She’s born in a snowstorm, and her mother names her Irma.
“It means noble,” her mother tells anyone who will listen. “Jus’ look at those cheekbones. She’ll be a little princess, on my life.”
Irma doesn’t have a father, and there are leaks in the ceiling of their one bedroom cottage, and her mother is only given a week’s maternity leave before she has to go back to her job scrubbing floors. Any pretensions of nobility in this house are thoroughly unfounded.
Irma’s cheekbones end up causing most of her problems.
The winter she turns four, she learns how to read.
She teaches herself from things she finds around her - tattered magazines long out of date, household spell books with well worn second hand pages, paperbacks she can sneak when she waits in other people’s houses as her mother cleans them. It’s a rocky process because she doesn’t have anything to go off, has to make nearly all of it up, but she doesn’t exactly have anything else to do. She doesn’t go to school, and it’s a bleak winter, the snow seeping in through the holes in the bottoms of her shoes if she tries to play outside.
It’s cold inside their house, too. Irma’s fingers go numb on the corners of the pages of How to Live on a Galleon a Day. She thinks she solves that problem when she finds her threadbare woollen mittens and pokes holes in the end, just big enough to slip her fingers through and turn the pages, as she sits on the lumpy bed she still shares with her mother and tries to make sense of the shapes on the page.
Her mother cries when she sees the ruined mittens, goes grey around the eyes, leaves the house and doesn’t come back for hours.
When she does come back, she smiles warm, gets under the blankets with Irma, gets out some quills, and starts to teach her the alphabet.
Her smile doesn’t stretch to her eyes.
When she’s seven, it’s a warm winter.
Last winter, they almost froze to death in their unheated leaking cottage, so she’s grateful for this year’s mild temperament. Her mother is, too - it shows on her face, the way she smiles just a fraction wider when she’s sure she won’t have to find money that isn’t there for things like thicker jackets or firewood. She doesn’t work any less, of course; it’s just that the money coming in is almost enough for them to get by on.
She doesn’t take Irma to work with her anymore, says she’s old enough to look after herself, can’t have fun hanging around other people’s houses all day anyway. Irma doesn’t mention that she sometimes takes things from the houses, the only way she has of obtaining anything for herself, old books and magazines that she thinks nobody will miss - if her mother hasn’t noticed so far, then Irma’s bound to get in trouble when she does, and there’s enough strife in their house from outside forces without her adding to it.
And so it is that one Sunday, her mother’s at work, and Irma’s at home. She’s reading her favourite parts of The Tales of Beedle The Bard in bed, sipping a cup of watery tea - and she hears screeching outside.
And Irma’s always had a curious mind, so she gets out of bed, crosses the short distance to the kitchen, and climbs onto the counter, all fumbling elbows and knees, to glance outside. The source of the screeching is pretty obvious - there’s a group of children playing in the street. A few girls skipping over a rope, some boys tussling with a ball, chasing each other up and down the road. The screeching seems to all have been in good fun. It might even have been laughter.
Irma watches their faces, for a minute, those of them she can see at least, watches as they laugh with each other, talk, play.
And - well. Irma doesn’t go to a school. She’s not in any clubs, and she doesn’t go on trips. Irma loves to read. She’s never actually played with another child before.
Her mother’s at work.
So Irma takes a chance.
It’s warm for winter, but still cold; she pulls on her jacket and hand-knitted mittens before she goes outside. When she’s out there, she goes straight up to the skipping girls, decides not to be nervous, asks, “Can I play?”
They all stop what they’re doing. The boys a few feet away stop their scuffling too, stop to stare at her, silent and surprised, eyes blinking at her like a crowd of silent owls. They’re just surprised, she decides, and still isn’t nervous, isn’t self-conscious, because she doesn’t know she should be. They’re probably all already friends, and they’re not used to a stranger asking to play too.
She decides that must be the case.
Then, slowly, one of the girls begins to giggle.
Before Irma knows what’s happening, the rest of the children are laughing too, incredulous sneers on their faces, regarding her the way her mother does the cockroaches that live under their kitchen sink.
“What?” she asks, wondering if she should laugh too - she lets out a cautious giggle, glances behind herself for whatever it is she’s missed. “What’s so funny?”
“You,” one of the boys forces out between laughs. And she still doesn’t get it - still stares, still glances around herself, brings a hand awkwardly to her face, maybe her fringe is sticking up, maybe she has toothpaste on her chin, maybe it’s some quick fix mistake that she’ll laugh about later. Except no, no such luck, they’re still laughing and staring and she doesn’t know what to do.
“What?” she asks again. “What did I do?”
That phrase will stick in her head, later, what did I do, what did I do, what did I do, because for all she learns, she never does get an answer for it. Nobody can ever seem to tell her how any of this is her fault.
“You’re poor, and you’re ugly!” a girl tells her, in that worst of blunt ways that children have, and it sums up everything Irma needs to know, and the girl who says it is wearing a camel hair coat with velvet trim on the edges, and has shiny bright buckled shoes that could be new, and has hair that’s been teased into ringlets even if it is covered by a hat.
So Irma looks at her, and then she looks down at herself. Her legs are stick thin, knock knees only just covered by the floral skirt that had used to be one of their curtains. She’s wearing itchy grey tights, dirty laced up boots with holes in the toes. Her jacket is grey wool, a little too small, and bulges, awkward and lumpy, over her mustard coloured jumper - which is, contrarily, too big, is rolled up three times at the sleeves and hangs off her bird-boned frame when it’s not constricted by another item of clothing. Her hair is long, thin, straight, dark, perhaps a little greasy. Her face is angular and her nose large. Irma’s mother is by no means beautiful, but she has a delicate kind of face that may once have been lovely, before it was aged by stress and poverty and motherhood. Irma has inherited none of her features.
She’s known all that before, though. That’s not new, none of that’s new.
It’s just, up until now, she hadn’t realised any of those things mattered.
“Oh,” she says. “Okay.”
So she goes back inside. Takes off her boots, coat, mittens. Sits on the bed, and picks up the book she’d just been reading. She forgot to mark her place when she left; she just starts again from the beginning.
She reads for a while before her tears start to hit the pages.
And she’s loved books since she knew how, entertained herself with them more than anyone she knows, but really, that was always just because there wasn’t much else to do. But this is the first time she reads to escape, reads to become someone else, reads for comfort and love and the assurance that sometimes, in other lives, in other worlds - sometimes there are happy endings.
This is the first time a book is her salvation, and it changes something in her.
The winter she turns eleven, her Hogwarts letter arrives.
It comes on her birthday, just like her mother said it would, and it’s probably the happiest either of them have been for a long while. Irma’s old enough to know now how hard up they are, to notice the silent way her mother cries at night sometimes and the careful way she doles out what few galleons she can earn at the end of every month, counting in her head, food, electricity, rent, water, debt collectors, but there’s a note along with Irma’s letter that informs them there’s a fund at Hogwarts to help out students who can’t afford books and tuition. Irma’s going to miss her mother terribly, but she’ll feel better knowing there’s one less mouth to go hungry in their house.
They go to Diagon Alley to buy her books a week later, even though she won’t leave for another eight months. The small amount of money from Hogwarts is clutched tightly in Irma’s fist, like it’s the most precious thing she’s ever held.
Wand first - not from Ollivanders, the shiny-fronted store she imagines heaps of excited children pouring into, but from another shop, a dusty one down a side alley, where she purchases twelve inches of battered looking wood with a Veela hair slightly poking out of the end. It splutters temperamentally when she gives it an experimental wave, but doesn’t outright blow anything up, so it’s pronounced ‘good enough’. Then robes - again, they pass the largest shop, Madam Malkin’s, and head down another back street, where Irma purchases some too-big, slightly frayed uniforms, one of which has a really quite pungent smelling stain down the front. Then they buy a cauldron, which has a hole in the bottom that’s been patched up with a different coloured bit of metal, and doesn’t honestly look like it could hold a glass of pumpkin juice, let alone a corrosive potion.
But Irma can’t care about any of this. It’s more than she’s been given in her whole life so far, and the sparkles in her mother’s eyes as she watches Irma’s excitement are the best purchase she could possibly make.
Of course, the real reason she doesn’t care about her broken cauldron or frayed robes is that they’re just a stepping stone on the way to the thing that’s made her most excited for Hogwarts.
She’s read the book list so many times in the last week that she knows it off by heart. By the time they’ve got everything else on her list she’s nearly buzzing with excitement, can feel her heart pumping faster than it ever has before. She’s never had a book of her own, one she didn’t steal or borrow or browse and then quickly return. And sure, they’re just gonna be school books, but still. She can’t quite breathe right with anticipation.
And again, they head away the main shops, away from Flourish and Blotts, the shop Irma knows well from peering in its window with longing every time they come to Diagon Alley. There’s a little second hand bookshop just past Gringotts, and they head there. It’s messy but it’s got charm; there are piles of used Hogwarts textbooks in a little back room, and the owner sends them back there with a smile, and Irma can’t bring herself to care that the books all have strange smells and weird stains. She sets herself to finding every single book on her list with a kind of passion she's never felt before about anything. She already loves her books too much.
And then, when she's almost hunted down every book she needs, she feels her mother's hand on her shoulder.
“Irma,” her mother says, and there’s a sad look in her eyes but a smile on her face. “Why don’t we go in the new book shop after this.”
“I can’t afford any new books, though,” Irma points out, sorting through a pile of old copies of Hogwarts: A History to find the least tattered one.
“Well,” her mother says, and immediately has Irma’s attention. “I’ve been saving for a while, you know, just a Knut here and there, but it’s added up. I thought maybe we’d have enough to buy you one book from Flourish and Blotts.”
For a second, Irma can’t quite believe what’s she’s hearing. It’s almost a mystical concept, something she’s heard about in rumours but never quite believed is true, a new book, a book she could choose for wanting it rather than for it simply being there, a book that won’t have stains and annotations and missing pages that leave her trying to piece things together and never being quite sure she’s getting it right - a book that will be just hers, nobody else’s, no sordid history to compete with. It’s too strange an idea, and her brain freezes, like the cogs are stuck, and the machines are huffing and puffing trying to get them to move again but they’re stuck there, no matter how hard you push.
Then, they unstick, and Irma’s up in a second, flinging herself at her mother, throwing her arms around her waist, chanting thank you thank you thank you, thank you, thank you, this is the best thing that’s ever happened to her, this is something she never even thought to ask for and it’s more exciting than she ever could have imagined. She wonders if those other kids in her village have ever felt this kind of happiness, those ones who laugh at her for her bone structure and hand-me-down clothes, she wonders if having everything they want handed to them on a plate has ever given them this joy. She doesn’t think so.
She doesn’t think anyone has ever felt the way Irma Pince feels the first time she buys a new book.
She takes hours to choose which one she wants in Flourish and Blotts, reads the blurb of everything in the shop, double and triple checks her choices, and her mother watches with a hand over her mouth and a sparkle in her eyes that Irma’s never seen before. In the end, they dole out two galleons for a book of medieval fairy tales - a thick hardback, so large Irma has to carry it with two arms, with spiralling gold letters on the dark cover and moving illustrations inside. Irma’s in a daze the whole way home, and when it starts to rain, she takes off her own jacket and wraps it around the book instead. Her mother pleads with her, tells her she’ll catch cold, but to Irma, not a thing in the world matters right then but keeping her book dry.
That whole winter she reads it, over and over, cradling it gently, squinting at the pages because she’s being careful to never crack the spine, always washing her hands before she touches it so she doesn’t leave tiny grease smudges the cover, and when she’s not reading it, she wraps it in her cleanest robes and puts it under the bed, in case something should spill on the cover. She loves all her books, tattered and second hand and possessing of mysterious stains as they might be, but her new book, her only new book- it becomes a sacred thing.
It snows the winter she turns thirteen, and that’s when she discovers the Hogwarts library.
She’d been heartbroken a few weeks before when she’d received a short note from her mother, scrawled on the back of an old bit of parchment, attempting a cheery tone whilst telling her that the roof of their cottage had caved in under the weight of the snow so maybe it was better if Irma stayed at Hogwarts this year. I’m put up at a charming little bed and breakfast courtesy of our landlord, don’t worry about me, it’d said, but I worry it wouldn’t be a very fun Christmas for you back here. I’m sure you’ll have much more fun larking about with your school friends anyway. I’ll owl your present along soon. Have a lovely holiday, little princess.
Irma doesn't buy a word about the bed and breakfast, but with a heavy heart she leaves that out of her reply. Much like she ;eaves out the comments about how she doesn't get up to much larking about, given that there are only about three students other than prefects who will speak a kind word to her.
So here she is. Stuck at school without anyone to talk to, not even the comfort of lessons to fill her days. The castle’s cold and she’s taken to wearing both her pairs of robes, one on top of the other. She’s grown nearly a foot since she first arrived at Hogwarts, but her robes haven’t; her mother’s best attempts at a stretching spell have left them bulging and uneven at the bottom, and she wears woolly socks to keep her ankles from getting cold. Still, it’s not like there’s anyone around to notice, anyway. And it’s just because of the fact that there’s nobody around that she decides to spend her holidays exploring.
Afterwards, thinking back, she won’t have a clue how she managed to go so long without setting foot in the library. She supposes she didn’t want to be disappointed - wanted to leave it as a fantasy in her head, this magical place she could pretend to take comfort in whenever things got tough. Or maybe she still couldn’t quite separate herself from the part of her identity that centred around not having things, couldn’t quite understand the concept of being able to take books whenever she liked, was scared she’d get used to it only to have it taken away again when she left. Or maybe she was just plain scared of the kind of people who hung out there; far from being the refuge of the loathed and unpopular, the library was the common hang out of the stars of Hogwarts. The seventh years swarmed all the tables in the immediate vicinity of the doors, good looking kids from all years checked each other out from behind the stacks. Maybe Irma was afraid to walk past them all.
But none of them are there at Christmas, and that’s when she first sets foot in the Hogwarts library. And after three years of living in this castle, the second she steps through that door, she finally feels like she’s at home.
The winter she turns seventeen, she gets a letter.
She gets a letter that’s black.
It’s the first morning of the Christmas holidays, and the train’s going to leave in a few hours. She’s excited to go home - has missed her mother the past few months, hasn’t even spoken to her for a week. So she’s in the Great Hall, spooning porridge into her mouth while reading her Transfiguration textbook, and around her the other students are chatting and laughing and messing about, practising spells on each other, transfiguring teaspoons into birds and watching them fly around, throwing food around, kissing each other, being excited and chaotic because it’s the holidays.
Then the owl post comes. Not much, today; almost everyone’s going home to their families, why would they need to write? Irma doesn’t even really look up from her book - there’s no way she’s going to get a letter today. The only person who writes to her is her mother.
Except - well.
Except that as soon as she thinks that, a small, scrappy brown owl goes catapulting into her porridge, splattering it down her robes and across the cover of the book she’s reading. The students directly surrounding her laugh, but she barely even notices it - she’s long used to it by now, being the butt of all their jokes, the weird one, being tripped in the hallways and having new and inventive jinxes thrown at her wherever she goes. And she’s used to people laughing at her, whatever happens, so yeah, she doesn’t really notice it now. She wipes the porridge off the book first, then mops up the mess on her robes with a sigh. Then she looks down at the pathetic little owl still flapping about in her breakfast, and pulls the dark envelope off its leg, to see who the letter was actually intended for.
And then, a halting, a moment of confusion. Irma Pince. There’s not another Irma Pince at this school.
And the envelope’s black, and that’s not a thing, that’s not like something that happens and you immediately know why, it’s not like getting a glowing red howler or the gold-tinged parchment of a wedding invitation, but Irma can only think of one reason why someone would use black parchment, and it’s not good. The sounds around her become muffled. Her mouth is dry, and she can’t think to reach for her pumpkin juice.
Black means death.
Her fingers shake and trembles as she fumbles with the opening of the envelope. A paper cut appears on her thumb, but she can’t quite connect the action she made to how she received it; it’s like her brain is thinking in jagged lines and shapes that don’t add up, and her eyes feel blurry, and her heart’s beating so loud she can’t hear a single other thing, and she knows, she knows, all that matters is getting that envelope open.
She opens it, and reads it. Then she silently folds the letter back up. She puts it in her pocket. She nods. She helps the twitchy little owl out of her porridge. She watches it fly away. She picks up her Transfiguration textbook. She walks out of the Great Hall. She finds her trunk in the stacks of them which are waiting to be transferred to the Hogwarts Express. She takes it back to her room. She sits on her bed.
She sits on her bed.
Her roommates all leave for the holidays, and she doesn’t get on the train, and she doesn’t go home, and she sits on her bed, silent, unmoving, frozen in time, for the whole day and the whole night.
And not a single person misses her.
The winter she’s twenty is the first time she loves a boy.
He’s a quiet boy, just a little older than her, not altogether handsome but pieced together in the same kind of bonish way Irma is, which makes her feel better about loving him, in the beginning. They meet in late October, and she loves him straight away. She’s working in a little museum in a tiny Scottish town, just helping out, doing nothing special in particular. And she’s sat in the little back office filing some papers one day, when he comes in to ask for a photography permit.
He takes photographs for a living, he explains, at magical weddings or family reunions or sometimes for the Daily Prophet, on commission, but it’s his favourite hobby as well as his job. And somehow, in the gaps of those first few sentences, in his awkward smile and fumbling fingers as he fills out the forms he needs, she falls, and falls, and falls.
She never quite understands how it is they get into a relationship, because she’s much too scared to talk to him or make her interest known, but he must sense it somehow, because he kindly invites her to come and see an exhibition of his that night, and it all just spirals from there. Irma’s been looking for something like this. Irma hasn’t been okay since she was seventeen, and a black envelope came in the post. Irma hasn’t had a person since that day. A person to love and devote herself to and worry about and define herself by. And then she finds her boy, and for two months, she loves him, and lives him, and learns him. She learns everything she can, everything there is to know.
And all the important things seem to boil down to his photographs.
He lives and hides behind the lens of his camera, always has ink on his fingers and smells of the strange potions he uses to develop his film so it moves. When she reads the paper, he comments on the photographs beside the words; when they go out, he drags along his camera, a huge boxy thing that slings around his neck, and takes a photo of every single thing they pass. He tells her he likes to photograph beautiful things - after all, the world is full of them, and he wants to remember as many of them as he can.
He never takes her photo.
That’s how she knows he doesn’t love her back, though he’s never cruel about it. He takes her on dates sometimes, buys her dinner in a small, strange smelling but ultimately charming little restaurant whenever he has some money to spare. He invites her to his exhibitions, and comes to visit her at work. He embraces the sixties mentality by sometimes letting her sleep the night in his room, and he treats her kindly between the sheets. Some Saturdays they listen to the Quidditch on the wireless together, when the Falmouth Falcons have a chance. He’s a fan; she isn’t, but she likes watching his enthusiasm well enough so she’s happy to waste a few evenings that way.
So for two months she loves him with everything she has, and she never does quite know why. Something in her falls for something in him, and somehow, amongst all the falling, she ends up somewhere dark and lonely and deep, deep down, and she doesn’t quite know how to get out of it.
He leaves her in December, when he meets someone else. A bubbly, chubby girl, who’s older than him and has a young son and a complicated ex-husband, and who doesn’t like art and works in a cafe and talks all the time. And Irma wants to scream, wants to cry, because this new girl, this woman, this mother, she’s wrong for him. They have nothing in common, they’ll never work. And he loves her in a way he would never love Irma, never even tried to.
She quits her job in their strange small town, packs her motley belongings into two old suitcases, and moves to London. She arrives on Christmas eve, with twenty galleons and a few bags of books to her name, no idea what she wants to do with her life, no real marketable skills, and a broken heart.
It’s the most free she’s ever felt.
The winter she’s twenty five, it occurs to her that she makes money now.
Not a lot, mind. A fair pittance compared to what most people from her class at Hogwarts are making these days. But she’s working in a quiet office behind Diagon Alley, taking messages from the owls that come in and keeping the filing system neat, and she makes enough to eat, and buy smart robes for work, and keep herself in room and board at the house of a charming old couple nearby. She even has a little left over, at the end of every month. Just two or three galleons. She designates herself a small allowance for books; any change that’s left over after that, she puts in a small shoebox under her sturdy single bed, until she has enough to open an account at Gringotts.
And it’s a strange thought, that little fund, that measly offering that promises such unprecedented hope if ever a rainy day should come, because sometimes she remembers being four years old and watching her mother sob over ruined mittens. Sometimes she still feels a phantom of chill set deep within her limbs, even when she’s sat close to Mr and Mrs Halstead’s roaring fireplace. These days, she wears practical, tight black boots, and she owns three pairs, and none of them have holes, but out of reflex she still dodges away from the puddles in the belief that her toes will get wet.
And one night, when it’s very, very cold beside the fire, when Mr Halstead has taken Mrs Halstead to dinner, when her mind is filled with phantoms of the boy she had loved and all the ones she hadn’t, she thinks, I’ve done more for myself than my mother ever did for me.
And that’s the thought that finally breaks Irma Pince’s heart for good.
The winter she’s twenty eight is when it happens.
Irma’s not so cut off from the rest of the world that she doesn’t hear about it - it would be hard to miss the swarms of owls in the sky, streams of wizards gathering to celebrate, the literal screams of joy in the streets, so different to the screams she’s used to tuning out as she lies in her bed above Diagon Alley.
So, then, it’s happened. He Who Must Not Be Named is gone.
When she thinks about it, Irma realises that the war never affected her that much. She’s a pureblood, or so she’s assumed without ever hearing much spoken about her father, so she doesn’t have to worry that she might be killed because of her blood, and she hasn’t got any particularly special skills so there was no way she was ever going to be asked to join the Death Eaters, really. She lives just a few buildings away from her place of work, and she doesn’t really leave her flat except to work and occasionally browse a book shop. With no outside forces at work whatsoever, she tries to confine herself to her own space as much as possible, keeps away from other people, doesn’t trust anyone who tries to speak to her for reasons out of the ordinary.
So when she hears people talking of how they lived their lives in fear - unable to talk to anyone for fear it would get them hurt, never going out if they could help it, confining themselves to their houses - she that’s very much like how she lives her life anyway.
Still, she’s not crazy. She knows Voldemort was bad news. She knows he was dangerous, and crazy, and she’d never wanted anything to do with his crazed pure-bloods-only campaign, and yeah, she’s glad that he’s gone.
It’s just that, in the weeks that follow, the colour comes back into their world a little. Shops begin to put up bright window displays, and empty buildings fill up with businesses again, and Diagon Alley gets a little of its old bustle back, and families walk around together and laugh, and friends go out in public, and Muggle-borns and half-bloods are included in these groups with no thought whatsoever, and people are smiling, and happy, and it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to any of them. People kiss in the streets, dance in the streets.
Irma doesn’t have anyone to dance with. Irma doesn’t have anyone to kiss.
And so the darkest wizard for generations rises and falls again, and the whole time, not a single person would have missed Irma if he’d killed her after all.
So no, her life doesn’t change all that much.
The winter she’s thirty one is a winter of hope.
She’s been wiling away her time working in a small bookstore, for no more than she made when she was twenty, and a lot of the job involves working with customers, which isn’t what she’d hoped for when she’d applied. Still, it pays her rent, just about, and keeps her in food, and she even gets a small staff discount on some of the books, so she hasn’t condemned the work.
It’s not a career. That’s some elusive dream that she’s never been able to fathom; she’s flitted between jobs since she was eighteen, mostly light administrative things, doing the filing in offices or taking inventory in apothecaries or doing simple shop work. But she’s never stuck something out longer than a year. She’s never found anything she would want to stick at, even if the situation presented itself.
And then, the winter she’s thirty one, Albus Dumbledore comes to her.
She never does quite understand why. She’s sure she never stuck out to him at all when she was in school - just another shy kid with her too-big nose in a book, a Ravenclaw with good-but-not-outstanding grades, a loner who was teased a little, sure, but never enough to warrant the attention of the headmaster. She never actually spoke to him at all, really, through the whole of her Hogwarts career.
And then one day when she’s thirty one and it’s snowing outside he turns up on her doorstep, eyes twinkling and lips twitching, and asks, “May I come in?”
She invites him in, and doesn’t feel ashamed of her shabby living room, and doesn’t ask him why he’s there, and makes him a cup of watery tea and offers him a biscuit and waits for him to say something that will make sense to her, some reason for him to be here. He waits until he’s halfway through his tea and finished discussing the weather before he gets around to it.
“Madam Skinner has announced her plans to retire at the end of the school year,” he tells her, casually, as though it’s just another piece of small talk, nothing big, nothing life changing. “It appears we are about to be short a librarian. I was wondering if you would be interested in the job.”
When she was thirteen years old, Irma Pince first set foot in the Hogwarts library, and she felt like she was home. For the rest of her time at school, she nearly lived in that room. She learnt the organisational system off by heart, read books from every section, explored hidden nooks and crannies between the shelves that she doubted anyone else had ever found. She discovered a secret, hidden back room between the cracks of two shelves that contained only books dedicated to the keeping of killer bees, and a shelf of novels about House Elfs that only appeared on the second Wednesday of every month, and a loose brick in the wall which when pried out revealed a single Transfiguration textbook from centuries ago. More than once she slept there, curled up amongst the stacks. And when she left school, she felt a little meaningless, flitted her way between jobs that had as much to do with books as she could find, never falling in love with something, never finding anything that stuck. And sometimes she still swears she can smell that gorgeous scent of old paper that she’d become so familiar with in her years at school, sometimes she ghosts her fingers over the spines of her personal book collection and imagines they’re on a shelf stacked fifty feet high. Her whole life, Irma has found love in books. She’s escaped through them, she’s lived them and breathed them. She wants nothing more than to take care of them, to hope they can offer some other poor lonely child the same comfort they have always offered her.
And all she can say to Albus Dumbledore when he asks just that of her is, “Yes.”
The winter she’s forty four - well.
The winter she’s forty four, a lot of things happen.
The winter she’s forty four, Severus Snape is headmaster of Hogwarts. The Carrows prowl the halls, and torture students. Filch, for all he’d always waxed lyrical about stringing children up by their toes, turns pale and stuttering at the horrors happening within the walls of the castle they’d all loved so much. Students disappear, one by one, either pulled away by parents too concerned for their safety, or something much, much worse, something none of them ever speak about.
The winter she’s forty four, she makes friends with Minerva McGonagall for the first time, simply because neither of them has anyone, and right then, they need something to get them through the days. It’s too dangerous to talk about the things they fear, because the walls have eyes and ears and viscous, viscous hands, so instead, they drink tea in Minerva’s office, eat ginger biscuits, discuss the weather with tremulous voices, reminisce about their own days in school, when students respected authority and all the girls’ skirts reached below the knee (even though neither of those things were ever, really, true).
The winter she’s forty four, she’s scared, she’s terrified, there’s a war being waged around her and unlike last time, it’s taking its toll. She’s involved. She’s even, dare she say it, sat in the epicentre. She’s preparing for the earthquake.
The winter she’s forty four, she’s so, so proud that it hurts her to her core. Every time she sees a group of students rebel in even the tiniest of ways, talk to each other in the hallways or pull a face at the Carrows when they’re not looking. When she hears the most secret of whispers about Ginevra Weasley and Neville Longbottom, two messy Gryffindors that she’s only despaired over in the past, and their underground rebellion. She’s proud of the Ravenclaw girl, Luna Lovegood, who’s nothing like Irma in any way and yet reminds her so much of her own school days as the outcast and the freak. Until she disappears. Until they all disappear, one by one. And Irma wishes there was something she could do. But she doesn’t have a way to help. All she has, all she’s ever had, is an ugly nose and a moderate proficiency in transfiguration and love for books so big she almost can’t contain it. She’s not useful.
And then -
And then one day, she’s silently shelving books just around the corner from her living quarters, silent like she always is these days, silent like everyone in the castle is, and she hears noise. Coming from her room. The noise of someone in there - the noise of pages turning.
“Excuse me!” she cries, shelving the last book and grabbing her wand in one swift motion. “That’s a private collection!”
She rounds the corner in a fury, ready to thoroughly tell off whichever student is asking for punishment by rummaging around in her things, but then freezes in the doorway when she hears footsteps behind her. There’s a student in her room alright, clutching a book she’s grabbed from Irma’s shelves and looking ready to cry, but that’s not who’s making the sound.
She turns around, and there is Amycus Carrow, and her heart turns to black coal with fear.
“Student causing trouble, is she?” he asks slowly, twirling his wand leisurely between his fingers, lips twisting into a grin that makes the hairs on Irma’s arms rise up like an army standing to attention. “Don’t you worry love, I’ll take care of the brat.”
And Irma doesn’t know why she does it and she doesn’t know how she does it but she’s across her room in a second, grabbing the book out of the girl’s hands and then turning around again to face Carrow, head held high.
“Get behind me,” she tells the girl. Grabs her wand inside her pocket. Tenses for whatever happens next.
“Well well well,” Carrow trills, a look of horrifying satisfaction on his face, and inside Irma’s four years old and sobbing wretched sobs, but she doesn’t let an inch of it show on her face. The little girl is cowering behind her, hands clenched in Irma’s robes. It gives her strength.
“I think you should leave,” she tells Carrow, and blesses her voice for not trembling. “This girl’s done nothing wrong.”
She thinks, he’s going to kill me. And then she thinks of dungeons and and the mysterious scars and limps people all over the castle have been developing, and thinks, maybe he won’t, which is worse.
Irma’s got her wand in one hand, ready to fight if she can, ready to send a thousand books flying towards this cowardly, brutal man, because they’ve always been her weapons. But in her other hand, she’s clutching something else entirely. The book the girl had been looking at, a book that’s old by now, that no matter how hard she tried to keep it sacred, has ended up with a cracked spine and marks on the pages and a scuffed cover. A book that has magic seeping out of it from every page.
It’s the book Irma brought in Diagon Alley when she was eleven years old. Her first new book.
Amycus sneers, and raises his wand, and Irma’s heart beats in her chest, and the student stands behind her, and she holds her head high, and knows she will do whatever’s right.
The winter she’s forty four, Irma Pince feels brave, for the first time in her life.
And she clutches her first ever new book like a weapon.
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