The Disclaimer, I Guess: hey, owning the fandom would be great, but I don't, so it's not.
Harry... (heavy helmet breathing) I am...your aunt's coworker's niece's hairdresser's sister's massage therapist's cousin twice removed.
(not in story.)
Down in a shy, hermetic part of the land, where the hills rolled and reached up to spike the air, lazily, before sweeping back down to settle, there was a quiet village of little more than a few hundred people. There was a small schoolhouse in the middle, surrounded by a tight cluster of tiny, neat houses, like a mother hen fringed by her chicks; there was a simple, unassuming store where one could get what they needed and little more, a barn with peeling white paint, two cows and a handful of chickens, and a respectable little church with a copper bell that tolled seven times on Sunday and on the day of a resident's death.
A single track lay a hundred yards from the edge of the village, where the land flattened out some. It had at one time been in consistent use, but that was over a hundred years earlier and the metal was now overshadowed with weeds and was a rainbow of rust.
The townsfolk were as mild as their village suggested; they went along their daily routines placidly and spoke little. When they did converse, it was in hushed, passive tones, as if afraid to snap the stillness that had held a spell over the town for so long. They minded their own business and did not delight in idle gossip as some small settlements do, but instead held their tongues docile.
The women sat on their porches and drank tea, talking about the previous evenings' church services; the men leaned on their shovels and advised each other on the most successful way to grow a tomato. The children played with jumping jacks and ate cookies where they could be found. They were careful to keep their clothes clean lest their mothers withhold those cookies, and act very sweet and never naughty, and never tell tall tales. That was why they kept their secret to themselves.
The children liked to play near the old tracks when they could. It was a source of fascination to them and it mystified the adults on their porches and shovels. They couldn't understand its appeal, and so ignored it on the whole.
And at night, the little town turned itself off and the adults settled in bed after tucking their children in. Then the grownups would sleep, and the children would un-tuck themselves and creep out the window, the bigger ones helping the toddlers, and sneak silently to Big Bally, a large rock fifty yards from the train tracks. There, they would perch, shivering with chill and excitement, to see if it would come by that night. Sometimes they would wait in vain until midnight passed, and creep back inside in disappointment. Sometimes, though, like that very night, they would see it.
They'd seen it on the night that a man had spied them, waiting on that big rock, and in alarm came running over to fetch them. He was a man from the eastern side of the village, and very kindly. His wife had died long before, and gray hair was surprising his black scalp. He had no children of his own, so he always gave strawberries to them at church. They liked him, Mr. Ferry.
Midnight had struck when he was five leaps away from the rock, and now he wasn't the same anymore. Now, Mr. Ferry lived in his old little shack on the village edge and didn't speak to anybody, not even the children, and became a recluse. He didn't go out at all, except for Sunday meeting.
The children waited expectantly, carefully alert, until the fragile, finespun whispers touched upon their ears like gossamer, and their small bodies tensed, looking to the south. The murmurs hummed slyly in their ears, and some of the smaller ones trembled against the wicked breath of the night specters. The whispers swelled and quickened, deflated and became nearly imperceptible. It flowed in waves, surging one instant, and slackening the next, nastily prodding and goading the children's rapid heartbeats.
And then, at some unheard sign, the whispers ceased sharply, easing back into each other and retreating like fleeting memories, snaking away and leaving an arcane, haunting silence, and the children's excitement reached a crescendo. They leaned forward in eager anticipation. One little boy, little more than three, was crying softly, but he was ignored.
There was a collective inhalation as something emerged from the southern horizon, where the earth now joined black hands with the sky. A wisp of white mist slithered through the air, as though God were lightly blowing his breath in the cold night; it grew, like a ripening flame, grabbing and clutching at the air, and then, suddenly, darting back and dancing forth again. The vapor snaked and intensified, the source slowly coming closer, and then rapidly gaining speed and a low whistle pierced the air; they felt sure that the adults would wake but no one came. They watched in expectant awe as the haze revealed its true form coming over the horizon.
The magnificent train engine glided smoothly over the supposedly deserted tracks. Through it could be seen the distant trees and mountains, greatly warped by the translucent image. It came like a silent beast, whose presence can be felt but not expressed, and in one great gust, reached the track in front of Big Bally and blew past, and a chilling resonance soared through the air and alighted on the children, who held each other in horror as they saw the gaunt, hideous faces in the engine's windows. A faint chorus of wails drifted around them and through their hearts, and then the ghost train was gone, as soon as it came.
They watched the tendrils dip back below the horizon. Then, the children slowly made their way back to bed, the older ones comforting the crying toddlers, cooing at them and wiping away the telltale trails of salty tears so the grownups wouldn't see.
"I tell you, it'll work. We just have to...tweak it."
"Adding rubbing alcohol to the strawberry daiquiri will not make the Fat Lady drunk, Sirius."
"And," said Remus, who had a sort of unsettled look on his face, as though he could not quite get hold of the conversation, "why, exactly, is it absolutely necessary to have Peeves romance the Fat Lady?"
"Many reasons, Remus. So many, that we cannot account for them all."
"Or, in fact, any of them."
His statement was patiently ignored by his friends, who were used to Remus's absurdly logical observations. James had not even heard Remus, most likely, because the glazed look in his eyes usually suggested that he was wholly engrossed in planning the operation at hand. Concocting schemes was really the only time that James ever got very deep into thought. Remus had once seen him summarize the never-ending Sorcerer's Ballad of Turnip Ears in one sentence. No one summarized the never-ending Sorcerer's Ballad of Turnip Ears in one sentence if they really thought about it.
Which said something about the boy's devotion to anything other than his projects. Remus didn't bother to point out any more flaws in the current plan, as James and Sirius inevitably jumped on them anyway.
Peter was off to the side, as he usually was, looking a little awkward. He never seemed quite at ease when Blotter (as James and Sirius were called, not many students caring to vainly differentiate between the two) was set on a prank that was sure to send the Ministry investigating. Part of it was that he was extremely nervous about getting caught, and another was that he was simply ill-suited for pranking. Oh, he was bright when he was motivated to be, and had a suspicious sagacity when it came to self-preservation, but pulling tricks was not his forte. Remus pretended like it didn't come natural to him either, and he was very good at it.
"We came up with this over the summer," Sirius explained, it having occurred to him that perhaps this idea had come rather out of the blue. "It seemed like, er, a worthwhile investment of efforts."
"I'm still waiting to see why," said Remus.
The answer to that evidently eluded Sirius for a moment, and he rummaged through his thoughts. Finally, he came up with a satisfiable response that would explain the reasoning behind every master endeavor: "Because."
Remus spotted Terry Gallows, the current Head Boy, sitting a few chairs over in the common room, looking askance at Blotter as though they might blow up any minute. Remus could hardly blame him; Head Boy was not a position quite so desirable now that the Terrible Two had entered Hogwarts.
Remus, feeling that he really ought to contribute while also feeling that he really ought not to, mused, "How would you get it inside the portrait, anyhow? Splash it?"
"Tried it," Sirius said glumly. James's head was still bent down. "With some butterbeer. It didn't work, but we got the canvas all sticky and she wouldn't accept our passwords for a week."
This was the current obstacle being fought, and Remus leaned back to just watch the two attack the problem with their characteristic tactlessness.
Then, the only thing that could have possibly happened to detract Potter from the task at hand did happen, and James's LilyRadar went off as the redhead stepped into the room. Before James could open his mouth to give one of his trademark pick-up lines and to receive Lily's trademark glare, Sirius jumped in.
"Do you have a map?" he demanded of Lily.
Lily eyed him warily. "Why?"
"Because James keeps getting lost in your eyes!" said Sirius. James was at an unusual loss for words. Before the girl could roll her eyes and leave, Sirius pressed on: "If you were a booger, James would pick you first!" James turned a hot red and he aimed a savage kick at Sirius, who scooted deftly out of the way and continued. "I hope you know CPR, 'cause you take his breath away."
A couple of first-years giggled and James shot a Look of Painful Death their way and they quieted quickly. Lily flushed, a little taken aback, but immediately regained her composure. "Not a chance, Casanova," she said scornfully. The redhead turned on her heel, and with head held high, marched up the stairs.
James stared hard at Sirius. "If she was a booger?" he repeated disbelievingly.
"Are you saying James picks his nose?"
Sirius sighed in exasperation. "It's a pickup line. And nothing you've been trying has worked very well, has it?" Seeing the grudging knowledge of this truth in James's eyes, he nodded in satisfaction.
Remus tried to hide a grin for his friend's sake. He quickly changed the topic. "Er, so, perhaps we paint the butterbeer on the portrait?" He immediately regretted saying that.
James and Sirius seized that thought, conflict forgotten. "Remus, if anyone were to think of defacing school property, it'd be you," said James, thoroughly pleased with the idea.
That very weekend was a planned trip to Hogsmeade, much to Blotter's delight. The staff at Zonko's was on very familiar terms with them, so familiar that Blotter was allowed to view some of the more discreet items in the store's inventory and be trusted not to snitch. Pretty handy on the whole.
After purchasing some of these unmentionables, the four started in the direction of The Three Broomsticks, intending to snag some butterbeer. Sirius was incessantly dismayed at the fact that his clout at Zonko's did not extend to the benign tavern, where Rosemerta still refused to sell him a firewhisky. He was usually all for sneaking into the Hog's Head, but the barman, while a seedy sort, was loyal to Dumbledore and would turn a deaf ear to Sirius's enthusiastic negotiations. And the frilly little tea shop was strictly Off Limits. The staff did not appreciate Blotter coming in and making kissy noises at all the couples.
They passed the owl post and Sirius stopped, eyeing a little shanty building tucked away in a hidden corner. It was one that they'd passed before, but never really stopped to consider. Questionably supported rock bricks made up the walls, with quaint wooden shutters closed firmly, shutting away those inside. A cracked tiny sign hung at an off angle right above the door, harassed by ivy until the lettering was nearly invisible. A very dim light emanated from the crevices in the shutters—it was a surprise to them; they'd always assumed the tavern to be abandoned.
"Das Hungrige Nilpferd," Peter read uncertainly, squinting his eyes. Sirius turned it over like a dog sizing up a slab of meat. "What's a Nilpferd?"
"It sounds promising," Sirius said brightly.
"Sirius, I believe everyone in town has been warned of your intentions," Remus said. "You're not going to get any firewhisky."
"That particular thought," said Sirius airily, "had not even remotely considered the possibility of crossing my mind." Grabbing hold of Remus's shoulder, he marched them through the ancient wooden door.
It was dank and dark inside, a bit like the Hog's Head, except this place appeared to make a conscious effort to pass any surprise health inspections. Light flowed from some unseen lantern that cast an odd glow over the scene. The barkeep, a strong, ruddy man with a rusty red beard, looked up and seemed to be balancing their money stash in his mind. He nodded to a table on one side, clearly directing them to sit there and nowhere else. The four took their seats, looking warily at the company they kept.
Only a few others were scattered inside the grogshop. Two witches were chatting with each other in one corner. Peter stared at the long, filthy nails that they managed with remarkable dexterity. A grizzled old wizard with a cropped beard sat at the long oak bar, staring into his drink. His bowler hat kept inching forward, threatening to dislodge and fall into the ale, but the wizard had a knack for jerking his chin viciously to settle it in place.
Sirius waited eagerly for the bartender to come over and take their orders. But the bearded man apparently didn't see the need, and directed at them sharply: "Butterbeers are all we've got for underage."
Sirius's face fell, but Remus nodded and the barkeep set to filling up the glasses.
The old wizard at the bar gave them a long, measuring look, regarding them with dull eyes. He then turned back and took another swig of a foul-smelling drink. Peter watched him carefully until their drinks were brought.
Sirius finished his own glumly, willing to be rid of the place now that it was certain that they wouldn't receive any 'choice' beverages. James slugged his down, ignoring its slightly abnormal, tangy taste. Peter and Remus were decidedly more reserved, and didn't finish theirs. After quickly paying for their drinks, they began to gather their purchases, but were interrupted on their way by the gentleman at the bar, who turned abruptly to face them.
"Quarter moon tonight?" he barked at them.
Remus stiffened and his friends shot furtive glances at each other, caught off guard. The speaker was clearly expecting an answer. James willed his heart to stop pounding and recovered first. "Dunno," he said nonchalantly. "Why?" As he spoke, Sirius deftly put a foot in front of Remus.
"She'll be coming tonight," the man muttered into his glass, snapping his chin up to keep the hat from falling into his liquor.
"Er, right," said Remus, relieved, and he tried to usher Peter out the door, but he was entranced. "Nice talking to you."
"Who is 'She'?" Peter asked quickly.
Bowler Hat looked at them with a face of open astonishment, his bowler hat bowing back on his head. The bartender let out an audible groan, and the two witches in the corner snorted. "The Rosetta Murphy," he said in complete surprise. "Don't tell me you've never heard of her."
He got up from his stool like a man rising from mud. He advanced towards them and Peter instantly regretted speaking up. The bartender sighed and wiped a glass. "Easy there, champ," he mumbled. "Scarin' away the patrons."
The other paid no attention to that. "She only comes out when the moon shows," he said, his voice low in a conspiratorial whisper. "Engine Thirteen."
"What—a train?" Sirius asked in exasperation, shifting his weight impatiently. He wanted to stop at Honeydukes before returning to the castle, and was annoyed at the interruption by a man who was informing them of his departure times.
The man looked at him scathingly. "Not just any train," he said with contempt. Adopting a mysterious pose that made James snigger, he continued: "The Rosetta Murphy has been haunting the countrysides for a hundred years. On her maiden voyage across the tracks, she disappeared—with one hundred and seventy-three passengers. It was never seen from again—except now, at midnight." He grinned toothily, revealing yellow, mossy teeth. "The moonlight lights the tracks so the train can find its way home again."
He took a deep breath, relishing the reluctant attention. "They say...the train conductor was mad."
This was greeted with an awkward silence. Sirius nodded in a reassuring way, and said as though talking to a child, "That's a nice story."
"It's not a story!" He snapped out a claw-like hand and clamped it on Sirius's shoulder with unnatural strength, and his eyes gleamed fiercely, madness lacing the gaze. The bowler hat had fallen off completely, revealing scraggly gray hair that clung stubbornly to a skeletal scalp. Sirius, alarmed, jumped and struggled out of the iron grip.
The bartender had been listening as the old man told his story for the hundredth time, but interrupted as he saw the drinker getting riled. "That's enough," he said firmly. Remus looked gratefully at him and the four of them quickly walked out the door. The barfly watched them going with eyes that had suddenly lost their dullness.
"Another Ogden's," he snapped sharply at the bartender. Truth could always be found at the bottom of a bottle.
If you happen to be curious, the Peeves and the Fat Lady thing sprang up in a story that is now deleted from my personal archive. Also, "Das Hungrige Nilpferd" is, I believe, German for "The Hungry Hippo", or something of the like.