and trying to get a bit of work done. I had mastered the Permanent Shield Charm out of necessity within a few days due to the number of Quaffles and Bludgers flying my way, and Professor Flitwick at least was happy with my progress.
Snape was incredibly lenient with the Slytherin Quidditch team in terms of homework in the leadup to the match, a privilege extended to me because I had to be present at every training. It meant I had enough time to actually study for my other subjects and practice spells, and as a result my grades started improving. I spent two hours curled on a sofa in the deserted common room with Penny during the actual Quidditch game. Slytherin lost, but as the team wasn’t due to play another game for months they stopped practicing quite so much.
The aftermath of that particular match extended far beyond the usual sulking of the Quidditch team in the corners of the common room, however. Three members of the Gryffindor team had been given lifelong bans for brawling after the match, and Angelina Johnson sought Oliver and I out on Monday.
“It’s your job to stand up for students,” she said heavily. “Normally I wouldn’t ask, but Umbridge listened to you at the beginning of the year, Amelia, and this punishment is beyond uncalled for. I know I seem biased, because it’s my team that’s been compromised by this, but take it from me, those boys don’t deserve a lifelong ban.”
“I’ll do what I can,” I told her, trying to sound more confident than I was.
Oliver and I knocked on Umbridge’s door and she waved us through, not seeming surprised to see us at all. It was not my favourite way to start a Monday morning, but it was an increasingly common one.
“Oliver, Amelia,” she greeted us with a little smile. “I thought I might be seeing you here today. Educational Decree Twenty-Five?”
“What you’re doing with it, more specifically,” I told her. “We’ve had a student express concern about your handling of the Gryffindor Quidditch team and, as advocates of the students, are obliged to pass on those concerns.”
“I see.” She clasped her hands in front of her. “Were you at the match, Amelia?”
“Then you didn’t see the animalistic manner in which those boys behaved,” she told me. “Though I’m sure your team’s Seeker can testify to their brutality – I’m sure you’ve seen Draco Malfoy around the common room, sporting grievous injuries.”
“Draco Malfoy is an attention-seeking prick,” I interrupted. “He’s hardly a suitable gauge for the scale of injuries. But that’s not the point.”
“Oh? Then what is the point, Amelia?”
“The way you’re using the Decree,” I told her bluntly. “I don’t know Harry Potter, and judging by how well-known he is in the school I’m assuming he’s as much of an attention seeker as Malfoy, but I know the Weasley twins and they’re not violent by nature. A lifelong ban for a momentary lapse in judgement is, I feel, excessive.”
“And detention, as their Head of House was suggesting, is insufficient. We cannot condone violent behaviour, and – if I may say such things – Professor McGonagall is rather blind to Potter’s faults, in particular. If I had not stepped in, those boys, and Potter in particular, would still believe violence is an acceptable way to sort differences. Tell me, what do you think a sufficient punishment for them would have been?”
“Professor McGonagall is harsh, but fair. I would have gone with her punishment – she’s an experienced teacher and knows the boys concerned well enough to know what would dissuade them.”
“I’m afraid I don’t share your views.”
“Professor McGonagall is the best teacher this school has.”
“Well, that paints a rather poor picture of the school, doesn’t it?”
I gritted my teeth, trying to remain calm. “I understand you’re trying to set a precedent. But the teachers here, and particularly the Heads of Houses, have years of experience with students which you don’t have. Overriding their authority and assigning punishments yourself—” I trailed off, at a loss for words, and fidgeted with the edge of my robes – “The school and the Ministry are separate for a reason, and the Ministry – the Ministry is good at what it does, but it’s wrong to be invading the school this much. The Ministry has itself to think about, and its own agenda, and that has no place in a school.”
“My dear,” Umbridge began with a simpering smile, her voice laced equally with sugar and poison, “I must have misheard you. Because it seemed for a moment that you think the Ministry isn’t working for the best interests of all wizardkind.”
“I’m sure the Ministry has the best intentions," I said cautiously, “But the staff at Hogwarts are trained and experienced teachers. They know what they’re doing.”
“Unfortunately,” she responded in a clipped voice, all pretence of sweetness gone, “The teachers at Hogwarts, particularly those with the highest authority, hold dangerous views that threaten the entire wizarding world. I am here to prevent, to the best of my ability, those views manifesting in an attack on the Ministry. I am not a teacher, but I am a peacekeeper. And next time you question my decisions, remember that.”
“Yes, Professor,” I muttered.
“And if you continue to question me – well,” she said, with a slight giggle, “We both know who has more power at this school.”