It was a quiet and stunned group that shuffled into the Slytherin dungeons that night. As Hermione looked about, she glimpsed far too many wide eyes and suspicious looks for her liking. It seemed everyone already had some opinions about who was behind the attack and it wouldn't be long before they were shared.
"If I could have everyone gather round the fireplace please?" Celeste Antony called out. She had succeeded her sister Selene as the seventh-year prefect when she had graduated and if it weren't for the smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, Hermione would have sworn she was looking at her older sister.
There was a slight susurration as the members of Slytherin House turned away from their conversations towards the place indicated. Celeste waited for quiet before continuing. "As of this moment, all end of semester tasks and assignments have been cancelled and we will all be departing from Hogwarts a week earlier for the Christmas holidays. No students will be allowed to remain behind in the castle until the professors and the headmaster get a handle on this problem. If you were planning to remain, I highly suggest that you contact your guardians and make other arrangements. You must all be packed and ready to leave the castle tomorrow morning. Breakfast will be served on the train back to London as you will not be eating here."
At this, an uneasy murmur seemed to pass through the group. It was one thing to send them all home early but to give perhaps twelve hours notice before all but chasing the students out….well it showed Hermione that all of the teachers were extremely worried.
A part of her was pleased about everyone's quick thinking. Professor Dumbledore was obviously taking no chances after what had happened last year, but there was another part of her that was disappointed that she and Luna could not continue the search for Jormungandr, especially when it felt like they were getting close.
"What about next semester?" someone called out and Celeste and the other prefects exchanged glances, their expressions unreadable. "As of this moment, no word has been given on what is going to happen in January. As is customary, each head of house will be sending letters to the homes of all their students, notifying them of any sudden changes. Let us all hope that this blows over by the new year."
There was a grim sort of skepticism to those words that made Hermione purse her lips. Whatever was going on here, the prefects didn't seem to think that a few weeks would be enough to deal with it.
"I would suggest you all pack your things immediately and get some sleep," Celeste finished. She glanced around the common room, somehow managing to meet the eye of each student before she continued. "Because once you leave the dungeons tomorrow morning, you will not be allowed back in."
She turned away at that point and it became clear that the meeting was adjourned. An air of nervousness settled over the group but one by one, all the members of Slytherin House turned away to head to their dorms and spend what was undoubtedly a very uneasy last night in Hogwarts.
Hermione drifted over to her friends who all looked on edge.
"What happened Mione?" Harry demanded as soon as there was no one else around them. "Where did you and Luna run off to after duelling club?"
The other girl sighed, "I wanted to know if there was something that she had….asked the snake….and what it had told her."
From the stunned silences that followed the admission, Hermione would guess that only half of her friends were following her.
"What?" Draco finally asked faintly, "would Lovegood know about being a Parselmouth?"
That was a lie that could be told easily. "Luna may be…odd to many people but she's very smart, she wouldn't be in Ravenclaw if she wasn't and one of her many giftings is talking to animals. She told me that Parseltongue was something that she learned a while ago and had only been able to use it on garden snakes in her home town."
"And that's all very well and good Granger," Draco cut in, for once his familiar drawl sounding a bit sharp. "But I'm a bit more interested in why Lovegood seemed interested in talking to the snake. Her tone seemed a bit….pointed."
Hermione's eyes narrowed slightly, she had forgotten how perceptive her friend could sometimes be. "That…is not my story to share. Just know that she had a good reason, one that she shared with me and that we're handling it."
"This isn't going to turn out like last year is it?" Dudley asked, looking a bit sick.
"Gracious no!" Hermione exclaimed. She lowered her voice and looked around, but the common room was now empty, everyone having taken the concept of packing seriously. "If I have my way, no one will go tumbling into Inferi infested waters ever again."
"Well then can we help?" Harry asked, ever the optimist.
Hermione regarded him for a while. "You might be able to. But I need to talk to some people about all this first. Then we can go from there."
She could tell that her friends didn't appreciate the ambiguity, but until she had leave to discuss secrets, she was going to keep them to herself.
"And just who are you going to talk to?" Draco asked, folding his arms across his chest. "It's not like any of the professors will be available. They're probably going to spend the holidays tracking down the bloody great thing that took out Finch Fletchly."
Hermione refused to flinch at the callous delivery. "My father."
Both Harry and Dudley jerked like she had flicked them both in the face. "Do you think he'll be back for the holidays?" Dudley asked in an eager tone and
Hermione smiled. "I'm hoping so. I haven't seen him for a while."
"And how could your father possibly help with this?" Draco demanded again. "We don't even know what we're dealing with."
Hermione stilled, and her blonde friend picked up on the look on her face right away. "Do you?"
The strawberry blonde bit the edge of her lip, wondering how much she could say without letting the cat completely out of the bag.
"Hermione, do you know what's going on here?' Dudley asked in a very serious voice and she took a deep breath. "Let's just say that some things are beginning to become clear. But I don't have proof and if my theory holds even a fraction of accuracy then I need to talk to my dad. I made the mistake of not doing that last year and it nearly cost all of us."
"And what could your mysterious father possibly do about all of this?" Draco asked.
"Just wait until you meet him mate," Harry said in a low voice, the beginnings of a smile curving his lips.
Despite herself, Hermione grinned. Having only spent time with him a handful of instances, she knew how much Harry and Dudley looked up to Thor. They didn't know he was a god, just that he was a very powerful magical individual who made time for them the same way he made time for her. He had taught them magic at a young ago, how to remove their own magical barriers and blocks and was gentle and patient.
There was no small amount of hero worship from the two boys to her dad.
An acute longing spiked through her at the memory and she curled her fingers into fists. Please come home for Christmas dad.
"Is he that impressive?" Draco asked, looking between Harry and Dudley.
"Who do you think got us out of that mess we were in at the end of last year?" Harry asked and the blonde's eyes widened. "What?"
Hermione cut in before the conversation could get out of hand. "The point is…..I think my dad could have some valuable insights about what's going on here and I'd rather talk to him first before I make any assumptions. I've learned my lesson here already."
"So you're going to ask him about why you seem to be hearing a mysterious voice that no one else can?" Dudley asked and Hermione grimaced but nodded.
"I'm certain he'll be able to help me."
Draco sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Alright, I guess there's nothing else we can do at this point. We should get packing, this is the only time we'll be able to do it."
He gave her a meaningful look as he followed Harry and Dudley out of the room. It was a look that said he still had more questions and would be asking them whether she was ready to give answers or not.
Hermione swallowed hard and sincerely hoped she would have some clarity to give him.
When she was certain that both Daphne and Tracey were deep in the throes of slumber, Hermione leaned over and pulled the cellular device from the bedside table drawer that she had charmed closed and then proceeded to pull the covers over her head. She was glad for the added security of the bed curtains to muffle the sound of her conversation. A part of her wanted to wait until the next morning to call her mum, just so that there wouldn't be any potential witnesses, but if Natasha was still in America, she also didn't want to have her make special arrangements just to come and get her.
The fact that for most of the world, she didn't exist was beginning to become an inconvenient thing.
After punching in her mother's number, Hermione tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and chewed on the edge of her lip, listening to it ring.
On the third ring, there was a longer pause and then Hermione sagged with relief when an all too familiar voice could be heard. "Mum?"
"Hermione, what is it? Is something wrong?"
The twelve year old frowned at the somewhat harried tone in the other woman's voice, a tone she only ever reserved for herself or her father. The last time she had heard it was when she had called Natasha when they were down underneath the school
Immediately alarm bells went off in the back of her mind.
"No Mum," she said a bit more cautiously. "Nothing's wrong. But we are being sent home early from school for the holidays. There's….let's just say some complications have arisen."
"What's going on little girl?" Natasha asked, but the use of her nickname didn't make Hermione feel warm and safe like she normally did.
She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. "I'm just going to give you the reader's digest version and explain the rest when I get home. No, I didn't do anything foolish, no I'm not in trouble. This actually has very little to do with me."
As quickly as possible, she explained what had happened with the bloody writing on the wall, her and Luna hearing a strange voice at the oddest intervals, the duelling club disaster and finally the incapacitation of Justin Finch Fletchly, ending with the headmaster making the executive decision to send them all home early for the holidays so an investigation could be launched.
Natasha was deadly silent through all of it. The more she spoke, the more nervous Hermione found herself until she had to stop at one point because her mouth was so dried out that she was finding it difficult to speak.
Finally, when she was done, the only response for at least a minute was a deafening silence on the other end of the line.
"Mum?" she asked finally. "Are you still there?"
There was another breath of silence which was almost immediately followed by a long sigh. "Mione, we are going to need to have a serious talk about whether or not you return to that school during the holidays."
That….had not been what she was expecting.
But before the twelve year old had had time to formulate a suitable response to this out of the blue assertion, Natasha had continued. "Two major incidents in one year? I can accept that you getting yourself into trouble last year was a fluke. The headmaster at the very least seemed to take precautions seriously. But this? Now you're hearing voices?"
"Mum," Hermione whispered, attempting to cut through to what she felt was the most important part of this entire conversation. "I don't think that the fact that I'm hearing voices is the problem, it's why am I hearing these voices and no one else? Along with Luna, no one else has been able to hear anything. And
I think there's only one possible explanation for that."
It didn't take Natasha more than a second to catch on.
Hermione blinked in surprise and instinctively held the phone away from her ear. Her mother had always been careful about her language in front of her so for her to allow herself a lapse this time meant something was causing her far more distress than normal. And Hermione suddenly had a feeling it went beyond this impromptu news.
"Mum?" she asked softly. "Is everything alright?"
Another long silence.
"I hope so little girl," Natasha said just as quietly but her tone did nothing to silence the alarm that shot through Hermione then. She gripped the device a bit tighter. "Mum? What's going on?"
The pauses between responses were going to drive her manic.
"I promise Hermione," her mother's voice sounded even quieter than before, as if she were coming from somewhere very far away. "I'll explain everything when you get home. Either myself or Uncle Reg or Aunt Petunia will pick you up from the train station."
"O-Okay," Hermione stammered, the change in pace of the conversation still confusing her. "And then we'll talk?"
She somehow knew it would be about far more than what was going on at school.
"Yes," Natasha said. "Then we'll talk."
The moment Natasha rang off with Hermione, she knew she had to move fast.
At the moment, all SHIELD agents and scientists had punched their cards for the night and left a limited guard at the crash site in the desert. After making their assessments and talking with Coulson to make plans to find their missing mysterious man from outer space, all of Barton, Regulus and Natasha had gone back to their rooms at the hotel.
But the latter two had no plans to sleep.
Regulus had quietly conveyed to Natasha that even if they couldn't move the hammer itself, they might be able to carve out the base of rock it was sitting on, from the ground and bring it with them back to England to study.
Natasha's only response to that had been: "Why not? It's not like I'll still have a job if someone finds out I helped our alien visitor escape."
And so that was how the two SHIELD agents had found themselves walking carefully under cover of magic and darkness, back into the makeshift facility surrounding the hammer itself.
"I certainly hope this works," Regulus muttered under his breath and Natasha threw her friend a smirk. "I don't see why it wouldn't. Thor seems convinced that only those worthy will be able to lift the hammer, but that is a very broad definition. I personally don't buy it, a specific enchantment has been placed on
Mjolnir preventing Thor from picking it up. And the only way we're going to be able to figure out how to break the enchantment is by taking it away from prying eyes."
It was then she looked up at her close friend as they stood there in the dark examining the hammer. "You don't have to do this Reg. It won't be just my job on the line here if SHIELD somehow finds out what we've done. And I know that you like working here."
The look he sent her was remarkably deadpan. "Tasha how many times have you stuck your neck out for me? You helped me rescue my brother from Azkaban, came up with the plan to win him his freedom, got me into SHIELD with little to no resume and taught me how to fight up to a standard that most senior agents are still attempting to get to. The way I see it, I owe you quite a lot. And if this can help Thor, well then what other choice do I have?"
Natasha sighed. "Alright then, if you're sure. Let's get to work."
Not for the first time was she inordinately glad that Regulus had taught her some magic in the last few years. Often times, it made her job so much easier.
With Regulus holding the charm that would keep them invisible in place, both agents knelt in front of the rock protrusion and examined the best way to remove it from the earth.
"I do know of a spell that would sever the hammer from the stone possibly," Regulus said after a moment of quiet. "It is a bit….dramatic though."
"What is it?" Natasha asked.
Regulus sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "It's a spell that my friend Severus invented while we were in school. It's a severing charm and from what I recall, it can be used on any matter, whether inanimate or flesh to break it in two."
"It was, but when you consider the possibility that it could be used on humans, it begins to become a bit more problematic."
Regulus shook his head slightly as he gazed down at the altar of stone. "It's one reason that I hope SHIELD never becomes aware of the fact that there are magic users out there. A spell like this in the hands of a homicidal maniac could possibly take out a battalion of men."
Natasha raised an eyebrow at him. "You're forgetting something Reg, witches and wizards aren't immune to guns."
"Yes there is that. But come, I don't think we're going to accomplish anything more by standing here talking, other than getting ourselves potentially caught. Let's get on with it."
"I thought you said that your spells of disillusionment were the best in your class?"
"They are, but the last thing I want to be is so arrogant that I think myself above mistakes, especially in a situation like this."
"Alright, then you should perform the spell."
And Regulus did.
In retrospect, the after effects of the spell were not half so interesting as the expression Regulus formed when he uttered it. His face twisted slightly, lips turning up in a curl that betrayed utter disgust. The single word ripped from him as if it had been torn out and Natasha felt her eyebrows at the sheer confliction that seemed to come from him.
A moment later however, her attention was diverted at the sound of a dull thud. It was not nearly so loud as a gunshot but rather the noise of a flat stone being dropped upon another of a similar size.
And when she turned back to the rock itself, Natasha could see instantly that Regulus' spell had produced excellent results. There was a neat but thin incision placed upon the rock, several inches down from the head of the hammer. It looked as if they had just neatly sawed the top of the rock off.
It floated in the air in front of them, the bottom half of the rock responding to Regulus' spell, rather than the hammer itself.
The pair of them stared at it in tandem, their minds in completely different places. Regulus was regarding the hammer with a sense of awe, a bit unwilling to believe that they were going to pull off yet another heist.
As far as jailbreaks went, this was a far cry from when they had liberated his brother from Azkaban, but none the less exhilarating.
As for Natasha, she was busy wondering how they might break the enchantment on the stone so that they could get Thor's powers back.
One thing at a time, get the hammer back to England and then worry about the rest.
In the back of her mind, Natasha wondered if the neatness of the cut would have been telling to some but deduced that to be something that she couldn't worry about at the moment.
This hammer and her husband mattered more to her than her job after all. Though if someone were to ever find out what she had done, it would not be her job in question but quite possibly her freedom.
It would mean a jail cell in a remote location for all of them if this were ever discovered.
But Natasha chose not to think of that right now.
Regulus was about to cast the featherweight charm they had agreed upon to make for easier carrying when Natasha suddenly stopped him. "Place the charm on the stone, not the hammer itself. Thor told me that Mjolnir is not heavy, its just stubborn, so any spell we place on it might be taken as an attempt to lift it and it might not comply. But the rock itself should be free from its magic."
The dark haired wizard gave her a look that was faintly impressed. "That's a good idea."
The moment the charm was cast however, an alarm somewhere to their left began to go off and Regulus cursed quietly. He had refrained from casting a disillusionment charm on the hammer itself once it was removed because of Natasha's warning but now those warnings seemed to their detriment.
Someone had been alerted.
"Now!" Natasha hissed, seizing her friend's hand. Regulus wasted no time and they both spun on their heels, centering her backyard in Surrey firmly in her mind.
A second later, they left the desert in New Mexico behind, a blaze of lights and the din of alarm bells as their only final encore.
Arriving back in her quiet neighborhood, the only witnesses to their return were two familiar blonde figures sitting on the back steps of Natasha's small deck.
Thor stood immediately as they emerged from the effects of the apparition and his eyes widened slightly when Regulus stood to one side, lowering the charmed stone that was holding Mjolnir to the ground.
"Norns," he said softly and gave the wizard a wondering look. "I wasn't certain it would actually work. Thank you my friend."
"Of course," Regulus said looking a bit flustered. Natasha smirked at him, she knew his shock at Thor in fact being a god and not just a powerful wizard, would take a long time to get over.
"Is that it then?" Petunia said, breaking the momentary quiet. She strode up to them, just behind Thor and took in the prize her friend and husband had brought back. "That's Mjolnir?"
"Aye," Thor said in a low voice. His right hand twitched as if he wanted to reach out and grasp the hammer's handle but was afraid to. Seeing this, Natasha took it and twined her fingers through his. He squeezed her back gratefully and his posture grew a bit less tense.
"It's certainly impressive looking," Petunia observed as the four of them circled the block of stone. "How did you get it again? I'm afraid my Norse mythology is a bit lacking."
Natasha wanted to laugh at her friend's candor. She had taken the knowledge of Thor's divinity and his subsequent lack of it far better than Regulus had. Perhaps that was because Natasha had been dropping clues for years that Dan Granger was more than what he appeared to be. Now she was eager and excited to learn more now that the whole truth was finally out.
Regulus however was still a bit starstruck.
As Regulus took over manoeuvring the odd garden ornament into the small flower bed at the back of the yard, Natasha briefly told the story of how they had managed to get the hammer out of the enclosure.
"And how will your employers take the news that both their prisoner and their relic have escaped?" Thor asked, eyeing his wife. He more than anyone else had been concerned about the repercussions on Natasha's job.
"We'll find out tomorrow morning I suppose," the SHIELD shadow said nonchalantly. "And as I've said before, no one has taken into account the fact that both Reg and I have magic. And even if they did, there are ways for ensuring that no one remembers anything."
Regulus blanched slightly. "I'm not sure that I want to go about obliviating anyone."
"I would never ask you to," Natasha said evenly. She didn't love the idea either but it would behoove her to have a contingency plan. Still though, the idea of having to employ the charm did make her feel a bit sick, however necessary it might be. "I would handle it."
"Natasha," Thor said in a low voice. He drew near to her and took both of her hands in his. "I don't want you to have to be that person anymore. You are not what the Red Room made you, you are your own human being. I don't want you to revert back to that."
Natasha freed one of her hands from his grip and placed it against his chest where she could feel his great heart beating. "And while that isn't what I want either, you are forgetting that there is nothing I wouldn't do, to keep you and Hermione safe."
She stood on her toes so that they were almost eyelevel, intending to convey the seriousness of this promise. "Nothing."
His blue eyes darkened in color and they dropped to her mouth briefly. Aware that they were still in polite company however, Natasha pulled back and glanced at her friends. She needn't have worried though, both of them still had their backs to her, eyeing the hammer that was now sitting beneath the barren snowy rose arbor like some obtuse version of a garden ornament.
It was then that Natasha remembered the conversation she had had with Hermione just before she and Regulus had left the hotel to make off with their prize.
"And speaking of our daughter, you should know that she is coming home tomorrow."
That broke Thor out of whatever worried mental channel his thoughts had been caught in. "What? I thought her school's holidays didn't begin until the following week."
"They do, but Hermione told me that Hogwarts has been going through something of a trial lately and the headmaster made the executive decision to send them all home early."
Thor's gaze on her was decidedly narrow eyed. "And am I to assume that this trial is similar to the trouble that happened at the end of her last school year?"
Natasha sighed and ran a hand through her curls. "I don't want to make any assumptions just yet, but she mentioned something about a chamber of secrets and messages written in blood on the walls of the school as well as bathrooms being flooded. I don't think she's gotten into any trouble but knowing her and
Luna it might not have been long before they got their hands dirty. Look who their fathers are after all."
She said this last part without any bite but Thor still didn't look satisfied. "A Chamber of Secrets? What in the Nine is that?"
"It was a rumor when I was in school," Regulus supplied. "A few decades before my time there, a muggleborn student died in one of the girl's bathrooms and one of the other students was accused of her murder."
"Just what sort of school is this Regulus?" Petunia demanded as the pair walked over. "How on earth did you come through your academic years alive?"
"You forget that when I was coming up, my last years of school were dominated by a war love," Regulus said with an amused smile. "And I emerged unscathed."
"Really? Is your definition of unscathed showing up comatose on my doorstep after a fight with the Inferi and a run in with a cursed locket?"
"I think we should all wait for Hermione, Harry and Dudley's explanation of events before we jump to any conclusions," Natasha broke in. She grimaced slightly and glanced up at the starry heavens. "Although it wouldn't be very good form to not show up at work tomorrow, especially after the disappearance of Mjolnir. In fact, we should be getting back now, because if those alarms that went off are any indication, we're going to be called to investigate."
Regulus grimaced a bit and ran a hand through his hair. "I hadn't thought of that."
"Well then it is of no consequence," Thor said calmly. "Petunia and I can go and retrieve the children."
"Er….it might be a good idea for you to stay here for the time being," Natasha said quickly. "I know England seems a world away from New Mexico, but there are plenty of cameras at the train station and the last thing we need is for someone to recognize you and trace you here."
Her husband deflated slightly but nodded, seeing sense to the suggestion.
"Well," Petunia said taking Regulus' hand. "I think this has been all the sneaking around I can handle for one night. You should be getting back."
"I'll go back first," Regulus suggested. "That way I can run any interference if I need to."
Natasha smiled at her friends. "Thanks Reg."
Both couples bid the other goodnight a moment later, but instead of apparating immediately, Natasha and Thor remained standing, hand in hand, before Mjolnir before the snowy flowerbed.
"Dare I ask what your plan is now?" the blonde asked in his low rumbling voice. Natasha squeezed his fingers gently. "I have a feeling I'm going to spending the next few weeks buried in research. Hermione will no doubt want to help as soon as she learns what happened."
A muscle jumped in Thor's cheek that she carefully noted but made no mention of. "How do you think she'll take it?" he asked in a low voice.
Natasha shrugged slightly, "Probably no differently than I did. With the appropriate amount of rage and indignation for Aesir who are so set in their ways that they think bastard children are a disgrace."
Thor reared back slightly. "Hermione is not a –"
She pressed a hand to his cheek to cut off the indignant statement. "I know, I just wanted to make sure you were paying attention."
He snorted at her and shook his head. "As if I were incapable of not paying attention to anything that affected you or Hermione."
She smiled a bit, glad some of his humor had returned. "With that in mind, what do you say to some sleep? You're still adjusting to a mortal body and if we're going to find some way of getting your abilities back, I have a feeling that we're going to need you sharp in the coming weeks."
He raised an eyebrow at her, a small modicum of amusement entering that blue gaze. "Natasha my love, I have never not been sharp."
The sensitive whimsical part of her that had been buried for a long time before she met him, sang with pleasure at the moniker. "I know, but this is a different crisis than one you've faced before. You've been human once but there was at least a way back that time. We're in uncertain territory here. I want to make sure that we're prepared for anything, SHIELD, Asgard, whoever."
To this statement, Thor had no answer. He had never been one to give her false hope but his silence now was enough of a reason for Natasha to brace herself mentally.
There would be little to no help this time around.
They were on their own.
The compartment was eerily silent as the train chugged towards England.
Hermione had been certain that Ron would be complaining about the fact that they hadn't even had time for a decent breakfast but the red head seemed to be as alarmingly quiet as the rest of them.
After she had rung off with her mum the night before, Hermione had fallen into a restless sleep and had woken the next morning feeling more exhausted than ever. No more than five minutes after she had opened her eyes, there came a pounding on the door from a prefect who yelled that within ten minutes every Slytherin student needed to be up and dressed and ready for departure.
It was yet another reminder of how seriously they were all taking this.
Shoving down her frustration, Hermione had thrown back her blankets and gotten dressed, lugging her trunk out of the room while Daphne and Tracey were still getting ready. She met up with Dudley, Harry and Draco in the common room and judging from the bleary looks on their faces, sleep had eluded them as well.
Draco looked even paler than usual and there were dark shadows under his eyes but Hermione didn't think too much of it before following her friends up to the main hall of the school and outside the entrance doors where they had waited for the carriages to take them to the station.
"Well?" Susan asked suddenly, breaking the oppressive silence. "Isn't anyone going to say anything?"
"What is there to say Sue?" Dudley asked from his place by the window where he was attempting to read his herbology textbook. "Some sort of monster is stalking the school and attacked a student, we're all being sent home early for our own safety. End of story."
"Does anyone have any ideas as to what it is?" Harry said and Hermione wasn't sure she liked the way he looked at her.
"Well the monster is supposed to respond to the heir of Slytherin isn't it?" Ron spoke up. "I bet it's a ruddy great serpent. It would make sense after all."
Hermione was hard pressed to stop herself from flinching and across the cabin, Luna's humming stuttered to a halt as she looked out the window.
"I suppose that is the most sensible answer," Draco said thoughtfully, smoothing back his already too smooth hair. "Although I can't believe that an enormous serpent could be slithering about Hogwarts and no one would have seen or known."
"Maybe that's half the problem," Neville murmured from his spot by the door. "Just last year we never would have believed that the headmaster would have been hiding a secret lair beneath the school either. Just how much is going on that we are completely unaware of? I'm beginning to think that each and every one of our professors has more secrets than they know what to do with. That whole castle is crawling with them."
"It's too early in the morning to be talking that ominously Nev," Hermione said as cheerfully as she could manage. "Come on then you lot. Let's play a game and see if we can't get our minds off school."
"Get our minds off school?" Harry said blinking at her incredulously. "Who are you and what have you done with Hermione Granger?"
The copper haired girl narrowed her eyes at her best friend. "I'll have you know that I don't just think about school all the time."
"And what else is there?" Draco asked, his familiar smirk returning. "You hardly take your nose out of a book Granger, unless you're running about the castle listening for mysterious voices."
Hermione's eyes bugged out at her friend, unbelieving that he had just uttered that aloud.
Fortunately, she was saved from having to answer when the door to the compartment slid open and they were faced with the sweet faced witch they often saw on their journeys to and from school. "Anything from the trolley dears?"
"Thank Merlin," Ron muttered already digging into his pockets. "I thought I was going to pass out from hunger."
At once, their friends clambered over each other to get to the trolley and make their purchases.
Hermione let out a slow breath and glanced at Luna, grateful for the momentary distraction. She herself waited until the lineup was clear and then took a modest pumpkin pasty and nibbled on it without really tasting it, going over her mother's tone from the night before.
If I didn't know any better, I would say that Mum sounded….evasive.
Hermione knew how good Natasha was at concealing the truth and she had a way of twisting words in order to paint the greatest or perhaps most vague picture of real events. That skill had been employed last night and Hermione knew that her Mum was worried about something.
And if Mum was worried…..
She blinked and looked up from her pasty to take in the sight of Susan's concerned face. "Yes?"
"You've been staring off into space for the last five minutes. Aren't you going to come play?" The red head gestured to the makeshift table that one of their friends had conjured up and the cards that had been arranged in the telltale pile for Exploding Snap.
"Oh," she said, blinking at her own foolishness. "Right."
And as the twelve year old picked up her hand and threw herself into the game, she made a silent resolution that she wouldn't jump to conclusions like she had done for the last year or so. She was going home for Christmas and if she was really lucky, Dad would be there. Maybe Uncle Loki and Luna would also be able to make the trip to see them and they could finally all be a real family for once.
As the cards once more exploded in Dudley's face to laughter and many cheers from their friends, Hermione felt some of her tension drain away. Maybe it was better this way, she could take a few weeks to relax and maybe compare notes with Luna on what they had learned about Jormungandr so far and then dive into their search when they were allowed back at school.
Thinking about this plan helped settle her all throughout the train ride, getting off the train, saying goodbye to her friends, even when Aunt Tuney picked them up and all the way back to Number 4 Privet Drive.
But Hermione's forced calm and planning evaporated the minute she unlocked the door to her house and pushed it open, only to find a very familiar figure standing there waiting for her with a smile on his face.
"Hello little spark," the god said with a gentle smile on his face. "It's good to see you."
Next chapter is Christmas fun and other scheming, plus perhaps a few visiting friends. I will be wrapping up second year soon. It'll all come to a head in the next few chapters and then we can get to the Avengers storyline *rubs hands together gleefully*
Secondly I have long been aware that the first twenty or so chapters of this story are pure garbage. I'm pretty sure that the differences between my writing when I first started this story and now are fairly substantial. So I will be attempting to rewrite those chapters, or at the very least edit them so they are palatable to me lol.
And finally, I've been resistant to this idea for a while, mostly out of my own pride and foolishness, but I really think I'm going to need to ask this question. I don't have a beta reader, and I've always guarded my stories jealously, never really wanting anyone else to see my work before I publish it, but that has been to my detriment. Writing is a collaborative effort and I know that this story is not nearly as good as it could possibly be because it doesn't have the added benefit of another pair of eyes on it, assessing the work. So with that being said, I would humbly ask if there are any of you guys interested in being my beta reader, not just for Child of Lightning but for my other stories too, to please PM me and let me know.
That's all for now, thanks everyone!