The morning altercation between the Headmaster and his Deputy in the Great Hall, carefully planned by Fawkes and Gambit through some judicious meddling, allowed the other Familiars the chance to inspect the potions storeroom with no fear of being interrupted. They stopped at the threshold for a moment and then entered, all senses at the fullest alert. Norris was right; the room stank of magic well beyond that emanating from the ingredients neatly stored on the shelves.
“It's Peeves,” Topper pronounced, clacking his beak angrily. “This is the final straw; we must do something about that poltergeist once and for all. Something permanent, preferably painful.”
Norris snorted at the macaw's alliteration, but said nothing.
“Something more than complain about him to Fawkes,” Swift agreed, a green light glowing in the back of his eyes. He pawed at the floor, at the frantically swirling orange and black stains. “But we must restore Crooks and Duster first.”
“This is not a standard entrapment spell,” Thunder said, carefully examining the room. “It's been tainted somehow. Corrupted. I wouldn't know how to undo it.”
“There's not just magic here,” Thjalfe pointed out, his ears so flattened against his head that they almost disappeared. “Look again; there's blood bound to it.”
“Blood magic?” Shadow asked. “The Great Snake used that when she meddled with her pet!”
“If we pull them back through the spell without knowing exactly what was done,” Topper said slowly, “we risk damaging them.”
“Let's not be polite about it,” Thjalfe snarled. “We'll either kill them or render them magically impotent.”
The Familiars looked at each other. Neither of those two options was acceptable! Finally the big borzoi broke the silence. “Find Peeves and compel him – by force if necessary – to divulge what he did and how to undo it. And then banish or exorcise him permanently.”
Three hours later they regrouped. A thorough search of the castle had brought them nothing. The poltergeist was nowhere to be found.
Poppy had exercised her authority as Mediwitch and insisted that Filius, Lucius, and Severus (“The Trifecta,” she'd called them) spend the remainder of the morning resting from the strain of keeping the Shield up. Filch had gone with Ivy to inspect the foundations of the castle and make sure the magical temper tantrum had had no ill effects. Madame Pince had been dispatched to travel on the Hogwarts Express to help shepherd the students.
Hermione found herself detailed to work with Sybil Trelawney and Lavender Brown to restore the Great Hall to its accustomed splendor. She bit back a sigh, figuring that she'd be doing all the work while the Seers waved their arms and wailed that such menial chores would occlude their Inner Eyes. To her surprise, Sybil cast a series of Charms that began reassembling the hourglasses in a workmanlike manner. Lavender's quiet but firm Accio's summoned the scattered gems from the furthest corners of the room. Hermione watched in astonishment for a moment and then began levitating the gems back into their proper containers.
Once the hourglasses were properly restored, the Seers moved toward the High Table. Hermione gave herself a little nod, positive now that the other two witches would consider that they had done their share. Instead, they began rehanging the tapestries that had not been protected by Flitwick's shield and repairing what they could. Once she saw what they were doing, Hermione joined them. Twice she opened her mouth to ask what had gotten into them, but fortunately stopped before the words actually came out. There was a glint in her former roommate's eye that told her that her discomfiture was noticed, and that the Seers found it more than a little amusing.
A house-elf popped in with a pot of tea and plate of scones just as this part of the cleanup was finished and the three witches seated themselves at the High Table to take a short break. “We've done remarkably well,” Lavender said. “Once we get the portraits dealt with, there's only the tables left.”
Sybil nodded, gently swirling the leaves in the bottom of her cup. One corner of her mouth twitched slightly as she contemplated the result. “The future is never certain, my dears. However, one might say that it's extremely probable that we could perhaps think about considering the possibility of completing our task.”
Hermione gaped as the Divination Professor's right eyelid dropped in a definite wink. “But... but...”
Now both Seers were laughing outright. Hermione looked back and forth at them, wondering if she'd perhaps somehow been Portkeyed into Wonderland. Lavender gave her teacup a dramatic swirl and set it down gently.
“Theatrics is part of Divination, Hermione,” she said. “A good part of why Seers dress and act the way we do is to weed out students who aren't interested in exercising the non-intellectual side of their brain. You can learn the techniques of Divination from a book, but you can't really practice it without faith that it's going to work.” She very carefully refrained from pointing out Hermione's rather explosive withdrawal from Divination back in their third year.
“But magic doesn't... isn't supposed to work like that,” Hermione protested. “It follows rules. That's why we have textbooks.”
“Not everything is in books,” Sybil pointed out. “Where would wizards and witches be without imagination, without dreams? There are always new spells being developed, in all fields of magic.” She set her own teacup down. “The Unforgivables require strength of will to cast. If you don't want them to work, if you don't have the intent to make them work, they fizzle. Divination is much the same.”
“You have to be able to look beyond surface appearances,” Lavender added. “The truth of a matter often bears no resemblance to its first view.” She rose. “I'll start gathering the damaged portraits and take them down to Mr. Filch's workroom.”
“I'll take care of the tables,” Hermione said. She wanted a few minutes by herself to mull over what the two Seers had said. It had never occurred to her to even try to take Divination seriously.
“It's not an easy thing to discard the thinking habits of a lifetime,” Sybil Trelawney said in a tone completely different from anything Hermione had ever heard from her. “I'll leave you to the tables and see if any of the walls here need repairs.” She wafted off in a trail of gauze and cheap perfume. Hermione shook her head to clear it and began working. She rather liked the idea of Charming the tables to expand as needed. A shadow crossed over her head distracting her for a moment, and she looked up to see Professor Vector and Madame Malfoy flying carefully around the ceiling inspecting it for damage.
She jumped at the familiar voice that came from behind her. “Harry! What are you doing here?” Her hand tightened on her wand.
“I asked him to come,” Xia called from over their heads. “I'm not going to be up to coaching Quidditch for most of this year. Mr. Potter is going to be my assistant.”
Hermione relaxed enough to give Harry a weak smile and lowered her voice. “How are you and Ginny doing?”
“Really well, thanks.” He paused a moment. “Look, I'm sorry about … everything that happened last year. I... I was hoping we could be friends still.”
“It's going to take some time, Harry. The apology is appreciated, and it's a good start. But what you did was so... wrong, I can't just forget about it.”
“I understand.” He looked around the room. “What happened here anyway?”
“Albus and Minerva got into a spat,” Hermione replied, giving him a quick precis of the morning's adventures. “We've got almost everything fixed except the tables here.”
“I'll go pay my respects to the Headmaster, then, and stay out of your way.” He waved and vanished down the hall, leaving Hermione free to return to her work.
By dinner-time, Hermione had acquired an entirely new level of respect for her coworkers, and a bit of simmering resentment at the extra work Albus and Minerva had caused them all. At an intellectual level, she'd known there had to be a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation for new students, but she hadn't really considered just what that meant. Now she knew firsthand just how much planning and hard work went into it.
There were 123 new first years, of which 48 had originally intended to attend Durmstrang. There were also 58 older students, most of them second and third years. While fewer than originally expected, these increased numbers still meant increased work for the faculty and staff, making sure everyone got to Hogwarts safely and on time.
They'd decided to bring the new older students across the lake with the first-years, in order to facilitate the Sorting. Lucius and Ardis Vector, along with their newly hired assistants, were detailed to help Hagrid chaperone them. Hermione and several of the other teachers shepherded the other students to the carriages. Albus had decided against using the threstrals to pull them, thinking they would be too harsh a reminder of the war. Of the other suggested options, unicorns were too noble, and horses were too ordinary. No centaur would ever consent to being put in harness. So the carriages were drawn by Charms – each carriage spelled to follow a specific broom-borne teacher. The pace, while faster than walking, was still slow enough that Hermione's lack of flying skills weren't a problem.
The Sorting, not surprisingly, took longer than usual with all the additional students. What did surprise Hermione initially was the preponderance of Slytherins. It seemed that one in three students were sent to the Serpent's Nest. Then she remembered the heavy losses they'd taken during the war and suddenly everything made sense. The Sorting Hat was bringing Slytherin House up to strength. Snape sat upright in his chair as always, but there was a distinct relaxation in the set of his jaw as the ceremony proceeded.
The poltergeist curled up in a ball under the stairway leading to Ravenclaw tower, shivering. Perhaps he'd gone too far with the trap spell that had caught the two Familiars. It was a wonderful spell; he'd learned it some years ago from a young wizard. But now the rest of the Familiars were looking for him; it had taken every ounce of cunning he possessed to evade them. And he was sure they'd continue searching. Peeves snorted softly to himself. He could leave Hogwarts – it wasn't like it was truly a home. No one wanted him here. All he needed was a building unwarded against his kind, and he could slip in – and then... the only way to force him to leave was a Banishment. But that was what those Familiars were planning. He was sure of it.
And Banishment – while an inconvenience to a ghost – meant a rather permanent form of eradication for a poltergeist.