I've decided to raise the rating of this fic, sorry if that bothers you!

I've noticed an influx of negativity from people who aren't pleased with the slow nature of the fic and the overall depressing narrative; which, I totally understand. I wrote the majority of this fic while living in a hostile environment and privy to no one's affection but my own, so I think it's only natural that this fic became an outlet for a lot of the negative feelings I was held captive by at the time. However-

I've heavily considered pausing updates on this site entirely and sticking to AO3. There is a stark difference between constructive criticism and downright derogatory insults, which I have NEVER experienced on AO3 the way I have here. Some of the PM's I've gotten have also raised my brow quite a bit and I'd rather not subject myself to more of that needlessly.

And also the formatting on AO3 is so much better than FF - I'm constantly fighting with the doc manager to upload my chapters properly.

I know this fic has touched those who were/are in similar situations, and that I've managed to affect them positively in some way and honestly? That's the only thing stopping me from moving on from this site entirely without bothering with this update.

Depending on how this goes, however, that might change - so for future reference, you can find this story under the same name (pen name dev_fiction) on Archiveofourown. I honestly don't have much faith in this website and a large part of me fully expects this to be the last update I post here.

o.O.o

Dinner is a more difficult affair than she'd anticipated - not that she'd expected it to be easy, or anything. It was quiet and morose and her eyes kept wandering over the spot Cedric once inhabited; her heart panging in her chest with an awful ache each time she looked up with the expectation of a warm smile and brown curls only to be met with a brimming hall, the mindless chatter of those around her a dissonant caterwauling that did little to comfort the loss the empty seat across from her provided.

It was clear she wasn't the only one affected by his passing; several older Hufflepuffs she'd often seen hanging around him were downcast, clinging to each other with red-rimmed lids and consoling whispers. Cho, when she'd worked up the nerve to glance in her direction, was puffy-faced with blank-eyed somber.

The Sorting Hat's new song - or more aptly put, warning - certainly didn't help the subdued atmosphere of the Hufflepuff table.

She didn't have much of an appetite, but she forced herself to eat regardless and listened, rather cynically, to the speech the new Defense professor imparted upon them - a speech that had her colleagues exchanging tight-lipped grimaces and scattered murmuring.

Changes for the better indeed, she thinks, and hopes that her ability to go unnoticed will aid in her avoiding the pink toad at all costs.

That night, after casting several hex-detecting spells on her trunk, she sits in her draped cot and holds the locket with a bitter grimace. It hisses at her, spitting silent wails, and the urge to slip it around her neck is strong, but she resists.

She holds it - and she thinks about Cedric and her mother and her failures and most importantly, she thinks about Sirius; Sirius, who is kind and good and who's had a bad hand dealt through no fault of his own. Sirius, who is set to die by the end of the year.

She can't let it happen again - she can't hold this knowledge, this power, and simply stand by as she had with Cedric.

Cedric, who deserved better and who she failed the most.

When the rustling sounds of her fellow housemates drifting to sleep reaches her, she slips out of bed, tucking the locket deep into the folds of her robe, and out the barrel that held her common room's entrance.

Traversing the halls and avoiding the occasional wayward Prefect was disturbingly effortless; a simple disillusionment charm had them bypassing her with nary a glance, and she found her way to the second floor's lavatory with relative ease.

She's wary as she steps inside, but the bathroom's usual occupant is nowhere to be seen. One step, two, and she finds herself before the prize she'd been seeking.

She stares down at the snake-bearing faucet and bites her lip - feeling a little stupid - before hissing at it.

Nothing happens.

"Shit," she can't help but mutter aloud, trying several new variations of whisper-hissing - all to no avail.

She tugs a hand through her hair roughly and settles herself to a long night of pointless noise-making.

o.O.o

"You look tired Victoria, are you getting enough sleep?" Gran- Hermione tells her, worried, and Victoria waves her off as she slumps further into her seat.

Hermione had bustled herself from her table as soon as Victoria appeared in the Great Hall and made it a point of settling down next to her with a warm smile, citing - at Victoria's arched brow - that if she was going to take the Sorting Hat's warning of interhouse relations seriously, she might as well start here.

"And of course you can sit with us whenever you'd like!" she'd said, eyes wide and earnest, and Victoria hadn't had the heart to say no, thank you, she was fine where she was.

"I was…studying, for the new year," she says and, expectedly, Hermione beamed at her.

"Studying is good," she says, "but don't forget to take care of yourself - here, have some eggs!"

Her efforts the previous night had been fruitless, and she'd been forced to give up her endeavor when the tell-tale signs of sun-beams casting down on her filtered through the stained glass window the lavatory held. She'd made her way back to her common room, sealed the locket away with the strongest protection charms she knew, and pilfered what little sleep she could manage.

She was exhausted and a little frustrated, but she was determined to gain access to the Chamber no matter how many sleepless nights it took.

She needed that basilisk fang.

"Are you excited for the first day of classes?" she asks, taking the loaded plate Hermione pointedly shoved at her, because she was trying this new thing where she showed the people who cared about her that she cared about them, too, in some capacity.

"Oh yes!" Hermione practically glowed, "I've got double Potions and Defense-"

Hermione chattered along at her, whisking into a conversation about her expectations for the new Defense class, her impending O.W.L's, and her general annoyance about the notice board the twins had put up in the Gryffindor common room.

Victoria decidedly did not mention her newfound partnership with said twins and hummed along, polishing off half the plate of food Hermione provided her with as the bustling student body around them began to disperse to their classes.

Her own schedule was made up of Charms, History of Magic, Transfiguration, Herbology, and Astronomy - all of which were scheduled alongside Ravenclaw house.

Charms was predictably easy - Professor Flitwick enthused at her, remarking on her ability to pick up spells quickly, telling her with an eager smile that she really ought to give dueling a try, she'd surely be remarkable - History boring, and she spent her lunch in the girls bathroom; hissing and spitting in vain at a faucet that stared up at her with empty snake-eyes.

After her lessons for the day were finished, dinner eaten, and loaded down with far too much homework to even think about, she detoured from her common room and towards the seventh floor; toward the little nook she'd called her own the previous year and that which would soon no longer be solely hers.

She paces before the Room of Requirement, conjuring forth the image of a quiet cranny, and can't stop a smile when the Room provides. Crackling fireplace, soft furniture, and walls lined with high towers of bookshelves stocked full of texts greet her upon entering.

She spends most of her night curled into a plush armchair, sipping on continuously refilling tea, and finishes her homework with the least amount of effort she can muster. Commitment to change or not, she still didn't see a point in striving for academic success.

When she's finished with that, she takes a gander at some of the books the Room had seen fit to bestow upon her and finds that the vast majority of them are advanced scripts on charms, with the occasional tome on jinxes and hexes here or there. She wonders, briefly, if the books had been called up from the library or if they were all texts hidden away between the folds of reality that the Room called home.

She must have fallen asleep at some point, because when she eventually trudges out of the room Sasha greets her with a reproachful look - and where have you been, her eyes seemed to ask - and a time-telling charm tells her she's going to be late for her first class at the rate she's going.

She waves her wand to freshen her robes and hair, grimacing at the artificial feel of cleanliness with a stern self-reminder to bathe later, and hurries off.

Defense Against the Dark Arts is a dreadfully boring interlude, nestled between Potions and Transfiguration.

"Wands away and quills out," Umbridge tells them in a sweet tone, black velvet bow sparkling in tune with her teeth-bared grin.

Victoria, who hadn't bothered taking her wand out in the first place, tapped the gold-glimmered quill Hermione had gifted her against her parchment with a grimace. The students around her were exchanging wary glances and hushed mutters that Umbridge silenced with a rather shrill hem-hem!

The pink-toad woman rapped the blackboard sharply and several lines of text began scrawling themselves out.

Course aims, the blackboard read in looping penmanship, continuing on to number out:

the principles underlying defensive magic.
to recognize situations in which defensive magic can legally be used.
the use of defensive magic in a context for practical use.

"Now then," Umbridge said, "I'd like you all to turn to chapter 1, page 5 of Defensive Magical Theory, which I'm sure you all have, correct?"

There's a smattering murmur of confirmation that has their teacher tsking loudly, "Now that won't do - I would like a collective yes, Professor Umbridge or no, Professor Umbridge, is that understood?"

There's rising trepidation in the air as the students voice their affirmatives as a loud, resounding unit, and Umbridge beams at them - the skin around her mouth pulling back with the force of it in a sickening display of pleased gratification.

Victoria herself turns to the page and lets her eyes run over it without really absorbing anything, determined to nonchalantly pass the time until class was finally up.

About an hour into her idle daydreaming - what would happen if she combined this charm with this hex and applied it to this object, surely the results would be entertaining at the very least - she's interrupted by a quiet hem-hem.

She looked up and into the bulgy, pouchy eyes of her new Defense teacher.

"No notes, dear?" the Professor twittered with a carefully crafted, disappointed tut, "Why, you haven't even advanced past the first page!"

"I guess I'm a bit slow," she says coolly, leaning back in her seat and ignoring the cramp of nerves that were trying to set up shop in her stomach.

Umbridge narrows her eyes at her, crossing her arms with a twisted frown as she straightens up - no doubt in an attempt to make her feel small. Victoria held back the urge to scoff at the woman and simply raised one brow, crossing her arms as well.

"Well," Umbridge says slowly, "that simply won't do, will it, Miss..?"

"Dodger," Victoria tells her, not bothering with her full name.

"Right, Miss Dodger," Umbridge says briskly after a long, expectant pause, "it would be a shame to let such a pretty quill go to waste, wouldn't it? I expect more from my students!"

"I shall do my best to meet your expectations then, Professor," Victoria drawls dryly, unable to stop the mockery she feels from seeping into her tone, and Umbridge smiles at her stiffly as she ambles away and towards another student, but not before biting out-

"See that you do, Miss Dodger."

o.O.o

"She's awful!" Hermione spat out from her elegant sprawl on the lawn across from Victoria, "Harry was bleeding when he came back from detention!"

"Blood quills," Victoria replies, flicking a page on the fable-book that had been nestled in her gift basket, "I'm honestly not sure if they're even legal."

"Wha- well, we should do something about it then!" Hermione says, enraged, and Victoria glances up at her from beneath her bangs.

"She has the full support of the Ministry," Victoria says, "and the Prophet has been making a point to ensure the loyalty of parents. I don't think anyone would listen to us, even if we tried to make a stink about it."

Hermione huffs, taking a bite out of one of the muffins Victoria snagged from the kitchens on her way here, and taps her quill in a rapid, disgruntled gesture against her palm.

Sasha and Crookshanks, summoned by the repetitive motion, bat at Hermione in an effort to instigate play - an action that has Victoria summoning an orb of light that dances in circles around them, while Hermione gathers her thoughts.

"We can't even practice spells," she says eventually, "in class or not - she's completely prohibited it. How does she expect anyone to pass their O.W.L's without practical application-!"

Victoria nods along, letting Hermione rant in a way that was generally unlike her until her ire began to wither out and her rambling ceased into a tetchy grimace.

"Potter isn't making the situation any better," Victoria feels the need to point out, and Hermione nods after a clear moment's hesitation.

"He's just so…" she says, thinking over her words carefully, " angry."

Several weeks into the new school year, the spats between Umbridge and Potter were quickly becoming a regular occurrence; Potter, insisting Voldemort was back, and Umbridge, insisting he was a liar.

"At this rate he's going to have detention for the entire year," Victoria says idly, and Hermione gives her this look that has her continuing without really thinking, "I mean, don't get me wrong - I'm grateful that he's not letting Cedric's death be downplayed from what it was, but I don't know what he expects out of confronting her like this all the time. The entire school thinks he's nuts."

"So you believe him, then?" Hermione presses her, leaning in close with wide doe-eyes and Victoria flushes a little at her earnestness.

"Of course I do," she scoffs to cover it up, "Cedric, he- he was killed. He was murdered. I don't want his death to be void of…justice. He deserves better than that."

Her words had petered out into a murmur by the end of it and she can feel the stubborn sting of tears welling up behind her eyes, but she bites her cheek, clears her throat, and tries not to think of the injustice of her own death; on how she'll never know if her family found out the full extent of what happened to her, or whether or not her murderer got away with it.

I'll let them think you're still out there, he'd told her, face clearer now than it had been in years after her experience with the boggart, and she could still feel the cigarette burns sometimes, I'll give them hope .

She couldn't do anything about that life - a life she let slip between her fingers, water-bound, a life that sometimes she's not even sure was real - but she could do something about this.

She had to-

She owed Cedric that much, at least.

She's wrapped up in a tight hug, pulled forcibly from her thoughts, and Hermione mumbles into her hair-

"I think you'd get along, if you gave it a chance."

Victoria sits in the embrace and shrugs, running over the interactions she'd had with Potter up until this point, and couldn't ignore the inkling of shame that was skittering along her skin.

He's just a kid, she has to remind herself - a real kid, unlike her, who'd been forced to witness the murder of someone as undoubtedly virtuous as Cedric; unable to do a thing, unprepared for what was coming. She held him to a standard he couldn't understand, with knowledge she'd had, but hadn't acted on.

She'd blamed him for Cedric's death, but the reality was-

It was her fault Cedric was dead.

"I've been an ass to him too," she sighs, and Hermione pulled back with sharp reproach.

"Language, Victoria, please!"

Victoria rolled her eyes and shoved Hermione back with a bemused quirk of her lips, opening her mouth to tease the girl when-

"There you are!"

"We've been looking everywhere for you!"

"What do you want?" Hermione asked warily, staring up at the tall forms of the Weasley twins that towered over them.

"Not you," says one, dismissively.

"Do you have some time to spare Victoria?" the other asked with a wide freckle-spotted grin.

She looks down at the book she'd been surprisingly invested in and takes a little pleasure in making them wait for her answer as she seemingly debates just how busy she is. They wheedle on the spot, impatient, before she gives in.

"Fine," she says at long last, "I suppose I have a minute or two."

"What do you want with-?"

"Come along then!"

She's tugged to her feet by one of them and bustled away from a protesting Hermione, and she lets them pull her out of sight and into the corridors before she tugs out of their grip and brandishes her wand at them.

"Don't," she says, irritated, "grab me like that again. Consider this your one and only warning."

The one on the left raises his hands placatingly and hastens out a quipped sorry, while the other rubs the back of his neck with a nervous chuckle. She perches against the dust-stricken surface of a desk that sat solemnly in the otherwise empty room she'd been corralled into and raised her brow expectantly at them.

"Our Skiving Snackboxes have been a rounding success," one of them says, tone brisk with business, "and we have an endless supply of test subjects to choose from, which leads us to our next phase of operation."

"Charmed objects," she says, matter-of-fact.

"Charmed objects," the other agrees, "so if you're ready to begin we have several ideas-"

"I'm ready whenever," she cuts in with a wave, because she enjoys interrupting people more than she probably should, "and I have several ideas of my own - if you're partial towards them, but the work to overlay spells without them disrupting one another could take some time."

"That's fine - it's about what we expected, at any rate."

One of them reaches into his robe and produces a parchment, which is then held out to her. She takes it, rolling it open, and lets her eyes swiftly glide down the page.

"A contract?" she asks, and the one on the right bobs his head seriously.

"We don't expect you to take us at our word," he says, "and we know what it's like to have the rug pulled out from under you after an agreement."

"Oh," she replies, surprised and a tad touched, "thank you."

"We can discuss the terms of the contract-" he cuts himself off when she rolls her shoulders and promptly signs the bottom after a brief look-over.

"It's fine," she says, "I know you'll be good for your word and I'm more than happy with what's been offered."

"Well, Victoria," a redhead says, sounding tremendously pleased, "we're excited to officially do business with you!"

She takes the offered hand after a moment - hadn't they already done this part? - and scowls at the over-eager shaking that has her arm tingling by the end of it.

"How have your classes been-?"

"Are you only interested in pranks?" she cuts in, eager to deflect any and all attention off herself and towards more important matters.

"Well, considering we're hoping to open a joke shop once we leave here, yes - why do you ask?" he sounds a little annoyed, but they're not leaving yet so she rolls on ahead.

"Well," she says, "the world's about to get a lot more dangerous, y'know. With Voldemort being back-" she ignores the wide-eyed flinch she's given, "and Umbridge on the prowl, I'd say now's a good opportunity to start experimenting with defensive products. I've seen you consoling some of the first years who've been unfortunate enough to garner the toads attention."

"Toad!" one mumbles under his breath gleefully, and elbows his brother in the side.

"Did you have something in mind?" the other asks, masking a snicker as he elbows right back.

Beyond the amusement her comment brought, the looks she's being given are shrewd, carefully neutral, and she shrugs.

"Maybe one or two things," she says, "but I can dedicate time to it in-between the prank work - it's just something to think about. What did you have in mind?"

They beam at her and launch into an animated chatter - complete with hand waving and poorly drawn examples scratched into a thick stack of parchment that's proffered to her.

She takes the stack once they've calmed down a bit with promises to look over everything and see what she can do.

She finds herself feeling a little - excited , at the prospect of interlacing charmwork and hex-curses; she's already drawing out an outline in her mind for a suitable base component that could interlock spells without blowing up in her face when she leaves the classroom.

She'd need a trip to the library - or several, more likely - before she really began in earnest.

And, maybe, the twins could do something more productive for the upcoming war with a few nudges here or there.

o.O.o

"Open," she hisses out in a clumsy attempt at parseltongue, waiting for something - anything, please - to happen.

Nothing does, of course, and she curses vehemently - Hermione would be absolutely scandalized - as the exhaustion of her venture settles like a thick blanket across her shoulders. Unable to help herself, she kicks at a stall violently in an effort to disperse the sickening rumble of anger that was steadily boiling over, doing so several more times with an increased litany of swearing when the rage only festered further.

"Son of a fucking cunt-ridden go-"

"Are you done?" a voice snips at her and she freezes mid-swing.

"Um," she says, looking up into the eyes of an incensed Moaning Myrtle, "yeah, sorry."

"What are you up to?" the ghost asks her flippantly, floating close and rounding her with a narrow-eyed stare, "You've been coming here for weeks now and I was going to let you do whatever it was until you cleared out, but I won't allow you to attack my stalls!"

This is her first real encounter with the dead girl and she doesn't really know what else to do other than shrug.

"I think it's pretty obvious what I'm doing," she says into Myrtles glower, "especially to you-"

She stops as her mind finishes processing everything Myrtle said.

"Wait-" she starts, hesitant, "why haven't you shown yourself to me before, if you knew I'd been coming here for a while now."

The ghost floats back a bit and gives her a stare full of disdain. From what she remembered, Myrtle was a lonely girl who guarded her bathroom with a surprising ferocity.

"You reek," the ghost sneers, "of death."

"Death?" Victoria repeats stupidly, not understanding, "What do you-"

"You've been marked," the ghost tells her, voice a near hiss, "and it's disgusting. Just being around you is like staring into the void itself. I've heard the rumors, but it's not like experiencing it first hand."

"The rumors?" Victoria asks, feeling ghost-eyes run over every inch of her skin and she feels - exposed.

"From the others," the girl says, scoffing at Victoria's confusion, "the other ghosts, dummy, they noticed the second you stepped foot into Hogwarts last year. It was all any of them could talk about - not that they ever talked to me, of course, no, not poor Moaning Myrtle; I had to find out by overhearing the whispers-"

Victoria tunes her out and runs the new information over in her head, trying to make sense of it. Marked? Was it because she'd experienced death before or-

Was there something more to it?

Her stomach is tying itself into knots as Myrtle begins to bemoan her afterlife with great zest, and when she finally leaves the lavatory - at Myrtle's insistent behest - she's too lost in her thoughts to take proper stock of her surroundings, too used to skating by unnoticed by those around her.

"Hem-hem," a sickly-sweet voice chimes, and she's only a few corridors away from the common room, fuck, she should have been more careful , "students should know better than to be wandering the castle after hours!"

Dolores Umbridge stares down at her with a disturbing sort of glee, clothed in pink silk, wand-tip illuminating the dark hallway she'd been mindlessly strolling down and - honestly - just how lost in her thoughts was she that she didn't notice the woman at all?

"And why aren't you in your bed, dear?" she asks, voice a high whine that grates against her ears.

"I couldn't sleep," she bites out, arms crossing over her chest, petulant, and the woman tutted loudly in mock-disappointment.

"Why I think," the toad says, voice taking on a tone of concern that's too simpering to be genuine, "a week's detention ought to straighten you up Miss Dodger - in fact, I say we go ahead and get started right now if you're unable to sleep. Follow me, please."

And Victoria, twisted stomach now a mawing pit, could do little else than nod as she's led away from sanctuary and down sprawling halls; into that of a cat-adorned, vividly pink office that stunk of too-strong perfume.

Umbridge gestures towards a desk that's sat in the corner, and Victoria sits while the woman stalks around her own and produces a black quill from one of its drawers.

"I don't think I've had the pleasure of seeing you write much of anything since term started," she tittered, "so I think some line work would do you some good. Discipline builds character, after all!"

The quill is presented to her, and she takes it with a mutinous glare that Umbridge ignores entirely as she seats herself behind her desk and summons an ornate tea-cup, taking a ginger sip with an overly-satisfied sigh after dumping copious amounts of sugar into it.

"What am I writing?" she asks, just barely managing to keep the hostility from her tone.

Umbridge hums and haws for a while, dipping a leaf-bag into her cup, before her beady eyes settle on Victoria with a resolute sort of gleam.

"How about, I must not break school rules."

Victoria wants to sneer in pure disrespect - take you long to think that up? - but instead points her ire down at the blank parchment. She takes the ugly quill, which was nothing like the lovely set tucked away in her dorm, and starts her first line.

The pain is almost immediate.

I must not break school rules, the shiny red ink on the parchment read, mirroring the shiny red splot that was scrawling itself in her own script across the back of her hand. The clinically smooth carving heals itself over after a moment, but the throb remains. She glances up at Umbridge, who was eyeing her with an almost hungry expression, and quickly moves on to the next line.

She would not give the woman the satisfaction she was looking for by reacting to the pain.

Pain was an old friend by now, anyway.

I must not break the school rules, the back of her hand tells her once more, and then again, I must not break the school rules.

She watched the cuts carve themselves into her flesh over and over; blood overflowing with the speed of her scrawl, dripping down her wrist and onto the parchment in thick blots. The pain only mounted higher the more she wrote and instead of festering in it or giving in - as she's sure Umbridge expects - she feels a steadily tightening coil of anger seep out of every stroke she made.

She could handle this - this was nothing - but what of the other second-years in her house who she often heard crying into their pillows after trudging in too-late? What of the first-years, who came to Hogwarts expecting magic and wonder and instead found horror in the form of a little black quill, all because they'd forgotten their tie or were a few minutes late to class?

Cedric would be infuriated.

She isn't sure how long she's sat there, watching her own blood spill into detached words, but she soon finds herself yawning as the night's activities and her recent lack of sleep overall began to catch up with her.

"Bored, Miss Dodger?" Umbridge hissed at her, eyes narrowed in what could only be fury, and Victoria held onto her neutral mask beyond the visceral disgust she felt at the sight.

"Well," she says, bitterly irritated with the situation and the pink room and the way the smell was giving her a pulsing headache on top of the burning edge of sleep along her eyelids, "writing lines isn't the most exciting work."

"Though that may be," the woman near-snarls, "rule breaking must not go unpunished. Come here."

Victoria stands, sidling to the desk, and lets her hand be taken into a vice-like grip; pudgy fingers rolling it back and forth as the work her quill had done is surveyed. Her hand was slick, blistered raw, and Umbridge nodded with satisfaction.

"That will do for now," she says, "but I expect you back here tomorrow, understood?"

Victoria nods and the grip on her hand tightens, thumb digging into her new wounds; she suppresses her wince and stares down into Umbridge's sneer-twisted face.

"I asked if you understood, Miss Dodger."

"I understand, Professor Umbridge," Victoria intones monotonously, biting back every curse and hex she desperately wants to spit, before she's released.

Umbridge settles back into her chair, waving her away, and when Victoria collapses next to Sasha in bed it's with brown-curls and bright eyes and warm smiles aching in her heart. Now, more than ever, she wishes she could go to Cedric and just-

Just be around him - indulge in his presence, in the effortless happiness he'd kept wrapped around him like a tight bubble of tranquility.

I miss you, she thinks, and doesn't cry herself to sleep.

o.O.o

As always, for sneak peaks, pictures of my cat, and fanart come visit me at-

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