Iulia Linnea (iulia_linnea) wrote in sshg_promptfest,
Iulia Linnea

FIC: Still Life (G)

Title: Still Life
Type: Fic
Prompter: Anonymous Five
Creator: mundungus42
Beta(s): zigadenus
Rating: G
(Highlight to View) Warning(s): None.
(Highlight to View) Prompt: The enchantment over the Great Hall's ceiling fails, and Headmaster Granger summons Severus Snape to Hogwarts to fix it. Why does she believe that this is a job for him?
Note: Enormous thanks to zigadenus for lightning-fast and brilliant beta-reading and Brit-picking, to Anonymous Five for a wonderful prompt that ran away with me, and to iulia_linnea for organizing this fantastic fest and especially for her patience with long-winded authors like myself!
Summary: The thirtieth anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts is days away, end of term looms, and trouble is brewing with the Hogwarts portraits. What's the new Headmistress of Hogwarts do?

One chilly night, a candle appeared in the Headmistress's office, which drew murmurs of protest from several slumbering occupants of the portraits on the walls. Dilys Derwent walked to the edge of her portrait frame in order to better see the source of light.

No sooner had she confirmed that the candle was in unoccupied frame on the wall perpendicular to hers, than the light disappeared which threw the room into soft shadow, illuminated only by the ambient glow of the other portraits.

Dilys placed her hands on the edge of the frame and let the magic of her portrait and the wall upon which it rested thrum against her palm.

"Was it him?" asked Phineas Nigellus Black, who stepped into her portrait from his neighbouring frame.

"We'd best wake Everard."

"He's already up," said the man himself, growing swiftly larger as he approached from the vanishing point in Dily's portrait. "You saw it, too?"

"Barely," said Phineas.

"I nearly made it this time," said Everard. "If Fortescue hadn't been sprawled against the far edge of his painting, I might have."

"Perhaps that's for the best," said Dilys. "I'd hate for anything to happen to you if it has bad intentions."

"It's a candle," said Phineas. "It doesn't have intentions."

"It's a painting of a candle," said Dilys.

"It is a painting of an object with the appearance of a candle," said Everard. "And the intention that created it is coming from somewhere. But from where and from whom, we can only speculate."

"Should we tell Hermione?" asked Dilys.

"Merlin and Circe preserve us, no," said Phineas, scowling.

"She has so much on her plate, between end of term and the banquet," said Everard. "Why bother her with trifles, especially unexplainable ones?

"Hermione would want to know if there's any chance that what we're seeing could negatively impact the proceedings," said Dilys. "The poor dear is so determined the thirtieth anniversary banquet as successful as the twentieth was.'

"Albus might have some insight into our mysterious candle," said Everard.

"Not bloody likely," muttered Phineas.

"If he knows anything, I'll coax it out of him later with my pawn trap."

"Walter bested him last week, and he'll be out for blood. Have a pleasant game," said Phineas, smirking as he returned to his portrait.

Dilys returned to her seat and sat, lost in thought, only drowsing off as the sun began to creep over the horizon.

"Mercury is retrograde," said Lakshmi Weasley, shaking the dinner crumbs off her lap.

"That's nice, dear," said Hermione absently, her elbow dangerously close to the gravy as she made notes on the Ministry' suggested seating plan the Battle of Hogwarts Anniversary Feast.

"Muggles think it's a harbinger of misfortune," said Lakshmi.

Hermione glanced up from her task, blinking owlishly over the tops of her reading spectacles. "Is it?"

"Of course not. At least not on its own. As far as QUANDARY has been able to model, Mercury in retrograde correlates with chain sneezing. But that doesn't really matter because Mercury won't actually be in retrograde until late June."

"You said it was in retrograde now," said Hermione, who was finding her god-daughter to be even harder to follow than usual.

"It is, at least up there," Lakshmi said, pointing upwards at the enchanted ceiling. "I only brought it up because it might help explain why you look ready to set that parchment on fire. Or sneeze, I can't quite tell."

"This is neither the first nor the last parchment you'll see me mentally reducing to ashes this week," said Hermione. "Honestly, at least Ministry paperwork came in cycles as predictable as Wizengamot recesses. Here, it's something new and tedious every week."

"You could let the House Elves handle that," said Lakshmi.

"They'll have enough to do next week," said Hermione, casting her gaze to the magically enhanced heavens. She was surprised to see that Mercury was, indeed, retrograde. "How odd."

"Is it? The ceiling's been taking liberties with the sky for ages. Sometimes, it's the wrong weather, sometimes it's the wrong season's stars, and once it looked like the sky in the southern hemisphere. That made me so dizzy I spilled pumpkin juice all over Neville."

"How frequently do irregularities occur?" asked Hermione, who was more disturbed than she cared to admit at the prospect of a faulty ceiling.

"More often of late, I reckon," said Lakshmi. "I'll get you the numbers after patrol tonight. QUANDARY has about seven years of inside and outside weather data from my Astronomy notes. I thought it might help further refine her neural network."

Hermione smiled. "That machine has been a godsend."

"Collaborating with someone who actually knows something about hybrid technology is a godsend," said Lakshmi seriously, before she broke into the good-natured Weasley smile that reminded Hermione fondly of her former husband. "Not that I'm trying to flatter you into helping finance her hardware upgrade this summer."

"Perish the thought," said Hermione drily. "I've heard enough moaning over the Department of Mysteries' irregular funding cycles to last a lifetime. Still, nothing like QUANDARY has ever been built before. And even if they're foolish enough not to award you a grant, you'll simply have another year's worth of convincing data for next time."

"True," said Lakshmi, rising. "I'd better go. I've got detention to oversee and Double Divination with the third year Gryffindors and Slytherins first thing in the morning and then seeing if last week's lecture on quantum mechanics made any impression on the Astronomy seventh years, so I'm going to make sure my notes are in order. Also fireproof, since it's the Finnegan twins in detention."

"All that spontaneous fire, and none of it close enough to 'accidentally' engulf this lot," sighed Hermione, gesturing toward her seating plan.

Lakshmi grinned. "I'll owl you the figures you wanted later tonight if I'm not too badly singed."

"Thank you. It's probably nothing, but with the banquet next week and O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s examinations shortly thereafter, it bears looking into."

Lakshmi turned to go and paused. "Mum and Dad are coming to the banquet."

"I know," said Hermione, tapping one of the tables on her chart. "I've put them with Harry and Ginny and nowhere near any of your uncles."

"You don't mind?"

Hermione smiled warmly at her. "I wouldn't be much of a godmother to you if I did. Besides, if your dad and I hadn't parted ways so dramatically, the Wizengamot might not have taken me seriously enough to pass my proposed protections for magical beings and part-humans."

"Dad's come around on that," said Lakshmi, looking slightly uncomfortable. "He just hates change."

"I know," said Hermione. "But most importantly, I shudder to think what running the school would be like without you as Deputy Head. Truly, I wouldn't change a thing, even if I could."

"Even me beating your record for third year marks?" asked Lakshmi, grinning.

"That's only because it's an average and you weren't taking as many classes as I was," said Hermione.

"Dad said you'd say that," said Lakshmi, looking over Hermione's shoulder at her seating plan. "Is Aunt Parvati coming?"

"I doubt it. She hasn't RSVP'd, and according to Minerva's records, she didn't come to the 20th anniversary, either."

"Shame," said Lakshmi. "I'd like to see her."

"So would many of us," said Hermione. "But we understand how important her work is and that she has no control over when and where she's needed."

"I'll owl her tomorrow," said Lakshmi. "She might not respond, but at least she'll know we really want to see her."

"That would be lovely, thank you."

"And if I get a stroppy response saying that she already RSVP'd, then we'll know for sure that Mercury in retrograde is to blame."

"Heavens help us," said Hermione, as her gaze drifted up to the ceiling once more.

Lakshmi's data arrived bang on at eleven that night, and the more Hermione read, the more concerned she became. The numbers indicated that the anomalies in the Great Hall's ceiling were indeed growing more frequent and increasingly noticeable in the seven years Lakshmi had been at Hogwarts, though there was no obvious precipitating event that would account for them.

Hermione shook her head. She'd been at Hogwarts' helm for nearly a year. How on earth could she have not have noticed?

She hadn't needed to re-read Hogwarts: A History to know that the ceiling wasn't merely enchanted—it was an enormous, multi-layered painting of the sky created by an unknown master when the castle as built. The enchantment tying the ceiling to the weather outside was similar to the spell that bound two portraits' locations together. It was impossible for the spell to display the wrong sky, yet that was precisely what was happening.

Hermione pushed the anniversary plans and sheaves of weather data to the side and stretched her arms over her head. On the wall opposite her desk, most of the portraits' inhabitants were elsewhere or asleep, but Dilys Derwent was rolling bandages in hers. This gave Hermione an idea.

"Dilys, may I speak with you?"

She glanced up, smiling. "Of course. You're burning the midnight oil, I see."

"Have you ever ventured into the ceiling of the Great Hall?"

"Ventured into it? Merlin, no. I don't believe it's linked to the other paintings. And even if it were, little could tempt me to enter it."

"Why not?

"Not all paintings were created with human subjects in mind. There's a lovely Cubist garden off the trophy room, but if any of us passes through it, we're flattened and stretched most unpleasantly. And I, for one, would never enter a painting that didn't have some sort of ground to stand on. Why do you ask?"

Hermione explained the increasingly unreliable weather and constellations, and Dilys's busy hands stilled.

"I haven't any idea what could cause such a thing," she said after a moment's silence. "But Everard, Phineas, and I have noticed something troubling in one of the other portraits. It's possible the issues are related."

"Which portrait?" asked Hermione.

Dilys gestured to the empty frame. "Severus Snape's."

Hermione stared at Dilys in unflattering disbelief. "He's come back?"

"Not so far as we can tell," said Dilys. "but there have been inexplicable appearances."

Hermione crossed to Snape's empty portrait and examined the empty chair and plain wooden table it contained. "It looks the same as it has all year."

"It does," said Dilys, rising and making her way out of her portrait and down the wall towards Hermione. "But we've seen a lit candle appearing and disappearing from the portrait. It's quite unsettling."

"Why? Can't a portrait's subject bring objects to other paintings in the network?"

"They can," said Dilys, pausing at the edge of Snape's portrait, "but objects have to be painted into a portrait in order to exist, and that portrait must be linked to other paintings. Things can't simply manifest of their own accord any more than they can outside a painting. Someone or something is making it happen."

Hermione frowned. "If it's been painted into one of the other portraits, surely you know which one."

"Therein lies the mystery," said Dilys, hiking up her robes and stepping into the empty frame. She placed her hand on the plain wooden table. "The candlestick that appeared here is distinctive: bronze, with a hexagonal base. Everard, Phineas, and I have spoken with the other portraits, and none of them have seen anything similar, not even in the portraits that are located outside the castle."

"Is it coming from Headmaster Snape's other portrait?" asked Hermione.

Dilys looked slightly surprised by the question, and glanced at her plain, grey surroundings. "He doesn't have one. There's nothing at all remarkable about this portrait, save its missing occupant and the mysterious manifestations."

"How extraordinary!" said Hermione, unable to stifle a yawn.

Dilys smiled kindly. "We should continue this discussion in the morning, when Phineas and Everard are back. If your first year as Headmistress has been anything like mine was, I daresay you could use some sleep."

"I doubt it'll be particularly restful," said Hermione, eyeing the piles of parchment on her desk. "But thank you for giving me something else to think about, apart from end-of-term planning."

Dilys settled into the chair beside the table."I shall keep watch. Perhaps the web will seem less tangled in the morning."

"Hope springs eternal."

Everard's chess game with Albus had ended in a very messy draw, which had led to a second game, and then a third, over which Everard was still fuming when he returned to his portrait.

"Did you have a nice time?" drawled Phineas.

"You're always insufferably smug after spending the night in your serpent's nest," said Everard.

"He beat you that badly, did he?"

Phineas was saved from a sharp retort when the door of the Headmistress's private quarters swun open. Hermione, dressed but more than a bit dishevelled, clapped her hands, and a breakfast tray appeared on her desk.

"Thank you both for being here," she said, pouring herself a cup of tea. "Have you been able to determine where the candle in Headmaster Snape's portrait comes from?"

Phineas and Everard exchanged glances. "We agreed not to further complicate your preparations for the banquet by bringing it up," said Everard.

"The Kneazle's already out of the bag on that. Dilys filled me in last night."

Phineas was eyeing the rows of portraits. "Where is Dilys?" he asked. "She's normally insufferably full of homespun wisdom in the morning."

Hermione set down her tea. "She said she'd be keeping watch in Headmaster Snape's portrait."

"Inside the portrait?" asked Phineas, frowning.

"I'll send word," said Everard, slipping to the edge of his frame. "If she's in any of the portraits, we'll find her."

"I don't understand," said Hermione. "Why does it matter if she was in Headmaster Snape's portrait?"

"It was merely a precaution," said Phineas. "One she herself suggested, mind. Merely that we shouldn't meddle with intentions we don't understand. I'm certain she'll turn up."

"Unless whatever happened to Headmaster Snape also happened to Dilys," said Hermione.

"I think it far more likely that Severus left of his own accord," said Phineas. "He hated being kept on display, and of course that young idiot Potter didn't bother commissioning a private portrait for him to retreat to. More concerned with throwing his own celebrity behind the rehabilitation of Severus's reputation, and thereby utterly failing to consider how an intensely private man like Severus might feel about it. It's no wonder Severus did a bunk. That was what Minerva called it, wasn't it?"

"But how?" asked Hermione. "He can't have simply flown out of his portrait." She paused as an idea took shape. "Unless he did precisely that... right into the ceiling of the Great Hall."

"What are you blithering about," asked Phineas, scowling.

"Dilys thought the anomalies in the Great Hall ceiling might be related to the candle appearing in Headmaster Snape's portrait," said Hermione, rising and pacing the length of the room as she considered the ramifications. "It's absolutely brilliant!"

"It hardly takes a genius to connect portrait anomalies."

"I meant Headmaster Snape! Think about it: what if both sets of anomalies are tied to his disappearance? You yourself suggested that Headmaster Snape needed privacy. What if he somehow found a way into the ceiling, tried to fly away, and got stuck there? The presence of an errant portrait subject could certainly make a giant, complex portrait enchantment go a bit wonky and have repercussions for any portraits connected to it, don't you think?" She paused, and grinned at Phineas. However, her grin faded as Phineas's face turned purple.

"What you're suggesting is impossible!" he spat. "That said, we must get to the Great Hall at once!"

"What, right now?" asked Hermione.

"If Severus has found a way to signal us of his plight by sending the candle or altering the Great Hall ceiling and both are occurring with increasing frequency, we haven't a moment to lose," said Phineas. "And of course you'll need our help."

Hermione laughed ruefully. "Are you offering to finish up the banquet plans, owl the Wizarding Examination Authority about accessibility issues surrounding this year's practical exams, and meet with the heads of house to discuss the recall of nose-biting teacups and distribute the counterspell to that new jinx that all the first years are practising on one another?"

"No. I'd much rather watch you irreparably damage the priceless ceiling portrait," said Phineas, smiling nastily.

Hermione glanced at the piles of parchment on her desk, awaiting perusal, signature, and delegation. They would still be there in several hours' time, and Phineas was right: Headmaster Snape's plight was a far more pressing. Not to mention fascinating.

"We'd best get cracking, then," she said, not entirely succeeding in keeping the excitement out of her voice.

Once the House Elves had cordoned off the Great Hall and begun setting up tables in the entrance hall, Hermione conjured up an enormous scaffold so she could inspect the ceiling at close range. She could hear Phineas, and Everard, who had commandeered a banquet scene, encouraging the portrait's regular inhabitants to take themselves elsewhere.

Once the Headmasters were settled, Hermione Levitated their portrait up to the top of the scaffolding and then Apparated herself—one of her favourite Headmistress' perks.

"If you're done showing off," said Phineas, "make yourself useful and lift our portrait so the back is flush against the ceiling."

"Isn't that dangerous?" asked Hermione. "Dilys said not all portraits were meant for human subjects to visit."

"As if any of us would be daft enough to try entering a painting that's gone haywire," said Everard. "We merely want to suss out the ceiling's other connections."

"Besides, if Severus is trapped, it's the most expedient way to locate him and bring him back," said Phineas.

Hermione had her doubts, but she Levitated the portrait up over her head until it was pressed against the ceiling. It was truly extraordinary to look at up close. How many hundreds of hours had it taken to paint the entire ceiling with such miniscule strokes?

She was distracted from her reflections when the tassel of Everard's hat fluttered suddenly.

"Oh!" he said. "It's opened itself to us."

"Of course the mad portrait has an affinity for you," said Phineas, who had pulled his fluttering robes close to his body.

"I say!" said Everard in tones of awe. "Look at that!"

Hermione tore her gaze from the Head's portrait and realised that a colourful net of magical strings appeared criss-crossing the Great Hall's ceiling and shimmering softly against the cloudy sky.

"Magnificent," whispered Everard.

"Intersting," said Phineas, and both men extended their hands to the back wall of their borrowed portrait. But the instant their palms made contact with the painted wall, there was a loud thunderclap, and the network of spells faded back into the clouds, which were suddenly roiled by the wind.

"What on earth just happened?" asked Hermione.

Phineas's robes were now flapping loudly in the wind. "Nothing good!"

"Hang on," said Everard, who had one hand still pressed against the back of the portrait while the other was trying to keep his hat from being blown away. "I can feel something."

Phineas was craning his neck to look at the rest of the ceiling and, he uttered a strangled cry. "For the love of Circe, Everard! Stop!"

"Bring us down!" shouted Everard, who had summarily given up holding his hat in place and was now focused on not losing his outer robe to the howling gale.

Hermione ripped the portrait from the ceiling. While the wind inside the portrait calmed, Phineas's eyes remained fixed on the ceiling behind Hermione. He extended a shaking hand.

"What in Merlin's name is that?" asked Phineas.

Hermione spun around to look, and her jaw dropped.

"It appears to be a giant arse," said Everard, blinking through his spectacles.

"It is a painting of the representation of a giant arse," said Phineas, whose tone was so dry that Hermione suspected he was holding back laughter.

"That is decidedly not a heavenly body or meteorological phenomenon," said Hermione, curious whose enormous painted arse she was looking at, and what precisely it was doing in the Great Hall's ceiling. Unfortunately, her question was soon answered.

The enormous posterior that had descended from the storm clouds let loose with a resounding fart that rang off the stone walls like the peal of a trumpet. No sooner had it emitted the amazing sound, the arse disappeared with a pop, as did the entire sky with it, leaving nothing more than a static, muddy fresco on the ceiling.

No-one spoke for several long moments until Phineas broke their silence with an awestruck exclamation of "Bugger!"

In the deafening silence that followed, Hermione looked down to see a dozen or so House Elves staring up at the ceiling in shock.

She cleared her throat. "Please ask Professor Weasley to meet us in my office. I think it's high time we ensured that we're asking the right questions."

By the time Lakshmi was able to join them, Hermione's head was beginning to ache. She'd had visits from seven teachers, and a dozen former Headmasters and Headmistresses had gathered in her office to alternately argue over what had happened and shout advice at her.

Phineas was fretting about Dilys, who was still missing, and it made him even pricklier than usual. Everard was keen to discuss artistic esoterica and paint theory, which Hermione hadn't the least interest in, given that a giant bum had farted her enchanted ceiling out of existence.

"If that arse came from another painting, I've no knowledge of that painting's existence," mused Phineas.

"Obviously, it was forced perspective," said Everard. "Unless you believe there's a thirty metre painting of someone's rear end hidden in a store-room."

"As fascinating a question as that is," said Hermione, "what we need to focus on is the fact that the magical ceiling has been ruined, and we have very little time to fix it."

There was a knock at the door, and Lakshmi eased it open.

"Thank Merlin you're here," said Hermione. "We've a bit of a puzzle on our hands."

"You should hear what the students are saying," said Lakshmi. "On second thought, you'd better not. But what can I do to help?"

"First off, I need to interface QUANDARY with several different external magical data sources," said Hermione.

"That shouldn't be a problem," said Lakshmi. "The Arithmantical algorithms you designed to interface QUANDARY with the Hogwarts library are easy enough to modify."

"These data are a bit more fiddly," said Hermione.

"What did you have in mind?"

"Memories from a Pensieve and mapping the Hogwarts painting network."

"Can I borrow some ickle firsties to collect data from the portraits?" asked Lakshmi hopefully. "All the students are keen for extra points this close to exams, and it'll help the three-dimensional matrices interface."

"Fine," said Hermione, taking Albus's old Pensive from the shelf where she kept it.

"What fresh nonsense is this?" asked Phineas.

"I'd like to know that as well!" said Everard. "We've just had a magnificent cock-up in the network already. We're none too keen to connect to anything else."

"QUANDARY is a magical neural network supercomputer that Hermione and I built in order to make Astrology more of a science," said Lakshmi. "We're still in early stages, but we've got some interesting preliminary results involving the transit of Venus and the mating cycles of werewolves that we think may be the test case we need to provide proof of concept to the Department of Mysteries."

"Does that mean anything to you?" Phineas asked Everard.

"I understood several of the words," said Everard.

"QUANDARY stands for QUantum Astronomical, Numerological, Divinatory Analysis Resulting in Yobibytes," said Hermione, putting the Pensive on her desk and pressing the tip of her wand against her temple.

"That certainly clears things up," said Phineas, rolling his eye.

Hermione ignored him, closed her eyes, and withdrew a memory.

"I only saw the enchantments on the Great Hall ceiling for a few moments, but this memory is fresh and will help us reconstruct the spells eventually," she said. "But for now, let's focus on any irregularities that may have contributed to the spells' collapse."

"I'll also need a portrait to volunteer to interface with QUANDARY," said Lakshmi.

"I suppose I should," said Phineas, sounding disgusted. "If you believe it'll help us locate Dilys."

"Thank you," said Hermione, smiling at him. "Be sure to share anything you gleaned from trying to find the source of the candle," said Hermione. "None of us know which details might be important in the grand scheme of things, but if there are patterns, QUANDARY will suss them out."

"What on earth is all of this supercompacting flimflammery meant to do?" asked Everard.

"We're going to identify the precise causes of the anomalies," said Hermione. "And then we're going to fix them."

"You believe your ironically named device can actually do that?" asked Phineas.

"The portrait network is a closed system, so in theory it should be simpler than tracking quantum and astronomical phenomena, which is what QUANDARY was designed to do," said Lakshmi.

"Excellent," said Everard. "It sounds as though you've got everything well in hand, and I need to baptise my chessboard with the figurative blood of a shameless cheater."

"Speaking of Albus, I'm surprised he's not sticking his over-long nose into all of this," said Phineas. "It would seem to be right up his street."

"He says he has every confidence in Hermione," said Everard. "That, and I think he's a bit intimidated by all of these newfangled machines, to be frank."

"Thank Merlin for small mercies," said Phineas.

The sound QUANDARY made when she was working was one of Hermione's favourite things. It was a musical sort of hum that would periodically rise and fall in pitch, underscored by a quiet whirring that reminded her of the sound of a faraway lawn being mown. She supposed that winnowing down reams upon reams of data in search of a pattern was similar, in a way.

Phineas was currently interfaced with QUANDARY, but it must not have been terribly exciting, since he was fast asleep, snoring softly. Meanwhile, Lakshmi had the late patrol, and Hermione was putting the finishing touches on the banquet plans. There was little chance of her meticulously-organised charts and diagrams surviving the inevitable last-minute responses, but they were complete enough to leave in the House Elves' capable hands. Hermione knew they would never complain, having agreed to accept pay, take occasional holidays, and even form a union, but she hated creating more work for them than absolutely necessary. She smiled softly to herself. For all that she didn't miss the emotional and physical stresses of Magical Law Enforcement, there had been good days, and the day her protections for magical beings and part-humans had been enacted had been one of the best.

"Tinker," she said softly.

The union representative appeared at her elbow with a soft pop. "Is the Headmistress happy with plans?"

"Happy is a rather strong word," said Hermione, handing him the enormous stack of parchment. "But that should contain everything you need."

Tinker leafed through the guest room assignments, which Hermione had ordered from most to least amount of Elf labour required to prepare. "You is wanting to put the Former Headmistress in the Gryffindor Tower suite?" he asked.

"Don't you think it fitting?"

"Yes, Headmistress," said Tinker. "But when Headmistress McGonagall was Deputy Headmistress, she lived in the east wing with a view of the lake."

"That would be quieter, and require fewer staircases," said Hermione, recalling that Minerva now relied more on her cane than she once had. "I'm sorry I didn't think of that."

Tinker gave her a sweet smile. "Elves is not expecting anyone to know everything. Headmistress shouldn't either."

"But if we put Minerva in the east wing, we'll have to move Hagrid out, and the Gryffindor Suite is too small for him. We can't put him in his old cottage, his feelings would be hurt."

"Professor Hagrid can stay in the old carriage barn off the courtyard," said Tinker. "Once we is removing the stalls and bringing furniture from the store-rooms, the room is perfect."

"But that's so much work," said Hermione.

"It is not so much work for Elves," said Tinker firmly. "We is learning from the first, fifth, tenth, and twentieth anniversary parties. We knows what to do. "

"Thank Merlin for institutional memory," said Hermione.

"Will the Headmistress be needing anything else?"

Hermione was about to dismiss him when QUANDARY pinged softly, and light flashed in the corner of Hermione's eye not unlike the flicker of candle flame. Institutional memory, indeed.

"Tinker, do you know how many of our current House Elves were working here ten years ago?"

Tinker thought for a moment. "About fifteen, Headmistress."

"Would you kindly ask them what they remember about Headmaster Snape's portrait?"

"If the Elves is knowing anything, Tinker will tell them to let the Headmistress know."

"Thank you," said Hermione glancing at QUANDARY's output screen, which showed her moving on to the next level of paintings. "I should be up here for some time yet."

It was well after midnight, and thanks to her flask of tea, Hermione had found her second wind and was putting the finishing touches on a proposal for Ministry funding to improve the castle's accessibility to non- and part-human students. She was pondering how emphatically to close the cover letter when QUANDARY gave a musical ping, and her screen was suddenly lit with a network of criss-crossing paths in dozens of different colours, each line of which ended in small, round terminals.

Hermione set aside the letter, waved her wand to lift the image off QUANDARY's screen, and rotated it slowly in the air in front of her. It was a map of the painting network, with each dot representing a portrait. That cluster of dots was the entrance hall, and the other had to be her office.

Hermione flicked her wand at QUANDARY and superimposed a physical map of Hogwarts over the network, which made the network shimmer and resolve as it conformed to the castle's scale and layout. This had the interesting effect of sending several dozen lines shooting outwards towards the walls and ceiling, presumably to offsite portraits, like those at the Ministry and St. Mungo's. She followed Phineas's purple line from its current location in the Astronomy tower to Grimmauld Place.

When she tapped her wand on the terminus, she was delighted to see that after whirring for a moment, QUANDARY produced the geographical coordinates of the house in London.

She eagerly zipped back to the Hogwarts map and zoomed in on her office. To her great satisfaction, she saw a green line stretching from Headmaster Snape's portrait to another location. Not only did the line clearly intersect with the Great Hall ceiling, which was currently grey and inactive, but it then went shooting off into the sky, precisely as if he had flown away.

The line was proof positive that Headmaster Snape had to have escaped to another portrait. But where on earth was it?

Hermione zoomed outward and outward, where the green line's upward trajectory eventually levelled off and headed off to the southwest. QUANDARY's map image slowly caught up with Hermione's path, filling in details as the line passed over Ireland and towards the north Atlantic.

There was a loud pop, which made Hermione jump.

"Apologies, Headmistress!" squeaked an elderly House Elf in a yellow apron.

"That's quite all right, Polly," said Hermione, pushing QUANDARY's three-dimensional map to the side. "What can I do for you?"

"Tinker is saying that any Elf who remembers anything special about Headmaster Snape's portrait should see you right away. Polly was in charge of cleaning Headmistress McGonagall's office when the portrait was given to the school."

"Please, have a seat," said Hermione, summoning an Elf-sized chair for her guest.

Polly hesitated a moment, but took the proffered chair. "Headmistress is kind."

"Please, tell me what you know."

"Most portraits is ignoring House Elves, and at first, Headmaster Snape does, too. But one day, Headmistress McGonagall has an appointment with the Ministry and is so busy that she is leaving parchment, ink, and quills all over her office. I is tidying the office, when I hears a voice saying to wait. It is Headmaster Snape. I is asking what he wants, and he asks Polly to write a letter for him."

Hermione's heart began to beat faster. "Do you recall what the letter said?"

"Polly is sorry, but no. I is knowing each word, but the sentences was making no sense. There was something about fire and the sky, but the words were slippery."

Hermione sighed. "Headmaster Snape was a spy for many years. It's likely that the message was in code."

"Polly does remember two more things: the Headmaster didn't want the letter sent by owl. Polly had to use the Muggle post."

Hermione frowned. "Did he say why?"

"No, Headmistress. Polly is also remembering that the address is at Spinner's End."

"Thank you, Polly, you've been very helpful. Do let me know if you think of anything else."

"Polly will," said the elf, her ears flapping earnestly. "Good night, Headmistress!"

Hermione's thoughts were in a whirl. If Headmaster Snape's portrait had sent a letter to his house at Spinner's End, he meant it to be received by someone.

Had his confederate been living in Spinner's End, or had he set up his post to be forwarded before his death? And to whom had he written to aid his escape?

Ultimately, it didn't matter. The key to fixing the ceiling lay with finding Snape's portrait, and the key to finding the portrait was QUANDARY.

Hermione glanced at QUANDARY's projection, which hovered expectantly before her. Hermione centred the projection on the green line that was slowly working its way across America. And just as slowly, the line stopped, and a green dot blossomed at the tip of one of the Great Lakes, in the middle of the city of Chicago.

She let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. She'd half-expected the portrait to be hidden in a more obscure location. In a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, perhaps, or in jungle-choked Cambodian ruins. But according to QUANDARY's projection, Severus Snape's portrait was located across the street from a chain pizza restaurant near a busy train platform.

The juxtaposition of chain pizza and Severus Snape made Hermione giggle, even as QUANDARY earnestly informed her that it was nearing nineteen hundred hours in Chicago, there would be at least another hour of daylight, partly cloudy skies, and pleasant evening temperatures.

Obviously, it would be wiser to wait and take someone else with her. But time was of the essence, the teachers were already asleep, and Hermione sincerely doubted she would encounter anything in the middle of a bustling neighbourhood that she couldn't handle. And if she did, she could Portkey out and return with reinforcements.

Thus resolved, Hermione cast the projection back on to QUANDARY's screen and requested the coordinates of the offsite portrait and a 3-D printout of a two-way Portkey to a conveniently private spot near the portrait's location. QUANDARY gave a cheerful ping, and the outline of a bright pink key began to take shape on the print bed.

Hermione took out her wand and Summoned her beaded bag from her private quarters in case she needed a way to transport the portrait. Her bag had, after all, served that purpose admirably many years before. She reached into one of its near pockets and pulled out her mobile, to which she downloaded the portrait's coordinates.

QUANDARY played a cheerful little rendition of "Weasley is Our King" to announce that she'd finished printing. All the Portkey needed was the Headmistress's approval.

Once Hermione had tucked the bag into her pocket, she took the pink key from the print bed and tapped her wand on it. "Portus," she said, and winked out of existence.

The Portkey deposited a rather dizzy Hermione in a Disillusioned glass-walled vestibule on an elevated train platform. Posted on the support beams was a sign that read BELMONT, below which was posted a map showing magical sites of interest, popular restaurants, and places to stay. The amount of international refuse that had been kicked into the corner suggested that this was a frequently-used Portkey and Apparation point. Hermione pulled out her mobile to get her bearings and found that she was only several hundred yards away from the portrait. When the next train released a slew of commuters, she steeled herself and exited the vestibule, to be swept up in the stream of passengers, down the faintly urine-scented steps to the street below.

It had been quite some time since Hermione had been in such a busy urban centre, and she was grateful that her robes garnered no curious glances from the scantily clad young people, besuited executives, and occasional couple in fetish gear who sauntered by. The pleasantly warm, humid air smelled of damp soot and asphalt, which underscored the fresh breeze that infused the city streets with the scent of green.

Hermione stepped close to the storefront of a hair salon to consult her mobile, then proceeded south on Sheffield, past a theatre where young people were queuing to get into a concert, and finally to a block of flats that rose behind a brick arch that brought to mind a a mid-century rendition of the entrance to Diagon Alley. She followed a man laden groceries through the door to the lobby and into the lift.

"What floor?" she asked, with what she hoped was the assurance of someone who was meant to be there.

"Three," he said. "Thanks."

She nodded and pressed the button for three, as well as the sixth floor, and tried not to fidget as the lift slowly ascended.

Her destination, flat 606, was close enough to the elevator that finding it felt a bit anticlimactic. She paused, hardly daring to believe that mere feet away from her in the flat beyond was the portrait at the centre of so much magical mayhem. She raised her hand and rapped on the door.

There was a shuffling from inside, and an odd metallic clunk. Then, a beat of silence before the locks on the door were thrown and the door opened to reveal Parvati Patil, who appeared to be as surprised to see Hermione as Hermione was to see her.

"Hermione? What in Circe's name are you doing here?"

"So sorry to drop by unannounced," said Hermione, her manners reflexive, even as she realised that Parvati was holding a loaded handgun.

"Not at all," said Parvati, politely pointing the gun away from Hermione as she uncocked it and popped out the cartridge. "Do come in."

Hermione allowed herself to be ushered into a flat whose main room had long since been converted into a command centre, with dark curtains over the windows, second-hand furniture, virtual walls of document boxes, and a bank of monitors flanking a magical map projection on the wall with several layers of data.

"Please excuse the mess," said Parvati, returning the gun to a holster partially concealed by her outer robe. "Our operatives just broke up a kidnapping operation this afternoon, and we're hoping to close in on their headquarters tonight and bring down the whole ring. They kept captive werewolves and threatened to turn anyone whose family didn't pay."

"Sweet Circe," breathed Hermione. She'd known Parvati 's organization fought organised crime, but hearing the specifics was another matter entirely.

"It'll be considerably less difficult for the ones who were turned to get by when MACUSA finally ratifies werewolf protections based the ones you got the Wizengamot to pass," said Parvati. "But I'm certain that's not what you came here to discuss. I sincerely hope it's not about the banquet. I told Lakshmi that things are far too hot right now. And no offence, I really have no desire to attend a party at the place my best friend died."

"No offence taken," said Hermione. "I'm here on another matter entirely."

"Oh? Do tell."

Hermione took a deep breath, desperately hoping that she wasn't about to sound completely mad. "I need to talk to Severus Snape."

Parvati stilled. "What?"

"Lakshmi's told you all about QUANDARY, I expect," said Hermione. "It was her projection that brought me here in search of him. I swear to you, I didn't have any idea what I'd find, apart from him. I'm not going to reveal his whereabouts. I just need his help."

Parvati's dark eyes held hers. "You won't try to take him against his will."

Hermione raised her hands, marvelling at her schoolmate's quiet authority and trying not to unconsciously smooth the beaded bag in her pocket. "I promise."

Parvati squared her shoulders. "You did come all this way. I reckon he can spare you a few minutes."

"Thank you," said Hermione. "Honestly, I don't know who else might be able to help."

Parvati gave her a crooked smile. "I understand."

She knocked quietly on a closed door opposite the monitors. "Severus, I know you were listening."

"Very well," drawled a voice that simultaneously sent gooseflesh rippling over Hermione's arms and made her eyes prickle with tears. "Come in if you must."

Hermione opened the door on darkened room lit by a computer screen that illuminated a large magical portrait on the far wall. In the foreground of the portrait was a worktable on which was perched a lit candle. As she approached the painting, she saw that the candlestick's base was hexagonal, like the one that had appeared in Headmaster Snape's Hogwarts portrait.

The rest of the painting went on as far as the vanishing point allowed, with shelves and shelves of potions ingredients, a cauldron bubbling merrily over a fire, and a trio of doors leading off into parts unknown. It was the complete opposite of the simple Headmaster's portrait in her office, and Hermione felt instinctively that it was exactly the portrait that Headmaster Snape should have had.

"I wondered how long it would take you to come." Snape's calm voice was nearby, but she saw no sign of him.

"Is Dilys here?"

"Yes, she arrived unharmed during the night. She had quite a tale to tell."

"No doubt," said Hermione. "Where is she?"

"Resting. Isn't it rather late at Hogwarts?"

Hermione glared at the wall. "It's disconcerting to talk to an empty portrait. If I wished to do that, I'd go back to my office."

"I'm certain it is. It's also rather disconcerting to speak with someone whose intentions may run at cross-purposes to my own. So if you would be so kind as to place your wand and handbag on the desk to your left, we may discuss the matter as friends. Oh yes, Phineas told me all about your Undetectable Extension Charm. It was one of his favourite topics for complaining during my year as Headmaster."

"He really hated being the bag that much?"

"He did, but I'm sure his pique was due more to jealousy that he hadn't thought of the idea first."

Hermione huffed in amusement, and did as he bade her. The bag was much the worse for wear, missing entire sections of beads, but the Undetectable Expansion Charm was working as well as it ever did.

"Thank you," he said.

With that, the room's lights snapped on, revealing more boxes of documents, several desks, and Severus Snape, in the flesh, sitting in an armchair in the corner.

Hermione had never swooned in her life, but her knees felt distinctly watery as she gazed into the face of a man she'd thought dead for thirty years. His hair was now silver, his face less sallow than she recalled, but it was most certainly him.

"Ah," she said, weaving slightly and steadying herself on the edge of the table. "Well, that answers the confederate question."

"I don't have the pleasure of understanding you."

"I was curious who had helped your portrait coordinate his escape."

Snape stared at her in disbelief, and then began to laugh. "You came here looking for the portrait?"

"I thought your portrait would help me set the Hogwarts portraits to rights," she said. "But finding you alive—I never dreamed... It's wonderful."

"Gratifying as it is to hear that, I think it would be better for all parties involved for you to forget you ever saw me." His fingertips brushed the sleeve where Hermione suspected his wand was hidden.

"Don't," said Hermione, alarmed at the prospect of being Obliviated. "I haven't the least interest in revealing your existence."

Snape's eyes narrowed. "If I help you with your portrait problem, you'll leave and never return?"

"I can't say I'll never return, given that Parvati and I share a close friendship with her niece Lakshmi. And while I am delighted to see you alive and well, you aren't exactly my top priority at this point in time."

"When you put it that way, how could I refuse?" asked Snape, sounding more amused than offended. "Sev, go wake Dilys. This concerns the two of you, as well."

"I've told you time and time again to call me Headmaster," came a querulous voice from the wall. Snape's portrait self had finally emerged from the shelves, his arms full of ingredients, which he deposited on the table.

"Are all portraits as tiresome as mine?" asked Snape.

"I haven't had the pleasure of knowing your portrait. I really couldn't say," said Hermione, feeling a smile tug the corner of her mouth.

"Hermione!" exclaimed Dilys, appearing from the depths of the portrait. "How good of you to come! I've just been discussing things with Sev."

"Headmaster Snape," said the portrait sulkily.

"Oh hush, Sev, we're all Headmasters and Headmistresses here, and we can't call you both Severus."

"I hate being called Sev," said the portrait. "It's what she called me."

Hermione glanced curiously at Severus.

"Portraits are normally enchanted after extensive interviews with others about the portrait's subject. Apparently Potter didn't trust anyone's recollections of me, so he took the memories I gave you in the Shrieking Shack and had the artist mix them into the paint used for my portrait."

"Merlin," she said softly. Sev was comprised of Severus's most intimate, painful memories, including the breakup of his most treasured friendship with Harry's mum. "No wonder he wrote to you to escape. We're lucky he didn't stage an outright rebellion."

"You might have asked us," said Dilys to Sev. "Minerva would have helped you."

"I never wanted to owe anyone anything ever again," said Sev.

"Well, you've made a pig's ear of that," said Hermione, "since you now owe Hogwarts a new ceiling in the Great Hall."

Hermione would have quailed under the combined glares of Dilys Derwynt and Severus Snape, but Sev only smirked.

"It served you right for poking around my connections."

"Sev," said Severus. "What did you do?"

"I merely severed my original escape route through the Great Hall ceiling," said Sev. "Rather dramatically, if I may say so myself."

"But Hogwarts: An Art History says that portrait subjects revert to their original portraits if their offsite connections are broken," said Hermione.

"It wasn't the only connection," said Sev. "I've enchanted this candlestick to serve as a Portkey link between the two portraits. Headmaster's privilege, as you know."

"You didn't do a very good job enchanting it," said Dilys. "The dratted thing keeps winking in and out of existence."

"It worked well enough to bring you here," said Sev.

"It was terribly ingenious of you," said Hermione, "but I need to bring this portrait back to Hogwarts immediately."

"Not bloody likely!" said Sev. "Severus, you can't let her do this!"

"I haven't decided to do anything yet," said Severus. "But I must say that it seems rather out-of-character for a woman who championed the rights of all sentient beings to imprison one in a portrait that makes him miserable."

"It wouldn't be permanent," said Hermione, unaccountably flattered that Severus knew about her work at the Ministry. "I simply need Sev to restore the ceiling and close off the path he cut between his Hogwarts portrait and the Great Hall, whose spells have been degrading ever since his escape."

"You don't actually believe her, do you?" Sev asked his counterpart. "She just wants me to play the happy former Headmaster when her friend Potter comes for the thirtieth anniversary banquet!"

"Are you calling Hermione a liar?" asked Dilys in a soft voice.

"Well, erm, no," said Sev.

"Good," said Dilys. "See that you don't."

"As I was saying," said Hermione, casting Dilys a grateful look, "provided Sev is willing to restore the enchantments in the Great Hall, dismanle his jury-rigged Portkey connection, and remain at Hogwarts until his artist is able to link his original portrait to this one, he will be free to go."

Sev glared at Hermione. "That's 'Headmaster Snape' to you!"

"Hermione is Headmistress of Hogwarts," said Dilys grandly. "You're lucky she's not referring to you as the portrait vandal. And Hermione, you must tell me precisely what Sev did to the Great Hall. It all sounds terribly exciting."

"I'm sure Phineas and Everard will offer a more entertaining account of what happened," said Hermione, who was reluctant to discuss farting in front of Severus.

"I have one condition," said Severus. "You must hang his portrait at my home in Spinner's End once you're finished with him."

"What?" shouted Sev. "We hate that place nearly as much as Hogwarts!"

"I am aware," said Severus drily. "But most portraits have access to their subjects for far less time than you've had, and it's high time you struck out on your own."

"I can't believe you're kicking me out," said Sev, his voice trembling with anger.

"I'm giving you your freedom," said Severus impatiently. "I hope that in time you'll understand that."

"I hate you all!" said Sev, his face flushing scarlet as he stomped off into one of the side rooms of his portrait.

"Well," huffed Dilys. "That went well. I'll see if I can talk some sense into him. There's no logical reason that he should object, but the heart isn't always logical."

"Thank you," said Hermione. "If anybody can bring him round, it's you."

When Dilys had gone, Severus returned to his armchair and gestured for Hermione to join him in the chair opposite.

"It seems I owe you great thanks for helping rid me of an impediment that's weighed on me of late."

"Has he been so bad?" asked Hermione.

Severus sighed. "Imagine having to deal with an outspoken incarnation of your youth on a daily basis."

"I wasn't that awful," said Hermione, "and neither, I suspect, were you."

"Perhaps not," said Severus. "But this is no place for him to grow. The most he can do is stagnate with only me and bureaucrats for company. As much as he hated Hogwarts, he belongs there amongst the other paintings. Provided he has a secondary portrait for privacy, he will eventually figure out that the odd sensation he's experiencing is contentment."

"And you?" asked Hermione.

"I met Miss Patil by chance in the Carpathian mountains. Her organization had a vampire warlord in its sights, and I was providing aid to several local clans who wished to reintegrate with human society. One collaboration led to another. I find the work satisfying."

"I believe I understand," said Hermione, thinking of all the hours she and Lakshmi spent working and laughing together.

"You don't miss rewriting the rules of Wizarding society?" asked Severus.

"Sometimes," said Hermione. "But being Headmistress is taking those rewritten rules and building new generations on them. Providing accommodations for non-human and part-human students without hesitation, introducing them to hybrid technology, accepting that all beings are equally valuable—children internalize these things when the adults around them lead by example. The endless staff meetings and petty bickering notwithstanding, I find the work satisfying, too."

"Satisfying enough?"

Hermione thought for a moment. "Yes. Besides, students at least have to pretend to respect you to your face, unlike the Wizengamot. There are a few members whose behaviour would be considerably improved by a detention or two. Alas, that was beyond my power at the Ministry."

Severus chuckled, a pleasantly dark sound that Hermione hoped against all odds to hear again. "It seems we're in agreement," he said. "Take care of Sev. He's an arrogant, entitled, selfish prat, but he's good at heart. I'll visit him at Spinner's End when I can."

"Dilys obviously has a soft spot for him," said Hermione. "I'm sure she'll help keep an eye on him. As will I."

"Thank you," said Severus, rising and extending his hand for Hermione to shake.

Hermione paused before taking it. "Sev said you both hated Hogwarts."

"Merely in terms of what we endured there," said Severus. "Surely there are places that you avoid for similar reasons."

His hand was warm on hers, and Hermione was reluctant to let it go, so she didn't. "There are. And yet, I might be willing to forego my hesitation if there were a compelling reason to do so."

Some part of Hermione's brain pointed out that Severus's hand was still holding hers. "Such as?"

"The welcome renewal of an old acquaintance," said Hermione, aware that her voice was unexpectedly breathy.

"I shall bear that in mind if I ever wish to renew one," said Severus.

Hermione would have been more irritated by his words had he had let go of her hand in that moment.

He didn't.

A month later, Hermione found herself breaking out the Firewhisky that Minerva had left her, which was marked "In case of emergencies." While the end of term wasn't normally considered an emergency, having dinner with Severus Snape most certainly qualified.

"You do realize that there was a betting pool for how long it would take you to open that bottle," said Phineas sourly.

"I take it you didn't win," said Hermione, raising the crystal tumbler to her lips and letting the liquor trace a path of fire down her throat. She coughed, which produced a puff of smoke.

"I did" said Dilys. "You needn't worry, you know. I heard from a reliable source that a certain wizard has been working his fingers to the bone to ensure that every room in his home is suitable for receiving visitors. Or one particular visitor, as the case may be."

"Collusion," muttered Phineas, glaring at Sev, who was doing his best to look nonchalant in his portratit.

"I haven't the slightest idea what you mean," said Sev loftily.

Hermione tossed back the last of the dram she'd poured herself. "Tinker," she said, clearing her throat.

"Yes, Headmistress?" he said, popping into her office.

"I'm going out tonight," she said, coughing up the last bits of smoke. "Lakshmi is in charge, and I don't wish to be disturbed."

Tinker bowed. "We is hoping the Headmistress has a nice evening. We will be taking care of everything. Will the Headmistress require assistance dressing?"

Hermione glanced at her robes. They were perfectly serviceable and tolerably flattering, with red and gold piping that set off her figure reasonably well. And yet, there were a few singed bits from helping Neville with fireflowers in Greenhouse Two, and the elbows were shiny from the hours that she'd rested whilst programming QUANDARY.

"Thank you, Tinker. Please lay out a change of robes."

"Yes, Headmistress," said Tinker, grinning and disappearing with a pop.

A year ago, Hermione might have felt self-conscious about the knowing looks the portraits were giving her, especially the smug satisfaction on Sev's face.

Perhaps Sev wasn't the only one belatedly recognising the feeling of contentment.
Tags: 2018 summer fanwork, fic
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