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Threads of Hope by Oregonian

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As always, a big Thank You to my beta reader, Elaine/Islastorm of Gryffindor.
Dolores Umbridge picked up the top letter from the stack of complaint letters on the desk in her cubicle at the Improper Use of Magic Office and began to read it.

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to register my extreme disapproval of the standard of dress exhibited by a witch named Delilah Scott who lives in my street at number ten Pipkin Road. Mrs. Scott repeatedly makes a spectacle of herself in public places by wearing very short dresses in bright colors, paired with thigh-high white boots. Furthermore, she wears heavy black eye makeup, pale, almost white, lipstick, and a ridiculously voluminous hairstyle. No one else in Pipkin Road dresses like that, and the attention she draws to herself constitutes a definite violation of the Statute of Secrecy.

I urge you to investigate this situation and take immediate steps to correct it.

Very truly yours,
Mrs. Magdala Miller

Dolores re-read the letter, feeling her irritation rising. What did this Scott woman think she was doing, flouting the Statute so carelessly and drawing the attention of her Muggle neighbors, who might be tempted to investigate her lifestyle more closely?

Dolores set her teacup down on the desktop a little more forcefully than she had intended, and some of the hot tea sloshed out onto the desktop, spattering the letter with droplets.

“Oh, bosh,” she muttered and drew her wand to dry the spilled tea. The rest of the stack of letters would all be more of the same, an entire morning of Clothing Violations by witches and wizards who stubbornly chose to flout the very clear guidelines laid out in the International Statute.

This complaint would be number one on her log sheet of Clothing Violations for 15 August, 1961: subject’s name, address, nature of complaint, complainant’s name and address, action taken. She dipped her quill in ink and filled out the line, then turned to the two wooden boxes of file cards that sat at the back of her desk, one for violators and one for complainants. She checked the first box to see if Delilah Scott already had a card listing prior violations; not seeing Delilah’s name, Dolores made a new card for her, listing the date and particulars.

Then she checked the other file box for Magdala Miller’s name. Ah, there was the card, listing several prior complaints that Mrs. Miller had made about other witches. Dolores smiled; Mrs. Miller was certainly diligent in her attempts to maintain proper behavior in the wizarding community. She would have to send her a thank-you note.

Since Mrs. Scott’s violation, although rather flagrant-sounding, was a first offense, Dolores would send her a strongly-worded warning letter, threatening more drastic action if a second offense was reported. She opened her manual of form letters for Clothing Violations and duplicated the appropriate warning letter on a sheet of parchment, adding the date, salutation, and signature by hand: Dolores Umbridge, Clothing Regulations Enforcement Officer, Office of the Improper Use of Magic.

From a stack in a basket on the side of her desk she took a printed brochure with colored illustrations, describing the approved and disapproved styles of Muggle attire for witches and wizards, and a printed sheet listing the successive levels of disciplinary action for repeat offenders. She placed these enclosures in the letter, folded and sealed it, and placed it in her outbox. The complaint letter went into the to-be-filed box.

Letter by letter, Dolores worked her way through the entire pile of complaints as the morning progressed. The work was repetitious, even boring, but she took satisfaction in her role of enforcing a rule of wizarding society, a minor rule, to be sure, but someday, she told herself, she would be enforcing major rules. For now she would solidify her hold on the first rung of her career ladder by doing her work so conscientiously — neatly, quickly, accurately — that her supervisors would not fail to notice and appreciate.

Everything in her cramped cubicle looked carefully professional — books and manuals lined up evenly on the shelf, desktop tools neatly arranged on a tray, nothing left lying around unfiled. A framed drawing of a cat and a glass bud vase holding a single short peacock feather were the only ornaments in the cubicle, no items of a personal nature such as a family photograph. Her family background would not be an asset in her career; as a half-blood, she was only one step up from a Muggle-born. She had no family wealth or stature, only her own ambition.

Shortly before noon Dolores left her cubicle, carrying two complaint letters, and went to the office of her superior, Valerie Comer, the Head Clothing Regulations Enforcement Officer. The door was open, but Dolores knocked on the doorframe anyway before entering.

“Mrs. Comer,” she said, addressing the middle-aged witch sitting at the desk, “these two complaints involve repeat offenders. They will be needing follow-up attention.” She held the letters out to Mrs. Comer, who took them and laid them on her desk.

“Thank you, Dolores,” she said.

Dolores shifted her feet a little. “If – uh – if you – that is – this office will be making home visits to some of the repeat offenders, I would like to be allowed to go along, just to learn that part of the operation, you know.” I’ve been sending form letters to first-time violators for six weeks now. It’s not too soon to make a little move. She kept her gaze on Mrs. Comer. How old is she? In her forties? And stuck in this low-level job? That’s not going to be me. She waited expectantly.

Mrs. Comer swiveled around in her chair to face Dolores. “You want to learn the duties of a Home Visit Officer? We don’t have a need of any more Home Visit designations right now.” Her voice and manner were mild. No ambition, Dolores thought.

“Perhaps I just could begin to observe, then, so that if something comes up in the future, I might be able to help.”

“I’ll give it some thought,” Mrs. Comer replied, and Dolores felt sure she could win her over. She would start coming in earlier in the mornings, to get her letters finished sooner, so that she would be free to go on home visits.

Dolores went back to her cubicle and picked up her handbag. It was almost lunchtime. She stopped at the women’s toilet to comb her hair and check her appearance before going to the lunchroom where she would be seen by many people. It was important to look her best.

Standing in front of the mirror, she assessed her reflection. Her soft, curly brown hair was held on one side by a gold-colored (not real gold) clip. The curls had a tendency to be unruly if not controlled. She had once used hair-lengthening and hair-straightening charms to try out a new hair style, with her hair in a sleek knob at the back of her neck, to see if it might look more professional, but the effect had been a disaster. Without the softening effect of the curly frame, her facial features had stood out prominently — the round cheeks, the wide mouth, the slightly protruding eyes. And the absence of the curls had made her look shorter than ever.

Dolores slid her comb lightly through her hair, giving a little flick at the end of each stroke to emphasize the curl. Satisfied, she re-applied her lipstick. It was important to look not only professional, but also feminine, and she knew that she was not gifted in that department.

Less than two months ago, she had graduated from Hogwarts, where she had never attracted attention from any of the boys in her House, Slytherin, (or from boys of any other House), and instead of spending the summer months on holiday, she had immediately begun her internship at the Ministry, where she could initiate her search for a suitable life partner, someone on a fast track to a position of power, someone with whom she too could rise.

She stood up as tall as she could, lifting her head and tugging at the neckline of her sky-blue robes — she had all her robes fashioned décolleté in an attempt to lengthen the appearance of her short neck — and studied the effect in the mirror. I look a little pale. Maybe I should have worn the pink robes, to give myself more color.

Her eighteenth birthday was coming in a week, and she was well aware that the attractiveness afforded simply by youth would not survive for long. Some women looked elegant even in their riper years, but she knew that she would not be one of them. In the years ahead, her only security would come from whatever power and status she could attain by her own efforts and by those of a powerful husband.

Dolores left the women’s toilet and glanced quickly up and down the hall before proceeding towards the Magical Law Enforcement lunchroom. Many people were leaving their offices for lunch, and she didn’t want to encounter her father among them, if he happened to be working on this level. Orford Umbridge was an ordinary maintenance worker in the Magical Maintenance Office, not even the Director, Assistant Director, or a Supervisor, and she feared being associated with him. It would not help her status to be known as the daughter of the man who mopped the floors and cleaned the toilets.

Luckily for Dolores, the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, of which her office was a division, was the largest department in the Ministry of Magic, and in its lunchroom congregated scores of Ministry employees, more than half of them male. It was an ideal hunting ground for husband-seeking witches, and Dolores meant to take advantage of it.

“Hi, Millie,” she cried, waving to a young woman who had been a year ahead of her at Hogwarts in Slytherin House. “Do you want to eat together?”

Millie looked in the direction of Dolores’s call, and a smile lit up her face. “Yes, let’s,” she answered. She was a plain, plump girl whom Dolores deliberately selected as a lunch mate because Dolores wanted a female companion at the lunch table, but not someone more attractive than herself. It might be too obvious if she sat down alone at a table where male diners were seated, but she didn’t want competition.

The two young women wove through the crowds of entering diners to meet in the middle of the lunchroom. Only low- and mid-level Ministry employees ate their lunches in this large, rather stark room with plain wooden tables and benches. Upper-level employees patronized nearby restaurants or had meals delivered to their offices.

“Let’s get a table by the window,” Dolores suggested to her friend. “I see one right over there.” She indicated a table where two men were eating and conversing, one of whom she recognized — Bartemius Crouch. She had spoken with him a time or two and had made surreptitious inquiries about him. He had worked at the MLE for five years and had been promoted in his office since first arriving at the Ministry. He was unmarried and had been a Ravenclaw at Hogwarts. “Don’t you love to sit by the windows, Millie? That’s such a cheery scene outside.”

Dolores and Millie took their places at the table, Dolores remarking animatedly about the windows’ stimulating view of planter boxes overflowing with bright flowers that cascaded down their sides, and the wispy-branched trees covered with lacy green leaves against a brilliant blue sky. It was a matter of precise timing to take one’s seat at the exact right moment. Too soon, and it would have been obvious that they were sitting with Mr. Crouch and his friend while other tables were still empty. Too late, and someone else, either two men or, worse, two women, would have taken the empty seats. Dolores prided herself on managing her personal affairs well.

The two men had paused their conversation as the women sat down, and Dolores reached into her bag and pulled out her lunch sack. If she spoke to them too soon, she would seem overeager, but if she waited too long, they would resume their conversation with each other.

“Mr. Crouch,” she said, smiling at him, “I don’t know if you’re acquainted with my friend Millie Warnock. She works in the Wizengamot Administrative Services.”

He held out his hand to Millie. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Warnock. I’m Bartemius Crouch, and this,” glancing at his friend, “is Colbert Gordon.” Colbert greeted Dolores and Millie and shook their hands and then resumed his conversation with Bartemius.

Dolores carefully laid out her lunch on the table: a white cloth napkin with a narrow tatted edging, a sandwich of sliced cheese with layers of dark green lettuces and thin, gleaming red slices of tomato, a little container of red grapes still on the stem. She had chosen these components to make an elegant display on the tabletop, and she let them sit untouched for a few minutes so that Mr. Crouch would have a good opportunity to notice her good taste before she began to eat.

It was a deliberately low-calorie lunch, so that she could keep her slim figure. Taller women, she knew, had the length to hide a few extra pounds, but on a short woman like herself, those pounds would be on full display. The last thing she could afford to gain would be a double chin.

She suddenly remembered to sit up very straight, with her shoulders back and down and her head held high to elongate her neck. What a blunder it would be to sit slumping where Mr. Crouch could see her!

Dolores cut her sandwich in half with a cutting charm, picked up one half, and began to eat in dainty bites, listening with one ear to Millie’s cheerful chatter about her weekend plans while at the same time trying to follow the conversation between Mr. Crouch and Mr. Gordon. This was not easy to do. Her responses to Millie’s descriptions of weekend fun were short and non-committal — “Yeah,” “That must have been fun,” “That’ll be nice,” — and whenever Millie looked down for a moment at her own lunch, Dolores sneaked one-second-long sideways peeks at Mr. Crouch. He was a handsome man, she thought, tall, dark-haired, with a long face, well-shaped nose, and strong jaw.

The men’s conversation turned to a discussion of some advanced law class that they were taking, and this gave Dolores an idea. When Millie’s chatter next paused, Dolores changed the subject.

“Did I tell you that I’m being given new duties in my office? she said. “Mrs. Comer said that I’ll be going out on in-person visits to repeat violators of the Clothing Regulations, first as an observer with other Enforcement Officers, and later on my own.” She carefully plucked a pair of grapes off the stem and put them in her mouth, one by one.

“That’s great,” Millie said. “She must be pleased with the work you’ve been doing so far. You haven’t been in that job very long.”

“No,” Dolores said, “and I certainly wouldn’t be one to blow my own horn, but she did tell me that of all the interns she has had, I was the one who learned the job the fastest, and she thinks I can go far.”

She paused for two measured seconds, then gave a little sigh. “But to do that, I will have to study further about the law concerning the Improper Use of Magic.” She flicked her gaze left for one micro-second to see if Mr. Crouch seemed to be listening. She wasn’t sure, but at least he and Mr. Gordon were not conversing.

Millie delicately licked the tips of her fingers and then asked, “How are you going to do that?”

A flutter of happiness stirred in Dolores’s heart — this question was giving her the opening she wanted. “Oh, I’m not sure,” she said with hesitation. “I thought I’d ask Mrs. Comer to recommend some books to me that I could study.”

Now was the moment to make a move.

She looked up at the two men, but mainly at Mr. Crouch, instinctively sat up a little more erect (head up, shoulders back and down), and asked, “What do you think, Mr. Crouch? What would be the best way for me to learn more about the law concerning the Improper Use of Magic?” Then she remained silent, watching his face intently.

“Well,” Mr. Crouch answered after a few seconds, “you can study the books of the laws in this area, as you have already mentioned, but in addition you should study the case reports of actual cases of violations, starting with the least serious and working your way up.” He spoke in a serious tone, as if he were giving a lecture, with no light-heartedness, camaraderie, much less flirtation. Dolores was not sure how to interpret his demeanor, but she concluded that he was not actually annoyed by her question.

“Ask your supervisor about professional journals in your area. There’s the Journal of Magical Law and Magical Criminal Law; they’re pretty wide-ranging, but your office probably has a newsletter or bulletin for your specific area.” He dabbed his mouth lightly with his napkin.

Unexpectedly, Mr. Gordon also offered a suggestion. “Keep your eye out for notices of seminars and conferences. The MLE has an educational meeting once a month, and you’re entitled to attend, although,” he laughed a little, “new interns rarely do so. Still…” He picked up his teacup with both hands and took a sip.

Dolores imagined herself showing up at the monthly meeting, just sitting in the back of the room, not saying anything, but if she wore her pink robes, the wizards would notice her and be intrigued by her attendance, and sooner or later they would begin to talk to her. She maintained her look of intense attention, but a little smile began to play over her lips.

“If you’re really serious about this,” Mr. Crouch began again, “ask the head of your office about the national conference. It’s held once a year. There will be wizards attending from other countries as well. Of course, you would have to pay your own way, but it’s an excellent way to get an overview of the current state of magical law.”

Dolores stared at him. He acted so serious for a man still in his twenties, but he was obviously driven to succeed, and he seemed to assume that she was the same. Was this the start of a realization on his part that they were kindred spirits? Could he recognize that stunning beauty (and she harbored no illusions that she possessed stunning beauty) was not the only, or even the most important, criterion in choosing a life mate?

She gave a little laugh, trying to sound feminine, and said, “Let me make sure I remember all your suggestions. One,” and she extended her index finger, “ study the manuals of the laws. Two,” she extend her middle finger also, hesitating a little, “oh yes, study the case reports. Three,” another finger extended, “ read the journals and my office newsletter. Four,” she extended her pinky finger, “go to the monthly education meetings, and five,” she concluded triumphantly, “ go to the national conference. Did I get them all?”

“Oh, ho,” Mr. Colbert laughed. “I’m impressed! You remembered them all.” But Mr. Crouch just nodded his head gravely.

It was time to cut the conversation short. Dolores did not want to jeopardize all she had so fortuitously gained in this exchange by dragging out the contact and making herself tiresome.

“Thank you so much much for your advice,” she said, looking at each man in turn but lingering just a little longer on Mr. Crouch. “Please forgive me for interrupting your lunch, but you have no idea how much I appreciate it. This will be so useful.”

She flashed them a rapid but broad smile and then turned back to Millie, who was gaping at her with wide eyes and a slightly slack mouth.

“Would you like to come to a concert with me this weekend?” she asked Millie. “I saw an advert for an open-air concert in St. James Park on Saturday at two o’clock. They’re playing Elizabethan-era music, and I so want to hear it.” And I so want you to hear how cultured I am, Mr. Crouch.

Millie nodded and regained her power of speech. “Uh, yeah, I’d love to. Sounds like fun.”
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