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Exotic Matter

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Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.
~ Kurt Vonnegut

Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?
~ Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad

I.

The smell of old parchment and ink sends a thrill of nostalgia through Hermione. It’s been a long time since she’s sat in an office like this one, with its antique mahogany desk and shelves of leather-bound books.

“You were the first person we considered for the job,” Mr Babcock says when they exchange the necessary pleasantries and get down to discussing the matter at hand.

Hermione can’t quite believe that, but she lets him go on.

“Your edition of Hogwarts: A History was masterful.”

“That was twenty years ago, Mr Babcock. I’ve retired from editing.”

“Yes, but we thought we could tempt you out of retirement for this project. We’re prepared to offer you a substantial advance.”

Hermione has little interest in the advance, although a bit of extra money wouldn’t hurt now that Ron has taken his retirement from the Aurors. What stayed Hermione’s initial impulse to decline the meeting with Diagon Alley’s oldest publisher was the project Mr Babcock dangled in front of her: a complete revision of his company’s flagship property, the National Dictionary of Wizarding Biography.

“No one is as qualified as you for the modernisation of important reference works, Madam Granger-Weasley,” Babcock says.

What he means is that no one is as likely to quell complaints that the book leans heavily towards pure-bloods and wizards. He wants her for her name, not her editorial skills. Nevertheless, she knew before she even met Mauritius Babcock that she’d take the job.

“I have a few conditions,” she says.

“Name them.”

“One, I get approval on all writers for the project. Two, I control the editorial budget. Three, I write the entries of my choosing.”

Babcock adjusts his collar and says, “Done.”

~oOo~

Childress’s office is a welcome oasis in an edifice that is, given its purpose, peculiarly modern. Or “modern”, Hermione thinks, adding the editorial quotation marks in her head.

The National Museum of Wizarding History has that sleek, airy look, at the same time brightly optimistic and grimly industrial, that was so popular in the first decades of the twenty-first century. It’s meant to evoke the clean, uncluttered future everyone hoped would be forthcoming after the upheavals of the previous century, but it just depresses Hermione.

Like everything else, this shiny new building will eventually become a relic, a fixed point in a transient story, representing nothing more than the particular anxieties of its era.

The curator of the museum’s rare manuscripts division has attempted to mitigate the unrelenting glare of the glass, cement, and metal of his surroundings with reassuring materials from a bygone era, and Hermione’s shoulders relax as she sits in a chair upholstered in cracked cognac-coloured leather.

“You have your work cut out for you, Madam Granger-Weasley,” Childress is saying. “There’s an enormous amount there. We accessioned all the books and papers after the Ministry finally released McGonagall’s estate from probate last year, but we simply haven’t had time to go through it all, what with the modernisation project.

“Modernisation?”

“We’re Transfiguring all the Museum’s books and papers from parchment to digital format.”

The shadow that passes across his face is gone as quickly as it has come, and Hermione feels a glimmer of sympathy. She sometimes imagines that she is suspended in the æther, watching helplessly as time strips away the familiar and the dear.

“I quite understand,” she says.

What she does not voice aloud is her suspicion that the proper archiving of Minerva McGonagall’s papers will never be a priority. Minerva, to Hermione’s everlasting annoyance, is generally treated as a footnote in the Dumbledore hagiography.

She suppresses an urge to sigh when Childress smiles across the desk at her and asks the only question anyone ever seems to have about Minerva.

“So, are you going to solve the mystery about where she went after the war?”

Twenty minutes later, she’s seated at one of the pristine cement-slab desks in a chilly reading room and tries not to think about how much she’d rather be in a dusty carrel in the bowels of the Bodleian.

As Childress implied, Minerva’s papers are a disorganised mess. At least they’re well cared-for: the protective spells are all in place, a Bubble Charm around the boxes to keep moisture out and oxidisation to a minimum. And Childress’s young assistant goes through proper handling procedure with her. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him that she was doing this decades before he was born, so she lets him show her the variation of the Impervious for her fingers and the correct way to turn pages with her wand so as to flex the leaves as little as possible.

She takes an hour or so to organise everything into vaguely chronological order, then begins looking at letters, surprisingly affectionate, from Lachlan McGonagall to his daughter, apparently the only personal things from her Hogwarts years that she kept. They shed little light on Minerva’s life at the time, although Hermione gathers that young Minerva had trouble making friends.

A crinkled Muggle photo is enclosed with one of the letters. On the back is written in faded script: Moorehead, 1934.

Scanning the faces of pinafored little girls, she homes in on one in the second row from the top. The girl has long plaits and wears a serious expression that Hermione thinks she recognises. Of course, all the girls in the picture look sombre, and she supposes that life in the upper reaches of Caithness circa 1934 gave them little to smile about.

Making a note of the school’s name and the date, she replaces the photo with the letter and puts them back into the envelope.

II.

Minerva put her hands over her ears, but it was no use. They could probably hear her father as far away as Wick.

“I’ll not have it, Aurelia! The child needs an education.”

Minerva couldn’t make out her mother’s murmured reply, but her father’s booming voice continued to carry as he said, “What, from that lackwit who gave you your letters and numbers? No, thank you.”

She gave up covering her ears and sat on her bed, opening her clandestine copy of The Time Machine to where she’d left off. Squinting hard, she stared at the page, hoping that the extra effort would somehow transform the lines and arcs into something she could decipher.

Defeated, she took the hated specs from her pocket and put them on. Someday she was going to invent a spell that would cure astigmatism.

She couldn’t hear her mother’s soft voice, but she could guess what she was saying well enough. It was always the same argument. Mother didn’t think Minerva should be at a Muggle school, and Father thought a tutor a waste of money.

While Minerva privately agreed with her father’s opinion of her mother’s education, she couldn’t help hoping her mother would prevail so she could leave Moorehead. The other girls were stupid and coarse, and Mary Gordon had been merciless ever since Minerva had got her spectacles.

Mary had got what she deserved, though.

Minerva smiled a little when she remembered the stupid, shocked look on Mary’s face when the skipping rope she’d been holding turned into a hissing snake. The other girls had scattered, screaming, while Mary had seemed unable to move. Minerva had had to knock the snake out of Mary’s hands before it bit the girl.

Still, a pang of guilt shot through her. The incident had caused trouble for her parents, even though she’d overheard the Obliviator the Ministry sent tell her mother that it had been an impressive bit of Transfiguration, especially for unintentional magic.

The row downstairs was apparently not over. “If Muggles are such a terrible influence, you shouldn’t have married one!” her father shouted.

Minerva looked back at her book, the pleasure of Wells’s words filling her and gradually crowding out everything else.

Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future.

III.

“Madam Granger-Weasley?”

Hermione looks up to see the freckled face of the assistant, Tristan Rowle, looking down at her.

“Sorry to interrupt you, but I got you a coffee.”

“Thank you, Mr Rowle.”

“Call me Tristan.”

“Thank you, Tristan. You shouldn’t have gone to all that trouble.”

His face reddens. “It was no trouble. I was going to get one during my break, and I thought you could use something hot. It’s pretty chilly in here, and with the regulations against spellcasting, I was worried you might be cold. It’s against the rules to drink it in here, but I thought we could . . . um . . . go to my office. If you want.”

“A break would do me good,” she says, standing, flexing and rotating her stiff shoulders and rolling her neck. She follows him to a closet-sized room that houses a metal desk, a holoscreen, and not much else.

“I didn’t know how you take it, so I brought some of that powdered cream and some sugar,” Tristan pulls a hand out of his pocket and proffers the items, looking at her from under his thick lashes. His face is now blotched all over with pink evidence of his nervousness. Ron has the same pale, freckled skin, and every emotion maps itself out on it, which has proven useful over the thirty-seven years of their marriage.

“That was very kind of you,” she says.

She puts a little creamer and one packet of sugar into her cup and stirs with a finger. When she pulls it out and sticks it in her mouth to clean it, she keeps her gaze steady on Tristan, who blinks rapidly.

A guilty little thrill runs through her. It took her years to grow into the idea of her own attractiveness, and after spending some time castigating herself for being so shallow, she also came to accept that she enjoyed that kind of masculine attention. She isn’t insecure about Ron’s continued attraction to her, but it’s been at least a couple of years since she’s been aware of another man of any age looking at her that way. She’d thought that, at sixty-two, her time turning heads was finally over, and it has surprised her to mourn that loss. But this young man, who can’t be more than twenty or twenty-one, blushes and stammers in her presence, and it makes her want to be just a little bit naughty.

“You’ve been really helpful, Tristan,” she says. “I wouldn’t be making nearly so much progress without you.”

He grins shyly at her. “My pleasure, Madam Granger-Weasley.”

There’s a smudge of what’s probably ink on his chin.

That was me, forty years ago, Hermione thinks. Or might have been. But her status as a war hero had catapulted her over other young people, and no one had believed she’d want to slog along as a lowly intern in a library or museum. After a few years of trying to learn her trade, making her mistakes in the unforgiving light of childhood notoriety, she fled to the Muggle world for respite. Ron waited for her, a thing that surprised everyone but Hermione and Harry.

Tristan lapses into shy silence, and Hermione lets it hang. The idea of flirting with the young man has lost its appeal suddenly, and she’s eager to get back to her work.

~oOo~

While she prefers traditional, which is not to say retro, décor in libraries and museums, and paper and ink for reading, Hermione isn’t among the wizards and witches who bemoan the incursion of technology—Muggle technology being the unspoken objection—into the wizarding world, and it pleases her to know she had a small hand in making it happen.

The holoscreen flickers in front of her, and she thinks at it: Daily Prophet. 1943. Whole year.

Quaérite.”

Within seconds of her verbal command, a list of files appears.

Minerva McGonagall. M-I-N-E-R-V-A-space-M-C-G-O-N-A-G-A-L-L.

She’s so used to spelling out the name in her head, she could probably do it in her sleep. Hell, she probably does.

Quaérite.”

Only one file comes up this time, and she says, “Acquirite.

It turns out to be an old scan, from the days when they were still using pure Muggle technology rather than the new Transfiguration techniques, to digitise documents.

Teen Witch Becomes Animagus

LONDON. Minerva McGonagall, aged 17 years, became the youngest documented Animagus in British history when she registered her form, Felis catus, or common house cat, with the Ministry of Magic yesterday. According to registrar Leslie Milford, only ten other individuals have registered since the Ministry de-criminalised and regulated Animagi in 1803.

It is unusual, Milford said, for anyone to undertake the hazardous training outside of official Ministry channels, as texts related to human-to-animal Transfiguration have long been suppressed as containing Dark magic. “It’s a grey area,” he replied when asked about the legality of McGonagall’s unapproved training.

McGonagall declined to be interviewed for this article, but her registration form was signed by Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore, who says she first achieved the transformation last month, after a year of private study.

“Miss McGonagall is an inquisitive young woman and an extraordinarily talented witch. She did not expect to achieve transformation so soon. Had she realised how rapidly she was progressing, she would certainly have alerted the Ministry earlier,” Dumbledore said.

McGonagall will return to Hogwarts in September to complete her N.E.W.T. studies in Transfiguration, Charms, Magical Defense, and Arithmancy. “We are very proud of Miss McGonagall’s achievement,” said Hogwarts Headmaster Armando Dippett.

IV.

“Hullo, Puss,” Professor Dumbledore said, reaching down to scratch her between the ears.

Minerva arched into his caress and allowed the sheer physical pleasure of it to wash over her. She rolled over and exposed her white belly, which would make her blush remembering it even hours later. He rubbed obligingly, and when he stopped, she flipped back over and butted her head against his leg.

“You look as if you could do with a saucer of cream,” he said, scooping her up in his arms and carrying her into his office.

She’d been anxious to surprise him with what she could do, but now she was torn between popping back into her human form and staying as she was to see if he would pet her some more.

“I could do with some tea myself,” he said and put her down on the desk.

He summoned a house-elf, who brought the tea and some cream for Minerva. She lapped it up, enjoying the sweet, grassy aroma and the way the fat-heavy droplets pulled on her whiskers.

She settled herself carefully next to his papers and sat purring on his desk as he marked essays. When he put down his quill, yawning, he said, “I think I’d best leave the rest of these till morning.”

He took her to the door and set her down just outside it, dashing her half-formed hope that he might take her to his quarters, or even let her sleep at the foot of his bed.

“Off you go, Puss,” he said. “Back to your rightful place.”

The exercise was repeated on two more occasions, Minerva promising herself that she’d reveal her secret each time, each time failing to do so. There was something so intoxicating about being an animal, with no expectations of propriety, free to enjoy her physical being and the touch of a man who would never lay a finger on her in her human form. She couldn’t bring herself to give it up just yet.

It would be a game, she told herself. See how long it would take him to figure out that his nocturnal visitor was not a cat, but the young woman he’d known for almost seven years. The markings around her eyes would give it away eventually.

It was after the third time that disaster struck. She was padding round the corner from his office when sharp-nailed fingers closed around her neck and she was lifted by the scruff.

She yowled, hoping Dumbledore would hear her, but no such luck. The swipe of a clawed paw at the pale, handsome face of Tom Riddle missed, leaving her twisting helplessly, four legs paddling in empty air.

He shook her until she thought her bones would rip from their sockets. She tried to concentrate on re-transforming, and it was only the thought that if he killed her, she might remain in cat form and no one would know what had become of her that sobered her enough to achieve it.

She fell to the floor, pain shooting through the wrist she’d managed to put down to break her fall. Riddle was standing over her, a satisfied smirk on his face.

“Well, well, well,” he said as she got carefully to her feet. “And just what have you been up to, McGonagall? Catting around Dumbledore’s office?”

“It isn’t any of your concern,” she said, straightening her skirt with her good hand.

“Maybe not,” he said. “But unregistered Animagi are the Ministry’s concern. I hear you can get five years in Azkaban for it. And Dippet might be interested to know that you’ve been having night-time rendezvous with Dumbledore. Did he teach you just so you could meet him in secret?”

“He didn’t. I—”

“I’ll bet he just loves to pet his pussy.”

She felt her cheeks grow warm.

“You’re disgusting,” she said.

“I’m not the one who’s messing about with my Transfiguration professor. Anyway, I might be persuaded to forget what I know. For a price.”

Her belly turned over, but what he said next wasn’t what she expected.

“If you tell me how you did it, I won’t say a word to anyone about you and Dumbledore.”

“There’s nothing like that between us,” she said. “He doesn’t even know I’m an Animagus.”

“Who’s going to believe that, Minerva?”

“It’s the truth.”

“The truth is what’s written in the history books. And if I tell, he’ll be put down as a lecher and you a whore.”

The unfairness of it made her want to scream. It had started out as a harmless experiment, a way to impress her professor, and now it threatened her reputation and his livelihood unless she agreed to help Riddle, a boy she loathed and who, truth be told, frightened her.

“So what’s it to be, Minerva? Do you help me, or do I go to Dippet?” The way his eyes shone and the sly curl of his lip almost made her tell him to go jump in the Black Lake. But it wasn’t only her reputation at stake.

“I found the instructions in a book.”

“Which book?”

She hesitated.

“All right, then,” he said, and turned to go.

Secrets of the Darkest Art,” she said to his back.

He turned back to her.

“Get it for me.”

“I don’t have it. It’s in the library. The Restricted Section. You’ll need a pass.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Riddle said. The cold, calculating look he had worn suddenly broke, and he smiled, a dazzling, genuine-seeming grin, and the rapid change scared her more than anything he’d done that evening.

“Thanks, Minerva. You’re a peach,” he said, turning to head down the stairs to the dungeon.

The retreating sound of his jolly whistling broke her paralysis.

Ignoring the pain in her wrist, Minerva turned and raced in the opposite direction, up four flights of stairs, and pounded with her good hand on the door to Dumbledore’s quarters.

He appeared a moment later, his robes unbuttoned to mid-chest, a frown creasing his brows.

“Professor, I have to tell you something.”

“It’s after midnight, Miss McGonagall, can’t it wait until morning?”

“I’m afraid it can’t, sir. I’ve done something terribly foolish.”

V.

Hermione looks around the table and wonders when she became the Weasley matriarch. She would have thought it would be Angelina, since she and George moved into the Burrow with Arthur after Molly’s death, or Ginny, as the only Weasley daughter, but it didn’t work out that way.

Everyone seems to gather at Hermione and Ron’s in St Albans for family occasions.

Earlier this afternoon, as he did the spellwork to temporarily enlarge the dining room, Ron said, “The house won’t weather too many more Expansion Charms. We might have to think about buying something bigger.”

She threw her washrag at him and he grinned at her.

They’ve been talking about trading down into a flat ever since Hugo moved out fifteen years ago, but somehow, it has never happened.

“How are things at the W4C, Hugo?” Harry asks as they eat Ron’s special “Blood-Traitor Chicken,” so named because of the red wine sauce it swims in, and served because Arthur has requested it for his birthday dinner.

“Good, Uncle Harry. Keeping me busy.”

“What I want to know is, when is Wamazon going to let us get one-minute delivery from America?” says James. “I had to wait a week for my new Harley.”

Hugo shrugs. “Ask the guys in the Unspeakables when Telefiguration will work over really long distances.”

James turns to his brother, who is, in fact, an Unspeakable. “It can’t be that big a deal.”

“It is if you want your fancy new American broom to arrive in one piece,” says Albus. “It’s a hugely complicated Transfiguration problem, getting all those particles to reconfigure themselves the right way. The longer the distance, the greater the acceleration problems. See, the tachyons—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Professor. I don’t need a lecture on Transfiguration. I just asked a simple question.”

“Speaking of Transfiguration and Unspeakables,” Ginny says over her elder son’s words, “how’s the McGonagall bio going, Hermione? Figured out where she disappeared to?”

“Not yet.” She doesn’t tell them she hasn’t even got into Minerva’s thirties yet. They already think she’s a bit barmy, working so hard on a single biographical entry in a book only old codgers buy.

She says, “As a matter of fact, Al, I was going to ask for your help.”

“Sure, Aunt Hermione. What can I do for you?”

“I wondered if you could see if there’s anything about Minerva in the Department of Mysteries files.”

“Which files are we talking about? I don’t have access to everything.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to look for anything classified, but maybe just do a search for her name. See what comes up.”

“I can do that. What years was she with the DOM?”

“Nineteen fifty-two to nineteen fifty-six.”

“I’ll look.”

“Wow, you’re really dedicated to getting the full story, aren’t you, Aunt Hermione?” Lily says.

Hugo coughs loudly, saying under it, “Obsessive. Obsessive.”

Hermione feels the heat rise to her cheeks.

“Tenacious. Curious,” says Ron, looking at her with a gentle smile. “Thank Merlin, or we wouldn’t have got out of half the trouble we got into at school, right Harry?”

“Too right, mate.”

VI.

The contents of Minerva’s stomach hit the floor with a wet, smacking sound. When she straightened up, Scrimgeour handed her a handkerchief.

“Are you all right?” he asked as he Vanished the mess at her feet.

She nodded, still dabbing at the corners of her mouth with the handkerchief. At least she’d decided on bland oatmeal for breakfast this morning, in the hope that she’d get to do another trial. The last few had been short jumps, just a day or two, but the longer the interval, the worse the nausea. She’d been gobsmacked when the head of the Time and Space Division, George Muldur, had given her leave to go back an entire month.

“You got the time recorded?” she asked.

“Right here,” Rufus said, tapping his notebook with his wand.

He performed the spell to unseal the door to the jump lab, and Minerva followed him into the Time Room.

“Are you sick?” he asked as she sat down at her desk.

She quirked her mouth up at him. “No, I’m fine. It’s just a little nausea. I expected it,” she said as she took her lab notebook and a quill from a drawer to make her notes. She thought for a moment, then wrote herself a reminder:

Talk w/? at St M re: anti-emetic potion. Direct effect on dig. tract or systemic? If direct, won’t work?

She looked up when she felt him staring at her.

“What is it?” she asked.

“You’re not . . . you don’t think you’re . . .”

“What?”

“You know. In trouble.”

It took her a few moments to twig to what he meant.

She laughed. “Of course not! What in the world gave you that idea?”

He looked at her for another moment, then crossed the room to fetch the tea kettle.

She turned back to her notes and murmured a thanks without looking up when he set a cup down beside her. His hands on her shoulders made her jump.

Throwing her quill down on her desk, she asked, “Rufus, what are you doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve asked you before not to do that.”

“What?”

“Touch me like that.”

He laughed, and she swivelled around in her chair to look up at him, annoyed. He wore the knowing smile that alternately infuriated and enchanted her.

The smile slipped from his face.

“You’re serious?”

“Of course. Your pawing at me isn’t helping us get our work done.”

He opened his mouth as if to say something, then snapped it shut, his oddly yellow eyes seeming to cloud over.

“Yes. Right. Sorry, Minerva.”

He took his teacup and went to his desk. Instead of drinking it or pulling out his notebook, though, he just sat, gazing across the room to the Bell Jar, where the hummingbird was making its way to the top. Minerva followed his gaze, and when the bird fell and became a chick, once again locked into its egg, a wave of melancholy passed over her.

She looked back at her notes, focussing her mind on the work at hand.

“Rufus, can you read back to me what you got from Feynman on time-reversal symmetry?”

“Come again?”

“When you saw him last week. There was something he said about the self-energy problem, but I can’t remember what you told me.”

“I didn’t see Feynman last week.”

“Of course you did. You went to California.”

“Minerva, I never went to California. Remember? I . . . er . . . I forgot to get the authorisation for the Trans-Continental Portkey. I sent the form in yesterday, though. I thought we were going to go together this weekend.”

Minerva looked down at her notebook and went back a few pages. An icy feeling swept over her as she looked, turning page after page. There were notes there, but they were scant, and different from what she remembered writing. It was as if they’d done little over the past few weeks. But they’d been working late into the evenings at the lab, Rufus getting more and more familiar, Minerva’s resolve to keep their relationship strictly professional becoming harder and harder to maintain.

Oh, Merlin.

She fingered the prototype around her neck, wondering what would happen the next time she tried it.

Her quill raced across the parchment:

Trial #6 – 02/07/56. Target = 29.75 days (1785h)

Jumper: Minerva McGonagall
Control: Rufus Scrimgeour.

Retrotemporal Jump

Location: Timejump Laboratory, Department of Mysteries, Ministry of Magic, London.

Departed:02/07/1956; 14:53:42h

Arrived: 03/06/1956; 08:54:26h

Rotations: 36 , anticlockwise

Observations: Nausea +4, disorientation +2. No other biological sequellae noted.

R-control (Rufus Scrimgeour) confirmed arrival date & time. R-control exhibited surprise, but no other observable reaction.

Established time-jump protocol followed, with one deviation: R-control provided a cup of water for jumper, but no other contamination of the timeline was observed.

Protemporal Jump:

Departed: 03/06/1956, 09:02:13h.

Arrived: 02/07/1956: 14:53:51

Rotations: 36, clockwise.

Observations: Nausea +6, disorientation +1. No other biological sequallae noted.

Conversation between jumper and control suggestive of significant timeline contamination.

She hesitated for a moment, then added:

Prev. notes on trials hv disappeared. GRANDFATHER PARADOX?????

“I remember now. The jump must have disoriented me more than I thought,” she said.

Reading from his notebook, Rufus said, “So that was a three-second interval for a two-hour jump. That gives us a 0.025 lapse coefficient. Not bad, but it’s bigger than for the one-hour jump.”

As he read, Minerva carefully tore the page she’d just written out of her notebook and slipped it into her pocket.

He was frowning down at his notes. “If we don’t work it out, we’ll never be able to go more than a couple of hours without risking serious temporal anomalies. And if your nausea is any indication, it could do serious harm to the jumper.”

She was about to tell him that she still wasn’t feeling well and needed to go home, when the door opened and Muldur strode in, obviously furious about something. His heavy brows were knit together until they almost touched, and Minerva noticed with a start that his wand was in his hands, almost as if he were going to hex someone.

“Scrimgeour. My office. Now.”

As Rufus crossed the room, flushed and stoop-shouldered, he shot a baleful glance at Minerva, and she got the impression that he knew what Muldur was so angry about. It couldn’t be about the latest problem, could it? Muldur couldn’t know about it, and besides, he would have called them on the carpet together.

Merlin’s bloody balls.

She got up and crossed the empty room to table that held the Bell Jar, leaning on her elbows to watch the bird in its Sisyphean flight.

Up.

Down.

Up.

Down.

Her nausea was gone, replaced by cold panic.

VII.

A rush of complicated emotions fills Hermione when she steps through the great oak doors of Hogwarts for the first time since leaving it forty-four years ago. Examining her reaction, she realises that it’s nostalgia for the time before the war changed her—changed them all—mixed with a physical memory of the anxiety that pricked at her almost constantly in those days. And other things too, for which she cannot find a name.

The gargoyle is the same surly thing he was during Hermione’s school days, but the spiral staircase no longer rotates upward. When she remarks on it, Neville pats his abdomen, saying, “Hannah’s after me to do something about this middle-aged paunch. I don’t get out in the garden as much as I’d like these days.”

The Headmaster’s office has changed dramatically since she was last in it. Gone are the oddments that festooned the place when Dumbledore occupied it. Plants of various colours and sizes—and odours, she notices as she passes through the room—sit on tables and cling to walls.

As she and Neville exchange the obligatory tidings of family and friends, Hermione wonders what this office would have looked like had Minerva ever occupied it. During her brief tenure as Headmistress, the Head’s tower was still being repaired and cleared of the Dark magic that had infected much of Hogwarts during the final battle, and when Hermione asked to see her, Minerva suggested they meet away from Hogwarts.

Things are still in disarray, and you’d choke on the dust, the Headmistress said, but Hermione suspected that Minerva understood that she was not yet ready to face her ghosts, actual or metaphorical.

“It was a shock when Headmistress McGonagall showed up in her portrait last year,” Neville says with a low chuckle. His smile fades, and he glances up at the painting that sits on the wall behind his desk, sandwiched in between Professors Snape and Vector. “I guess that means that she’s really dead,” he whispers.

“Yes.”

“Are you ready to speak to her? Shall I wake her?”

“Please.”

The visit is disappointing. Neville has told her to take as much time as she needs to talk to the portraits, but in the event, it takes only ten minutes.

Minerva’s portrait gives Hermione information she already knows; picture-Minerva claims only to know about her life after coming to Hogwarts to teach, and Dumbledore defers to Minerva when Hermione questions his portrait.

She’s anxious to leave. Magical portraits have always discomfited Hermione, and speaking to Minerva’s feels wrong somehow, as if she were speaking with an imposter behind the back of a friend. She’s been more than fifty years in the wizarding world, and some things still make her feel alien. Ron shrugged it off years ago when she confessed her discomfort; semi-sentient beings have always been part of his world, much as television and automobiles were once part of hers.

When she looks at the non-magical portrait of Snape, Neville says, “I know it’s a shame he never had the charmed one done, but to tell you the truth, it’s kind of a relief.”

Hermione laughs in understanding. She too has mixed feelings about Severus Snape. Hero or not, it’s hard for her to forget what an utter bastard he was. Harry won’t hear a word against him, of course, but Ron agrees with Hermione, privately.

“He was so horrible to you, and to Harry,” he said when they discussed Snape after the long-delayed ceremony at which an emotional Harry had awarded Snape the posthumous Order of Merlin. She found it dear of Ron to be so outraged on her behalf, and she later thought that it was the reason they’d finally consummated their relationship that evening, quietly, in her childhood room in her parents’ house.

She and Neville have tea and promise, as usual, to see one another more often, but each knows it won’t happen. She rarely sees anyone from her Hogwarts years anymore, except Harry and Ginny, and that’s only because she’s married to Ron.

At home, she finds Ron ensconced on the sofa with Lizzie, their seven-year-old granddaughter, looking at a photo album. Alexander, Lizzie’s four-year-old brother, is asleep on the carpet in front of the hearth, surrounded by a small armada of toy ships in bottles.

“Where did those come from?” Hermione asks after kissing her husband and granddaughter.

“Dad’s shed. I went over to help George and Angelina clear it out this morning, and Dad suggested I take them for the kids.”

“Looks like they were a hit.”

“Yeah,” Ron says, chuckling. “He wore himself out playing pirates.”

“And you, miss . . .” Hermione turns to Lizzie, giving her a tickle that makes her squeal with delight “What are you doing?”

“Granddad said I could look at pictures.”

“Oh?” Hermione says as though this were a big surprise. Lizzie is obsessed with photos and can spend hours poring over old pictures of people she’s never met. It gives Hermione pleasure to know that Lizzie prefers the old leather albums to the e-screen photo displays.

“You were pretty,” Lizzie says to Hermione.

“She’s still pretty,” Ron says.

Lizzie looks up at her grandmother as if considering. “Yah,” she says finally and turns the page of the album.

There’s a loud crack in front of the house.

“That’ll be Hugo. Come on, sweetpea,” Ron says to Lizzie, “Time to get your shoes and socks on. Daddy’s here.”

Alexander starts to cry. “Easy there, mate,” Ron says, “you can take those home with you. Your granny doesn’t want them cluttering up our house.”

Their visitor isn’t Hugo, after all, it’s Albus, and he has surprising news.

When he relates it, Hermione feels as if she’s been hit by a Bludger.

She asks, “How did you find this out?”

Al smiles sheepishly. “Turns out personnel files from before the turn of the century aren’t digitised. I just went down to the storage area—creepy place—and Accioed. Here.”

He holds out a roll of yellowing parchment. It’s been decades since she’s seen rolled parchment, and as she takes it, a frisson of pleasant memory washes over her. After years of writing on cheap school notebook paper, the purchase of her first ten feet of creamy parchment was a sensual experience to match her first kiss.

Al leaves, apologising for the short stay, but he has a date. Hermione and Ron know better than to ask who it is; the subject of Scorpius Malfoy is a sore one in their house and in the Potters’.

When he’s gone, Hermione says nothing, and Ron follows her into the kitchen. They move in harmony, Ron getting out the teapot and filling it with water, charming it hot as Hermione takes out the tea tin, cups, and spoons.

Hermione sips her tea quietly, the gears in her mind turning, trying to find purchase in the information she’s just been given.

Ron grins over his teacup. “Old McGonagall. Who would have thought it, huh?”

His glee irritates Hermione, and for a moment, she visualises herself dumping her tea over his head, but she’s long since learned to control her temper. Fighting with Ron stopped being fun thirty years ago.

“Why not?” she says.

“Well, she was so buttoned-up. It’s hard to think of her doing it.”

“So you thought she was a virgin all her life?” Hermione suspects that his assumption should irritate her further, but somehow it does not. She can only muster a vague amusement.

He says, “No . . . well . . . I guess I never thought about it.”

Hermione has. There was a time, during her fourth year, when the petting she and Viktor did in a disused classroom was growing more and more intense and she had no idea how to stop it without alienating him, or if she even wanted to stop it, that she thought quite a bit about Professor McGonagall and sex, and about the two together.

Her feelings for her professor were a complicated mixture. Her admiration for a smart, powerful witch was tempered with both envy and fear. The cloistered kind of life Minerva McGonagall led fascinated teenaged Hermione even as it repelled her. At eleven, twelve, even thirteen, a life devoted entirely to the mind had seemed enticing to her. Then, as her body began to change and exert new and strange imperatives, it occurred to Hermione that her teacher probably experienced—or had done—similar longings, and she began to wonder how Professor McGonagall managed them. Because there were times when Hermione thought she might go mad with wanting something she shouldn’t have. Then, when she discovered how to touch herself, she wondered if Professor McGonagall did the same. It became a sort of loop, the thoughts of her professor touching herself filling Hermione’s mind as her hand moved under her knickers. Professor McGonagall does this, she sometimes thought while she masturbated. In her daytime self, she rejected the notion entirely, but at night, as her fingers stroked and probed, it seemed an arousing certainty.

Hermione supposes now that she’s never quite got over her crush on Minerva McGonagall. The entry in the National Dictionary of Wizarding Biography took up residence in the forefront of her brain almost at the moment Babcock proposed the project to her. Ron actually suggested she consider writing a biography, but she dismissed the idea while wondering how much Ron suspected of her feelings. A biography felt too personal, or at least, too soon. But she found herself brooding over the short paragraph in Hogwarts: A History. She didn’t write it herself, and the terseness of it still bothers her.

The clink of teaspoon against teacup pulls her out of her thoughts, and she says to Ron, “I would imagine Minerva lived as full a life as anyone.”

“Yeah, but Rufus Scrimgeour? Her boss’s son-in-law? That doesn’t sound anything like the Minerva we knew.”

We didn’t know her, Ronald.”

His mouth quirks downward for a moment at hearing his full name. She only uses it when she’s trying to wrong-foot him, make him feel like the awkward, always-one-step-behind boy he was. There was a time during their marriage when she used it often, but it’s been years since it’s passed her lips.

“I’m going up,” she says.

She puts the parchment Al has left in her briefcase and climbs the stairs to bed.

Ron follows a minute later, and when he gets into bed, she presses herself against him in silent apology.

They make love, quietly and with little urgency. As Ron moves within her, she tries to picture what Rufus Scrimgeour must have looked like as a young man, how he would have been with Minerva.

When it is over, Ron asks, “You all right?”

“Fine. Why?”

“You didn’t come.”

“Too tired tonight, I guess.”

“Do you want me to finish you off?”

“No, it’s okay.”

He holds her, though, and it’s nice. As she drifts towards sleep, she thinks, This is my life. And it is good.

~oOo~

The next morning, Hermione looks through the parchment Al has given her. There, at the top, in faded black ink is the reason for Ministry employee number 1003’s dismissal.

“Improper relations” is the term used, and Hermione wonders how the powers that were at the Ministry found out about the affair. Scrimgeour obviously didn’t get the sack, or at least, wasn’t forced out of the Ministry, and for a few moments, Hermione lets anger stop her from reading further.

She scans the rest of the parchment. There’s the predictable information about wages, a notation that the Non-Disclosure Charm had been renewed on 5 April 1956, and several entries describing in frustratingly vague terms the projects Minerva was involved in. Then, about midway down the document, Hermione stops.

Minerva and Scrimgeour are listed as the patent-holders, along with the DOM, on the first prototype of a Time-Turner.

Hermione’s thoughts are propelled back to her third year at Hogwarts and Professor McGonagall’s office.

Tell no one you have it. The Ministry was very clear on this. And you must never use it for any purpose other than the one we have discussed. It isn’t that I don’t trust you, Miss Granger, but the temptation to change the past has proven too great for older and more experienced mages than you, so I must impress upon you the dangers of trying to do so. More than one person experimenting with time travel has thought to make a small change and inadvertently killed him- or herself, wiping out entire families with one stroke.”

I understand, Professor. But please, if I may ask . . . if someone went back to the past and was killed, wouldn’t they no longer exist in our present? So how do we know about it?”

Professor McGonagall took off her glasses, and for a moment, Hermione thought she saw a smile curve her lips. But it was quickly replaced—if it was ever even there—with the thin mauve line that was part and parcel of the professor’s normal expression.

There have been those who have used it . . . in times of extremis. To save a life. There was a witch who travelled back to save her husband. The witch was killed, and the husband survived only to find that their children had never been born.”

Wow,” Hermione said, “I can’t imagine how awful that was for the wizard.”

When she went to the Hogwarts library to look for books on time travel, she found very little, and nothing about the incident that Professor McGonagall had described. She had meant to ask the professor about it, but by the time the events of that year had played out, it had slipped Hermione’s mind. When she went to turn in the Time-Turner, though, she felt a pang of regret: here was a fascinating branch of magic that she would have liked to study further. She asked Professor McGonagall to recommend a course of study.

You would have to join the Unspeakables if you wanted to study time travel in a wizarding context, Miss Granger. But I would recommend studying Muggle physics. The work of Frank Tipler, Igor Novikov, Hugh Everett, and Joseph Polchinski in particular.”

Later, when Hermione went up to Oxford to read history and linguistics, she sat in on some Physics Department lectures on special relativity and stochastic processes, but found them largely impenetrable and bewildering.

In the increasingly rare instances when she’s thought back to the surreal events of her Hogwarts years, she’s occasionally wondered if Minerva was telling the whole truth about the Time-Turner’s provenance. Why, she has asked herself, would the Ministry have granted permission to a schoolgirl to use such a potentially dangerous magical object? She has never quite come to a satisfactory conclusion, and she thinks now that perhaps Minerva lied about having Ministry permission. There was no paperwork for Hermione to sign, no Ministry-approved training to attend, only Minerva’s stern warnings.