Newly-appointed Hogwarts headmistress Minerva McGonagall was experiencing one of the most challenging weeks of her life. She was simultaneously overseeing two massive projects: the rebuilding of the Hogwarts castle, and the restructuring of the Hogwarts curriculum. If you had told her a month ago that rebuilding a castle would be the easier of two tasks, she would have thought you were confunded. Now, she thought grimly, she would rather repair two castles than restructure a school program.
The reason that rebuilding the castle wasn’t as big a headache as Minerva had feared was that the Hogwarts staff had plenty of help. The Ministry of Magic sent an army of builders for the rough work. The finish work, coordinated by Professor Flitwick, was handled by scores of volunteers. Neville Longbottom, Hannah Abbott, Padma and Parvati Patil, Anthony Goldstein, Michael Corner, and Dean Thomas had all stayed to help, joined by an ever-growing number of alumnae like Charlie Weasley, Marcus Flint, and Penelope Clearwater. Nirav and Shukla Patil were there, along with David Goldstein, Amos Diggory, and many more members of the Wizarding community.
It was barely dawn, and yet the grounds were already filled with workers. Watching the activity from her tall, narrow office windows, Minerva wished the tasks she faced that morning were as easy as choosing the expression for a gargoyle. (Fierce, of course.) Unfortunately, she had quite a few difficult academic and logistical decisions to make. Voldemort’s year in power had disrupted nearly everyone’s education. In the coming year, Hogwarts had to accommodate students who were both older and younger than usual.
A lion Patronus streaked through Minerva’s open window and settled on her massive, carved mahogany desk. In Neville’s voice, the lion said, “Received your message. Would you like to see me now, Professor?”
As the lion melted away, Minerva sent her own cat Patronus out over the grounds. Then she called out, “Bitsy!”
A tiny house elf, wearing a tea towel of Gryffindor-themed tartan, appeared with a “crack.” She was carrying a tray with a pot of hot tea, a tall pile of currant scones, butter, and sturdy white porcelain cups and plates.
“Ready for your tray, Mistress?” squeaked Bitsy in a Scottish accent.
“Yes, Bitsy. Put it on the desk.”
Bitsy disappeared, reappeared on Minerva’s desk, set down the tray, and vanished with another “crack.” A moment later, there was a knock at the door. Minerva called, “Come in!” and Neville Longbottom entered.
Neville was one of the students staying at Hogwarts for an additional year to study for his N.E.W.T.s. Due to the extraordinary leadership abilities he’d demonstrated during the previous term, Minerva was including him, as a student representative, in her meetings with the Board of Governors and Ministry of Magic.
Minerva gestured toward her desk and said, “Mr. Longbottom, Professor Sprout told me you’d be skipping breakfast to help Mr. Diggory replant the bubotuber. I thought you might appreciate a little something while we talk. Please, help yourself.”
A broad grin appeared on Neville’s face. “Thank you, Professor!”
They sat on opposite sites of Minerva’s desk, and Neville hastily buttered several scones while Minerva poured two cups of tea.
“Your Patronus Loquentis is quite impressive,” said Minerva.
Neville looked pleased and embarrassed at the same time. His mouth full, he mumbled, “Professor Flitwick taught me how to do it last year. It was dead useful.”
“I imagine it was,” said Minerva dryly. She waited until Neville had washed his scones down with some tea, then asked, “Are you prepared for this afternoon’s meeting with the Board of Governors?”
Neville suddenly looked a little nervous. “I’m ready, Professor, but I feel funny making suggestions on behalf of all the students. I wish Hermione were here this week. I’d really like to talk with her about my ideas, but she hasn’t returned my owls.”
Minerva had given Hermione Granger the same responsibilities as Neville. Hermione hadn’t planned on returning to Hogwarts before taking her N.E.W.T.s, but when Minerva had offered her the position of student representative, she’d accepted. Minerva thought privately that Hermione’s decision had more to do with Ronald Weasley than any desire to spend another year as a student. Ron’s mother was strongly encouraging him to return to school.
Minerva said, “Miss Granger has been spending the week reuniting with her parents.”
“But surely they would understand if she spent a little time owling me back!” replied Neville.
Minerva considered for a moment, then decided that Neville would know the whole story soon, anyway. She said, “Miss Granger’s reunion with her family is a little unusual. Before she joined Mr. Potter on his adventures, she obliviated her parents and sent them to Australia for their protection. They have no idea what’s happened in the past year.”
Neville was open-mouthed in surprise. “That’s…. that’s horrible!”
Minerva’s expression was grim. “A lot of horrible things happened last year.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Then Minerva said, “Mr. Longbottom, I didn’t just call you in to ask about the board meeting. I want you to spend some time considering a proposal from the Ministry that would affect every student in the school. Feel free to discuss this with any of your professors, and you may consult any eighth-year whom you feel will be helpful and discrete — and I emphasize discrete.”
Minerva gave Neville a severe look to accentuate her point. She felt satisfied when Neville appeared somber and concerned.
“What is it, Professor?” he asked.
Minerva rose and paced the floor as she talked. “Surely you’ve realized that in the coming year, Hogwarts will have to accommodate many more students than usual.”
She paused and looked at Neville, who nodded. She continued pacing. “There are the eighth-years, of course, and then there are the Muggle-borns who should have started as first-years last September, but who were banned by Voldemort. There are also Muggle-borns in other grades who are officially a year behind, although some of them have been studying in foreign schools.”
She sniffed in annoyance; Minerva believed that all other magical schools were inferior to Hogwarts.
“Then, there’s the Slytherin problem.” She stopped and turned to Neville.
“The… Slytherin problem?” Neville looked bewildered.
“A large portion of the upper-grade Slytherin students aren’t returning, leaving a void in our older student body. At the same time, there are a number of young children, too young for Hogwarts traditionally, whose parents are now jailed, and who are being fostered. Our new minister of magic, Kingsley Shacklebolt, is strongly encouraging me to incorporate the ten-year-old foster children into the Hogwarts community.”
Minerva observed with satisfaction that Neville seemed to grasp the problem immediately. “Where will all these students live? And who will teach them?” he asked.
“These are the problems before us. There are many options, each worse than the last. I would very much like the opinion of students, but students who are serious about their schooling.”
Neville grinned. “Meaning, I shouldn’t ask Dean Thomas.”
Minerva felt a laugh bubble up in her, but she confined it to a tiny twitch of her lips. “No, that would not be prudent.”
Neville became serious again. “I’ve never thought about this before, but Gryffindor tower is configured for exactly fourteen dormitories. Hufflepuff and Slytherin have room to expand, but Gryffindor and Ravenclaw don’t. At least, I assume that Ravenclaw tower is the same as ours.”
“You are correct,” replied Minerva.
Neville frowned. “It sounds as if the Ministry is suggesting that all of the young kids will be Slytherins. But that can’t be right. How would they know? Would the Hat even sort children who are that young?”
“I would,” said a voice from above, making them both jump. The Sorting Hat had spoken!
Minerva crossed the room to the stand under the high shelf where the Hat resided. “Have you any advice, Hat?” she asked, looking up at it.
The Hat opened at its brim, and said,
“Of Ravenclaws and Slytherins
We’ll have too few when we begin
Of Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs
I fear we’ll have more than enough.”
Minerva and Neville looked at each other. “Can you elaborate, Hat?” asked Minerva.
“Neeeeyohhhhh,” yawned the Hat. It shut its brim and was silent once more.
“Well,” said Minerva after a moment, “I can think of worse things than a school full of Gryffindors!”
Neville was still thoughtful. “I wonder why we’ll be missing Ravenclaws?”
Minerva had no answer to that. She heard a light chiming sound, which she realized was coming from Neville’s wristwatch.
“Professor,” he said, “Mr. Diggory will need me soon. Is there anything else?”
“Just one thing.” Minerva returned to her desk and sat across from Neville again, staring him down with a no-nonsense expression. “I believe that Mr. Finnegan is avoiding me. Do you have any idea why?”
She observed Neville closely, suspecting that he knew the answer, but she was disappointed when Neville appeared to be genuinely surprised.
“I don’t think that’s the case, Professor,” he said. “I talked to him the other day, when he came to pick up his trunk. He’s gone back home to spend time with parents. He’s been very worried about his dad — he’s a Muggle, you know.”
“Yes, I’m aware,” said Minerva.
“Professor, does this have anything to do with Serena Serpentia? You wanted to speak to both of us the other day, and I was under the impression that it was about her.”
Minerva pursed her lips. “Yes, but I suppose it doesn’t matter now. Neither she nor Mr. Finnegan seem to be returning.” She tried very hard not to think about the Slytherin common room; with no Slytherins on the grounds, she couldn’t make it her first concern, but the fact that it was still inaccessible angered her to no end.
Neville looked resigned, and maybe even… a little sad? Minerva decided she needed to get to the bottom of all the protests on behalf of Miss Serpentia. They really were baffling.
“Neville,” she began, hoping that informality would get her the results she wanted, “I must confess I don’t understand why you are such an ardent defender of Miss Serpentia. If I am not mistaken, she was never your friend. And you must be aware that, during your time at Hogwarts, she’s had a most hostile relationship with Miss Granger, whom I know is your friend.
“And you are not the only person who is concerned about Miss Serpentia’s future. I’ve received owls from Miss Patil and Mr. Thomas asking me to allow her to graduate with your year.
“Now, I can understand your gratitude for her leniency with your rule-breaking last year, but not this championing of her cause. Not to a student who took the first opportunity to use this school as her own personal fiefdom! Not to a person who has spent the past seven years insulting and demeaning you and your friends!”
Neville took a moment to gather his thoughts. Minerva wondered what he really knew about Serpentia, and if he were worried about revealing it. She was not normally in favor of using legilimency to eavesdrop on students’ thoughts, but today she fervently wished she had Dumbledore’s skill. Finally Neville spoke.
“It’s like this, Professor. We all went through a horrible experience together, all of us who were against the Carrows. I would say all of us who were against Snape, but I think Serena was Snape’s biggest supporter, and besides, it turns out he was working for the Order after all.
“Anyway, when you live through something like that with other people, you become like a family. Families are different than friends. Serena is like…. a horrid second cousin. You know she’ll cause a scene at Christmas supper, but you invite her anyway, because it just wouldn’t be the same without her. And professor….”
He paused. Minerva could tell that he was looking for the right words. She waited impatiently; he had answered only part of her question.
“…. I never had a — how did you put it? — a hostile relationship with Serena. We were both tops in Herbology and we worked together on two extra-credit projects.
“And she gets on with other people who aren’t Slytherins, including Muggle-borns. She was partners with Dean all sixth year in Advanced Divination. And she teamed up with Justin Finch-Fletchley for that Arithmancy contest fifth year — you know, when the International Arithmancy Association decided that team papers weren’t allowed and they took back their trophy and gave it to Hermione instead. In fact, far as I know, the only person with whom she’s had a truly bad relationship is Hermione…”
He paused and said the next part carefully.
“… and I think I might know why.”
Minerva felt like the floor had dropped away from under her chair. She was ardently glad she was already seated. Her mind was racing: What did Longbottom know? What did any of them know? She mustn’t assume they knew everything. But how to find out without accidentally revealing all that Dumbledore had worked so hard to conceal? This was a disaster.
She realized that her face must have spoken volumes, because Neville rose and said, “You don’t have to answer that, Professor.”
She watched him cross the room in silence. As he was leaving, he turned and said, “But perhaps it’s time to make it right.”
A half-hour later, Minerva was conversing at the Great Hall staff table with her deputy headmistress and great friend Pomona Sprout. They were discussing the sorting hat’s rhyme and how it might be prescient, considering how much trouble Minerva was having replacing herself as head of Gryffindor.
Also at the staff table, several seats away to the right of Pomona, was Horace Slughorn, still officially head of Slytherin, although he had been making retirement noises. Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank, who had officially replaced Hagrid as professor of Care of Magical Creatures, was a few seats away to Minerva’s left. Minerva wished Hagrid would show up. For some reason, she couldn’t get a word with him. He was another one she suspected of avoiding her.
The usual four long banks of tables were set up for breakfast, but they didn’t belong to any particular Houses, nor were they exclusively for students. Workmen and community volunteers took their places side-by-side with the handful of students who had remained to help rebuild the castle. People came for meals at all hours. Looking over the crowded hall, Minerva saw the Patil twins, recent graduate Katie Bell, Charlie Weasley and… was that Percy with him? They were having an amiable conversation; she supposed that Percy had reconciled with his family after the war.
“So do you think the hat is saying that there are more Muggle-born Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs than Ravenclaws?” Pomona was saying quietly. “I’ve never thought about it before. Of course, there are no Muggle-born Slytherins.”
“I don’t think the hat was necessarily trying to make that point, Pomona,” replied Minerva. “It might simply have meant that the Ravenclaws will all advance with their grades, and we won’t have any extra.”
“It’s a shame we’re missing so many of the older Slytherins,” said Pomona.
Minerva looked at her in surprise. “I was thinking quite the opposite, that the next year might be easier with fewer of them.”
Pomona let out an exasperated snort. “Really, Minerva, I’ve never understood why you have so much trouble with the Slytherins in your classes. Maybe it’s because you’re such a Gryffindor.”
Minerva’s mouth dropped open in outrage. Pomona laughed. “Oh, now, you know it’s true! As for me, many of my best students are Slytherins. They seem to like Herbology.”
Minerva turned back to her boiled egg and muttered, “Maybe they’re trying to grow their own poisons.”
“Minerva!” hissed Pomona under her breath, her eyes wide. Then she decided that Minerva was joking, and laughed. “You’re so awful!” she exclaimed.
Minerva kept silent. She was feeling particularly uncharitable towards the entire house of Slytherin today, which she knew was unfair. She tried to think of a way to redirect the conversation, but Pomona was too quick for her. She asked, “Minerva, you didn’t really expel Serena Serpentia, did you?”
Minerva’s heart sank. This was the last conversation she wanted to have.
“I did,” she said, not taking her eyes from her plate. “But her family has the chance to appeal my decision. I haven’t heard from them yet.”
Pomona sighed. “I really wish you would explain to me what she’s supposed to have done. She’s never caused a moment’s trouble in my class. Did you know she received an Outstanding on her Herbology O.W.L.? Her score was almost as good as Neville Longbottom’s!”
Minerva turned back to Pomona. “Well, she may not have caused trouble in your classroom, but she’s certainly caused a great deal of trouble for me by locking up the Slytherin common room, and with it, access to the dormitories!”
Pomona seemed unperturbed. “Now, I’m sure that’s just some sort of misunderstanding. Have you owled her parents? They’re lovely people. I met them when they came to watch the TriWizard Tournament.”
Minerva had a sharp retort on the tip of her tongue, but she was interrupted by a sudden hush that fell over the hall.
“Speak of the devil….” muttered Minerva.
Serena Serpentia, dressed in a very dramatic black full-skirted traditional witch’s dress and cape, marched purposefully toward the front of the hall, the heels of her boots making an unnaturally loud clicking against the stone. People whispered and pointed as she passed, but the hall grew quieter as she neared the staff table. Minerva steeled herself for a confrontation, but Serpentia didn’t so much as glance at her. She stopped directly in front of Horace, and in a ringing voice, announced:
“Professor Horace Slughorn! We will speak immediately!”
Horace looked positively nonplussed. He waved his hands and mumbled many incomplete phrases that Minerva couldn’t hear. Serpentia continued to stare him down.
He finally looked a Minerva, who immediately waved her hand at him, indicating “Go! Go!” She prayed this meant that Serpentia was willing to unlock the Slytherin doors. Perhaps she would also agree to leave the school forever?
With a fair amount of fussing, Horace rose and descended from the head table podium. Serpentia turned on her heel and marched back out of the hall, Slughorn hurrying behind. The instant they departed, the level of noise in the hall increased greatly. Minerva noticed Parvati Patil trying to catch her attention; she discouraged her with a stern look.
“I’d like to be a fly on that wall!”
This came from Wilhelmina, who leaned back in her chair with a satisfied expression. When Minerva and Pomona turned to her, she smiled and said, “Yes, that will be a most interesting conversation. But then, Miss Serpentia is a most interesting student!”
“You, too, Wilhelmina?” said Minerva, looking between her and Pomona. “Am I the only one who finds her actions outrageous?”
“Oh, yes, outrageous indeed!” declared Wilhelmina, looking not at all upset. “But they’re like that, you know.”
“Who are like what?” asked Pomona, while Minerva, for the second time that morning, felt like everything was slipping away from her. What did Wilhelmina know? However much it was, it had to stop right there.
She thought quickly, and said, “Americans. Dr. Serpentia is American. They’re very pushy and rude.”
“No, he isn’t!” protested Pomona. “Rude, I mean. In fact, he’s very quiet and polite!”
Wilhelmina just gave Minerva a funny look, as though wondering if she were entirely competent.
Minerva was deeply grateful when, a moment later, Aurora Sinistra walked up with an important message from the Ministry. Minerva rushed from the hall with Aurora, hoping fervently that by the next time she spoke with either Pomona or Wilhelmina, her Serpentia problem would be solved.