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PROLOGUE

“Ow!”  Hermione Granger glared at Ron Weasley, her hand reaching automatically to rub the spot where his elbow had made contact with her cheek.  This was the third time he’d accidentally knocked into her, but the first time he’d made contact with her head.  He didn’t seem to notice that he’d made contact and Hermione had to duck to avoid being hit again.

“You’re doing it all wrong!”  She napped, grabbing his wrist.  “The motion is like this…see?”  She demonstrated.  Weasley glared at her and pulled his arm out of her grasp.

“I got it.  You don’t need to be such a…”  Whatever rude name he was about to call her died on his lips as Professor McGonagall approached.

“Is there a problem here?” The stern woman was peering at them over her glasses.  Neville, wo was sitting on Hermione’s other side, made a small squeak and held very still, as if he thought she wouldn’t notice him if he didn’t move.

“No, Professor.”  Hermione said, quickly.  Early on in her primary school days, she’d learned that tattling only brought more trouble.

“No, professor.”  Weasley muttered.  The tips of his ears were so red that Hermione thought they might catch fire.

“Good.”  Professor McGonagall gave a sharp nod.  “Let me see how you’re progessing with the exercise.”  Neville let out another strangled squeak, while Ron shot Hermione a glare that implied that, somehow, it was her fault that they’d attracted the teacher’s attention.  Hermione lifted her chin in defiance.  She didn’t care what Ron Weasley thought of her—she loved magic and she was going to learn everything she possibly could about it. 

**

CHAPTER 1

**

MOLLY

Molly Weasley hated the month of September.  Every September 1, for the past thirteen years, she’d been forced to put at least one child on the train to Hogwarts.  She did so knowing that, when she saw them again, they would be changed almost beyond recognition.  It always took her a while to get used to the empty spaces that were left behind by those who were off at school.  She worried constantly about how they were faring in their classes, whether they were making friends and (in the case of the twins, at least), whether they were staying out of trouble.  It took a while for her to let go.

Molly knew that she was not the easiest person to live with in those first weeks after the Hogwarts Express left King’s Cross.  Her temper, which was volatile at the best of times, was on a hair-trigger and Arthur had taken to hiding the good china lest she decide to start throwing things.  The past two years had seen something of a reprieve; Molly’s relief at having the twins off her hands had gone a long way to mitigating her usual anxiety and no one new had gone away last year.  This year, however, “Hurricane Molly” was back in full force, stronger than ever. 

Parents weren’t supposed to have favorites, but Molly was honest enough with herself to admit that she had a soft spot for her youngest son.  Perhaps it was because he was born at the height of the war.  He had been the most vulnerable and, therefore, needed the most protection.  Even Ginny, who had been born months before the war’s abrupt conclusion, hadn’t seemed to need quite as much protection as Ron.  Perhaps it was because, as the youngest of the Prewett girls, Molly knew how difficult it was to stand out when you had older siblings.  Perhaps it was because she knew that Ron was not as clever or driven as his older brothers and would, thus, find it harder to make his way in the world.  Whatever the reason, putting him on the Hogwarts Express had been especially difficult and Molly had been on edge ever since.

Her mood was not improved by the fact that her youngest son was, quite possibly, the world’s worst correspondent.  Percy sent a letter every week, like clockwork and the twins, while not nearly as predictable, were prolific.  Molly was pleased (and a little bit surprised) to see that they even made a point of sending letters to their little sister, apart from those they sent to their parents.  Ron, on the other hand, had only written once, to announce that he had been Sorted into Gryffindor.  From Percy and the twins, Molly knew that her youngest son was alive and healthy and appeared to be making friends, but she still worried.

As if thinking of letters had summoned him, Errol, the family’s ancient owl, flew into the kitchen through the open window, barely managing to avoid crashing into the vase of flowers on the table as he landed.  He had three letters tied to his leg. With a happy cry, Molly swooped down onto the bird, barely managing to remember to prop him up on his perch next to his water dish before she sat down to read the letters from her children.

The first was from the twins and was addressed to Ginny, so Molly set it aside.  Ginny was currently visiting with Luna Lovegood, but would be back in time for supper.  The second letter was from Percy and mostly consisted of complaints about the twins.  The third letter was, Molly was thrilled to see, from Ron.  Eagerly, she tore it open and skimmed its contents.  The first part was comfortingly familiar—full of chatter about Ron’s new friends (Harry Potter!) and his teachers—but then Moly’s attention was caught by something unusual.

There’s this girl in our year who is really annoying.  Her name’s Hermione Granger and she’s an even bigger swot than Percy, if you can imagine that!  We were in Transfiguration today and she was showing off, as usual, and when I didn’t do the spell exactly right the first time, she grabbed my wand and did it herself!  She claimed she was just showing me how to do it “properly” but really, I just think she wanted to make me look stupid in front of Professor McGonagall…

Molly was the first to admit that she was hot-headed.  She usually made at least some effort to control her temper, but the thought that someone had deliberately insulted or humiliated her child was akin to a spark falling into a powder keg.  She saw red.  In the months and years to come, she would never be able to clearly remember pulling the distinctive red parchment out of the drawer in which writing supplies were kept.  She could never recall the words she shouted, nor the spell she’d used to motivate Errol to fly from the Burrow faster than he ever had before (although it must have been unpleasant, for the owl refused to come within wand range of her for the next year). She just remembered the anger and the feeling of satisfaction at having vented that anger that came over her when Errol was on his way. 

 **

MINERVA

It was a typical Saturday morning.  As Minerva McGonagall ate her porridge, she kept an eye on the students, looking for any signs of trouble.  It had been a quiet year, so far.  There was the usual inter-House tension, of course, but that didn’t tend to get out of hand until Quidditch season began.  There was all the kerfuffle over Harry Potter, but the young man himself was polite and seemed to be bewildered by all the attention, rather than flattered.  Since he wasn’t playing up to their expectations, the other students were moving on to other things.  Even Fred and George Weasley had limited themselves to a few small pranks that were confined to Gryffindor Tower, though Minerva suspected that they were only waiting for their chance to do something really spectacular.

All in all, Minerva’s only real complaint about the school year, so far, was that the staff had been forced to waste time shooing students away from the forbidden third-floor corridor.  Silently, Minerva cursed Albus Dumbledore for making that ridiculous announcement at the Opening Feast.  She had no idea what the old man was hiding in there, but that corridor was in a part of the castle that hadn’t been used for years.  If he had just kept his mouth shut, it was entirely likely that no one but the House-elves would have gone anywhere near it.  Now, however, it seemed that every student above third year was determined to see what was behind the locked door.

Minerva shot a glare at the Headmaster’s empty chair.  It was just like Albus…he had made a mess, then left her to clean it up.  If that wasn’t bad enough, he wouldn’t allow her to do her job in the most efficient way possible.  He’d vetoed her suggestion to ward the forbidden corridor against all but those permitted to enter and had acted horrified when Filius had suggested that a “Notice Me Not” charm be placed on the door, as though the Charms Master had suggested Obliviating anyone who stepped onto the third floor.  After declaring that he’d already taken all necessary security precautions, Albus had swanned off to deal with “pressing matters,” leaving her in charge of a school full of children who had just had a juicy mystery dropped into their laps.  So far, Mr. Filch, Mrs. Norris and the castle ghosts had managed to catch the little darlings before they’d set foot in forbidden territory, but Minerva knew it was only a matter of time before one slipped through the net. 

A parliament of owls swooped in through the enchanted windows, signaling the arrival of the morning post.  Minerva accepted her copy of the Daily Prophet and was just about to start reading when something drew her attention to the Gryffindor table.

“Oi Fred!”  Lee Jordan was pointing to one of the owls.  With a sinking heart, Minerva saw that the Weasley’s owl was clutching a bright red envelope.  “What did you do this time?”

“Wasn’t us.”  Fred shrugged. Lee’s shout had attracted attention from most of the Gryffindors and some of the Ravenclaws at the next table.  “Honest!” He added, giving a comical flinch as Percy glared at him.  Only half-conscious that she was doing so, Minerva nodded her agreement.  The twins weren’t likely to confess their sins to their mother, so Moly only sent them Howlers when Minerva informed her about a particularly foolish and/or dangerous prank.  Percy had never done anything to warrant so much as a disapproving note from his mother, let alone a Howler, so that just left Ron.  She frowned.

Minerva McGonagall liked Howlers.  They were a neat, efficient way to communicate one’s displeasure over long distances and ensured that there could be absolutely no confusion or obfuscation concerning the sender’s opinions and feelings.  However, she strongly disagreed with the practice of sending Howlers to children who were incapable of defending themselves or responding in kind.  As far as she was concerned, sending a Howler to a child was nothing more than practicing discipline through public humiliation.  Molly was particularly fond of using this method of punishment and Minerva wondered if she had any regard for what effect this might have on her children.  Since she’d eliminated Percy and the twins as potential targets, that left only Ronald, the youngest Weasley currently at Hogwarts.  Minerva’s lips pursed.  No matter what Ronald had done, he didn’t deserve to be shouted at in the Great Hall in the middle of breakfast.

Apparently, Percy Weasley didn’t agree.

“Ron, what did you do?” Minerva heard him hiss.  It appeared that Ron Weasley had been paying more attention to his breakfast than to what was going on around him, for he looked genuinely surprised to see the owl, which had just plowed into the platter of eggs in front of him.

“Didn’t do nothing!” Minerva could barely understand him through his mouthful of toast.

“It’s addressed to Hermione!”  Neville Longbottom gasped.  Minerva’s heart gave a lurch.  No….no no no nonononononononono!  Molly wouldn’t do that, would she?

“For me?”  Hermione Granger was sitting directly across the table from Ron, who was staring at her with his mouth hanging open.  “Oh, I wonder what it is….”  The entire table seemed frozen as Hermione gently took the bright red envelope from the owl.  “Oh, it’s pretty….” She said, as she slid her finger under the flap. 

“Hermione…”  Neville said in warning, but it was too late.  As soon as the flap was lifted, the letter sprang out of Hermione’s hand and hovered in the air in front of her startled face.

“Hermione Granger!  How DARE you take my son’s wand? If you were brought up properly, you would know that it isn’t your place to take another wizard’s wand!  I am THIS CLOSE to write your parents and give them a piece of my mind for not teaching you something that every child ought to know!  You listen to me, young lady, if you do not start showing some proper manners I will come up there and teach them to you myself!  It’s disgraceful!

With a final hiss, the Howler exploded into a shower of confetti that littered the table.  There was a moment of complete silence as everyone in the hall stared at the smoking remains of the Howler.  Then, Ron started to laugh, loud and hard.  Everyone seemed frozen, save for Ron, who had buried his head in his arm and was pounding the table with his fist, and Hermione Granger, who jumped off the bench and fled the Hall, tears streaming down her face.   

It was a full minute before anyone else moved or spoke.

“Ron!”  Minerva saw Percy Weasley give his brother a sharp poke.  “Stop that at once!” This seemed to have little effect.   Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil gave each other concerned looks, then stood and left the Hall together.  Presumably, they had gone after their distraught roommate which gave Minerva some slight comfort, though she made a mental note to ask the elves to ensure that there was an ample supply of biscuits laid out in her office.  She had no doubt that she would be hosting a deeply upset, homesick young Gryffindor in the very near future.

“Bloody hell!”  Lee Jordan was staring at the place where Hermione Granger had been sitting.  “What was that about?”  Babble was beginning to rise among the other students, so Minerva didn’t hear the answer, but she could see that the twins were glaring at both Ron and Percy.  Suddenly, Minerva remembered the incident that had occurred in yesterday’s first year Transfiguration class.  A suspicion blossomed in her mind, but she refused to act until she had conducted a thorough investigation.

“Filius…” She had to nudge the Charms Master to get his attention.  “Has Miss Granger taken Mister Weasley’s wand in any of your classes?”

“No, Minerva. They never sit anywhere near one another, so it would have been impossible for her to do so without my noticing.”  His eyes were as round as saucers as he continued to stare at the Gryffindor table.  Minerva nodded, her lips pressed together in a frown.  Filius’ statements tallied with her own observations; Miss Granger always sat in the first row during Transfiguration and Mr. Weasley usually sat somewhere towards the back of the room.  However, yesterday, he and Mr. Potter had been late and she’d directed them to sit in the only empty seats.  Mr. Potter had wound up sitting next to Mr.  Boot and Mr. Urqhart, while Mr. Weasley had shared a table with Miss Granger and Mr. Longbottom.

Minerva considered the other first-year classes.  Students didn’t start using wands in Herbology until their third year and Potions didn’t require wands until one reached the NEWT classes.  Defense Against the Dark Arts required a wand, of course, but first years usually spent quite a bit of time on theory before doing any practical work.  Astronomy and History required no wands at all.  She would have to check with Professor Quirrell to see if…

“Professor McGonagall!”  Argus Filch came running into the Hall from a side door behind the staff table.  He was out of breath.  “Come quick!  He’s done it, now!”

“Who has done what, Argus?”

“It’s Peeves, ma’am.  He’s gotten into the infirmary and….”

With that, Minerva was off and running.  After shooing the poltergeist out of the infirmary and helping Madam Pomfrey to clean up the mess, she had to spend nearly an hour coaxing, cajoling, and threatening Severus Snape until he agreed to replace the potions Peeves had ruined.  As soon as she left the dungeons, she encountered Nearly Headless Nick and had to go fetch a couple of fifth-year Ravenclaws who had managed to sneak past Filch and were about to unlock the forbidden door.  Later, Minerva was ashamed to admit that, by the time she had finished dealing with these matters, she had completely forgotten about the Howler. 

The crises had been resolved by half past eleven and Minerva set off towards her office to deal with the stack of paperwork on her desk that needed to be filled out and sent to the Ministry.  Technically, it was Albus’ responsibility to do this, but he made a habit of ignoring those parts of his job he didn’t want to do.   Minerva had far too much experience with what happened when it didn’t get done to not do it herself.  She was well aware that Albus took shameless advantage of her in this regard, but there was no help for it.  Several years ago, Minerva had resigned herself to spending at least part of her weekend filling out inane forms that she was sure no one would ever actually read.

To avoid further distraction and interruption, Minerva had shifted into her Animagus form.  As she rounded a corner, she heard voices.

“…such a dreadful thing to happen to a child.”  This was Charity Burbage.  “Particularly a Muggle-born.  I cannot imagine what possessed Molly Weasley to do such a thing….”  Suddenly, Minerva remembered the Howler and cursed herself for not following through with her resolution to investigate the matter.

“I can.”  Rolanda Hooch sounded faintly disgusted.  “She wasn’t born a Weasley, you know.”

“Aye.”  Septima Vector’s Irish lilt always reminded Minerva of music.  “She was born a Prewett.”

“So?”  Charity sounded confused.

“The Prewetts are an old family…Sacred Twenty-Eight.”  Septima explained.  “While they never preached that blood-purity nonsense or aligned themselves with You-Know-Who, they have always been rather…exclusive.”

“What she means is that they’re crashing snobs.”  Rolanda said.  “Think they’re better than the rest of us and can do and say whatever they like simply because they’re Prewetts.”

“Well, they’re not wrong.”  Septima pointed out.  “Not in this case, anyway.”

“Surely Albus will…” Charity began, but someone (Minerva couldn’t tell who) gave an inelegant snort.  While cats couldn’t snort, Minerva shared the sentiment completely.  Charity chuckled ruefully.  “All right, not Albus.  But Minerva!  She doesn’t let anyone mess with her cubs…”

“She might…”  Septima conceded.  “If she has time.  I’m afraid she’s been a bit….scattered lately, what with teaching, being Deputy Headmistress and doing all the things Albus can’t be bothered with.  She hasn’t the time or energy to tend to the children unless they seek her out for something or cause a fuss, like the Weasley twins.”  The statement felt like a physical blow.  The fact that every word of it was truth made it even worse.

“I don’t know…”  Rolanda sounded thoughtful.  “I saw her face when that Howler went off this morning.  She looked like she was ready to Floo over to the Burrow and start throwing hexes.”

“Yes, but then Argus arrived and she went off to deal with Peeves.”  Septima reminded her.  “I’m not saying that Minerva doesn’t love those kids or have the best of intentions.  She’s just got other things on her mind.”  The trio of witches were interrupted by the arrival of Bertram Babbling and the conversation shifted to another topic.  Minerva slunk away.

As she prowled the corridor, she considered what she’d heard.  They were right, of course.  She’d fallen into the same trap she’d so often resented Albus for—that of giving more priority to some large, abstract ideal than to the very real children who had been placed into her care.  In Albus’ case, it was “The Greater Good”, whatever that meant, while in Minerva’s case, it was “The School.”  She knew that she would have to spend some time sorting it all out, but for now, she had an investigation to conduct.

Minerva decided that it was best to start by finding Hermione Granger.  She padded her way up to Gryffindor Tower, intent on asking the Fat Lady for assistance in locating the girl.