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Tack Tack Merrily on High

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On a cold December evening, three men stand around a frost-covered Christmas tree and discuss the best way to make it fit through the nearby doorway. Behind the door itself, a beetle hides with antennae twitching.

“We tried that last year,” says the pale-coloured one, giver of mint leaves and Stanley’s best friend. “It ended up all flat on one side, remember?”

“Oh, yeah,” says the large, hairy one with the most wonderful lap. “I suppose I could go back and get a smaller one, but yeh’ve got to have a proper do of it at Christmas.”

Stanley looks at the enormous tree and wonders when the shiny balls and glittery strings are going to come out of hiding.

“Why don’t we try expanding the doorway?” asks the smiley one who came to them one day and never really left. He makes everyone happy, including Stanley, who has been allowed to ride with him on a broomstick even though it’s a secret.

There’s a sigh, a “worth a try” and then the door is being shoved back against the wall, forcing Stanley to shoot out from behind it, tacking in alarm. A deep, rumbling laugh mixes with a sudden burst of magic and then the instruction for Stanley to “come out of the way, daft beetle”. In his attempt to obey, Stanley scuttles straight into the trunk of the tree and then skids across the corridor, just as all three men push hard on the branches and the tree pops through the doorway. Stanley watches as the frame shudders and then collapses back to its usual size, pulling the door closed with a slam.

Tacking softly, he approaches the door and taps the wood with his antennae. It’s quite solid, but he can hear the voices he knows so well from the other side. He decides to wait, tucking his little feet underneath himself and wedging himself up against the skirting board so that he won’t be accidentally stood on. When he hears the whistle of the kettle, though, he knows that the door won’t be opening any time soon.

The corridor is cold and empty and the windows are dark, but elsewhere in the castle there are fires and lights and adventures. He takes the stone floor at a scuttle, throwing himself up the stairs with the joy of exploration and, when he tumbles to the bottom, simply starting again until he makes it to the top.

In the Entrance Hall, he trundles slowly, looking around at the pretty lights and clicking greetings to each suit of armour and statue in turn. A picture of an old lady gasps to see him, and he flaps his wings at her, trying to decide the best way to make friends. Before he makes up his mind, someone is lifting him off his feet and holding him to their chest. There are green stripes at close range and Stanley touches each one with a curious antenna.

“Look who I found!” the boy laughs, and suddenly, Stanley is surrounded by young faces and bright eyes.

“I don’t think he’s supposed to be out without Professor Malfoy,” says another, and he looks worried. “Should we take him back?”

“In a minute,” says another, patting Stanley’s shell. “Let’s do him up a bit first.”

Stanley clicks happily, and for some reason, they all laugh. So he does it again.

“We can borrow some tinsel from this tree,” someone says, hurrying away and returning with a length of gold stuff that glitters in the lamp light.

Delighted, Stanley holds himself neat and still while the decoration is spelled to his shell in a sparkling spiral. The boys hold him up to admire him and he can’t wait to run back home and show his new look to all his favourite people.

“What are you doing to that beetle?” asks someone with a stern voice that echoes around the stone chamber.

“Prefect!” someone hisses, and before Stanley knows what is happening, he is being placed on the cold floor and the boys in green ties are scrambling in all directions.

“Oh, there you are,” says another girl, snatching up Stanley and bearing him away from the stern voice at impressive speed. “Look who’s wandering,” she says, carrying him through a set of doors and settling under a tree that is even bigger than the one that couldn’t fit through his door.

“Stanley!” cries a girl with long, dark hair, and the boy sitting next to her beams.

“Are you lost?” he asks, touching Stanley’s tinsel with his fingertips.

“Tack tack tack tack tack!” says Stanley, thrilled to see yet more of his favourite people. These are the ones who had trouble flying, just like him. Unlike him, they are all getting much better at it.

“It’s cold tonight,” says the one with blonde hair everywhere. “Where are your little boots?”

Stanley hops from side to side and she laughs.

“We could make him little shoes,” says the dark-haired girl, picking up two little round discs from the brightly-coloured game they seem to have been playing.

Stanley scuttles closer and tacks softly, hoping to be allowed to join in. She laughs and strokes his shell, but the boy looks cross.

“Those were my counters,” he says, prodding the girl with his elbow.

“He can have mine,” the other girl says. “I’m losing anyway. Here you are, Surya.”

“You could use these to keep his feet warm,” the boy says, taking a handful of soft, white things from his pocket.

When Stanley tacks gently, he gives him one to play with, and all of them watch as he chases it around the floor.

“What are these?” the dark-haired girl asks, squashing one of the little things between her fingers.

“Cotton wool balls,” the boy says. “I got them in a Muggle shop.”

The blonde girl frowns. “But what are they for?”

“I don’t know. I just like them because they’re soft,” he says, and Stanley pushes the last cotton wool ball into his lap. Perhaps he’ll need it.

“Come here, then,” says the dark-haired girl, and Stanley is once again treated to a close-up view of a stripy green tie as all three of them lean in with their wands and set to work.

“Bye, Stanley,” they call after him several minutes later when he clatters out of the Great Hall and into yet another corridor.

His feet are definitely warmer now, but he is clacking loudly with every step, and the soft stuff gives his usual trundle an exciting new bounce. Thrilled to bits with this development, he races up and down corridors, through secret tapestries and around rooms filled with desks and shiny things and very surprised mice. Near the place where the food comes out, he hides behind a statue from a group of big, noisy boys dressed in gold and red. In a funny little courtyard, he springs from one cobble to the next and waves chilly antennae at the stars. At the bottom of a curved staircase, he is scooped up by a tiny person in a blue scarf and held out at arm’s length.

“What’s happened to you?” she asks, looking so concerned that Stanley cycles his little legs in the air and tacks quietly to comfort her. “I should probably take you to Professor Malfoy, but… here’s a secret between me and you… I’m a bit frightened of him.”

Stanley clicks and dangles nicely in her tight grip. He thinks he might be ready to go home, but he no longer has any idea where he is. The castle is big and so quiet at night, and without his friends, it’s hard to know which way to go.

“I bet Professor McGonagall will know what to do with you,” the girl says suddenly, and she tucks Stanley under her arm and starts walking.

Stanley continues to dangle, through the corridors with their glowing decorations and up, up, up the turning staircase until the girl sets him down, knocks on the door and runs away.

“Good heavens,” says the tall woman with the glittering pin at her throat. “You’d better come in.”

She steps back and allows Stanley to scuttle-bounce into the room before closing the door and sealing in the heat from the huge, roaring fire. Stanley turns in circles on the hearth rug, warming himself and peering around at the strange, wonderful room.

“You will have to wait a moment, I’m in the middle of writing a letter to the Minister for Magic,” she says, and Stanley doesn’t know what all of those words mean but he has heard that tone of voice plenty of times before.

Determined to be good, he tacks to himself and sets about exploring the fireplace as she sits behind her desk and picks up her quill. The grate is bigger than the one at home but the items around it are much the same, he decides, tapping antennae over the things for prodding the fire, the brush and the snippy tongs. He is just investigating a small pot with a lid when his clacky new shoes slip on the hearthstone and he knocks the whole thing over, spilling sparkling powder onto the floor and sending it billowing into the air. Tacking in alarm, he tries to jump backwards but instead finds himself sucked into the fire, legs flailing as he spins around and around in the darkness.

Confused and frightened, he tumbles out onto a hard stone floor, covered in soot and trying hard to roll himself the right way up. This room is damp and miserable without a single coloured light or decoration, and he doesn’t like it at all. Something is moving in the shadows, watching him finally tip himself onto his feet, and when he scuttles under the table to hide, the something launches itself into view with eyes wild and pointed teeth bared.

“What have you found, my sweet?” a man says, and then something wonderful happens.

The something, having revealed itself to be that nasty cat, shrinks back at the sight of him and pelts back into a dark corner of the room. Stanley hops in triumph and tacks loudly, just for good measure. He isn’t scared. And he thinks he knows exactly where he is.

“Get out of it, ’orrible bug,” the man shouts, grabbing a big broom and waving it at Stanley, who would be all too happy to leave if he would just open the door.

Unfortunately, his attempt at explaining as much just seems to make the ragged man crosser, and Stanley flees before the broom, clacky shoes echoing on the stone. He runs around the little room three times in panic before the door swings open and he scuttles to freedom. Out in the corridor, he runs until his legs are aching and the tinsel is slipping from his shell and tripping him up with every step. Finally, tired and feeling very sorry for himself, he tucks himself into the skirting under a wooden bench and crouches there, wondering if the tree has its sparkles yet and wishing he had never run away from home.

“We’ve looked everywhere. Maybe he’s gone back to Professor Malfoy’s rooms already,” someone says. There are two sets of footsteps, one heavy and one light and clicking.

“Come on, Magnus,” says the girl, and when her purple shoes pass the bench where Stanley is hiding, he twitches a hopeful antenna.  “We have to keep looking. He’s probably really cold and scared by now.”

“Tack!” Stanley says, crawling out from under the bench. “Tack tack tack!”

The footsteps stop, and soon two friendly faces are peering down at Stanley. Red hair and messy brown. A yellow tie and a green one.

“There you are,” the girl says happily. “Do you want to go home?”

Stanley leaps on his tired, clacky feet and swishes his antennae through the air. Yes. Yes, please.

“I’ll get him,” says the boy, leaning down and cradling Stanley against his chest. “I’ve already got custard all down my jumper, a bit of soot won’t matter.”

“You’re a disaster, Magnus,” she says, but she’s smiling as she walks beside him along the corridor and ruffles Stanley’s shell.

“I know, but look at him,” he says. “What’s happened to him?”

“He’s had an adventure,” the girl says firmly, and for the rest of the journey, they walk in silence. Stanley burrows against the boy’s jumper, touching the splats of custard with his antennae and enjoying the warmth of his hands.

When they walk down the stairs and into Stanley’s corridor, he scrabbles at the soft wool excitedly, demanding to be put down so that he can walk back into the place where he belongs on his own six feet. The boy sets him down and knocks, and the door is yanked open within seconds. His friend looks so worried. Stanley scuttles in circles around his feet and then tacks to be picked up.

“We all went out looking for him, and then I thought I’d better come back in case he… thank you, Ivy. Thank you, Magnus,” he says, and then Stanley isn’t listening because he is being hugged to his best friend’s chest and stroked with a hand that fits the curve of his shell just right.

“Tack tack tack tack tack,” he says gently, poking an antenna into soft blond hair.

He’s home and he hasn’t even missed the decorations being put on the tree that is probably still too big for the room.

“I suppose we shouldn’t ask about the tinsel… or the soot… or the cotton balls and tiddlywinks on his feet,” someone says, and when Stanley looks, it’s the one with the messy hair and the glasses, wearing a silly jumper and smiling to see him home. The boy and girl wave goodbye, leaving the three of them alone.

“It’s a Christmas mystery,” his friend says, and Stanley knows there won’t be any arguing with him.

“Tack,” he offers, smearing soot and sparkly powder over a pristine shirt with his feet.

It was his adventure, anyway, and there are some things even best friends don’t need to know.