“Keeps herself to herself, she does. Not like some I could mention, running down to Hogsmeade every chance they get...” Mr Filch looked hopeful, but Hermione refused to bite. She was not there to gossip about the teachers.
“Have you noticed anything different about Madam Pince lately, Mr Filch? I'd bet nothing gets past an observant man like yourself.” She wasn't holding out much hope it would work, but it did. Wizards or Squibs or Muggle men, they weren't very different.
“Haven't seen much of her lately, have I? Used to come to my room for a chat, she did – those students have no respect for their elders. Does her good to have someone to talk to. Mind you, I'm not saying I understand all she's saying, but she seems happy enough.”
“And she's not coming to see you anymore?” Filch's office looked exactly like it always had, but if it had not put Madam Pince off previously, there was no reason her opinion should have changed suddenly.
“Not since the students came back. It's always busy, the first few weeks – them students stomping through the corridors like they're a herd of Hippogriffs. Wouldn't occur to them to use their precious wands to clean their feet from mud, oh no.”
It had actually not occurred to Hermione, either, but she remembered Mr Filch under Umbridge and any residual guilt disappeared. “So, you haven't seen her since the 1st of September?”
“In passing, yeah – not down here. Looking fagged to death, she was.”
“Did she mention anything about her work at all?”
His pale eyes glittered. “Asked me to clean up the desks last week – some third-years had stuck chewing gum under them. Drooble's Best Blowing Gum no less, I had to take a chisel to it. They wouldn't have tried that during the war, oh no...“ He faltered a little when he recalled whom he was talking to, and Hermione took advantage of his temporary discomfort.
“What did she say? And did Madam Pince do anything out of the ordinary while you were there?”
“Just asked me to do what I could, considering the little sods had used Sticking Charms. She loosened them for me, but it only goes so far. Said she might have to pop out – “
“Pop out where?” Hermione's voice was too sharp, but fortunately Mr Filch wasn't put off.
“Oh, just round the back – she has a few storerooms there. Asked me to make sure nothing untoward happened if she wasn't there. Couldn't trust the little blighters for a second – “
Hermione cut him off before he could expand on his favourite subject. “How long was she gone for?”
“Five minutes, tops. Here's the odd thing, though: when she came back, snowflakes were melting in her hair. Sensible woman like Irma wouldn't use magic for no reason, 'specially not when she was working.”
“I'm afraid I could not tell you whether Irma was working on a special project, or anything like that. Part of the reason we have managed to retain such highly qualified staff over the years is the freedom that comes with the job.” Minerva pushed the plate with shortbread towards Hermione, who gratefully stuffed two in her mouth.
It had been a long day.
“The school cannot afford to pay very high wages, as I'm sure you understand, but my colleagues – whether they are teachers or not – are free to pursue their own interests during the holidays. Having a first-rate library helps too, of course.”
It gave Hermione an excellent opening. “Professor – Minerva, are you familiar with the term L-space?”
“Not as such, my dear. Do enlighten me.”
“In my line of work, it soon becomes obvious that magical books can manipulate the world around them. They're magical, of course – it is only to be expected. Large collections of books are even more unpredictable: they can bend space and time, opening passages to any library, anywhere...”
“I think we may need something stronger for this conversation.” Minerva didn't continue until she had summoned a bottle of Muggle whisky and two glasses. “Are you about to tell me that the school library is open to anyone who might decide to wander in?”
“That's why you ordinarily have one of the Librarians of Time and Space tending to it. Nothing much gets past them.” Hermione was not a member, which was why she could discuss their existence in the first place. She wasn't sure she ever wanted to tie herself down to a library – curse-breaking was much more fun than guarding the fabric of time and space.
“Meaning no one is doing it at the moment, I presume?” As usual, the Headmistress put her finger on the salient point.
“I've done what I can, and I presume Ciara has, too, so nothing tentacled is about to burst out of the Restricted Section. The bigger question is whether Madam Pince has disappeared because of whatever is going on, or – “ Hermione was still trying to work out how to put it when Minerva spoke:
“Or whether Irma caused it. Whatever it may be – have you got any closer to figuring out what is happening?”
“Professor Snape was very helpful.”
“Was he now?” The harsh lines around Minerva's mouth quivered a little.
Hermione pretended not to notice her amusement. “Based on the information I have gathered, he is the best link to the phenomena. If Madam Pince were here, she might be able to tell us more, but as far as I can tell, activity has in fact increased since her disappearance.”
“You think Irma has disappeared, then?” There was an unaccustomed brittleness in Minerva’s voice.
Hermione belatedly remembered that Irma had been one of her colleagues for at least two decades. “She may have gone into L-Space on an extended expedition.”
“For almost a month?”
“It happens. The passage she took may have closed again, and she would have to find a different way back, or – “
“Surely you know me well enough by now to realise I'd prefer the truth, however unpleasant.”
“Or she may have got lost entirely.” Hermione had been, once. L-Space could be terrifying, despite all the books.
“I see. Is there anything we can do? Send out a search party, perhaps?”
Hermione swallowed a giggle, imagining the Hogwarts staff outfitted like a polar expedition, setting off from the library. “I'm quite sure Madam Pince is better able to take care of herself out there than all the rest of us together.”
Minerva's shoulders sank infinitesimally and she poured herself another drop of whisky. “Very well, then. What do you propose to do instead?”
“I would like to use Professor Snape's – connection to the library, for want of a better word. It might be helpful if you dropped a word in his ear first.”
“Really? I thought Severus had been remarkably accommodating already.”
“One can always improve,” Hermione said primly.
“How wonderfully exciting this is. Rather than marking the mountains of essays in my office or planning tomorrow's Double Potion class, I'm in the library, doing... Miss Granger, I hope you can enlighten me, as I'm not quite certain what we are supposed to be achieving.”
“Since when are you teaching Potions again?” It was much easier to speak to Snape while she was busy casting spells – Hermione could just let her mouth run on without having to pick which three complex emotions were dominating her perception of him today.
“Horace was apparently in dire need of a visit to a London specialist. Entirely by chance, his unknown ailment coincides with Puddlemere United playing the Harpies.”
“I'm sure the pleasure of returning to your old stomping grounds will make up for it.”
“If you wish to improve your mediocre Potions skills, you may sit at the back. Bring your own cauldron.”
“Thanks for the offer.” Not rising to the bait might play into some sort of double-bluff on his part – surely, he didn't believe Hermione still was looking for his approval?
“Is there any point to our activities here this evening? So far, I have failed to detect as much as a whiff of Antipodean air.”
Hermione was used to ignoring Ron's whinging – Snape's wasn't much different, albeit more eloquent. “Why don't you get on with whatever you're usually doing? I'm just here as an observer.”
“Perhaps you should take down one of the dictionaries – I believe the traditional definition is somewhat less intrusive.”
“I thought you were going to look for some books, not have a wank in the main aisle.” Hermione's cheeks turned bright red – she would do well to remember it wasn't Ron she was speaking to.
Professor Snape's back stiffened alarmingly. “If you don't mind, I would prefer to remain ignorant of what passes for acceptable behaviour among Gryffindors. In a library.”
Hermione said nothing – it was safest, and while they had been bickering she had discovered something.
A thin crack in one of the bookshelves, meandering all the way from the ornate holly leaves at the bottom to the improbable pineapples adorning the top. L-space stretched libraries to breaking point, and she had just discovered one of the connection points.
“What is that?” said a sharp voice so close to her ear that she could feel the heat of his breath. Hermione shrieked, promptly losing the train of her wand.
“What the hell did you do that for, you – you idiot?” she said when she had started breathing again.
“Your vocabulary this evening has certainly been a revelation. While common sense would dictate a more conciliatory approach towards those you have approached for assistance, I should probably not be surprised.” The hint of smugness was unbearable.
“The next time you're brewing a particularly tricky potion, remind me to pop my nose into your cauldron and ask you when you're going to start stirring clockwise. Is it really so difficult for you to accept that someone who is female and younger than you might have a clue what she's doing?” Hermione stood up, too angry to keep looking for a hair-thin crack she had been lucky to spot the first time.
Snape looked like a Blast-Ended Skrewt had decided to nest in his pyjamas. “I was under the misapprehension that having Potter broadcast the most intimate details of my past to all and sundry would have inoculated me against any accusations of misogyny.”
Hermione wondered if the number of syllables were directly related to his level of discomfort. Nothing with Snape was ever straightforward.
“As for your other accusation, I would like to point out that I was the youngest teacher Hogwarts had seen in a century.” He continued like someone determined to do their duty, however unpleasant.
“I assume that's the best apology I'm going to get,” Hermione muttered, bending down again to track the elusive crack.
In sullen silence, Snape continued to do whatever Potions Masters and ex-spies turned Defence Against The Dark Arts teachers did in the library after the students had gone to bed, and Hermione pottered around nearby, trying to find a lead.
She gave up at eleven, nodding to him as she headed past the librarian's desk towards the rooms Minerva had assigned to her. Perhaps the Headmistress had been hoping the proximity to the library would help Hermione's investigations. She had been sorely mistaken, in that case – beyond a nebulous idea that L-space was behind it all, Hermione had no idea what was going on, never mind how to stop it.
There was no way she was going to tell Professor Snape that, though.