Chapter 1 : Understandings
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“You have my thanks for managing to fill in for Professor Halvard’s Defence lessons on such short notice, Mister Weasley,” Minerva McGonagall, Headmistress of Hogwarts, said as she poured the aforementioned respected Auror a cup of tea and passed it across her desk towards him.
“It’s fine. The little buggers sat down and behaved themselves well enough. Though I think they were peeved you didn’t get them Harry,” Ron replied with a smirk, part of him relishing in the chance to speak freely in front of McGonagall, the other half quavering out of force of habit and feeling like he’d done something to get himself in trouble.
To her credit, McGonagall didn’t flinch at how the pupils of the fine institute of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry were referred to as ‘little buggers’, merely leaned back and poured herself some tea. “Well, I would imagine Mister Potter has more important matters on his mind.”
The office suited her well. The heart of the master of Hogwarts was always a grand and imposing room, full of weighty tomes and magical devices the likes of which were not seen in many other places. The polished wooden surfaces, of which there were many, still held their glossy shine, and the many portraits of the many past headmasters of Hogwarts still looked down sleepily upon the every day happenings of the school. Ron knew that somewhere above his left shoulder Albus Dumbledore watched them in between nap-times. Idly, he wondered if McGonagall would be joining the portraits soon, or if a headmaster needed to be dead before they could join these hallowed halls.
“Well, yeah,” he agreed with the headmistress after taking a large gulp of tea. “I mean, you should hear Ginny go on about the wedding. It’s all fields and flowers and enough food to feed an army. He took leave specifically to be able to keep up with the organising, though I don’t know what she trusts him to manage. Seems like everything’s being done how she likes it.”
“That does not surprise me,” McGonagall said with a small sigh and a tight smile. “It is about time, however, that we were given snippets of joy amongst all of the hard work of rebuilding. It is good that Mister Potter is working towards such an event.”
“And it means I’m out of a partner, so I don’t really have much better things to do than cover a lesson here at the last minute,” Ron rejoined with a grin. He wasn’t sure what it was; if it was the unerring sensation of being in the head’s office, or the discomfort at being treated as something of an equal by McGonagall that was starting to see words just spilling past his lips. “Saying that, how is Professor Halvard?”
McGonagall looked confused briefly, then shook her head. “What? Oh, no, he’s not ill or injured. There was simply… a teaching conference at the Magical Law Enforcement Department that he needed to attend.” She stirred her tea. “Again, I hope it was not too much of an inconvenience to cover his lessons.”
“Counter-curses and dark creatures? I might be considered something of an expert in these things,” Ron said, grin broadening. “It’s no trouble. Actually rather nice to pass on the wisdom, so to speak.”
In reality, it had been quite disturbing to walk through the corridors of Hogwarts. He hadn’t been back here in two years, since visiting Hermione when she’d been finishing her final year, and between the rebuilding work and the power of nostalgia, everything looked completely different and yet eerily similar at the same time. He felt a little like he had when eleven years old and coming to the school for the first time.
Mostly, he was just glad he’d taken a second and fourth-year class, and so hadn’t ended up having to teach anyone he’d remotely known while he’d been at school. That would have been downright unsettling.
“I didn’t hear about any teaching conference,” he continued, sipping on the tea. “Something for the Hit Wizards?”
“I believe so; that may be why you did not hear of it.” McGonagall gave a slight shrug. “Professor Halvard was not expecting to be needed, but Marcus Allard was needed to assist with security on the latest press conference for my two would-be successors as Head of Hogwarts.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, that’s all got us jumping for joy and with bounteous excitement over who’s going to get the job, doesn’t it. Sprague and Konstantin. Right battle of the giants,” Ron said, eyes rolling.
McGonagall assumed that expression she had mastered over the years of looking both unimpressed and mildly, discreetly amused at once. “I am not retired yet, Mister Weasley,” she told him firmly, “and so the Ministry may run interviews and selections all they like. There will be a successor when, and only when I have retired. Not a moment before.”
And she did look old, Ron had to concede. Throughout his time at school, throughout the war and even immediately after, there had been a vital strength to her despite her age. But she had carried Hogwarts through its hardest times; she had led the school when Dumbledore had been removed in the face of the Chamber of Secrets, she had been the focal point of authority for everyone when under the reigns of both Dolores Umbridge and, later, Severus Snape. And when the job of headmistress had been finally, officially hers, she had formed a new Hogwarts from out of the ashes, restoring that which had been damaged and making the school whole again.
Albus Dumbledore might have been the leader of the Order of the Phoenix, and might have commanded the fight against Voldemort before his death. But Minerva McGonagall had been the one to keep Hogwarts itself together, and the trial had clearly taken its toll.
She did, without a doubt, deserve her retirement. But they both knew that Hogwarts deserved a strong, capable leader, and it seemed that there were none such available.
“So Sprague and Konstantin may just be waiting a long time before their battle of wits sees a victor declared?” Ron asked lightly.
“Oh, I don’t know. I think they’re already convinced enough of their own self-importance that they won’t be concerned with anything so menial as an official judgement on who is better. Besides,” McGonagall gave a derisive sniff, “it is like comparing a snail to a slug. Ultimately, there are bigger and better things out there.”
“Shame they’re not showing their faces, really,” Ron pointed out unwillingly.
“Yes.” McGonagall leaned back in her chair, gaze turning away from him and towards the rest of the room, expression going a little distant. “There have been theories – none I’ve ever explored, so I have no concept of how much weight they hold or if they are just idle speculation – that if no new headmaster can be found, Hogwarts itself chooses the one who shall lead the school. The Founders, after all, were more powerful in their magic than we can really understand, and wound strong enchantments into the walls themselves. Some believe that power has been known to… bend circumstances to the school’s will.”
Ron paused at this. He knew Hogwarts had often seemed to have a mind of its own, and that it had often provided that which its students and staff needed in times of strife – from the Room of Requirement to the Sword of Gryffindor. “I guess it doesn’t help that three out of the four Founders’ relics have been destroyed, really, does it,” he said with a slight sigh.
“It is just a theory. I am not going to lose sleep over an idea that does not hold any apparent evidence to support it,” McGonagall said, shaking her head. “Though you do bring up an… important point with the relics of the Founders, Mister Weasley.”
“I do?” Ron stirred his tea absently.
“Look around this room. What is missing?”
A test. He hated those. Ron was always a slightly more rough-and-tumble sort of Dark Wizard Hunter than many of his fellow Aurors; always very capable when it came to the chase and the action, but not perhaps quite so strong when it came to investigation. Many had suggested he study to be a Hit Wizard rather than an Auror, but he was still one of the best out there at what he did, and refused to be beaten by, of all people, his former schoolteacher.
So he leaned back, setting the tea down, and beginning to scan the room. The big problem with looking for something that was missing, he knew, was that it wasn’t there. Obvious, but it relied more upon memory rather than sheer observation, and his familiarity with the head’s office was nothing more than passing.
Ron thus began a small catalogue in his head of what he knew should be here, mentally ticking them off as he saw them. The globe that could reputedly let the owner see anywhere in the world; the bookshelf containing the rarer tomes on Dark Magic that weren’t to ever fall into the wrong hands, Hogwarts considered one of the safest places to put them; the long blade mounted on the wall anyone would recognise as the sword of Godric Gryffindor; the Sor…
“Where’s the Sorting Hat?” he asked at last quietly, suspiciously, not wanting to jump to the automatic conclusion that therein lay the problem. But it was May, and the Hat was hardly needed anywhere when it wasn’t September.
McGonagall’s tight, humourless smile unhappily confirmed his suspicions. “There is a problem with which I need your most discreet and unofficial aid, Mister Weasley,” she said slowly. “Not three mornings ago, I returned to my office to find that the Sorting Hat was… not here.”
Ron scrubbed his face with his hands, taking a deep breath. “The doors and windows?”
“Was the Hat… needed somewhere?” Ron felt rather silly asking that question, but knew of the magical item’s ability to transport itself, via various means, to wherever necessary.
Another small, humourless smile. “It tends to return afterwards.”
Ron looked at her suspiciously. “You told Conrad Halvard to go to that training conference, didn’t you. Or was there even a conference at all?”
“There was a conference. Conrad ultimately asked to go, because I encouraged him to. Hence the late notice of my summons here. I wanted you to come to Hogwarts… discreetly.” McGonagall leaned forwards. “I have not officially reported this because of the high tensions and attention currently focused around the school. The loss of the Sorting Hat would be a significant blow to morale, and the last thing I want is for it to be seized by those bumbling Ministry lapdogs as a weapon for them to employ in their bid for my job. This is more important than that.”
“But who would steal the Sorting Hat? It’s… I mean, its use is pretty limited.” Ron frowned with confusion.
“It was owned and enchanted by Godric Gryffindor. Although I would imagine it to be impossible to sell on any kind of legitimate basis, a private collector or someone wishing to unravel the magics within it may very likely have an interest.” McGonagall tightened her lips. “I, myself, am also curious as to how the thief managed to get in and out without being either detected or stopped by the significant security measures that we have taken around the school and especially around this office. Considering the nature of some of the items in this room, the Sorting Hat is almost a minor relic to have stolen.”
“It’s a very… specific choice.” Ron’s eyes scanned the room again, mind going even more professional, examining for now the obvious physical routes. “If I’m going to look into this, Professor, I’m going to need to spend time here. And if you want this looked into discreetly, then we’re going to need some sort of cover story.”
McGonagall gave a small, self-satisfied smile. “That is simple, Mister Weasley. If anyone asks, I am merely getting my affairs in order in anticipation of my pending retirement, and have asked you, as a young former student in good standing with time on your hands, to assist me.”
Ron blinked. “People will buy that?” he asked dubiously.
“People believe what they wish to believe, as you well know. Those who have reason to suspect me or watch me will be satisfied enough by the notion that I am preparing to retire that they shall not look deeper. Anyone else who does not believe the story shall trust me enough or be disinterested enough to not push the matter.” A slight shrug. “And, ultimately, I remain mistress of Hogwarts, and they can boil their heads if they think I’m going to bow that much to what they want.”
Ron snorted. “Do you actually have any plans to find a decent successor? Someone who’s not Sprague or Konstantin, I mean?”
McGonagall sighed. “Professor Flitwick provides an admirable Deputy Headmaster, and has served Hogwarts for many a year – as have Professors Sprout and Slughorn as excellent Heads of House. But those are my most trusted members of staff, and there is one thing we all have in common.” Another slight sigh as Ron tilted his head curiously. “We are old, Mister Weasley. And our younger staff are all… academics who teach on a mostly part-time basis, such as Professor Vector and Professor Sinistra. The few exceptions are individuals like Conrad Halvard, who might be the longest-standing Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Hogwarts has seen in years, and might also be an excellent Head of Gryffindor House, but he has never pretended this post to be more than a temporary arrangement before he returns to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.” McGonagall leaned forwards, taking her glasses off for a quick polish and in that moment looking older than Ron could remember her appearing. “Hogwarts needs – most desperately needs – fresh blood. Young enthusiasm.”
“And our two front-runners can’t supply that?” Ron wondered aloud, scratching his chin. He hadn’t shaved that morning, relishing the fact that he wouldn’t have to go into the office, and the slight itch of stubble was making him moderately regret the gesture of rebellion.
“Alcaeus Sprague is nothing more than a Ministry stool-pigeon. I’m sure he knows exactly how to run a school according to numbers, and Ministry guidelines, and all manner of other factors which have absolutely nothing to do with reality,” McGonagall said curtly. “He would be the darling of the press, spouting whatever quotations they want to hear. He would dress the school up in pretty clothing and with pretty words, and Hogwarts would begin to turn rotten from the inside. I will not again see the school in the hands of an incompetent. As for Konstantin…” McGonagall slipped her glasses back up on her nose, “he does know how to run a school. His experience at Durmstrang speaks volumes of his expertise. But that establishment was responsible for the education in Dark Magic of a whole wealth of Death Eaters, and the sheltering of even more since the war. I do not know how they do things in Eastern Europe, but I’m quite confident that it would not be suitable for Hogwarts.”
Ron rubbed his eyes wearily. Despite their conversation turning to more mundane matters, his mind was already ticking over this investigation, already writing up a mental list of what he needed to examine, who he needed to talk to, and a very, very short list of suspects. “Unfortunately, Professor, somebody is going to have to do the job.”
“I still have plenty of years left in me,” McGonagall said again with that tight smile. “Whatever the Ministry may think.”
He chuckled, as ever appreciating the Headmistress’ iron-tight control of a situation. “Do any of the staff know about the theft? Because I’m going to have to ask them questions, as they’ll be the most informed people about the comings and goings around the castle,” Ron asked, snapping the conversation back to the primary topic in his mind without much consideration.
“The Heads of House know. They come up to his office too often for me to hide the matter, and I would trust them all with my life,” McGonagall said firmly.
“That makes life easier.” He reached into an inside pocket of his jacket and unhappily pulled out a small, dog-eared notebook with a pencil shoved into the binding. “I’m going to need you, Professor, to do all sorts of annoyingly boring things. Like write down exactly what you saw the night before and the morning after the Hat went missing. Like who’s been in and out of your office over the last, ohh, fortnight. Students, teachers, visitors. Anyone who’s shown any interest at all in anything in your office.”
“I keep a strict diary of affairs. I shall hand it over, and add whatever information might be relevant,” McGonagall agreed.
“I’m also going to need information on the Sorting Hat. I’ll hit the library here – you may need to get Madam Pince to not chase me out of there out by sheer force of habit – but I’m sure you’ve got notes and writings which they don’t. Or if you know someone who I can talk to so as to get information on the Hat. Like, the magic that powers it, what it does, all of that,” Ron said, by now scribbling away on the notebook. “Also, if you can give me a run-down of the magic protecting this office and Hogwarts in general, I can begin to figure out how our mysterious thief even got to the Hat in the first place.”
“The magic protecting the school is extensive and complicated, and I do not think any one person knows it all. But I shall begin to write up a contact list for who is best to ask, and shall inform Madam Pince that you are to have free access to the resources in the library. Also, feel free to use any of the books here.” McGonagall gestured about the room, at the shelves of books in the office that would have made any scholar weep with joy. “As for the Hat, we know a good deal about the magic which surrounds it as it needed to be reconstructed after Voldemort set it alight. We have not one, but two experts on the matter.”
“Good. Who?” Ron asked, only half-paying attention as he was listing down the various access points into the office that he knew of.
“Professor Vector reconstructed a significant portion of the magical fundamentals and the Founders’ enchantments upon the Hat. Not from scratch, but from a very basic level. She was, however, not alone in this, and while you can go to Professor Vector for most information, her assistant was instrumental in single-handedly fixing some very complex problems where you’d have to go to her to ask about this.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine, just get me a name and I’ll…” Ron’s voice trailed off as his brain caught up with what McGonagall was saying. “Oh, no. You’re kidding me.”
The headmistress gave a slight shrug. “I’m afraid not, Mister Weasley. Miss Granger took a significant interest in the reconstruction of the Sorting Hat during her final year here. The work on it effectively gave her the NEWT in Arithmancy she attained. I do not know how much you will need to know about the nature of the Hat in the course of your investigations, but…”
“…but there are some things that I’ll only be able to find out about from Hermione,” Ron concluded, expression souring considerably. “Well. That’s going on the bottom of the ‘To-Do’ list.”