It was a very fine cat, as cats go. And as cats go, it went. All over Ron's Quidditch boots which he'd left on the back doorstep as usual despite her polite reminders.
"You'd better not let Ron catch you doing that," Hermione said severely. "Though it serves him bloody well right. Nagging, indeed."
The cat fixed her with a long, insolent stare, then flicked its tail at her.
"Well aren't you the snotty one. Purebred, though, by the look of you, and a lovely colour."
The cat condescended to be stroked behind the ear.
"I can see why Professor Snape calls you Lucius."
She could have sworn the cat laughed at her.
Ron wasn't laughing when he saw the damage that had been done to his boots.
"Why the hell didn't you bring them inside?" he shouted, all red-faced and bulging eyed.
"Not my job to pick up after you," she said. "I'm not your mother." One day, she thought, he'd have an aneurysm, shouting like that.
"No, you're not."
"What do you mean by that?" Hermione asked coolly.
"You know exactly what I mean." Ron took a deep breath, and changed tack. "I swear you did it on purpose."
"If you think I crapped in your boots, Ron, you're being more stupid than usual."
"I meant that you persuaded Crookshanks to do it. That bloody cat hates me."
"I can't persuade Crookshanks to do anything he doesn't want to. No one can ever make a cat do anything."
Ron glowered at her. "You're always sticking up for that bloody thing."
"Probably because he's innocent. The same way he was when you thought he was trying to eat Pettigrew. It wasn't Crookshanks, It was Professor Snape's familiar. So that's two cats that don't like you. I wonder if you tried to kick Lucius, the same way you tried to kick Crooks last week. Don't think I didn't notice."
"I just pushed him with my foot to make him move, and got a foot-full of claw in return. Vicious brute – and wait a minute, did you call that bloody cat Lucius? Did Snape call his cat after Mr Malfoy? That's just odd, sitting there of an evening with Lucius on his knee."
Crookshanks, as if hearing his name, sauntered into the room with his tail cocked at a jaunty angle, and jumped up into Hermione's lap. She crooned nonsense into his ear, whilst scratching just that spot behind his ear.
"I swear that cat is smirking at me," Ron said, his good humour at the thought of Snape stroking Lucius and all the dirty jokes he bring up over the dinner table fading under the joint hostile stares of human and cat.
"Cats don't smirk, do they, Crooks?" Hermione said, in the face of all the evidence, and pulled Crookshanks closer. "Not even at nasty men who deserve it."
"I'm going to the pub!" Ron's progress through the house could be determined by the thump of the lounge door behind him, the banging of the kitchen door on the way through, and the final slam of the back door behind him.
"I don't think he's very pleased with you," Hermione said. "I'd keep out of his way for a bit, until he calms down."
Crookshanks settled himself more firmly on his mistress' lap and began to purr.
Crookshanks was a forgiving cat, not inclined to bear grudges beyond a decade or so.
The Ginger One did not require the holding of grudges because he just kept on being horrible.
He liked his pet. She was properly considerate of his feelings, admiring the mice he fetched her to show his affection, warming his cushion for him, and always feeing him the choicest tidbits. Her hair was not all he had hoped for in an owner, but he had come to appreciate her loyalty and her consideration for others.
It was just a shame that consideration extended to the Ginger One.
Crookshanks strolled off to find the white cat, and sound him out as a potential ally.
Lucius was sitting in the drawing room, as close to the fire as he could get without burning, and was licking his genitals with enthusiasm.
Crookshanks settled down in a patch of sunshine and waited politely for Lucius to finish his business. Lucius gave one last, loving stroke, then stretched out luxuriantly, displaying all his claws in studied nonchalance.
"You have been a familiar to the Dark One for some time?" Crookshanks asked.
"You might say that," Lucius replied, and yawned elegantly. "I have known him for some time, but only recently have I decided to take him as a pet."
"I hope he is well."
"Improving, thank you. And your pet, is she well?" Good manners dictated that Lucius ask.
"She is well." Crookshanks scratched thoughtfully behind an ear with his left leg. "And yet I am troubled."
"The Ginger One," Lucius said.
"The Ginger One. He is like a dog. A large clumsy, stupid dog. Worse than a dog. I have known some intelligent dogs with much to say about the world." Crookshanks' claws unsheathed themselves, a nervous reaction to saying something pleasant about dogs. But really, the Ginger One was that bad!
"I had noted this about him." Lucius shifted a little on the carpet, working out whether he had achieved the perfect pose combining comfort with being decorative.
"Your Dark One is not like this," Crookshanks said.
"I am fortunate in that regard." Lucius' tail twitched, a very little, at the tip, scenting a hunt.
"But perhaps needing a mate? Another pet to care for you. Your coat is soft and shiny and must need a lot of brushing. My pet is good at brushing."
Lucius' tail stilled. "You would give up your pet to another?"
"Either way I lose her – to you or to the Ginger One."
"Then let us plot, young kitten, and see what we may achieve."
Crookshanks swallowed down a protest - he was a cat grown and in his prime – and came closer to his rival so they could talk without interruption.
Severus measured his life in small victories – the first day out of hospital, the first trip to the loo on his own, the first day he got dressed, the first day he made it downstairs, and this, the final culmination of his progress, his first day spent on the sofa in the library reading a book.
Life felt new, and he revelled in the scent of the leather, the tang of the dust in the room, the faint, bitter tang of doxycide from recent attempts to clean the place, and the heft of a warm cat resting on his knee.
He ignored the sounds of shouting coming from the kitchen, and turned the page of his book. Granger and Weasley seemed to do more quarrelling than anything else, and one argument was much like another. He caught the word cat, and something about a dead mouse on Ron's pillow, and then there was more slamming of doors.
"Not going well there, I feel," Severus observed. "If I might trouble you to move to one side, so I can turn the page."
Lucius rolled lazily to one side, Severus turned the page, and Lucius arranged himself back into the old position, nose to the page.
A subdued mew from the doorway announced the arrival of Crookshanks, who stared at Severus with mournful eyes.
"Have you come in here for some peace and quiet? I don't blame you. Help yourself to the fire."
Crookshanks padded further into the room, then hopped up onto the sofa, curling up into a ball of fluff next to Severus, affront written into every line of his body.
Nothing was heard in the room but the crackling of the fire, the susurration of turning pages, the purring of cats and eventually human snores.
"Sit on the Dark One's knee whilst I leave another present for the Ginger One," Lucius said.
"But he's your pet."
Lucius flicked his tail in dismissal. "I give you permission to play with my pet. He needs the company, and you'll need an alibi."
"And what will you be doing?"
"Something evil," Lucius said, flexing his claws. "After today, your pet and the Ginger One will not be talking to each other."
Severus was new to being owned by a cat, and had no idea how a pet should comport himself. He noticed Hermione's familiar staring at him long and hard, but did not arrive at the obvious conclusion that Crookshanks was up to something, even when the cat launched himself onto the sofa, and thence onto his knee.
"I don't suppose you have strong views on reading material," the Dark One said. "Lucius has very fixed views – nothing past the Victorians. How about some Poe? The Purloined Letter?"
"I'll take that as a yes."
Crookshanks was used to dealing with readers. He had the art of securing strokes between page-turns down to a fine art. The Dark One's knee wasn't as comfortable as Hermione's but that could be solved by fattening him up a bit.
For a moment, Crookshanks dared hope that Lucius could be persuaded to let his pet go. Lucius was a fine cat who could have any pet he liked, surely he could do better than the Dark One? If he put it like that... He sighed, and wondered what sort of person his next pet would be.
Crookshanks was a mighty hunter, who slept with an ear and an eye open for trouble, and it was just coincidence that Ron should burst into the room at a time when he was in the middle of changing eyes so that both were closed.
"You little bastard," Ron snarled.
The Dark One was a bit trigger happy, Crookshanks thought, but in the circumstances ... the Ginger One looked much better unconscious.
The whole household was attracted by the ensuing crash as Ron was precipitated out of the room into the hall, fetching up in the coat rack with a thump, spark out.
Crookshanks noted that his mistress made no attempt to help the fallen boy, but came straight to him.
"Are you all right?"
Crookshanks mewed his gratitude at having such a considerate pet.
"And you, Crooks, of course." Crooks was gathered into his pet's arms, and scratched behind the ears just where he liked it. "I can't believe that Ron was stupid enough to draw his wand on you of all people, Sir. I'm so sorry."
"You're not responsible for the actions of your buffoon friends."
Behind his pet, Crooks could see the Ginger One being helped to his feet by the others. Lucius watched with cool calculation as the boy was escorted out of view to the kitchen for first aid and a cup of tea.
"He just has this thing about Crookshanks being out to get him, and he acted without thinking," his pet said.
"Not for the first time."
Crooks could tell that the Dark One was unhappy. He squirmed free of his pet, and slipped onto the Dark One's knee, poking at him with his paw, inviting him to stroke him. That always made his pet feel better.
The Dark One's fingers were a little unsteady as they moved through Crooks' fur, but they steadied as the effects of the stroking took hold. Crooks purred in approval. A calm pet was a good pet.
"So what set him off this time?" the Dark One asked.
"Someone, or rather somecat, found the stash of porn he'd hidden under his bed and shredded it. Disgusting stuff too, all... well, never mind. I do think that was quite inspired of Lucius. "
Lucius, hearing his name, came further into the room and sat at Hermione's feet. She bent down and picked him up, stroking his tummy.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," said Severus. "He's a bit temperamental."
"No he's not. He's a good cat, aren't you Lucius?" Lucius looked up at Hermione with half-closed eyes and purred loudly. "In a bad cat sort of way."
Crookshanks mewed anxiously. It would be hard to part with his pet. She had such talented fingers.
"He might bite," Severus added, watching them with a strange expression, half concern, half laughter.
Hermione laughed. "Not if he wants to get his tummy rubbed again, and you do, don't you? There's good boy."
"He's certainly easy," Severus said. "I'm shocked and appalled by his behaviour."
"That's cats for you. Utterly without morals."
"Yes," said Severus slowly. "How true."
Lucius wriggled again, attracting Hermione's attention to his neglected tummy.
Crookshanks tried to be cheerful, now that he'd got his own way. The Ginger One had retired to the Burrow muttering darkly about cats out to get him and disloyalty, and the Dark One and his pet were spending time together in the library sharing books and taking turns in stroking Lucius.
He stayed in the kitchen, by the Aga, and shredded a few mice.
It didn't really help his mood.
His pet was only his pet again when it was bedtime. He still had footwarming duties to perform.
It was only a matter of time before that was taken over by the Dark One. At least it wouldn't be Lucius curling up against her back. The one time he'd tried that, Severus had been summoned to his pet's room to collect his cat, and had stood there stammering at the sight of Hermione in her nightgown.
Lucius maintained that was why he'd been there, but Crookshanks could tell he was lying. It still worked though. After a couple of days of their pets turning pink whenever they bumped into each other, and exchanging longing looks, Hermione stumped into the library, shooed Lucius out to the kitchen, and shut the door.
"Are they mating yet?" Crookshanks said.
"Well on the way," Lucius replied, and washed his ear. "It's a shame they didn't let me stay."
"You'd like to watch them mating?"
Lucius nibbled at a hair that was out of place on his forepaws. "I admit to being curious."
"It's disgusting. I saw it once. At least it doesn't last long."
"I think my pet can do a bit better than that," Lucius replied.
Crookshanks had the feeling that Lucius was laughing at him.
Hermione and Severus became almost inseparable in a quiet and understated way, and people learned not to go into the library without knocking first, though it was amazing the number of people who suddenly discovered a new interest in books.
"Still, I don't think I want to take the final step, as it were, under this roof," Severus said to the cats one afternoon when Hermione was off somewhere shopping. "There's always Spinner's End, I suppose, but that's miserable. Or a hotel, but that's sleazy. It'll have to be the house, and candlelight so she can't see the dirt, and hope that the books will keep her entertained in the morning while I sort the rest of the place out."
Lucius rolled on his back, proffering his stomach in mute invitation.
"Yes, I know you like her, and I'd remind you you're a cat." Severus scratched dutifully. "I wonder if someone could be persuaded to lend me a house elf."
Severus had the feeling that Lucius was laughing at him.
Packing for a dirty weekend away was subtly achieved – all items were packed, shrunk and discreetly tucked away in pockets and bags – until the time came to sort out the cats.
Lucius arranged himself decorously on the library carpet, and eyed the carrying case with strong disfavour.
"It's not as bad as it looks," Crookshanks said. "Not unless you're going to the vets."
"It looks small," Lucius said eventually. "Particularly for two."
Crookshanks's tail flickered. "Doesn't your pet have one for you?"
"He does not, nor would I encourage him to acquire one."
Crookshanks pondered that. He did not fancy sharing his basket, but neither did he want to be left behind. "There is a very plump mouse hiding behind the wainscoting in the kitchen," he observed. "A clever cat could catch it."
Lucius stretched out a paw and batted the door to the basket. "And yet I think I will inspect the mice at my pet's home, to see if they compare well."
Crookshanks curled his tail round his paws, as if to say, as you wish, which is where Hermione found him some minutes later. She scooped him up into her arms, kissed him, and then escorted him into the basket. Crookshanks gazed smugly through the bars at Lucius.
Hermione picked up the basket, and met Severus by the door. "What about your cat?"
"What about him?"
Lucius mewed imperiously.
"You can't leave him here," she said. "Ron might pick on him, and who would feed him?"
"Ron is still at the Burrow. And Lucius could do with losing a little weight," Severus replied. Lucius sauntered over to his pet and stared up at him with mournful eyes. "Oh sod off, cat."
Severus fixed his cat with a glare. "Very well, but you're sleeping in the kitchen not upstairs, and if I hear one peep out of you, I shall make sure that there will be no kittens for you, are we understood?"
"Right," Severus said. He unbent enough to allow Lucius to jump up into his arms, where he positively smirked at Crookshanks. "If we're ready?"
Hermione nodded and blushed.
The kitchen was warm, but short of mice, and Lucius looked as sure of himself as any Persian cat. It was all very annoying. And his pet was making these strange squealing noises upstairs but he couldn't get up there to investigate because there was some invisible barrier across the stairs.
He only hoped she was all right. He'd never heard her sound like that before.
"I think," said Lucius, "that our pets are getting along very well."
"So it seems."
"The sofa needs more cushions, and the rug is a little threadbare. This will need changing to make the place fit for a cat."
"I like the place," Crookshanks said. "The sofa is full of interesting smells, and the curtains are good to climb up, and there is that dark space under the sofa where you can hide and pounce on people's feet when they're not looking."
"I can see you've made yourself at home."
Crookshanks didn't reply but settled his nose on his paws to sleep and to dream of a place like this he could call home. Without annoying white cats.
Unfortunately, whatever goddess that cats pray to did not answer his plea, and Lucius was still there in the morning. His pet was there too, in a shirt that didn't cover her legs, and a dressing gown that was too large for her.
The Dark One kept petting her.
"Someone should tell him he's doing it wrong," Crookshanks said. "He's not even touched her ears once. He should be scratching behind them."
"I'm sure he's been rubbing her tummy," Lucius said.
"I suppose that will have to do."
"She seems contented enough. Perhaps he's been rubbing her ears upstairs."
Crookshanks hoped so. He didn't want his pet going back to the Ginger One because she wasn't getting her ears scratched.
Somehow, they never returned to Grimmauld Place. Supplies were purchased, clothes brought in piece by piece, cushions bought, sofas plumped, and the house slowly made into a home.
Crookshanks dared to hope that things could continue this way. The white cat made no move to enforce their deal and force Crookshanks out, but neither did he leave himself.
Crookshanks had a favourite spot by the fire, and Lucius sat on the arm of the sofa by the Dark One getting his ears rubbed.
His pet didn't seem to mind being neglected in that way, so Crookshanks said nothing. Sometimes his pet even petted Lucius' tummy herself, telling him what a pretty boy he was.
And every night, his pet and the Dark One would go upstairs to bed together, and every night Lucius would try to go with them, and be driven back by the spelled barrier and a quizzical look from the Dark One.
Their life was ultimately interrupted by the arrival of one of his pet's friends, the other Dark One. His pet's Dark One glared at him and invited him into the house, and his pet made tea, and they sat round the table with tea, and biscuits set out on a doily-covered plate.
"I've come to collect Lucius," the Other Dark One said. "It's safe for him to go home now."
The Dark One smirked. "Good. I think he's running to fat here."
Lucius opened an eye, and looked at the Other Dark One sleepily. Apparently, he was satisfied with the decision to leave, jumping down from his perch and settling on the ground.
"I shall miss him," his pet said.
Both Dark Ones exchanged a long look.
"And don't think I didn't realise," she added. "But just think what blackmail material I now have. Are you sure you wouldn't like one last pat?"
Lucius looked like a cat who had bitten into a plump mouse to find it was old and stringy.
Three weeks later, they had a visitor: a man in robes, with long blond hair and a self-satisfied air. He came again, and again, and Crookshanks was annoyed to see that he was eventually allowed upstairs and all those mewing noises were redoubled, and he got his ears stroked.
Crookshanks sat and stared at the man across the breakfast table, his tail shifting from side to side, then dropped to the ground. He fetched the fat mouse he had found the night before, and dropped it at the foot of Lucius.
"Mew," he said, and patted the man's boot with his paw.
"Indeed," said Lucius. "I quite agree. However, there is nothing I can do about it."
"No, there is no way, I'm sorry. Not even for three mice."
Crookshanks stared at the traitor to all things cat.
"I do miss being able to lick my genitals," Lucius said.