Hermione, Nanoha, and Fate arrived at the potions classroom with plenty of time to spare and took seats at a bench toward the rear of the room so as not to obscure the view of the much shorter first years who had started arriving along with them. Hearing that Professor Snape was a bit on the strict side, they had made sure to get to the dungeon a bit early. They took the time before class began to review the potions text. With only seconds before class was to start professor Snape swept into the classroom, robes flaring about him as he marched to the front of the classroom. He turned abruptly once he reached his desk, and focused his predatory gaze upon his pupils.
Nanoha and Fate listened carefully to the rehearsed speech about the merits of potioneering and Nanoha had to suppress a snicker as she found the term, "dunderheads," to be amusing. If professor Snape took any notice of the visiting student's mirth, he showed no sign of it. He began the class with a rapid-fire quiz on the properties of various reagents used in potion making which resulted in Gryffindor losing two points due to the first years not knowing any of the answers. The Slytherin students didn't have any better luck with their replies but did not lose any house points.
After concluding the quiz with a few snide comments about the intellectual abilities of the students, he declared that the class would then concoct a cure for boils and magically put the instructions up on the blackboard at the front of the room. Watching with a critical eye, he stood back as the first years set up their cauldrons and went to the supply cabinet for their ingredients. As soon as the students began working, he drifted from table to table like a phantom, terrorizing the Gryffindor first years with sharp rebukes for any errors and surly silence in response to success. The Slytherins received some light praise and far less criticism.
Nanoha glanced at Hermione, [Is he alway this biassed toward his own house?] she inquired via telepathy. Hermione nodded slightly in response, having not learned how to use telepathy yet. Nanoha made a mental note to start training her as soon as they could find time for it. Browsing skeptically through the list of ingredients posted up on the board in the front of the room she inquired, "Hermione, do you know how this all works? I mean obviously these ingredients interact with each other, but what is the magical foundation?"
"I...I don't honestly know," replied Hermione with a slightly troubled expression. "I've tried to research the topic before, but I couldn't find any answers about the underlying mechanics of why the potions work. It seems that we know what attributes certain ingredients and actions contribute and how different potion components interact, but not why they behave the way they do."
[Now we definitely need to bring a bunch of potion ingredients back for Mari to look at,] Nanoha thought to the other two girls. [She'll loooove having jars and bottles of things like eel eye, frog brain, and leech juice in her office.] Both of the others rolled their eyes [What? I think it's important that we help to expand the um…knowledge of… Okay, fine. I just want to see the face she makes when we put the jar of eyeballs on her desk.] Hermione, having had four years to get accustomed to the bizarre nature of potion ingredients simply smiled slightly while Fate took a glance at the ingredients cabinet in the classroom and looked vaguely ill.
"Is something wrong Takamachi, Harlaown?" professor Snape drawled as he approached their table. "Not deigning to work with the first years?"
"Not at all sir," replied Fate, ignoring the implied insult, "we were told by Headmaster Dumbledore that we would be observing rather than participating at this point in time and we do not have the necessary equipment for this class."
"I see. If you so desire, you may borrow a cauldron and participate," he offered in his characteristic sullen tone. He actually seemed taken aback when Nanoha got to her feet, thanked him enthusiastically for the offer, and headed to the supply closet to obtain their ingredients and a cauldron. Fate got to her feet and followed Nanoha after offering Hermione a shrug. "Not going to assist your charges, Miss Granger?" professor Snape inquired after taking a moment to supervise the two visiting students as they set up their cauldron.
"They're both intelligent young women, professor, and they should be quite able to handle themselves in a first year class without my aid. They'll ask if they want my help," Hermione replied.
"Indeed," commented Snape as he observed Nanoha deftly preparing each of the ingredients and carefully laying them out in order as Fate began to carefully concoct the potion. The two seemed to work flawlessly as a team with no communication, Hermione noted. They could have been communicating telepathically, but so far they had opted to communicate verbally with one another unless the situation demanded otherwise. Professor Snape glared at the pair as they prepared their potion before turning abruptly to antagonize other students as he couldn't find any obvious fault in what they were doing.
After a few minutes, Hermione saw Fate draw her wand and wave it over the cauldron, a skeptical expression on her face. The blonde's eyebrow quirked a bit as she saw the potion react to her wand waving and Nanoha smiled in amusement at her friend's puzzlement. The two then checked to make sure the burner was set properly before leaving their potion to simmer for the prescribed time and returning once again to talk to Hermione. Mindful of Professor Snape's close observation, the three had to make sure not to mention anything regarding the TSAB much to Hermione's annoyance.
Nanoha and Fate had Hermione quiz them on potion making knowledge until their potion was ready for the next stages. They had initially tried to assist some of the younger Gryffindors who were having trouble but were reprimanded sharply and lost their house 5 points much to their chagrin. Returning to their cauldron, Nanoha handled adding the ingredients while Fate removed the cauldron from the fire and took care of the required stirring. Neither had said anything, but Fate was sure that Nanoha would tease her later about not wanting to touch the slugs the potion had required. Finally, a few quills, stirs, and a wave of the wand later, their potion was complete and Hermione confirmed for the two visiting students that their end result looked correct. Smiling, Nanoha poured a sample into the vial Hermione supplied them to turn in while Fate began cleaning up their workspace.
Hermione waited patiently as Fate quickly and efficiently cleaned up their workspace and Nanoha trotted up to the front of the room to turn in their vial. Finding that they still had a few minutes of class remaining after cleaning up, Fate and Nanoha returned to having Hermione quiz them on basic potions knowledge. Class soon concluded and the three girls breathed a collective sigh of relief as the left the oppressive atmosphere of the dungeon. They actually felt a bit lighter as they ascended the stairs back up to the main levels of the castle.
They were headed toward the defense classroom when they were intercepted by Professor McGonagall who was rather poorly trying to conceal her annoyance with a hastily plastered on smile. "Ah, Miss Granger," she spoke to Hermione, "I was sent to inform you that the schedule you and your wards will be following for the day has been modified. You will not be observing the first year defense…" she was cut off abruptly by the very squat, pink-clad woman she had been trying to avoid exposing the new students to.
"Hem hem," Umbridge's girlish voice interrupted. "Why Professor McGonagall, what ever do you mean? I was not informed of any changes," the woman announced with a painfully insincere smile. "Encouraging your newest...students to skip their scheduled courses would reflect rather poorly on your house, don't you think?"
"It would," McGonagall replied coolly as she reached into her robe and withdrew a folded parchment which she then handed to the offensive woman. "However, they have been summoned to a meeting with the Headmaster and I for one am not one to question his reasons or timing." She had to force herself not to smile at the chagrined expression which crossed the toad-like woman's features. "Now if you will excuse us, I need to escort these three to the Headmaster's office." Turning abruptly, Professor McGonagall gestured for the three girls to follow her as she led them swiftly away from the stewing Umbridge. As they gained distance the relief flooding off of the elderly professor was almost palpable to the younger women.
The trio of girls were quiet as they followed the assistant Headmistress through the winding corridors toward the Headmaster's office. [Hermione,] Nanoha inquired, [do you have any idea what this is about?] receiving a barely noticeable shake of the head in response, she pouted a little as her mind worked overtime to try to figure out what had prompted the sudden summons. A quick glance to her side informed her that Fate was just as clueless as she, and was likewise running through her own list of possible reasons for being asked to the office. Keeping with their training, both young officers carefully memorized the route they were taking while they continued to wonder what would be awaiting them at their destination.
None of the trio of girls had been able to come to any conclusions regarding the mystery of their sudden summoning by the time they reached the gargoyle that guarded the stairs up to Dumbledore's office. Hermione could plainly see that Nanoha and Fate were nervous about being summoned and tried to give them a reassuring smile only to have her own apprehension sabotage her efforts. Fate and Nanoha watched in fascination as the gargoyle greeted Professor McGonagall and asked for the password. The incredibly life-like golems and other magically animated objects were not something either Nanoha or Fate were extremely familiar with. Sure, Precia had sent golems at them, but those behaved like robots, not living beings.
After being provided the password, the gargoyle allowed them access to the spiral staircase it had been guarding. The stairs moved upwards like an escalator leading the girls to briefly ponder the mechanics of the stairs as they ascended. The stairs came to a halt in front of a wooden door which Professor McGonagall knocked on. "Come in," came the somewhat rusty sounding voice of the Headmaster from inside. Opening the door, Professor McGonagall ushered the three girls into the office and softly shut the door behind them before moving to take a seat beside the Headmaster's desk.
The nervousness among the girls abated somewhat upon their entrance to the cluttered office. Dumbledore's congenial smile helped put the girls at ease the moment they walked in and Nanoha and Fate were intensely fascinated by the curios covering every visible horizontal surface of the office. "Ms. Granger, it is always good to see you. Ms. Takamachi, Ms. Harlaown, it is good to see you looking well rested. I trust your first night in the castle went well?"
"Yes, Headmaster," replied Fate. "The accommodations here are very comfortable."
"I'm glad to hear that you like it here and I hope that you continue to do so," Dumbledore said, earning curious looks from the students for the odd turn at the end. "Lemon drop?" he offered, holding out a small bowl filled with candy. Nanoha and Fate each accepted one of the confections while Hermione politely declined.
"Now," began Dumbledore as he sat behind his desk to face the three girls sitting across from him, "I am sure you are wondering why I've asked you here. I have discussed this issue with Professor McGonagall and we are in agreement that the situation in the school is going to be murky enough as it is with the Ministry's interference. So I must ask you who you really are and who it is that you are working for. You see, there are simply too many unknown variables right now for us to be able to ensure the safety of our students."
Taking a deep breath, Nanoha recited the brief speech she'd been provided for this circumstance. "I am First Lieutenant Nanoha Takamachi of the Time-Space Administration Bureau or TSAB and this is First Lieutenant Fate Testarossa-Harlaown of the same. Our mission here is one of peaceful exploration. I am not permitted to answer any further questions regarding the nature of our organization or mission, however now that you have been informed our commanding officer would like to schedule a meeting with you within the next twelve hours."
Dumbledore nodded. The puzzle pieces were starting to come together now. The girls' military bearing had been explained, and he had a feeling based on the name of their organization and Professor McGonagall's report on their actions in Diagon Alley that their organization was not based on Earth. His reservations about showing his hand by letting them know that he knew they were "exploring" quickly evaporated in the face of the relief that he had made the correct choice in preventing them from attending Umbridge's class. He was somewhat concerned about the lack of any surprise being demonstrated by Hermione however. Additionally the age of the girls coupled with their position as commissioned officers worried him, though he decided he would wait until he met with their commanding officer to inquire about it.
"Forgive my interrupting, but are you saying that this 'TSAB' recruits children as soldiers?" Professor McGonagall cut in, her tone foreboding.
"To be fair, Fate and I were special cases to be recruited as young as we were," Nanoha responded before the Professor could protest further. This was one of the topics Chrono had foreseen arising and had given her permission to divulge some limited information about. "Our military does enlist younger people than would be considered normal on Earth, though it's primarily due to necessity. Powerful mages may become a danger to themselves and those around them without appropriate training and equipment, sometimes beyond even what our schools are able to provide."
"We do not have child soldiers in the same sense that certain regimes on Earth do," Fate added. "It is nearly unheard of for children to be deployed in battle. Youths, if they opt to join the TSAB, are typically given the training they need to be safely in control of their abilities and are allowed to gain experience through peaceful missions such as disaster relief, wildlife rescue, and other types of non-violent military activities if they so desire. Those who do not wish to be in the field are required to complete a brief term of service but will be relegated to clerical work. Those who do join are accorded rank based on their skills and experience just as older service members are."
Dumbledore waited a moment to see if Professor McGonagall would comment further but she held her tongue, her expression still plainly disapproving. "I understand that you must be under orders not to tell me more and so I will not press you as I do not doubt that you will not divulge anything you are not supposed to. Please let your superior know that I would like to meet at his or her earliest convenience."
Nanoha and Fate exchanged a brief glance and shrugged. "Would now be acceptable, Headmaster?" inquired Fate.
Dumbledore considered briefly before replying, "I would like the opportunity to gather some relevant faculty members first. Perhaps immediately following lunch?"
"That should be fine," Nanoha replied after a brief hesitation. "Will we be meeting here?"
"Yes, I think that would be best," Dumbledore stated. "Now run along, you three. I'll see you after lunch." After the three girls had left and the door closed securely behind them, Dumbledore turned to Professor McGonagall, "Hermione didn't seem very surprised at any of those revelations, did she?"
Frowning worriedly she replied, "No, she didn't. She didn't mention anything to me when I spoke to her at breakfast either. What do you suppose that means?"
"Obviously she managed to find out about them on her own, which is not an unexpected outcome. That she didn't let you know makes me think that she was sworn to secrecy, or perhaps that she joined their organization. She hasn't always received the best of treatment from our society and she doesn't have any other organizational ties which would prevent her from doing so. Even though she knows of the Order of the Phoenix, she was not permitted to join due to her young age. She may have joined solely for the new learning opportunities they could offer her."
Professor McGonagall nodded somewhat wearily. While she was careful not to show favoritism in her classes, Hermione was one of her favorite and most promising students. It was galling to her that Hermione would keep such an important development from her. Dumbledore, picking up on her distress, commented, "I am sure that Hermione's options were limited when she found out and she had to make a difficult decision. I am confident enough in her abilities to think she most likely made the best one that she was able to."
"Who will you invite to this meeting?" Professor McGonagall asked, changing the subject.
"Professors Snape, Flitwick, and Sprout," he replied quickly, before adding a moment later, "and I think Professor Vector as well. Her foundation in arithmancy might help us to understand their magic a bit more."
"Are you certain it's wise to have Severus present?"
"I trust him to share only the appropriate information at the proper time."
Hermione led the trio back down the spiral stairs and away from the Headmaster's office. The meeting had left her feeling conflicted, the guilt she had largely managed to suppress started to bubble to the surface again. She knew that the professors must have noticed her lack of surprise at Nanoha's admission that she and Fate were associated with an organization from another world. What must they think of her now? Especially Professor McGonagall, her head of house and favorite instructor besides.
"Hermione?" Fate's soft voice interrupted her thoughts, "are you alright?"
"I'm not sure," Hermione admitted. "I feel conflicted, like I should feel guilty for signing up as a contractor with you. It feels like I'm betraying something."
"I don't think the Professors will hold it against you when they learn about the situation and the choices you were presented at the time. Besides, it doesn't seem like you'll run into any conflicts of interest while you're still attending school here. The Headmaster is the, 'Leader of the Light,' after all, right?" Nanoha reassured her. "Hey, there is still plenty of time before lunch, do you want to find an empty classroom and we can start answering some of those questions I am sure you have been saving up."
Hermione's expression brightened somewhat at the prospect of getting some of her questions answered. She led Nanoha and Fate a short distance to an out of use classroom and led them inside, closing the door behind them and casting a few privacy charms on it just to be on the safe side. She turned when she was done to find Nanoha and Fate already sitting atop two of the desks with a third situated across from them. Hermione took a moment to dust off the desktop before hopping up to sit on it.
"So Hermione, is there anyplace in particular you would like to begin?" asked Fate with a small smile.
"Do you think I can use your kind of magic?" Hermione blurted out without hesitation. It was without a doubt one of the most exciting prospective opportunities she was getting for signing up with the TSAB.
"I knew that would be your first question," replied Nanoha with a wide grin as Fate handed her a Sickle which she quickly pocketed. "The answer is we're not sure yet. We know that you have a linker core and that your type of magic utilizes it in a different way than our own. So we'll have to try it to find out," she said as she pulled a small red jewel on a necklace from her shirt. "Raising Heart, create guest user account, identity Hermione."
Hermione looked surprised when the jewel flashed and replied, "Yes, my master."
"Hermione, this is Raising Heart, she is my device. A device is like a wand for our kind of magic," Nanoha informed her, falling into her teacher voice. "There are several types of devices, but we can go over that later. A device helps to cast your magic and spells by computing the complicated math formulae required in our type of spell casting and can help amplify your magical power. Since Raising Heart is what is called an, 'Intelligent Device,' she also has an AI. Now Hermione, hold Raising Heart in your hand and repeat after me," Nanoha said, handing over the jewel, which Hermione carefully took, her excitement plain on her features. Hermione examined the jewel for a moment, turning it over in her hand before looking to Nanoha for further instructions.
After taking a moment to make sure she remembered all of the words, Nanoha spoke. "I am the one who has been given a mission. Under the contract, release those powers unto me. Winds to the sky, stars to the heavens, and the unyielding soul to this heart! Magic to these hands! Raising Heart, set up!" Nanoha recited Raising Heart's activation aria for the first time in years, pausing periodically to allow Hermione to repeat after her. As her long-time device activated she and Hermione spoke the last sentence simultaneously. There was a brief flash of light blue and Hermione stood before them wearing a barrier jacket which appeared to have been modeled after her school uniform.
Nanoha and Fate both applauded lightly while Hermione looked down at herself and the staff now held in her hand with wonder. Her lips curled up into a wide smile and she bounced on the balls of her feet in excitement. "Raising Heart, what is Hermione's LCT?" Nanoha inquired.
"Linker Core Throughput rating is 736 thousand," Raising Heart replied in her usual mechanical voice.
Nanoha smiled and nodded in approval. "You are pretty powerful. That's on par with some of the elite cadets I have trained."
"If I may ask, what's yours?"
"Mine is 1.56 million and Fate's is 1.62 million. Textbook average on Mid-Childa is 100 thousand, though the actual average is higher than that since each generation seems to be getting a little more powerful. The average Air Force cadet has a rating of about 500-600 thousand. We do not usually use LCT ratings in the military. We have the, 'Mage Rank,' system which gives a letter rating based on combat ability or attack power. Fate and I are both S+," Nanoha informed Hermione in a tone more reminiscent of an instructor giving a lesson than a fellow student.
Hermione did her best to memorize the figures and statistics which were being quoted to her, though they didn't have much meaning to her yet since she had no real standard for comparison. With Nanoha and Fate both being more than fifteen times more powerful than the average mage, she guessed that they were both capable of some pretty incredible magical feats.
After a brief rundown of common commands and spell types as well as a promise to get her a storage device as soon as possible, Hermione was back in her school robes and Raising Heart was back on Nanoha's necklace. Hermione's grin however wasn't going anywhere and she positively glowed with excitement. "So, when I get my own device, will it be able to run those training programs you mentioned?"
"Yes, you will definitely be able to run some beginning training programs. I will make sure that the device gets loaded with some before we get it to you," Nanoha was smiling gleefully at the opportunity to help train a willing recruit. "You can feel free to come to me with any questions you have regarding the scenarios. My normal duty is as a member of the instructor corps so I'm used to helping recruits with training."
"Take it easy on her Nanoha," Fate gently admonished as she gathered her things in preparation to head to lunch. "She is a civilian contractor, not an enlistee. You don't want to scare her off."
"Mou, Fate, I'm not that bad," Nanoha whined, as she returned to her seat on the desk next to Fate.
"If you were not that bad, your recruits wouldn't still call you the White Devil when they talk about you," Fate murmured while they waited, earning a quirked eyebrow from Hermione at the mention of Nanoha's nickname.
"Which recruits would those...um I mean...well, you know recruits. They like to exaggerate sometimes."
"Uh huh...of course they do, Nanoha," Fate responded with a smile as she reached over and patted Nanoha gently on the head while the brunette pouted. Hermione got the distinct feeling that this was a conversation that had occurred before, probably on numerous occasions. She couldn't help but grin a bit at the interplay between the two even as she felt a slight twinge of jealousy in her chest. Hermione would be one of the first to admit that she wasn't incredibly skilled at interpersonal relationships, and she could only hope that one day she might find something similar to the easy relationship the girls in front of her shared.
"I imagine you'd like a brief rundown on some of the happenings in and arounds school before the meeting?" asked Hermione as she did her best to organize her thoughts. Receiving nods of agreement, she took a deep breath and started to speak, trying to touch on as many items as possible while keeping things relatively brief since they didn't have that long before lunch. She began by running through a quick history of her personal experiences, beginning with the day Professor McGonagall had shown up at her home to deliver her Hogwarts letter. She touched on the incident with the troll, the Philosopher's Stone, the Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk, the dementors, Sirius Black, the attack on the Quidditch World Cup, the Triwizard tournament, the return of Voldemort, and the campaign of denial by the ministry. Following the quick history lesson, she covered what she considered to be important information about the government of Wizarding Britain, the leadership, the structure, and the attitudes toward various groups of beings. She concluded with a quick rundown of the important points of the last wizarding war knowing that Voldemort would soon be very relevant to their mission.
Hermione could tell from Nanoha's rather frosty expression that she wasn't happy about what she had heard so far. Fate was far more difficult to read but Hermione imagined her opinions were likely similar to the more emotive girl's. "So," Nanoha began, "The last war lasted over a decade, was fought primarily by a vigilante group, and really only ended due to luck. Key players never got proper trials, no measures were taken to prevent similar scenarios in the future, and the prejudices and policies that led up to the war are still as entrenched as ever." Hermione hesitantly nodded her confirmation. "Hermione, why are you still here? It is clear that there is a distressing lack of competent leadership in this society, not to mention the ingrained views on muggleborns. You are an intelligent young woman, surely you see where this is leading."
"The information given to muggle born witches and wizards when we're introduced to the magical world is definitely sugar coated. If I had been told everything that I now know at the outset I really don't know what I would have chosen. I doubt my parents would have allowed me to attend Hogwarts." Hermione sighed deeply and cradled her head in her hands, "Sometimes, I wish I could leave it behind. I'm terrified of the things I see on the horizon. I'm versed enough in history to see the parallels between where we're heading and any number of historical atrocities. At this point though, I'm already committed. Thanks to last year, I'm strongly connected to Harry in the public mind. I'm a target now, and I think it's safer for me to stay in this world and learn to defend myself." She concluded before adding quietly, "Besides, I can't abandon my friends, they're the only ones I've ever had."
Nanoha stood and made her way to Hermione's side, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, "They are lucky to have you, Hermione. I hope that we may be counted among that select group in the future. I am confident that command will allow us to intervene. Even if we were not worried about the presence of gadget drones on your world, I do not think that they will stand back and allow the slaughter of civilians to occur as seems likely if this Lord Voldemort comes to power again."
"I hope you're right," Hermione sighed as she checked the time before getting to her feet. "Come on, you two, let's get to lunch and then get this meeting over with," she opened the door and led Nanoha and Fate from the room.
A/N: The numerical scale I used is based on the one used briefly in the manga. At the time it's shown, Nanoha has a power level of 1.27 million and Fate has one of 1.43 million. No name was provided for the scale so I made one up. I figured it would be more appropriate to use a scale not based on combat ability since Hermione isn't a soldier. If you'd like me to extemporize on the reason I called the rating a measure of throughput feel free to PM me, it's part of my headcanon regarding the workings of a linker core which may or may not come up again later this story. It wasn't my goal to make Hermione OP, I just used a random number generator since I couldn't decide how much raw power she should have.
A/N 2: Edited the ending of this chapter to properly lead into the next one. Chapter 10 is in progress.