On the last evening before classes were scheduled to begin, the Familiars still at Hogwarts met once again in the dusty storeroom on the third floor. The phoenix perched on his customary table and looked around. “Where are Crookshanks and Duster? I’d rather hoped we could all be here.”
“No one has seen them since this morning,” Topper answered. “Their pets don't seem to be terribly worried, though they’ve been distracted.” He related the story of the potions-storage mishap to the others.
“All our pets are focusing on the new year, which is as it should be,” Norris said. “I will go find Duster and Crooks.” She stretched out her foreclaws and arched her back. “Hephaestus will fill me in on everything.”
“Very well then.” Fawkes nodded. “We will continue on. Familiars, we all know that the reason for these meetings is because the population of our human pets has been declining. We've been trying to arrange matches and persuade them to produce offspring.” He paused significantly. “We've only had one real success thus far, although there's been several smaller signs of progress. Obviously we need to implement other strategies.”
“It's never a good sign when you rehash the obvious,” Swift grumbled.
“It's quite simple. One problem is that humans usually only produce one offspring at a time. Macavity said as much at the start of this past summer. If they had two or three at a time regularly, it would take much less time to rebuild the population.” Another significant pause. “Thjalfe's pet will be an excellent test subject. I arranged it this morning.”
“You did what?” Thjalfe was horrified and Thunder only a little less so. “Fawkes, you’re the one who told us that we needed to be subtle in managing our pets. Now…”
The phoenix shrugged one scarlet wing. “And now we’re one small step closer to resolving our problem. Besides, it’s not unheard of for humans to have multiple births. Remember those redhaired humans who were here recently?”
“Thjalfe is right,” Hephaestus said. The big grey Persian jumped onto the table where Fawkes perched. “Do not do this again.” His eyes glittered with green lights, and the end of his tail twitched. “If you dare meddle with Argus or Ivy, I will be very, very displeased.”
There was a general rumble of agreement. “Our pets are our own to manage,” Topper stated firmly. “Convincing them to find mates is one thing, but you... you have gone too far.”
“Most of our pets are fairly intelligent,” Gambit pointed out. “Minerva doesn't believe in coincidences – and the only question in my mind is how long your pet, Fawkes, will live once she decides that HE's the one responsible.”
“Albus does have a bit of a reputation for meddling,” Fawkes allowed.
“Like familiar, like human,” Thunder muttered so quietly that only Thjalfe could hear him. Then a bit louder, “What's done is done and to undo it would be difficult at best – which I'm sure Fawkes was well aware of before he decided to take this action. Fawkes, you will give us your word, sworn on the Egg of Chrysos, that you will not meddle with any pets other than your own. Ever.”
It was plain to the phoenix that he would not be able to convince the other Familiars that he'd done the right thing. At least not in the next few minutes. Resolving to speak with them each separately, he reluctantly pronounced the required oath. A little voice in the back of his mind reminded him that oaths made under duress weren’t binding.
While a locked door will keep most ordinary cats out, it requires stronger measures when one’s cat is a Familiar. Thus, it was relatively easy for Mrs. Norris to gain access to the room where the student stores for Potions were kept. She stood on the threshold for a moment, her whiskers tingling as they tasted the air, and the traces of lingering magic, mostly Scourgify spells. The corners of her mouth quirked up into a feline smile. Scourgify would remove physical stains well enough, but did nothing to banish any magical traces.
Something was not right here. There was a definite sense of foulness in the room. It was not in or on the walls… rather, it was the floor. Sitting just outside the room, she fixed her attention on the worn grey stones. Hogwart’s own magic permeated them, just as it did the entire castle. She discounted that, and concentrated on the splashes of more recent magic. It seemed aimless, purposeless. Almost random.
There! In the far corner of the room was a trace of malevolence. She concentrated all her attention in that spot and the ends of her whiskers quivered as she identified it. Peeves. No doubt about it. “We told Fawkes we needed to do something about him,” she muttered to herself. “Now here’s one more reason.” She stepped into the room, intending to take a closer look at the miasma, but stopped short. There was magic swirling around her, magic light and dark, with a definite presence. Two presences, actually, and both familiar. Not Peeves, for these presences had none of his etherealness.
She bolted for the third-floor storeroom.
Hermione woke up the following morning with the distinct feeling that something wasn’t quite right. She swung her feet over the side of the bed and shoved them into her slippers and staggered over to the sink to splash cold water on her face. Somewhat more awake then, she turned and considered the room, trying to figure out what was making her so uneasy. Perhaps it was just nerves; this was the day that all the new students were due to arrive. No, that wasn’t it. Whatever it was, it was more immediate. She looked around the room again. All was neatly ordered, just as she’d set things out the night before. She picked up her hairbrush and stopped. Normally Crookshanks’ evening prowlings would knock something awry; she couldn’t count the number of times she’d had to retrieve her hairbrush from the floor, or find her place in a book that he’d bumped off her desk.
The half-kneazle hadn’t shown up for dinner the previous night either. Hermione sat down at her desk, her hairbrush forgotten in her hand, trying to recall when she’d last seen her wayward familiar. She definitely remembered him yesterday morning; he’d insisted on playing pounce with her slippers while she was dressing, and he’d come down with her for breakfast, appropriating two slices of her bacon. But after that… and come to think of it, she hadn’t seen Duster since the previous morning either. She attacked her hair with the brush, attempting to tame it into something manageable. If Crooks didn’t appear for breakfast, she’d ask Severus about Duster.
Almost as if the thought had summoned him, she heard Snape’s voice in the corridor just outside her door. “Hermione?”
She pulled her dressing gown on and tied it. “Come in; it’s not warded.”
Her jaw almost dropped as he entered. It was one of the few times she’d seen him in any state of dishabille. His shirt was misbuttoned and only half tucked in. “Duster’s missing,” he announced.
“So’s Crooks. I haven’t seen either of them since yesterday morning.”
“Likewise. And we’re not going to have time to look for them with the new students arriving this evening.” At her look of non-comprehension, he explained, “There’re always a few students who miss the Hogwarts Express either accidentally or purposefully. As they contact the school, we’ll have to go fetch them.” He grimaced. “I expect, with all the extra students this year, it will be more hectic than usual. From the moment we set foot in the Great Hall for breakfast, we’ll be busy. I know we have our lesson plans ready, and I know Albus approved them. But there are a thousand last minute problems that always come up. So the Headmaster decreed that everyone is required to be at all meals on the first day of classes.”
“The house elves will be overwhelmed today also,” Hermione said, thinking out loud. “But what about the portraits? They might be willing and able to help look for Duster and Crooks.”
“That’s an excellent idea.” Snape considered. “The portraits aren’t involved in getting the school ready for a new term. Perhaps you could have a word with the Fat Lady while I speak with Sir Cadogan.” He stepped back into the hallway. “We should both probably finish dressing first, however.”
The Great Hall was, indeed, a madhouse. Albus and Minerva were trading barbed insults, gradually increasing in volume and barbedness, as they swept the lower level of the room with a mix of Transfiguration and Charms spells. From what Hermione could understand of their exchange as she walked through the doors, no one had thought about enlarging the House tables to accommodate the new students until that very morning. Minerva apparently felt that Albus should’ve remembered this not-insignificant little detail, while the Headmaster believed that his Deputy had failed in her responsibilities. And neither of them, apparently, could agree on exactly how to enlarge the tables. As she watched, Minerva expertly Transfigured the Ravenclaw table to run the length of the room while at the same time Albus was Charming the Hufflepuff table into something that would expand itself to accommodate as many diners as necessary. Each saw what the other had done and promptly began arguing vociferously for their way of resolving the problem.
Hermione had just decided that the safest thing to do was to skip breakfast and risk the Headmaster’s wrath when Flitwick came in. He took one look and promptly cast a shielding charm over the Head Table. “There,” he piped. “Now we can eat in peace.” He smiled at Hermione. “They find something to fight about every year. I believe it allows them to – what’s the Muggle phrase? – blow off steam before the students arrive.”
He didn’t seem terribly worried and neither did the rest of the staff as they trickled in by ones and twos. The older professors, the ones who had been at Hogwarts a long time, simply shook their heads, and Sybil Trelawney muttered about the noise clouding her Inner Eye. The newcomers on staff took their cues from the others. Hermione did notice that everyone gave the little Charms instructor a nod of thanks when they took their seats. She filled her plate and did her best to ignore the spat on the other side of Flitwick’s shield.
“You might have warned me,” she said to Snape as he sat down.
“There’s no fun in that,” Xia Malfoy answered from the Potion Master’s other side. “It’s a rite of passage. If you survive the first day, you’ll be fine.” She tilted her head toward the sparring professors. “They’re getting louder.”
Indeed, the argument was apparently escalating, because Minerva had abandoned English and reverted to Gaelic. “Oh Merlin,” Ivy Filch said, “the last time she got that angry, we had to rebuild half of Ravenclaw tower!”
“You did?” Hermione couldn’t help but ask.
“We did,” Snape confirmed as he poured tea. “And it took most of the morning. Although on that occasion, it was a Quidditch game that caused Minerva’s fit of ill-temper.”
“Ten years ago, the Cardiff Dragons were playing the Chudley Cannons in an exhibition game. In order that neither team had a home-pitch advantage, they played here at Hogwarts.” Xia’s voice grew dreamy. “It was quite a game!”
“There were more fouls in the first three minutes than I’d ever seen before or since,” Lucius put in with an understanding smile for his wife. “But I wasn’t aware that game had any particular significance to Minerva.”
“Oh she was sweet on one of the Cardiff Beaters, and she wagered a hundred galleons that they would win,” Ardis Vector replied with a glint in her eye. "At rather ridiculous odds, as I recall."
“And then the morning of the game, her sweetheart started showing off for some Muggles. Of course, he got arrested, and the Dragons suspended him for two months. So Chudley won, against all odds or expectations.”
A rather loud explosion from the other end of the room effectively interrupted the conversation as did the pieces of table that bounced off Flitwick’s shield. The little wizard whistled under his breath and drew his wand to cast reinforcing spells.
“Berserkergang!” Sybil’s voice was awed rather than frightened. Hermione felt rather than saw the change in the nature of the magics that were flying around the room. Transfigurations and Charms had given way to hexes and curses.
Snape vaulted over the table and offered a hand to Flitwick. Lucius was a half-second behind him. As the three wizards joined hands, the shield firmed and visibly strengthened. Hermione had never seen wizards working magic in groups before, and some part of her brain was busy taking notes. She was just about to go over to them when Ivy caught her arm.
“No, Hermione! You can’t help them! You’ve never worked in a group before!”
“Why aren’t you helping then?” she shot back.
“You can’t charge blindly into a group," Xia answered calmly. "You have to practice with the others. Otherwise your magic won’t blend smoothly and you’ll do more damage than good. Severus has worked with both Lucius and Filius for years, so he’s able to bridge them together.”
“We’ll have the job of cleaning up after the dust settles,” Poppy Pomfrey added. “You’ll get plenty of practice in group magic then, if that’s what you want. And the gentlemen will be in no shape to go gallivanting all over the country retrieving wayward students, not if I have anything to say about it.”
“The berserkergang doesn’t last long,” Ivy said. “See?” Indeed, the fray gave every appearance of having ended. As the dust clouds settled and Flitwick dropped the shield, Hermione saw the Headmaster and his Deputy walking out together, arm in arm.
“That’s the last we’ll see of them until lunch,” Sybil predicted, looking around at the destruction. “And if there’s more to be done then, they’ll excuse themselves and have a private luncheon in Albus’ office. I’ll wager twenty galleons on it.”