Warnings: Graphic het (central pairing) and slash (side pairing) smut, voyeurism, masturbation, quantum physics, and a twisted Molly Weasley. If any of these are a no-go for you, please do not attempt to read this story.
Author's Notes: Written for the Winter 2009 round of the sshg_exchange at LiveJournal for warded_portal, who prompted me thus:
There's the four classic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. There's research and flirting in a library. There's a sex scene for every element. They make each other happy. Keyword: fierce. Romance. First time. True love. Hawt sexx0rs. First time relationships, romance, happily ever after. I also love Hogwarts as a setting. Oh, and in my world, Severus never died. The epilogue never happened.
Disclaimer: © 2009 Mundungus42. All rights reserved. This work may not be archived, reproduced, or distributed in any format without prior written permission from the author. This is an amateur non-profit work, and is not intended to infringe on copyrights held by JKR or any other lawful holder. Permission may be obtained by e-mailing the author at mundungus42 at yahoo dot com
It is the fondest wish of certain Unspeakables to be transferred out of the Department of Mysteries. Few on the outside understand this, given that the Department receives a staggeringly large cut of the annual Ministry budget, and there are rumors about swankily appointed offices (not true), exorbitant expense accounts (rarely true), and a pastry chef on the payroll to prepare exquisite biscuits for afternoon tea (absolutely true). It's also true that there are those for whom the pleasure on saying, "I could tell you, but then I'd have to Obliviate you," has not worn off.
But in the few Unspeakables whose work frequently brings them into contact with the most esoteric mysteries of life, time-space, and magic, there can spring a keen desire to bring their work out of the shadows and into the light. However, the veil of secrecy within the Department is difficult to penetrate, even from within; it takes leadership with wisdom to recognize the sorts of breakthrough that will change the way people view the world, and it takes leadership with strength to foster them through their early stages. This is why the current leadership, specifically the Minister of Magic, was more than a bit anxious about his upcoming meeting with Hermione Granger.
At precisely one o'clock, she strode purposefully into his office holding a scroll at arms length, as if it smelt bad. Without preamble, she dropped it in the center of the Minister's desk, precisely on top of glass frame that contained the nameplate that his mother had undoubtedly embroidered years ago. "What is the meaning of this?"
He unrolled the parchment and read the first few sentences. "Rotten luck, that. But at least your patent was approved."
"A fat lot of good that does," she said, pointedly ignoring his gesture to sit, "when the steering committee, at the head of which you sit, I might point out, has cut my funding. You know how fundamentally important this is. What possible justification could you have for refusing to fund additional research?"
"Well, it's a difficult thing," said the Minister, shifting slightly in his chair. "Seeing as you've basically sent our understanding of magical theory arse over teakettle and have data to back it up, the consensus was, well, that it's no longer mysterious enough to be supported with Department of Mysteries funds."
"That's absurd," she declared. "I haven't solved any mysteries, merely postulated the existence of several particles that make up magic."
"But your Magi-thingummy—"
"Yes, that. Your test studies were very persuasive."
"But it's only the beginning," she said testily. "If Magispectrometric analysis is to have any effect on the numerous fields I outlined in my proposal, more machines must be built, and others taught to use them, and doing that requires funding."
The Minister looked distinctly unhappy. "I know. I read your proposal." He scowled at her look of surprise. "I did! It's just bad timing is all."
Hermione scowled at the Minister, who, she was viciously pleased to see, squirmed under her angry gaze. "Are you trying to tell me that you're going to let the most important discovery the Department of Mysteries has had in decades languish for a year because of a funding technicality?"
"That's not it at all," exclaimed the Minister. "Oh hell, I'm really making a pig's ear out of explaining this. You'll get funded, all right? Now sit down and have a cup while I explain. I can't think with you looming over me looking like a bloody martyr."
Hermione regarded the Minister coolly for a moment, then acquiesced.
"Milk. No sugar."
"As if I'd forget," said the Minister. "Now, you've got to understand my difficulty. You de-mystified an entire field, but in doing that you made yourself ineligible for your usual funding through the DoM Mysteries of Space and Time section."
"Catch-22," muttered Hermione.
The Minister continued. "And we effectively closed the Mysteries in Plain Sight Section four years ago, so there's no money there. And frankly, the most obvious department outside the DoM for hosting your work, Magical Weights and Measures, is already in the red after the inquest into the Bludger irregularities in the Premiere Quidditch League."
"So who's funding me?"
"Well," said the Minister, swallowing hard, "it had to be someplace to whom the Ministry gives loads of cash, and someplace where you could have privacy to work, since your magi-thing is still classified, but it also has to involve some kind of project that clearly benefits everyone involved. Fortunately, I've found just such a project."
A warning bell was starting to ring in the back of Hermione's mind. "Ron," she said in a low voice. "What have you done?"
The Minister's face fell slightly. "I'd have hoped you'd trust me a little bit. Or is that too much to ask?"
"It's not a matter of trust," she replied firmly. "It's a matter of history. Unless you forget what happened the last time you gave me a special assignment."
Ron's face darkened. "Yeah, you had to make it into something political."
"Letting your mother bully you into billing the Ministry for a research project that solely benefited George's store is something political."
Ron swore and flung his hands into the air. "It wasn't just about George's store, it was about the Ministry's over-regulation of time-altering spells."
"A subject that I'm certain hugely concerned you before George put his Re-Do Rum Balls on the market."
Ron stood and began pacing the rug in front of his fireplace. "What does it matter how I found out about it? You're the one who's trying to get more public funding for your pet project. How's what Mum wanted to do for George any different from what you're doing?"
Hermione massaged the bridge of her nose with her fingertips. "Ron, if you can't see the difference between allowing people to alter time for their own amusement and giving them the potential for unparalleled accuracy in their magic use, I don't think we have anything further to say on the subject. Now, what's this assignment you're giving me?"
Ron sat with a sigh. "The ridiculous thing is that I really think you're going to like it."
"You've a funny way of showing it."
"I'm sending you to Hogwarts."
The nascent sneer on Hermione's face faded.
He continued, encouraged by her silence. "I want you to do a survey of Hogwarts and make a comprehensive map of the entire castle and grounds, including enchanted rooms and areas protected with passwords. I want a complete catalog of everything that's hidden there, and I want to know how to access every part of the castle."
Whatever Hermione was expecting, this wasn't it. She stared at her friend for a moment before responding. "Why?"
"Well, it'll be a good test of your device, won't it?"
"Certainly, but so would a year spent measuring the magic in potions ingredients at St. Mungo's — not that I'm volunteering for that, mind." A vague suspicion was taking shape. "Why Hogwarts?"
"Come on, Hermione. Don't you remember all the scrapes we got into? All the hidden passages and secret rooms that we knew about but the teachers didn't? Don't you think that's a little, well, unsafe?"
"I seem to recall a number of lives being saved because we knew about those hidden passages and secret rooms."
"Yeah, but it's also how Draco Malfoy managed to smuggle a small army of Death Eaters into the school the night that Dumbledore died. You-Know-Who has been gone for nearly twenty years, Hermione. It's time we started thinking about the students' safety and a little less about keeping secrets."
"But how would this affect the students?" Hermione asked, trying to keep her voice light. "This is essentially a test run for a top secret piece of machinery — only the Classification Review Board would have access to my findings."
Ron shifted in his chair. "Well, naturally, if you find a Manticore in a hidden room, the Ministry will have to take immediate action."
"And in order for the Ministry to take action, you'd have to inform the headmistress," finished Hermione, for whom the pieces of the puzzle were starting to form a familiar picture. "I ought to have realized she was involved."
Ron looked like a bullfrog caught in torchlight. "I— uh."
"I can't believe you sometimes, Ron, I really can't. You leaked classified information to the headmistress and then let her essentially dictate how it's to be used! That has to be the most blatant—"
Ron cut her off urgently. "Hermione, there's more to it than that."
"Oh, so you're not doing a special favor for the most meddlesome, iron-fisted headmistress Hogwarts has seen since—"
"That's what I want her to think!" cried Ron in frustration.
Hermione paused. "Sorry?"
Ron glanced over the top of Hermione's head to the Secrecy Detector above the door, and, satisfied with what he saw, leaned over his desk and lowered his voice.
"You can't know this because you haven't been back to the old place since she took over, but it's bad. I hardly recognize it anymore. Yes, I'm doing her a favor by sending you to do something she wants badly, but it's the only way I could get somebody involved who might be able to change things back. She's got to be stopped, Hermione. And if there's anything to be done about her, I want my best brain to be there to figure out how to do it."
Hermione looked at her old friend appraisingly. "That's a downright devious strategy, Ron. But I really don't think I'm your best brain; not for this sort of thing. I've been nothing but a lab-and-chalkboard researcher ever since the war ended. I don't know anything about how schools are run nowadays."
"That's exactly why you're perfect for the job." Ron looked as if he wanted to say more, but before he was able to, his fire blazed green, and the Hogwarts' headmistress's face appeared in the hearth.
"Ronald Weasley! Where have you been? I expected you for tea ten minutes ago—" She cut off abruptly when she noticed Hermione. "Well, hello there, Hermione!"
"Headmistress," said Hermione with a cool nod.
"Mum!" exclaimed Ron with even less enthusiasm.
She continued blithely. "We're so very pleased that you'll be joining us at Hogwarts! I've had the elves preparing a simply lovely room that overlooks the lake. You'll be very comfortable during your stay, and Luna's going to be thrilled when I tell her that you'll be with us for the rest of the academic year!"
"Mum!" objected Ron. "We hadn't finished discussing the details. And our tea wasn't for another half hour, anyway."
"Is that so?" Molly asked airily, stepping out of the fire into Ron's office. "Well, now that I'm here, I'll be happy to fill her in."
"Mum—" started Ron.
"Hush!" she ordered. "Pour me some tea."
Ron's face was red with humiliation, but he dutifully complied. Hermione suddenly understood with perfect clarity the position her friend was in. It simply wasn't in Ron to deny his mother anything, not after she had sacrificed so much to raise her family and fight Voldemort. She didn't have long to reflect, because the headmistress was chatting merrily at her.
"Hermione dear, I've prepared you a list of all the known rooms in Hogwarts, with all the passwords to all the rooms that I know. There are three hundred, sixty-four rooms that we know about, but I'm sure you'll find ten times more that are hidden. Two more lumps, if you wouldn't mind, Ronald dear?"
"Do any of the other teachers or staff know what I'm going to be doing?"
"I don't think that's necessary, do you?" asked Molly. "Ron did say that yours was a top-secret project, and I don't see any reason for any more people to know what we're doing than necessary."
"Good. The more boring you make me sound the better — the fewer people know about my presence, the better."
Molly laughed. "Apart from the press conference, of course."
Hermione leapt up as if stung. "PRESS CONFERENCE?"
"The press conference I've arranged to announce the Ministry's support for my new educational initiatives," said the headmistress. "You won't have to say anything of course, just having you and Ron present will make it clear to the press that the Ministry is fully behind my efforts. Oh dear, didn't Ron tell you?"
Ron quailed under the combined glares of his friend and mother. "Look, why don't you two have a nice chat and I'll get us some more tea." He scurried out of the room and closed the door behind him. Hermione knew he'd be listening at the keyhole.
Hermione was about to voice her objection to being made a symbol of in no uncertain terms, but Molly raised her hand to forestall her. "Before you say something you might regret," she said with more than a hint of steel in her tone, "I urge you to think about your position. I already know that your little project can't be funded by the Department of Mysteries, and as I understand it, Ronald has very generously given you a way to continue collecting data that could be instrumental in securing funding next cycle. This means that your work will be financed by the Educational Fund, over which I, as Hogwarts Headmistress, have discretionary control. I can, of course, divert those funds at any time if I feel you are not producing results beneficial to the school. I trust I have made myself clear?"
Hermione stared wordlessly at the witch who was now sitting in Ron's chair and helping herself to his biscuits. The face she recalled being so kindly now radiated the tenacity of a bulldog, an impression reinforced by the set of her jaw, as well as the bit of spittle that appeared at the corner of her mouth when she noticed the marzipan fancies.
As sole patent holder of the Magispectrometer, Hermione knew that she could tell Molly and Ron where they could bally well stick their Educational Fund, call Draco Malfoy, a fellow Unspeakable, for a bit of venture capital, and revolutionize whatever field she chose while becoming absurdly wealthy in the process while paying only a pittance to the Ministry for use of technology developed under its auspices. But in that moment, Hermione felt the stirrings of the long-dormant outrage that had led her to found S.P.E.W. and to chase down and destroy every last scrap of Voldemort's soul.
Ron, with his chessman's eye, had seen the opportunity that Molly's ambitions had opened and was depending on her sense of justice to do what needed to be done. After twenty years of being cloistered in her well-funded laboratory in the Department of Mysteries, who was she to refuse a friend's call to arms?
"I understand you perfectly," said Hermione, making her voice tiny.
Molly added another lump of sugar to her nearly empty cup. "I'm delighted you're starting to see things my way, dear. I'll expect you at Hogwarts the day after tomorrow."
"But that only gives me a day to move! And I'm supposed to be on holiday starting tomorrow. My parents are expecting me for Christmas."
Molly frowned. "It seems to me that you have misplaced your priorities, Hermione. Given that you have only until the end of the Christmas holidays to map the common areas and student quarters, you can't possibly expect days off. Though I suppose I could spare you for a few hours on Christmas. However, you must be back in time for Christmas Dinner. The Hogwarts family is important. Ronald, you may come back into the room."
Ron's anxious face appeared in the doorway. "All right, Hermione?"
"All right, Ron. I'm off to pack up. I'll see you at the press conference, then."
"Right," said Ron, who looked vaguely suspicious at her meekness.
"Until tomorrow, headmistress," said Hermione, walking towards the door, her shoulders hunched into what she hoped was a submissive posture.
Molly smiled beatifically. "Good day, my dear. Ron, if you'd be so good as to pour me another cup, we can finish the paperwork."
The door closed behind her with a decisive click.
Hermione squared her shoulders and set off towards the Ministry Archives. She had some studying to do.
The press conference was not given in the Great Hall to a large audience, as they had been after the war, but in the headmistress's office, where a handful of reporters sat in high-backed wooden chairs while the headmistress gazed down at them from her enormous desk. The overall impression was that of a teacher lecturing a group of wayward students, which was, Hermione suspected, precisely the effect Molly sought.
The woman herself had not yet arrived, and a few of the reporters in the back row were whispering quietly. Hermione and Ron stood behind the headmistress's desk, giving the appearance of complete and unanimous Ministry support. However, Hermione's eyes were meticulously taking in the changes to the room around her, and she found the combination of hominess and paranoia to be rather unsettling.
The enormous oak desk and mullioned windows were same, but the ceiling-high shelves that had once been filled with ancient tomes and delicate magical instruments were now filled with various bric-a-brac: balls of brightly colored yarn, disorderly stacks of books and magazines with glossy covers, and framed photographs of multiple generations of Weasleys, all of which alluded to Molly's humble origins, her dedication to her family, and the sacrifices she had made on the behalf of the Wizarding World.
However, the effort was completely lost on Hermione, who was doing her best not to scowl at the wall opposite her, which had once been covered with portraits of former headmasters and headmistresses but was now dominated by four enormous magical clocks that were emblazoned with the name of each house. Like the clock that had once hung in the Burrow's kitchen, there was a hand for each student, though since this was the first day of the Christmas holidays, nearly every hand was pointed at "Home." As if that weren't enough, Hermione was dismayed to see that clocks were surrounded by enchanted mirrors, in which many of the student common areas were clearly visible.
With such an effective means of tracking the students, Hermione was perplexed as to why the headmistress was so keen for her to ferret out Hogwarts' secrets. She glanced at Ron, who had been gazing at the same point on a far shelf. She followed his gaze and felt her stomach clench when she realized that Ron was staring at a picture of himself with the twins. As uncomfortable as she was with Molly's tracking the students, she conceded that perhaps Molly having lost a son and nearly a daughter on school grounds gave her some allowance to be protective.
However, the goodwill evaporated when her eye fell a life-sized painting of Molly's Great Aunt Muriel where the Sorting Hat had once been. Even Hermione, who had not paid much attention to the goings-on at Hogwarts, hadn't been able to miss the furor over Molly's decision to do away with the traditional sorting. No longer were Gryffindors defined by bravery or Ravenclaws by cleverness: Gryffindors were now males whose surnames began with A–M, and Ravenclaws girls, N–Z. The new system was designed to do away with house prejudices, and rendered the Sorting Hat obsolete. Even Harry Potter, who was notoriously shy of both the media and confrontations with his mother-in-law, had written a strongly-worded letter in protest of a system that did away with Quidditch as they knew it.
Hermione was as cynical of nostalgia as the next witch, but she had to agree. After a brief perusal of the Ministry Archives, she had concluded that Molly Weasley had dismantled more than just Quidditch — she'd systematically taken away much of what had made Hogwarts great. Certainly, Molly's years of enforced thrift had honed her skill at saving money, and indeed that uncommon quality was precisely what had inspired headmaster Flitwick to take the unprecedented step of appointing a deputy with no teaching or administrative experience. But she strongly doubted that Flitwick would have done so had he foreseen his own demise a mere two years into his tenure or Molly's insistence that Hogwarts needed her. Though nearly all the teachers protested, Molly's celebrity was such that the Board of Governors felt it was easier to let her be, provided she could keep the school staffed and running. And running it was — right into the ground.
The headmistress herself chose that moment to enter, and the reporters rose to their feet — an odd response by Hermione's reckoning, but Molly smiled welcomingly at them and began to speak. For the first time, Hermione understood where Percy had got his supercilious, dull way of speaking. From the glazed look that had come over the reporters, she was not the only person who felt that way. She rambled on about improving educational standards, but Ron was still staring at the family picture with a vaguely stricken look on his face, and Hermione felt a rush of protectiveness for her friend, and just managed to suppress a scowl. She didn't like it when her friends were used against their will.
At that point, Molly opened the floor to questions.
"Martin Toole, Daily Prophet. Headmistress, is it true that your son will be taking over the vacant Defense Against the Dark Arts position?"
Molly pretended to be flustered. "Goodness me, there are so many of them, which son do you mean?"
The reporters laughed, and Molly replied, "Yes, my eldest son, William, will be taking the reins when the students return. Our Charms teacher, as I'm sure you've gathered, is ever so pleased to be working alongside her husband. Next question?"
"Susan Pratchett, Owl Post Gazette. Headmistress Weasley, there has been unprecedented faculty and turnover since the start of your tenure eight years ago. Do you see a connection between that and Hogwarts' stagnant O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. scores?"
"I wouldn't call the turnover 'unprecedented,'" she replied with a laugh. "A number of those who left Hogwarts had simply been teaching for too many years to keep up with the changes, and younger blood has invigorated the staff. As for the so-called stagnant test scores, I prefer to think of it as successfully maintaining the historical degree of excellence that Hogwarts has always had. Next question?"
"Quentin Cooper, Magical Pedagogy Today. There has been some speculation that record-low enrollment rates are due to your separation of the sexes. Given that the amount of support Hogwarts receives from the Ministry is tied to enrollment numbers, have you considered changing back to Hogwarts' traditional co-educational format?"
Hermione blinked in surprise. Neither Ron nor Molly had said anything about Hogwarts receiving less money than in the past. And if it were true, why on earth would Molly be willing to fund research with the already squeezed Educational Fund? What was Molly expecting her to do?
"Poppycock," said Molly, flushing slightly. "Enrollment is only low compared to the years after the war. Besides, single-sex classes have been shown in numerous test schools to improve academic performance."
"If enrollment is low simply because there are fewer children, then how do you explain poor matriculate attendance at Quidditch matches?" pressed Cooper. "There are as many former students as there ever were — why aren't they coming to the see the matches? You really don't see a connection between your controversial policies and having less money in the budget?"
Hermione noticed that the headmistress's ears were turning red.
"My record speaks for itself," she said shortly, "and if you have any questions about my methods, I suggest that you take it up with the Board of Governors. Wallace, you had a question?"
"Yes ma'am," said Pennifore Wallace, whose columns in Witch Weekly were enormously popular. "Now that your eldest son is on board, the faculty and staff of Hogwarts now comprise three of your sons, your daughter, two daughters-in-law, and your husband. Have you any plans to convince the rest of your distinguished family to answer the call to education?"
"As many of my son George's products end up in drawers in my office, having him around the school could be disastrous," said Molly, to general laughter. "My other children are happier where they are, bless them, and of course, my dear Ron is fulfilling an even greater role in public service than any of us. I suppose I shall have to be content with a quorum at Hogwarts."
"Headmistress Weasley," said Cooper, not waiting to be recognized, "does it ever cause problems, having so many of your family work so closely with you?"
"No," said Molly shortly. "Quite the opposite, in fact. Thank you all for being here. I hope you will all join me and the staff for lunch in the Great Hall."
She flounced out of the room, and the reporters followed dutifully behind her. Ron looked unhappily at Hermione. "I'd better go, too. Mum'll have my head if she finds out I didn't say hello to everybody."
He held the door open for her, but Hermione paused. "Ron, do you have any idea why she's doing all this?" she asked softly.
"Dunno," said Ron sulkily. "The Change?"
Hermione cuffed him in the arm.
To Hermione's relief, the Great Hall was largely unchanged from when she'd seen it last. Four long house tables still stretched the length of the room, the staff table looked as impressive as ever, hundreds of candles floated above the tables, and the magically-reproduced gray sky still managed to infuse the room with winter chill.
The reporters were interspersed between staff members at the high table. Hermione wasn't surprised that Cooper, the belligerent questioner from Magical Pedagogy Today, had been seated at the far end, wedged between Madame Pince, who appeared even more wizened and disapproving than she had when Hermione had been a student, and Argus Filch.
Hermione's heart lifted when she realized how many old friends and acquaintances sat at the staff table. In fact, there were very few faces that she didn't recognize. She couldn't hold back a grin when Neville Longbottom joyously shouted out her name. Luna's face lit up like her namesake heavenly body, and even Parvati Patil, with whom she had never been close, gave her a warm smile.
"Hermione and Ronald, how good of you to join us," said Molly in an affected gracious-hostess sort of voice. "Ronald, if you will take the chair on my left? Hermione, why don't you sit on the near end with Professor Longbottom? I'm sure you have a great deal of catching up to do."
And caught up she was, in a rib-crushing Longbottom hug.
"I couldn't believe it," exclaimed Neville. "The headmistress said you were coming, and I didn't believe her. 'Get Hermione Granger out of her lab? Impossible!' I said. And here you are!" He swung her around in a circle.
Hermione, who was having trouble drawing breath, managed to make a weak coughing sort of noise, and Neville released her. "Oh! Sorry! Don't know my own strength these days," he said sheepishly. "I spend every hour that I'm not teaching pruning, potting and weeding."
Having inhaled sufficiently to banish the dancing blue spots from her vision, Hermione gave Neville a smile. "The work suits you, Neville. You look quite fit."
"And you haven't changed a bit," he said, blushing. "Now sit, you must be half starved."
"You're half right," said Hermione, enthusiastically filling her plate with roast beef and roasted potatoes.
They ate in companionable silence for a few minutes, and Hermione was disappointed to find that the roast beef, while adequate, was a far cry from melt-in-the-mouth tenderness she recalled from her school days. She glanced down the table and was dismayed to see that rather than having seven or eight different courses to choose from, there was only beef and potatoes.
Hermione ate about half of what was on her plate and lost interest, choosing instead to examine Neville, whose pale skin had tanned and whose hair now had golden highlights from hours in the sun. She wondered absently if he had a girlfriend. Not that she needed a complication like that at this point.
"I can't believe it's been so long," said Hermione.
"Six years at least since I saw you at the Alchemy Convention in Devon.'
"I haven't been to Hogwarts in even longer — it's been at least ten years," said Hermione, dismayed to realize it was so. "But I've tried to keep up. I already knew you were teaching Herbology, and Luna's teaching Care of Magical Creatures. Tell me, does she teach the Crumple-Horned Snorkack?"
"I shudder to speculate," said Neville. "She made some Nargle repellent for me that nearly killed the yew I sprayed it on, but to her credit, the mistletoe's thriving better than it ever has. You know what the others are teaching, I expect."
"Parvati must be teaching Divination."
"Got it in one. She joined about the same time Molly invited me to teach — right after she ascended to the position. Arthur's teaching Muggle Studies, Ginny took over Transfiguration when McGonagall quit, Charlie's teaching flying part-time and providing dragons for Luna's upper classes. Fleur's been at Hogwarts longer than any of us. Flitwick hired her to teach Charms when he became headmaster."
"Is Binns still around?"
"We see him every now and then lurking around the dungeons. He tendered his resignation around the time McGonagall did, so Percy's teaching History of Magic now."
"So much for hoping it's a better class than it was for us," said Hermione with a sigh. "I don't see Vector. Who's teaching Arithmancy?"
"Parvati. Arithmancy's been absorbed by Divination. Same with Astronomy."
Hermione frowned. "Two entire subjects have been cut?"
"Well, they were all sort of related, weren't they? And both were electives. At least this way they're part of a core subject."
Hermione was suddenly overcome with a very queer feeling, as if there was something important she was forgetting, but she had no idea what it was. She dismissed it with a shake of her head. "I'm beginning to see what Wallace meant. It really is one big happy Weasley family at Hogwarts these days."
"There are a few of us non-Weasley holdouts," replied Neville. "And George wouldn't leave his shop for anything, especially not teaching."
"Unless Molly decided to add Chaos Theory to the curriculum," agreed Hermione.
"So, what brings you to Hogwarts?" asked Neville. "Molly was pretty cagey with the details."
Hermione sighed. "I could tell you—"
"—but then you'd have to Obliviate me," finished Neville. "I figured. But we will be seeing you around, won't we?"
"You'll be absolutely sick of seeing me by the end of the year."
"Oh, I doubt that," said Neville.
An insistent clinking noise drew her attention, and she saw that Molly was tapping a spoon on the rim of her goblet.
"Ladies and gentlemen, friends and honored guests," said Molly. "I'm so happy you were able to join us on this auspicious day. When the students return from their Christmas holidays, we may all be assured that they will be receiving the very best instruction with the very latest pedagogical techniques. The Ministry have been very supportive and will be monitoring their effectiveness over the next year." Molly nodded in Hermione's direction. "I am confident of a positive outcome, and I look forward to a long and prosperous relationship with the Ministry in determining the best ways to educate our youth."
"Likes the sound of her own voice, doesn't she?" whispered Neville. Hermione covered a grin with her hand.
From her vantage point at the end of the table, she could see that few of the faculty, save Percy, were paying attention to Molly's speech. Ginny and Fleur were passing notes, and Luna and Parvati were deep in discussion. Arthur was fiddling with what looked like a battery and a length of wire, from which smoke was starting to rise.
The journalists were listening, and several were taking notes, with the exception of the belligerent Quentin Cooper, who was returning her measured gaze. He hadn't been afraid to press the headmistress on difficult subjects, and he seemed highly resistant to the headmistress's attempts to answer only the questions she wanted to answer. Hermione gave him the tiniest of nods. A journalist who was skeptical of Molly could be a useful person to know.
Molly was still blathering on, sounding for all the world as if it had been her policies, rather than nepotism and extortion, that had garnered ostensible Ministry support. Hermione was delighted to hear a snort coming from Cooper's direction and made a decision.
Hermione caught Cooper's eye again, and he nodded his head subtly in the direction of the entrance hall before dabbing his lips with a serviette and standing to leave.
"I ought to get back to my room," said Hermione. "I've still got loads of unpacking to do."
"All right then," said Neville. "I'll be seeing you, then."
She smiled at Neville and made her way to the entrance hall, where Cooper was waiting for her.
"Hermione Granger," said Cooper, with a charming smile that could have been a runner-up in Witch Weekly's contest.
"Quentin Cooper. It seems we are of a similar mind when it comes to academic reform."
"I don't know about that," replied Cooper. "I wasn't aware that the Department of Mysteries had any interest in academic reform."
Hermione gave him a polite smile. "If you knew exactly what we did, it wouldn't be at all mysterious, now would it?"
He quirked an eyebrow at her. "What do you want, Ms. Granger? Hermione. May I call you Hermione?"
"If you like. I'd like to know you, Mr. Cooper."
"In the Biblical sense?"
Hermione ignored his leer. "I think that we could help each other."
"Funny," said Cooper, "I was under the impression that the Ministry and Hogwarts were helping one another so much that there wasn't room for much else. For what possible reason would you forsake the Weasleys for me? Other than my scintillating personality and good looks, of course."
"If I wanted to be part of the Weasley clan, I've not exactly lacked for opportunities."
His smile widened in acknowledgement. "Circumstantial evidence at best. Give me something it's possible to verify objectively."
Hermione looked at him appraisingly. If she was going to secure his assistance, she'd need to be as honest with him as she could. "The Educational Fund is sponsoring classified research. Check the budget numbers she handed out at the press conference if you don't believe me. They won't add up to what the Ministry's numbers because she's left out what it's taking to pay me for the year."
"And I'm to believe you're going to bite the hand that's feeding you?"
"Force feeding me, more like," said Hermione with distaste. "The only reason I'm working for her is because she bullied the Minister into cutting my funding so I'd either do her job or nothing. I've had to uproot my office to come here, where my delicate work will be interrupted day and night. I'm not asking much. Your opinion. A bit of research, perhaps. At the very most, a face-to-face meeting or two somewhere down the road. I'll be happy to reciprocate."
"An interesting proposition," said Cooper, stroking his chin. "But the last sympathetic source I had inside Hogwarts had her fire calls intercepted and was all but forced into retirement. How do you plan to avoid the headmistress finding out?"
"Simple. Give me a Galleon."
"I didn't take you for that type, Hermione."
She gave him the look that she usually used for Ron when he was being thick, and Cooper handed her the coin without further comment. Hermione concentrated and cast a Protean Charm on his Galleon and gave him instructions for using it.
"We can't meet regularly, Molly would notice. I'll let you know when and where it's safe to meet."
"A woman after my own heart," said Cooper, examining the Galleon. "I'll see you around, Hermione Granger."
"You, too. What do you like to be called?"
"Partial as I am to 'Merlin, Merlin, give it to me hard,' you can call me Coop."
"All right, Coop. I'll be in touch."
"You'd better be," he replied, slipping the coin into his pocket and sauntering towards the door. "Otherwise, you owe me a Galleon."
Molly had been right about one thing — her room was lovely. The furnishings were in jewel tones, and the large fireplace kept the room delightfully warm even as the wind whistled past the frosty windowpanes. A House Elf had escorted her to her room and drawn the curtains, revealing a broad vista of frozen lake and forest, which would be stunning on a sunny day.
"Barbra is hoping Miss is liking her room," the elf said.
"It's very nice," said Hermione, opening the clasp on her carpetbag. "Barbra is a pretty name."
"Barbra is glad Miss is liking it," said the elf. "The headmistress is changing all the elf names, and we is hoping guests is not put off by it. Is there anything Barbra can bring?"
Hermione waved her wand and her belongings flew out of her bag and on to the shelves and into the drawers. "I'm all right for now, thanks, Barbra. But I didn't eat much lunch, so I'll have tea early today. In about an hour, if that's all right."
"Barbra is sorry, miss," said the elf, tugging her ear nervously, "but elves is not allowed to bring meals to private rooms."
Hermione was taken aback. "Why?"
"Headmistress is saying that allowing people to eat at any time in any place is wasteful and encourages anti-social behavior, so elves is only allowed to bring food in the Great Hall."
Hermione swallowed her annoyance. It wasn't the elf's fault the headmistress held nothing sacred. "Thanks, Barbra, I have everything I need here."
The elf bobbed a wobbling curtsy and disappeared with a pop.
Hermione clucked her tongue in disapproval and locked the door to her room. She pulled an aluminum briefcase from her ever-present beaded bag — a less conspicuous design than the original — and laid it on the bed. She slid a Disillusioned bracelet from her left wrist, unlocked the briefcase with the key that was strung on it and opened the case.
In a bed of custom-cut foam laid her Magispectrometer, which appeared none the worse for wear from the journey. It was an unassuming-looking device that she'd built from the remains of her father's old graphing calculator. She flipped the switch on the side, which caused its small screen and the green light on the side to light up. She rubbed her thumb over the words MAG-SPEC that she'd carved into the side the day she'd first tested it.
Hermione stood in the center of the room to get a general reading. The Mag-Spec's screen was crisscrossed by a dozen lines of varying size, shape, and thickness. She recognized several as being related to the spells used to defend and hide the Ministry itself, which wasn't surprising. What was surprising was the presence of two bright red slashes, which revealed the presence of two strong eavesdropping spells somewhere in the room.
The first was easy to find; Cooper had warned her that his previous co-conspirator's fire had been watched, and sure enough, the Mag-Spec's light turned red when she stood next to hers, indicating that she'd identified the locus of a spell. She left it untouched, since she didn't plan to use the fireplace for anything that would upset the headmistress.
The second spell could be anywhere. Hermione closed her eyes and let her mind relax. She had nowhere near the level of magic sense that Albus Dumbledore had, but if she focused and there was nothing distracting her she could just feel the ambient magic like an inaudible buzz, and then, she felt it — there was something odd about the mirror over the vanity.
She stepped to the side, out of the mirror's reflective field, and raised the Mag-Spec. The green light turned red, and she held it next to the locus for long enough to generate a detailed histogram on the screen, marking where the spell fell among several sets of variables.
The readout identified it as a Spy Spell that would allow the caster to visually and aurally monitor her room using the magic mirror as a conduit. Hermione frowned — she hadn't realized that the headmistress's spying extended beyond the student common areas. Hermione pursed her lips and raised her wand to dispel the enchantments, but thought better of it. As long as Molly believed her spells were working perfectly, she would make no additional efforts to spy. Hermione instead cast a complicated set of illusions in front of the mirror that would mask her real activities from anybody watching.
A final flourish tied the illusions to her wand, so that when she chose to activate the charm, all Molly would see is something dull, like Hermione reading or writing in a notebook. A dedicated spy would soon realize the images repeated themselves every thirty minutes, but they would fool the casual watcher, which is all she hoped was necessary. She figured could always add illusions to the rotation, if needed.
Having summarily dealt with the bedroom, Hermione took additional Mag-Spec readings in the bathroom. She was relieved to find no Spy Spells, and she was deeply impressed with the room's magical amenities, particularly the self-fluffing towels.
There was a soft knock at the door, and Hermione returned the Mag-Spec to its case and tucked it beneath her pillow. She nonverbally deactivated her illusion charm on the mirror, and opened the door.
To her surprise and delight, Luna, Fleur, Ginny, and Parvati stood on her doorstep bearing several bottles of champagne and a covered basket from which the most delicious smells imaginable were emanating.
"Hello, Hermione," said Luna, embracing her. "Your room isn't one of the ones that was infested with Crepuscular Dwentids, is it?"
Hermione smiled, "Why don't you come in and have a look?"
She embraced the others in turn and ushered them into her room. She summoned a sofa and chairs for her guests.
"Wow, Hermione," exclaimed Parvati. "Molly must love whatever project you're doing if she's given you a fire that large."
"Really? I thought all fires at Hogwarts were this size."
"Maybe they were once," said Ginny, "but Mum's trying to save money, and that includes on heating. Most of us just Apparate home rather than live in a room that freezes at night."
"And speaking of zee 'eadmistress's cuts," said Fleur, arraying the contents of the basket on the table with several precise flicks of her wand, "'ave a proper luncheon. Zee beef at lunch was execrable."
The other women made noises of agreement and sat around the table. Luna had ceased examining the carpet for Dwentids and conjured a set of champagne flutes, which Ginny filled with the sparkling wine.
"To Hermione!" said Ginny.
"Welcome 'ome," added Fleur.
"And good luck with your oh-so-mysterious research," said Parvati with a cheeky smile.
"May she be the first of many things to celebrate," said Luna gravely.
They all drank and then attacked the beautiful spread of warm crusty bread, ripe cheese, fresh fruit, olives, and delectable-looking meats with gusto.
Parvati spread a bit of bread with terrine, took a bite, and sighed happily. "I swear, without Fleur, we'd all starve."
"The food's not that bad," said Ginny. "It's still better than most people get at home."
Fleur snorted. "Not my home."
"Not everybody is an enormous food snob," retorted Ginny, with her mouth full of apple.
"Well," said Parvati, "when we were in school, there was Indian food at least once a week. There hasn't been as much as a samosa since I started teaching here."
"Perhaps they just did that for students to keep them from getting homesick," suggested Luna.
"Well, they certainly aren't doing it any more," said Parvati, munching sulkily on a handful of grapes.
"I always wondered what it would be like to teach," commented Hermione, "compared to what it seemed like when we were students."
"It's certainly different," said Ginny, popping an olive into her mouth. "I get the feeling that students don't respect teachers the way we used to when we were students."
"Yes and no," admitted Parvati. "I always thought I'd be a much nicer teacher than McGonagall was, but I sort of see where she was coming from now."
"Well, you're also teaching three subjects," pointed out Luna. "None of the teachers had to do that when we were students."
"It does seem like a lot has changed," said Hermione blandly, slicing into a wheel of Camembert and inwardly cheering her friends' forthrightness.
"You don't know the half of it," said Parvati darkly.
"For 'eaven's sake, zee poor woman is 'ardly settled and you are already making 'er want to leave," admonished Fleur.
"I'm not easily scared," said Hermione with a smile.
"Of course you're not," said Parvati, "but Hogwarts has most certainly changed. All of us had classes with boys, for start."
"And we were allowed to swim in the lake," added Ginny.
Hermione paused in taking a bit of cheese. "Hang on, why aren't you allowed to swim in the lake?"
"Grindylows," said Fleur, in tones of loathing. "Zee 'eadmistress thinks zee lake is unsafe. Nevair mind zat Grindylows live only in the deepest part. It is as if she did not watch the Triwizard Tournament."
"Or maybe she feels that way because her youngest son ended up at the bottom of the lake," suggested Parvati.
"I haven't seen a Hopping Hootenanny since I started teaching here," said Luna sadly. "You almost couldn't move without stepping on one when we were students. And there are no more Hogsmeade trips. It's probably easier on the teachers, but it's still rotten for the students."
"Let me guess," said Hermione, "students bought too many Zonko's products."
"You'd think that," said Parvati, "but this is the ridiculous thing — she didn't want students visiting Madam Puddifoot's!"
That startled a laugh out of Hermione. "You're joking."
"She found out about the items for sale in the back room," said Ginny insinuatingly.
"Eet is terribly unfair," declared Fleur, brandishing the end of a baguette, "zat zee boys were allowed their nose-biting teacups, yet girls exploring their own femininity are too shocking to be allowed."
"Mum's always been old-fashioned," said Ginny. "And she had to do something after all the Gryffindors were dosed with love potion. The place was a madhouse."
"Zat is still no excuse for confining all students to zee castle," said Fleur. "Filius would nevair have punished everyone that way."
"It was brilliantly done," said Luna, delicately picking the peel off a grape. "We nearly had to cancel the end-of-year exams."
The teachers bickered good-naturedly, and Hermione's list of things to ask Coop grew exponentially. They had nearly finished the second bottle of champagne when there was a loud click, and Hermione was dismayed to see her door open and the headmistress step into her room.
"Hermione, dear, I was hoping we might have a— oh." She trailed off as she saw the food and champagne. "Well, this is cozy!" she exclaimed. "A little party with the girls," she said, sitting down between Fleur and Parvati on the sofa and spreading a healthy bit of cheese onto a piece of toast. "So, ladies, how are things? Have you finished all your Christmas shopping?"
Fleur, Ginny, and Parvati exchanged glances. "Holidays have only just started, Mum," said Ginny. "And you wanted us to be here today, so we've not had much time just yet."
"Things do have a way of piling up at the holidays," said Molly with a sigh. "That's why I start my Christmas preparations in September. What about you, Parvati? Will your parents be visiting again?"
"Yes. Padma and Terry had them last Christmas, and they've been traveling, so they haven't seen Charlie and the twins since Easter."
Molly clucked her tongue sympathetically. "You must be up to your ears in preparations."
Padma frowned. "I suppose."
"And you, Fleur?"
"You know perfectly well zat Bill and I are spending the 'olidays with Victoire and Teddy in Fiji. Zee trip has been planned for months, and we 'ave already packed."
Molly placed her hand on her cheek in distress. "Oh, didn't you hear? There's been some trouble with the government."
"It is Fiji," said Fleur, "zehr is always government trouble."
"It must be particularly bad," said Molly, "because the Ministry has suspended international Portkeys there."
"'ave they?" asked Fleur, looking at Molly suspiciously.
"My word, yes!" exclaimed Molly. "My dear, I'm so very sorry. All the time you spent planning, all for naught! I suspect you'll be very busy trying to figure out an alternate plan before Christmas, won't you?"
"If what you say is true," said Fleur, "Bill and I will 'ave much to do."
"Just remember that you're always welcome at Hogwarts," said Molly, patting Fleur's knee.
"Thank you," said Fleur coolly.
Hermione could see where Molly was steering the conversation and decided to play along. "Well, it sounds like you are all terribly busy with your families. You don't need to stay on my account."
"I'm not busy," said Luna, who was gazing fondly at the ceiling. "My father is taking the children on a field mission to Burma, but they'll be back in time for Christmas dinner."
"Your time can't be that unoccupied," replied the headmistress. "You're teaching the unit on dragons when the children return."
"Oh, I'm done with preparations," said Luna. "I even had Charlie review my plans, and he says they're fine."
"Well," said Molly, flushing a little. "Mr. Filch reported an infestation of Nargles in the mistletoe he used to decorate the entire castle. I'll be needing you to check every spray."
Luna shook her head sadly. "I told Neville to use the Nargle repellent! Oh well, nothing for it. I'll see you later, Hermione."
"I'd better go, too," said Parvati unhappily. "It was good to see you."
Hermione began to pack up the leftover food, but Fleur gestured for her to stop. "Keep it," she said. "You will be glad to 'ave it later, I think. Be sure to save the last bottle of champagne for a special occasion."
Fleur gave her a hug and the Frenchwoman kissed both her cheeks, whispering quickly. "Do not worry, we will not leave you alone for long."
Hermione smiled and bade her friends farewell. When she had closed the door, she found Molly peeling an orange.
"Now that we're alone, there are a few rules I wanted to discuss with you. As you may have gathered, some things have changed since you were a student here. I took the liberty of preparing a list of the most important rules, though I figured it might be easier to run through them face-to-face, in case you have any questions."
"Thank you, Molly. That's very thoughtful." Hermione sighed inwardly and prepared herself for a long evening.
The afternoon stretched into the evening as Molly detailed where Hermione was to be at each hour of each day for the next week. Unsurprisingly, after Molly finally departed Hermione was asleep before her head hit the pillow. The next morning, in accordance with the headmistress's instructions, she rose from her bed in the predawn dark and made her way to the Great Hall with her Mag-Spec and field notebook. She was pleased to find the hall completely empty, save for a cup of tea that a House Elf had undoubtedly brought for her. Molly had cautioned her against using her Mag-Spec in public places at times when others were to be around, but the hall was empty, and to ensure that she wouldn't violate Molly's commands, Hermione cast a spell on the far side of the main doorway to alert her to anyone's approach.
She felt a shiver of anticipation as she walked to the center of the hall and turned on the Mag-Spec. The screen immediately lit with literally hundreds of lines of different shapes, colors, and thicknesses, which she flash-copied to her notebook. Not even in the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic had she ever seen such strong and varied spellwork.
She immediately recognized a series of squiggles as the same basic protection spells that she'd seen in her room, and a faint parabola in the periphery of the viewable field was clearly part of the school's Muggle-repelling charm. There were also a handful of doors to what were probably magically created spaces — coat closets, most likely. She was particularly impressed by the brilliant silver curve that represented the ceiling charm.
She tapped her wand on the screen to more closely view the ceiling charm and paused. The silver line was more clearly visible, but the contrast was poor. She tapped the screen to turn the dark grey background white, and gasped. The dull gray background of the Mag-Spec screen was not empty as she had thought, but completely obscured by a thick scribble in an identical shade of gray. But before she had the chance to process this, the scribble faded into the white background.
Hermione stared at the screen, dumbfounded. The histogram was both larger and more random than anything she'd ever seen before, by far the strongest spell she'd attempted to analyze. If she could determine its locus, then she'd be able to map it using the Mag-Spec. Hermione shut her eyes, reaching out with her magic for the source of the spell, but it was too strong. It resonated through the whole hall, probably throughout the entire castle.
That was a pretty puzzle. If she couldn't graph the spell, then perhaps a closer look at its structure would reveal something about its purpose. She entered a command into the Mag-Spec, and all the other lines disappeared. For good measure, she turned the background purple so she could see the structure of the spell more readily. To her surprise, the histogram of the spell disappeared into the new background.
Hermione stared at the screen incredulously for a moment before she burst out laughing. The spell was adapting so as not to be discovered! Now this was a proper test!
She pressed several buttons, which set the screen to rotating through the display's two-hundred odd colors at random, which she hoped would distract the spell sufficiently to allow her to examine its structure more closely. To her satisfaction, the spell wasn't quite able to keep up with the color changes, and she flash-copied the now-visible spell into her notebook. However, the pattern was no more comprehensible than when she could barely see it. It looked like as if something had been thoroughly scribbled out in marker pen.
Hermione tapped her wand on the screen repeatedly, viewing the spell at even closer range. The flashing screen made it somewhat difficult to make out, but at about the sixteenth or so tap of her wand, the line she was examining suddenly became clearer, and she could see that each line was made up of smaller, perpendicular lines. Encouraged, she kept tapping her wand to the screen, viewing the spell at an increasingly smaller scale when suddenly she saw them. Though they were still blurry from lack of resolution, she was surprised to realize that the tiny lines were made of up words.
She had never seen anything like it. Hardly daring to believe what she'd found, Hermione tapped her wand on the Mag-Spec screen until she could read the words whose endless repetition formed the backbone of the bizarre spell.
The Potions teacher of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry is Severus Snape.
Three things suddenly became clear to Hermione at that moment. First, that the brilliant, maddening spell she'd discovered and forced to reveal its secrets was none other than the Fidelius Charm. Second, that her Mag-Spec had worked beyond her wildest expectations. Third, that she was not alone in the hall.
Severus Snape, the most despised man in the Wizarding World was sitting at the high table bent over a plate of eggs and toast.