Animal Quackers by GHL



Summary:

A snake, a duck and some sheep -- OH MY!

Harry and Ginny may have overcome the Fuddle Fog, and survived the Chamber of 'Secrest', but now everything's gone Animal Quackers!

With Hermione torturing rats, Luna dreaming of sinister ducks, and everyone's favorite Yorkshire sheep making an appearance several hundred miles too far north, can Harry and Ginny thwart a nefarious dark plot before it's too late??


Rating: G starstarstarstarstar
Categories: Alternate Universe
Characters: None
Genres: None
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: Rising to the Challenge
Published: 2016.11.01
Updated: 2016.11.29


Index

Chapter 1: Duck Lord Rising
Chapter 2: Liars, Losers, Ferret, Rat
Chapter 3: The Sheep and Teddy Bear Affair
Chapter 4: Barn Brawl


Chapter 1: Duck Lord Rising

Author's Notes:

A tremendous thank you to GinnyWeasley777 who not only inspired this tale with her own tales of sheepnanigans, but also ventured down a path where none have hitherto dared tread -- to read an unproofed GHL manuscript.

I don't recall ever writing a chapter that required so much hair-tugging revision as this one, but hopefully the experiment is worth it. The opening sequences (through until Luna's awakening) are a tribute to the silent overture film vignettes that both Park and Starzak are so brilliant at. It is a brief break from the traditional dialogue and action sequences that dominate the Fuddle Fog series. Hope you enjoy it.


Chapter 1. Duck Lord Rising.

Skies above Britain were troubled that night.

Towering black clouds swept up from the North Sea. A savage autumn tempest advanced along the coast from Hull to the Highlands. Gales scoured the moors and mountains; buffeting shores and streams. A dank chill descended into the Yorkshire Dales, bringing sheets of cold rain to turn post-harvest hillsides into wretched slurries of mud.

Further north, fierce winds bore down on Moray, thrashing amidst the pine boughs in the Caledonian Forest. Bracing sleet laced the high Grampian crags for hours until the storm's rearguard finally closed on a hidden glen, venting its rawest fury around an uncharted loch, assaulting the waterside battlements of a mysterious ancient castle.

Conditions there were brutal. Large bundles of thatch tore from the gamekeeper's hut, unleashing non-stop trickles to spatter the head and feet of a slumbering giant within.

Yet, despite clammy toes and sodden pillow, the large man slept on, oblivious to the strange storm's powers. Branches snapped and his woodpiles toppled, but the gamekeeper barely stirred. He did finally grunt at one low rumbling some ways up the path (the collapse of a cairn of Rock Cakes; the demise of a venerable, reputedly indestructible, monument laid over the years by countless of the gamekeeper's chip-toothed teatime guests) but he merely rolled over without opening his eyes.

Apparently the man was a better sleeper than baker.

As the giant slept, so too did the looming towers of the nearby Castle. The veritable terra firma did not fear the wicked gales screeching about its turrets and parapets. Centuries of magical reinforcement had secured the bastion against perils far worse than even a full bore hurricane.

Comforted in this knowledge, residents of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry — scores of studious young witches and wizards — passed the dreadful night with little concern. Citizens of Hufflepuff Basement slept with a blissful serenity to befit their clear consciences and modest aspirations. Some distance away, across a depth of bedrock and darkness, the students of Slytherin House rested equally peacefu...

Er, peacefully?

Slytherin??

Okay, skepticism duly noted. To be honest, some sleeping faces did sport the accustomed sly smirks, and the occasional breathy cackle did punctuate the snores. But at least all were in bed. At least a relative quiet prevailed, and nobody was actively tormenting anyone. That should count as 'peaceful' enough, right?

Higher up, beneath the peaks and spires of the Gryffindor Lion, rumpled heads were nestled deep within feather pillows. Most were totally knackered from Halloween merriment that had kept them hopping until well past curfew. Occupied with such strenuous fun, few had even noticed the storm. Thus, after weary Prefects had finally herded students off to bed, the Gryffindors had dropped like stones, destined to sleep soundly until well into the next morning.

Except, of course, for our two protagonists.

Sometime past midnight, a dark haired boy startled from sleep. Simultaneously, in the darkness of another room several floors below, a pair of pretty brown eyes flashed open.

Taut with undefined foreboding, the twelve year old wizard named Harry Potter winced and rubbed his forehead. After a moment, he released a single taut breath, pulled his covers straight, and rolled over to resume his rest.

In the girls' dorm, a young witch named Ginny Weasley spent several moments staring at a dark wooden ceiling. She watched. She listened. Finally, sensing no dire threat to friend or self, she willed her lids shut again, and drifted off to the soft chorus of dormitory snores.

No strangers to restless nights, our hero and heroine slept away the rest of this one as if they were not in danger. And thankfully, they were not.

Not yet, anyway.

But was the storm an omen? Were troubling new devilments brewing in the night's tumultuous clouds?

At least one resident of the castle would come to think so. One student was destined to rise, shaken by the dark weather and a series of strange troubling visions, convinced that some evil power was awakening. One girl would catch the first glimpse of a plot so bizarre, so mysterious, that it was nearly unfathomable.

Something was destined to call out across the dark moody skies, and tonight one person was destined hear and respond.

The pale, blonde-haired Ravenclaw first year witch spent the night, as always, in one of the loftiest dorms of the castle. The blue and bronze eagle standard above her roof whipped about, strained by the weather's worst fury. Cacophonous rain, banging shutters and unearthly moaning winds beset the tower, yet the founders' ancient magical protections held firm. Preternatural strength pushed back the blitz; unbowed by the wicked storm's frantic, dying throes.

Inside the stolid tower, the tempest's raging din sounded as a little more than a vague patter of clacks and rumbles, like the rattling of a gormless ghost. Thus sheltered, some of Hogwarts' sharpest, most dedicated scholars enjoyed their sanctuary through the darkest, earliest hours of that first November morning.

But not the blonde girl.

Shortly before two in the morning, Luna Lovegood jolted in her sleep. She muttered and moaned. A bottle cap necklace on her bedpost rattled with disquiet. The peacock sleep mask on her face wrenched askew as she tossed back and forth among twisted sheets.

It was odd that she alone should have been disquieted. After all, she was known (Famous? Notoriously exasperating?) for a bewilderingly placid demeanour. Furthermore, she had known many blustery nights of her childhood in the upper reaches of another weather-worn tower, and had breezed complacently through conditions worse than what most of her classmates had ever experienced.

Luna was not prepared for visions, however. What wrenched her bedding this night into tortuous tangles was neither wind, nor rain, nor fever or malady. Rather, it was dreams of rare, unsettling clairvoyance — bizarre images that seemed more real, more grave and tempestuous, than the night's wild weather.

In Luna's dreamscape, the ponderous billowing front crashed upon a stony shore. Amidst the stinging spray, a ghastly vapour arose like the acrid reek of quenched sulphurous flames. Two distant points of pale reddish light appeared in the tormented sky. From dim, wavery beginnings, they expanded and swelled, faster and faster like the verging headlamps of some infernal lorry bearing down the hellacious motorway of night.

Skin prickling, Luna's ears filled with a buzz, a hiss, a seething feral whine, then...

Silence.

No more sea. No spray or stones, nor raging eyes of the night.

A different scene formed around her. She felt cold, forlorn winds – dream-gales thrusting back the final tendrils of rain; clearing away the quivering strips of tormented clouds. Writhing trees strained their roots upon the hedges. A half-moon emerged over hills and sodden fields.

Under a chilled cobalt glow, Luna glimpsed the outline of an old homestead. She heard the dream-clattering of a hand-painted sign, hung from a shuddering gate. Squinting in the low dream-light to study the watery letters, she mouthed the words as her finger traced over them.

'Mossy Bottom Farm'.

Shivering, she raised a hand to her ear against the howling winds; against the scraping of cold winter-brittle elm twigs across the nearby barn roof.

She was just in time to hear the faint sound of a plaintive cry.

"Bweehhhh ehhhhh hehhhh!!"

Jolting awake at the piercing sound of a lamb's disconsolate bleat, Shaun the Sheep blinked furiously, clearing the sleep from his eyes as he adjusted to the low flickery gloom of the nocturnal barn. All around him, bedlam was erupting as a dozen large, garrulous and panicky balls of wool clambered over each other in alarm at the unexpected cry.

Shaun stared... then sighed. Another night's sleep was clearly about to get blown out the window.

In a moment of exasperated weariness, he covered his face with two petulant trotters... then caught himself, recognising his mistake.

Leader's Guide; Rule #4: Never look disheartened in front of the flock.

Shaun lowered his trotters and steeled his expression. There was little reason to assume that this latest uproar would prove any more urgent than last Tuesday's alleged wolf attack (which actually turned out to be nothing worse than the farmer singing in the bath), but as a leader Shaun understood the importance of a calm, composed and concerned demeanour. Just in case.

He rose to his full height. "Baaahh!"

Twelve pairs of wide ovine eyes swiveled in his direction. Timmy's mum quickly plugged a pacifier into the little lamb's mouth to curtail further wailing. The random expressions of sheepish whinging, thumping and jostling clattered to a halt.

Shaun surveyed the suddenly semi-ruly assembly and nodded in satisfaction, pleased to have averted full blown panic. Whew!

He wasn't quite sure why the farmer's copy of 'How to be a Leader and Impress the Birds' had ended up in the rubbish bin behind the house, but Shaun was pleased to have found it. The book had a wealth of ideas for taming an untameable barnyard, for dealing with intransigent animals, and projecting the right voice to build consensus.

Some parts of the book didn't seem very helpful (it was difficult to imagine how being sensitive and sharing 'feelings' would inspire the ducks, the chickens or any other feathered friends he knew) but Shaun knew how to read selectively, and the leadership advice he'd gleaned had gotten him through a few unpleasant messes.

Hopefully the book would steer him through whatever fuss was festering tonight.

Shaun turned his attention to the ewe struggling to contain a snuffling, squirming, disconsolate Timmy. He extended a comforting hoof to the lamb. "Baaa-a-ah?"

"MwwwMMMPHH..." Timmy spat out the pacifier. "Mweeeeehh! Eeehhh!"

Shaun blinked incredulously. "Mweh Eh?"

"MweeeEEHH! EEEHHH!"

Stolen?

"MweeeEEHH! EEEHHH!"

By a snake??

Wide-eyed, Shaun nodded slowly as he processed the lamb's hysterical claim.

Was it possible, in the middle of the night, during a freak storm in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, that the lamb's teddy bear had... been stolen?

By a twelve foot snake??

Shaun frowned. The lamb had either had a nightmare, or else they were about to confront Mossy Bottom Farm's strangest plot twist in, oh, roughly three weeks.

Shaun turned to Timmy's mum as she hastily replaced the pacifier. With a raised eyebrow, Shaun gestured subtly toward Timmy. "Mweh eh?"

"Mweeeh Eehh!" Anxiously wringing her trotters; her curlers in wild disarray, the motherly ewe gestured toward the rafters. "Mehh mweeh eh!"

Shaun gazed upwards. He pursed his lips, processing the evidence.

A deep linear depression seemed to track across the full width of the hay loft. The hay-bay door, having apparently been forced open, was now clattering loose in the raucous wind.

He rubbed his ear perplexedly. "Meh huh."

Floating wraith-like among the barn's rafters, the dreaming Luna found herself gripped by the sheeply dynamic. Studying the plucky young chap at the fore, she detected in him some distinctly un-sheepish qualities — a quiet leader; an odd blend of wary reticence and resolute determination which reminded her of that dark-haired Potter boy whom Ginevra had introduced her to several weeks ago.

Wondering if she could even discern a bit of a physical resemblance, Luna squinted at the sheep... but then the flock jostled about, blocking her line of sight to the leader.

Matters in the stable were unfolding too rapidly for thoughtful reflection, so Luna shelved the analogy and did her best to eavesdrop on the dream's disjointed sheepalog.

Luna listened intently as the young leader outlined his plan for a barnyard sweep. The flock erupted into bleats of protest and garrulous negotiations, but she noted with fascination how the leader's calm tone once again drew the chaos back to order.

Suddenly, the whole herd dropped all dissent and composed itself into a resolute, disciplined expression of the Shaun's will. Taking quick measure of the unanimity, the young leader strode purposefully toward the door. His mop-like colleagues fell in step, ready for action.

And action there was. Crazy, frenzied action!

The instant the barn door swung wide to the storm, a dozen large puff-balls charged out into the night, heading directly toward the...??

Huh??

In her dream, Luna found herself staring across a storm-drenched field to the edge of an orchard within which a cauldron was simmering over strange purplish flames. Bathed in this unearthly firelight, she saw a gaunt, white-bearded wizard wearing a glistening black cloak.

Concentrating solely on his eerie incantations, the dark sorcerer seemed oblivious to the bizarre happenstance beginning to unfold around him — a monstrous snake chasing the hapless duck... a stuffed toy tossed up by a fierce gust and...

What the...??

Luna abandoned all hope of making sense of the drama. Her dream degenerating into little more than a wildly irrational mess of confused images, she threw up her hands, and simply let her senses be swept along with the chaos.

She had no clue how a half dozen sheep could have found their way up into the branches of an apple tree, and she wouldn't speculate if their sudden subsequent descent was accidental (six sheep in a tree being a very tenuous state) or deliberate (six kamikaze sheep falling out of a tree being remarkably disruptive), but the outcome was clear.

A wizard caught at complete unawares by largish animals pelting down onto him at precisely the wrong moment is not a happy wizard.

His cackle of anticipated triumph wrenched and garbled beneath a cascade of fluffy limbs, pointy hooves, panicked bleats, and a 21 stone woolly monster named Shirley...

Oh my!

The old wizard's agonised shriek (a bit muffled beneath all the wool) searing her ears, Luna tried to marshal her focus onto several final bits of commotion unfolding — a broken wand; a tipped cauldron spattering green goo onto an outraged duck, and... Shaun wresting the lamb's toy from the writhing fingers of the crippled wizard, just in time to...

Disappear?

Luna burst upright in her Hogwarts dormitory bed, gasping, scattering her pillows, sleep mask and bottle caps!

Impossibly wide eyes gaping blankly into the sleep-blurred gloom, Luna's mouth opened wide and loud, proclaiming...

"THE DUCK LORD IS RISEN!"

As declarations go, this one was crisp, concise and clearly enunciated. Unfortunately, it was also rather too loud, too crisp and insufficiently contextual to suit her (no longer) sleeping dorm-mates.

Bed springs squawked and clanged. Eyes flashed wide; breaths hissed in sharp alarm. A room full of blinking Ravenclaw witches stared at Luna for two seconds that thrummed with the tension of a snare drum...

Then came the tetchy groans.

From a far corner of the room, one of the dorm-mates hoisted herself onto a pair of blatantly annoyed elbows to unleash a perfectly-honed tweenaged glower of scathing disdain, but Luna merely fixed her neighbour with a gaze both earnest and irritatingly calm. She raised a rhetorical finger. "The Duck Lord is risen... and a young sheep shall lead us."

Several moments passed in which nobody in the room knew quite what to say.

Finally, several giggles escaped. Then another person growled irritably. "Stuff it, Loonie!"

Glower girl in the corner pummeled her pillow and flumped heavily down onto the bed, grousing what sounded like, "Bugger your bloody ducks and go to sleep!'

Harry Potter let his friends drift ahead, almost out of earshot, as they walked through the scrubby woodlands near the edge of the Forbidden Forest. In general, he wouldn't have minded the company, but this morning he was feeling a bit distracted.

Last night he had awoken in a sweat; his scar tingling. This was a troubling displeasure he had not experienced since last spring when the spirit of Voldemort had been skulking about Hogwarts in the back of Professor Quirrell's head, seeking to capture the Philosopher's Stone.

The more Harry pondered his night's experience, the more he reflected that the scar sensation had been mild. It had been more unusual than painful. Stewing over this, he had resigned himself to complete cluelessness about what it might mean, or even whether he should be worried.

Several times during the walk, Harry had cast surreptitious glances at his best friend, Ginny Weasley, vaguely curious whether she might have noticed that he was a bit out of sorts. Normally she would have been right on top of anything like this — she seemed to read him like an open book — but this morning, well, Harry could tell that Ginny, too, was a bit out of sorts.

Or, to put it bluntly, Ginny was battling a nearly irresistible urge to throttle someone.

Throttle who, perchance?

Ron or Hermione — either one seemed fair game at the moment. Anything to stop the endless bloody bickering!

"Ron! If you keep making such a ruckus with all that tromping and twig snapping, we'll never find your rat!"

"It's not my fault, Hermione — I tripped! Besides that was only the second."

"Second what?"

"Second twig."

"Second?? That was the sixth!"

"Six? No way, Bossy-Boots! No, that's how many of your naff spells it took to scare Scabbers away!"

"How was I to know he'd leap out the window? And those were NOT naff spells, Ronald. Someday when you're dying from leptospirosis, chromiomeningitis, or the bubonic plague, you'll wish I'd been able to complete those simple diagnoses on your sweet little disease-ridden vermin. For all we know... blah blah blah blah blah..."

"Urgh!" Ginny stamped both feet down into the mud and thrust fingers in both of her ears. Gritting her teeth, she threw her head back and mouthed a silent oath, calling on Merlin for strength, and pledging to not follow the squabblers a single step further until they shut their whinging little traps.

Predictably, Ron and Hermione continued yammering heedlessly on down the path, failing to notice that Ginny had paused.

Fine. Ginny took a deep breath and (ears still plugged) absorbed the pleasing sound of silence. Then a slight rustling (felt, not heard) alerted her to the fourth member of their little troop. Having come up from behind, Harry stood gazing off into the misty thicket, standing at her side in quiet companionship.

Releasing her ears, Ginny turned to him. Her eyes slid over the gentle face; watched as he brushed a lock of that fine, dark, perpetually windswept hair from around his eyes.

The corners of Ginny's mouth twitched. It never ceased to baffle her how Harry could manage to look windswept in the midst of nonstop drizzle, without the faintest stirring of breeze, but this was a happy bafflement — one of life's wonderful little mysteries, never to be solved, always to be appreciated.

Ginny winked playfully to attract his attention. "Ten minutes before they notice we're missing?"

"Uhh..." Harry narrowed his eyes, glancing analytically down the path in the direction of the now distant bickering. He consulted his watch, then shook his head. "Put me down for eight and a half."

Ginny grinned. "Easy money!"

"We'll see." Harry flashed her a quick smile. "But either way, it's probably not enough time to, uhhh...?" His deep green eyes traced a path down her cheek.

"Nah, too risky." Ginny's face subsided into a plaintive pout for a moment. "But at least we could have a calm, intelligent conversation."

Harry chuckled. "I'd hardly know where to begin. Opportunities for intelligent conversation around this place seem as rare as Blibbering Humdingers."

"Blib...?!" Wide-eyed, Ginny clapped a hand over her mouth, then unclasped it to reveal a broad grin. "Harry, you actually listen to what Luna Lovegood says?"

"I, er... Shouldn't I?" Harry blinked. "She is your friend, isn't she?"

"Of course she is — we've been friends for as long as I can remember." Ginny grabbed his hand happily. "It's just that I don't recall meeting anyone else who actually listens to her."

Harry frowned. "Well, I have to admit she seems a bit odd at times, but she's no worse than dozens of other people I've met since I first learned I was a wizard. I mean, every time she sweeps her wand above a classroom doorway, for all I know there might truly be an infestation of Nargles up there to clear away, right? And whenever she speaks to a hare out on the grounds, or to one of Hagrid's chickens, I dunno... I guess I half expect them to talk back to her."

"Oh." Ginny studied her friend, then nodded in growing recognition. "I see what you mean — or maybe I can't see it perfectly, but that would only make your point stronger, yeah?"

"Ermm..." Harry looked at her uncertainly.

"Let me explain what I think you're saying." Ginny tapped her chin thoughtfully. "I believe that your point, which would then also be my point, is how incredibly bewildering it must be to have discovered the Magical world after all those years with the Muggles, right?"

"Exactly." Harry bobbed his head. "Half your world is made up of things that I'd always been taught were impossible. So, now I have a hard time deciding which of the many impossibilities I should really recognise as plainly possible, versus those impossibilities that are still completely impossible, even to you. I used to think I had a healthy sense of skepticism, but now I'm just confused."

"I understand." Ginny squeezed his hand sympathetically. "Well, if it's any comfort, you can be sure that Luna will never really lead you too terribly far astray. You'd best not to repeat everything that she tells you, but on the other hand if you take what she says as metaphor, then at the very least you'll get a different perspective on the world, and you might even learn surprising truths that most witches and wizards might never have guessed."

"Such as?" Harry cocked his head.

"Well..." Ginny gazed off into the mist. "I'm not much of a believer in Nargles or Humdingers, but if she talks about your aura, I'd advise you to listen. And, to be honest, I'll bet that when Luna speaks to birds or animals, a good number of them probably do listen and answer."

Harry blinked. "Seriously?"

"Sure. Not with our words, of course — those are probably gibberish to them. If I was to walk up to a Kneazle and say, 'Hello dear; how are you today?', the Kneazle would probably roll its eyes and tune me out the way I do when Hermione prattles on about leptospirosis, but people like Luna and Hagrid really do seem to have a special connection with animals and I'd reckon that they can probably speak just as intelligibly with them as you or I might with, say, Gregory Goyle."

"Goyle? Heh. You're setting the bar really high, aren't you Gin'?" Harry chuckled. "But you sincerely believe that Luna can understand animals, and vice versa?"

"Some animals anyway." Ginny nodded. "But there are probably plenty of creatures out here that are every bit as thick as Goyle or Bulstrode."

"Er yes..." Harry pursed his lips. "So what about Scabbers?"

"Good question." Ginny frowned thoughtfully as she pushed a wet branch out of the way and began to pick a route obliquely off the path, leading southwards through the autumn-thinned undergrowth. "To be honest, I've spent some time wondering about ratty-kins recently; even before he decided to do a runner."

"Oh?"

Ginny nodded. "I'm not certain quite why he bolted this morning, but I have this uneasy feeling he had more important things going through his beady little rat brain than single-minded escape from a rampaging Healer Granger."

"Uneasy? " Harry frowned. "As in, like, 'Scabbers is pushing some devious agenda' type of uneasy?"

Ginny shrugged. "Yes. Perhaps."

"Huhh..." Harry shook the drips from a head-high branch and raised it up for Ginny to pass beneath. Following his friend, the frown settled deeper on his brow. "Okay, I'll admit that I've wondered from time to time whether that poxy blighter is going to start chewing his way through the dorms, leaving little bubonic plague pellets in our clothes but... what more is there to fear from a rat?"

"I'm not sure." Ginny knotted her mouth. "I don't know precisely what bothers me about Scabbers, but..." She stopped and carefully lowered some brambles with her foot, motioning for Harry to step over them.

"But what?" Harry crossed carefully over the thorns and paused to gaze around at the overcast glade.

"Harry, I do know what bothers me about the bugger." Ginny stopped and turned back to him, reaching for his hand. "Have you ever noticed how fascinated that rat has gotten with, uh... with you?"

"With me??"

Ginny nodded earnestly. "Ever since that Chamber of Secrest thing, Scabbers has taken to eyeing you. Nearly every night in the Common Room, when Ron isn't paying attention, he'll skitter up carefully along the mantle or run along one of the book shelves to get a closer look at you. Whenever you're reading or writing something, it's always as if he needs to take a peek."

"No way!" Harry's eyes flashed wide. "You're having me on!"

"Harry James Potter, I assure you..." Ginny stepped forward, forward, until she was treading on his toes, chest pressed against him; eyes mere inches from his. Her voice dropped to a low whisper. "I'm not having you on."

"Not having me on." Harry pulled in a sharp breath. "Right. So what do you reckon the rat is up to, then?"

A fleeting frown crossed Ginny's face. She stepped back and rubbed her chin. "Well, that's what I'm not sure about. But, well, uhhh... can I confide in you?"

Harry nodded. "Always."

"Please don't tell Ron I said so but, now that Scabber's gotten himself lost, there's a part of me that wouldn't be so sad if he, you know, kind of stayed lost?"

Harry nodded seriously.

Ginny released his hand and scuffed about in the wet leaves with her trainer for a moment before resuming. "In the worst case, I'm afraid he'll turn out to have been some kind of spy. But even at best, I think he's a creepy little rotter who's not exactly chumming about with Ron for free cheese and shared body heat, yeah?"

Frowning, Harry hummed his assent.

For several minutes the pair walked through a pine grove in pensive silence. They paused atop a wooded knoll to survey what little scenery they could make out in the gloom. Harry had just raised his hand to point out Hagrid's hut (the damaged roof was now visible hazily through the branches, about a hundred feet below them) when they both froze at an unexpected noise — a warbling, tremulous voice coming from a bit below them.

"Who? Eh? Oh!" Out of sight on the far side of a large mossy boulder near the foot of the hill, someone was humming and hawing. "Now what have we here?"

Ginny frowned at the fawning voice. She took several tentative steps down toward the boulder, then stopped. Waiting for Harry to catch up with her, Ginny stretched up, hand cupped, to whisper to him. "It sounds like Professor Trelawney. The twins say she's completely crackers."

Harry nodded as he tuned his hearing to the distant chatter.

"Oh, now don't be shy. Let's get a look at you, wee scrap. Ah, that's better, and... oh my — what a sweet little doggie you are! Come here doggie dawwgieee."

Ginny raised an eyebrow as they listened in silent anticipation, then blinked as she heard...

"Mm-eh-h-h-h-h-h-h!"

Harry and Ginny stared at each other for a long moment; Ginny clapped a hand to her mouth and sputtered into it. "Mm-eh-h-h-h-h??" she whispered.

Harry's eyes danced with amused incredulity. "Dawwgieee?" He twitched his thumb downwards, silently suggesting that they sneak a bit closer. Biting down hard on their tickled tongues, they quietly crept the final distance to the boulder, which they had just begun to stealthily scale when...

"Harry! Ginny! What in Merlin's name are you doing down there?!"

Harry and Ginny both groaned as they turned to see Hermione descending through the bushes, tugging a bewildered Ron. "What were you two thinking?" Hermione continued to shake her head and cluck disparagingly. "Ron and I have been searching for you EVERYWHERE! "

It took a bit longer than either Harry or Ginny would have expected, but all four students soon heard the inevitable sharp intake of breath from the far side of the boulder.

"What?? Oh dear! There must be... students... out here! What in Circe's name are students doing out on the grounds in this weather?!"

A tall, gangly witch with a battered chartreuse hat emerged from around the rock, hauling a small black-faced sheep who had been inelegantly ensnared in the straps of what was probably a canvas handbag that had been transfigured (rather poorly — its contents were now scattering haphazardly onto the forest floor) into a make-shift collar and leash.

Sybill Trelawney pushed a pair of rain-spattered coke-bottle spectacles up her forehead and squinted first toward Hermione and Ron who were rushing down the hillside and then toward Ginny and Harry who were resignedly descending the boulder.

"Ahem!" Apparently finding her vision neither better nor worse with misted goggles on her face, the gangly witch let her spectacles slide (crookedly) back onto her nose. "Children, is this your dog?"

Gazing at the bewildered animal (who seemed to be clutching small teddy bear in its teeth) Ginny chewed her lip. "Er, Professor Trelawney, that's not a-"

"Oh, it's not? I-I mean, yes, of course it's not your dog!" Trelawney's gaze snapped sharply in a direction a bit to the left of Ginny. "This could not possibly be your dog, because she belongs to me. Her name is... erm, Sybylina. Isn't that right, dearie?"

The professor crouched, snagging the tail of her cloak on a low branch, and lurched forward, thrusting her bug-like eyes far too close to the sheep's horrified face, prompting a panicked recoil in which it struggled vainly to escape from the hand-bag leash around its neck.

"Professor..." Hermione leveled a corrective finger toward the discomfited animal. "That isn't a dog, that's a juvenile sheep."

"Don't get saucy with me, young lady!" Trelawney directed a sharp scowl toward a sapling some distance up the hill. "Celestina is my sweet little pet doggie. If there's any sheepish juvenile around here, it is most likely you."

"But...!" Hermione's finger waggled ineffectually toward the poor animal. "But...?"

"Now children!" Trelawney burst up snappishly. "Hurry back to the castle immediately, or else I shall be forced to subtract house points from your, emmm, respective houses for, hemmm, being outside of the castle... on a rainy day."

"B-but Professor..." Hermione paled. "It's Sunday. There's no rule stating that we ca-"

"Tut tut! Back to the castle!" Trelawney's knobbly hand shot out, directing them toward the lake. "Santorina and I must finish collecting elf-eared fungus for spore divination. It's frightfully important work and we must not be distracted any further in our labours by your tedious childish prattle! If you urchins depart immediately and without further disputation, I shall not inform your head of house, Professor... erm, Sprout? Regarding your infractions?"

"Hhnng!" Chewing several of her fingers, Hermione stood frozen in helpless vexation.

Ron tugged anxiously on Hermione's cloak, finally budging her from agitated paralysis. Practically trembling, she followed Ron, and they fell in step behind Harry and Ginny who were equally (if less dramatically) irritated by the brusque dismissal.

"Poor little tyke." Harry gazed back regretfully. "I wouldn't wish a fate like that on anything."

"Meh-hh-h-h?"

Hearing the plaintive call, Ginny also gave a rueful glance back, her heart aching at the final wistful look that the sheep had cast toward the parting children. Ginny winced as Shaun stumbled helplessly away into the brambles at the Divination professor's indelicate tug.

"Pity the plonking old hag didn't kidnap Scabbers instead," Ginny grumbled under her breath, kicking a loose cobble fiercely enough to bruise her toes.

Harry nodded in quiet agreement; he almost reached for his friend's hand to calm her pique, but stopped himself because that would be, well... a bit awkward.

Oddly enough, the awkwardness between Harry and Ginny had arisen because of inclinations that, to them, seemed natural. Desirable.

Unfortunately, just because something felt natural to the two of them, and just because it was an accepted part of life for many of the older Hogwarts students, did not mean that it would be readily tolerated by Harry's and Ginny's own close friends and classmates.

We are referring, of course, to 'affection'.

The awkward spectre of affection reared its head fairly often these days. Inarticulate visceral debates would flare up just about every pleasant weekend afternoon when various of Hogwarts' young paramours were inclined to pair off for moon-eyed strolls around the lake. People tended to notice the phenomenon, and they tended to react.

Everyone's reaction was different. Harry couldn't help seeing the occasional discreet but wistful glances Ginny would cast toward the smiling, dazed pairs. Harry, himself, took to pondering what it would feel like to wear a silly expression like that. He rather suspected that he might enjoy finding out.

There was ample evidence, however, that Ron would not enjoy finding out. Indeed, few things in life could cut short a wistful glance, or quash a silly daydream, faster than the sound of one of your friends gagging.

And few things can knock one's flagging sentimentality to the ground and stomp it into full submission more effectively than Hermione chiding Ron for his immaturity, while proclaiming how 'none of us would even have been born if our parents didn't go off somewhere to snog each other from time to time.'

Ugh. Mercy.

So, with the bushy haired girl and the red pated boy in near-constant proximity, Harry and Ginny kept their feelings to themselves... except for the occasional subtly coded signal. Such as right now, when Harry brushed almost imperceptibly up against Ginny.

For all the world, the contact (his hand casually grazing hers) could have been purely incidental, but Ginny's eyelids fluttered. She released a pent-up breath and flashed Harry a smile that, in a single fleeting instant, had the warmth of a dozen suns.

An inner grin swelled in Harry's chest. For a moment, he couldn't completely suppress that little extra bounce in his step, and it propelled him up over the final rise leading onto the smooth, gentle lawn that surrounded the castle's front gate.

Reaching the top with Ginny hurrying to keep pace, Harry was surprised to spot yet another wanderer out to defy the clammy weather. Trailing down from beneath a dark blue hood (pulled low against the steady drizzle) they both caught sight of familiar reams of long blonde hair.

Ginny waved. "Hey Luna!"

Harry smiled — in part he was pleased to see a friend, but he could also not suppress a small bit of amusement at Hermione's groan of ill-disguised dread as she trudged up the hill and recognised the first-year Ravenclaw.

Luna's chin rose, and she threw back her hood to reveal a pale, placid, almost angelic face. Glancing about in slight disorientation for a second, she eventually latched onto her friends' faces. "Oh, hello Ginevra! Hello Ronald! Hello Harry Potter! Hello Erigone!"

Hermione's jaw clenched as she took a short breath. "For the hundredth time, Luna, my name is 'Hermione'."

"Really?" Eyes widening, Luna took several quick steps forward, cocking her head to the side to gaze at Hermione. After a moment, the blonde girl angled her head the other way and shrugged. "Well, if you say so but, to be honest, you look far more Myceneaen than Spartan."

Hermione blinked.

Luna also blinked, then a dawning smile of recognition spread across her face. "Actually, you look even more Anglo-Norman than Myceneaen. Is it possible you were switched at birth?"

Hermione was not in a good mood... and this was not helping. Sensing Hermione's rapidly eroding patience, Harry stepped swiftly between the two witches. "So Luna..." He gave the Ravenclaw witch a congenial smile, hoping he could divert the girl's ill-advised line of onomastic reasoning before any hexes started flying. "What brings you out onto the grounds on a messy day like this?"

"Ah yes, what indeed?" Luna studied him analytically. "The same reason as you, perhaps? Looking for a lost animal?"

Ron goggled at the girl. "You're looking to catch Scabbers?"

"No Ronald, I'd actually rather not." Luna gave him a vaguely worried look. "However if your skin condition persists, I can offer you some Calendula flower paste to speed the healing."

"Uh Luna..." Ginny snickered. "Scabbers isn't a skin problem — he's a rat."

"Ronald is a rat?" Luna's forehead creased in mounting alarm. She began backing away.

Ginny and Harry both turned quickly to the side, discreetly gnawing on their fists, while Ron looked from person to person in deepening confusion. Hermione, however, merely huffed. "No Luna. Scabbers is the name of Ron's pet rat. I was checking the creature this morning for common carrier diseases, and it ran off before I could finish. Might you have seen it?"

Luna shook her head. "No, I'm afraid not. But if your rat came this way, he's likely been eaten by the nest of Jarveys down by the edge of the wood."

Ron turned pale and began whimpering slightly, but Luna appeared not to notice. She turned to him thoughtfully. "Actually Ronald, if you're in need of a new pet you might consider trying to catch one of the Jarvey pups before it grows too wild. They can be fiercely protective, endlessly entertaining, and they can wipe out a full scale rodent infestation in days."

"... eeeee?!" Ron declared in wide-eyed dismay.

"In any case, should you like assistance capturing one, I'd be happy to help. If you sing to them in the right way, they'll often come right up to you." Luna turned her face to the sky for a moment and let the heavy mist settle, bead-like, onto her brows and lashes. Then she sighed and straightened herself. "But not right now. I must return to my own search."

"Hey Luna..." Harry cocked his head curiously. "What actually was it that you're out looking for?"

Luna looked at him in surprise. "You don't know?"

Harry shook his head.

"Really?" Luna frowned. "I had a strange dream of black magic last night, Harry Potter, and I rather assumed it would also be of concern to you."

"Do tell?" Harry frowned.

"That's true. I do tell," Luna agreed. "Or I generally do. Unfortunately, in this case the details are rather hazy."

Harry nodded. "Er yes. Any vague recollections?"

"Yes." Luna nodded. "I dreamt of eyes over the sea. Then I saw a farm, and a strange dark ritual going quite awry. For some reason, a duck got splashed with a potion intended for a snake... and I'm almost certain that a young sheep was accidentally Portkeyed onto the castle grounds."

"Oh Merlin's Mum!" Ginny's glance swung back toward the woods behind Hagrid's hut, where all now appeared silent and still. "We met your sheep, Luna! Professor Trelawney's taken it into the woods to, uh, pick fungus."

"Oh bother!" Luna chewed on her lip in uncharacteristic consternation. "That dotty hag is liable to make a frightful mash of everything."

"Dotty hag??" Hermione stood by, blinking rapidly.

Luna ignored her, pulling her cloak up as if to hasten away. "Sorry, but I must be off, to-"

"Wait a minute!" Hermione leveled an incredulous finger at Luna. "Did you just call Professor Trelawney a... dotty hag? "

"That woman..." A scowl — nearly unprecedented — passed fleetingly over Luna's brow before the girl threw her hood tetchily back over her head. "That woman is a Fwooper-witted menace. She's an utter disgrace to the teaching and divination professions."

Harry and Ginny both shrugged, nodding in tacit agreement.

Ron's wide-eyed gaze flitted confusedly among his fellow students, finally settling on Hermione... who was twitching noticeably. Ron blinked. "Er... hey, are you okay?"

Her face starch-stiff, Hermione nodded slowly. Just as slowly, she turned her back on the others and... snorted. Loudly.

Ginny blinked. "'Mione, what's the matter? Are you...?"

Ginny let the query slide, and grinned. She, Harry and Ron watched bemusedly as Hermione doubled over... caught in the throes of a rare and long overdue giggle fit.

Cecil Rosier had dreamed of this many times — standing in supplication at the foot of a vast ebony dais; slowly, luxuriantly inhaling the heady scent of victory, in all its absoluteness and vindication. More than a decade of lonely, loyal servitude was finally to be rewarded. The moment had finally come. The towering figure of power was beckoning him up the steps so long denied to the true faithful. It was time for the Master to bestow great favours upon the one unwavering devout.

Rosier, as the sole Death Eater to earn his master's highest trust, knew he need never again lack for anything. He would not beg for fortune, because he knew that the new world order would grant all that and more. He would not request power, because he was certain that his wise master would offer it unasked — recognising the value of delegating great responsibility to a dedicated lieutenant of mighty prowess.

Indeed, Rosier had no interest in seeking such mundane favours. Rather, he would ask for something uniquely bold — a request of astonishing audacity; a petition reflecting remarkable sagacity.

"Your majestic eminence..." Rosier leaned forward, pressing his forehead down against the cold, smooth stone. He listened breathlessly as his lord turned to him.

Silence.

Rosier resolved to press on, before he lost the nerve to ask the unthinkable. "Your eminence, I have brought you back to great power. I shall stand with you as you crush all of your enemies, once and forever. Your lordship, in return I ask only one favour of your wise magnaminity."

Silence.

"Sir, I request that you spare the boy. Under my tutelage, he can be brought to see the righteousness of our way and the value our designs. He can be made great in your image, my lord. He has powers that may serve you as no other servant can — more splendid even than I, your most loyal of vassals."

Silence.

Rosier trembled slightly. Ever so carefully, he raised his face several inches off the dais to gaze at the lowest shimmering fringe of the black cape of a Dark Lord reborn.

Rosier inhaled slowly. "Your honour... did you hear my request?"

Silence.

"Your eminence, si-?"

" QUAAAACK!"

"Aaiiiighhh!!"

The feverish dream splintering into a cascade of loose straw, Cecil Rosier's reflexive recoil shot a blast of excruciating pain from his dislocated shoulder, setting the entire right side of his body to burn and throb. Then he sneezed from the dust, unleashing a tsunami of fresh torment to course through his chest.

That is when the full horrific state of reality flashed before his eyes — a terrifying recollection of one monstrous (at least 20 stone weight!) old ewe falling from the sky, landing straight upon him, shattering his wand and Merlin knows how many of his body parts. Nightmarish flashes of another five rabid woolly horrors plummeting down from the heavens; of the entire remainder of the feral herd stampeding him across the whole length of a rain-slicked pasture...

If there was any consolation to the story, Rosier should have blessed the stars that he had actually escaped. He should have praised the miracle by which those hellacious sheep had not quite caught him — the fact that (despite his many injuries) he had managed to scramble through a narrow, half-open window into the sanctuary of an abandoned cattle barn.

Yet, this solace seemed lost on him. For not only was Rosier injured and powerless; not only had his cunning plan collapsed under a gargantuan pile of unharvested mutton... but now the most brilliant tactician from the first Wizarding War found himself face to face with a red-eyed, menacing and distinctly disgruntled... duck.

"QUAAAACK!!"

Back to index


Chapter 2: Liars, Losers, Ferret, Rat

Author's Notes:

This is probably my most 'Fuddle Fog' like chapter of the four. Which is to say, it's probably the funniest. Chapters 3 and 4 are currently more action / less comedic, however the best humour often tends to sprout and take shape somewhere between the fourth and eighth edits of a given chapter, so with your permission I might sit on the final two installments for a little longer than a week.


Chapter 2. Liars, Losers, Ferret, Rat

The Great Hall was still gradually emptying but the Entrance Hall had remained fairly quiet after supper, so Harry and Ginny steered Ron and Hermione off for an impromptu meeting in a secluded alcove beneath one of the castle's tall Gothic windows.

"Listen, I'm sure this may sound daft, but..." Harry's eyes swept the room to reconfirm its emptiness. "I haven't been able to get that sheep out of my mind."

Ron shrugged, Hermione raised a bemused eyebrow, and Ginny nodded in a matter-of-fact way, waiting for Harry to elaborate.

Harry glanced at his friends' faces, then continued. "Luna Lovegood is convinced that there are circumstances surrounding the sheep's appearance at Hogwarts that should concern me — perhaps even concern us all — and I have an odd hunch that she's right."

"Oh, come now Harry. A sheep? " Hermione smirked. "You want us to investigate a sheep sighting? You're aware that this is Scotland, right?"

With a quick glance around the hall, Harry dropped his tone to a conspiratorial hush. "Okay, okay, I know Scotland probably has more sheep than people, and I know we all tend to regard them as simple, ordinary animals, but there's actually something rather odd about finding a stray out on the grounds here. Ginny and I chatted with Hagrid after this morning's walk, and he told us that there haven't been sheep kept anywhere near the castle as long as he's been game keeper. There are too many unusual predators running wild in the Forbidden Forest for him to consider keeping a flock, and he's fairly certain that there are no Muggle sheep farmers within ten miles."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Spare us the dramatic whispers and admit it — either you've developed a soft spot for a fluffy wuffy animal, or else a month of no death-defying capers has left you utterly, terminally bored."

"No, you're wrong 'Mione." Ginny shook her head. "I mean, sure, I would imagine that Harry is as bothered as I am by the thought of any innocent creature trapped in Trelawney's clutches. I mean, for crying out loud — she's probably tying ribbons in the poor fellow's curls and trying to train it to fetch her slippers..."

It took Ginny a moment to unclench her teeth from the memory of the sheep it its clumsy collar, but she forced a deep breath and resumed. "Anyway, if Harry and Luna both believe there's something odd about this, then I believe it too. Harry's been right plenty of times before, and I've known Luna long enough to know when she's onto something."

"Yeah, maybe." Ron shrugged. "So what were you planning to do about it, Harry?"

"You're not considering a rescue attempt, are you?" Hermione's eyes widened as she glanced at Harry then turned accusatorily toward Ginny. "You may believe that the animal deserves a better life than being smothered by cloying, misguided affection, but Professor Trelawney is unlikely to just hand over the sheep. She might well consider any intervention to be a violation of her privacy. Or heaven forbid she might accuse us of theft! That could be grounds for expulsion!"

"Spoil sport." Ginny rolled her eyes.

"Okay." Harry's gaze drifted from Ron to Hermione, then he shrugged. "I don't want to anybody to get in any trouble over this — I just wanted to hear your opinions." He hopped down from his resting place on the window ledge and began to walk away. Ginny rose quietly to follow.

Hermione stared at them for a second, then scowled. "Oh no you don't!" She burst after them, tugging Ron along in her wake. "Don't think for an instant that you can leave us out of this. What are you planning, Harry?"

Distinctly unsurprised, Harry sighed and turned to wait. "I'm not sure yet, but I would like to at least see the sheep again. It's difficult to guess what we might learn, but I have this vague idea that something about him may lead me toward clues to... well, I don't know exactly, but..." He trailed off.

"But what?" Ron regarded his friend suspiciously.

"Well, my scar was tingling last night, for the first time since, errr..." Harry's eyes scoured the room again. "First time since the Philosopher's Stone, I guess."

Ron, Hermione and Ginny all stared, digesting the ominous disclosure. After a moment, Ginny nodded to herself, recalling several times throughout the day when her best friend had lapsed into long, pensive moments, only to emerge again without explanation. She looked him in the eye. "This is really important, then. So, let's get you some time with the sheep, yeah?"

"Thank you." Harry smiled, grateful for Ginny's forthright decisiveness. "Now we need to figure out how to accomplish that."

"I doubt it'll be easy." Hermione shook her head. "In addition to Professor Trelawney's obvious eccentricities, I've heard she's a recluse, so I just can't imagine her responding well if you clambered up there to ask if her sheep, er, doggie, could come out to play."

Harry nodded. "My thoughts exactly."

Ron shrugged absently. Ginny frowned, but didn't reply. Subdued, the four students stirred from their places near the alcove and began to walk quietly toward the grand staircase.

"Hello Harry Potter." Luna drifted out of the Great Hall to join them, humming softly to herself and carrying a bowl of the evening's dessert. "I'm ever so glad that you're planning to rescue Shaun. I was just about to bring him some cherry trifle."

Ginny blinked and grinned. "The sheep's name is Shaun?"

"Hold it right there!" Hermione was neither blinking nor grinning. "First of all, Luna, people do not feed cherry trifle to animals. Secondly, Harry Potter is not planning to rescue any sheep, whether its name is Shaun, Jehosaphat, or Ivan the Terrible!"

Luna smiled. "Jehosaphat is the name of one of Michael Corner's Wrackspurts."

"Wrack-?" Harry paused to reconsider that line of conversation. "Er, sorry, Luna, but Hermione just finished reminding us a few minutes ago that we could get in a lot of trouble if we save, uh, Shaun from Trelawney. So, we haven't really decided yet what to do."

"So simple." Luna waved her hand airily above her ear. "You needn't take Shaun away from the bewildered bat; you must merely convince her that she no longer wishes to keep him."

"Oh brilliant." Hermione huffed. "And how exactly might one do that?"

"Hey!" Ron's index finger stabbed the air... then wavered as a frown of concentration descended over him. After a moment, he nodded. "Maybe we, errm, just need to make Professor Trelawney think that the, uh, sheep is carrying... What did you call it Hermione? Barbaric... baboonic...?"

"Bubonic plague!" Ginny snickered. "Brilliant, Ron! Though we may get a bigger rise out of Trelawney if she thought that Shaun was a Scrofungulus carrier."

"I might have suggested gum disease, but Scrofungulus should work." Luna shrugged and smiled. "Well done Ronald. I've never believed all of the people who say you're thick as two planks."

"Thank-" Ron's grin flickered. "Er, thanks, I guess."

"I still don't like it." Hermione shook her head. "You haven't thought any of this through. There are dozens of things that could go wrong. Let's suppose that you succeed initially in convincing Professor Trelawney; what happens if she does a bit of investigating and finds that you were wrong? She could tell Professor Dumbledore that you lied to a faculty member, and that could mean weeks of detention!"

"Hermione!" Ginny rolled her eyes. "Who said anything about lying?"

"But you just said..." Hermione paused to replay the conversation in her mind.

"Lying is for losers, 'Mione. Listen and learn." Ginny stepped from the group and waved enthusiastically across the room. "Hey Seamus!"

Rushing for the stairs, Seamus Finnegan skidded to halt, looking around. "Oi! Hey there, Ginny."

Ginny smiled as she approached him. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?"

"Up yon!" Seamus gestured eagerly toward Gryffindor Tower. "Deano challenged me to a Gobstones showdown. If I win this one, I'll be the undisputed... cham..." Seamus stared in growing alarm at the expression on Ginny's face. "Oi Gin' — what'sa matter?"

Obviously aghast, Ginny stared at the Gryffindor boy for a moment, then quickly shook her head. "Nothing."

Seamus's eyes went wide. "Na, na, tell me! What's wrong?!"

"It's just that Dean..." Ginny pretended to attempt to suppress a cringe. "No. No really, it's nothing."

"Whut? Tell me!" Seamus was beginning to hyperventilate.

"Oh, it's just that after playing Gobstones with Ernie MacMillan, Dean... oh, you know..." Ginny turned awkwardly away from Seamus. "I reckoned at the time that it was quite inappropriate but, well, some blokes are, uh, okay with... that sort of thing..."

"Whut?!" Seamus was turning very pale, except for two bright red patches dotting his cheeks. "Okay with whut? What did he do??"

"Oh you know." Facing away from Seamus to hide the smirk on her face, Ginny reached across to (not quite so) reassuringly pat his forearm. "I think it's sweet how you're still good mates with Dean, despite... him being that way."

"... o blimey blimey blimey..." Seamus stood agape as Ginny left him and made her way back to her four friends. After a moment, the shell-shocked boy began stumbling away. For some reason, he seemed to have forgotten about the staircase, instead turning robotically toward the Castle's main door and the bracing evening chill beyond.

"Ginny!" Hermione gave her friend a scathing look. "You... you... you... insinuated! "

"I did nothing of the sort!" Ginny rolled her eyes. "I merely failed to communicate clearly how Dean Thomas is a..."

"Poofter??!" Ron smacked his forehead in wide-eyed dismay. "Oi! How many times have I walked about up there in my...?"

"No Ron, you numpty!" Ginny snickered. "Dean isn't a poof. He's a braggart — a flaming, smarmy braggart; nearly as bad as Cormac McLaggan. If you listened carefully to what I said, it'd be clear that's what I was sort of trying to warn Seamus about. If anyone misconstrued what I said, then it's a right shame, yeah?"

"But you said...!" Ron squinted uncomfortably. "Er, what did you say again?"

"I said lying is for losers." Ginny turned smugly to the others. "Now, who's game for a sheep rescue?"

"Eugghh..." Ron leaned over the inner handrail, clutching it with white knuckles. "You lot go on without me; I'll help you from here."

Ginny gave her brother a sympathetic look from where she stood, about twenty steps further up the tightly-wound spiral staircase. "We're almost there, Ron — just don't look down."

"D-down...? Urrphff!" Ron sputtered into his hand. "Oi, I'm so dizzy, I can barely tell down from up."

"Down is the easiest direction to find," Luna assured him cheerily. "All you need to do is go limp."

"Very helpful, thanks..." Still clutching the railing, Ron slumped to a sitting position and lowered his head between his knees.

"What's the matter, Ron? You always do fine on a broom, and surely this..." Hermione gestured sweepingly about the tall cylindrical tower but, in doing so, wobbled a bit. Gasping and seizing the railing with her own white knuckles, she was forced to take several deep breaths to settle herself, and pointedly did not look down. "Holy cricket! What is it about this wretched staircase?"

From Ron's ragged breathing, it was clear that the boy wasn't much enjoying the conversation, so Harry opted to respond for him. "I'm guessing that height's not so much the problem, 'Mione. It's more the bit about looking down into those weird spirally lines."

Harry fixed his attention safely upwards toward their destination. "Listen, I'd prefer not hang out on these steps all night either. Ron, would you mind making your way back down to seventh floor? Maybe you could keep a look out for us?"

"Ugh-kay." Ron nodded slightly, and carefully shifted his seat down a couple of steps before pausing. "But, uh, look out for what? The twins say nobody ever comes up this end of seventh floor outside of class hours."

"Precisely the point, yeah?" Ginny wrinkled her nose in thought. "No cause for anyone to visit this nook so late on a Sunday evening, unless they're looking for the same thing we are."

Not quite daring to shake her already woozy head, Hermione raised a dismissive eyebrow. "Well, that seems pretty far fetched to me."

"Sure." Harry shrugged. "But if by some chance the far-fetched actually happens, then don't you reckon our little adventure will sound just a bit more... intriguing? Or perhaps worrisome?"

The others glanced around at each other acceptingly.

"Right." Harry nodded. "Well, the same hunch that got us on this wild sheep chase in the first place is telling me I'd rather not have half the school buzzing about us coming down from North Tower with a lost lamb, yeah? So, if any people happen along, do you suppose you can herd them off?"

"Er, I can try." Ron sounded dubious.

"Don't just try, Ronald. Succeed!" Luna brandished a stern finger at him.

Momentarily forgetting his vertigo, Ron lifted his head to blink incredulously.

Luna folded her arms. "Could Aries the ram have carried Phrixus to safety across the Hellespont if he'd stayed grazing on the hillsides of Olympus?"

"Errrr..."

Luna raised an eyebrow. "Do you think Lamb Chop would have saved Hush Puppy from the Big Bad Wolf without spunk and quick wits?"

"Guhhh...?"

"We have no brave lamb or resourceful ram to keep watch for us, Ronald, so we're counting on you." Luna's hand swept downwards toward the seventh floor far below. "Go. Be brave and resourceful!"

"Blimey..." Uncertain whether to be irritated or extremely confused, Ron's face twisted into a scowl. "Who made her the bloody queen sheep around here, anyway?" Turning tetchily away, he pulled in a sharp breath, then shrugged and resumed carefully lowering himself down the steps. "Eh, well, whatever. Baaa-aah baaa-aah, everyone."

Harry smirked slightly. "Bye bye, Ron. Good luck!" He turned back to the three girls. "Ready to finish climbing?"

Ginny and Hermione nodded, but Luna continued to watch perplexedly as Ron shuffled his tail downward, disappearing around a curve. She scratched her head. "Is Ronald confused? I don't see any cabbage... or a manger."

"Uh, sorry?" Harry gazed back inquiringly. "What's that about Ron?"

"Did he not say, 'baaa-aah baaa-aah'?" Luna angled her head to the side. "Why would he claim there was cabbage in the manger? There isn't a manger anywhere around here, let alone one with cabbage in it."

"Errr..." Harry stared, at a loss for words.

Luna tapped her lips. "Perhaps he meant it as a metaphor?"

"Yes, of course!" Ginny nodded convincingly. "It's a local phrase for, uh... 'great opportunity'. Or something like that. Now, let's hurry — we've wasted loads of time, and curfew is in half an hour."

Harry and Hermione nodded, and hastened with Ginny to make the final ascent.

"Hmmmphh." Luna frowned down the steps for a while longer before shaking her head. "Sheep rarely use metaphors."

By the time Luna had ascended to reach the others, Harry was already standing several steps up the ladder, knocking tepidly on the trap door overhead on the low ceiling.

There was no answer.

Hermione pursed her lips. "Perhaps she's out for the evening?"

"Pish." Ginny glowered at the unmoving panel. "Well, I suppose we could try coming again tomorrow after..."

"AHA!!" The doorway whooshed wide open, filling with the ominous form of Professor Trelawney. Dressed in a sequined purple and brown nightrobe, she waggled her wand at them menacingly. "The spores foretold that you would return tonight. Surrender your dungbombs!"

Harry's eyes popped. "Dungbombs??"

"Yes dungbombs! Now hold them out where I can see..." Trewlawney paused and flipped her glasses onto her forehead as she squinted down at him. "How odd. You would seem to be Harry Potter, and you are not enrolled in any of my courses."

Harry nodded dumbly.

Her eyes unblinking; mouth half-open like a hyperventillating chicken, the witch studied him from side to side. "Why would a boy come all the way up here to plaster my door with dungbombs if he's not one of my students?"

"Pardon me Professor, but you mistake our intent." Harry looked at her with a face as straight and earnest as he could manage, considering the neck-straining angle he was forced into, as well as Trelawney's bizarre expression and attire. "I promise we're not here to prank your door. Our main concern is that you may be harbouring an animal linked with a recent Scrofungulus outbreak."

"Scro...?" Trelawney's eyes widened for a moment, before suddenly going strangely opaque. Something about her pupils remained noticeably and eerily diffuse for a moment.

Shifting in his awkward stance, Harry was just about to try again, when Trelawney shuddered, blinked and squinted at him. "How odd. A duck, did you say?"

Harry blinked. "Uh, sheep actually. The, animal we were..."

"Why would you dislike the duck? Or is it that the duck dislikes you?" Trelawney scratched her head, bumping her glasses askew.

"Uhhhh...?" Harry stood there, open-mouthed.

"Pfff!" Trelawney stood bolt upright. "Come boy. Come up! Don't just hang on the ladder like a wintering onion!"

"Err...?" Harry stared in bewilderment as she whisked away from the entrance, leaving in her wake only the wafting scent of sandalwood and a low flicker of candle light.

"Hoo boy." Ginny whistled. "Well, setting aside any boggling over whatever the heck she was talking about... I gather we've been invited in?"

Hermione stood frowning uncertainly, but she didn't offer a strident protest.

Luna didn't seem to have heard; instead she stepped to the side of the narrow platform to examine the railing — seemingly enamoured by the wood's polished texture.

Harry shrugged and resumed climbing into the Divination classroom, followed closely by Ginny. Upon entering, the immediate sensation — a dry, desert-like heat, wavering soft glows, and a vague melange of burnt-sweet odours — was powerfully soporific, and they both had to immediately shake themselves to sustain a measure of focus.

After a short hesitation in which she wondered (but opted not to inquire) whether Luna planned to join them, Hermione carefully tested the ladder then ascended through the trap door. Her eyes watering at the powerful incense, Hermione squinted in the low light, and spotted Harry and Ginny who were standing off to the side, fixedly looking at...?

Hermione stared — they all stared — at Professor Trelawney. Like a predatory spider, the gangly witch was crouched over a low table upon which rested a single soft-glowing orb.

Nobody moved.

Wondering whether he dared speak, Harry began to open his mouth, when...

"AH!!" Trelawney spun around, pointing an accusatory finger at him. "Tea!"

Harry stared wide-eyed, open-mouthed, trying to fathom the woman's epiphany.

"Tea for three!" Casting her eyes quickly over the students, Trelawney strode briskly off toward the fireplace. "Eh? Tea at this hour? You're certain you'd not prefer sherry before bed? But nay, the Inner Eye never misleads in matters of such import. Tea for three it shall be."

"Uh..." His throat utterly parched in the dry heat, Harry suddenly found his voice reduced to a croak. "Yes, tea would be fine, thanks."

Ginny and Hermione both nodded blankly.

Trelawney waved her wand to summon an iron kettle that had been hanging to the side of the flames. Placing the kettle on her small table, she levitated three cups from the mantle and tipped a bit of milk into each. Already forgetting the kettle, she reached straight past it to retrieve a clear jug of dark amber liquid, with which she topped off each teacup.

In a moment, the three cups were sailing across the room toward each of the three students. Squinting to confirm that that her guests had caught their beverages, Trelawney sighed. "Very well. Now a proper evening libation for myself..."

Pouring herself a brimming goblet from the glass jug, she glared at it. "Blessed Circe! This is nearly empty?!"

The three students shifted awkwardly.

"Who in Merlin's name has been nicking my prize sherry?" Trelawney's bulbous eyes swept the room. She didn't dwell on the three students who stood clutching their teacups in frozen bafflement; rather the witch seemed to scan the darkened corners. "Do you suppose Serafina's been copping a few quaffs on the sly? Must remember to check her breath later."

With a scowl, the professor placed the glass jug back on the shelf and lowered herself slowly into a deep plush arm chair. "Very well children. To what cause do I owe this rude intrusion?"

Ginny cleared her throat. "Professor, we came to visit becau..."

"Tut tut! Drink, drink! It's tea, not Acromantula venom!" Trelawney gestured at the cups each student was gingerly holding. "Your hands are cradling the comfort of your soul, the lifeblood of Second Sight and the sustenance of core wisdom. Don't beg for a cup, then let it moulder to insipid sludge."

"Oh, okay." Harry raised the cup to his mouth and blew on it instinctively. He took his first sip, then frowned as he swirled the unexpectedly cool, clumpy substance around in his mouth. After a few seconds, the muscles in Harry's throat began to clench in revulsion. Fighting back an urge to hurl, he feigned another sip, and discreetly deposited his first mouthful back into his cup.

"So, children..." Oblivious to the girls' spreading grimmaces, Trelawney settled her spectacles onto her nose. "It is understandable that you should be somewhat concerned about the young Master Potter's imminent demise..."

"Pfehhh!" Hermione sprayed a torrent of sherry-curdled milk over the ochre shag carpet. "DEMISE??!"

Shock descended about the room — a moment of scandalised silence so dense that nobody noticed a small woolly animal creep quickly past the students, making for the trap door. Rather, Trelawney's appalled stare gradually moved from Hermione's gaping face, to dwell irritably upon the pinkish curd gobs spattered on the floor.

"Demise..." Trelawney seemed to linger savouringly on the word before huffing sharply. "Yes, little lady. Imminent possible demise is how the Second Sight phrased it." She slowly willed her goggles back toward Hermione. "As for you, my dear, I regret to say that you shall soon contract a painful case of Plantar warts."

"I what?? " Hermione's hair pulsed outwards like the mane of an angry cat. "Y-you... you're... YOU'RE MAKING ALL OF THIS UP! "

Someone emitted a tiny gasp... then everything went icily silent.

Harry's and Ginny's gazes darted nervously between Hermione (glaring) and Trelawney (eyelids fluttering in disbelief).

"Uh, P-professor..." Ginny began weakly.

"OUT!!" Trelawney exploded out of her plush chair, toppling it backwards as she jabbed the air with a random number of fingers. "Out out out OUT!"

"But..." Harry extended his palms in humble obeisance. "We merely meant to..."

"OOUTT!!!"

Ginny's eyes met Harry's, and both glanced meaningfully toward the door. Ginny made the first move, and Harry hastened to follow... but he noticed Hermione, unmoved, still smoldering dangerously.

Harry reached across to tug his friend's wrist.

"Stay out of this Harry." Hermione jerked her hand away. "In the name of academic integrity, it is my duty to..."

"No no no, Hermione. It's almost curfew and..."

"Harry, I..." Hermione paused for a second. "Oh! Did you say curfew?"

Harry was part-way through his nod, when Hermione barreled past him.

The three students had barely finished scrabbling down the ladder, when... WHAMM... the heavy trap door slammed down, sending a flurry of plaster dust to settle into their hair.

With Harry and Hermione sprawled in a confused heap on the landing, Ginny reached both hands down to help her two friends to their feet.

"Well." A rather stoic look on his face, Harry stood and brushed himself off. "That might have come off a bit better, mightn't it?"

"Argh!" Hermione seized clumps of her disheveled hair. "That flakey fiddling faker! How could I stand back and just let... let...?"

"There, there, 'Mione." Ginny smirked. "At least we all escaped without any of us getting in trouble for lying or anything dreadful like that."

Hermione stared at her for a moment, then wilted. "Oh dear, I'm so sorry. I should have held my temper and humoured the squid-faced menace, but errghh! Now I see how that obnoxious bimbo can even bother a dozy nuthatch like Luna, who... who..." Hermione stopped and looked around. "Where is Luna?"

"Hello Erigone." A soft voice floated up from somewhere down the spiral staircase. "I'm down here."

"B'ehhh-hh," added a second voice.

"B'ehhh-hh?" Ginny's eyebrows shot up in delighted surprise. "How did Luna get the sheep!"

Harry's mouth spread into a wide grin. "The little blighter must have snuck out when nobody was watching."

Harry was about to laugh out loud, but instead froze at the sound of distant footsteps and a hurried clatter.

"Oi! No! Go away!" Echoing up the stairwell from the seventh floor, came the slightly panicked sound of Ron shouting. "Stay back, or you'll... you'll catch Scrofungulus!"

"I beg your...?!" Turning the final corner en route to the North Tower stairwell, Lucius Malfoy startled at the shrill sound of a boy's voice.

Eyes darting about the dim corridor, Malfoy's mind raced. He recognised that voice, didn't he? He knew its distinct Devon twang. That slight upward ending lilt that was so characteristic of...

"A Weasley!" Malfoy finally spotted a clownish red mop of hair to confirm his suspicion. He sneered. "If it isn't a sniveling, whinging Weasley whelp! If you were of any other family, I should scold you for appalling manners, but who's to expect anything better of your sodding ilk." Malfoy elevated his gaze a few inches above Ron's head "Get out of my way, you twit."

"No." Ron shook his head in quivering defiance; moving himself more squarely into Malfoy's path. "I can't let you past. There's a quarterly on the tower!"

Malfoy gave him an odd look.

"Quarterly?" Ron gave himself a strange look and devolved into full-scale panic. "I mean a-a... quandary? Quadrature? Uh, what I said earlier — if you go up there, you'll catch Scrog... Now I forget THAT word too. Argh! You'll get sick. Sick, okay?"

"A quarantine? For Scrofungulus?" Malfoy smirked. "Bravo little man. If, on the odd chance you're trying to hide something, I'd say you're doing a ruddy pathetic job of it. Now, get out of my way before... GAHHH!!"

Ron whipped about to see Luna staggering decrepitly down the bottom arc of the staircase; her neck and cheeks a ghastly mass of raw, seeping boils.

Luna's bleary, wavering eyes lolled over the wizard, before her faint attention settled on the horrified boy. "Oh, hello Ronald."

"... g-g-g..." Ron's jaw wobbled in horror.

"Ronald, could you please ask Madame Pomfrey to send a stretcher after all?" Luna's weak attempt at a smile sent tendrils of red and white ooze down the fringe of her cloak. "I fear the infection has grown a little worse."

"Ga... ek... hnnn..." Ron's grey-cast face nodded stiffly up and down.

"Hello sir." Luna turned to Malfoy, holding up a bowl that seemed to contain little more than a few dollops of white goo. "You look famished. Could I offer you some lovely clotted cream?"

Paralysed in utter revulsion, it took a moment for Malfoy to break his wide-eyed stare. Shaking his head violently, he crammed the silk collar of his cape hastily about his mouth and turned away. Clutching his face, the man strode off with prodigious briskness.

"Errr...?" For a long moment, Ron's anxious gaze darted from the seventh floor corridor (down which Malfoy's footsteps continued to rapidly recede) back to the hideous looking girl at the foot of the stairs. "Uh Luna, a-are...?"

He was interrupted by several heavy sighs of relief sounding from on high. These were followed by the rapid downward clatter of shoes and trotters. Partly riding the railing, Harry was first to the floor, sporting a huge grin on his face. "Luna, that was bloody brilliant!!"

Luna startled. "Oh no Harry Potter, it's not real blood — it's actually the cherry preserve from Shaun's trifle."

"Er yes, well, let's just say brilliant then." Harry grinned. "Thank you!"

Whizzing down next, Ginny skidded to a halt next to them. Arms spread wide, she took a half step toward Luna, then caught herself mid-stride, seeing just how revoltingly grotty her friend still was. Giggling, she pulled out her wand. "Scourgefy!"

"Oh!" In surprise, Luna patted about her suddenly spotless skin as Ginny engulfed her in a hug. "Oh, thank you Ginevra. I suppose all Weasleys must be adept at cleansing spells."

"Too true, yeah?" Harry chuckled. "If I recall correctly, Fred and George were single-handedly responsible for Dumbledore issuing that permanent school ban on spaghetti suppers."

"Please don't remind us about the spaghetti incident." Hermione cringed as she coaxed Shaun down the last few steps. She paused to gaze down the corridor. "Who was that horrible man you were speaking to down here, Ron?"

Ron gritted his teeth. "Mr. Malfoy."

"That was Draco's daddy," Luna explained cheerily. "He and Draco both seem quite disagreeable and deficient, but I suspect that like most bristly ermines, they secretly just want to be nuzzled and groomed."

"Er yes, perhaps. Ugh." Harry shivered slightly as he banished an unbidden image from his mind. "But, of all the people to be poking around up here, we get Draco's father? Do you suppose Shaun's truly that important?"

"Yes, I expect so." Ginny frowned deeply as she released Luna. "I can't imagine any reason the scoundrel would ever have for visiting Professor Trelawney, so he must be on the hunt. I reckon that someone, maybe Draco, saw her bringing in the sheep and tipped him off."

"Fiddle sticks." Harry chewed his lip. "I don't know what Malfoy's angle on this is, but if he considers the sheep worth a special trip to the school, then we can hardly just release it back onto the grounds."

"Bah'hhh?" Shaun bleated worriedly.

"I beg your pardon, Shaun?" Luna dropped to her knees to speak face to face with the sheep. "You said that she took your toy away? Oh dear me, you poor soul!"

Chafing in frustration, Hermione ignored both Luna and Shaun, turning instead to Harry. "How in Merlin's name do you plan to keep this sheep a secret then? Surely you don't expect to hide him the Gryffindor or Ravenclaw common rooms?!"

Ron shrugged. "Maybe we could leave him with Hagrid?"

"Crumb, I don't know." Harry began pacing. "Hagrid's record for keeping secrets is fairly spotty and, besides, the curfew bell is about to..."

BONNNGG!!

"... sound."

"Oh no!" Hermione gaped in horror. "We're out in the corridors after curfew, stuck with a sheep we stole from some preposterous bat! This is so totally..." Face collapsing into her hands, she abandoned the anguished sentence.

"Never fear, Erigone." Luna stood up to pat the sobbing girl's shoulder. "Harry Potter will find a way to get Shaun's toy back."

Ginny caught Harry's eye. "Invisibility cloak?" she mouthed silently.

Harry glancing around — five students and one sheep — far too many bodies to hide beneath a single cloak. He scrunched his brow and shook his head.

"It'll be all right, Hermione — let's hear Harry's plan." Ron looked at his best friend hopefully. "You do have a plan, right mate?"

Harry's heart sank as one straightforward but rather imperfect solution came to mind. "Er, yeah, I suppose."

Harry did, indeed, know of a powerful and loyal ally who could always be relied upon to help, with no questions asked. The big complication was that Malfoy's involvement in this caper could place Harry's contact at great personal risk.

Unfortunately, each passing moment of indecision was making the curfew dilemma ever dicier. His shoulders sagging, Harry cleared his thoat. "Er, Dobby? Are you where you can hear...?"

CRAAACKK!!

"Great and good Harry Potter, sir!" The diminutive house elf's bow dipped nearly to the floor before he lifted his face to gaze adoringly at his hero. "Is being many long time since Dobby is beseeing you. What needful is great gracious Harry Potter?"

Having heard only vague mentions of Dobby, Ron and Hermione stared in astonishment at the dynamic creature. Ginny smiled, as to an old friend. Luna nodded to herself knowingly. And Shaun, having jumped at the sudden noise, now turned to examine the unusual character. "Mehh-hh?"

Dobby slowly turned away from Harry. Seeing the sheep, the elf's eyes momentarily went wide as goose eggs... then he frowned. Dropping down on all fours, he crept up to Shaun, studying the sheep's face. Shaun twitched slightly in trepidation, but didn't protest.

Dobby frowned, stuck a finger in his own ear for a long moment, then stood up, scratching his head. "Dummy bad master be wrongs. Four-leg wool-friend is not bad."

"Huh?" Harry blinked. "Not bad? Why would anyone think that Shaun would be, er, bad?"

Dobby turned back to Harry, nodding. "Four-leg fluffy is not carries evil master-master-ghosty thing. Four-leg friendy being only a..." Dobby gestured toward Shaun and paused for a second to produce a deliberate, unmistakeable enunciation. "... only a nice little doggie."

Hermione shook her head. She opened her mouth to make the typical Hermione correction, but Ginny shot her a silencing look.

Ginny crouched down beside Dobby and Shaun. "Dobby, do you think there might be people out there looking for the nice little doggie? Trying to take him away from here?"

Dobby nodded with strained caution, as if fighting with some panicked impulse.

"Are these bad people?"

Dobby issued a tiny squeek from his throat.

"Do you suppose..." Ginny smiled in a way she hoped was reassuring. "Do you suppose Dobby might know a place where nice little doggie could be safe and happy tonight?"

"Oh yes, Powerful Witch Wheezy — good place!" Relieved at the shift in focus, the elf leapt up, pointing past the end of the corridor down which Malfoy had departed. "Is 'Come and Go Room', just ways that way and turning right past Barmy picture. Dobby is taking little doggie there, so being happy-safe is doggie for night."

Ginny grinned. "Thank you so kindly, Dobby. But I'm afraid we then have one more favour to..."

Dobby sighed. "Witch Wheezy needing not ask. You is with Great and Good Harry Potter, which must means you be all in late bell troubles." The elf waved a patient but admonishing finger at Harry. "Dobby getting you all out of Harry Potter naughty late bell troubling."

"Hey!" Harry stiffened. "That's not f..."

CRAAACKK!!

CRAAACKK!! CRAAACKK!! CRAAACKK!!

"... fair."

Rematerialising hard onto the clanging mattress of his four-poster, Harry's abrupt arrival back in Gryffindor Tower was barely noticed by his dorm mates.

Ron, having thumped down just as heavily onto his own bed had his own issues of queasy disorientation to contend with. Meanwhile, Neville, Seamus and Dean were rather... distracted.

Glancing around, Harry set his eyes on a half-dressed Dean Thomas who was trembling and glaring across the room... at a comparably feisty Seamus Finnegan. Midway between then, hands raised in quaking mediation, stood Neville Longbottom.

"Oh bugger." Harry slumped onto his pillow.

"Harry, there you are!" Neville's eyes flickered over to his friend before darting back to the tenuous standoff. "Help me please, Harry. Can you explain to Seamus that Dean is... Well, I mean, he isn't a-a, uh,... er, what I'm trying to say is..."

Hanging a damp cloak on a peg by the mantle, Lucius Malfoy frowned as his mind once again replayed the events in the castle.

There no longer seemed any way to deny the obvious. He'd been had.

Glancing around the drawing room, he didn't see his house elf, but did notice that the little wretch had at least set out the customary late night glass of Ogden's Special Reserve. Settling into his arm chair, he took a pull on the bracing liquid and stared into the flames for a long moment.

He exhaled a slow, rasping breath of discontent, reflecting how those filthy little hooligans has indeed pulled a fast one on him. Malfoy was starting to glimpse some deeper holes in the account, however. After several minutes of growing consternation, he scowled and eyed the study door. "Rat!"

There was a muffled clunk, and the sound of distant wheezing, followed by the rustle of the door opening. "Eh? Yes sir? You're back, sir?"

"I'm quite displeased with you, Pettigrew." Lucius turned and leveled a scathing look at the cowering man. "Your story doesn't measure up."

"Eee... Why not?" Pettigrew squirmed. "Didn't you find the animal?"

"No. Based on some very suspicious behaviour, I have concluded..." Malfoy paused and sneered at the fire. "... that the animal in question has been captured."

"Captured??" Pettigrew gaped and shivered.

"Yes, it's been captured and I'm assuming it's now being protected." Malfoy glowered at the sniveling shrewish man.

"Protected??" Pettigrew's voice was barely a squeek. "By who?"

Malfoy turned back to the fire. "Potter, most likely."

Pettigrew blinked. As the statement worked its way slowly through his somewhat thick synapses, the man's beady eyes began to bug out. "Did you say, Potter?? "

Malfoy took another long pull on his drink, paused for a long moment, then slammed the glass down on the table; burning his glare back into Pettigrew's scruffy forehead. "Yes, I said 'Potter' you cretin. The Potter boy and his urchins have the sheep!"

"Eee... But that doesn't make..." Pettigrew trailed off dumbly.

"Doesn't make sense?" Malfoy drew in a deep breath and loosed it slowly like a snake. "Why wouldn't this make sense? Don't you think this is precisely the sort of meddling that Potter excels at?"

"Eh, well I'm sure Potter would love to meddle, but it's just that, well, Severus believed that the boy could sense Quirrell's possession, and... "

"Idiot!" Malfoy kicked the table, sending his glass shattering onto the hearth. "Of course Potter wouldn't coddle and shelter any creature that was hosting the Dark Lord."

"B-but then..." Pettigrew's head wobbled for a moment, then straightened. He blanched. "The animal... Surely then it can't be the Dark Lord's host?!"

"Oh?" Malfoy rolled his eyes. The corners of his lips twitched upwards in a manner that was far from jovial. "Do you suppose not?"

"Oi oi oi! What's going on??" Pettigrew began chewing his nails. "It was the only animal at the Portkey site, and sheepie clearly didn't belong there, so it was natural to assume... But perhaps I... But, uh, I guess it should have seemed a bit strange for Rosier t-to tranfer the Master's spirit into a, uh..." He gulped. "A sheep?"

"About bloody time you caught on! Apparently I'm not paying you for your shriveled little rat brain, eh?" Malfoy drummed his fingertips on the table unpleasantly. "I suppose it never once occurred to you to verify any of this information before setting me to waste my evening at Hogwarts?"

"Eeee..."

Malfoy leaned far forward in his chair, causing his companion to flinch. Malfoy sneered again. "Any other great leaps of intuition to add, Pettigrew?"

"Urrr, well, maybe, that uh... Rosier somehow bollixed the, uh, operation?"

"That, uh, you and Rosier bollixed another critical operation, you say?" Malfoy raised a sharply bristled eyebrow. "Bloody cockups!"

"Eee..." Pettigrew's knees began to shudder violently. "Don't blame me — I was only taking orders. 'Find the animal and escort it to the Forbidden Forest,' he said. Wasn't my fault he sent the wrong animal!"

"But it was your fault that you promptly lost it." Malfoy scowled. "That animal might have given us clues to Rosier's location; given us some way to find out what's become of our Master."

"Ach! Not my fault not my fault not my fault," Pettigrew whinged. "Couldn't help that the demented Mudblood had me pinned down on a table for a miserable sodding hour running all those loopy tests... Not my fault if the daft divination hag chose that bleeding morning to amble through the woods... And then Potter and his snotters somehow tracked me down to the Portkey site, and..."

A fleeting smirk crossed Malfoy's face, before a thought struck him. "Portkey."

Pettigrew stared.

Malfoy stroked his chin. "Rosier sent the animal via Portkey?"

"Aye. Of course." Pettigrew nodded.

Malfoy's eyes flickered in the firelight. "Do you suppose, then, that there would be a discarded Portkey lying around up there somewhere?"

Pettigrew thought for a moment. "Not exactly lying around, sir. Sheepie had a stuffed toy in his mouth when the goggle-faced bat nabbed him. I reckon that was the Portkey."

"Aha!" Malfoy pinned the little man with a piercing gaze... then snarled. "Get your filthy little bristle-tail back to Hogwarts. I want that toy!"

"Eh? Okay sir, I'll just..."

"NOW!!"

"Eeee..." Pettigrew shuddered, nodding effusively to the tall wizard, but Malfoy had already turned his chair away to return his full attention to the fire.

Pettigrew gave him one final nervous glance, then crept noiselessly out of the room.

Back to index


Chapter 3: The Sheep and Teddy Bear Affair

Author's Notes:

Second last chapter. Still a lot of editing to be done on the final chapter, but once again we're probably looking at a week to ten days to post.

Sincere gratitude to those 6-8 readers who have clearly been getting a kick out this story -- it's been a great privilege to have written here these past couple of years for people such as yourselves!


Chapter 3. The Sheep and Teddy Bear Affair

Shaun opened his eyes to the densest darkness he'd ever seen. Or not seen, as it were.

He stretched his legs, rustling them against the soft straw he seemed to be lying on. All was quiet, warm, but not too warm. Shaun let his eyes drift shut again, content in his comfort to doze a while longer.

Ahhh...

As he faded in and out, life began to whinge and nag at the back of his mind, and Shaun started to tense up as he reflected on... yesterday.

Yesterday, he'd been whisked away from the farm at a time when his flock likely still needed him. He'd spent the dark half of that interminable morning cold and wet in some unknown woodland. Then he'd been captured by one of the most annoyingly cloying humans imaginable.

Bleh.

Fortunately, his outlook was improving. Those friendly children had helped him to escape. That short Large-Eared, Nearly-Hairless creature had brought him to this perfectly restful place. Now, thanks to a brilliant snooze, things no longer seemed hopeless.

Shaun yawned and stretched a bit more, and was about to...

RROARRR!!

"MeeEEHHH... oh." Having leapt to his feet in terror... Shaun nickered sheepishly. The frightful noise in the dark, of course, had been nothing more awful than his own stomach.

After having been trapped in Mad Bug-Eyed Woman's lair for so long with nothing to eat but smelly lumps of sodden meat (which he had refused to touch), Shaun was in sore need of a good breakfast.

Oh my; what he wouldn't do for a field of fresh... clover??!

He blinked wildly as he suddenly found himself in a sunny morning pasture! The dark night and straw bedding had vanished, replaced by cheery rolling meadow, utterly lush with ripe, fresh greens! He briefly thought to pinch himself but, lacking an opposable thumb, resorted to his next instinct, which was setting his teeth right down to the lush vegetation at his feet.

He bit off a good mouthful. He chewed for a moment. Tasted...

Pttoooiee!

Shaun shook his head in confusion. The clover looked like food. It had even felt like food in his mouth, but it had tasted like... Hmmm, well, it tasted like nothing.

He was still debating whether he should try to eat the nothing-grass, when he chanced to look over at a nearby hillside just in time to see...

"Mehh huh??"

Seeming to float in mid-air, a door had appeared, opening back out to that stony corridor which Shaun vaguely recalled from the previous night. Through the doorway, held wide by that Large-Eared Nearly-Hairless creature, walked several of those nice children from yesterday. At the fore, was the yellow-headed girl (a rare human who seemed to have a passing grasp of 'Sheepish' ). She was followed by the black-mopped boy (the one whose unassuming face reminded Shaun vaguely of a sheep). Entering last was the short girl whose hair was the deep russet colour of a pretty Campine hen, and she seemed to be carrying...

Oh oh oh!

All thoughts of 'who' and 'what' flew straight out of Shaun's mind because... red-hen girl was carrying a great big bowl of SALAD!

Bringing a bowl of fresh turnip greens from the kitchens had clearly been a great idea. Hanging back a ways from the animal's grateful feasting, Harry watched with a small grin.

The morning had gotten off to a fine start. At breakfast, he and Ginny had strolled right past the staff table without attracting any of the wayward glances that would hint at trouble brewing from last night's misadventure in the North Tower. And now they'd been able to give the little woolly munchkin some proper food.

Pleasant progress indeed, but not all was perfect. Harry's smile faded as his thoughts returned to some of the many unresolved questions...

Where had the sheep had come from, and why had it been transported to Hogwarts?

How would they be able to arrange the sheep's safe return? Would Malfoy interfere?

And what had turned Malfoy into a sheep rustler, anyway?

Sadly, Monday morning was a poor time to be saddled with such curiosity. A busy new week of classes, homework and Quidditch practices was getting underway, and Harry knew that this would cut into his and Ginny's chances for sniffing out Malfoy's mischief, and figuring out how to help Shaun.

Harry's thoughts turned back to someone who might well have some very useful insight into this mess. However, glancing in the direction from which they'd entered, he confirmed, unsurprisingly, that Dobby had already discreetly left the room.

A pattern seemed to be forming. The elf had assisted without complaint, dutifully showing them where to find Shaun, only to depart immediately thereafter without leaving any suggestions or instructions, or dropping any obvious clues.

Not for the first time, Harry struggled with the temptation to call his friend back and pry for answers. But yet again, Harry held back, reluctant to ask anything of Dobby that might set a servant against his own master — a terrible position for any House Elf to be placed in.

Although Dobby had demonstrated past willingness (and sometimes eagerness) to skirt the rules and customs of his race, he likely would not have managed to survive so long in a cut-throat Malfoy household without knowing the limits of what he could get away with. Or how best to play those limits...?

Hmmm... Was Dobby saying more than was apparent?

Harry frowned to himself.

Phrases like 'evil master-master ghosty thing' certainly spoke volumes, didn't they? It was far from clear what, exactly, they spoke, but they did seem to confirm Luna's equally vague insinuations about a dark plot. Dobby's deliberate use of the ridiculous term 'doggie' sounded like an elvish way of preserving plausible deniability — of being able to tell his master that he hadn't knowingly seen a sheep, or spoken to anyone about one. And the elf had certainly not denied that bad people might be coming after Shaun. What all this added up to, however, remained very much a...

"Hello Harry Potter!" Luna waved at him from about two feet away, whisking his hair and cutting off his train of thought. "If you're still hungry, you can have these buttered crumpets, as Shaun seems not to be interested in them."

"Thanks Luna." Harry smiled and accepted one from her plate. "These may not be ideal food for a sheep."

Luna shrugged. "Perhaps, but I think Shaun's dietary caution is more because he doesn't want to end up like Shirley."

"Oh, I can imag..." Harry blinked. He gulped down a half-chewed bite and wiped his mouth. "Uhh, sorry but... who is Shirley?"

Luna tapped her lips. "I'm not completely certain, but I believe she's likely the very heavy sheep who fell on the old wizard with the scraggly beard."

"Huh?" Ginny stiffened. Rather mechanically, she placed the remainder of the greens down for Shaun and rose from her crouch to look intensely at Luna. "What old wizard with the scraggly beard?"

"The one that Shirley fell on." Luna smiled obligingly.

"But...?" Ginny frowned and scrounged for another line of inquiry.

"Er, can you tell us a bit more about this wizard?" Harry asked. "Did he have any distinguishing features other than the beard? What he was doing when, uh, the big sheep fell on him?"

Luna briefly assessed Harry, before she turned her attention to scratching Shaun's ears. "Your second question is easy, Harry Potter. The wizard was preparing a potion. The other is more difficult, though. Few people besides myself have sensible notions about what features should be considered 'distinguishing'."

"Yes, I suppose so." Ginny shrugged. "Perhaps you could instead tell us when and where you saw this old wizard?"

"When? Well, that would have been the night before last, during the storm. And, where...?" Luna's gaze seemed to draw inward for a moment. She smiled vaguely. "As yes. It was in the orchard near Mossy Bottom Farm."

"Oh!" The farm name meant nothing to Harry, but her mention of the storm had struck a chord. "So this was all from that dream you mentioned yesterday!"

Luna nodded, and began humming quietly to herself.

Harry began pacing. "A black magic dream. You dreamt of an old wizard with a scraggly beard performing black magic. Magic of interest to Malfoy, maybe. And this all relates to Shaun's arrival at Hogwarts."

Luna stopped humming and looked at him in surprise. "Why Ginevra, your friend is rather sharp. Is this what you meant when you said that Harry Potter is positively fit? "

"Luna..." Ginny's cheeks suddenly felt rather warm. "I hadn't actually meant for you to, er, well... repeat any of that..."

Luna beamed. "Of course not, but was the other thing you told me? That he totally smolders when he..."

"Luna! "

"That's it!" Harry whipped around; his finger slashing the air.

Ginny flinched, wishing she knew a nonverbal spell to disguise her spreading blush. "Er, what's...?"

"Scraggly bearded wizard doing dark magic. The diary thief! Gin'!" Harry seized her shoulders. "This has to be the same git who stole the diary and lured Cho into the Chamber, don't you reckon?"

"Uh...?" Ginny blinked, forcing herself to focus in the spotlight of green eyes that (for lack of a better phrase) positively smoldered. "Are you sure, Harry? There are scads of crusty old wizards in Britain."

"True, but how many grizzled dark wizards are constantly dogging our path the way that old goat does?" Harry stepped back and began tracking a circular path through the imaginary meadow. "Let's say he was working on something really evil. Suppose a very heavy sheep fell on him at just the right moment, then perhaps..."

"His plan was disrupted?" Ginny found herself drawn along behind Harry's brisk stride. "Maybe everything fell apart for him when... errr, Shirley? When Shirley fell on him?"

"If Luna's dream is accurate."

"Oh, no doubt Luna's dream is accurate." Ginny flashed her blonde friend a smile, but Luna's head was busily bobbing back and forth, trying to follow the dizzying dynamic of her pacing, conversing companions.

"I'll take your word for it." Harry nodded. "Unfortunately without more details on what the gaffer was doing, it's difficult to guess his real intentions."

"To make a potion, obviously, but to what end?" Ginny chewed her lip. "I don't think potions would be useful for transporting anyone or anything from that farm to Hogwarts."

"True — little point in slaving over a potion when a Portkey was already available." Harry paused to detour around an imaginary thistle. "So, we can probably assume that the potion was for something else. He needed to complete it and then Portkey to Hogwarts."

"Portkey himself? Portkey the potion? Something else?" Ginny glanced at Shaun who, just then, nodded his head. "Okay, let's assume he planned to transport something here, but presumably not a sheep."

"Presumably." Harry pursed his lips. "So what else would he want to deliver?"

"A duck."

"A duck?!" Harry and Ginny both rounded on Luna, who was smiling at them.

"Yes." Luna nodded serenely. "Or perhaps a snake. Things got somewhat confusing near the end."

"Trelawney was blathering about a duck last night." Harry chewed his lip.

"So let's assume a quacker then, yeah?" Ginny resumed pacing, kicking a small stone out of her way. "Why would that plonker want to Portkey a duck to Hogwarts?"

"I wouldn't know." Luna turned to the sheep. "Do you have any idea, Shaun?"

"M'ehhh huh."

Luna shrugged.

"But Shaun is here..." Ginny examined the sheep shrewdly for a moment. "That may well mean that the duck, or whatever, is... still at the farm?"

"Quite possibly." Luna chewed thoughtfully on a blade of grass. "After all of those sheep fell on the wizard, there was a scuffle and I got the impression that his wand snapped, so he wouldn't have been able to easily Apparate or create a new Portkey."

Harry frowned. "So the key to our mystery may be back at this Mossy... umm..."

Luna nodded. "Mossy Bottom Farm."

"Right." Ginny slammed a fist into her palm. "We've got to find a way to get to that farm."

"Errr..." Harry shifted awkwardly. "The Hermione in me says it's against school regulations to leave the grounds without faculty permission."

"The Hermione in you?!" Ginny turned to Harry, lifting a thick lock of his hair. "Hey Granger! If you're hiding in there, then get out — Harry and I are having a private conversation!"

"Sorry." Harry chuckled.

Ginny smirked, then turned and scuffed her shoe in the soil. "Okay, if we can't visit the farm, then at the very least we need to learn more about the place. And I imagine that Shaun's eager to get back home, right?"

"Bahh-hh'hh!"

"I agree. But right now we don't even know where the farm is, unless..." Harry turned to the blonde girl. "Luna, do you know?"

Luna's shoulders wobbled equivocally. "It's a ways up the country lane, but below the rolling hills."

"That could describe most of the Borders, half of England and a chunk of Wales." Ginny crinkled her nose. "Plenty of Ireland, for that matter."

Luna stood up and brushed herself off. "Might it help if you examined the Portkey they used?"

"Why, yes." Harry blinked. "Somebody around here should know a spell to trace where it came from. Do you know what became of the Portkey?"

"Of course. That's was what Shaun was trying to tell us last night." Luna placed her hand on Shaun's neck. "The Divination fraud stole it from him."

"Trelawney? She stole... what?" Ginny frowned.

"That toy, of course." Luna rolled her eyes. "Don't you recall Shaun explaining that, Ginevra? It was the stuffed toy that transported Shaun here, and the potty palmist took it from him."

"Bloody brilliant." Harry massaged his aching forehead. "So, let's just march back up North Tower and say, 'Hi Professor, we're back! Sad that your doggie escaped, but hey... don't suppose we can borrow the teddy bear?' "

The Portkey continued to weigh on Ginny's mind as she went about her classes. The mystery was beginning to sound less fluffy and innocent all the time but, for the time being, she needed to put it aside and focus on her studies. Fortunately, there was a fine reason to tune in this morning. She, like most of the rest of the school, was so very anxious to meet the new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor.

Ever since Gilderoy Lockhart had been found a couple of weeks ago (utterly obliviated, doddering about a basement beneath the Three Broomsticks) the school had been anxiously awaiting his replacement, hoping that DADA might actually cease to be a complete waste of time.

So far so good! Having consigned her old DADA scrolls to the rubbish bin (containing no notes, they were filled with silly drawings of a Pompous Purple Ponce drooling on himself, tripping over everything, and sprouting the occasional lump or horn in place of various body parts), she had brought along brand new stationery for today's class and found herself racing through it, trying to capture every hint or preview that the new instructor offered on each of the many items in his ambitious first-year syllabus.

Over the final twenty minutes, the lively (if somewhat gaunt and threadbare) new professor demonstrated nearly half of the spells and tactics on his lesson plan, performing the magic with simple, crisp confidence. It was so compelling that, when the bell sounded, several students even groaned in disappointment.

Ginny, however, was practically bouncing in place as she packed her things, eager to catch Harry between classes so she could tell him about the class.

However, as soon as she turned to make for the door, she found it blocked.

"A word, Miss Weasley?"

Ginny blinked. The DADA professor was standing in front of her, his hand extended in greeting.

"Er, hello." Puzzled, Ginny accepted the proffered hand. "May I help you, Professor Lupin?"

Shaking her hand, Lupin smiled, almost shyly at first. "I wanted to tell you how pleased I am to be your instructor. You might say that your reputation precedes you." His eyes twinkled.

Ginny felt another blush coming on. "I, uh, hope that's a good thing?"

Lupin chuckled. "Of course, Miss Weasley. Or should I call you Ginevra?"

"I prefer 'Ginny', please."

"I'll remember that, thank you." Lupin nodded. "In any case, it's quite rare for the exploits of a first year Hogwarts student to send rippling rumours through society the way yours have. Or should I say, you and a certain young Mr. Potter?"

Ginny ducked her head awkwardly, but Lupin continued heedlessly. "As it happens, Ginny, the Headmaster and a friend of mine in the Auror Office have both shared some interesting accounts of your... adventures."

This wasn't helping Ginny's blush reflex, but fortunately Lupin finally sensed her discomfort. "Ah, my apologies — I didn't mean to be so forward. I ought merely have said that I look forward to working with you and Mr. Potter in class. And perhaps I could offer a bit more? Should the two of you be motivated to acquire more challenging magical skills, I would be willing to offer some after hours tutoring."

Ginny blinked in surprise at the open-ended offer. "Why thank you, sir. That does sound useful!"

"I was hoping you might say that. I plan to extend the same offer to your friend this afternoon. But now..." Lupin consulted his watch. "Ah yes. Now I must run to see if my diverted luggage has finally caught up with me. And you, I suspect, should be off to your next class."

"Oh dear, I should!" Ginny flashed him a genuine grin, then raced off toward the History of Magic classroom, waving over her shoulder. "Welcome to Hogwarts, sir!"

Harry had entered the DADA classroom (his last period of the day) filled with excitement and curiosity. Although he and Ginny had not managed to cross paths between morning classes, they had compensated for that with a quiet lunch together. After shelving a stalemated debate on how they might retrieve the teddy bear Portkey, they had spent the rest of their break in a much more animated discussion of Ginny's first impressions on Professor Lupin and the new Defence syllabus.

By the end of the day, enthusiasm about Dark Arts Defence had spread widely among the students who had met Lupin earlier in the day. Thus, as the impressive series of spell demonstrations came to a close, Harry was torn. A part of him wanted to stay after class (knowing from Ginny that Lupin likely hoped to speak with him), but Harry had been growing edgier all day, anxious to focus back on the 'sheep and teddy bear' affair.

Ultimately, Harry's quandary resolved itself painlessly. The instant the final bell sounded, nearly a third of the class dared to brave Hermione's elbows in swarming the popular new instructor. With the professor seemingly a bit flustered, and trying to excuse himself in order to pick up a delayed delivery of some sort, Harry's choice was clear. Not wishing to wait, or to deprive other students of their chance with Lupin, he faded quickly and quietly out the door — a skill he had honed to near perfection under Lockhart's tenure.

Moments later, Harry was zipping down a side stairwell to catch Ginny as soon as her Potions class let out. Slowing down at the base of the stairs, he eased open a heavy metal door and made his way into the dim dungeons corridor just as the muffled scrapes and thuds of moving benches signaled that Snape had finally (six minutes late, as usual) dismissed his class.

When the classroom door opened, Harry reflexively covered his eyes, lest Colin Creevey blind him with another magnesium flash from his camera, but this time the younger Gryffindor was in a hurry. "Hi Harry! Hey Harry, cool pose! Is that an Illuminati sign? No, don't tell me! I have to rush away anyway, to get my camera and film ready for supper. I got an anonymous tip about a surprise of some sort in the Great Hall tonight. Sorry, I don't know details — it's a secret, but I heard it might be really funny. But you probably already know all about it already, right? Haha! Anyway, I'll catch you later, yeah? Oh, and just let me know if you'd ever like to..."

Swept along by the crowd, Colin's voice was lost to the clatter and chatter of other students hurrying past. Harry had just judged it safe to uncover his eyes when...

"Well, hello there stranger."

Harry blinked, and looked into the twinkling gaze of precisely the person he was awaiting. "Hey Gin'!" He grinned and and fell in step with her as she headed for the stairs.

By prior arrangement, they had resolved to head straight up to North Tower after class. They still had no plan for how to face Trelawney, other than hoping that either inspiration or plain old good luck might strike along the way. Unfortunately there was little chance of brainstorming en route — the stairwell and adjoining corridors were too busy to risk sensitive conversations. So once again, they let it slide, and instead chatted about the day, with Ginny cataloging the latest aggravations caused by some little Slytherin slug named Thaddeus Flint who kept trying to torment the Gryffindor first years.

It was only after a few minutes, when the conversation had dwindled along the final flight of steps up to seventh floor, that Harry realised something about his friend.

"Gin'?"

"Mmh Hmm?"

"I'd have thought you'd be annoyed about that bully, but..." Harry studied her closely. "An evil little grin keeps sneaking onto your face."

"Grin?" Ginny's expression became instantly quite angelic. "What grin? I'm merely pleased to see you, that's all."

"Nuh uh." Harry shook his head. "I know your 'pleased to see you' look, and that wasn't it."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Ginny's eyelids fluttered.

Harry raised an eyebrow. "The last time I saw a quirk like that in your cheek, Lavender Brown was about to have that spectacular bout of, er, gastric distress."

"What are you tal-? Oh, you mean the time she set fire to the chesterfield?"

"Right." Harry nodded, wide-eyed at the memory. "Blimey, even the twins were speechless after that. Or nearly speechless, anyway. Fred recovered enough to declare that he'd never seen a human spew flames like that... and George was grumbling about someone having pilfered a vial of his Zonko's Ultra Strength Belch Paste and some alum powder."

"Harry Potter!" Ginny clasped her mouth in shock. "You don't seriously think I had anything to do with that, do you??"

"Of course not. I don't think seriously about anything when you have that 'mischief' look in your eye." Harry winked. "All I know is that anyone leaving a 'Double Potions with Slytherin' class looking this cheery — or cheeky — is certifiably dangerous. Now tell me what the prank is!"

"Prank?" Ginny blinked.

"Prank." Harry nodded, grabbing her hand and pulling her toward a corner of the quiet seventh floor landing; his eyes alive with amused determination. "Do you, or do you not, have something wicked planned for supper tonight? You've got to tell me, Gin' — I'm dying of curiosity."

"Oh very well, but you'll have to promise to..." Ginny stopped, mid-sentence.

She stared down at the hand that had grasped hers. Then her gaze crept slowly up the features of a boy who was standing quite close to her.

"Uh Harry..?" Her eyes stopped at his chin.

"Yes?"

Ginny's gaze swept about the deserted landing. "Have you noticed how quiet it is up here?"

"Huh?" Harry paused to listen, and was surprised to confirm that indeed, in this remote nook of the castle, the ubiquitous end-of-class bustle did sound very distant. They seemed quite alone. "Er, I guess it is, yeah?"

"You know..." Ginny angled her face a tiny bit higher; her eyes alighting on his lips. "It seems like this never happens. Everything peaceful? Us alone? Just the two of us?"

"Er..." Harry's throat tensed up a bit. He too glanced around, checking again for any signs of life that might be lurking up the corridor, then chanced a quick look down.

Harry could not help but notice that his friend's lips were slightly parted. Glistening. A shiver of anticipation raced up and down his spine. Was this finally the...? Their long-awaited chance to... ?

Harry's brain seemed unable to even complete his own questions, let alone answer them. Caught in a spell more ancient and mysterious than any magic, he felt himself being drawn downwards; blindly absorbed in the most primal senses — a gentle exhalation of human breath; soft cotton beneath his hand; a comforting warmth as he leaned in to...

"RAT!!"

"Aghh!" Jolted by Ginny's shout, Harry spun around, ready to fight or flee. His wide eyes followed her outthrust finger, settling on...

"Scabbers?!"

Harry and Ginny stared blankly at the rat.

The rat gaped back at them; a look of horror creeping onto his small pointy face.

It took the pair a precious quarter second to get past their confusion to see that the rat had been dragging...

"Teddy bear!" Ginny scrabbled for her wand just as Harry pounced, his outstretched fingers just grazing the panicked vermin's hind legs as it fled for the steps.

"Squeeeek!!"

Oh, for bloody #$&@*'s sake!

There were times when Peter Pettigrew truly loathed being a rat. What the hell good was a crass, foul, acerbic, hateful oath when it came out sounding like some sodding pathetic little 'please don't hurt me kind sir' squeak??

Why the %^##@ couldn't his Animagus have been a German Shepherd? Or even a smelly old badger? Just about anything would be preferable to some runty little clod, always one wayward boot away from being trodden on, sat upon, or otherwise squashed. As that maniacal Potter kid had nearly managed.

After scrabbling and tumbling down a flight of stairs, bonking head first into a wall, Pettigrew staggered to his feet. Taking a half step toward the steps, he stopped himself and turned, full of piss and vinegar.

Sod this!

After eighteen hair-tearing hours waiting for that dotty old wench in the tower to finally stop cooing over (educating, snuggling with, pretending to feed) a threadbare, whiffy, spittle-ridden toy, Peter was in no mood to take guff from some dorky twelve-year-old kid in glasses. Dropping the teddy bear, he bared his claws and half-millimetre fangs, and unleashed the most terrifying... "Squeeeek!"

#$&@*ing useless vocal cords!

Despite his oral futility, Pettigrew still took a tentative step toward the children, but...

Pfweeeett! WHHAAHP!

His rat-heart nearly seized as Ginny's stunner and Harry's summoning spell roasted the air above his ears. Both hexes seemed to miraculously miss, but still struck the wall behind him with a powerful retort that tossed rat and teddy bear several feet to the lip of the landing. They teetered on the edge. Pettigrew clawed desperately for the railing, but...

Aiiighhh!

The rat plummeted eighteen feet to splat, belly-first onto the fifth floor landing. Prepared to be dead or paralysed, Pettigrew was surprised to find himself opening his eyes. He reached carefully to grasp the teddy bear that had landed nearby. He wiggled his tail, and it flicked without hesitation.

Huh.

If it meant surviving falls like that, maybe it wasn't so bad to be a rat, after all? Now all he had to do was-

"Accio Scabbers!"

Pettigrew leapt in the air as yet another near-miss scorched his feet. Seizing the stuffed toy, he scarpered between the spindles of the platform's railing and plunged (terrifyingly yet painlessly) another full flight of steps.

Racing over the lower landing, he could still hear his wretched pursuers clattering down the steps, but Pettigrew's filthy pea-sized heart knew he was onto something. A few more gut-wrenching plunges to go, followed by one mad dash through the Entrance Hall, and he'd be free!

The rat took leaped between the balustres again and again and again, plummeting level after level until he tumbled onto the polished surface of the first floor balcony. Buoyed by a big lead over the children, and his first glimpse of the front door, he put on an adrenaline-fueled burst... and did a face plant, driving a viciously sharp little rat tooth straight into his own tongue.

#$$(*&!!

With feet dusty, dry and lacking rubber-soled trainers, it's a bit of a challenge to drag a toy larger and heavier than oneself over a smooth stone. Wasting precious seconds tugging, wrenching and tripping over his tail, Pettigrew finally tried positioning himself behind the bear and flailed like mad.

It worked. Finally regaining some momentum, he found himself nearing the edge of the balcony, well before those the two rotten kids were yet anywhere in sight. Relieved, he charged headlong past one of the large newels, diving blindly out into the open air of the Entrance Hall...

... only to find himself looking straight down at the heads of five gossiping Hufflepuff witches, one of whom chose that precise moment to glance up, and...

"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEIIIIIIIIKKK!!"

Deafened by the apocalyptic screech, Pettigrew writhed and twisted trying to veer clear, but it was too late. A heart-splitting second later, he plunged straight into a cheap-floral-scented thicket of wildly flailing limbs, airborne wads of half-masticated chewing gum, slashing fingernails, and stomping trainers.

One particularly vicious young minx handbagged him broadside, knocking the wind out of him as he and the teddy bear rocketed across the hall.

Stunned by the blow, Pettigrew didn't even notice the fresh cacophony of brain-vapourising skrieks. Rather, the rat's blurry, concussed senses knew only one thing — that the witch's prodigious beater-like whack had thrown him almost to the door!

Driven by raw mindless instinct, the rat mustered the strength for one last wild break for freedom. Ten more feet. Six more feet. Two more feet?! Blimey! He was really going to esc-

"Oi oi! Stop that rat!!"

"Huhh?? What was... ?" Remus Lupin paused along the front walkway to set down his (finally delivered) trunk. Scratching his head, he swore that he had just now heard the voice of James Potter?? Yelling about stopping... something?

Preposterous. Lupin knew perfectly well that James was long gone, yet something in that voice has seemed so very fam...

"Stop him! Stop the rat!"

Lupin gaped. A furry, greyish-brown lump was tumbling down the grand stone steps of the entrance way.

Whipping out his wand, Lupin cried "Stupefy!" just as the thing veered sharply left, toward the gorse bushes.

Obliquely grazing the tiny target, Lupin's stunner failed to subdue it, but the magic was powerful enough to toss the 'whatever' back several feet. A panicked grey blur fur ball raced, shrieking, into the bushes, while a larger brownish lump bounced to a halt beneath a tree beside the path.

Bewildered, Lupin looked up in time to see Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley burst through the doorway with their wands out. Harry plunged into the gorse patch, shouting, "Accio rat!" while Ginny raced ahead to retrieve the... stuffed bear?

Walking over to the tree, beneath which the boy and girl were now converging, Lupin scratched his thinning pate in confusion. "Harry, Ginny, may I be of assistance?"

A bit winded, Ginny looked up, beaming a smile. "You already have been. Thank you so much!"

"Oh hello sir. Thank you for jolting the little bastard." Harry's gratitude couldn't quite supplant a perplexed frown on the boy's face. "What's wrong with my Accio spell, Gin'? Three times I tried summoning the rat — twice on the stairs, and once again just now. Each time... nothing!"

"The answer is simple, Harry Potter. The rat that you're trying to summon must not be a rat."

Whipping around, everyone blinked at a blindingly vibrant lime-green shawl draped over the shoulders of a blonde girl descending the front steps. She seemed to be leading a young sheep.

"M'ehhh'h'hh," Shaun stated, by way of greeting.

"Hi Luna!" Ginny waved amicably to her friend, then knelt on one knee to greet the sheep. "Hello little fellow."

"Not a rat?" Harry scratched his chin. "If that wasn't a rat, then what was it?"

Luna shrugged. "That I don't know. But if it was a rat, I'm certain you would have captured it."

Lupin gazed in confusion at a sheep, a young girl whose attire reminded him of a Muggle emergency responder, a seemingly sane Ginny Weasley holding a grotty old teddy bear, and Harry Potter (spitting image of a young James) still fretting over not being able to catch a rat who had apparently tried to nick the teddy bear.

The new professor gazed up into the sky for a moment, took a slow breath, then slowly lowered his eyes to see if everything might suddenly begin to make sense.

It didn't.

Lupin sighed. "Er, okay. Would any of you mind if I asked what's going on here?"

Harry and Ginny exchanged glances, quietly negotiating what or how to explain. Their debate was moot, however, as Luna had already chosen to take the initiative.

"Hello Professor Lupin. Harry and Ginny have most helpfully retrieved the stuffed toy Quintaped, which belongs to Shaun's nephew Timmy, but was turned into a Portkey by an evil sorcerer who was partly squashed by Shirley and five other sheep who fell out of a tree in the apple orchard near Mossy Bottom Farm before the sorcerer could administer the potion to the snake."

Lupin stared at her, somehow forgetting to nod.

Smiling, Luna grasped Lupin's limp hand. "You are Professor Lupin and I am called Luna Lovegood. 'Luna' means that I was born in a field beneath a full moon. 'Lovegood' is because..." She frowned. "Well, people have always called me that. I'm not sure why, exactly, but you may as well too."

"Errrr..." Lupin's flummoxed gaze left the strange girl who was still shaking his hand, and darted instead toward the odd sheep who was examining him with wide, wary eyes. Lupin knew that some form of common pleasantry was called for in this situation, but he could still get no further than, "Errrr..."

Unperturbed, Luna released Lupin's hand and turned to face Ginny and Harry. "As you likely guessed, Shaun and I have compared our observations from the orchard. We've concluded that not only was that snake chasing a duck when the sheep fell out of the tree, but it was also the snake who stole the toy Quintaped."

"Quintaped?" Harry's frown deepened. "Uh Luna, are you referring to that, er, teddy bear?"

"Teddy bear?" Luna stared at him for a moment with her deep, voluminous eyes, then looked away, tittering into her hand. "Harry Potter, you're so delightfully dotty! Ginevra warned me you had a rare sense of humour."

"I, uh, okay. Quintaped then." Harry shrugged as Ginny smirked and Shaun rolled his eyes.

"Hmm." Spotting the sheep's surprisingly human expression, Harry turned to face the animal. "You're a bright little mate, aren't you? I suppose you're hoping we'll help you find your way home, yeah?"

"M'ehhh!" Shaun nodded.

"That's why Shaun and I came down here." Luna scratched the sheep's neck. "After hearing the commotion in the stairway, we guessed that you might have located the Portkey."

"Oh yes — the Portkey." Ginny grimaced at the stuffed animal. She shook it to loosen the glue-like adhesion to her fingers. "Professor Lupin, would you happen to know how to determine where a used Portkey originated from?"

"Huh?" Lupin startled at the sound of his name. "Forgive me, but could you repeat that please? I haven't slept well this past week, and have gotten a little befuddled. You said a Portkey?"

"Yes sir." Ginny held up the stuffed bear. "On Saturday night, this toy transported that sheep to Hogwarts from parts unknown. We feel an obligation to try to return the little fellow to his home."

"M'ehhhh!" Shaun agreed.

"I see." Lupin nodded, and reached for the bear. Cringing a bit as he touched its filthy fur, he examined it for a moment. "Hmmm..."

"Yes?" Harry looked at the professor hopefully.

"It's not completely obvious to me which of the several common Portkey configurations was used for this," Lupin explained, turning the scruffy object over in his hands. "In most simple cases, the Portkey is specific only to the outgoing destination. For such instances, the used Portkey would show very clear magical residue telling us what destination it was chosen to transport someone to. That, of course, is of little use to us since we already know the transport terminus."

"Right." Ginny frowned. "But is it possible to determine where it came from?"

Lupin chewed his lip. "In a way, perhaps. With a bit of detective work."

"We don't mind a bit of work." Harry nodded seriously. "What do we do?"

Meeting Harry's gaze, Lupin noticed a serious glint that seemed far more 'Lily' than "James'. He smiled at the boy. "The concept is quite straightforward, Harry. Using a spell similar to 'Prior Incantatem', one can determine the strength of magic needed to carry out the transportation. This tells you roughly how far the sheep would have traveled."

"Oh!" Ginny straightened in recognition. "If you know the distance, then you can look at a map and plot locations the right distance away?"

Lupin beamed at the girl. "O for Outstanding, Ginny. However there is also a second scenario that would be easier to crack. That's if this happens to be a bi-directional Portkey."

"I see..." Harry nodded. "You mean a Portkey that could be used to return straight back to the starting point?"

"Exactly. Such a Portkey would be a wise precaution for anyone planning a foray into..." Lupin paused; a frown spreading across his face.

Ginny studied him. "Into what, sir?"

Lupin pursed his lips thoughtfully for a moment. "Into a place with strong anti-Apparition wards."

"A place like Hogwarts, then." Harry blew out a breath, stirring the unruly hair about his forehead.

Lupin nodded.

"That makes sense." Ginny pursed her lips. "In that case, we could figure out where the Portkey came from by activating it?"

"Sounds risky — Portkeying off to an unknown destination?" Harry frowned, glancing up as a tree branch above them rustled slightly. Moving away from the tree, he began pacing. "Setting aside that concern, how would one activate it? The only Portkeys I've seen have been preset to transport at specific times."

"That's the simplest type," Lupin agreed. "There are also touch-activated and voice activated Portkeys. The most sophisticated types have triggers which one could activate silently."

"A trigger?" Ginny glanced at the teddy bear.

"Sure. Something to press or pull." Lupin held the toy up where others could see it more easily. "For example, it could be as simple as twisting this button nose, and..."

The instant he twisted that button, Professor Lupin wished he hadn't. So did Harry and Ginny.

Peter Pettigrew, on the other hand, was elated! From where he lurked on a branch about six feet above them, the rat saw a golden opportunity. He'd not yet had a proper chance to figure out precisely whose unsuspecting back he was aiming for, but he saw no choice but to leap. This was his last, best, chance to salvage an otherwise disastrously foundering mission.

As space began to swirl sickeningly about them, Lupin leapt in surprise to feel sharp little claws digging into his shoulder. Twisting his head around, he found himself staring far too closely into a bristly rodent face.

And the rat was staring at Lupin.

Both gawked, as though trying to talk themselves out of believing what they thought they were seeing.

An instant later, the students and Shaun were left gaping at the suddenly empty ground upon which their new Dark Arts Defence professor no longer stood.

Luna raised a quiet, shocked hand to her mouth.

Shaun rolled his eyes, then closed them slowly, dejectedly.

"Bah'hhh'h..."

Remus Lupin had Portkeyed and Apparated many times in his life. The warping discomfort rarely fazed him and, even now when taken by complete surprise, he didn't gag or go dizzy with disorientation. It may have helped, though, that his mind was so utterly distracted.

Lupin didn't know if it was physically possible to speak during that bizarre fraction of a second when one is spinning through the nothingness of a Portkey transfer. He didn't know if anyone would even hear what he might say, yet he couldn't stop his mouth.

"Peter???"

For a sliver of an instant, Lupin thought he felt those rodent eyes connecting with his in precisely the same way he recalled from those wild Marauder nights, long ago. He wondered if he mightn't even have seen a familiar twitch of the bristles; sensed a recognition; glimpsed the vestiges of a long-lost friendship.

Then his legs thudded hard to the ground.

The wild feeling of cyclonic rotation stopped abruptly but, for a crucial moment, Lupin's distracted head kept spinning. He staggered to catch his balance... and that half second of disarray was all the rat needed, leaping from Lupin's arms.

Whether there had ever been any recognition or connection, real or imagined, it was gone now. Armed with exceptional alpha predator instincts, Lupin reacted to the rat's flight with blind reflexes — his wand lashing out; the perfect spell on the tip of his tongue... but something stopped him.

After staring into the dry wavy grass for several heartbeats, he put his wand away. A deep, troubled frown set upon his forehead and he shook his head.

Peter would not have run away.

A trickle of cold logic settled in Lupin's heart.

Peter is dead...

Just like James.

Lupin shivered, dashing away the painful memories, and replacing them with sensible rationalisations.

That strange feeling of connection — surely nothing more than a byproduct of exhaustion and a melancholic longing after having mistaken Harry's voice for the boy's deceased father.

Having a rat leap onto his shoulders at the very moment of Portkey initiation — a rat who happened to bear a resemblance to what he remembered of Wormtail — was odd. But it was a coincidence; no more and no less.

Besides, it surely wasn't Lupin that the rat had sought. It had obviously wanted the teddy bear, especially after having expended all that effort tugging it out of the castle. Seeking fluff to feather its winter nest, perhaps?

Lupin shrugged. A part of him still wanted to look around to see if he could find the rodent and cast a confirmatory spell it, but his most pressing responsibility was to hurry back to Hogwarts before the children grew too worried by his unexpected disappearance. Besides, he still had the Portkey in his hand, and should probably use it as they had intended — to transport the sheep back here to its home.

Supecting that he, too, might wish to return to this spot (perhaps tonight after supper, before it got too dark), Lupin turned away from the thicket and spent a moment studying the surroundings, committing enough detail to memory to satisfy the 'destination' requirement of Apparition.

Then he blinked in surprise.

Everything seemed extraordinarily familiar. It appeared, for all the world, like he was in Yorkshire. It looked even more like...

Could it truly be West Witton??

Lupin grinned in started recognition — he was practically home!

The Portkey had indeed delivered him to within three miles of the humble hovel, set within a magically secluded glade in the Dales, where he had spent most of the past decade since the end of the First Wizarding War. Living the modest lonely life of a werewolf, Lupin had wandered the countryside quite a bit and knew these hills like the back of his hand. In fact he'd strolled past this very orchard countless times!

Shaking his head at the bizarre turn of events (the unexpected trip home; the sad trips down Marauder memory lane), Lupin took one final look around — the hills, stone walls, a farm here, a farm there. He saw no further sign of the odd rat, and nor did his cursory glance catch anything particularly awry about the place, so he twisted to Disapparate.

"Blimey!" Harry ran his hand through his hair. "Now that was unexpected."

"Which?" Ginny was still staring at the recently vacated ground in front of them. "The Portkey going off, or Scabbers dropping out of the tree?"

"Yeah basically," Harry agreed.

"There there, dear." Luna had her arms around the neck of the melancholy Shaun. "Professor Lupin will be back soon to take you home."

"Behh'hh'h."

"Er yes." Ginny glanced uncertainly at the sheep. "At least we hope he'll be back soon."

Harry chewed his lip. "Uh, right. We have no idea where that Portkey might have taken him, and if he ended up at Mossy Bottom Farm, we're not certain he'll find everything quite as it should be."

She didn't know why, exactly, but Ginny shivered slightly. She edged a couple inches closer to Harry, gently brushing up against him. Semi-consciously, his hand felt for hers and squeezed it.

"Oh, look!" Luna stood up and pointed toward Hogsmeade. "There he is over there."

The three students waved to their new Professor, but Lupin failed to notice. Seemingly lost in thought, he didn't actually spot them at all until he had cleared the main gate and was within a hundred feet.

"Professor Lupin! Hello!" Ginny waved again. "Are you all right?"

The wizard blinked. "Oh. Yes. I'm fine, thank you. I still have the Portkey for us to transport your sheep back to his farm."

"Great." Harry reached for the stuffed toy. "So where did you end up? You didn't encounter any problems? Nothing unusual?"

"I, errr..." Lupin raised an eyebrow at Harry's questions. He couldn't deny that the rat encounter was unusual, but he didn't yet feel comfortable speaking of old Marauder hardships, not with James's son anyway, so he opted to answer selectively. "Er, well, the Portkey took me to an orchard in Yorkshire. Just east of the Dales."

Ginny examined him carefully, then repeated Harry's main question. "No problems, sir? Nothing unusual?"

"Unusual?" Lupin chewed his lip for a moment. "Er, in what sense?"

"You didn't see anything suspicious at the farm?" Ginny frowned. "Nothing out of the ordinary? Signs of magic not expected for a Muggle area?"

Lupin opened his mouth, then closed it, vaguely wondering if the adult in him should be asking what these two students were worried about it. However, in his state of exhaustion, he wasn't sure he wanted to know, so he shook his head. "No, not really. I didn't look closely, but everything seemed to be fine."

Ready to change the subject, Lupin glanced at Shaun. "I do expect the farm will be glad to have its sheep back though. How should we affix the Portkey to your little friend?"

Harry angled his head thoughtfully. "Say Shaun... Perhaps you could hold onto this toy so that it can bring you home?" He lowered the bear down toward the sheep's mouth.

"Meh." Shaun accepted it unquestioningly.

Lupin blinked. "Why Harry! You rather have a way with animals!"

"Ha! I wouldn't say that, sir." Harry chuckled. "However, this fellow does seem to have a way with humans."

Luna and Ginny both smiled.

"Yes, well he does seem a bright chap, doesn't he?" Lupin reached for the bear's button nose. "Are you set for your trip, little fellow?"

"M'hhf."

Lupin gave a soft laugh. "Very well then." He twisted the button and stepped quickly back.

Shaun seemed to vibrate and blur for a instant, then whisked away in a gust of November wind.

"Well..." The Defence professor stood up, and smiled vaguely. "I'd say that wraps up our little adventure."

Ginny and Harry assembled smiles of gratitude for their new professor. As soon as Lupin was out of earshot (levitating his trunk up the front steps), however, Harry gave Ginny a dubious look.

Ginny quirked her mouth. "You're not so sure about that, yeah?"

Back to index


Chapter 4: Barn Brawl

Author's Notes:

And so it was. An interesting experiment, and I'm pleased with the results. I will likely not write any more crossovers, but this one at least was fun. Perhaps the greatest challenge was to sustain the humour of Fuddle and Secrest and find some fresh gags, while continuing to ramp up the drama. According to my small but wonderful cadre of loyal reviewers, I believe I've succeeded.

Anyway, I've promised a certain Obeahman that I'll keep working on Trix, and will help shepherd the site for a while, but it's likely time to pay more attention to some other big life projects.


Chapter 4. Barn Brawl

"Behhh-h'hh!"

Steadying himself, Shaun took a few quick glances around and nodded in recognition. He did seem to have been returned to the precise spot where, two nights earlier, he had led that risky attempt to expel the farm's strange invaders.

The sky was obviously much brighter now. The strange fire had long since gone out, and the large cauldron had mysteriously disappeared, but this was definitely the right place, which should mean that...

Shaun gazed to the southeast. His heart surged at the sight of some very familiar rooftops. Home! Finally.

The adventure, however, was not over. Most sheep generally shied away from wagers, but Shaun would have bet a week's worth of oats that the old lunatic and his rampaging snake weren't far off. Sure they had taken a beating the other night, but they didn't seem the sorts to go away easily. They might even be plotting more mischief at this very moment.

Suitably motivated, Shaun raced across the pasture toward Mossy Bottom Farm. But what would he find on the other side of the stone boundary wall? He'd been going spare worrying about that. Had the thieving reptile stolen anything else? Eaten anyone? Had the black-cloaked maniac started any new foul-smelling fires? Had the farmer made a complete mash of everything?

Shaun shivered, not knowing what to fear most.

Leaping over the stone fence, Shaun landed in the barnyard, and looked around. Much to his bewilderment, he found the entire farm to apparently be...

... in lock down?

"M'huh." Shaun scratched his ear as he assessed the situation.

Each door, window and hatch, from the lowliest coop to the largest barn, had been boarded up in the most eccentric ways possible, with planks jutting at every angle; bent, twisted nail heads sticking out randomly. It looked certifiably deranged.

Apparently the farmer had learned of the snake.

The farmer did not like snakes.

Shaun groaned. A bit of structural reinforcement was fine if it kept out weird predators and intruders, but the farmer had basically imprisoned all of the farm's occupants in their night quarters. Depending on how long they'd been trapped, Shaun's friends were likely getting more than a mite peckish.

For a moment Shaun looked around, wondering what to do, then cast his eyes on the place where he’d expect to find the dog house. What he saw resembled more of a wooden hedgehog than a small kennel.

Shaun shrugged and put his mouth up to a space between the boards. "Mehh'h'h?"

"Wrowf?"

Hearing farm sheep dog's tentative reply, Shaun poked and prodded at the nailed boards. "BAHh'hhh?"

"Wrowwwwww!" Bitzer confirmed plaintively.

Shaun shook his head in exasperation at the farmer's handiwork. Nobody, likely not even the farmer himself, could penetrate this abomination.

Nobody...? Shaun closed one eye in deliberation. No, not strictly true. It all came down to how one defined the word 'penetrate'.

Or might the word 'obliterate' be a better word?

Some problems on Mossy Bottom Farm were best handled with care and subtlety, but this was not one of them. Rather, it was beautifully suited to a very primitive solution.

Shaun turned away from the dog house and approached the sheep barn, calling out, "Bahhhh-hh'h!"

A deep rumble issued from within. "Mmowwwr?"

Gauging the strength of the ramshackle jumble of planks covering the barn door, Shaun nodded to himself. "Bahhh-Hhh'h!"

"Mowwrrr!" From somewhere inside the building, the deep rumble was followed by a host of bleats and one deep snort of recognition. A confused clatter of hooves began to build...

"M'uh-oh!" Suddenly remembering that he was right in the line of fire, Shaun leaped wildly to the side as...

"MMOWWWWWRRR!!"

CRR-BOOOMMM!

Crickle. Pock. TING!

THUDDDD! Crash!!

"M'wowwwr?"

Confronted with a somewhat dazed, goggle-eyed Shirley, and a monumental pile of kindling... Shaun grinned.

Bleating excitedly, the rest of the herd emerged from behind their living, sentient (if somewhat woolly-headed) battering ram, and blinked in the early evening sunlight.

"BAHhh'hhh!" Shaun proclaimed bullishly above the clamour. However, it was not yet the time to celebrate. The hardest work was still to come!

As soon as his feet had settled onto solid ground, Lucius Malfoy jerked his arm back from the scruffy little wizard who had just side-along Apparated him. Wand out, he scanned the early evening agrarian setting, looking for signs of Rosier.

Taking in the lay of the land, Malfoy couldn't help wondering where on Earth he was. By the crisp bite to the air, he guessed it be somewhere in the northeast. Yorkshire? The Humber?

No matter. He turned his disdain toward a spot in the air about four inches above Pettigrew's scraggly head. "Did you search the place for signs of magic, Rat?"

"N-n-no sir."

"Dolt." Malfoy scowled at the man, noting him to be sweatier, twitchier and more distracted than usual. He smirked. "You look shattered, Pettigrew. What's the matter? Potter and his obnoxious little brigands terrorize you at Hogwarts?"

"Ehhm..." Pettrigrew appeared for a moment to be on the verge of answering, but instead turned nervously away.

Malfoy didn't notice. Frowning in concentration, he had already lowered his wand to scan for magic. The first and most obvious magical signatures in their immediate vicinity were Muggle repelling wards covering most of the orchard. Unsurprisingly, the spells must have had no effect on lower lifeforms — Malfoy spied a large number of animal prints dotting the dried mud. Mostly sheep, obviously, except for... Aha!

Malfoy crouched to examine a strange set of tracks — boot indentations here and here; a progression of hand prints; strange scraping marks.

Grasping his boss's interest, Pettigrew stared at the ground. "Eh? Some bloke was crawlin' on the ground?"

"So it seems." Malfoy stood up. "Rosier, perhaps? Should make it easy to track him over this muck, then."

Malfoy strode past a spot of tall grass near the edge of the orchard and stared out across a ploughed field. Lo and behold there was, indeed, a distinct crawl-path, leading toward what seemed to be an old cattle barn.

Making his way toward the building, Malfoy pointed his wand. "Homenum Revelio."

A faint glowing silhouette of a hunched human form seemed to project on the stable wall for a moment. Malfoy nodded to himself and approached closer. With Pettigrew cowering behind him, Malfoy turned his wand on the door. "Alohamora."

Malfoy entered cautiously, his wand flicking back and forth like the tail of an agitated cat. "There!" He strode briskly toward the haymow. Swiping an armful of straw to the side, he uncovered exactly what he was looking for.

"Lucius." The cracked voice was pathetic. So was most everything about the bedraggled old wizard who'd been hiding in the straw. Covered in dust, pale from loss of blood and a lack of food, and clutching a broken wand, Cecil Rosier had certainly seen better days.

"Well, well, well." Malfoy sneered with immense pleasure. "I'm not sure which I would enjoy more right now — killing you, or watching you suffer prolonged Cruciatus." He cocked his head in thought. "Though in your state, those would likely amount to the same thing."

Rosier closed his eyes. "You shan't kill me, Lucius."

Malfoy sniggered. "Why not?"

"Beca..." The old wizard coughed slightly, and tried swallowing with his parched throat. "Because I alone know how to bring back the Dark Lord."

Malfoy laughed. "Nice try, old man — I already know your plans. Our little lackey back there has been ratting on you ever since you returned to Britain." Malfoy smirked as Pettigrew whinged pathetically, betraying his own attempt to skulk unnoticed through the barn door.

Malfoy redirected his grin toward Rosier. "Yes, the little snitch told me how you'd brought the Eminence back to our shores under cover of the storm. He also shared that you've been searching for animal hosts to carry the Dark Lord's spirit while you explored ways to restore his strength. Not a bad notion, but I see no evidence of you having the skills or successes to atone for your many blunders. You made a shambolic mess with the diary, and have obviously bollixed whatever it was you've attempted here."

Rosier croaked, then found a semblance of voice. "No, there's..."

"Tut tut. Spare the excuses, Cecil." Malfoy swept back his long hair with a contemptuous flourish. Not seeing a very quiet bundle of wool slide in through the open door, Malfoy pointed his wand imperiously at the wounded wizard. "We both know how our master frowns upon failure. I can't imagine how he or I could have any further use of you, Rosier. You've made yourself expendable, and thus you shall now d-"

"No!" Rosier somehow summoned the strength to raise his hand and fix Malfoy with a steady glare. "Lucius, I know how to bring back our Lord. Not just as a spirit possessing lower beings, but in the fullness of his might and magnificence!"

"Oh?" Malfoy raised an eyebrow, caught more by the unexpected show of strength and conviction than by the words themselves. "Tell more more, old goat."

Rosier shook his head. "Not before you mend my shoulder and give me water."

Malfoy stared coldly at the elder wizard for a moment, then nodded. Retrieving a flagon from his mokeskin pouch, Malfoy handed it to him and crouched down to magically reset the dislocated joint and reduce the deep purple swelling. Malfoy's courtesy did not extend to numbing the wizard's pain, however. His spell was none too gentle, and he semi-intentionally jostled Rosier, sending the old man into anguished tremors, at which he merely sneered.

Nonetheless, the healing spell and water proved restorative. After a minute, Rosier was able to raise himself to a full sitting position, brush the straw and dust from his face, and concentrate on his argument. "I've work out a two step process to bring him back, Lucius," he explained. "To amend our failure with the diary, I..."

"Our failure?!" Malfoy glared at him. "It’s YOUR failure, imbecile!"

"Our shared failure, Malfoy." Rosier managed a smile — weak but infuriating. "If not for my intervention in Devon, your botched invasion of the Weasley property would have sent the diary straight into Auror hands."

"That's... that's...!!" Malfoy trembled in fury but, lacking a good rebuttal, he took a deep breath. "Continue."

"After leaving Hogwarts, I spent several weeks at Durmstrang exploring their collection of ancient and forbidden scrolls. In my research, I determined that there is a potion that can restore full human form to a disembodied soul whose original body had been lost. However, the procedure is fiendishly complex, and poses an obstacle." Rosier met Malfoy's eye with the peculiar glint like a sage instructing a disciple. "You need a human form to restore a human being."

"Eh?" Malfoy's brow furrowed in confusion. "How can you make him human if you need him to already be human?"

"You don't listen very well, do you Lucius? A 'human form' is adequate, and that gives us a way around the paradox." Rosier's face adopted a half-deranged grin. "Recalling my old studies, I had once read of another, simpler potion, made only of steeped blood of unicorn and venom of the green mamba, which can produce a homunculus body. Interestingly, the unicorn’s blood also attracts wayward souls, so if the potion is administered to a body that is already possessed by a spirit, the created homunculus will adopt it."

"What do you mean by 'administered to a body'? You still need a body to make a body?"

"An animal familiar will suffice, simpleton." Rosier rolled his eyes. "The animal host Pettigrew informed you of is not just a vessel to store the spirit while one builds strength. The animal provides life force required to power the first step of corporeal reconstitution."

"Gah!" Malfoy scrunched his face. "Must we contaminate his noble spirit with animal life force? Seems in bloody poor taste, and I'd assume it's risky too."

"There's no other way, Malfoy." Rosier struggled to his feet. "And no, it's not particularly risky if done properly. And I do know how to do it properly. Trust me — in matters of magical esoterica, I am far your superior."

"Not particularly risky, you say?" Malfoy regarded him skeptically.

"Well..." Rosier pursed his lips. "I suppose the final corporeal form may adopt a few minor physical aspects of the transitional familiar host but... our Master has always had an affinity for snakes."

"You'll use a snake?" Malfoy equivocated; his face still skewed. "I suppose that may be acceptable."

Ignoring Malfoy's scowl, Rosier finished dusting himself off. "I assure you, this will work, and not much more need be done for the first transition. As Pettigrew informed you, I successfully summoned the Lord Voldemort's soul from his exile in the Brozh-Bardhetit woods of Albania. I have also procured a suitable snake from an acquaintance of mine in Nocturn Alley, and set about achieving the preliminary soul-to-snake bonding two nights ago. The potion had almost finished steeping and l was mere moments from deliverance but..." His face twitched perceptibly. "Well, several circumstances intervened."

"Circumstances?" Malfoy raised a smug eyebrow. "Complete cock-up, eh?"

"It was hardly my fault." Rosier glared as he pulled out another straw that had gotten stuck someplace awkward. "The snake was being reckless and toppled over the cauldron. In the ensuing chaos, the spirit ended in the wrong familiar. Then some animals, er, fell on me."

"Fell on you? Complete cock-up indeed." It was Malfoy's turn to sport an insufferable smirk.

"No, not at all. Everything can still be fixed. I... Oh blast, do I still have...??" Rosier frantically felt about his bedraggled cloak, then sighed in relief, pulling out a small vial of silvery substance that had survived the tumult. "Yes, I still have enough unicorn's blood for a second batch of potion. I would value your assistance though."

"How so?" Malfoy looked at him skeptically.

Rosier gestured to a listless snake draped over the rafters. "The snake has been unsuccessful in her hunts, and I believe she was maltreated in Nocturn Alley. As a result, she is weak and ravenous. In order to harvest enough venom for another batch of serum, we must provide her a proper meal."

"We're on a farm, Rosier." Malfoy gazed around the barn. "There ought to be some decent snake food around here somewhere."

Rosier shook his head. "This particular property seems to have been left vacant. It's a fine place to hide, but has no livestock. Fortunately, I know for a fact that there is ample meat to be garnered from the farm just to the east."

Malfoy straightened his cape and tapped his wand. "Very well then. A proper disciple of Salazar Slytherin shall not abide a starving snake. Give me a few minutes to nip out and find a chicken or two."

"Sheep. Bring us some mutton, Lucius." A demented gleam returned to Rosier's eyes. "Lots and lots of mutton."

Eyebrow quirked and a bemused question on his lips, Malfoy turned to the old wizard, but all he ended up saying was...

"AIIIGHH!!"

Clubbed to the floor by a hay bale pitched from a high loft, Malfoy banged his chin hard on the heavy planks. He struggled for a second, then slumped unconscious, his wand clattering to the side.

In the bale's wake, Shaun seized a heavy rope hanging from the rafters and leapt from on high. Not willing to let his woolly friends become 'mutton' for a snake, he plunged courageously down, aiming for the polished stick that silver-headed wizard had dropped. Wind racing through the woolly tuft atop his head, nearly to the lowest point on the arc, he reached out to seize...

Stomp!

Astonishingly dextrous for an old wizard suffering from pain and near starvation, Rosier pinned Malfoy's wand beneath his filthy boot. Raising the wand, Rosier’s eyes followed Shaun’s upward arc, gleaming in hatred. "Immobulus!"

Every limb in Shaun's body suddenly locked. Still clutching the end of his rope, Shaun swung smoothly up to complete the apex, paused for a moment, then obeyed the tenets of gravity, returning straight back down toward the waiting clutches of a very gleeful wizard.

"Well, well." Using the wand to slow Shaun's descent, Rosier tittered. "I do believe we've located some mutton, Nagini."

Nearly everyone in the Great Hall seemed to be on the alert for... something.

Normally one would expect the evening meal at Hogwarts to blend casual socialising and standard teenaged gluttony, but tonight everyone appeared to be unduly watchful.

From his place at the end of the Slytherin table, a squat first-year ruffian named Thaddeus Flint leered at Colin Creevey with salacious fascination.

For some reason Colin didn't much care. Camera at the ready, the small Gryffindor was busy scanning the entire hall, with all the hungry instincts of an expectant paparazzo.

At the opposite end of the Gryffindor table, Ginny's vigilance darted back and forth between Creevey and Flint, as if she was waiting for some kind of a sign.

Meanwhile, Harry glanced up at the staff table in time to see Sybill Trelawney make a very rare mealtime appearance, accidentally bumping Professor Flitwick off his chair as she claimed a seat beside Professor Lupin.

Harry frowned at the vaguely odd behaviour, then shrugged. He turned briefly to see what Ginny was looking at but, not being able to discern anything of note, gazed back toward Trelawney and Lupin. "Oi!" He winced and quickly averted his eyes. "What in Merlin's name did the poor bloke do to deserve that?"

"Huh? Who deserved what?" Ginny didn’t break her vigil on the Slytherin table.

"Professor Lupin. Trelawney decided to come sit with him." Harry chanced another quick glimpse of the staff table, then averted his eyes faster than ever. "Ugh. It looks like she's polishing her glasses."

"That's nice."

"No no, Gin'. She's polishing her glasses on Professor Lupin's shoulder!"

"Huh?" Ginny frowned, but her attention was now locked onto Colin as the little Gryffindor fitted a camera lens. "Sounds naff, but this is Trelawney we're talking about, yeah?"

"But... but..." Harry jabbed with his thumb. "But Gin', her glasses are still on her face."

With arched brow, Ginny finally gave up and eyed Harry inquiringly. Finding his expression irreproachably earnest, she twisted around in her seat to see for herself.

"Ugh! Harry, she's not polishing her glasses; she's uh..." Ginny paused to tap her lower lip. "Do you suppose she's head-butting him? Like that billy goat dominance thing... You know, if one introduces a new goat into the herd?"

"Oh? Is there maybe some kind of initiation rite for new Hogwarts faculty?" Harry scratched his head. "Or perhaps she's trying to cop some sympathy?"

"Oh, that's probably it — she's trying to cry on his shoulder but keeps missing!"

His grimace twisting a bit in recognition, Harry nodded.

Ginny scrunched her face. "Wonder what she's on about? Do you suppose she's upset about the sheep? Maybe we should... Ack!"

"What the...??" All other bizarre quandaries and spectacles in the room forgotten, Harry and Ginny gaped in shock at Ginny's glass of pumpkin juice.

On an evening in which everyone at supper seemed to to watching somebody, Ginny's drink was... watching her!

Immersed within the cloudy juice, about half-way down, was a pair of wide watchful eyes. The bizarre greenish orbs flicked from Ginny to Harry, then swept demonstratively in the direction of the exit.

Harry and Ginny both blinked in confusion.

The eyes repeated the gesture.

"Oh." Harry put a hand to his mouth. "I think I know what... er, who, it might be."

Ginny looked at Harry expectantly, but he shook his head. "We need to get out of here." Trying to not draw too much attention, Harry stood up, took Ginny's hand, and drew her up from the table.

Ginny gave a final conflicted glance at Thaddeus Flint who was now just rising from the Slytherin table with a definite swagger. Then she peeked at the highly agitated pair of eyes in her juice (blinking in some urgent code), and resignedly followed Harry.

With nearly everyone's attention fixed either on the awkward drama unfolding at the staff table, or on the Slytherin strutting brazenly toward the Gryffindor seats, nobody gave our two exiting protagonists more than a passing glance.

As soon as they had passed through the arch separating the Great Hall from the Entrance Hall, Ginny looked up at her friend. "What's going on, Harry? What were those eyes?"

Harry put a finger to his lips and led her out the main doorway into a rosy spreading sunset. The moment they reached the front steps, a small figure leaped out of the shrubs.

"Dobby!" Ginny clasped a hand to her mouth, muffling her inadvertently gasp.

"Being very quickly!" The diminutive elf hissed, hopping in agitation. "Kind and Good Harry Potter and Powerful Witch Wheezy must come help doggie in troubling!"

"Shaun?" Harry's eyes widened. "What's happened to him?"

Dobby merely shook his head, and thrust his hands upwards toward the pair.

Unquestioning, Harry and Ginny both accepted the elf's hands, and...

Craaack!!

Spinning wildly through the void, they suddenly hit an uneven patch of ground with a strong sideways shear. Harry teetered on the brink for a moment, then toppled onto his back into a cold, earthy furrow, with Ginny landing — oooff — on top of him.

In the ensuing confusion, despite several sizable stones poking into his back, Harry found himself very acutely aware of a... feminine... presence in very very close prox-

"Great Potter, Powerful Wheezy! Is no time for lovey kissy — must getting up!" Dobby reached down frantically to lift them to their feet and tug them toward a nearby barn. "This way to old scraggle wizard. He is having doggie freezing."

"Huh?" Not expecting much clarification, Harry and Ginny hurried across the field to see for themselves. Following Dobby to a window, they peered though and...

Harry gaped. Ginny gasped.

Seemingly paralysed, Shaun was clinging to a rope in the middle of the barn, while the diary-thief Wizard (vile scum!) was summoning a large, bare-fanged green snake whose every mannerism conveyed only one thing. Extreme hunger.

Harry and Ginny raced for the still-open door.

"Expulso!" Ginny's hex whipped the snake hard against the far wall.

"Expelliarmus!" Harry's spell lashed across the barn, but Rosier's lightning reflexes had already assembled a shield. The elderly wizard winced from the sheer power of Harry's spell. He staggered back a step... but then he grinned.

"Well, well, well. Harry Potter and Ginevra Weasley. You must be desperately fond of me to forever dog my heels like pathetic puppies."

Ginny rolled her eyes at Rosier's prattle. "Relashio." She freed Shaun from his paralysis and stepped over to join Harry in training wands on the dangerous dark wizard.

"It's over, old sod." Ginny hand and voice were both surprisingly steady. "Hands down at your sides."

Harry nodded. "You heard her. And drop the wand, mate."

"I admire your pluck, my little pumpkins, but you'll never break through my defences." His shield still flickering on the edge of visibility, Rosier chuckled. "You really haven't the faintest idea how to take down a powerful, skilled wizard, have you?"

Silence.

Ginny chanced a hopeful glance at Harry.

"Sure we do." Harry's brow hardened. "We have you outnumbered. All we need to do is get around your shield. We'll keep angling about; if you make one false step, you're done."

Taking the cue, Ginny skipped nimbly to her right... but Rosier took an impossibly agile leap to perfectly triangulate. He leered smugly. "Old man's not so lame as you thought, eh? Even with two on one, this is hardly a fair fight, luvs. If you try scarpering around the barn, you'd best watch your feet, because the instant one of you stumbles, then — bam — stupefied! First one then the other."

His wand steady, Harry took a step to the left. "Wishful thinking, gaffer, but it's not just the two of us."

"Oh? Who else do you have?" Rosier smirked. "You're having me on, Potter."

"No he's not." Ginny shook her head.

Huh? Painfully aware of his own sketchy bluffing, Harry blinked at his friend's brash confidence.

Eyeing Ginny, Rosier failed to notice Harry's hesitation. The old wizard glared for a moment, then grinned. "Ha! Pretty little liar, eh? If I learned one thing teaching at Hogwarts, it's that Weasleys are perpetual posers."

Ginny glared. "This is no pose, prat! Five minutes, and you're done for."

"Oh really?" Rosier chuckled, glancing at Shaun who was edging toward the barn door. "So who exactly plans to bail you out? Some of your sheepish little friends?"

Unfortunately, Ginny's perfect retort died on the vine, because...

WHAMMM!!! Shards and splinters of wood sprayed across the barn.

Led by the dazed looking head of a monstrously huge ewe, the entire flock of Shaun's woolly friends came crashing through the barn's far wall near a block of stables.

Spinning around in alarm, white sparks flashed as Rosier reacted. "Colloshoo!"

Several dozen hooves fused instantly to the floor, sending the flock scrunching together into a raucously bleating mass of tangled wool.

Yet Rosier's fast instincts proved his own undoing. Before the huge sheep pile had even stopped skidding, Harry's wand had lashed out. "Stupefy!"

Out of position, Rosier almost restored his shield, but it was less than half strength when Harry's blast caught him. Staggering back, Rosier dropped a small vial of silvery liquid that shattered across the floor. Skidding in the mess, the old man thudded down, dropping Malfoy's wand.

Forgetting his magic, Harry lunged for the stick. Although tactically daft, the move proved incredibly lucky, because...

"Bombarda!" A powerful percussive curse from the north corner of the barn pounded the space where Harry had stood a half-second earlier, exploding the hay stack into billowing clouds of dust and fibre that showered down onto Harry and Rosier.

"Protego!" Her shield in place, Ginny whipped around to assess the new threat. Three thugs, none too bright looking, had Apparated into the barn. Still wobbling, they nonetheless had wands trained, ready for a fight.

Quickly dismissing the first two (one chunky oaf sweating profusely, and one tall troll-like lug with facial features all crammed together) as useless plonkers, Ginny locked eyes with the apparent leader — a short, scruffy wizard with beady eyes, and a...

Shifty, shrewish face... Who does that remind me of??

Ginny shook off an uneasy sense of familiarity. She stepped closer to Harry, overlapping her shield with his.

Wrenching his eyes off Ginny, the short, scruffy leader took a moment to survey the barn, gaping noticeably at the sight of his employer (Lucius Malfoy) lying face down beneath a hay bale, and Rosier sprawled on the floor, groaning amidst a silvery puddle.

Beside him, the chunky bloke rubbed his greasy pate. "Whut the blerdy 'ell mess is dis, Ratty?"

"The Hell if I know, Crabbe." His face twitching anxiously, Pettigrew turned to Ginny and gestured at the comatose Malfoy. "Listen Weasley, there's naught to concern you here. Step aside, let us grab a few of our things, and we'll not trouble you. A'right?"

Ginny glared. "I don't know how you lot know my name, but nobody blasts a hex at us without answering for it. What are you doing here?"

"Har!" Troll-faced wizard sniggered and snorted. "Little bitchy's shur tellin' ye, Rat!"

"Shut up, Goyle." Pettigrew wiped his nose irritably. "Listen, you ruddy little bint. I was trying to be nice, but we got you outgunned, so either step aside or..."

"Expelliarmus!" Harry leapt forward, snatching Pettigrew's wand as it sailed across the room. He glowered at the motley trio. "The lady asked you gents a question. What are you doing here? What do you want with Malfoy?"

"A Potter in the haystack, eh?" Vincent Crabbe Sr. sneered. "Yeh may think yeh'r so blerdy smart 'n what, but if we ain't back at Malfoy Man'r in two minnits, there'll be anoth'r dozen wiz'rds 'ere t' wipe yeh'r mingin' hides."

Ginny shook her head. "Another bluff."

Crabbe grinned. "Yeh wanna wager on't, Red?"

CRACKKK!!

Ginny's jaw dropped.

Crabbe gaped. " Who the blerding 'ell is 'at?!"

Harry glanced through the open door toward the orchard, but it was too dark out to see much. Expressionless, he turned back to the attackers and shrugged. "One of you bobs order a pizza?"

To say the least, Remus Lupin's first supper at Hogwarts in more than a decade was rather memorable. But not in a good way.

Although he had his hands full with Trelawney, Lupin actually noticed Harry and Ginny beating a hasty retreat from the Great Hall, and that is what inspired him to attempt the same thing. Exit now. Before he dissolved in embarrassment.

Or dissolved in slobbery moisture, perhaps.

Normally, having a certifiably mental witch snuffling gobs of mucus all over his faculty robes in front of three hundred students on his first day as a new professor would have been an unmitigated disaster but today, by stroke of good fortune, another unfolding distraction seemed destined to let him escape without ridicule. Standing up, he took a step toward the door, whispering, "Sssh, Sybill. Let’s talk outside."

Semiconsciously, the Divination professor nodded and shuffled in step with Lupin's hurried retreat.

Amazingly, nobody laughed at them — not even when she stumbled, nearly disrobing him. A few people may have glanced over as Lupin hastily pulled his cloak back over himself, but all eyes immediately riveted straight back to the open space between the Gryffindor and Slytherin tables, where somebody's perfectly timed prank was about to unfold.

As laughter exploded from all corners, Lupin nearly wished that he could stop to watch, but the momentary wisp of nostalgia (memories of James and Sirius playing the crowd like a tin whistle) vanished as a soggy, half-convulsing Trelawney spattered him with another round of miserable ick.

Steeling himself, Lupin cast a weak levitation spell on the long, strange, gauzy, pink and green filaments that dangled from her robes so she wouldn't trip again, and resumed steering her out of sight.

Finally clearing the front door, Lupin heard the Great Hall burst into ribald song, but again he missed any hilarious details — this time because of a loud, wetly muffled monologue emanating from the face pressed into his armpit.

"... but you see, he was such a sweet little dawwwwgie. Pure fluffy love... SNORRRRT... and when he disappeared, all of the crystal balls stopped glowing, and the tea leaves turned bitter, and... [muffled]... HONNNK! So the only thing left to remember him by was a daaarling little stuffed bear, but then it was stolen... STOLEN! Stolen by a RAT!!"

Lupin froze, then pulled his armpit back from Trelawney's face. "Sorry, a-a stuffed bear, you said? Stolen by a rat?"

"Yes." Trelawney's sobbing stopped. She lifted her head to peer blearily through smudged spectacles toward Lupin's earlobe. "Don't you believe me, Remi?"

"I..." Lupin glanced down at the witch's face for a moment, then averted his eyes at the sight of tendrils creeping out of her nose. "Well, yes I do."

Goggle-amplified eyes blinking, Trelawney angled closer.

Trying desperately to avoid seeing a face that best resembled an indignant damselfly sprayed with runny custard, Lupin's discomfort was obvious — even to Trelawney. She studied him intently, then positioned herself unavoidably in his line of sight. "Why my dear Remi, you’ve seen my teddy bear! And my doggie?!"

"I, er..." Lupin coughed. "... yes."

"Tell me! Tell me!" Trelawney seized his lapels, accidentally treading on his feet and spattering more moisture down his chest. "I simply must know! Are they safe? Are they well? ARE THEY ALIVE??"

"Yes, of course." He coughed again. "I assure you, they're fine."

"Where are they?"

"They..." Lupin fixed his weary eyes up high on the spreading evening glow, as if seeking guidance or divine intervention. "They've gone to, uh... a better place."

"THEY'RE DEAD?!!"

"No no no!" Lupin's legs vibrated as if he wanted nothing more than to run like hell. Or evapourate. Or something. Summoning his strength, he shook his head as calmly as he could. "They're not dead. They-"

"Not DEAD?? WHERE ARE THEY??!"

Trying a maneuver he'd seen others employ with success, Lupin put an arm around the agitated witch, attempting to settle her. "They've gone home, Sybill. They're back where they belong."

"Home?! Where?" Trelawney pushed back against Lupin to stare directly into his right eyebrow. "Show me where."

"I can't." Lupin cringed. "It's a Muggle farm. I can't take-"

"You MUST!"

"Oh mercy." Lupin sighed. "You must promise me you won't... interfere... with them being safely and happily back with their rightful owner?"

"I promise! I promise I won't interfere. Now, show me!" she wailed. "PLEEASSE!! I simply must see my sweet little doggie... if but only for one final tear-stained farewell."

Lupin met her huge drippy eyes. She stared soulfully, pleadingly, through the thinning fringe of his sandy hair. With a stoic nod and sigh, he took her arm and began leading her down the front walkway, past the Hogwarts anti-Apparition wards.

A minute later, landing in the Yorkshire orchard, Lupin suppressed from his mind the dozen reasons why it was a bad idea to bring an erratic, loose cannon to a Muggle farm. Instead he focused on preparing her. "Sybill, we're only here for ten minutes — no longer. Now, let's disillusion oursel-"

FFIP! WHACK!

"What the hell was that?!" Lupin let go of Trelawney's hand, accidentally dropping her onto the hard, caked-mud ground as he spun about to stare at the old barn.

Heedless to Trelawney's sputtering indignation, Lupin frowned. "Merlin — those were hexes!"

Blessed with the instincts of a long-time Order of the Phoenix operative, the Dark Arts Defence professor tore off toward the old barn. After a mad dash across the field, he was just slowing to a discreet approach pace, when someone burst from the building, nearly skidding straight into him.

"I asked if one of you blokes ordered a pizza?" Harry repeated to the bewildered trio. He had no idea if that sound of Apparition outside was good news or bad, but it had certainly confused the crap out of the three thugs.

Predictably, Crabbe Senior took the bait, peering toward the door. “D’uh? A pizz-?”

Harry's wand flashed out. "Expelliarmus!"

Crabbe Senior leaped, trying to catch his wand, but tripped on a fallen hoe and landed hard, knocking himself silly.

“Ehh…?” Trying to remember a good spell, Goyle Senior jabbed his wand toward Harry. “Stupidfl-?”

Goyle pitched forward, hit by Ginny's much snappier stunner. Seeing the wand slip from his grimy fingers, she lunged. "Accio w-"

"Protego!" Pettigrew's three-fingered hand swept up the falling wand in mid air, somehow managing to use it to deflect Ginny's summoning spell.

"Stupefy! Stupefy!" Ginny lashed Pettigrew with hexes as he raced for the door.

"Protego! Protego!" Despite his wimpy squeaks, the scruffy wizard blocked Ginny's spells, and escaped to the open pasture.

He didn't get far, though. Skidding to an abrupt halt, Peter Pettigrew very nearly ploughed straight into... Remus Lupin.

When Shaun had sped back to Mossy Bottom Farm to enlist his canine friend Bitzer's help, he had hoped to not involve the farmer, who would presumably be dead weight (at best). Bitzer was a stickler for the chain of command, however, and insisted on dragging his poor stumbling, uncomprehending, half-blind master across the darkening field.

To their annoyance, the farmer insisted on expressing his bewilderment through loud, unhelpful commentary. "Hooo... Eh, uh whuh? Ohhhhh."

Growling, Bitzer nipped the man's sleeve, tugging him along, urging him to keep pace with Shaun. The farmer's feet had just began shuffling forward again, when...

Crackkk!!

Man, dog and sheep all whipped to the right, peering in bafflement as two figures lurched to the ground near the edge of the orchard.

Watching the two intruders confer for a moment, the farmer scratched his chin. "Yeh. Uh, oi thahh?"

FFIP! WHACK!

Leaping sideways at the sharp sudden noises, the farmer tripped over a yelping Bitzer and plunged head first into the crumbly soil, lifting his face just in time to hear another round of muffled shouts and other clatter coming from the neighbouring barn.

Shaun stared at the barn, then glanced back toward the orchard's two newest arrivals, one of whom was now sprinting for the barn. Squinting, Shaun recognised the man who had brought him home from the castle (friendly fellow, yet tinged an odd animal scent), followed at a much more tentative pace, by...

Oi! Bug Lady!!

Even in the setting twilight, Shaun knew those huge eyes! Caught in an open field with nowhere to hide, he ducked behind Bitzer...

Too late!

"Doggie dear! Seraphina, sweets!"

"B'ehhh!" With Bug Lady blocking his route back to Mossy Bottom, Shaun broke for the barn.

"Come here, Celerita!" Confused at Shaun's flight, Trelawney's approach slowed. "Here Doggie. Doggie...?"

"Er, uh, whuh?" Standing up and scratching his head, the farmer looked at Trelawney. "Huhh-Oh."

Trelawney turned toward the man's unexpected voice, and found her eyes appraising his denim-clad form; his wildly clumpy hair; sideburns and jaw that went on forever. Staring straight into the thickest, goggiest pair of outdated spectacles she had ever seen, her hand rose slowly to her mouth.

"Good gracious!"

"Bugger!" Pettigrew's pinched-face response to Lupin hardly counted as a sweet reunion. Backing up quickly, the scruffy wizard prepared to bolt.

"Peter? It's me — Remus!" Lupin lowered his wand; extending his left palm in a gesture of peaceful supplication.

Pettigrew glanced at the beckoning hand. For the barest moment, a flicker of pain crossed his shrewish, unpleasant face... Then he scowled and looked away.

"Peter, don't you recog-?"

CRACCKK!!

Lupin stared, in shock, at what was now just thin air.

Harry and Ginny raced out of the barn, wands drawn, then pulled up short. "Professor Lupin!"

"Professor, did you see where that man went? He's a..." Ginny paused, her eyes scouring the field. "Sir, he's a crook. He works for Lucius Malfoy."

Lupin seemed frozen, perhaps registering Ginny's words, but not yet quite able to respond.

Frowning in puzzlement, Harry opened his mouth to make a second entreaty, but startled at the sight of fast-approaching wool.

"Mehh!" Running straight for Harry, Shaun gestured urgently back toward the doorway. "Mehh! Mehhh!"

Wide-eyed, Harry and Ginny turned and rushed back to the barn. Wands out, they re-entered, their gaze skimming over Lucius Malfoy and his two henchmen, all still slumped on the floor. Seeing no threat from that angle, they realised that Shaun's frantic gestures were directed toward the haystack, where-

"Shite!"

Teetering about with a large snake wrapped around his torso and a furious duck pinned beneath one arm, Cecil Rosier looked the perfect idiot, but neither Harry nor Ginny laughed.

"Stupefy!" Harry's spell was quick and strong, but the instant it sprang from his wand, he knew something was wrong.

A sensation of ice stabbed Harry’s forehead. Horrified, he found his vision swirling, tunneling straight toward... the duck.

Bizarre sensations and images coursed through him.

Hatred — hard and cold.

Magic. Powerful Magic!

Piercing red-ember eyes, pinning him.

A distant memory. Shrieking, pitched laughter... a woman’s scream...

Caught up in the action, Ginny didn't notice Harry faltering. Instead, having seen his stunner somehow fly astray, she followed with a fierce Expulso, but it pinged away from Rosier as if deflected by a powerful, crisp shield. She stared in astonishment.

The duck's bizarre magic gave Rosier a split second reprieve to recover his wits. He glanced at his hand, blinked as he realised he had somehow recovered Malfoy’s wand, then hastily Disapparated.

"That filthy swine! How d-?!" Ginny suddenly realised that Harry had staggered to one knee. She reached for his arm. "Harry! Harry! Are you okay?!"

"Uh huh." Harry blinked and accepted Ginny's hand up.

Ginny glared at the empty hay stack. "Damn it, Harry — we had him! You saw his face — we’d caught him completely off guard! How could he possibly have gotten that bloody shield up so fast?!"

"I don't know." Harry rubbed his forehead. "I'm, er, kind of confused right now."

Ginny kicked an old plank in disgust. "That sod is slipperier than a greased Grindylow."

"He is. Greasy. Yeah." Harry shook the cobwebs out of his head and sighed. "Just Brilliant. We let a duck, a snake and one very greased geezer escape. Someone alert the Aurors."

"I just did, Harry." Lupin entered the barn, approaching his students. "They should be here momentarily. Now, what in the blazes is...?"

Lupin froze, gaping at the chaos — Messrs. Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle all lolled about on the floor; the cacophony of a dozen bleating sheep jumbled together in one wild, woolly heap. He shook his head "Merlin! You two work quickly, don't you?"

"Not fast enough, sir." Ginny bit her lip, dejectedly.

Harry exhaled wearily. "Too slow for that creep. He’s always a half step ahead."

It was late.

Exhausted from the wild action and the endless questions, Harry and Ginny were dutifully holding it together as they (once again) recited to Lupin their account of the strange confrontation. They paused as a tall, dark-complected Auror approached. He wore a very serious expression but, upon turning to face to the children, his eyes lit with a lively twinkle.

"Sorry to keep you waiting — I've actually been very eager to speak with you." Shacklebolt extended his hand to Harry and then to Ginny. "You've continued to generate rather a lot of work for me over the past while."

"Errr..." Harry shuffled his feet sheepishly but, when he looked up, Shacklebolt was grinning.

"It’s mighty good work, mates! If you keep me scurrying about on matters like this, we might finally expose some of the real dark plots lurking in the corners." The man beamed for a moment before a serious cast slid over his features again. "Unfortunately, tonight's incident has me baffled. Every instinct tells me something really foul was afoot here, but none of us can figure out what. At least we've collected some interesting clues, though."

"Oh?" Despite her fatigue, Ginny's eyes sparked with curiosity. "What sort of clues?"

"One moment, boss." Shacklebolt winked playfully, but became completely professional as he pulled out a scroll. "Clue number one — snake venom on the ground in the orchard, and a shattered vial of unicorn's blood in here. Residue suggests a very dark potion, quite unlike anything I've studied. I'll have to talk to an Unspeakable about it."

The children nodded, as Shacklebolt scrolled further down. "Clue number two — a strange wand." Glancing at Harry, he quirked his cheek curiously. "Son, one of the sticks you turned in has an odd history. Its last known owner was a wizard who was confirmed dead eleven years ago."

Frowning in puzzlement, Harry and Ginny waited for clarification.

"Eleven years ago yesterday, it was. I'm sure Remus remembers it vividly. As do I." Watching Lupin's face harden in torment, Shacklebolt shook his head. "Don't go leaping in the Horklumps, Remus. Pettigrew is dead. I should know — I personally conducted the autopsy on that sole finger they pulled from the crime scene."

"Finger...?" Harry's brow furrowed in thought, but neither adult noticed.

Shacklebolt turned away, thoughtful and subdued. "Let's think it through logically. It was Pettigrew's wand, and by all account the wizard who wielded it did look like him. So, what's the most likely explanation?"

"Errr..." Lupin pulled his thoughts back to task. "Perhaps somebody stole his wand years ago? Got ahold of an old hair sample, and is now polyjuicing him?"

Shacklebolt nodded, but Lupin scowled. "Why would anyone go to such trouble to impersonate Peter, though?"

"After all these years, why show his face on the very day you finally meet these two?” Shacklebolt raised an eyebrow, glancing at Harry and Ginny. “A distraction, maybe? Has it occurred to you that somebody might prefer that you not begin instructing the next generation? Perhaps someone who knows about your schoolboy days?"

"You mean, the Maraud-?" Lupin coughed. "I doubt it, Kingsley. You, Albus and Alastor are the only ones to know who was behind those exploits."

"Severus never figured it out?" Shacklebolt raised an eyebrow.

Lupin shook his head.

Shacklebolt's expression went stone serious. "What about Black, then?"

"Sirius?" Lupin paled. "Do... do you really think he’s somehow been contacting Malfoy?"

"I don't know." Shacklebolt glanced at the barn floor which was now devoid of stunned wizards. "I'd have given my big toe to interrogate Malfoy, but he's too tight with the Minister for me to grill."

"You let Malfoy go?" Ginny stared, aghast.

"I had to – he's too well connected. Sorry." Shacklebolt shrugged sheepishly. "I did question Crabbe and Goyle, but they know nothing. Literally. Maybe I’ll get something good off the Pettigrew wand, though. I'll run Prior Incantatem on it and let you, Harry and Professor Lupin know what I find."

The others nodded dispiritedly.

"Well, I'm knackered and there's little more to be done here, mates. Let's call it a night." Shacklebolt picked up his investigation portfolio, and was just taking his first step toward the door when Harry raised his hand. Shacklebolt stopped and smiled. "Yes Harry?"

Harry gazed back to the spot where Goyle had collapsed earlier. "What was it you said about doing an autopsy on a... 'finger'?"

"Finger?" Shacklebolt frowned. "Er, yes. That was the only part of Peter Pettigrew's remains large enough to identify. It was a horrific explosion."

"Finger!" Ginny gasped. "Harry, his hand!"

"Bingo!" Harry met her eye for a moment, then faced the two adults. "That short bloke who escaped — the one you thought might be someone polyjuiced as Pettigrew?"

The others nodded expectantly.

"He... he was missing a finger."

"We both saw it plain as day." Ginny clasped Harry's arm eagerly. "The scruffbag nicked Goyle's wand right out of the air. I remember saying to myself, 'Wow! Nifty move for someone with a maimed hand!"

Shacklebolt nodded very slowly, then turned to face Lupin.

"Missing finger?!" Lupin's jaw trembled as he stared through the open door out into the deep darkness. "But to polyjuice a maimed Pettigrew, someone would have had to collect a hair after he'd lost his finger in the explos..."

"Exactly!" Harry and Ginny both nodded vigourously.

"Impossible!" Shacklebolt stared at Lupin. "A blaze like that would have completely-"

Lupin slowly shook his head.

“Merlin’s marigold muffins...” Shacklebolt cleared his throat. "Er, Harry, Ginny? Do you suppose I could have a private moment with Remus before we all disperse?"

Harry and Ginny looked at Lupin and Shacklebolt curiously for a moment. Harry wasn't quite sure what had spooked the men so profoundly, or why they couldn't discuss it further in his or Ginny's presence. However, he was far too tired to argue, so he nodded. "Yes sir. Perhaps Ginny and I will get a spot of fresh air?"

"Thank you!" Shacklebolt flashed them a grateful grin. "Have a nice stroll."

"Yes, thank you." Lupin still looked unsettled, but he too mustered a quick smile. "I'll find you in a few minutes, and we can return to Hogwarts together."

Stepping past the barn’s lanterns into the crisp, still night, Harry and Ginny let their weary feet wander, angling randomly toward a grassy knoll to the west. Gazing toward Mossy Bottom Farm, they noticed several small, unusual glints of reflected moonlight. Squinting slightly, they spotted the source — two remarkably thick pairs of eye glasses.

In the quiet Yorkshire evening, Sybill Trelawney was holding the farmer's hand up to the silvery glow. Listening carefully, Harry and Ginny could hear their voices.

"... and this is your line of strength, and see how — oh! It crosses your heart line above the lucky sworl. You do know what that means, don't you?"

"Huh? Eh, ah nuh whuh..."

"No silly. It means that you are destined to find true love!"

"Meh? Nuh nuh, heh heh. Oh... Ohhhh!"

Quickly changing course to veer away from the unlikely paramours, Ginny smiled. "That is so sweet."

Harry scowled, muttering something under his breath.

"Harry Potter!" Ginny smirked. "Did you just use the word 'sickening'?"

Harry blushed — deeply enough for Ginny to notice, even in the low light.

Ginny laughed. "Okay, I suppose we could call it 'sickeningly sweet'?

"How about 'sweetly sickening'?" Harry chuckled. "But, hey. If the woman is happy, then maybe she'll stop predicting my imminent demise."

"Pah." Ginny took his hand. "Doesn't matter what she says, yeah? They couldn't get you before, and they're not about to do it now either. Not on my watch!"

Harry was about to arch one eyebrow in bemusement, but a glimpse of Ginny’s face told the other brow that it had better spike too... for the moonlight in the girl's eyes had a spark. A searing spark!

Harry's hand reached across, finding its intended place near the small of her back. One of Ginny's tiny hands landed at the base of his neck, urging him downward.

For the second time today, every fibre of Harry's soul drew him in, down, breathing a sweet nectar until he could almost taste-

"BEHHHHH'hhh-h!"

"Ack!" Harry and Ginny leapt apart, wands out, scouring the darkness... and saw twelve pairs of wide eyes staring right at them — unblinking, inquisitive, and very ovine.

"Behhhhh'hhh-h?"

"BAH-h-h!" Hurrying up the hill to reign in his woolly-brained herd mates was a thirteenth pair of eyes, rolling in Shaun-like contrition. "M'ehhh."

Harry and Ginny laughed.

And with that, the moment was over, for Lupin was already emerging from the barn to escort them back to Hogwarts.

Yet, somehow even this latest setback seemed more funny than frustrating. Perhaps it was because they were young. Maybe they knew they still had lots of time to find the right time. So, despite the relentlessly abysmal timing of every rat, sheep, and Ron / Hermione intrusion into their lives, they somehow sensed they were blessed by destiny. And destiny always finds a way.

Smiling, they took each other’s hands, exchanged a final fond gaze, and began ambling back down the hill.

After a minute of silence, Ginny looked over to see a little sparkle in Harry's eye. She squeezed his hand. "A Knut for your thoughts, Harry?"

"Ah?" Harry chuckled softly. "Just letting my mind wander."

"Uh uh." Ginny shook her head. "I know your 'just letting my mind wander' look, and that wasn't it."

"Hmmm..." Harry scratched his chin. "That phrase sounds familiar. Haven't I heard it somewhere before?"

"No, you haven't." Ginny smirked. "Now answer the question."

Harry laughed. "Okay. I was wondering what excitement we missed at supper tonight."

"Supper?" Ginny coughed. "Er, yes. I'll be interested to hear how that all came off."

"What came off??" Harry's eyebrows went up. "You were supposed to tell me earlier but we got, uh, distracted."

"Well, you'll find out soon enough." Ginny gave him a devilish grin. "There'll be lots of stories circulating at breakfast."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Yes, lots of scrambled and wildly sensationalised stories."

"Yes, the details can get a bit sketchy," Ginny admitted, skipping lightly. "A pity that."

"Er yes. Rather a pity. I always prefer to get information straight from the source."

"Yes, me too." Ginny began humming one of Luna's atonal melodies.

Harry did not begin humming. "Ahem."

"Yes Harry? Oh! You wanted me to tell you what I think might have happened?"

Harry coughed. "Er, yes?"

"Seriously? You're curious what could befall a slimy little Slytherin prat who thought he could get away with pranking Ginny Weasley's friends?"

Harry nodded.

Ginny gave him a serious look. "In strictly hypothetically terms of course."

"Er, yes." Harry nodded seriously. "Hypothetically speaking."

"Then I suppose you'd wonder, hypothetically speaking, how the prat could have been persuaded to lead a starry-eyed choir of Slytherins in a romantic ballad to Professor Snape?"

Harry snickered.

"But I doubt you'd be interested in the epidemic of, er, wardrobe malfunctions..."

Harry's jaw dropped.

"I'll have to tell you later." Ginny winked. "I reckon Professor Lupin has good hearing, and he's coming our way."

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