It probably was.
The ferret stayed very firmly on the young man's shoulder, with claws rooted in the soft dark fabric of his jumper in a manner that said it wasn't getting down any time soon. Nathan didn't push the issue; merely stood very still for a long minute or so and let his eyes adjust.
It seemed, to all intents and purposes, that Nathan was the only occupant in the room. But with a lot of concentration and effort, if you looked at the shadows just ... so ... and perhaps tipped your head ... slightly to one side ... yes. There it was. A very definite figure, crouched as if ready to spring. So still as to be almost a statue.
Nathan smiled and crouched down himself, dropping to a hunkered down position though his gaze rested steadily on the other poised figure. Apart from that, he made no other movement.
It was evident, after some time, that the darkly shadowed figure was probably capable of maintaining its pose for a considerable length of time but - as predicted - impatience got the better of it. The voice, when it came, was almost snarled.
"What do you want?"
"Hello," the young wizard said politely - there was very rarely any call not to be polite, he found. "I was wondering if you'd like to chat."
"No. Get out."
The shadow uncurled to reveal itself to be a fairly tall, lean figure - no, not lean - thin. Painfully thin. Ill. Undernourished. "I have no wish to talk to you." There was the faintest hint of an accent - Russian. "You are intruding upon my privacy and I do not take very kindly to that. So unless you want your throat ripping out, I suggest you take that piece of vermin and get out."
"I think it's a little harsh to refer to my friend here as vermin when you seem to have an overabundance of rats around," Nathan's voice was mildly reproving, but he stood up none the less. "If you change your mind, I'll be in the next clearing. I brought along a midnight snack, you're welcome to join me if you're peckish."
A pair of eyes, glittering in the half-light of the room, turned on him. "The rats serve their purpose. They stop me from starving completely. The old fool of a shepherd who left me this place had put poison down for them, but that was easily dealt with." A dangerous smile that showed even, white teeth.
A pile of obviously human bones that graced one corner of the shelter implied that the poison hadn't been the only thing easily dealt with. "Who are you?"
"Someone with a joint of roast beef and a very nice freshly baked loaf of bread, I think might be the pertinent reply. Perhaps a little tastier than rattus vulgaris."
There was a long silence.
"You have fresh bread?" The voice was almost wistful. "I have not had fresh bread in a considerable time." The eyes immediately narrowed. "This is some sort of trap."
"Midnight picnic. All the rage." Nathan smiled, a calm open smile that hid nothing and everything all at the same time. "Unlike eating in this filthy hole, so I'll be outside if you want to join me."
Without hesitation, he turned his back on the skinny figure and walked out.
Twenty minutes passed, during which time the last of the sunlight disappeared from the sky, welcoming in the gloaming. Five minutes later, the tall man wound his way sinuously between the trees, sniffing the promised roast beef a long time before he reached the clearing.
Outside the confines of the shelter, Nathan could see how filthy he was; how matted the dark hair, how pronounced the cheekbones. He was young: maybe little more than seventeen years old.
Nathan himself was barely much older; nineteen at the most judging by the still boyish lines of his face. From a wicker picnic hamper, he had laid out a blanket on the ground; placing a large roast of beef on a plate next to a suitably big crusty loaf of bread. The scent of the food carried on the early night air as he carved the meat into thick slices.
If he saw the skinny boy in the trees, he made no acknowledgement of the fact.
He moved as though stalking prey; a very definite prowl. His blue eyes, a strange hue, almost violet in one light, narrowed as he approached. Nathan could see every muscle in his body tensed, ready to attack or flee as necessary.
"What is it that you want? You would not bring this out here for no reason."
"I came to see if you wanted to chat," Nathan finished with the joint and wiped the knife carefully on a teatowel before putting it back into the hamper, and coming out with a breadknife. With the same calm and even strokes, he started to cut the bread. "You don't, and that's fair enough. Not sure if you've noticed but this place is kind of a long way from anywhere. And there's something so peaceful about a picnic in the woods, don't you think?"
"The fact it is a long way from anywhere is sort of the point." The boy edged a little closer, drawn by the meat and bread. "How did you find me, who are you working for, and what is the bottom line?" His eyes met Nathan's evenly. "I am not a fool, no matter what you may think."
"In order: I spent a little time looking, no one but myself at the moment and sit down and get some food into you." Nathan held his gaze without effort. "I suggest we try and avoid assumptions about what I'm thinking, it's a trifle rude, don't you think?"
"To counter. How do you know who I am, who are you, and are you aware that I WILL kill you if I feel it appropriate?"
"In retort." Nathan finished slicing the bread, put away the breadknife, and took out a butterdish. "I confess that I don't know your name. I had thought I might find an old acquaintance out here, though it seems now that I was somewhat incorrect in that thought. Nathan Greenley, at your service, sir; and you are welcome to try if you feel it so appropriate."
"Sergei Kanatova." The boy slid a little closer. "Perhaps you will forgive my distrust." He sniffed the air again. "Medium rare," he murmured. Then, in a fluid movement, he slunk across the short distance that separated them and crouched, like an animal, opposite Nathan, his nostrils flaring, his eyes deeply distrustful.
Around his neck he wore a simple amulet; small, shaped like a wolf's head.
"Forgiven and completely understood." Nathan took the lid off the butterdish and nudged it towards him. "Pleasure to meet you, Sergei. Do feel free to help yourself. I have horseradish sauce if you want it. Glass of wine, or I have sparkling mineral water?"
"Water. Alcohol dulls the senses." Sergei's eyes glittered for a moment, then he reached out a grubby hand and snatched up a slice of the beef which he crammed into his mouth like a starving man.
"An admirable sentiment." The young man produced two glasses and a bottle of mineral water, breaking the seal open and pouring with a steady hand. A moment later, he passed Sergei a napkin.
Sergei took the napkin, stared at it for a while, then blinked as if in recall. "It is not often one...like me uses such fancy things like napkins and glasses." A wry smile twisted his lips upwards. He was surprisingly handsome underneath the grime.
He shoved another slice of beef into his mouth, tearing at it hungrily, then gulped down the water, belching loudly as the bubbles worked into his system. He snatched up slice after slice of bread, shoving some in the pockets of the clothes that he wore, tearing into the other slices.
Nathan smiled, made himself a sandwich, and took a bite from it it before fishing about in the picnic hamper and tossing over a clear food container. "You can use this if you want to save some for later."
Sergei took up the container and immediately transferred the bread from his pockets and more slices of meat into it. He hugged it to his thin chest and stared at Nathan suspiciously again.
Then the most peculiar thing happened.
All the savagery went out of the boy's face. It was as though a different individual entirely was staring out of those strangely-coloured eyes. The expression became one of horror, of pleading. It was the expression of someone caught up in a living nightmare.
As swiftly as it had happened, the animal was back, with a snarl.
Perfectly calmly, Nathan took another bite of his sandwich, and said mildly, "Mind if I have a word with Piotr, Sergei?"
"How do you know about him?" The boy's muscles tensed again, ready to react. "Answer me!"
"Used to know him in school."
"I cannot let him out. I WILL not let him out." Sergei caught his head in his hands. "He has to stay back...argh!" He clutched hard at his head, pulling at his hair, twitching, shrieking and jerking like a man in the throes of a fit, until he suddenly fell silent.
"I don't know how long I can be me," he said, in a very different, less animalistic voice. The Russian accent was still there, but noticeably less strong. "Help me, Nathan. Please. You have to help me."
"It's alright, Piotr. I know you're there." Nathan said very softly. "Trust me. I know you're in there. I'll do what I can."
"I can hardly remember who I am. I don't know who he is. He's been in here..." Piotr tapped the side of his head. "...for so long now. He's stronger than me, and he hates me. He hates this body. It's too weak for him."
Piotr Rachinov had been reported missing some six months ago, a month after he had been removed from Hogwarts for 'behaviour unbecoming'. An unidentified corpse, badly burned and unrecognisable beyond the Ravenclaw robes it had been wearing had been found and it had been agreed that it was the Rachinov boy.
This was clearly not the case.
"He probably hates the fact you're fighting this half-life existence too," Nathan pointed out quickly, uncertain of how much time he would have before Sergei stepped back in. "I'm going to offer Sergei an alliance, Piotr. It's going to sound harsh. There are things you're going to learn about me that might scare you. But please believe me when I tell you I am your friend, and I will do what I can to make this easier."
"I want to go home." Silent tears rolled down the boy's face, leaving clean tracks in the dirt. "I just want to go home."
His eyes flared with savage fury and Nathan knew, without him speaking, that the stronger, dominant personality was back in situ.
"You and he aren't exactly seeing eye to eye on this mucky little existence you're ekeing out here."
"He is spoiled. He doesn't understand that this is all character building." Sergei smirked unpleasantly. "The brat needs a little adversity in his life. He has had everything in his life handed to him on a plate. Time for him to learn that there is more to the world than..." A derogatory sneer. "...playing the cello and studying." Sergei picked a piece of meat out from between his teeth and lounged back on one elbow. "Now talk."
Nathan finished his sandwich. "You're going to need allies. You don't know how this world works any more, how this country works. Piotr doesn't much either, so he won't be much use to you in that regard."
"He's no use to me anyway, until I get him bitten." Sergei scowled. "Do you have any idea how disgusting it is for me, being trapped inside a body that cannot Change? I am ashamed that he is my brother. If our father was still alive, he'd die of shame at how weak his youngest child is."
"Ashamed enough to find another host to occupy? I know some people who won't be too badly missed."
"I cannot. Blood ties are stronger than anything else. It is only because he IS my brother that I could transfer to him in the first place. The only other to whom I could have transferred would be my own sire." A nasty smile. "But he is also dead."
"If you had a child?"
The boy's eyes lit up. "That is an interesting possibility. I had not considered that. Why, do you have someone in mind?"
"People hire me to think of interesting possibilities. I am very good at working outside the box, so to speak." Nathan shrugged. "Someone could certainly be obtained. How old would the child need to be for you to inhabit it?"
"I am uncertain. However, I suspect that a child would need to have reached, if not passed puberty for a transfer to be successful. without causing permanent damage. The flaw in an otherwise useful plan." Sergei reached for more meat, then seemed to hesitate, putting the meat down again. He sneered nastily.
"His delicate little digestive system can take no more, it seems. The shepherd lasted us for days."
"A long term plan, then." Nathan shrugged. "Something to bear in mind, none the less. May I safely assume that in the intervening years you would still want him bitten?"
"Whilst not a physical necessity, it is something I would desire, yes. I cannot stand being unable to Change when the moon calls. I have tried. The urge is there, the need is there, but I am a prisoner inside a non lycanthropic body. However, I am ... unsure as to the practical elements of his being bitten whilst host to two souls. Perhaps you could be so good as to think outside your box for me and research the matter."
"I come with a cost."
"The Kanatova fortune is moderate. I can pay you."
Another of those little all-nothing, all-everything smiles. "I have a different price in mind."
One dark eyebrow lifted and the mocking sneer returned. "For some reason, that does not surprise me at all. Very well, Greenley. Name your price."
"My terms are thus. I will give you shelter and sanctuary. I have found you here, others will too and they less inclined to bargain fairly. I will research the things that you want: I will obtain them where necessary and requested. In exchange I expect of you both, that includes you, Piotr, that you will grant me the same loyalty and secrecy that I give to you. You will provide to me your no doubt useful services on negotiation and, and this is the important part, you will cede to Piotr for half of your time in that body. You will allow him some life of his own."
"I am prepared to accept your terms, but it is conditional. I am easily able to find myself another place to stay, staying here has never been my long-term plan anyway. I want to know how much you know about me, Greenley. I want to know how much you know about both Piotr Rachinov and Sergei Kanatova. I want to know exactly what 'services' it is you think I can offer you. I cannot agree to letting the brat come forward for half the time, but I will be prepared to negotiate that. In order for this transference to remain successful, the dominant personality must remain at the fore."
"You will give him time off for good behaviour. You will let him enjoy his music and quiet afternoons rambling in the gardens if that is what he wants." Nathan reached forward and stroked his long slender fingers gently across the cheekbones of the boy in front of him, a very fleeting gesture. "You will close your eyes sometimes and let him be who he was made to be, regardless of your personal opinions. In theory, I am prepared to discuss the finer detail of our agreement, if you are. Let me speak to Piotr briefly first."
Sergei scowled and pulled his head back out of Nathan's reach. "Make it fast," he said.
"It's me." The urgency marked Piotr's voice quite clearly from that of his brother. "It's me, Nathan." He reached over to grab at Nathan's arm desperately. "I need you to get him out of me!"
"Listen, Piotr." Nathan took Piotr's hands in his own, gazed deep into his eyes. "Listen. I can't do what you want straight away. I doubt anyone can. You must trust me. I am negotiating with Sergei. This doesn't have to be a life sentence for you but it may take some years. Hush. Listen to me. I am negotiating time for you. Not all of the time, maybe just less than half the time; but I will make sure the time you have is pleasant. I promise you. You must trust me. You must be calm and stop fighting Sergei so much, then he will listen to me more."
"Fighting is all I have left," said Piotr, wretchedly. "If I don't fight, I'm afraid I'll lose hold of all I am. There's already huge blocks of memory I can no longer access. Sergei has denied me access to memories of my family. He says he's all the family I need. I am not a Kanatova. I am a Rachinov, yet he claims he is my brother. I have no brother." The boy wrapped his arms around his knees and hugged himself into a tight ball. "I have no brother," he repeated.
"Piotr." Nathan drew him gently but relentlessly out of the tight little ball. "Look at me. Tell me you trust me to do the best I can for you. Swear to me you'll help me all you can."
"What choice do I have?" The bitterness was uncharacteristic, but given his current circumstances, not surprising. "I swear, Nathan."
"Good man." Nathan put his arm around his shoulder briefly. "Close your eyes, Piotr. Don't be scared now. Next time you see me, things will be better for you. I promise."
"Let my parents know..." began Piotr, then he went rigid, shook violently and closed his eyes. When they flared open again, Sergei was most definitely back. "He continues to fight me, but I think he is prepared to trust you. What a fool. I, personally, wouldn't trust you further than I could spit you. However, I am prepared to accept your conditional offer. His weaknesses leave me with no other choice."
"I assure you, I am most trustworthy and loyal to those who have earned such from me." Nathan smiled. "All I ask is that you give me enough time to prove myself to you. Now, let me pack up the hamper and we can be on our way."
"As you request." Sergei folded his arms across his thin chest and watched Nathan like a hawk. "Where is it exactly that you intend to take me?"
"To my home." A friendly smile. "You and Piotr can have your own rooms."
"Uncommonly decent of you. Where is this 'home'?"
"Uffington. Not a million miles from the ley lines that feed the White Horse. As to the rooms," Nathan started packing up the hamper cheerfully, "the last time the house let me count them there were a hundred and thirty two, and just one of me. A few acres of garden, several dozen more of woodland. You should like it there, both of you."
"Woodland offers good hunting ground," agreed Sergei, unfolding his arms. "And it probably would not hurt to bathe this body and eat regular meals. I am afraid I got rather used to a - shall we say high protein diet?"
"Rabbits, deer, foxes, pheasants. Teeming with game. Some adjacent farmland run on a lease basis, the occasional cow wouldn't go amiss if you were careful about being seen."
A predatory, hungry look came into Sergei's eyes. "Yum, yum," was all he said.
For the briefest of moments, something of Piotr returned to the young face. Something that spoke of a terrible defeat. But it was fleeting, and could merely have been a trick of the light.
"Pass me that napkin, dear chap, would you?"
Sergei picked up the napkin and dropped it into the hamper. "I can see that our working relationship is going to be...interesting," he said.
"I do hope so," Nathan said earnestly. The ferret peeked out of the neck of his jumper where it had been hiding. "Nothing pisses me off faster than being bored."