Harry begins to wonder if he himself is the weapon Voldemort seeks. Back at Grimmauld Place, Harry decides the best and safest thing for him to do is leave Hogwarts forever and return to Little Whinging. As Harry packs his trunk, Phineas Nigellus appears in his portrait with a message from Dumbledore, telling Harry to stay where he is. Harry agrees to stay but does not leave his bed.
The following evening, Hermione disrupts Harry’s seclusion. She admonishes him for his behavior. Ginny and Ron join them, and Ginny points out that she’s the only one who knows what it feels like to be possessed by Voldemort and does not believe Harry is experiencing what she experienced. Relieved, Harry finally joins the festivities. At St. Mungo’s, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, and Harry spot Neville and his grandmother, who are visiting Neville’s parents. Mr. and Mrs. Longbottom were tortured into lunacy by Bellatrix Lestrange.
Snape arrives to speak with Harry. Dumbledore has asked Snape to teach Harry Occlumency, which is the defense of the mind against outside penetration. Harry is unhappy about extra lessons with Snape, but he agrees to learn. As Harry leaves for Hogwarts, Sirius hands him a wrapped package, which he claims Harry should use only if he needs him.
Back at Hogwarts, Harry arranges a Hogsmeade date with Cho for Valentine’s Day. Harry reports to Snape’s office for his Occlumency lessons. Snape explains that Voldemort is an expert at Legilimency, which is the ability to extract feelings and memories from another person’s mind, and that Harry must be prepared to close his mind to it. Snape clears his thoughts into a Pensieve. Harry takes out his wand, and Snape uses Legilimency to shoot himself into Harry’s mind, rifling through Harry’s memories. Harry fights back and returns to the present, falling to his knees. They try again, and Harry once again fails to block Snape. The next time, Harry is dragged back into his reccurring dream, in which he is running down a corridor at the Ministry of Magic with Mr. Weasley. This time, Harry recognizes the hallway as leading to the Department of Mysteries. He asks Snape about the Department, but Snape dismisses his question. Later that night, Harry’s scar starts to burn, and he knows Voldemort is very happy.
The next morning, Hermione’s Daily Prophet reveals a mass breakout at Azkaban. Ten former Death Eaters, including Lestrange, are loose. Harry realizes this is why Voldemort was so happy last night. They also read that a Ministry of Magic worker named Bode died at St. Mungo’s after being strangled by a dangerous potted plant. Ron recalls his father talking about Bode and remembers that Bode worked in the Department of Mysteries. Umbridge has posted a new Educational Decree, banning all Hogwarts teachers from discussing with students anything not directly related to their subjects.
Umbridge attends every Divination and Care of Magical Creatures lesson, and students begin to wonder whether Trelawney or Hagrid will be fired first. Hagrid bans Harry, Ron, and Hermione from visiting his cabin, claiming it’s too dangerous.
Harry’s Valentine’s Day date with Cho is a disaster. Harry tells Cho he has to leave at noon to meet with Hermione, and Cho becomes jealous and upset. The date ends with Cho in tears. Confused, Harry leaves to meet Hermione at the Three Broomsticks, where she is sitting with Luna Lovegood and Rita Skeeter, a reporter for the Prophet and one of Hermione’s least favorite people. Hermione blackmails Rita, who is an unregistered Animagus, into writing an honest cover story about Harry for the Quibbler.
When Harry, overwhelmed with guilt and fear over his connection to Voldemort, rashly decides to drop out of Hogwarts, Dumbledore reveals his weaknesses as a leader and friend. Harry is so confused about his connection to Voldemort that he has begun to think he may actually be possessed by him, and he becomes certain that disappearing from the Wizarding world and returning to Four Privet Drive is the only way to protect those around him. Dumbledore does intervene, dispatching a portrait from his office to tell Harry to stay where he is, but this isn’t enough. Dumbledore mistakenly assumes that a short and cryptic message will be enough to change Harry’s mind—but the days when Harry would mindlessly follow vague directions are over. He needs Dumbledore to explain the truth about Harry’s connection to Voldemort or to explain what Harry’s vision may have meant, but Dumbledore is secretive and distant. Dumbledore is doing what he believes to be best for Harry, but he underestimates Harry’s maturity. Ultimately, Hermione and Ginny, his peers, are the people who convince Harry to stay.
Harry has never fully trusted Snape, and his Occlumency lesson is charged with both difficulty and suspicion. Harry learns that the corridor in his dream leads to the Department of Mysteries, deep inside the Ministry of Magic, but Snape doesn’t explain what the Department is or, perhaps more troubling, why Harry must practice Occlumency so carefully in the first place. Snape instead riffles through Harry’s childhood memories, a procedure Harry finds mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. Snape tells Harry only to empty his mind of thoughts, not how or why he must do so. Harry is understandably wary of trusting Snape’s advice.
When Harry finally gets an opportunity to tell his side of the story in the Quibbler, he gains a sense of power he hasn’t felt in a very long time. He can finally defend himself publicly against the lies spread about him in the Prophet. Hermione, too, is unexpectedly empowered by the task at hand. Normally a strict follower of both moral and practical rules, she arranges for a meeting with the despicable Rita Skeeter in order to blackmail her into doing something she doesn’t want to do. Hermione, for all her nagging and homework planning, occasionally does something spontaneous and surprising. Her behavior is rooted in her loyalty to Harry and her desire to see his reputation restored—two elements that give her the power to act differently than she might in other situations.