Chapter 6 : Six
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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.
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