Main Characters: Madam Pince, library
Summary: Madam Pince is forced to interview library assistants.
Warnings: Treat all librarians with caution.
Author’s Notes: For the omniocular All in a Day’s Work June 2006 challenge (just a bit late). This was a prompt I almost entered but the thunderbolt of inspiration hit me right when I came up with it, and before I knew it I had the entire plot. So I kept it!
Profound thanks to paulamcg for enlightening beta work (i.e., responding to a cry for help). Pince & co. are not mine, they are JKR's, all hers...
Flick, flick; dust, dust.
Madam Pince moved silently along the stacks nearest the Restricted Section, duster expertly applied to every crease, crevice, and surface. Any recalcitrant dust that dared to exist after her last cleaning was immediately extinguished. Any scabrous student fingerprints were entirely obliterated.
The library was always at its best in the evening, when the vexing after-supper rush of students had finally subsided. Polished tables gleamed in the lamplight, chairs were neatly placed, and the only sound was the quiet rustle of page-turning. It was a time for contemplation, of hushed reverence. A time for silent communion with her books. A time when perfection could almost be attained.
It was a pity her thoughts had to be disturbed so.
That morning the headmaster had come tiptoeing across the library carpet, beaming and apologetic, self-effacing and insufferably proper.
Irma looked up from her desk, annoyed.
“Good morning, Irma,” he whispered jovially, ignoring her glare. “So sorry to disturb you…could I see you in the Restricted Section for just a moment?”
One didn’t disregard the headmaster. She left the stack of student slips for the one-and-a-half-seconds-late returned books, picked up her duster, and glided repressively towards the back of the library.
The shadow of the Restricted Section fell over her as she swept within its comfortingly ominous confines. Albus followed her, fidgeting a little more than usual. He fumbled with the velvet rope, ran his fingers over the shelves, and rested his arm for an unwitting second against a very crotchety periodical. She wondered – no, best not to wonder. She held herself upright and rigid, immovable against the stacks.
After a significant pause, unrelieved by any glimmer of humanity on her part, Albus cleared his throat.
“Irma – er, Madam Pince.” He took off his glasses, polished them, and put them back on. He cleared his throat again, evidently expecting her to urge him on in feigned interest.
“Well. It has come to my attention that I have been sorely neglecting you and your needs of late; I do hope you will accept my apologies." He put his hand on a shelf, took it off hurriedly, and polished his glasses again.
She restrained the urge to flick the shelf and his glasses with her duster.
“Irma, you have been the Hogwarts librarian for a long, long time. No one could ever hope to equal your attention to detail, your unwavering dedication, your, ah, remarkable retention of every book Hogwarts has ever had – and some beyond.” He twinkled at her, smiling.
This is it, she thought grimly. He’s going to force me into retirement.
A book shifted on the shelf above his head.
“But such an outstanding record is no excuse, no excuse at all, for my overlooking a very obvious need. You are far too noble ever to complain,” - Irma snorted inwardly – “but I intend to remedy this immediately. I have had one of my more brilliant ideas.” He was beaming now, leaning toward her confidentially, inviting her to share in his delight.
A manuscript made a rude noise. Irma clenched her duster. If they try to take me out of my library, she thought, I will suffocate them with my books. I will pull the place down stone by stone. I will bury them beneath the floorboards. I will flay their ghosts. I will remove their –
“…an assistant, Irma. Irma?”
She felt the blood in her ears cautiously recede. What was that?
Albus out-waited her this time. “Pardon?” she said, grudgingly. Not retirement, then. But -
“I’m going to get you an assistant,” he repeated. “I must say, I’m glad you’re taking this so – “
“An ASSISTANT?” Irma roared.
The Restricted Section erupted. Several books leapt off the shelves, peppering the headmaster with furious pages on their descent, landing hungrily near his striped-sock covered ankles. His undignified leap out of the way brought him a bit too close to the crotchety periodical. Before he could move away, a particularly windy book opened itself up. The rude manuscript egged it on.
“Ah,” said Albus, as he disentangled himself. “Perhaps I should have held this conference elsewhere…”
Irma gave a practiced flip to her duster and held it like a truncheon. Albus raised his hands placatingly as he stumbled backwards over the rope.
“Now, Irma, I know it’s come as a bit of a shock…”
“I’ll give you a shock, you antiquated cretin!” Irma hissed, advancing on him.
“My dear Madam Pince, none of us are getting any younger. And you’ll be able to interview the person yourself; I wouldn’t dream of picking the assistant for you! Think of it as a reward for your years of good service and - Irma!”
An assistant, for her! One of those sniveling dung-brained students, more like, training to secretly take over!
“It’s not so horrible as all that, Irma, it’s just someone to take up some of your tasks, leave you free for, well, other things!” Albus said rather breathlessly as he finally reached the corridor, rubbing various parts of himself and limping slightly.
Irma stopped at her desk like a cavernous pillar of salt. “I don’t need any help,” she stated sourly, fingers tapping against a glass paperweight. “I don’t need any things.”
Albus stuck his head back around the library doorway. “The first interviewee will arrive at ten o’clock sharp tomorrow morning.”
The paperweight exploded against the hastily-vacated doorframe.
* * * *
Irma set her duster down on her desk with a stifled sigh. She was weary, yes, but triumphantly weary. Really, this interview scheme of the headmaster’s had filled her with an invigoration she normally only felt when the library got its once-yearly Wax & Fumigate application. Granted, calming the uproar in the Restricted Section had taken the better part of an hour yesterday; not that she hadn’t enjoyed it, but really, she had to think of a special reward for such loyalty - and that had set back her dusting regime another hour. She hadn’t even gotten to the student slips until early this morning, for in the evening an interview schedule and applicant forms had appeared on her desk under a brand-new paperweight. She’d mangled the paperweight and spent the rest of the night revising the suggested interview questions.
She admitted to some small state of – interest? Suppressed curiosity? - as ten o’clock approached that day. That quickly faded as the slender, freckled fifth-year hovered in the doorway for all of three seconds before squeaking in fright and vanishing.
One down, thought Irma grimly.
At exactly 11:05 pm, a sixth-year got as far as her desk before quailing when she held up his late-return slip, extracted especially for the occasion. He had gained two detentions and lost his House 45 points before he managed to escape.
12:25 heralded her entire mobile card catalog showering itself upon the head of another luckless applicant who had rashly offered his suggestion to make her library more efficient.
A late arrival for the one o’clock appointment, a fact she noted crisply in her ledger, took one look at the six essay questions, seven practicals, and one lifetime repression clause, and collapsed in tears on the carpet.
The 2:15 applicant seemed untowardly frightened of the Less-Than-Deadly Monsters section chosen for testing shelving technique. Irma’s thoughtful recommendation that the student should work on being less tasty was not taken at all well.
At precisely 3:30 pm, the headmaster ushered in the student himself, then nonchalantly remained in the doorway. Determined to show that the lack of suitable applicants had nothing to do with her, Irma smiled encouragingly at the boy. Poppy had to come down from the infirmary to administer a calming draught.
No more students appeared that day. Irma treated herself to an extra half-hour of shelving.
* * * *
“Madam Pince? I know I’m a bit early, but I just couldn’t wait…” A young woman with an open, eager face was standing composedly in front of her desk. Irma started.
Four days had passed, three of them peppered with irritants in the form of nervous applicants. Yesterday had dawned clear despite the schedule and remained blissfully so; Irma had begun to think that Albus had finally given up.
“You’re not a student here,” she said waspishly, more to cover her involuntary jump. It was obvious the girl was not a student. No student could ever walk that quietly. Or be that composed right off.
“No, I’m not,” agreed the girl, holding out a crisp sheet of parchment. “I’m here for the interview. I’ve already filled out the application.”
Irma took it with a jerk. So, the old buzzard was picking applicants from outside of Hogwarts now, she thought, quashing down her momentary unease.
“What’s your name?” she barked, though it was clearly written on the sheet before her.
“Megan Fellows,” said the girl, pronouncing it “Meagan.”
“Megan Fellows,” said Irma, pronouncing it “Megan.”
“Er, no – Megan,” said the girl, pronouncing it as before. “Lots of people get it wrong,” she added cheerily. “My da always thought there’d be no problem, but – “
“How interesting,” Irma said dismissively. The girl swallowed the rest of her words. “Well, you’ll have to wait. The instructions clearly stated to be on time, not after time, or before time.”
“Oh. All right,” the girl said, eyes widening. “I just thought – “
“You can sit over there,” Irma said, pointing with her quill toward the empty table next to the card catalog. “Don’t talk, don’t eat, and don’t even breathe, if you know what’s good for you.”
The girl started to smile, as if believing the librarian was just joshing her, thought better of it, and sat down with her back to the library doors.
Humph, thought Irma. Most students – most people - would have sat at that particular table with one eye on the doors.
She busied herself at her desk, casting an eye over the application. So the girl had worked in libraries before – she didn’t recognize any of the names. Probably decrepit Muggle libraries, she thought snidely.
The girl was acting appropriately enough, unfortunately. So far. She didn’t talk, eat, or breathe more than she had to. As Irma had not said she couldn’t move, though, she got up – quietly – and went over to the card catalog.
Irma cackled silently. The card catalog had not quite recovered from its ignominious treatment a few days before. She bent her head over her work, expecting any moment to hear an agonized scream, a flutter of angry cards, and the running of scared feet.
Nothing happened. After a few minutes, Irma looked up, puzzled by the lack of mayhem. The girl seemed to be getting on quite well with the catalog, which had even let her open one of its drawers and touch its cards.
Irma abruptly decided to get the interview over with.
“I’m sure it’s most inconvenient, but apparently you were given the wrong application. This is the one I am using," and Irma thumped the parchment booklet on the table. The girl jumped at the sound.
“Oh, but Headmaster Dumbledore said –"
“I quite understand if it’s too much for you. No bad marks will be given against you for failure to fill the proper one out,” Irma said with a toothy smile.
“Oh, no, it’s no problem,” said the girl, straightening her shoulders.
Irma stopped smiling. “I see. Use this quill – not your own, mind; I don’t want any cheating! – and sit back at that table. Keep your hands where I can see them. No asking questions. No thinking out loud. No moving from that spot.”
The girl silently took the quill and sat down, looking, for some reason, at the card catalog. It seemed to wink at her.
“And tie your hair back. I don’t want anything obscuring your face,” Irma snapped. The girl meekly pulled out an elastic and bound her rather straggly hair back. Really, quite an unprepossessing creature. Wherever did Albus find her?
* * * *
It was not going at all well. The girl had finished all the essays in good time, including the one Irma had thoughtfully put on the back of the booklet where no one could see it. Irma had given them not much more than a cursory glance but could see that Megan had answered with care and, overall, correctly.
Irma marched her off to the practical portion.
“Any changes you’d make to the card catalog?” she asked grimly. “Any improvements?”
“Why, no,” Megan said wonderingly. “I’ve never seen such organization. You can look up books and articles ten different ways, including size, color, and texture! It’s ingenious!”
Irma blinked. She led Megan to a cart of books waiting to be shelved. The Less-Than-Deadly Monsters section had proved a perfect antidote to any applicant who had gotten that far.
“Having seen the card catalog, you should understand my system. If you should get into any trouble, do try not to cause a disturbance.”
“You have been in magical libraries before?” Irma inquired in bored tones.
Megan raised her chin. “Indeed I have, but I don’t see – “
“Then you should have no problem.”
Stung, Megan subsided. Pulling the cart after her, she walked into the half-gloom of the stack before her.
“Oh, I have this book at home!” she said, holding up the first book from the cart. “I’ve read What the Wild Things Eat about 50 times! In fact, if you stroke it just so, a secret compartment pops out so you can give it little tidbits…”
And the book actually purred.
Irma hurried her through the shelving to the next tasks. The girl met them all with reasonable skill, even to the coaxing of Duplicitous Demons, Second Ed. back to its proper place. Who was this girl?
To top that off, the students in the library were lingering far longer than they should have. Irma could hear their whispers, amplified through the channels carefully contrived in the spacing of the books on the shelves.
“Sure beats ol’ prune-face Pince, doesn’t she?”
“Look at those big eyes.”
“If you’re looking at her eyes, then I’m in love with Pince.”
“I sure could use her help in the stacks.”
“Give her a lift, like.”
Snigger, snigger; laugh, laugh.
Irma eyed Megan. This tangled-haired scrap a vixen? Preferred to her?
What was the deplorable girl saying?
“…and I love books, and just want to take care of them. That’s why I’m so happy for this opportunity.”
“Why, of course! Don’t you?” Megan said earnestly. “Don’t you ever get the feeling that you can communicate with them on some other level? In the library where I used to work, it got so I could sense if something was wrong, like if a book’s been put back in the wrong place. Like it told me without speaking. Like I belonged.” She stopped, self-consciously. “I’ve never told anyone that before.”
Irma stared at her. “Yes…yes, I do know that feeling.”
It was evident now that this was her replacement, however much Albus would undoubtedly protest otherwise. He'd never seriously thought she would pick one of those other applicants; he'd wanted to show her what a gem she'd be getting. The question was, what to do about it? She could pick a discarded student just to spite him, but then her books would ultimately suffer. Or she could pick Megan and ensure her books would survive in good hands. And spend the rest of her days grudging her every second of enjoyment. But it was the books that mattered, wasn't it?
Ah. She realized the answer had been clear from the start.
“There’s only one area left for the interview. I may mention that no one else has ever gotten this far.”
“Oh!” said Megan, pleased.
She led the girl over to the cordoned-off Restricted Section, simmering alone and meditative in the dim light.
At Megan’s inquiring look, Irma felt compelled to offer a bit of information.
“Oh, this area is just for the more valuable books, you know. Students have to have a slip to take them out. Naturally, since you’re with me, no slip is necessary,” she said, trying to make a bit of a joke.
The girl gave her an uneasy glance, yet peered eagerly into the semi-gloom of the vaulted confines. Irma unhooked the rope.
“See what you make of this little gem,” she said indulgently.
A short time later, Madam Pince was seen back at her desk, turning to long overdue tasks. She took the time, however, to sign her approval to the application forms, sending them off to the headmaster’s office. A congratulatory note came back by owl later that evening with regrets that he could not come personally down; evidently an unchecked wound on his ankle had festered.
* * * *
Word that Madam Pince had a new, attractive assistant got around by the next day. More and more students seemed to have trouble finding simple texts than ever before; all seemed disappointed when Madam Pince dispatched them briskly herself. Most clamored – amongst themselves - that it was impossible to find anything based on her directions.
“Perhaps your assistant could help, if you’re too busy?” offered a pustule-laden boy, bolder than the rest.
“My assistant?” repeated Irma. The glimmer of a dusty smile cracked across her face. “Oh, you’ll find her in the stacks, somewhere.”