Now the push from the Dark Lord was greater than that from Dumbledore. Harry realized that the Headmaster had been going easy on him, preferring subtle manipulations to brute force.
He was glad for the warm-up.
Every night the red-eyed monster came to him in dreams, knocking on his door, threatening to enter in. Every night Harry heard the whisper of a mother’s scream, and the glimmer of sick green light.
But the monster could not enter his mind, the wolf could not blow his house down, and Harry prepared for his fifth year of Hogwarts with a deep frustrated rage in his heart.
But it seemed that a third entity had decided to put its hand out upon his neck, and in a more direct method than either wizard had yet chosen.
The Ministry was tired of the embarrassment Hogwarts had given it the last few years; first the loss of the Stone, then the petrification of students, then the death of a wizard at the hands of a werewolf professor.
And the crowning glory, the straw that broke the camels back; international scandal as the Triwizard Tournament itself was used in an act of brutal terror.
Officially, the Ministry denied the Dark Lord had returned. They ignored the proclamation carved into Diggory’s body, branding it a terrorist act, an attempt to resurrect the memory of a dead foe to intimidate the populace.
Harry was not sure what they sought to gain from infiltrating Hogwarts; but he felt their representatives eyes upon him, saw her smile too often and too wide.
He did not like those smiles, for they were as cruel as they were manipulative.
The Ministry had made a bad choice in Umbridge. Harry contemplated showing them how bad it was.
His Head of House approached him at the end of the first month of term.
He asked if Harry had been having odd dreams. He asked if Harry had been feeling unwell. He asked in such an insulting way that Harry could see he was being manipulated away from wondering just why the man cared at all.
But he did wonder.
And when the man pushed at him, a blade more subtle than even Dumbledores, Harry pushed back.
He got the pleasure of seeing startlement pass over the wizards features.
Then the black haired man nodded, once, and walked away without a word.
If she had attacked Harry directly, he might have spared her. He found himself lately more lenient at affronts against his own person. He knew himself to be strong; knew the weak often pecked at their betters to test their power. The weak needed to be reminded of where they stood, for it was their only comfort. He could ignore such testing behaviors, could stare down any scorn, could turn his back on jeers and pranks.
But the blood quill was another matter, and the skin it had carved was his shadows, his Hermione’s.
I will not tell lies.
“She’s a beast! A horrid, despicable beast! She said… she said it was because I insisted that the Ministry was covering up what happened at the Tournament. She took twenty points!”
Harry saw the tears in Hermione's eyes, wondered how many had fallen onto the parchment she had written on with her own blood.
He put his hand over her palm, his wand on the red cuts. His healing spell did not take away the scars left by such a tool.
Hermione hiccuped, and turned her face away, embarrassment and shame on her features.
Harry contemplated each and every reason he hated Umbridge, and the fact that most contained Hermione's name did not disturb him in the least.
His revenge was perfection. He knew the woman hated half-breeds. Hated anything less than human, hated any merge of magic and body.
And the closest such beings were the centaurs of the Forbidden Forest.
Harry lured her into the Forest. Theo had went to her, told her that Harry was out after curfew. Harry had let the woman see him. Felt her eyes gleam with satisfaction at finally catching him in the wrong.
She had baited him all through term. Had sought to break his facade, had spoke daggers and given petty punishments. He had taken satisfaction from speaking not a single word to her other than yes and no.
Now, he led her deeper, let her come close to him, let her wide mouth grin in pleasure as she fixed him with a stare.
“You’ve done it now, boy! This is it! Expulsion!”
Harry said nothing. Her tone grew more frenzied, her yells loud in the night.
“Disrespectful Slytherin! How dare you ignore me? Always staring at me like I am a speck on your shoe. Well, this is the last time. This is it, Mr. Potter!"
She said his name with a near scream, and from the darkness they came, dapple grey and chestnut and midnight black, manes and tails streaming, crossbows ready.
“BEASTS! Half-Breed Filth!”
Harry did not know if it was because he was young that they did not take him as well; He did not know if it was because he did not threaten them with wand or blade or verbal violence.
He chose to believe they left him because he was silent, his form slight and invisible beside the large woman who jumped and yelled and howled and scratched and bit, a whirlwind of action, a storm of fury. Beside such a force, Harry was nearly a part of the Forest himself, a stone boulder of peaceful observation and smug superiority.
The centaurs dragged her still cursing and screaming into the woods, bound hand and foot, and Harry wondered how much truth there were in the Greek myths of centaurs and women. He found himself smiling as he stepped from the Forest.
Hermione looked at Theo, then back at Harry.
“You two did it. Somehow. I know it.”
Theo looked down, a smirk teasing his lips. Harry raised both eyebrows in an expression of innocence.
Hermione glanced upwards in helpless dismay, before shaking her head in reluctant amusement.
“Lavender said she was raving when they found her on the grounds, her clothes mostly gone, covered in bruises and scratches. Everyone thinks she went mad, or was cursed. Hannah told me she’s in St. Mungos now.”
Harry hummed in his throat in the same pitch Mr. Granger used. Hermine continued without a blink of recognition at the tactic.
“I’m glad she’s gone, whatever you did. And don’t tell me. I won’t be an accessory to a crime.”
It took all year, but the Dark Lord finally broke through his mind.
Harry was shown Black; his godfather was in a long corridor of shelves, each full to the brim of glass spheres. He was being questioned, brutally, until blood sprinkled the orbs around him.
Harry knew it was a dream; he wondered why the Dark Lord bothered. Black was at a beach somewhere in the tropics; and he had never even heard of the Department of Mysteries.
Why send a vision of him bound and tortured instead of something far more believable?
When he awoke, Harry took a cold shower, and ran until his muscles ached to remove the sound of the wizards screams.
It must be a new means of torture.
The Headmaster called him to his office the next day.
Dumbledore explained of a break in at the Ministry; how the Dark Lord himself had appeared alive and well and stolen a valuable artefact, revealing himself once and for all to the entire world.
Then, the headmaster began to spin his story.
He told of prophecy, of sacrifice and love.
….and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives...
“Your mothers love, Harry. That is the weapon, that is your strength. Love is something Tom could never understand, can never fight.”
Harry wondered why the Headmaster thought Harry could bottle an emotion and toss it at the Dark Lord to slay him. He wondered why the burden of murdering another man had been given to him willingly. He wondered why the old wizard did not push him in this very moment, but left his mind alone and rational.
He decided he would not fight against fate, if that was what it was. He rather liked the idea of being the one to kill the red-eyed monster of his dreams. After all, he had not been able to take care of Pettigrew personally. The killer of his parents themselves would be a far more pleasurable life to take.
If Dumbledore saw that murderous pleasure in Harry’s eyes, he did not react to it. From a perch across the room, a golden phoenix sang a mournful tune of remorse.
Harry thought the sound wasn’t pleasant at all.
He told his shadows the entire story. The choice was an easy one; they were the only ones he trusted. After Theo left the classroom Harry had chosen for the conversation, Hermione lingered. She hovered close to him, his shadow, moving against the light.
Harry turned to her, saw the fear in her eyes, but it was not fear of him it was fear for him, and he recognized the difference.
He made a choice.
Harry reached out a hand and touched her cheek, and waited for her to make her own choice.
Hermione turned her face into his palm.
He stepped closer, looked directly into her eyes, and saw another emotion growing in their depths.
When he pressed his lips to hers, she sighed into his mouth, and her delicate hands clasped his robes in a tight grip.
Harry invited Hermione to visit Egypt and his own sanctuary that summer. He told her parents that Chrysanthemum, his housekeeper, would be chaperone. He did not tell them they Chrys was his house elf, and bound to obey his every order.
The two weeks she stayed with him were the best of the entire summer.
It was the calm before the storm.