THE SUBSTITUTE, Chapter One
Leave it to a Frenchwoman, thought Minerva McGonagall disapprovingly, to insist on a May wedding regardless of who it inconvenienced.
The Frenchwoman in question was Olympe Maxime – the wedding, of course, Hagrid's. And he, for his part, was as mawkishly sentimental about his upcoming nuptials as anyone who knew him might expect.
Minerva, though she might secretly roll her eyes at his antics in private, would never have dreamed of disparaging a fellow Professor for his abundance of tender feelings, either in his presence or behind his back. The timing of the wedding, however, was a different matter entirely, particularly as scarcely more than a month would remain before the end of the term, once he left on his honeymoon.
Naturally, there had been talk of hiring a replacement, as well as the suggestion that they'd might as well let the course slide and allow the students to forego the exam. Minerva, who frequently found herself playing the Voice of Reason in the impromptu comedic farces that Albus liked to refer to as 'staff meetings', merely out of a bone-deep fear that on one else would take up that particular banner if once she let it drop, was a supporter of the latter option.
Not that she approved of the students missing class, mind you. But it was an elective, not a core class … and even if it hadn't been, she reminded the others tersely, where did they expect, this late in the term, to find a replacement willing to teach Care of Magical Creatures?
It was at this point that Albus dropped Conversational Bombshell Number One – Hagrid, citing the desire to spend more time with his new wife, had tendered his resignation as Hogwarts Professor, wishing to return instead to his former position as gamekeeper. At this, a murmur ran round the table. Minerva regrouped quickly.
"All the more reason," she pointed out, "not to enter into a decision lightly. If the new Professor is to be a permanent addition to the faculty, perhaps we should take advantage of the summer holidays to settle on the best candidate. I, personally—" she shuddered inwardly at the prospect –"would be willing to head the Search Committee."
"Such pained nobility, Minerva!" murmured Severus Snape from the far corner of the table. "Such a performance! Your best yet, I'll wager."
True to form, he'd brought a stack of student essays with him to the meeting and had been slashing away in red ink throughout the discussion, sneering to himself. Now, however, he looked up from his grading and smirked at her. "The Academy will no doubt be in touch. I'd call Valentino for a fitting posthaste, if I were you."
Minerva curled her lip at him.
"Severus—" she began warningly, but was pre-empted in her planned castigations by Albus, who'd apparently been holding Bombshell Number Two in reserve just for this very eventuality.
"Admirable sentiments, Minerva," he cut in amiably, twinkling at her. "Most sensible indeed. If I hadn't already hired a replacement for Hagrid this very morning, I would have been most grateful for your invaluable offer of leadership in this affair." Smiling beneficently, he leaned back in his chair and began to pick at a spot of strawberry jam in his beard – the better, Minerva suspected, to enjoy the ensuing fracas. She glared at him.
The rest of the faculty perked up at the news – rather like onlookers at a crime scene, hoping against prurient hope to see a body. Only old Binns continued to snuffle gently from his fireside easy chair. Minerva caught Sybil Trelawney with her mouth open, about to make some preposterous announcement or other, and sent her a Meaningful Look until she shut it again.
"So – who's it to be, Albus?" squeaked Flitwick. "Don't hold out on us. Witch or wizard?"
"Wrong question, Filius," breathed Snape through lips that didn't move, presumably to the essay in his lap. "What we should be asking is this: animal, vegetable, or mineral?" He paused, drew a red line through an entire hapless paragraph, and narrowed his eyes in satisfaction. "Of course, we're still trying to find out which of those Hagrid was."
Ermengarde Sprout giggled. Minerva clamped down on the traitorous beginnings of an appreciative smile. All that sarcasm could be very funny indeed … but admitting to amusement, she felt, definitely sent the wrong message in this case.
"Neither," Albus said serenely, and Minerva closed her eyes as the entire faculty turned to goggle at him.
Well, that was Bombshell Three, all right, and in classic Albusian fashion, he'd saved the best for last. Wearily, she opened her mouth to voice the expected reiteration.
"That's correct, Minerva," Dumbledore said tranquilly, the picture of dignity despite the fact that a sizable circular segment of his beard was still stained strawberry-pink. "The new Care of Magical Creatures will be—"
"—Fang," inserted Snape, sotto voce. Sprout laughed out loud; Dumbledore pretended calmly that he hadn't heard the interruption.
"—the reknowned Australian exotic-animal expert, Mr. Steven Irwin," he continued. "Also known as – what was it again? Oh, yes – the Crocodile Hunter. I believe some of our students will be quite familiar with Professor Irwin's work from the outset – in his own way, he's as well-known as poor Gilderoy was – as his adventures have been broadcast on international television for a number of years throughout the Muggle world." He consulted a scroll at his elbow. "Hm, what else? Ah. The eponymous star of a feature-length documentary. Eager to add a teaching credit to his résumé, besides being intrigued by the prospect of encountering the creatures of the magical world. Fearless, I'm told. Comes very highly recommended …"
The rest of the faculty wasn't listening any longer. They were staring at each other in slow-dawning, horrified realisation.
"Merlin in a girdle," said Snape, too transfixed by this bit of news to realise that he was dripping red ink all over Hermione Granger's meticulously-scripted homework assignment. "You've finally gone and done it. He's a Muggle."
For once, Minerva could find nothing to add.