That was really unfair,' said Hermione consolingly, sitting down next to Harry and helping herself to shepherd's pie. 'Your potion wasn't nearly as bad as Goyle's; when he put it in his flagon the whole thing shattered and set his robes on fire.'
We're not going to waste our last year here, though,' said Fred, looking affectionately around at the Great Hall. 'We're going to use it to do a bit of market research, find out exactly what the average Hogwarts student requires from a joke shop, carefully evaluate the results of our research, then produce products to fit the demand.'
With a whoosh and a clatter, hundreds of owls came soaring in through the upper windows. They descended all over the Hall, bringing letters and packages to their owners and showering the breakfasters with droplets of water; it was clearly raining hard outside. Hedwig was nowhere to be seen, but Harry was hardly surprised; his only correspondent was Sirius, and he doubted Sirius would have anything new to tell him after only twenty-four hours apart. Hermione, however, had to move her orange juice aside quickly to make way gor a large damp barn owl bearing a sodden Daily Prophet in its beak.
'Oh, yeah,' said Ron. 'Bound to be, isn't it? OWLs are really important, affect the jobs you can apply for and everything. We get career advice, too, later this year, Bill told me. So you can choose what NEWTs you want to do next year.'
'Anyway, it's a nightmare of a year, the fifth,' said George. 'If you care about exam results, anyway. Fred and I managed to keep our peckers up somehow.'
'Er . . .' he said glumly, staring up at the Fat Lady, who smoothed the folds of her pink satin dress and looked sternly back at him.
'And why would starting fifth year mean I want a Skiving Snackbox?' asked Hermione.
That's the bell,' said Harry dully, because Ron and Hermione were bickering too loudly to hear it. They did not stop arguing all the way down to Snapes dungeon, which gave Harry plenty of time to reflect that between Neville and Ron he would be lucky ever to have two minutes of conversation with Cho that he could look back on without wanting to leave the country.
'It means they're not real fans, they're just jumping on the bandwagon - '
That's 'cause you put Bulbadox powder in his pyjamas,' said George.
The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of vital importance. The rare gifts with which you were born may come to nothing if not nurtured and honed by careful instruction. The ancient skills unique to the wizarding community must be passed down the generations lest we lose them for ever. The treasure trove of magical knowledge amassed by our ancestors must be guarded, replenished and polished by those who have been called to the noble profession of teaching.'
'Do mine ears deceive me?' said Fred, arriving with George and squeezing on to the bench beside Harry. 'Hogwarts prefects surely don't wish to skive off lessons?'
They had reached the foot of the marble staircase. A line of fourth-year Ravenclaws was crossing the Entrance Hall; they caught sight of Harry and hurried to form a tighter group, as though frightened he might attack stragglers.
'Nick, he wasn't really laughing at you!' said Hermione, throwing a furious look at Ron.
'My gran says that's rubbish,' piped up Neville. 'She says it's the Daily Prophet that's going downhill, not Dumbledore. She's cancelled our subscription. We believe Harry,' said Neville simply. He climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to his chin, looking owlishly over them at Seamus. 'My grans always said You-Know-Who would come back one day. She says if Dumbledore says he's back, he's back.'
Dumbledore only looked taken aback for a moment, then he sat down smartly and looked alertly at Professor Umbridge as though he desired nothing better than to listen to her talk. Other members of staff were not as adept at hiding their surprise. Professor Sprout's eyebrows had disappeared into her flyaway hair and Professor McGonagall's mouth was as thin as Harry had ever seen it. No new teacher had ever interrupted Dumbledore before. Many of the students were smirking; this woman obviously did not know how things were done at Hogwarts.
Seamus turned away from his poster and pulled his own pyjamas out of his trunk, still not looking at Harry.
Just as Harry, Ron and Hermione had predicted, Snape could hardly have set them a more difficult, fiddly potion. The ingredients had to be added to the cauldron in precisely the right order and quantities; the mixture had to be stirred exactly the right number of times, firstly in clockwise, then in anti-clockwise directions; the heat of the flames on which it was simmering had to be lowered to exactly the right level for a specific number of minutes before the final ingredient was added.
While everyone around him filled their flagons, Harry cleared away his things, seething. His potion had been no worse than Ron's, which was now giving off a foul odour of bad eggs; or Neville's, which had achieved the consistency of just-mixed cement and which