"You want to loose poisonous ducks on Hogwarts." Praxis Atherton stared at his friend and colleague of over twenty years as though he had grown a second head. Just to be on the safe side he flicked his wand at the door to their tiny office in the Experimental Charms Department and sealed it to stop people popping in when voices started getting raised. "Explain it again, and try to make it make sense this time."
Adrastos Reynard sighed, and cupped his hands around his mug of tea, looking at Praxis over the top of it. "Look, the Dark Lord has tried this duelling thing with the Potter boy, hasn't he? According to the Daily Prophet they've done nothing but try for the past few years – he's tried through the teachers, basilisks, Dementors…"
"Yes, yes, I read Skeeter's work too." Atherton waved a hand at him impatiently. "Get to the point."
"Well, the thing is, those things – they've all failed, haven't they?" Reynard explained calmly. "Between Dumbledore and this whole Order of the Phoenix thing they've had going, they have the boy primed for obvious assassination attempts. But who would expect trouble from a duck?"
It was true. Nobody would expect trouble from a duck. But that, Atherton reflected, was because ducks were a bloody stupid idea. "And how exactly do you get these ducks to seek out Harry Potter? They may have lost Dumbledore at Hogwarts, but I think the teachers who are left might just be bright enough to notice that something's a bit odd if a flock of ducks start wandering the corridors."
"Don't be stupid." Reynard shook his head. "I wouldn't send them inside the building. The boy's – what? Seventeen now? I shouldn't have to. That's just the right age to be wandering along the lake with a girlfriend. Or boyfriend. Or Magical Cre-…look, that's what they do."
"And how do you propose to get these ducks into the Lake?" Answer one objection, and Atherton was ready with another. "Snape might be on our side, but even so I can't see anyone approving introducing a species that will assassinate Hogwarts' students. Half the School Governors have kids at the school. That tends to make them a bit edgy about such things."
"I don't see why – they put up with that Hagrid's pets for years, didn't they? Hippogriffs, a dragon – ducks are nothing to what that place has had." Reynard laughed, and then, seeing his friend's expression, answered more seriously. "Look, we don't have to tell them the truth, do we? Tell them we're developing a breed of duck that will eat the waterweed in the lake, or tidy up stray twigs from the Whomping Willow or something. Something beneficial."
Atherton rested his head in his hands for a moment, and tried to work out whether there was a nice way to tell your friend he had gone completely insane.
"Look," he said finally. "Even supposing this could work – and I'm not saying it could – since when did this become our job? We're Experimental Charms not Magical Weapons. We work on spells grow a better crop of wheat, or stop objects getting lost – helpful things. If suddenly we're meant to be researching New And Exciting Ways To Kill People then I think I missed a departmental memo somewhere."
Reynard ran his thumb up and down the handle of his mug, looking deeply into its contents. Atherton took his silence as a sign he was thinking twice about the idea, and moved on hopefully.
"I know we're needing something new to look into, but I've got this really interesting proposal to work a Charm to reduce aggressiveness in male animals. They want the main application to be to help farmers with bulls and stallions that are prime stock but causing issues, but I think it could also be altered to help girls with men who're coming on too strong, and –"
"What do you think'll happen if the Dark Lord fails to kill Potter again?" Reynard interrupted, still staring at his tea as if he could see the future in its milky surface.
"I can't see one teenager causing too much trouble, whether he's alive or dead." Atherton looked at his friend again. "I know there's all the rumour and stuff surrounding the kid, but… he's just a boy. The only extraordinary thing about him is the way he manages to keep not dying."
"Just a boy that all the stories rest on." The other wizard looked up at him. "Even if they're just stories, Prax, do you really think this whole Order of the Phoenix thing will stop while he's still alive? He's the one they've got all their hopes pinned on."
"And what if they have?" Atherton glanced at his own tea – by now stone-cold – and waved a hand to set the kettle back to boil. "We can defeat them. We've got enough powerful witches and wizards fighting for us…"
""We"?" Reynard's mouth twitched. "Prax, we're forty-seven. I've got a dicky heart, and you haven't walked right since that broomstick incident a few years ago. Exactly how much use do you think either of us would be in battle?"
"Well, maybe not us, precisely." Atherton conceded. "But there are others – younger folk."
"Like your daughter? Eighteen years old, top of her class – I'm sure the Death Eaters would consider Maisie fine recruitment material, wouldn't they?" Reynard's voice was sharp suddenly. "Or my Owain – they'd say he was more than ready to fight at twenty two. Do you really want to put your kid into that, Prax? Because win or lose, there's never a guarantee anyone will come out of battle alive, and if there's a way I can help my boy avoid it, I will."
For the first time, Atherton hesitated, hand stilling in the motion of beckoning the kettle over to him. His Maisie, his precious little girl, exposed to the risk of full-on magical battle? He shivered. "There, you might have a point," he admitted gruffly. "But if it happens, I don't see there's any way of avoiding it."
"Because you're not listening to me." Reynard sighed at him, and snapped his fingers at the hovering kettle. It hurried to fill the teapot in response. "The Order of the Phoenix have lost already, they're just too stubborn to admit it. Kill Potter, and you take the heart out of them." He looked hard at his friend, face pink and earnest. "If we can pull this off, the war could be over by Christmas. No risk the kids get sent to fight, no more Dementors hanging around the place, no more of everyone being so edgy because they don't know who's working for whom. If we do this, things could get back to normal."
Atherton was quiet, using the task of emptying and refilling the mugs with fresh hot tea as an excuse to try to run the concept through his mind. It couldn't work, it wouldn't work, but if it did… how many lives could it save?
"It would help the War Effort," his friend added hopefully, passing him the sugar bowl.
The War Effort – that seemed to cover nearly everything anyone did these days. "I think when they told you to support the War Effort, they were expecting you to refrain from spreading gossip, Drast, not for you to start raising farm animal assassins." Atherton looked at the other wizard's flushed face, and sighed. Perhaps Adrastos just needed time to get the idea out of his system. "Fine, if it means so much to you, get your ducks. See what you can do with them. Butt keep full documentation on what they can do, and for Merlin's sake, don't release them or anything until you've checked with me.
And at that time, hopefully, he'd still be sane enough to say "No" just as many times as was required.
The duck arrived a week later – a drab brown bird that seemed mild-tempered enough. She quacked at Atherton in a friendly manner as he passed and waggled her tail feathers hopefully in a passable attempt to be considered adorable enough to be given more food.
"This your birdie?" Atherton crouched down to take a closer look through the cage bars. "I hate to throw a damper on things from the beginning but this bird doesn't look aggressive enough to attack anybody, "
"Oh, I'm not depending on Delores to kill people." Reynard reassured him placidly, busily preparing duck feed. "But that's a clutch of ten eggs she's sitting on. I figured the charm might take better while they were still young."
"You named your bird after Delores?" Atherton's voice was slightly strangled, and he rose slowly from his crouch, turning to face the other wizard. "Delores Umbridge?"
"Well, it began with D." Reynard poured the food into a dish calmly. "And Dumbledore was the only other D name I could think of, and I figured that might be looked at oddly, what with him being a Blood Traitor and all. Besides, Delores is a girl."
"And you don't think naming her Delores might also be looked at oddly? " Atherton lowered his voice to a frantic hiss. "Do you really think the woman will be pleased on discovering she has an avian namesake? Drast, I enjoy a laugh and a crack-on as much as the next man, but this is just too… too obviously mocking. You can't just make fun of her like that – she's too dangerous. She won't take it as a joke!"
"But I didn't mean it to mock anybody." Reynard seemed genuinely surprised that it might be taken that way, his features settling into a slight frown. "I know it's only a duck, but I thought she might take it as a compliment."
"A compliment. Right." Atherton sat down heavily, because he knew with a horrifying certainty that Reynard really believed that, which made it twice as hard to sort things out. "I believe in you, and so I will name the mother of a flock of killer ducks after you. Remind me to ask you how you courted Nestor some time – considering what you count as a compliment, I'm guessing that was a whole barrel of fun."
Reynard didn't smile, still peering at Atherton with that same worried frown. "You really think she won't like it?"
"Well, let's just say it might be more tactful to shorten it to Del or something." Better to tone it down, especially with all of the Death Eaters that seemed to be running around the place lately. Some of them didn't know a loyal employee when they saw one. "You know, I never had you down as an Umbridge fan, Drast."
"A lot of folk have her down as an extremist." Reynard admitted. He set the bowl of food inside the duck's cage and watched her carefully. "Go on, Delores, eat the nice yummy food. You need to keep your strength up to raise all those babies for me."
"You were saying?" Atherton prompted after a minute, when it became obvious his friend had been distracted from their conversation.
"Hmm? Oh yes – Umbridge." Reynard looked up, still petting the duck's head lightly. "Well, it's just, I read her pamphlet, and some of the stuff she said does make a lot of sense. When you think of how many Muggle students Hogwarts was accepting under Dumbledore – that's got to have an effect on us all now they're starting to be old enough to graduate and look for jobs. Some of these kids will accept stupid pay just for the chance to work in magic – no-one from genuine wizarding families is going to be able to compete unless they want to be as poor as the Weasleys."
"It's a point." Habit made Atherton turn to order the kettle to boil with a quick flick of his fingers. It just didn't seem right sitting and chatting unless you had a cup of tea in your hands. "Most people tend to get a little nervous at the point where she suggests ah… rounding up and killing them all, however."
"Oh, that's a common misconception." Reynard shook his head. "Just exaggeration – you know how people overstate things to make a point. She simply thinks they should be questioned so that they can deal with the ones who are causing trouble. I suppose it's not really the Mudbloods' fault, poor things, but some of them don't understand how our world works, so they try to change it. You remember when your Maisie wrote and told you how that Granger girl was causing trouble over house elves at school a few years ago? When they get to be adults, things like that get more serious." He snapped his fingers, and his mug – a brightly coloured, well-loved cup with World's Best Daddy scrawled across it – flew to Atherton's hand. "I wouldn't mind them joining the world so much if they didn't try to make us adjust to work their way. If it weren't for Mudbloods like that, there'd barely even have to be a war at all."
Atherton thought of the pale, frightened faces of some of the witches and wizards who'd been ordered to report "downstairs" lately, and wished he could summon up half the easy belief his friend seemed to manage without even trying. Surely they couldn't all be causing trouble?
But that was treasonous thinking and he quenched it quickly, turning instead to fill the pot of tea, "Did you want a biscuit with that?"
It was a short time after that that Atherton came into work to find a row of small yellow fuzzy bodies laid out on the table.
"I'm guessing the poisoning charm didn't work?" he asked rather hopefully, prodding one of the dead ducklings with a finger. Perhaps this would be the end of the experiment.
"No." Reynard was glum, bent over his notebook, still writing up this twist in his work, "It worked brilliantly. Turns out ducklings scuffle in the nest – or maybe I charmed them to be too aggressive or something. I lost six before I could get them separated, poor little beggars."
"Delores looks fine." Given time, it was hard not to adopt the name Reynard had given his duck. It was true, she did seem to have the self-satisfied look of the Under-Secretary about her and the same sort of bustling movement. "Are you just going to keep them separate now then?"
"I think Delores had thick enough feathers to protect her." Reynard tapped his quill against the notebook. "I'm working on an anti-venom charm to protect them from each other, before I put them back in together. I should probably use it on us too, as we'll be handling them."
"Absolutely not..." Atherton looked at him sharply, shocked by the suggestion. "You know lab rules – no using charms on each other until they've been tested and fully approved. You remember the time Temas' head exploded when they were trying to perfect that Enlarge charm? You don't mess around with this stuff."
"I suppose not." Reynard conceded reluctantly. "It just strikes me that it could be dangerous, handling them."
Atherton shrugged. Sometimes, like a lot of very clever people, his friend could be very stupid. "Easily solved. We'll wear gloves."
The four remaining ducklings grew quickly. Reynard had named them Godric, Helga, Rowena, and Salazar – names Atherton had not objected to for fear his friend might change them to something worse. Reynard was quite likely to name a duckling after the Dark Lord himself, and not consider, even for a minute, why that might be thought a bad idea. Praxis had premonitions of Reynard running up and down the halls of the Ministry shouting "Voldie! Here Voldie…now don't be naughty Voldemort and eat all of your lovely dinner," and all the Death Eaters having a collective apoplexy.
Atherton loved his friend dearly, but sometimes he wondered if Reynard was quite inhabiting the same reality as everyone else.
The ducklings grew and developed by leaps and bounds. Reynard proved that they were capable of poisoning frogs, and then that they could kill a rabbit, and Atherton tried to bury the thought of just how easy it would be to slip into the lab one night, and wring the four birds' necks.
"Are you actually sure the Dark Lord will thank you for this?" he asked one day, trying not to look into the face of the fluffy little bunny who would shortly be writhing and foaming at the mouth.
Reynard's blank look suggested that the idea hadn't even crossed his mind. "Why wouldn't he? Killing Harry Potter is what we're meant to be doing, after all."
"Strictly speaking, what we're meant to be doing is having nothing to do with the whole affair." Atherton corrected him. "And, I don't know. The Dark Lord strikes me as the sort to like dealing with things personally. He might be a bit peeved at a duck stealing his glory."
"I really can't see the difference as long as it gets the job done. It's results that count."
The duck on the table eyed the rabbit for a moment or so, gave a friendly sort of quack, and then struck quickly, biting the unfortunate animal in the neck. The rabbit gave a shriek of pain. Atherton tried to ignore it.
Reynard patted the brown feathers fondly. "Good girl, Helga."
A thought struck Atherton as he eyed the bird, trying not to show his distaste for it. "Drast, aren't these sort of big for ducks? These four are all bigger than Dolores already, and you said they were still just halfgrown?"
"Ah… yes." The other wizard looked a little sheepish. "I think it might be a side effect of one of the charms I used on them."
Something in the way Reynard phrased that gave Atherton a bad feeling. "One of them? Just how many charms have you used on these birds?"
"Not many." Reynard seemed uncomfortable, not meeting his friend's eyes. "Just poison, anti-venom, aggressiveness, intelligence, something to make them strong… um…"
Atherton closed his eyes for a moment. "Intelligence?"
"They have to be able to recognise the Potter boy."
"He might fight back."
"So you are telling me that you want to release aggressive, poisonous, intelligent super-ducks which look to be ready to grow to the size of swans on a lake next to a school full of children?" Atherton demanded, his voice starting to rise. "Merlin, Drast, this is not what I agreed to when you wanted to start the project!"
Reynard looked sulky. "You agreed me to making ducks that could kill Harry Potter. Did you think they were going to stay cute and fuzzy little ducklings?"
"I thought – I don't know what I thought. I didn't think you'd create these." He ran a hand through his hair, trying to think.
Helga quacked at him reproachfully. He was pretty sure that the way she was eyeing his leg was not a good sign.
"Right, what we'll do is, we'll get a nice cup of tea," Atherton decided stepping back and falling to his default solution for any situation he didn't quite know how to handle straight away. "Then we'll come back and… I don't know. Get rid of them. Or at least unwork some of the charms if you won't do that. We can't loose these on the world, especially not near kids."
Reynard looked affronted. "My work…"
Atherton cut him off with a shake of his head and a quick wave of his hand. "Save it, Adrastus. At least let me drink my tea before you start trying to talk me out of it. I need to get my head around this first."
The ducks were gone when they went back to the lab
Atherton didn't want to suspect his friend had purposefully left the catches to the cages open, but could see no other way it could have happened. How Reynard had managed to open the window without him seeing was more of a mystery because his friend had a tendency to gesture even with non-verbal spells.
"They must have heard us talking, and figured out a way to escape themselves," Reynard insisted. He stood at the open window, gazing out. "My poor babies. They must have been so scared."
Atherton stared at him. "You are seriously telling me that you believe the ducks opened the cages and the window on their own?"
Reynard nodded, unable to keep himself from looking proud. "Didn't I tell they were smart?"
"Smart little murderers. Merlin's balls!" Atherton swore. "I'm going to have to report this to the Minister."
"Don't!" Reynard turned to look at him, alarmed.
"Don't?" It was Atherton's turn to stare.
"Once it's official, they really will just kill them. They're just scared, Prax, just lost and scared. They'll come to me when I call, I know they will."
"Adrastus." It was serious now. Atherton only ever used his full name when it was serious. "These aren't lost, frightened little kittens. Your "pets" could kill people. We have to inform the authorities."
"The authorities haven't watched them grow from ducklings. They don't have books full of research telling them how they're likely to behave, where they're likely to go, what they'll do. We do know that, Prax. We can find them quicker and better than anyone official could."
Atherton hesitated. He should inform the Minister right now, he knew that. He should just march right down there, explain the situation, and get people out there hunting those ducks.
And yet… the idea of just how he'd have to explain that made the wizard's stomach lurch. Explaining why he'd let his colleague develop the birds in the first place would be hard enough, explaining how they had been so incompetent to let the ducks escape would be worse. Even before all this war business, it would have meant both their jobs. Now, with Death Eaters and Dementors filling the building? Atherton shivered. He could not, much as he would like to, be as blithely confident as Reynard that the Dark Lord would be delighted by their well-intended but clumsy effort to help.
"Grab your broomstick," he said heavily, "We'll look for them. But you better be right about knowing where to look for them, Drast!"
Hyde Park could be a beautiful place on a late June morning. It was as though a piece of countryside had been transplanted and moved to the middle of London, hundreds of acres of green shifted into the city.
Who could resist a place like that? It attracted walkers, cyclists, boaters, swimmers… and ducks.
On this particular morning it also attracted two middle-aged wizards, both trying to look inconspicuous as they strolled along the banks of the Serpentine.
"I don't mean to alarm you." Atherton said carefully after a few minutes, "but your wand is making a funny noise."
"It's meant to be." Reynard flushed. "I thought they might come more quickly if they heard duck noises. Might attract them sort of thing."
The two men were silent for a moment, both listening.
"It's not, you know." Atherton said finally. "I might not have researched them as much as you, but even I know ducks are meant to go quack. That doesn't sound like quack at all. It sounds like a duck trying to cough up a hairball. Featherball even."
"It's the sound their mother used to make to them!" Reynard protested. He tapped his wand against his leg. A loud honking came out. "That's the noise they used to make to get each other's attention." Another tap, more honking, more drawn out this time. "And that's for calling to each other from a distance."
"Huh." Atherton raised his eyebrows and considered this for a long moment. "Well, let me try then."
He twitched his own wand. A horrible shriek sounded, lingering on for a painful minute. The cyclist passing the pair at that moment nearly fell off his bike. Reynard elbowed his friend hastily.
"What in Merlin's name…"
"Rabbit, just after they bit it," Atherton said straight-faced. "I figured it was as least a good a try as yours was."
Reynard grimaced at him, and opened his mouth to answer when a faint answering shriek sounded from a few hundred metres ahead of them. It hung in the air for a minute or two before breaking off into a gurgling noise.
The two wizards looked at each other.
"Tell me," Atherton said after a moment. "Did you find, in your research, any animals that have a mating call particularly like the noise of a dying rabbit?"
Mutely, Reynard shook his head.
"Then I think we'd better run. Come on!"
It turned out, however, that two slightly over-weight wizards were no match for a group of curious Muggles when it came to an accident. Especially not when one of those wizards still walked with a limp due to an accident with a broomstick that really wasn't fit to be discussed in polite company.
By the time they reached the scene, a small crowd had already gathered around the victim – a man curled in a heap on the ground – and the duck. One enterprising soul had even whisked out a camera and was busily snapping away.
"Maybe it's rabies. Look, he's foaming at the mouth."
"Don't be stupid, it's the animal that froths at the mouth, not the person who gets bitten with rabies," an old gentleman corrected authoritatively,
"Well, maybe he bit the duck? I mean it looks healthy enough."
"I don't think it's a duck? It looks too big. Maybe it's a new type of swan?"
"You know, a swan can break a man's arm with its wing."
"Does he have a broken arm? Someone should check."
"I'm not checking his arm if he's going to bite me."
In the centre of the crowd, Godric quacked quite calmly and preened his feathers.
Atherton stared for a moment, and then tugged gently on Reynard's elbow, leading him a few steps away.
"Are they actually all just… going to stand there, waiting for it to bite them?" he muttered, safely out of earshot.
"I think so." Reynard eyed the gathered people. A small child offered Godric a stale breadbun. "You how, if this is how Muggles react around ducks, they could have gotten Potter easily," he added resentfully.
"Never mind that now! What are we going to do about them?"
"Well, we are meant to be eliminating Muggles…" But even as Reynard said it, it sounded doubtful.
"Specific Muggles and Mudbloods! Specific ones! The Dark Lord's going to be just a bit annoyed if people start getting turning up dead in the Prophet and he doesn't know anything about it!" Atherton hissed, keeping his voice low. "Besides," he added, as one of the Muggles knelt down, evidently to put the body into some kind of "recovery" position, her head perilously close to Godric's beak, "it scarcely seems fair, does it?"
"Well, look at them," Atherton said helplessly, gesturing. The small child was now tugging determinedly at her mother's hand, demanding loudly to be allowed to "pet the birdy". "They've got a dead body in front of them, and it still hasn't occurred to any of them that maybe they should be running away. It's not like any of them actually pose any danger to the Dark Lord's rule. They're just… too stupid to kill."
"I see what you mean." Reynard frowned thoughtfully for a minutes, and then snapped his fingers, murmuring something under his breath. On the ground a stick twisted and curled, changing colour and shape.
"Look!" he announced in a loud clear voice, pointing. "Aaah! A snake! That must be what bit him!"
That was enough to distract most of the crowd. Poisonous snakes were more interesting than probably-harmless large ducks. The stick slithered away into the undergrowth, and they followed, several of them gathering sticks, the better to poke it with.
Only the woman crouched over the body remained, still trying to arrange the fallen man's limbs into what, apparently, was the recovery position.
Robbed of his audience (and his bread bun) Godric quacked discontentedly and looked around. His small black eyes fell on the woman's neck, clearly visible as she pushed her hair back from her face, too focused on what she was doing to notice the duck. He lunged…
"Avada kedavra!" The curse came automatically. There was no time to think, no time for Atherton to pick the best spell for the occasion, There was only time to react, before Godric could bite.
There was a rushing sound, and Godrics feathers were suddenly alight with darting green flames. The duck gave one last surprised quack, and then fell over.
Even someone dedicated to first aid found it hard to miss that. The woman looked up, looked at the duck – still burning a bright and merry green, looked at the wizard – his wand still in his hand, and screamed.
"Imperio!" Reynard stepped in hastily. The woman's face relaxed instantly, fear vanishing. Reynard thought fast. "You are going to report this to your Mini – Praxis?" he asked, breaking off, "who do Muggles report things to?"
"Uh," Atherton thought for a moment. "The police I think."
"Right. You are going to report this to your police. You are going to tell them that you saw a man in the park get bitten by a poisonous snake. You are going to tell them that you tried very hard to save him but you couldn't. You will be very sad about this, but then you will be happy about this because uh. Because of rainbows. And kittens, and puppies, and fluffy bunnies. You are going to go now."
Obediently the woman stood, trotting off across the park to seek out the nearest phone.
Atherton stared at his friend for a moment. "Rainbows, and kittens, and puppies and fluffy bunnies?"
Reynard shrugged. "Women like those things. I figured she needed something to cheer her up."
"One day I really must ask your wife why exactly she married you," Atherton mused, and then gestured to the duck. It was still smouldering slightly. "We'd better move this. Even Muggle police might work out something is a little odd if they find it next to the body."
"Right." Reynard tapped the limp bundle of feathers with his wand. It floated lightly into the air. "Anyway," he added. "It's not me who's got the most pathetic excuse ever for going to Azkaban. "What are you in for?" "Oh, I used an Unforgivable Curse. On a duck."."
"They don't send you to Azkaban for cursing ducks!" Atherton protested, though he did look slightly worried as they set off back through the park, the aroma of roast duck following them.
"And here's me using imperio," Reynard sighed. "You know, you'd better hope no-one ever finds out we used Unforgivable Curses to kill a duck and save a stupid Muggle. I have a feeling that whichever side found that out, neither of them would really be pleased about it."
After that, there was an outbreak of "adder bites" in Hyde Park. Much to the relief of Reynard and Atherton wizardly newspapers didn't really take much notice, being too occupied by the takeover of the Dark Lord and the changes within the Ministry to be overly concerned by Muggles and their animals.
Muggle newspapers on the other hand, seized the story and loved it. Summer was beginning, the traditional silly season of British newspapers when nothing much was happening and tiny stories became huge ones. The photographs taken by the passer-by of that first victim were printed on the front page of every newspaper in the UK. The Mirror speculated that perhaps it wasn't adders at all, but exotic snakes, possibly imported by immigrants for some reason best known to them. The Daily Express kept a running total of the death count on the front page, and kept demanding to know what Tony Blair was intending to do about the snake danger plaguing Britain's public parks. The BBC encouraged everyone to react by holding strong, and showing the Blitz spirit. Quite what dealing an outbreak of poisonous snakes had to do with hiding in underground shelters from bombs no-one was quite sure, but this had never stopped the BBC before.
Large sections of the park were roped off to visitors while the authorities tried to decide how exactly to deal with this. Snake warning signs were posted.
Less well-reported was the sudden outbreak of people who suddenly started preaching to slightly bemused family and friends about the happiness of rainbows, kittens, puppies and fluffy bunnies, although London animal shelters were very grateful for the sudden surge in adoptions.
The ducks, however, remained stubbornly elusive. The two wizards spent day after day chasing around the park, or hovering over it on broomsticks, but always seemed to arrive just a little too late, just after the duck had vanished quietly into the undergrowth while the hapless victim was still writhing on the ground.
"What we need," Reynard said after the third week of this, when the body count numbered thirteen humans, five dogs, and one small, yappy Chihuahua (the Chihuahua had not actually been bitten by a duck, it had just had the misfortune to get in Atherton's way when he was chasing one of them.) "…is to find their nest."
"Nest?" Atherton was alarmed by the very concept. "You can't mean to say they'll be laying eggs yet?" he demanded, "They can't possibly be old enough – they're what, three months old? Surely ducks don't develop that quickly!"
Reynard shifted from foot to foot, not meeting his friend's eyes. "Yes, well. About that…" he started nervously.
"Please tell me you didn't charm them into growing up fast or something…" Atherton looked at Reynard's face, and groaned. "Why in the name of Merlin's sparkly toenails?"
"They take about six months to reach full size usually." Reynard looked sheepish, "And I thought… well, school starts in September, and I wanted them to be ready. And you were annoyed by all those other charms, so I thought, maybe I shouldn't tell him about that just now…"
"When were you planning to tell me, exactly?" Atherton demanded. "When we were knee-deep in tiny poisonous ducklings?"
"I guess I just thought it would crop up in conversation at some point or another…"
Atherton stared at him, slightly disbelieving for a moment or two, and then set his briefcase down on the nearest park bench with a thud.
"Sod this," he announced to the world in general. "I need a cup of tea."
Reynard watched his friend as he rummaged in the briefcase, producing a teabag, a pot of milk, and a very small kettle which he set to heating with a tap of his wand.
"You know, I sometimes think you might over-rely on tea in emergencies…" he ventured, as the kettle started to whistle.
"I'm not the one who's started this whole thing, so don't even think about casting aspersions on my sanity Mr "Oh, I just view the laws of nature as recommended guidelines"," Atherton snapped back without looking up. "Now shut up, and let me drink this. I need to think."
Reynard fell quiet for a moment, eying the briefcase thoughtfully as Atherton cupped his hands around his mug and drank deeply.
"Don't suppose you have any chocolate digestives in there, do you?" he asked wistfully, after a moment or two.
Atherton reached to snap the briefcase shut and move it to his side, out of temptation's way. "Only for real emergencies."
"Like the world coming to an end?"
"Like Germany winning the Quidditch Cup. Now listen. We've got to come up with a plan before those ducks start breeding, or there's no way we can help telling the Ministry about it all And frankly, that's going to go down like a ton of bricks right now – no-one is going to appreciate having to take time out of tracking Mudbloods to try and catch a load of ducks. What do we know?"
"About ducks?" Reynard thought for a minute. "Well, if they're reaching maturity, the males start getting more aggressive."
"Just what we needed." Atherton said sourly. "Well, at least we killed Godric. Anything else?"
"Uh. If females aren't available and willing, mallards have been known to mate with other species. Ah, forcibly on some occasions, occasionally even after the bird they've been chasing has actually died…"
Atherton looked at him disbelievingly. "You're just trying to wind me up now."
"I'm afraid not." Reynard shook his head. "They're very… persistent apparently."
"Well, we can't hide that from the Muggle papers if Salazar gets it into his head. There's no way anyone is going to mistake a rapist duck for a snake." Atherton stared mournfully into his mug of tea. "You know, I'm glad there aren't wereducks. Fenrir would probably get along with them creepily well."
Reynard was still thinking, staring off into space. "Maybe we could make him a female? It's not as though any of his own species are going to be available other than his sisters."
"Adrastus Reynard, if you think I'm going to allow you to do anything avian related in our lab in the next decade…"
"No, no…" Reynard shook his head hastily. "Not a real female. Just illusion, you know?" He eyed his wand. "We are wizards, after all."
Actually producing a female for Salazar required going back to the lab to do some research. Reynard had suggested Transfiguring a piece of wood into a female, but as Atherton pointed out the problem with Transfiguring was that it required actually turning something into something else, and the last thing they needed were more giant ducks floating about the place. Reynard's promise to make sure that this one wasn't poisonous did not seem to reassure him.
That left pure illusion. Avis was the usual charm to send birds flying out the end of your wand, but that was a spell intended more for pretty little doves than swan-sized ducks. That required modification. The correct term for this, it turned out, was avis anas. As Reynard observed, rather too cheerfully for Atherton's liking, it was a spell you had to be careful not to mispronounce if you didn't want to end up with birds flying out of your ass.
Early morning seemed the best time to try it, late enough for the ducks to be awake, and yet too early for them to have many observers. They crouched together in the bushes by the Serpentine, attracting suspicious glances from dog-walkers who suspected they might be flashers. The duck materialized out of the end of Atherton's wand and started to swim slowly across the lake.
He peered after it, weighing it up. "Not quite right," he said after a minute, "Needs… sound or something. Don't you have any mating noises stored up in that wand of yours? I don't know – is there a duck equivalent of "Come and get it, big boys"?"
"And you wonder how I got my wife to marry me?" Reynard demanded quietly. "I don't know – most of the mating calls I found were males calling to females, not the other way around. Uh – let me see what I can do."
He twitched his wand, and a peculiar honking noise started to sound from their "duck" as it floated slowly across the lake.
A moment later Atherton nudged him, and gestured. A large bird-shaped shadow had detached itself from the trees and was swimming to investigate their creation.
"Don't hit it yet, not yet…" Reynard placed a steadying hand on his friend's arm, eyes straining in the pre-dawn light as the bird came closer. "Wait until it's in range, until you're sure you can hit it. Not just yet, nearly there… now!"
Green fire flashed across the water. On the other side of the Serpentine, surprised anglers rubbed at their eyes. The bird sank under the water without a sound.
"Yes! Take that, you feathered fiend!" There was something about hunting birds from bushes that made even the calmest middle-aged wizard turn excitable. Atherton punched his fist at the air triumphantly. "Did you see that? Didn't even see it coming."
"Get it out of there." Reynard hissed, for once taking his turn at being practical. "People are going to notice if it washes up on shore somewhere."
"Fine, fine." Still grinning from ear to ear, Atherton made a scooping gesture with his wand, dragging the body towards them through the water.
The closer it got, the more his grin faded. It wasn't until the bird touched land however, that their mistake became obvious.
"Praxis," Reynard said heavily, poking the white feathers with a toe. "I think you just killed a swan."
"But it can't be!" Atherton stared at the wet heap, denying the evidence of his own eyes. "Aren't they meant to sing when they die?"
"Clearly, not when they get hit by an Unforgivable Curse," Reynard observed glumly. "And they're owned by the Queen too. I think you just committed treason."
"Great. I'll add it to the amount of Muggles your birds have managed to kill off, shall I?"
"Hey now, killing Muggles is practically approved of by the Dark Lord. No-one said anything about swans." Reynard prodded at it again. "You know, they're meant to mate for life. Mrs Swan is probably sitting at home on a load of eggs, wondering where Mr Swan got to."
"Mrs Swan got off lucky, as Mr Swan was clearly quite amenable to going at it with Mrs Duck while she was stuck at home," Atherton shot back. "Come on. We'd better dispose of the body, and then work out a Plan B."
Broomsticks were tucked under arms, briefcases were picked up, wands were put safely away and the two wizards were ready to head back along with the dead swan when they heard the splashing.
It was loud, enthusiastic splashing, like a whole class full of five year olds crammed into one small pool, and it was followed only a moment or two later by yelling.
"Help! Oh god, let go of my oar, you stupid bird. Help!"
The pair glanced at each other, and without words took the few steps needed to return to the Serpentine, looking out over the water.
It seemed that a pair of teenagers – they couldn't have been older than eighteen or nineteen – had decided that early morning was the most romantic time to go boating together. Who knew why it was those two who were going to be unlucky today? Perhaps they had simply managed to venture into the ducks' territory without meaning to. Whatever the cause, the trio of ducks were attacking with a fury, wings beating as they tried to get close to the little rowing boat.
It had to be said, however, that the two being attacked were putting up a good fight. The girl was standing up, making the craft wobble dangerously as she tried to fend the duck off with one of her oars. Meanwhile, the boy was using the other pair of oars to try to paddle hastily away from the ducks.
Unfortunately he was also paddling deeper into the lake.
"I think it's the floppy hair setting them off," Reynard observed. "He does look as bit like Potter, doesn't he?"
"If you discount the fact that he's blonde, yes!" Atherton squinted at the boat, his hand going automatically to his wand. "If that's how good your birds are at recognition, thank Merlin you didn't get as far as loosing them on Hogwarts."
"Maybe ducks are colour-blind?" Reynard was frowning, confused, a hand shielding his brown eyes from the early sun. "What on earth do they think they're doing?"
"I don't know, but at the rate they're going, the boat'll go over, and then they'll have no chance." Atherton cupped his hands around his mouth. "Stop rowing away from shore, you stupid Muggles! They're ducks! They will swim after you!"
If either teenager heard the shouted advice, they gave no sign of it.
"I could hit one of them from here, but the way they're thrashing around, I'd risk hitting the girl too," Reynard observed, wand out and tapping nervously against his leg.
"If you do, it's only a Muggle."
Atherton said that automatically, without really thinking about it. It was the sort of thing you grew up hearing in a certain kind of Blood house, the sort of thing you grew up saying because things got passed on down the family.
Reynard looked at him for a long moment as the ducks quacked and splashed on the lake, and the couple tried vainly to fend them off. He opened his mouth as though to say something, shut it again, and then shrugged. "You do it then."
It should have been easy. Atherton already had his wand in his hand, and the ducks could not be classed as small targets. Even if he should miss and kill the girl the first time, he would certainly hit his target on the second shot. All he had to do was aim, and say the curse, and they could go back to this lab and forget that this little debacle had ever occurred.
He lifted his wand, aimed it, and opened his mouth.
It turned out it was a lot easier to talk of how Muggles and halfbloods needed to be treated and controlled from the safety of a nice warm laboratory than it was to actually aim an Unforgivable Curse at one of them, even if you weren't actually aiming for them as such.
Reynard watched as his friend lowered his wand. "Maybe," he said after a moment, "it would be easier to hit them from the broomsticks."
It was dangerous. It was unsubtle. It would throw away any chance they still had of the Ministry failing to noticed this whole sorry affair. Somehow though, it seemed the easiest solution.
In the boat, the boy glanced up, stared, and then just kept rowing as two middle-aged men on broomsticks flew over him, the second one nearly kicking him in the head on the way. This was turning out to be a weird day already, and it wasn't even 8am yet.
The pair hovered over the top of the boat, watching the fight, wands at the ready.
"Do you actually know how to fight on a broomstick?" Atherton called over.
"I figure it can't be all that different from quidditch."
"When was the last time you actually played quidditch?"
"When I was seventeen or so – look, I'm not the one known for weird broomstick accidents," Reynard added quickly as Atherton turned to look at him. "Anyway, I don't think we need to fight them. I think we can talk them down."
"You know, every time I think you're living in the same world of sense and sanity I share, you prove me wrong yet again. Talk them down?"
"I've known them since they hatched. They know me. They'll listen to me," Reynard insisted. Intentionally, he let his broomstick drop a foot closer to the water. "I'll show you. Come here then, ducklings. Come on. It's time to go home now."
Sure enough, the ducks stopped, and stared at him – possibly from sheer amazement at having a victim make himself such an easy target. On the boat, the girl lowered her oar, unsure what exactly what was going on.
"See?" Reynard said smugly, "I said they would – ack!"
Rowena lunged at him as he spoke, grabbing at the bristles of Reynard's broomstick, tugging it downwards. Atherton swore, and shot a curse down towards them. The duck backed off, still grasping a mouthful of bristles. Green steam rose from the water.
"Get up here, Adrastos." Worry made Atherton's voice sharp. "Merlin, act any more stupidly, and you'll turn into a Muggle."
Reluctantly, Reynard rose back into the air. The girl's gaze followed him up, and she stared at the two wizards. "Who are you?"
"Funny story, that. We're-" Reynard started.
Atherton's voice snapped over his, as Helga took advantage of the girl's distraction. "Look out!"
This time his curse hit the duck squarely, and Helga exploded beautifully. Brown feathers rained down on both boat and wizards,
"Less talking, more –ugh." Atherton spat out a feather. "Look, just save the introduction part until no-one is in imminent danger of death anymore, okay?"
"I think they've gone?" That was from the boy in the boat, until then unnoticed. He sat up, looking around hopefully. Sure enough, the two other birds seemed to have vanished. "Look, if you don't mind me asking, who are you people? Is this some kind of weird publicity stunt to get the park on the news? Because I'm pretty sure you're meant to get us to sign consent forms before you can film us for stuff like that."
"If it's a publicity stunt, I bet there'll be protesters over you killing that duck," the girl added, calming significantly now she was no longer being attacked.
"No, it's not a publicity stunt. Shut up," Atherton ordered, distracted, looking about. "Drast, did you see where they went? Dammit, don't say we've lost them again?"
"I told you they were smart. They probably got scared off by you shooting at them," Reynard scowled. "If you'd just let me talk to them…"
"If I'd let you talk to them, you would have died. Don't be stupid." Atherton eyed the weeds at the edge of the lake. "They can't have gone far."
The boy, meanwhile, was looking uneasily at the bottom of the little wooden boat. "Uh, Susan? Do you hear like a… weird knocking?"
"Weird knocking?" The girl glanced instinctively towards her feet, "I don't hear anythi-"
She staggered, almost losing her balance, as the boat rocked suddenly, tilting hard.
And then it turned, pushed over slowly and determinedly by two large brown ducks, both shoving from beneath the boat, working together to spill the two teenagers into the water.
"Did you see that, Prax?" Reynard asked, voice an excited whisper. "That's seeing a problem, putting together a plan to overcome the issue, and then working together to implement the plan. My kids can't manage that, most of the time!"
"Lovely," Atherton murmured back. "I promise you can write a very impressive report on it later. After we've killed them, and rescued these two Muggles."
They swooped again towards the water, barely avoiding snapping beaks and beating wings. Atherton pointed his wand towards the swans threateningly. "One move towards me, birdies, and I'll turn you into crispy duck pancakes," he warned, glaring at them. "Adrastos, help the kids get on, will you? I think we can manage one each."
Reynard obediently offered the girl a hand, pulling her on to the back of his broomstick while the boy scrambled up behind Atherton, both of them spluttering and shivering.
"If this is a publicity stunt, you better be paying my dry-cleaning bill," the girl – Susan – muttered, clinging tightly to the stick with both hands.
The boy meanwhile seemed fascinated, waving his hands in the air above the broomstick, as though expecting to meet resistance. Atherton swivelled around to stare at him.
"What, exactly, are you doing?"
"I'm looking for the strings on this thing." The boy waved his hands again, evidently not finding what he was looking for. "You've got them attached to the trees, right? Come on – I know there have to be strings somewhere."
"No strings attached." Atherton's stare was chilly, "Please keep you hands on the broomstick, Muggle, or I will dump you back in the water. It doesn't like strangers, and I'm really not having a good day."
It didn't seem though, that the day was likely to get any better. A louder splashing from the shore indicated that help had arrived whether it was wanted or not, in the shape of four curious anglers.
"Don't worry!" one of them called over as the broomsticks struggled back into the air, straining at the extra weight. "We'll soon have you all out of there."
"Aye, and the RSPB's been called too," another man agreed, already knee-deep in water. "They'll soon take care of those pesky birds."
The "pesky birds" in question turned to eye the four men, looking as though they couldn't quite decide which one to attack first.
"RSPB?" Reynard mouthed to Atherton, unsure how to react, or even what was being said.
Atherton shrugged. "I don't know? The "Reasons to Shoot Pesky Birds" club, maybe?" Considering the general weirdness of Muggle, it seemed quite possible. He eyed the approaching men with mild horror. "What on earth do they think they're going to do? They don't even have any magic!"
"Beat them to death with a fishing pole, maybe?" Reynard squinted, sighting along his wand. "I think I can hit Rowena from here."
"Go for it." With the anglers getting closer to the birds every minute, there seemed little time to lose. "Just try not to explode any of the Muggles. They seem friendly, even if they are stupid."
The water fountained up around Rowena in a very satisfactory manner as Reynard's curse struck it, sucking Rowena under. The duck gave a startled squawk, tried to resist the water's pull and then sank. The water smoothed over her head as though she had never been there, a single feather floating to the surface.
As one man, the anglers stepped back, staring at the water suspiciously. The boy on the back of Atherton's broomstick broke into applause. "Oh, good one!"
Susan, however, did not seem so happy. "Roland! You told me you were against bloodsports!"
"Oh, Susan, it's not real!" Roland turned towards her, protesting. "It's just for TV dead – it's not like it's real dead! It's a robot duck – I bet you!"
"I've told you once," Atherton snapped, trying to deal with the rocking of the broomstick as it tried to cope with the boy shifting his weight. "Will you just sit still, shut up, and-"
That was when the broomstick snapped.
Not particularly new or well-kept, over-loaded and unable to cope with the strain on its wood of the two people moving about, it broke cleanly in half sending boy and wizard tumbling towards the water.
Atherton came up, gasping from the cold of the lake-water, and trying to spit water-weed out of his mouth. He opened his eyes to find a duck staring down at him, only inches away.
Have a bad enough day, and you get angry. Atherton was cold, and he was wet. He had spent weeks chasing about trying to save stupid Muggles, and now one of them had snapped his broomstick.
He didn't just want to kill the duck. He wanted to hurt it. Badly.
"Crucio!" He screamed the curse out as he lifted his wand out of the water, putting the full weight of his frustration and anger.
The duck stared at him, and, quite deliberately, ducked.
The curse went flying past it, and up, into the air.
For a moment Atherton wondered where the awful scream could have come from, and then he saw Reynard fall off his broom.
It was later. Much, much later.
Events had taken on the sort of surreal blur somewhere along the line that made it hard to determine the order in which things had occurred. The fishermen had got them out of the water, and someone had produced white fluffy towels from somewhere and insisted that Atherton wrap himself in one, and take one for Reynard. A heating charm would have been easier, but he had taken one anyway. It seemed the thing to do.
He'd been grateful for the tea though. One of the men had produced something – he'd said it was called a thermos flask – and poured everyone a mug out, to calm their nerves he said. Atherton had sat, and clutched a mug in shaking hands, and thanked Merlin that however much the world fell apart there was always tea. And sometimes chocolate digestives.
It was, he thought, entirely possible that the reason generation after generation of Muggles had been kept alive was so that they could invent the Thermos flask. It would be a good reason.
The boy and girl - Susan and Roland – he couldn't remember at what point they'd wandered off, or where to. They'd bickered together about bloodsports until they realised that Reynard was still whimpering incoherently, and that maybe it wasn't all something for TV after all. The girl had cried then, and the boy had patted her in a manly way and said that it was all over now.
As if he'd had something to do with it all being over. Stupid boy. Atherton still hadn't forgiven him for breaking his broom.
The woman from the RSPB had turned up too. It turned out that they weren't anything to do with shooting birds after all. She had been very upset about the ducks. She'd kept talking and talking at Atherton, all about conservation laws, and protected species, and not being allowed to just kill things because they were trying to kill you.
He'd Confunded her in the end to make her go away. She was making his head hurt.
The fishermen had been kind enough though, even if they hadn't quite understood what was going on. They'd kept on and on about wanting to phone for something called an ambulance to take Reynard to a Muggle hospital. They hadn't understood that a Muggle hospital would have no way to fix Reynard, that they wouldn't even start to understand what was wrong with him there.
Atherton had had to Confund and Obliviate them too before he could leave. Reynard's broomstick was still in one piece fortunately, and he'd managed to get them both onto it, still drenched, still shaky, and flew them off to St. Mungo's. St Mungo's had kind nurses, and dry clothes, and doctors who actually understood what the Crucio curse was, even if they did raise their eyebrows at its mention. One thing about Death Eaters at the Ministry was that it meant that it was no longer a shocking event for a crucio victim from the Ministry to be in St Mungo's. In some ways Atherton found that a lot more disturbing than the entire duck debacle.
Later, Atherton knew, there would be paperwork, and long complicated explanations of just how Reynard had gotten injured, and just what they had been doing in the lake.
For now though, there was only waiting, and trying to forget – to forget the scream, to forget the awful way Reynard had whimpered afterwards, to forget what he had done because now he knew why they were Unforgivable Curses. Atherton sat by the bed, and made silent bargains with himself, clutching the fresh mug of tea someone had been kind enough to provide. If Reynard was okay, he'd let him make whatever stupid charms he wanted to in the lab… He could even keep Delores in there, if they ever managed to find her again. He could-
Just one word, but it was enough to make Atherton startle. Then Reynard was looking at him, brown eyes muzzy but lucid again, and suddenly he could breathe again. It was going to be okay.
"What happened to Salazar?" Reynard hurt still in ways he didn't want to think about, but more than that, he was curious. They had been his birds after all.
"You landed on him. Broke his neck." Saying it out loud for the first time, it suddenly seemed almost unbearably funny, and Atherton started to laugh, the hard, painful laughter of relief.
Reynard struggled to push himself up in bed, raising his eyebrows. "What?"
"It strikes me," Atherton managed, chest still heaving with gulps of laughter that could just as easily have been sobs instead. "That we are we are really bad at being Death Eaters."
Reynard eyed him for a moment, his mind running through everything they'd been through that day, and in the weeks preceding, all the work, and the worry, and the pain.
All of that, just to save Muggles.
"You know," he said, tone serious. "I think that the reason our side is winning – that is to say, the other side is losing – is that they have to be expending most of their energy just stopping Muggles from killing themselves. I mean, just look at them…"
It only made Atherton laugh harder, and after another moment Reynard joined in.
"Oh lord," he groaned, every laugh making his chest ache, and yet somehow unable to quite stop. "If this ever gets out, our reputations are in so much trouble. My wife would kill me…"
Of course, it couldn't end there.
A dozen or so Muggles who'd seen two wizards on broomsticks wasn't a small thing to cover up. It took work, and so Atherton wasn't altogether surprised to find himself in the Minister's office, having to explain himself. Reynard was still in St Mungo's after all.
At least the Minister provided tea.
"It was an experiment," he lied without hesitation, hands wrapped firmly around his mug. "We were… trying to control over-population. In frogs."
The Minister stared at him with a slightly perplexed frown. It wasn't as though the two wizards in question were known for being trouble-makers. Good, loyal men from good families both of them, and neither one even suspected of being Blood traitors. Still, you could hardly just ignore something like this. "Big problem with over-population in frogs, is there?"
"Oh, yes." Atherton nodded brightly. "Haven't you ever heard of the plagues of frogs? Masses of frogs getting everywhere, getting in your way. Ruining potions by throwing themselves in, causing accidents all over the place. You can't have that. No, we thought it would be best to control the frog population before it was too late. Be pro-active. Best defense being a good offense."
"So, you ah, thought that poisonous ducks would – "
"Duck," Atherton said firmly, having already decided on this part of the lie beforehand, "We think the rest were just swans that got a bit carried away by its bad influence, sir. As Undersecretary Umbridge says, it only takes one bad apple…uh…duck. We've got a swan body still, if you'd like to take a look at it."
"Swans? Really? Right." The Minister stared at Atherton's sharp, earnest smile and gave up. Whatever the man had been up to, it was clearly some eccentric experiment rather than anything truly dangerous, and with Harry Potter still out in the world, and the Order of the Phoenix to deal with, he had more important matters to worry about. "Did you know," he said vaguely, "I heard it was treason to kill a swan."
"Really sir?"Atherton said with a smile, knowing he could finally relax. "I was sure that that wasn't the case anymore."
It wasn't his fault if the Muggles had just decided to repeal that law after all.
Unnoticed by the bank of the Serpentine, the little brown mallard had bobbed happily. It had been an exciting week, what with those big ducks, and then those strange people on the brooms. Life rarely got more exciting than that, if you were a duck. Not unless there was a particularly good crop of duckweed to be had.
Things seemed to have quieted down now, though. Still, they would soon liven up again.
After all, back in her nest, she had a dozen eggs waiting to hatch.