The Sugar Quill
Author: Coquillage (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: A Deep Breath  Chapter: Chapter 1
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Thank you to all who kindly reviewed the prologue to this story. We will discover what happened...but first we must look back. This story will entertain varying POVs. Hope you enjoy them all. Thanks again to The Morning Starr.





Chapter One

Spoken and Unspoken


As much as they disliked the idea, Hermione and Ron knew they would not see Harry until after his birthday.

At the end of term, Harry had vaguely explained to his friends that he had to return to Privet Drive. It seemed that living in the home of his horrible relatives actually granted him some protection from Voldemort, and had since he was a baby. Dumbledore was adamant that he stay there, at least through July.

“Can’t argue with that,” Ron had said, while looking desperately as if he wanted to argue. “It’s kept him alive so far, hasn’t it?”

He's kept himself alive, more like," Ginny grumbled under her breath, but that was the extent of the protest. They had all put on their best faces and seen him off at King’s Cross, with Mr. Weasley, Tonks, Lupin and, particularly, Mad-Eye Moody emphatically letting Harry’s aunt and uncle know that he wasn’t to be mistreated.

Harry's gratitude had been obvious, even if he hadn’t voiced it. For a brief moment, Hermione saw amazement and appreciation replace the guarded look he had worn since the night Sirius died; the look that had kept them all at bay.

Well, not all of them. Hermione had certainly tried to talk to Harry, but had been intercepted by Ron at every turn.

“Hermione, he doesn’t want to talk about it,” Ron had hissed at her after one of Harry’s abrupt departures from the Gryffindor common room. “Don’t you remember last year? He’ll talk to us when he’s ready.”

The sting of Ron’s words had almost brought her to tears. Of course she remembered last year. It hadn’t been until the train ride home that Harry had confided in them the events of Voldemort’s rebirth, and Cedric’s death. This year they hadn’t even gotten that much.

It pained her that there was a precedent for Harry’s withdrawn behavior. She could assign a two foot parchment, “Compare and Contrast Harry’s End-of-Term Tragedies and his Resulting Emotional Damage.” Naturally Ron would fail it. What was it that prevented boys from acknowledging the value of talking things out? Thank goodness she had Ginny. They had spoken often in the waning days of last term, each relieved to have a confidant. Together they had wept over Sirius, and the unfairness that was his life. They had raged about Umbridge and those Slytherins all too willing to follow her. They had puzzled over what they had seen in the Department of Mysteries. They had even shared whispered fears about the future. But most of the time, their focus was on Harry, and the impact that the nightmare of events had had on him.

After they left Hogwarts, their exchange continued by owl. Even if it was not the same as conversing, they had established a comfortable rapport. Their letters, filled with inside references, conveyed volumes to each other that prying eyes would see only as cryptic babble.

Not that coding was required. With the Order no longer in hiding from the Ministry, and with the Death Eaters apparently entertaining other priorities, they had less fear of their post being intercepted, although they were still cautious not to include any details that could compromise the Order, or their safety. Hermione had been made aware of the procedure for emergency communication when Lupin had pulled her aside at the train station, and pressed a piece of parchment into her hand.

“Hermione, there are two important telephone numbers on this paper. One is Harry’s, at the Dursleys'.” The urgency of his message almost animated his tired face, and Hermione had not interrupted him to say she already had that one.

“The other,” he continued, just loud enough for her to hear him in the noisy station, “is for Grimmauld Place.” He smiled slightly at her shock. “Tonks cooked up something. I’m not sure what. At any rate,” and he was all seriousness again, “you must phone Harry tomorrow. Give him your number. Give him this second number. If anything happens, anything at all, he is to use the telephone. He’s to contact you, or contact Grimmauld Place. If he phones you, you are to immediately phone Grimmauld Place.”

Hermione nodded and looked at the parchment. “Do I have to memorize this?" she whispered.

Lupin again smiled fleetingly. "It might be a good idea," he allowed. "Just so you know it. But I don't expect it can be used to locate us, exactly."

Tonks had wandered over. “Hermione, if you ring Grimmauld Place,” she said, her conspiratorial whisper significantly louder than Lupin's, “someone you don’t know might answer, so just state your name and stall a bit until you hear someone say ‘order.’”

“Yes," Hermione answered, trying not to betray how odd she found the request. "All right.”

Lupin placed a hand lightly on her shoulder. "I know we can count on you. Take care of yourself, Hermione.”

Early the next morning she was nervously phoning the Dursleys', hoping Harry’s Uncle Vernon had taken the warning from the Order seriously. To her relief, Harry answered. She gave him her phone number and the one for Grimmauld Place, and repeated the instructions Lupin had given her.

“But owls are fine for regular letters,” she finished.

“Ones that don’t say anything,” Harry answered darkly.

“Ones that don’t compromise anyone’s safety,” Hermione said, feeling a little testy.

“Right,” he muttered. The conversation stalled.

“Are things all right there, Harry?”

“Well, I’ve had breakfast, if that’s what you mean,” Harry said with forced cheerfulness, and he swiftly changed the topic. “Hermione, what do you suppose Tonks has done? What about these directions for phoning Grimmauld Place?”

“Well, I imagine the Order members aren’t familiar with using the telephone, so it might take them a bit to answer.”

“No," said Harry thoughtfully. "No, she said wait until we hear the word ‘order’, which means they’re picking up late...hold on!" Harry's voice held the first trace of energy Hermione had heard in days. "Hermione, she’s tapped into a phone line! That’s brilliant.”

“Yes,” said Hermione, eager to sustain Harry’s burst of enthusiasm, and duly impressed with Tonks' resourcefulness. “And as it’s only for emergencies, it should work without anyone catching on. No one at Grimmauld Place is likely to call out, unless – ” she stopped her thought, but a moment too late. Both knew were she was headed. Unless something terrible happened. At which point the communications concerns of the Muggle neighbors would not be of much importance.

“Harry,” Hermione struggled to sweep aside the cloud she had introduced, and recover the lightness of the moment before. “You can call here anytime. After all, our telephone is perfectly legitimate.”

But she had lost him.

“Thanks, Hermione. I really mean it. Thanks.” Harry’s voice was now a study in distraction. She knew the look that would be settling over his face - the smile would have disappeared, the eyes glazed over. His thoughts were elsewhere. He continued speaking quickly. “I’m going to get going. Look for Hedwig. I don’t reckon she’ll let herself be caught twice. So, I’ll write. Thanks.” And he hung up.

* * *

To Hermione’s surprise, Harry had written faithfully throughout the early summer. Mostly short notes to fulfill the mandate that he keep in touch, but gradually longer letters. The contents were mundane: weather; boredom; life with the Dursleys. Some topics, once innocuous, were conspicuous in their absence. Letters didn’t mention potential trips to Diagon Alley. They wouldn’t speculate in writing on the identity of the newest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, in case they accidentally hit upon the truth and unveiled some Order secret. There was no discussion of career planning, or classmates, or the D.A.

Each letter silently pointed to the slew of questions lurking just beneath the benign correspondences. Who was safe? Who was threatened? What was happening? But amid the worry the letters continued to come, and Hermione felt the same rush of relief every time she saw Hedwig at her window. Another letter Harry had answered. Another day that Harry was safe.

Letters also passed back and forth among Hermione, Ron and Ginny, acknowledging that they were all hearing from Harry. They held to the strained belief that as long as the communication continued, nothing was out of the ordinary. Nothing, that is, other than the Wizarding world being on the brink of war and their best friend being a primary target.

As August neared, Errol delivered the awaited invitation to the Burrow. No Grimmauld Place this year. With the cooperation of the Ministry, the Order felt confident in their ability to safeguard the Weasley home.

Knowing she would not stay home for the entire holiday, Hermione had squeezed as much time in with her parents as their schedules would allow. She had revealed to them select tidbits on current affairs in the Wizarding world - just the amount of news she felt they could absorb without locking her in her room. Yes, there were dangerous wizards about: the Ministry was doing its best to apprehend them and protect the students. Yes, there was no place safer than the home of a Ministry official, unless it was Hogwarts itself. Meanwhile Harry had not called and there had been no emergencies or incidents to shatter this illusion of protection. Hermione also knew Dumbledore had written to her parents. She had no idea as to the content of his letter, but her parents were letting her leave.

The Order was sending a car. Hermione waited in front of her house with her trunk and Crookshanks the cat in his basket, her arm wrapped around her mother’s waist as they filled the remaining time with small talk. She hated this in between time; one foot in one world, one foot in the other. Her mother played with Hermione’s hair, running her fingers through it, brushing it back.

“We’re so proud of you, Hermione,” she said softly. “I miss you so when you’re gone. Be careful. Write often.”

Hermione nodded in mute agreement, and found herself wrapped in a hug. Tears threatened, then abated as her father called from the pavement to say a car was coming.

“I love you, Mum,” she managed. Her father had come to take her trunk to the curb. Hermione reached for him. “And I love you, Dad,” she said with a squeeze around his neck.

Her father kissed her forehead in answer. “Me too, sweetheart. Stay well, Hermione. We’ll see you at Christmas.”

Hermione held the hug, her eyes closed, until she felt her composure return. Turning down the walk to the car, she was pleased to see Tonks standing beside it, in her favored uniform of jeans and t-shirt. Her hair was still short and spiky, but a less attention-grabbing black.

Tonks grinned. “Hello, Hermione!”

Hermione smiled back, and felt her heart lighten. “Hello, Tonks.”

She was headed back to the Wizarding world, back to Harry and Ron and Ginny. Even as she said goodbye again to her parents, the excitement was building inside. By the time she was settled in the car, with Tonks chattering happily, she felt better than she had since June. She was going home.

The euphoria lasted until Hedwig caught up to the car and delivered one last, late letter through the window.

* * *

Ron Weasley was a man of mixed emotions as he lugged Hermione's trunk up the stairs of the Burrow. He was happy that his sister's room was on the third landing and not at the top of the house. He was annoyed that his mother would not let him use magic to move the trunk. He was happy that Hermione had arrived safely at the Burrow. But he wasn't sure how he felt about Hermione giving him a warm greeting hug, then hurrying inside to surprise Ginny.

He watched the back of her bushy hair disappear as she reached Ginny's room a step ahead of him.

“Hermione!” squealed Ginny, jumping from the bed where she had been reading and embracing the new arrival. “I’m so glad you’re here! I’ve so needed someone to talk to,” she added in a lowered voice, eyeing Ron standing in the doorway.

“Oh,” Hermione sighed in agreement, “me too, Ginny.”

“And me, I’m nobody,” Ron complained. “Just here to carry baggage.”

Ginny snorted dismissively. “As if you talk.”

Ron pulled Hermione’s trunk toward the foot of the spare bed. Against all instincts he felt wounded, and straightened up to tell them so, balancing the trunk on its end.

“I talk,” he protested. “Hermione, tell her, I talked with you in the hospital wing. About stuff.”

“You do talk, Ron,” Hermione assured him. “After you’ve been trapped in the same room for days. And rather well, considering,” she added, with a wink at Ginny.

“Considering what?”

“Considering that you are a male,” supplied Ginny, “and therefore unable to participate in an intelligent and meaningful conversation.”

“Huh!” Ron huffed. He thought he had been very – conversational - for all that time in the hospital wing. They’d talked. A lot. About what had happened at the Ministry, and its repercussions. In fact – and now Ron grew irritated – in fact Hermione had got him talking nonstop. About Sirius, about Harry… No, they really hadn’t talked much about Harry. Hermione had tried but Ron had redirected those conversations, or conveniently fallen asleep.

Ron glared at the girls as they knelt by the window seat, fussing over Crookshanks. He had obviously been dismissed.

Fine. Just because he hadn’t spent all summer prattling on with Ginny, or writing letters so long they would take three days to read, didn’t mean he didn’t talk. Or think. About things.

"It’s all right to talk now.

The thought had flickered through his mind so fleetingly as to feel foreign, like an idea that had been placed there and quickly retracted. Ron shivered. He was still pondering the source when another idea came, lightening quick, as if someone were speaking in his ear.

This is a safe place for you to talk about it, with these two.”

Ron’s eyes widened. Where was that coming from?

“Ron?”

He shook his head to clear the voice away. His hand had cramped around the leather strap of Hermione’s trunk. Both girls were looking at him. Apparently he had been staring.

“Are you feeling well?” Hermione asked.

“Yeah,” said Ron, snapping back to attention and quickly releasing the end of the trunk, as if it were responsible for him suddenly hearing voices. “Yeah, fine.”

Still pinioned by their twin stares, he clapped empty hands together, far too loudly. “So,” he said brightly, “let’s talk.” And he plopped himself down on Ginny’s bed, wondering as he did so what had possessed him to say that.

Hermione regarded him curiously. Ginny’s mouth actually hung open, as if she had been prepared to make a retort but had been too stunned to get the words out.

“Are you sure?” asked Hermione.

“I am. Yeah.”

“All right,” she said, in what Ron recognized as her very serious voice, and the two settled opposite him on Hermione’s bed.

Ron cringed inwardly. Here it comes.

“I’m worried about Harry.”

Bingo, Ron thought. When aren’t we worried about Harry?

“Yes,” Ginny joined quickly. “Yes, me too. I got this letter…” she jabbed her hand into her pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of parchment.

“You too?” Ron and Hermione chorused. Ron frowned at Hermione, who ignored him.

“It seems we all received an unusual letter from Harry,” she said, producing her own considerably smoother envelope.

Ron recognized Harry’s scrawled handwriting. At least I’m not carrying mine about, he thought. Chalk one up for boys.

“Is yours an apology?” Ginny asked.

“Yes.” Ron and Hermione spoke together again. Ron scowled at Hermione, who again ignored him.

Ginny read aloud.

Dear Ginny,

How’s your holiday, all right I hope. Mine’s ok, pretty quiet. I hope your ankle doesn’t still hurt you or anything. I’m really sorry you got hurt at the Ministry. I wanted to thank you for believing me and for coming to try and help with things. I’m sorry I messed it up. Anyway I hope you have a great year at Hogwarts and win all your Quidditch matches.

Your friend,

Harry

Ginny looked up from the letter.

“Your Quidditch matches? Isn’t he going to play?” asked Ron.

“Honestly, Ron,” said Hermione, although with a much gentler tone than she usually reserved for the phrase. “Don’t you hear it? It’s more than Quidditch; he sounds as if he’s not coming back at all.” She hesitated. “It sounds like that in mine, too.”

“Read it,” said Ginny. With a nod, Hermione obliged.

Dear Hermione,

Hope your holiday is still going well. Mine’s ok.”

“That sounds familiar,” quipped Ron. Ginny glared at him as Hermione continued.

I hope you’re feeling ok. I was so glad when you got out of the hospital wing. I’m really sorry you got hurt at the Ministry. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you. Obviously you were right. Even though I didn’t listen, I wanted to thank you for your advice and all your thinking and help you’ve always given me. Thank you for believing me. You’ve been a really great friend. I don’t know what I would have done sometimes without your help. I hope you have a great year this year.

Your friend,

Harry

There was silence and Ron realized both girls were looking expectantly at him.

“Well, I don’t carry my letters from Harry around, do I?” he bristled.

They continued to stare him down.

“But,” he looked down at his trainers. Crookshanks was chewing the end of his shoelaces. Ron drew an audible breath. “I did get one. Harry thanked me for going with him last year, and he said he just wanted to be sure he thanked me for always being there, and for backing him up even though he was wrong.”

And that’s only one reason why it was a weird letter. Suddenly it was good to be able to ask someone else about it.

“What’s gotten into him?” Ron demanded. “Could he be that bored? He says everything with the Muggles is ok. And why is he asking how our holidays are going when we’ve been owling each other the whole time? That makes no sense.”

“Well,” said Ginny, “it doesn’t sound terribly much like Harry. It sounds like someone stood over his shoulder and made him write it. And Hermione’s right, it sounds like he doesn’t expect to see us this year...”

She stood up abruptly and paced around the room. Ron sensed her growing agitation. Time to check for the nearest exit.

“…which is stupid, because, well, obviously he’ll be at Hogwarts, and he always sees us at least by the end of the summer, if not here, or at Grimmauld Place, then at least Diagon Alley. Mum’ll have kittens otherwise, right Ron?” Ginny plowed ahead without waiting for an answer. “If something else was planned, we’d have got wind of it, through Fred and George at least, with all the tricks up their sleeves, and I’m certain Bill would tell us, right Ron?”

But Ron had turned his attention from Ginny to Hermione, who, sitting alone on Ginny’s bed, had grown very quiet.

“Hermione?”

Hermione was frowning in concentration at the letter in her hands. Ron could not see her eyes.

“Hermione?” he prompted again, reading her well enough to know that she was considering whether or not to tell them something.

“I was thinking,” Hermione began, and as she met Ron’s eyes, he recognized her anxiety and felt an unpleasant tightening in his stomach. “I was thinking, what if Harry had other plans?”

“Well” said Ginny, “like I was saying, Bill would – ”

“No, Ginny.” Hermione cut her off gently. “I mean Harry’s own plans.”

She continued very rapidly, as if voicing her thoughts before she could think better of it. “I mean, it does sound as though he thinks he won’t see us this year, or, or maybe ever. I first thought it after I read mine. But then your letters, they’re so alike, they, they seem to confirm it. It’s almost as if he’s saying goodbye-”

“What do you mean?” Ron interjected, a little more forcefully than he intended. “Harry’s not going anywhere. They’ve been putting up extra wards around the Burrow for a week, just so he can come here. And somebody would’ve told us if anything…” He stopped, frozen by Hermione’s deathly serious expression.

“Hermione,” he asked slowly. “What are you saying?”

“Look,” she answered. “It’s just that, well, Harry’s been through so much, and he clearly feels that what happened at the Ministry was his fault, and Sirius –”

Ron heard Ginny catch her breath.

“- well, he was the closest thing Harry had to a parent, wasn’t he? And Sirius is gone, killed trying to save Harry –”

“It wasn’t his fault!” Ron cried angrily.

“I know that, Ron!" Hermione shot back. "But Harry thinks it was. You know he does. You put that on top of Cedric dying last year, and us ending up in the hospital wing, then think about it. Harry’s all alone at his uncle’s house where they hate him… and he’s had all these horrible things happen, and I just think maybe, maybe it gets too overwhelming for him." Ron heard her try to cover the break in her voice. "It’s possible… maybe he’s tired… I’ve read about people…they get tired, and they make bad decisions, and then they write letters like these…”

Hermione could not finish her sentences, and she waved wordlessly at the letter still in her hand.

Ron had heard enough.

“Oh no, Hermione,” he said firmly. “No, no, no.” He stood up and covered the distance between the beds in two long strides, stopping in front of her. “Harry is not one of those people. Harry has us, all of us, and he knows it. Remember what Dad and Moody and Lupin said to him at the train station? He knows everyone’s watching out for him. He’s fine.”

He looked defiantly around at the two of them. No one spoke. Ginny sniffled.

“Girl talk,” he said dismissively. “And crying. Look, I’ll write him a letter right now and we’ll straighten all this out.”

He turned to Ginny’s desk, digging for some parchment and a quill.

“Dear Harry,” he said aloud as he scribbled. “How are you doing? I expect you’ll be coming to visit soon, as everyone here is getting ready for you. I’m sitting here with Hermione and Ginny – Hermione just got here. You’ve got to come soon because they’re making me barmy with all this girl stuff. We can’t wait to see you. Ron.”

He finished writing with a flourish. “Now I’m going to go find Pig and send this,” he scowled at them. “Honestly.” And he strode confidently out of Ginny’s room, closing the door with more emphasis than was necessary.

Pigwidgeon, as usual, was fluttering happily about in Ron’s bedroom. Ron burst through the door and was ready to call the tiny owl with the usual insult, when the bird came of its own accord and lit on his wrist. Ron started in surprise, then slowly raised his arm to bring the little owl up to eye level. He couldn’t remember seeing Pig sit so quietly.

“Spent some extra time with Hedwig, have you? It’s been good for you.”

Pig’s round amber eyes gazed steadily back at him, and the owl decorously offered its leg. Ron smiled and instead of attaching his letter straightaway, as he was usually forced to once he had wrestled Pig into obedience, he reached out and stroked the bird’s soft grey feathers. The owl puffed out its minute form with pride and pleasure. Ron realized his heart had been pounding since he had left Ginny’s room, and he felt it slow as he spoke to Pig.

“Does she tell you things?” he mused. “Hedwig, I mean. Because you suddenly seem to know what’s important.” The owl rubbed its beak against his fingers. “Do you know about what’s happening? Do you know about…Sirius?"

It was Sirius, after all, who had sent Pig to him, to compensate for the loss of Ron’s pet rat, Scabbers. Although “loss of a pet” isn’t quite how you’d describe it after discovering that your rat was in fact a wizard in hiding. Who had betrayed your best friend’s parents and godfather. Escaped to serve the darkest most evil wizard ever. Shown up again to poke a hole in said best friend’s arm. Taken his blood. And killed a schoolmate in the bargain.

It was surprising that the rat hadn’t been involved in the events of last year, although that was about the only thing that hadn’t happened. Ron's thoughts ran away, across the year again. Dementors attacking Harry. Ron’s own father attacked by a giant snake. You-Know-Who trying to control Harry’s thoughts. Dumbledore, Hagrid and McGonnagal forced out of Hogwarts. Six kids dueling with Death Eaters on a mistaken rescue mission. And, in the end, Sirius had died. Ron couldn’t seem to get through one day without thinking about that.

He looked at the letter to Harry, which had managed to get quite creased and bent in its short journey from room to room. Girls and their imaginations. Harry would never do something so stupid. Would he? He was all alone during the early holidays. Maybe he did need to talk. Ugh, had he really just thought that? He had purposely not mentioned “girl talk” in his letter, remembering how upset Harry had become last year when he thought they were talking about him. Which they were. It seemed they always were.

He tied the letter to Pigwidgeon’s leg; the little owl had remained still, patiently waiting for him.

“Thanks, Pig,” Ron said. “Take it to him quickly.”

//
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