Hogwarts and most of its inhabitants belong to JKR. The title and several quotes are shamelessly stolen from the classic comedy by Oscar Wilde.
Many thanks to Ara Kane for beta-reading.
The Importance of Being Earnest
The only really safe name is Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.
Ernie Macmillan was one of the few prefects at Hogwarts who actually looked forward to their weekly organizational meetings. He was putting the finishing touches on the patrol schedule he had drawn up when one of the seventh-year Slytherins tried to cuff him in the head as he sat at the meeting-room table.
“Hey, Stinky! Happy Birthday!”
He forced himself to smile wanly at his older sister. Cathy had coined the awful nickname when he was in nappies and still refused to relinquish it in spite of (or, more likely, because of) his pleading. In fact, she often claimed it was for his own good, saying that he really needed to learn to laugh at himself.
At least by April, the joke had grown stale enough that the others in the room (besides Draco Malfoy) no longer wasted much time sniggering at his expense. During the first meeting on the train in September, however, it had taken every ounce of Ernie’s resolve to endure the teasing with dignity. Thankfully on this night, the rest of the prefects merely offered good wishes and then set to work.
While gathering together his sheaves of parchment after the meeting, Ernie heard his sister’s voice whisper in his ear. “Hmm, so will the birthday boy be celebrating with some Firewhiskey?”
Ernie paused; any answer he gave her could be the wrong one. If he said no, she might tease him for being stiff and humorless, while a joking affirmative response could get him reported for an offence he wasn’t planning to commit. He settled for a neutral “We’ll see.”
This seemed to satisfy her, although after sixteen years of knowing Cathy, he still didn’t understand her. They had often clashed as children and found it easy to largely ignore one another at Hogwarts. Yet once in a while, Cathy would surprise him with some generous act. He could only surmise she did it to keep him off balance.
This was why he had never told her about the D.A. Ernie’s own feelings about the secret organization continued to be ambivalent. The need to sneak around pained his rule-loving soul, but the simple act of attending one of Professor Umbridge’s worthless lessons was usually enough to reinforce his decision to join. In a flash of family loyalty, he had once nearly invited Cathy to a meeting, but he quickly decided that the risk was too great.
The D.A. meeting on the night following his birthday started out well enough. Ernie was rather proud of the progress he’d made throughout the year. No longer could anyone accuse him of flourishing his wand like an orchestra conductor. Most importantly, he felt confident about the upcoming Defense O.W.L. exam in spite of Umbridge’s uselessness. His Patronus had even begun to coalesce from mist into some sort of furry animal with a large tail when all hell broke loose.
“What are you waiting for? Run!”
Five minutes later, Ernie put one hand on the wall of the corridor to support himself as he tried to steady his ragged breath. This is why I don’t play sports. Ugh. He and Justin Finch-Fletchley were both unsuccessfully trying to appear calm following their sprint down from the seventh floor. After carefully checking for any signs of Umbridge or her lackeys, the two boys slipped into the Hufflepuff common room to discover that Susan Bones and Hannah Abbot had managed to beat them there. Zacharias Smith turned up scowling a few minutes later.
Too agitated to have any hope of studying, they all spent the next couple of hours in a secluded corner speculating in low voices on who had ratted out the D.A. Ernie had to admit to himself that had Zacharias not been sitting there, he would have considered Smith a prime suspect given his previous skepticism. The five of them had still not come to a consensus when the Fat Friar appeared around midnight to relay the tale of Marietta Edgecombe’s treachery and Professor Dumbledore’s escape from no less than two Aurors and the Minister for Magic.
“Others of my calling would take a rather dim view of enjoying the misfortunes of others,” the Friar continued. “However, I took great satisfaction in seeing Madam Umbridge’s futile attempts to reenter the Head’s office. The guardian gargoyle even laughed at her, and I confess that I did, too.”
The next morning after Herbology, Ernie found the opportunity to speak to Harry Potter and hear more of the details. Hermione Granger was taking great delight in verbally abusing the new Headmistress when they were accosted by Draco Malfoy in the Entrance Hall. “Afraid I’m going to have to dock a few points from Gryffindor and Hufflepuff,” said the Slytherin in smug voice.
When Ernie protested that prefects weren’t allowed to dock points, Malfoy gleefully explained the purpose of Umbridge’s new Inquisitorial Squad. He stood frozen as Malfoy employed his new powers. “Macmillan, five for contradicting me… Five because I don’t like you, Potter…”
Ernie barely heard the rest of Malfoy’s speech through the ringing in his ears. Before his brain caught up with his mouth, he started babbling. “He was bluffing. He can’t be allowed to dock points… that would be ridiculous…. It would completely undermine the prefect system…”
Then Ernie saw the Hufflepuff hourglass record the loss of House points.
He suddenly realized that, until this point, he hadn’t truly believed that Dumbledore was gone. Even during his short absence three years before, Hogwarts had retained Dumbledore’s influence. Now, there was no one left to check Umbridge’s excesses; the hands of the remaining professors were quite effectively tied.
By the time Ernie pulled himself out of his reverie, the Weasley twins had arrived to warn his companions that they were planning some sort of devilry. Not wanting to be involved (or lose any more House points), he made some sort of excuse and scurried away to lunch.
He was debating whether to warn the others at the Hufflepuff table when they all heard the first explosion. Soon, the Great Hall was filled with the most impressive display of fireworks that Ernie had ever seen. However, as much as he enjoyed seeing Umbridge running ragged through the school trying to extinguish them, the twins’ act of defiance troubled him.
As the fireworks continued to wheel through the classroom at irregular intervals, Ernie had great difficulty paying attention during that afternoon’s lesson on Muggle methods of Divination. Normally he found Professor Wainwright’s lectures fascinating, but he couldn’t believe that even Muggles would be gullible enough to think that a black plastic sphere emblazoned with the number “8” could predict the future.
After slamming Twentieth Century Muggle Inventions and Social Movements shut to protect the pages from another renegade firework, he noticed that the “Magic” 8-ball had been knocked off the professor’s desk in the confusion. He leaned over and picked it up, mentally asking himself if it could be anything other than a fraud. “You may rely on it,” read the message.
Ernie snorted in disbelief but turned it over and asked another question anyway. Will the Inquisitorial Squad be disbanding anytime soon? “Outlook not so good.” In that case, should I aid the Weasley twins’ little rebellion? “Signs point to yes.” But what would Mum and Dad say if I got expelled?
He shook himself. It wouldn’t do to get superstitious over a silly Muggle artifact. He quickly returned the ball to the professor but was unable to banish his unsettled thoughts.
Ernie was still turning the questions over in his mind when he slipped into the library after dinner. He could see twinkling sparklers through the windows, but Madam Pince had somehow ensured that her domain was free of pyrotechnics. Seeing his sister and a friend seated at one of the tables gave him a mad idea.
He walked over and cringed when Cathy greeted him with “Hey, Stinky.”
“Er, could I have a word?” He threw a pointed look at the other girl at the table. Glancing at Cathy, she stood up, sniffed, and wandered towards the bookshelves.
Cathy gave her brother an appraising look as he dropped into the abandoned chair. “So, what is it you want from me?”
Knowing denial to be useless, he plunged into his request. “Can’t you do anything about this ‘Inquisitorial Squad’? They’re completely out of control. Pansy Parkinson took away five points when I accidentally bumped into her in the corridors just now! It’s not right! You’re a seventh-year; don’t you outrank them or something? You’re in Slytherin; they might listen to you…”
Cathy responded to this whispered litany with stony silence. Then she raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think I’m not on the Inquisitorial Squad, little brother?”
Horrified, Ernie scanned her robes for the telltale “I” badge. Finding none, he quirked a small smile. “I think it’s rather late in the month for an April Fools’ prank, don’t you? We need to be serious about Umbridge…”
She smirked. “You’re right, of course. Is this Umbridge a female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education?”
Ernie stifled a laugh, but his hopes were dashed when her expression sobered and she continued, “I can’t help you with your problem. My sage older sister advice is to just keep your head down. I think I’m on our dear Head’s ‘neutral’ list, and I intend to stay there. In two months I’ll be done with N.E.W.T.s and can get out of this place.”
“That seems rather short-sighted, if you ask me…”
“Ah, but I’m not asking you. Now run along, Stinky. Request denied.” She turned back to her books without another word.
Well, that went better than I expected. Defeated but not despondent, Ernie strode away into a far corner of the library, leaving a large berth between himself and any Slytherins. But I still don’t know how to respond to Umbridge and her ilk.
As it happened, the next two weeks were relatively quiet due to the Easter holidays. It was only after the Weasley twins’ spectacular exit that Hogwarts began to fall apart at the seams.
“Hem, hem. Open your texts to chapter 21 and read to yourselves about proper non-confrontational attitu… AAARGH!” Professor Umbridge narrowly dodged the object flying at her head. When the box exploded in a shower of confetti, she glared at the class, trying to unearth the culprit. The fifth-year Hufflepuffs all stared angelically back.
For the past several weeks, Ernie had been fighting a furious internal battle. His natural inclination would be to enforce order. However, Hogwarts no longer seemed to have any order to enforce. With the exception of the caretaker Filch, the other members of the staff had given tacit (and occasionally overt) consent to the student rebellion against Umbridge.
Thus far, Ernie’s own resistance had consisted of pretending to be blind and deaf to the mischief of others. He had never actively stepped over the line himself. Until today.
Umbridge had unwisely turned her back to the class while attempting to Vanish the swirling confetti. Out of the corner of his left eye, Ernie saw Algie Moncrieff nod at Justin before they both levitated more boxes in the professor’s direction. Glancing to the other side, he caught Susan and Cecily Cardew doing the same.
Ernie jumped when he felt a tap on his shoulder. “Here, catch,” whispered Gwen Fairfax from the seat behind. He put his hand up just in time to receive what he recognized as one the Weasley twins’ Skiving Snackboxes. He froze for a second but managed to hide it under his desk before Umbridge whirled around at the noise of the new explosions.
When Umbridge started trying to Banish the ever increasing amounts of confetti out the window, Hannah hissed in Ernie’s ear. “We’ve all agreed to take them at quarter past. Are you in?”
Looking down at the object in his hand, he didn’t know how to respond at first. Part of him was scandalized that the other part would even consider such blatant defiance of school rules. However, his rebellious side won as he came to the conclusion that Umbridge’s lessons were so useless that they deserved to be broken up. Besides, whispered the wicked voice in his mind, she gave up trying to put entire classes in detention over a week ago.
Realizing that the others were still waiting for his response, Ernie glanced around and nodded. He thought he heard a couple of relieved sighs. He checked his watch and tried to read the instructions on the Snackbox’s wrapper. Suddenly, he wondered what sort of sweet Gwen had given him. He had never actively fancied her but thought that should he someday change his mind, vomiting on her shoes would not be a good way to impress her.
When the appointed time arrived, Umbridge was still unable to see much of the class because of the paper bits circling her desk. Ernie nervously took a bite of the Snackbox and then grimaced as he and all the others simultaneously developed severe nosebleeds. They all stated the intention of going to the hospital wing for help, and the frazzled teacher barely tried to stop them.
Out in the corridor, they all ate the antidotes and then burst out laughing. Ernie smiled along with the others but felt some guilt gnawing in his stomach. “So, what do we do now?” he asked after casting a quick Scourgify at his bloody handkerchief. His own first inclination was to use the extra time to study, but that seemed to completely defeat the purpose of sneaking out of class. He followed along once the group agreed to go out to the lake on such a beautiful May day.
However, halfway to the front door, Ernie started feeling lightheaded and his eyes began to water. Unfortunately, he recognized the symptoms. “Er, did those things have sneezewort in them? I always have a bad reaction to that…”
His friends turned to look at him with falling faces. His attempt to give them some sort of reassuring smile and maintain his dignity ended when he nearly keeled over. They managed to catch him before he hit the floor and drag him off to Madam Pomfrey for the antidote. (She thankfully did not ask too many questions.) Lying in bed afterwards, Ernie had to laugh at the irony of all the Hufflepuffs spending the afternoon with him in the Hospital Wing. They had not lied to Professor Umbridge after all.
Following his spectacular failure at both deception and skiving out of class, Ernie thereafter confined himself to assisting others create mayhem in the nearly constant assault against the usurping Headmistress. He even helped teach some of the second-years the Bubble-Head Charm so they could increase the volume of Dungbombs they aimed at Umbridge’s office door without suffering any of the odorous side effects.
As June began and the O.W.L.s grew closer, he threw himself into studying with a devotion that, for some reason, seemed to alarm everyone with whom he discussed the subject. Ron Weasley, for one, looked at him as if he had completely lost his mind. Ernie was too single-minded about exams to care.
As a result, even though he’d helped support it, the anarchy in the Hogwarts corridors was wearing on his nerves. The only place to be sure of peace and quiet was the library. One afternoon during the week before exams, he had barricaded his work area so completely with stacks of books that he didn’t notice Cathy taking a seat next to him. He nearly fell out of his chair when she touched his shoulder and whispered, “Hey, Stinky.”
“Don’t do that!” he hissed.
She shrugged her shoulders in what may have been an apology. “Aren’t you overdoing the studying a bit?” she asked, nodding at the leaning tower of books. “I did fine on my O.W.L.s, you know, without killing myself beforehand. In fact, I’m here because Mum’s latest letter ordered me to keep you from going over the deep end.”
“I’m not going over the deep end,” he responded through clenched teeth.
“Well, I suppose she didn’t use those exact words, but that’s what she meant. Allow me to set an example as a helpful older sister and take the rest of the day off. I expect you to follow my lead.”
“Can’t. Charms is Monday and I still have to….”
“Hmpf. You’ll never be Head Boy if you work yourself into an early grave.” Ernie straightened up in his chair and stared at her. She broke into a grin. “What? You think nobody can tell that’s what you’re aiming for? It’s as plain as the nose on your face. In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if your ultimate ambition is follow in Great-great-great-grandfather’s footsteps and become Minister.” The slight blush on Ernie’s cheeks confirmed her suspicions. “You know, I’ve sometimes wondered why you didn’t end up in Slytherin…”
He relaxed and gave her a crooked smile. “The Sorting Hat said I had a distinct lack of cunning, and that, unlike Slytherins, I don’t believe in taking short cuts.”
“Oh, you wound me!” Cathy pretended to wipe tears from her eyes. “But unlike Hufflepuffs, we know when to quit!”
“I’m only doing what’s necessary,” he said defensively. “I just want to do well.”
She sighed in frustration. “So do I. But you don’t need the best marks in your year to get a job with the Ministry. Family connections do help, you know.”
“I don’t care if we have relatives in every department. I won’t rely on nepotism!”
“Calm down, Stinky. I’m sure you’re quite capable of getting in on your own merits. Me, I’m grateful for Aunt Belinda’s help in arranging an apprenticeship in France once I finish my N.E.W.T.s.”
“What?” This was the first Ernie had heard of such a scheme. It surprised him a little to realize how much he would miss her.
“Oh, didn’t Mum write to you? Anyway, no amount of Galleons could convince me to take a position in Britain right now. This way, I can hopefully slip overseas before the cursing starts. Don’t act so surprised. Dumbledore’s certainly not the crackpot the Prophet makes him out to be, so you should know as well as I do that there’s a war brewing. I’m a firm believer in self-preservation, but I can see from that look in your eyes that through some misguided Hufflepuff loyalty, you’ll stay and fight with your little Army.”
“That’s better than being a coward!” As soon as the angry words were uttered, he wanted desperately to take the insult back. He opened his mouth to speak again, but Cathy gave him a look and swept away without another word.
Ernie saw Hannah, Susan and Gwen staring at him open-mouthed from the next table; they had clearly overheard the end of the exchange. Groaning, he laid his head down on the table and wished for the ground to swallow him up. I don’t think I could have bollixed this up more if I had tried. What do I do now?
For the next three days, Cathy toyed with him as he tried to catch her and apologize. Whenever he approached, he could clearly tell that she was aware of his presence, only to have her walk away. It was only on the day before exams began that she swung by the Hufflepuff table at breakfast, looking down and accosting him while his mouth was full. “You’re eating muffins. That looks like repentance.”
Ernie couldn’t do anything but choke on his food in surprise. Cathy turned around and went back across the Great Hall while he was still trying to regain his breath from having Justin slap him on the back
“That was cryptic,” commented Susan after a moment of stunned silence. “Is she normally like that?”
Ernie frowned. “Either she decided that I’ve suffered enough, or she wants something. I won’t know for sure until she tries to sponge some Galleons off me.” The others laughed, and on the whole, he felt much better now that this weight was off his chest.
O.W.L. exams began the next morning, and over the next two weeks, Ernie took smug pleasure in the fruits of his extensive preparation. Except for completely blanking on the ingredients in the Draught of Living Death, he felt he had done well.
He was appalled by the attack on Professors McGonagall and Hagrid during the Astronomy exam and puzzled by the disappearance of Umbridge the following evening. Dumbledore’s return on Friday created a sense of relief among the students that was quickly overshadowed by the announcement of You-Know-Who’s return in the Sunday Prophet. In spite of the fact that Ernie had previously believed this information in an abstract, intellectual sort of way, the article in the paper was startling.
He quietly noticed that Harry Potter did not appear to be particularly happy about having his year-long assertions finally confirmed by the Ministry and the Prophet. In fact, Harry conspicuously avoided company of almost any kind during the week between the end of exams and the departure of the Hogwarts Express.
Ernie was sitting with several Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw members of the D.A. when he saw Harry being suspiciously tailed by Malfoy and his goons down the train corridor. After alerting the others in the compartment, Ernie drew his wand as Justin demanded, “Well? What are we waiting for?”
Without a second thought, all six of them ran through the door to Harry’s defense, and the hexes started flying. Ernie aimed most of his spells at Malfoy because Crabbe and Goyle didn’t seem to deserve the attention. After all, those two had never had enough imagination to invent spurious rules in order to deduct House points.
Soon, the three Slytherins were lying helpless on the floor. Ernie put his wand away while surveying the damage. “I must say, I’m looking forward to seeing Malfoy’s mother’s face when he gets off the train,” he said after helping to stow the unfortunate ones in a luggage rack.
Ron’s comment about the improvement in Goyle’s looks was greeted with laughter while Harry gave his thanks. Ernie was still standing in the corridor watching the two Gryffindors make their way back to their own compartment when Cathy walked by.
She looked from the oozing Slytherins back to her brother. They both blinked in surprise as they realized that, for the first time in their lives, Ernie was tall enough to look down on his “big” sister. Slowly, an evil grin spread across her face.
“Are the one, um, responsible for this?”
“And if I am?” Ernie straightened up and crossed his arms defiantly. If she’s going to hex me for attacking her House-mates, I’ll take it like a wizard.
Cathy took her wand from her pocket and tapped it thoughtfully against the wall. Ernie braced himself for the impact of a curse, but stood gaping when his sister aimed her spell at Malfoy instead. His Slytherin prefect badge reshaped itself into the image of an ugly toad wearing a pink bow. “There, that suits him much better,” she said with satisfaction.
Ernie tried to collect his confused thoughts. “But why?”
“Idiots like him give us Slytherins a bad name. It’s about time that someone took him down a peg or two. And you, my darling brother, are to be congratulated for doing it.” She slapped him on the shoulder. Nodding towards the five others from Ernie’s compartment who were avidly watching the conversation, she added, “It looks like you had some help, but all I can say is ‘Good job Sti--’” She paused for a moment and then finished with a title that made him swell with unexpected pride. “Ernie.”
I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Ernest.