'Ron,' said Hermione in a dignified voice, dipping the point of her quill into her inkpot, 'you are the most insensitive wart I have ever had the misfortune to meet.'
You and Fred and George,' she said impatiently. 'We've got another Seeker!'
Hermione looked as though she was restraining herself from rolling her eyes with extreme difficulty.
Harry arrived early in the Room of Requirement for the last DA meeting before the holidays and was very glad he had, because when the torches burst into flame he saw that Dobby had taken it upon himself to decorate the place for Christmas. He could tell the elf had done it, because nobody else would have strung a hundred golden baubles from the ceiling, each showing a picture of Harry's face and bearing the legend: 'HAVE A VERY HARRY CHRISTMAS!'
'Yeah . . . yeah, I knew you'd be able ter, Harry,' he said seriously. 'An' you too, Neville, eh? An' - '
Cho made a funny noise halfway between a sob and a laugh. She was even nearer to him now. He could have counted the freckles on her nose.
A slightly stunned silence greeted the end of this speech, then Ron said, 'One person can't feel all that at once, they'd explode.'
A great wave of relief broke over Harry. Here at last was proof that he had not imagined these creatures, that they were real: Hagrid knew about them too. He looked eagerly at Ron, but Ron was still staring around into the trees and after a few seconds he whispered, 'Why doesn't Hagrid call again?'
'Ginny Weasley,' said Katie.
'Students . . . are . . . too . . . intimidated . . . to . . . admit . . . they . . . are . . . frightened,' muttered Umbridge, making another note on her clipboard.
December arrived, bringing with it more snow and a positive avalanche of homework for the fifth-years. Ron and Hermione's prefect duties also became more and more onerous as Christmas approached. They were called upon to supervise the decoration of the castle ('You try putting up tinsel when Peeves has got the other end and is trying to strangle you with it,' said Ron), to watch over first- and second-years spending their break-times inside because of the bitter cold ('And they're cheeky little snot-rags, you know, we definitely weren't that rude when we were in first year, said Ron) and to patrol the corridors in shifts with Argus Filch, who suspected that the holiday spirit might show itself in an outbreak of wizard duels ('He's got dung for brains, that one,' said Ron furiously). They were so busy that Hermione had even stopped knitting elf hats and was fretting that she was down to her last three.
'I . . . well, I was asleep . . .' said Harry and, even in his terror and his desperation to make Dumbledore understand, he felt slightly irritated that the Headmaster was not looking at him, but examining his own interlocked fingers. 'But it wasn't an ordinary dream . . . it was real . . . I saw it happen . . .' He took a deep breath, 'Ron's dad - Mr Weasley - has been attacked by a giant snake.'
'Ginny Weasley,' said Katie.
Then I'll go back again tomorrow,' said Hermione determinedly. 'I'll plan his lessons for him if I have to. I don't care if she throws out Trelawney but she's not getting rid of Hagrid!'
They followed Professor McGonagall past the silent figures of Neville, Dean and Seamus, out of the dormitory down the spiral stairs into the common room, through the portrait hole and off along the Fat Lady's moonlit corridor. Harry felt as though the panic inside him might spill over at any moment; he wanted to run, to yell for Dumbledore; Mr Weasley was bleeding as they walked along so sedately and what if those fangs (Harry tried hard not to think 'my fangs') had been poisonous? They passed Mrs Norris, who turned her lamplike eyes upon them and hissed faintly but Professor McGonagall said, 'Shoo!' Mrs Norris slunk away into the shadows, and in a few minutes they had reached the stone gargoyle guarding the entrance to Dumbledore s office.
'Lis'en, it's bin a long day an' it's late,' he said, patting Hermione gently on the shoulder, so that her knees gave way and hit the floor with a thud. 'Oh - sorry - ' He pulled her back up by the neck of her robes. 'Look, don' you go worryin' abou' me, I promise yeh I've got really good stuff planned fer yer lessons now I'm back . . . now you lot had better get back up to the castle, an' don' forget ter wipe yer tootprints out behind yeh!'
'Your dad! He's been bitten, it's serious, there was blood everywhere . . .'
His body felt smooth, powerful and flexible. He was gliding between shining metal bars, across dark, cold stone . . . he was flat against the floor, sliding along on his belly . . . it was dark, yet he could see objects around him shimmering in strange, vibrant colours . . . he was turning his head . . . at first glance the corridor was empty . . . but no . . . a man was sitting on the floor ahead, his chin drooping on to his chest, his outline gleaming in the dark . . .
'It's quite all right,' said Umbridge, patting Neville on the shoulder with what she evidently intended to be an understanding smile, though it looked more like a leer to Harry. 'Well, Hagrid,' she turned to look up at him again, speaking once more in that loud, slow voice, 'I think I've got enough to be getting along with. You will receive' (she mimed taking something from the air in front of her) 'the results of your inspection' (she pointed at the clipboard) 'in ten days' time.' She held up ten stubby little fingers, then, her smile wider and more toadlike than ever before beneath her green hat, she bustled from their midst, leaving Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson in fits of laughter, Hermione actually shaking with fury and Neville looking confused and upset.