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