The Sugar Quill
Author: Talia Fisher  Story: Endgame  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

A/N: Big thanks to my fab beta here at SugarQuill, Seldes Katne.

Sometimes it happens, feelings die

Whole years are lost in the blink of an eye

We once had it all but events conspired

Sometimes

Ash

Hermione's head lolled lazily against the train window. A packet of Bertie Bott's beans lay on the cheap formica table in front of her, the sweets rolling out of the box with each shift in motion of the train. She ignored them. The sugared chemicals held no appeal, not now she was seventeen…

Seventeen. When she had been a child, seventeen had seemed galaxies away. When she was seventeen, she could do anything… She would be an adult, in charge of her rollicking emotions… organized… capable of everything she chose to attempt. When she was seventeen, she would have a boyfriend. Hermione smiled as she remembered her childish dreams of a safe, snug and cosy world… Becoming an adult tarnished everything. She had been innocent in unknowing, happy and oblivious. And now…

She was surrounded by girls in the end carriage. Lavender and Parvati were sitting next to each other in contemplative silence. Further down, Pansy Parkinson was dripping in self-indulgent tears. No one bothered, or cared enough, to go over and comfort her.

Funny, Hermione thought. I used to cry at everything. But one of the things that happens when you grow up, is that you become strong. Impermeable. Somethings can hurt you, but you won't let on, because you have a duty to stay strong. She sighed, and rolled over to gaze blankly at the passing countryside. Grey sky, dank fields and pastures. She had seen this view roll by fourteen times. Seven years. It was almost half her life, more than a third. And now it looked likely that she would never return. She smashed her fist angrily against the glass, causing the window to rattle alarmingly in its wood-wormed frame. It was so unfair. Her last year, cut short. Now what did she have to look forward to? A bland existence with her parents, in their little suburban box of hell. Her two best friends were gone, snatched from their cradles by the unfeeling fools that worked at the Ministry of Magic.

Hermione knew it was quite likely she would never see them again. For one thing, they might not survive…

A little first year ran through the carriage, being tagged by an even tinier friend, whooping with laughter. She couldn't help the bubble of anger that surged in her chest. They didn't know anything better, how could she expect eleven-year-olds to act accordingly in such a situation? But still… It was only the seventh year boys who had been called out; as they were seventeen, and had come of age. Girls, of course, still had no use. It was nearly the twenty-first century, for Christ's sake! The sodding Ministry were still stuck in Medieval times.

Hermione curled a lock of hair around her finger. Why couldn't people live happily ever after? It was what all children were taught, before they knew any better. Why raise their hopes?

The train shuddered to a halt. Hermione stood up miserably, and heaved her suitcase off the rack above her head. Heading in silence with the rest of the seventh year girls, she made for the door, where they piled out into the March gloom.

*

"Mmm, thanks Mum," Hermione murmured, accepting the mug of hot chocolate and the plate of cookies that her mother passed to her. She waited for her to go, but Mrs. Granger did seem to want to. She sat down on Hermione's swivel chair, and sighed. Hermione carefully dog-eared the page in her book, and put it down. This was obviously a Big Talk moment.

"Hermione," said her mother slowly. "What are you going to do now… now you've left Hogwarts?"

"Wait and see, I suppose," she replied, sipping the steaming concoction. "They may want us to return in a few months, or however long it takes to defeat You-Know-Who."

"And you're sure they will?"

Hermione looked at her skeptical face, and sighed inwardly. She would have to nip this particular discussion in the bud, if she was to have any sleep at all tonight. Her mother was such a worrier. Hermione gave a convincing yawn.

"Ar-ah… Sorry, Mum, do you mind if I go to bed now? Travelling always makes me exhausted…"

Her mother stood up reluctantly. "Call me if you need anything," she said. "I thought we could take up Judith's offer and go and stay with her for a while, a week maybe - we haven't seen her since last summer, at the barbecue. Do you remember that, darling? It was such a lovely day, they always pull out all the st-"

"Fine," said Hermione firmly. "Goodnight, Mum."

"Night darling… do you still have a toothbrush, I've got some new ones in the cabinet-"

"Mum!" said Hermione fiercely, and her mother took the hint and left. Hermione flopped back on her pillows. She felt a prickle of excitement about the following day. Hopefully her cousins would be there… and her old friends from her junior school. She usually saw them once or twice a year, at family functions such as this. They would be unutterably boring if it was not for the other teenagers.

Hermione carefully hung her clothes over the back of her chair, and pulled on a fresh cotton nightdress. She crawled lethargically into bed, and snuggled down, dimming her lamp. Her thoughts returned to the boys once more. It had all been so very cryptic... A couple of weeks ago, the Ministry had placed a front-page story. It seemed that intelligence from Voldemort's side had leaked to the Ministry; he was planning an attack. The school had gone into uproar as rumours spread wildly. The teachers had dismissed it as pure sensationalism, but an underlying sense of anxiety hovered over their heads like a black cloud. Nothing more had been heard for days… Then, two weeks later, Hermione had been looking out of her dormitory window, which faced North to the front of the school. She had seen six pinstriped robed men Apperate onto the grass in front of the school, and walk briskly up to the main gate, looking deathly pale. The next thing anyone knew, all the seventh year boys had been called to the Main Hall. When Hermione went looking for Ron and Harry, they were already well on their way to London. She had never got to say goodbye.

A few hours later, Dumbledore had called a meeting for the remainder of the school in the Great Hall. Looking deeply troubled, he had constantly fiddled with his glasses, pushing them up the bridge of his nose many times. Professor McGonagall had looked pale and fidgety. He had informed them, sighing deeply, that in accordance with Ministry regulations, all men of the age of seventeen and above should be recruited in times of war. This sentence was met with gasps of horror. So it was true…

"Unfortunately this age bracket includes the young men at the top end of this school, in their seventh year. I doubt that I need to tell you that I have grave reservations about this decision; however, I am no match for the might of the Ministry. And therefore I am afraid to announce that we are at war with the Dark Side, and the seventh year boys will be aiding the fight." Dumbledore had said, looking at his hands as he did so. He raised his light blue eyes to the assembled school, and swept them with a defeated look. "They were taken down to London this morning. I hardly need mention that this is a very dangerous time to be a wizard, and trainee ones at that, as all of you here are. I think that it is in everyone's best wishes that they return to the safety and anonymity of their families as soon as possible. We all know exactly what the Dark Lord is capable of. You will be returning home on the Hogwart's Express, early Monday morning. This will, I hope, give you adequate time to assemble your belongings and say your goodbyes."

A howl of anger swept through the school. One of the fifth year boys put his hand up.

"Yes, James?" Dumbledore enquired.

"When can we come back?" the boy asked.

"Alas, I cannot say. I'm afraid this is a game of wait and see. Undoubtedly the Ministry will be in touch with all of you concerning safety precautions." Dumbledore turned to step down, then added one last thing.

"Our seventh years who have been taken will need to be strong and brave. I need you all to be brave for them. Naturally you will think of them, but please try not to worry yourselves to death." He stared pointedly and the seventh year girls. "I would like to say, if you are religious, please pray for them. If you are not, then wish them all the safety you can muster. I do not wish to be a prophet of doom, but it is not impossible that some may never come home. I shall speak to you all tomorrow."

Hermione stood on jelly legs as her line traipsed silently from the hall. Somehow, she walked in a dazed state to her room, and there fell on her bed and gazed damply into her pillow. She vaguely registered the footfalls of Lavender and Parvati coming into the room, and she heard their frantic whispers. Hermione just lay there, numb.

The following day had been hectic. All the seventh year had been running around wildly, searching for lost items under beds and bursting into tears at the sight of yet another friend they had to say goodbye to. What seemed to be the worst thing was the fact that no one had any idea how long this period of isolation could last. It had not really hit home that the reason behind all this was a war, and behind the war… Voldemort. All the girls could think of was leaving their school: exams undone, friends lost, boyfriends in peril. Would they even be able to finish their final year? No one had ever in their wildest dreams thought something like this could ever happen.

And then Dumbledore was giving them all their final speech; the younger ones were giggly with barely suppressed hysteria; it was all a game to them. Living out the gritty romance of war that they had heard or read about. They weren't old enough for the word to strike any kind of terror into them.

No-one had really explained what was going to happen to the boys, Hermione thought as sleep still evaded her clutches. Were they fighting? She thought of all the war films she had seen; and that black and white grainy footage of the Second World War. Blood, death, disease, tragedy. But that was Muggle war; with guns and bombs and planes. Wizards had wands, and with them infinitely more power. She shifted in her bed and turned over, feeling a hot burning of fear. What on earth was happening to them? She thought of boys like Neville, and Justin Finch-Fletchly. Neville, who had only just mastered some of the easier charms. Justin; whose privileged lifestyle meant he had never done a day's manual labour in his life. Even Malfoy… Hermione could just imagine him refusing point blank to do any work. "I'll owl my father and have him come and pick me up from this dump…"

Sorry Draco, breeding counts for nothing in situations like this. No amount of money could excuse him from recruitment. He would be treated like any other… an equal for the first time in his charmed seventeen years. If only they had all been born just a year before, Hermione thought desperately. But then… the war could go on and on… maybe a year, maybe more…

She screwed her eyes up. It didn't bear thinking about.

*

Harry pulled his blanket up over his shoulders. He could hear some of the others chatting idly to each other in the flickering candlelight. Ron was in the bunk bed below him, snoring quietly. Harry rolled over and peered across the dim room. There was Neville, staring blankly up at the bunk above him. Malfoy was curled in a ball in his bed, looking down his pointy nose at Justin and Ernie Macmillan, who were the ones chatting away in opposite beds. Harry had never felt less like gossiping. The room they were in was sparse and poorly heated. In the two days that the boys had been there, they had done nothing but sat in confused and frightened huddles, wondering and waiting. What was expected of them? When would they receive their orders? Where was You-Know-Who and what was he doing?

Harry blinked behind his glasses, and took them off, rubbing the musted lenses on his thinning cotton sheet. It had all been so unreal… He had been happily avoiding doing his Charms homework in his dormitory that day, and playing Exploding Snap with Ron and Seamus instead. It was a bit of a childish game for seventeen-year-olds, but… you know. Everyone needs escapism sometimes. Harry could picture the scene perfectly. There was a roaring fire in the grate and a packet of half-eaten Honeydukes' strawberry chocolate being shared between them. The wind howled outside the window. Seamus's cat Limerick was curled up in a tortoiseshell ball of fluff. The boys had listened to the fast running footsteps come thudding down the corridor, and the heavy breathing as a persistent knock came at the door.

"Harry?" an anxious voice had called out.

"Oh, God," Harry had whispered. He had recognised the agitated voice as belong to Colin Creevey. "What does he want now?" he hissed to the others, and they sighed and shook their heads. At first, Colin's infatuation had been a constant source of amusement to them, but now, years later, the joke had worn rather thin and he was merely an annoyance.

"Come in," Harry had called dully. Colin scampered in, looking pale and shaky with excitement and shock.

"Harry…" he said, gasping for breath, and bending over to try and regain normal speech. "Professor Dumbledore… wants all the seventh year boys… in the Great Hall… now…"

"Er… why?" said Ron, as Colin collapsed on the carpet, wheezing. Colin shrugged his shoulders.

The three boys got to their feet and walked quickly down the many corridors and stairs to the heart of the school.

"This had better not be some kind of joke," muttered Seamus.

"Well, Colin looked pretty earnest," Harry remarked. They walked into the hall to join the rest of the seventh year boys, who all looked rather sullen. No one took too kindly to being disturbed in their free time.

"I wonder why he just wants to see the boys?" Ron hissed. Dumbledore appeared then, followed by six glum-looking men dressed in Ministry robes. Dumbledore looked immensely tired.

"Good afternoon, Gentlemen," he said, addressing the seventh years. Harry and Ron exchanged glances. They had never been called that before.

'I have some unfortunate news," he continued. "Undoubtedly you will have heard the rumours about the rise of the Dark Lord. They have turned out to be true. We know from intelligence that he is currently residing somewhere in England; our sources suggest somewhere in the West Country. One of the Death Eaters has owled the Ministry to tell us that he will be declaring war in a matter of days."

How considerate of him, Harry thought sardonically. He saw one of the Ministry men lean towards Dumbledore and whisper something in his ear. Harry tried to read his lips, and he thought he could make out the words, "Get on with it."

Dumbledore sighed. "We are potentially entering a period of war. I doubt I have to inform you that this will be very perilous." He looked down at his feet and sighed once more. "According to Ministry regulations, all men that have come of age have an obligation to assist with any wizarding wars. This includes you."

A low muttering swept through the assembled boys. One of the men shoved Dumbledore rather roughly aside and addressed the group.

"Be ready to leave in twenty minutes. Move it, now!"

They scrambled hastily to their feet, looking at each other. Ron's face was white with fear, and Harry saw Neville's eyes round and terrified. He turned to look at Dumbledore, who had slumped into a chair, looking suddenly very old.

They all raced up the stairs and into their dormitories, throwing things hastily into their trunks.

"Aren't we even allowed time to say goodbye to people?" exclaimed Dean as he ripped down his old flaking poster of West Ham from the wall. Harry glanced at him, concerned. Dean was going out with Hannah Abbott of Hufflepuff. As far as he could see, they were he only two people of his age that he had ever met who were truly in love. Their romance had lasted more than a year.

"Hermione'll be worried about us," Harry said softly to Ron. He snorted.

"Right now, I'm worried about us, Harry. How long is this going to be for? Where are we going? What are we going to do, for God's sake, fight on the front lines?"

"You watched too many Muggle movies at Hermione's house last summer, Ron. I expect magical war is totally different."

Apprehensively, they dragged their suitcases down the stairs again. The Ministry men were assembled in a perfect line by the door.

"Hurry up," said one irritably as they passed.

"Not used to dealing with children," said Harry. Ron barely smiled.

"When are we going to see this place again, Harry?" he said miserably, his voice sounding croaky.

"I don't know Ron," came the answer.

They traveled by train to King's Cross, where they were instantly ushered into large black Ministry cars with darkened windows. Draco Malfoy was in their car, and after a few minutes driving at breakneck speed across London, he started to whine.

"Excuse me, sir," he said, voice dripping with defiance. "But where exactly are we going and what are you intending to do to us?"

"Not now, driving," came the curt reply. They all stared at each other in the gloomy darkness. Harry could see the whites of Malfoy's eyes bulge, and he knew that beneath all the bravado, Malfoy was as scared as the rest of them.

They eventually arrived at what Harry presumed to be the Ministry offices. It was a tall tower block, built of what looked like stainless steel and reflecting glass. They were all ushered into the huge atrium on the ground floor. The boys shuffled over to the huge black sofas, their trainers squeaking on the mock-marble floor. They were to sit there, palms growing sweaty and hearts thumping in their chests, for more than two hours.

Then, a man dressed in an expensive looking Muggle suit came walking idly down the stairs to where they were hunched on the sofas.

"Ah, good evening, boys," he said, smiling to reveal three gold teeth and the rest pearly white. "I would shake all of your hands, but well, we'd be here all night!" He paused, waiting for laughter. None came. He coughed embarrasedly.

"I'm Charles Irving-Brown, PA to Cornelius Fudge. Sadly the man himself couldn't be here to greet you personally, but it's all go, go, go here!"

Harry glanced over at Ron, who rolled his eyes to the ceiling.

"Anyway, enough polite chatter! Let's get down to business, eh chaps?" Harry heard Dean stifle a laugh into a cough, and Ernie Macmillan hid a smile behind his hand.

"You're here to aid your side in this time of war. I don't want you to be too alarmed; it won't all be hard work. For now you'll be staying in a lovely hotel room, booked especially for you, and Dennis here will be your mentor." He pointed to a huge man who had suddenly appeared behind him. Dennis was alarmingly muscular, with shaved head and a single gold earring in the shape of a skull in his right earlobe. Harry felt himself shrink away instinctively, and even Charles Irving-Brown seemed to shift away from him. Dennis certainly did not look like mentor material.

Then they were driving again, through the darkness and rain, right across London to Kingston-upon-Thames. Rather than having a sumptuous hotel awaiting them, Dennis filed them into the most drab Youth Hostel anyone had ever seen.

Their days were filled with nothingness, and no one came to give them instructions of any kind. Dean pined for Hannah, and the rest pined for Hogwarts. Harry and Ron missed Hermione of course. Malfoy seemed to miss no one at all.

*

Hermione lay back in her car seat, feeling the wind whipping in her hair. It was the first sunny day in almost six months. She had scanned every page of the Daily Prophet that morning, but there was nothing. Evidently the Ministry had given nothing away. She had nearly owled Dumbledore to ask him what on earth was happening, but then stopped. She didn't want to disturb him; he would be busy enough.

Hermione and her mother stepped out of the car. She realised suddenly with a jolt of unhappiness that it would be the first time they had come to the annual barbecue without her father. She thought for the first time how hard it must have been on her mother when she had gone back to Hogwarts that September, leaving her all alone.

They walked up the path of the middle-class, detached house that belonged to her aunt and uncle.

"Come in!" cried Judith as she flung open the door. She enveloped both Hermione and her mother in a hug that seemed to last longer than usual. "It's so good to see you both," she said, and Hermione saw tears in her eyes.

While her mother went off with Aunt Judith into the living room, Hermione wandered down through the kitchen and out into the huge back garden. She saw everyone crouched over the barbecue, burning the sausages. One looked up, and saw her.

"Hermione!" they all chorused, and a mass of people all bore down on her. One got there faster than the others, and flew at her like demented firework. Hermione was nearly bowled over by the hug that Sarita gave her.

"Hi guys," she said happily, as the rest reached her and all hugged her at once.

The next few minutes were spent over the traditional greetings and exchanged insults; "Look at your hair! It's still like someone plugged you into a live socket!"

Later, when Hermione had ceremoniously been handed a charred hotdog, and she had caught up on all the news - "Another year 10 is pregnant!" said Peter, his eyes gleaming, she sat in a quiet corner of the garden with Sarita.

"I've missed you," Sarita said to her, spitting out blackened hamburger into the bushes. "It's been a weird year, this one, what with A Levels and everything."

"How are they going?" asked Hermione, knowing only too well that these were the exams she would be taking, if it wasn't for being a witch.

"Physics is hell," she replied, draining the last of her cola. "All those equations… God knows why I took it."

"How's Burton Hill anyway?"

"A dump, as ever. Feel glad you were spared the privilege of going there." Sarita plucked at the grass in disgust. "Peter wasn't joking; there have been two underage pregnancies just this year…"

"No such scandals at Hogwarts," Hermione said. She explained about the potential war. Sarita gazed at her, wide-eyed.

"So Ron and Harry had too go, too, as they're seventeen," she finished.

"You weren't going out with one of them, were you?"

Hermione sighed. "Not any more," she said. "They are my best friends, though. No one's told us where they are, what they're doing… Dumbledore - the headmaster - said they could be in danger though. It all seems so wrong. They're only seventeen…" Hermione felt her eyes grow hot and prickly, and she swallowed hard.

Sarita squeezed her hand. "I don't know if I should be telling you this," she said in a conspiratorial whisper, "but Josh came out last week."

"Josh?!" Hermione exclaimed, her jaw falling open in shock. "Never!"

"He did, as well."

They both glanced across the garden to where Josh and Peter were still making a hash of cooking the food on the barbie.

"Not…"

Sarita burst out laughing. "Peter's straight as a die, you fool!" she said, clutching her stomach because she was laughing so hard. "Have you not noticed the hundreds of girlfriends he's had over the years? Lord knows how he does it, I mean, imagine going out with Peter!"

"Yeah…" said Hermione. She turned away, and fiddled with the petals on a daisy.

*

Late that night, Sarita, Josh and Peter went home, and Hermione went into the house to help make up her bed in Diana's room. Diana and Tom were her cousins: seventeen and nineteen respectively. Tom was not his real name; he had been the unfortunate recipient of Aunt Judith's obsession with Greek and Roman ancient mythology. Tom had been christened Thor, and in his mind there was no worse name. Diana had got off a lot more lightly, having been named after the goddess of hunting. It had been Aunt Judith who had persuaded Hermione's mother to continue the trend when her own daughter was born.

"It was a great barbecue, Di," said Hermione as they smoothed down a fresh sheet on the spare bed.

"Was it good to see the others from Burton?" she asked.

"Always is. Did you know about Josh?" she asked.

"I'd guessed a long time ago, Hermione. I think he'd known for years - it was a relief getting it out in the open."

"I suppose this is what comes of not seeing people all year," Hermione mused. "I just don't know them like I used to." She gazed around the room, with the hanging crystals casting small rainbows onto the midnight blue walls. She wandered over to Diana's dressing table, and fiddled with her small pots of silver shimmer dust and eyeliner pencils. "I wish he'd tell me himself," she said quietly, voicing for the first time the worry that had been plaguing her all day.

"I'm sure he will when he's ready."

"You don't think that he thinks I'm a bigot, do you?"

"What, you? Never!" Diana smiled, and turned away to tidy her bedside table littered with tarot cards and New Age books. Hermione glanced after her.

"You really shouldn't believe in all that, you know Di. My transfiguration teacher says that Divination is a very imprecise branch of magic."

"Well, she's a totally different type of witch to the one I am, Hermione," Diana said, gazing into her mirror and pining back her long chocolate brown hair with glittering clips.

Hermione decided to change the subject. "So how's the love life?" she asked, smiling wryly.

"Oh, it's all endlessly exciting, as per usual," said Diana. "I.e. - nothing whatsoever. But I don't mind. I've got the God and the Goddess instead."

"You sound like a bible basher, Di!" exclaimed Hermione.

"Euch! Thank you very much! I happen to pride myself on being as far-removed from them as possible." She walked over to the window, and ran a finger along her wind-chime, before shutting the curtains, which were made of black taffeta, embroidered with silver stars. "Don't you ever find it… hard? Not believing in anything I mean…?"

Diana tactfully left the question hanging in the air, but Hermione knew what she really meant.

"My dad? I always thought that we live, we die, that's all. No afterlife, no celestial soul-saving. But then last summer, it felt like I had nothing left. How can someone's life just be snuffed out like that, with nothing to show for it? It doesn't seem right. But then I realised, when has anything in this life been fair. I just don't see why there should be anything else."

Diana hooked her bony elbow over Hermione's curved shoulder. "If that's how you feel…" she said. "I just couldn't live like that."

"I know. But we're all different." Hermione glanced over at the silver-framed photo of her grandparents, resting on Diana's bedside table. She walked over and picked it up. "I wish we could have met them," she said. "Just once."

"I often wish that too. They look so happy. Strange to think what was really going on."

Hermione ran a finger over the glass, tracing the old-fashioned hairstyles and 1940's clothes. "Do you think that was what killed her?" she said.

"It was all such a great mystery… You just don't know."

"I don't know how your mum could bear to keep in touch with him, Di. After everything he'd done to them and their mother."

"He did have severe depression. I suppose she just found it easier to forgive him than your mum did."

"But getting married - a year later! And to the woman he'd been seeing as well."

"Mum said that Victoria wasn't that bad. She managed to get on with her." Diana sighed. "I know what you mean though. If it was me, I'd never be able to forgive him."

Hermione pulled her duvet up to her chin and rolled over into her pillow. "Funny how people can make the same mistakes over and over again," she said slowly. "You would have thought they'd learn."

*

The next few days were as boring again, and just when Harry was sure they would never be required to do anything, and would simply grow old and grey in the hideous youth hostel, Dennis, the man who had been their 'mentor,' came back from a long sabbatical at the local pub. They had all found to their amusement that Dennis, with a look straight off the streets of Mitcham or an East-End alley, had a very strong Yorkshire accent.

"Ah righ' lads, yah doin' some work today. Get yerselves a goo' brekkie - there's porridge int cupboard and milk int fridge…"

Too bored to feel any sense of apprehension at what they would be expected to do, the boys quietly poured out cereal into chipped china bowls and ate their breakfast quickly, trying not to choke on the inedible stale porridge.

Harry glanced across the table. Malfoy was playing with his thick, lumpy porridge, pushing the gluey substance around the bowl with his spoon. His face was even paler than usual, dark circles enclosing his large eyes. Blonde eyelashes flitted nervously above his twitching eyes.

As they finished they breakfast and hastily washed up the crockery, Dennis beckoned through the door, and into a room that had previously been out of bounds.

"Ya first task," he said, pointing to individual tables with what looked like a typewriter and computer scanner set up on each one. Silently, they slid into their seats.

"'E Who Must Not Be Named 'as been communicating with 'is Death Eaters by way of coded messages. It's up to you lot to decipher 'em. There messages ont tables; work 'em out and type int typewriters. See yas all later - I'm expecting a lot a' work doing here today, mind." He swaggered out of the room, scratching his baldycoot head. As soon as he was out of earshot, there was an uproar.

"What the hell are these?" said Ron, flabbergasted, pointing at his typewriters.

"Oh, they're right-typers or something - we did a bit in Muggle Studies in the third year," said Ernie Macmillan. He swiveled on his office chair to look to Harry for reassurance.

"Er… they're typewriters," said Harry. "Muggles use them to write out things neatly."

"How in the name of Merlin are we meant to decipher these messages?" said Draco Malfoy, in a cool, bored voice. He picked up his page of jumbled letters. "This is ridiculous. I'm owling my father; something I should have done right from the start."

"With what owl, drip," said Justin scathingly. "Nothing can get any of us out of this mess. I propose we get down to work and have a go at these things."

Harry picked up his own piece of paper. GOLE - MYET BOEES NT TAE LHST PAB UN BRIOHTON STGEET. RO WGTH HIM IO SELAGNITHGIN. It was simply impossible to believe that they expected them to be able to decipher this rubbish. There were a million different codes in the world - it was an inconceivable task. He decided to look for the obvious ones first, ignoring the groans coming from around him. Evidently everyone else thought the task just as impossible as he did. Harry pulled a quill and scrap of parchment from his pocket. It would be far too obvious for the letter to just be written backwards; but you had to start somewhere. GOLE was the first word. That made ELOG backwards. Harry sighed. This is where having Hermione around would be so useful. The Ministry seemed to pride itself on being so modern and forward; in fact they were still stuck back in Victorian times.

Harry frowned, and sipped some water from his cracked beaker. He tried out countless different codes; all proving fruitless. Harry could remember when he and Dudley had been about ten, it had been fashionable for children to have detective books with spying puzzles and coded messages. Dudley of course had had many of these books, but not being blessed with the greatest intellect the world has ever seen; he soon left them to gather dust. Harry had read them himself in secret, and had got quite good at cracking codes. The skill was starting to come back to him now. If he squinted his eyes at the message, a few of the words seemed almost right. Briohton wasn't a word, but if you swapped the 'o' for a 'g', it became Brighton: the seaside town. Harry bent over the piece of paper, intrigued. And STGEET would be street with an 'r' instead of a 'g'. So you got rid of a 'g' in one word and put it into the next. But the other words weren't obvious at all. Especially the last one - SELAGNITHGIN. No matter what letter you took out, it still didn't make a word. Something in Harry's brain whispered 'Nightingales'. He frowned. Why did I just think that? he thought. And then it clicked. He set to work eagerly.

When Dennis returned from the pub, belching loudly and carrying a half-eaten chip butty, Harry was just finishing off typing out the translation.

"Excellent!" he cried. "One a' you good-for-nothings has actually worked it out! Good lad!"

Harry tried not to glow. Dennis squinted at the typed-out page. "Goyle - meet Bones at the last pub on Brighton Street. Go with him to Nightingale's. Devise a plan of action for sector 12 and report in three days…"

He scanned the rest. "Excellent work, lad," he repeated. "Excellent."

He pulled out what looked like a walkie-talkie, and switched it on. "Eagle Owl 5, this is Natterjack Toad 11. We've cracked the code, over."

"Good man!" came the crackling reply. "Have it owled over to me as soon as possible."

"Yes, sir."

*

Deep in London suburbia, Hermione rolled over in her sleep and inexplicably was immediately awake. She glanced at the glowing red numbers of the Muggle alarm clock, and at Diana, who was rolled into a ball in her duvet, snoring gently. Hermione wriggled out of her sleeping bag and padded silently across the carpeted room to the bedside table. She stared hard at the smiling faces, trying to permeate the real feelings masked behind the smiles. She felt a strange sense of need, and her eyes burned as they danced over the photo.

 

//
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