Harry leaned back in the leather chair in front of Severus's desk and tossed one of the twins' prototypes up in the air. It was a mildly slimy ball that was supposed to liquify upon contact with say a wall or the ceiling or a person's head, but it had stopped working. Now it was just an ordinary ball. Harry tossed it up and caught it repeatedly.
"Would you mind stopping that?" Severus asked, seeming annoyed.
Harry caught the ball and sat up. "If I stop I just might die."
Severus raised a brow.
"Of boredom," Harry clarified.
"I daresay you will survive the next hour until the Welcoming Feast."
Harry groaned. "Can't I spend the last hour wandering the castle or something? I didn't know you were going to keep me here when I said I'd come early."
"Inevitably, you get into dangerous situations when left to wander an empty castle. This year, I would prefer to avoid that," Severus said, filing papers as he spoke.
Harry looked at him. "To be fair, last year I didn't."
"Yes, well, it seems you did not need an empty castle to find danger last year," Severus muttered. "And if I recall correctly, you were with your godfather. That almost always qualifies."
Harry rolled his eyes. "Can't I at least go see Hagrid or something?"
"Hagrid is not here at the moment," Severus said casually.
"Oh," Harry replied. "Where is he?"
Severus sighed. "In attempt to be more open with you, as per my promise, I will tell you that he is off on a mission for Dumbledore. Please don't ask me for details."
Harry bit his lip. It was progress. "Alright. Can I at least ask if he's alright?"
"As far as I know. Hagrid can take care of himself, Harry."
Harry nodded and changed the subject. "So what do you think of Umbridge?"
"Professor Umbridge, Harry."
"School doesn't start for another hour," Harry shot back.
Severus raised an eyebrow but let Harry off on that technicality. "I think she is the plaything of the Minister. I would be interested to see how she teaches."
"Well, I don't like her."
"That much is obvious," Severus replied. "But I cannot say I disagree. My eyes are still burning from that garish pink outfit."
Harry grinned. "Well, with any luck, she won't be too bad. After all, it's hard to be worse than Lockhart. Or Quirrell for that matter."
"Hard, but not impossible," Severus pointed out. "I suppose we shall have to wait and see."
Harry, though he had only been apart from them for a few days, was glad to see his friends again, if only to break the monotony. Empty plates lined the table where they sat, the roaring Gryffindor lion on a banner overhead. The stars on the ceiling twinkled through the thick gray clouds that had rolled in just as the students arrived. They lent the Great Hall an ominous look rather than the enchanting sight of a clear sky.
Everyone clapped as the new first years, faces glowing with excitement and nervousness, trouped in, heading to the front. The Sorting Hat cleared its "throat" and the hall quieted. It began:
"Welcome to Hogwarts for yet another year,
I'm sure you expected to find me here,
to sing a song of houses and glory,
and so I shall with this small story.
One thousand years ago here in this place,
four of our founders divided the space.
A house to each, for them to teach,
and of their qualities they would preach.
Gryffindor, the strongest of four,
chose those of whom he was sure
would use bravery and daring to the best of ends,
and of the Ravenclaws would see fast friends.
Ravenclaw picked the wittiest crowd,
to mirror her wisdom, of which she was proud.
And the Gryffindors, as brash as they seem,
held their friendship and skill in highest esteem.
Hufflepuff worked to quarrel with none,
and in her house, loyalty won,
seeing past the flaws of the Slytherin mind,
a bond formed of the strongest kind.
Slytherin valued pride and cunning the most,
instilling his ideals on the worthy host.
The Hufflepuffs, while an unusual friend,
were thus protected until the end.
And so it began, unity and friendship,
and now it stands, fighting and hardship.
This warning here, take to heart,
a necessary return to the unified start.
Though I am here to divide you now amongst four,
let that not separate you, for this I implore.
The battle is not over, we have not yet won,
so unite the houses, and fight here as one.
My message delivered, my warning given,
Place me on your head and let the Sorting begin."
The applause that spread through the hall at the finish of the Sorting Hat's song was not like that of the years before. Whispers mingled with the claps and even the applause was spotty and disturbed.
"That was odd," Hermione commented.
"I've never heard the Sorting Hat give a warning before," Draco agreed. "I don't think that's a good sign."
Harry shook his head. "I don't see how it could be."
He glanced up at the Head Table. Dumbledore stared out, calm as ever, but the other teachers were less so. McGonagall and Flitwick were in hushed discussion and even Snape's mask betrayed a hint of unease. He was, however, sandwiched between McGonagall and Umbridge and looked less than happy about it. The look of disdain on his face when he glanced over at her was enough to make Harry grin.
"Where's Hagrid?" Ron asked, scanning the Head Table.
Harry looked back up. It was true, a smaller older lady sat in the chair that Hagrid had previously occupied. "I don't know. He's somewhere on a mission for Dumbledore."
"Well, I hope he's alright," Hermione said.
"I expect the Order would know if he wasn't," Draco said. "Not that they're likely to tell us."
"Severus said he was, as far as he knew," Harry added. "Seamus, will you pass the rolls?"
The other boy didn't respond. Harry thought that perhaps, over the commotion in the hall, he hadn't heard. "Seamus?" he asked, louder. Seamus twitched Harry's way, but didn't reply. Harry opened his mouth to say something when Hermione touched his arm. He looked over at her and she shook her head lightly. Silently, Neville passed him the rolls. Harry didn't want one anymore.
"What's his problem?" he whispered to Hermione.
Hermione drew in a breath. "Listen, Harry, we didn't know how bad it was until the train-"
"How bad what was?" Harry demanded, feeling the heat rise to his cheeks.
Hermione bit her lip.
"How many people believe you're crazy from the Daily Prophet articles," Draco said bluntly. "It's a lot."
Harry gave him a look. "Thanks."
"Just telling it like it is," Draco said with a shrug.
"They'll come around, mate, don't worry," Ron said encouragingly.
Harry clenched his jaw, ready to say some choice words to Seamus. Apparently, his intentions were evident, for Hermione grabbed his wrist. "Don't, Harry. Not here."
"Where then? The common room? Really, what's it matter?" he demanded. She gave him a sad look and Harry relented. "Fine."
Hermione released his wrist and Harry went back to his plate of food turned cold. He picked at it in silence for a few minutes before Neville spoke up.
"I believe you, Harry. So does my gran," he said, looking a bit nervous to be speaking to Harry. Or maybe that was just his normal look.
Harry blinked at him. He had barely spoken to Neville in the past years; the last conversation he could remember was before their first Potions final. Now, Harry realized that, with most everyone turning against him, he should appreciate those who didn't think him mental.
"Thanks, Neville. So that makes, what, five people who believe me?" Harry muttered dejectedly.
Neville shook his head. "There's more than that," he said. "I know Luna believes you," he offered helpfully.
"Who's Luna?" Harry asked, brightening.
"Over there, with the radish earrings," Hermione said, nodding towards the Ravenclaw table. "Luna Lovegood. But I wouldn't get too excited, if I were you. Her father's the editor of the Quibbler and, well, her nickname is 'Loony Lovegood'."
"Oh," Harry said. "So it's you guys and nutters who believe me."
"Luna's perfectly sane," Neville said. He frowned. "Well, at least that's what she told me."Harry shot Hermione a look.
"And there's my family that believes you, too, Harry," Ron said. "That's eight, right there."
"Eight?" Harry asked. "I thought there were nine in your family."
Ron looked down. "Well, after Percy got that job at the Ministry..." he shrugged. "He's been spending more time with Fudge than with us. It's starting to rub off on him."
"Oh," Harry said. He would have said more, but Dumbledore stepped up just then for his customary welcoming speech.
"Welcome, all, to another year at Hogwarts," he said in opening as the conversation in the hall died down. "First of all, I would like to introduce our new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Unfortunately, Professor Black will not be returning this year-"
Audible sounds of disappointment spread throughout the student body. The twins looked dejectedly into their plates.
"-but instead, the position will be filled by Professor Dolores Umbridge. Now, in light of-"
Dumbledore stopped, looking back at the Head Table where Umbridge was rising from her seat. She daintily stepped around the table, heels clicking obnoxiously and Snape's dark glare following her like a tether.
"If I may, Albus," Umbridge said in that sickly sweet voice of hers. She looked like a giant pygmy puff in her fuzzy pink outfit. The bow that accented her toad-like face was most likely intended to be cute but instead made Harry want to vomit.
"Of course, Dolores," Dumbledore said in an oddly cool voice.
Umbridge stepped up to his podium, barely able to be seen over the top, her pudgy hands clutching the sides. "After the events of last year and the tragic accident that resulted in the death of a poor, poor boy, the Minister has decided that a firmer hand will be needed in the current educational system. While it is true that Headmaster Dumbledore has served this school well," she said in a voice that could not quite be taken as sincere, "Minister Fudge would like to discourage progress for the sake of progress and the practices that come with such errors. Practices that do not fit within the Ministry's principles must be prohibited, you understand." Umbridge giggled a sick little laugh. "I am sure all of you will give the utmost cooperation."
As she stepped down, Dumbledore led a round of applause as the only way to get the students to clap for a speech like that. He returned to the podium and continued. "Thank you, Professor. Now, as for..."
Harry leaned over to his friends. "What was that about?"
Hermione looked grim. "The Ministry is interfering at Hogwarts."
"But why?" Harry asked. "There's nothing wrong!"
Draco leaned in closer. "My father worked with Fudge. He was constantly paranoid that Dumbledore was out for his job. I guess she's his way of keeping an eye on Dumbledore."
"That's absurd," Harry said.
Draco merely shrugged. Hermione frowned and Ron looked between them all before settling on a worried expression.
Harry, on the other hand, was more angry than anything else. Hogwarts was his place, his first home. Judging by the articles in the paper, Fudge was nothing but a power hungry fool now after Harry's sanctuary. Looking up at the Head Table, Harry knew that Dumbledore would do everything in his power to stop any negative interference at Hogwarts. Harry just hoped it would be enough.