The Sugar Quill
Author: Dogstar (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Asking for Roses  Chapter: Chapter One: Summer Again
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The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

With thanks to my amazing beta reader, Suburban House Elf and to Seaspray who took the time to read this and encourage me

With thanks to my amazing beta reader, Suburban House Elf and to Seaspray who took the time to read this and encourage me.

Asking for Roses

Chapter One: Summer Again

A teenage boy was kneeling on his bed, leaning on his elbows against the window sill. His pale, round face was expectant. He flung open the window and stuck his head out, breathing in the scent of the honeysuckle that rambled over the sloping slate roof below him. At one time, the ramshackle outbuilding which stuck out from the main body of the narrow Victorian terraced house had held an outside loo. Now it contained nothing more than a couple of tatty brooms and an inordinate number of plant pots.

The boy shaded his eyes, gazing out over the garden and the clump of trees behind it, towards fields that faded into moorland, and beyond that, eventually, to the sea, invisible in the early morning mist. He searched the skies eagerly for a glimpse of what he was waiting for: a plump and fluffy bird with red-brown dappled plumage.

A moment later, a quavering but none the less imperious voice shattered the early morning peace. “Neville! We are leaving on time this morning and your breakfast is on the table!”

Reluctantly, Neville turned and jumped down off the bed. As he landed on the floor and straightened up, he winced. He stooped gingerly to pick up a pair of trainers, then sat down on the bed again to put them on and tie the laces. When this was done, he put his head in his hands for a moment, as though even that effort had exhausted him. Three weeks and it still felt like a knife twisting in his guts when he woke each morning from an uneasy night’s sleep – a sleep haunted by confused dreams filled with shouts and flashes of light and terrible, gripping fear. And bodies. Bodies lying on stone floors in pools of blood – his own or someone else’s – in the dream it was impossible to tell.

Neville knew he should get moving or he’d catch it from his Gran. There was nothing to look forward to now. The day to come would be predictably and uniformly grey and miserable, despite the promise of a blazing July day – something to be got through, endured, the same as always.

Trevor gazed in unblinking sympathy from his vantage point on a deep and crowded shelf running the entire width of one wall. The tank in which he was sitting was a new indignity. It’s for your own good, Trevor. Old age indeed. Trevor’s energies were currently fixed on a scheme involving an adroit leap and a soft landing. It was a scheme requiring bottomless patience but one that – Trevor knew – would pay off in the fullness of time. Long experience told him that his master would forget to leave his towel in the airing cupboard after his morning bath. Inevitable that he would try to pile both towel and dressing-gown on the small brass hook behind the bedroom door. The towel was bound to fall. It always did. Maybe not today, or the day after, but soon. With the correct spin to a carefully calculated leap, a soft landing would be within his reach, at which point – Trevor was certain – the loose clasp on the tank would burst open. Freedom. Not long now. But in the meantime, his master needed him. Trevor opened his mouth.

“Oh, I’m sorry Trevor! I’ll feed you.”

Neville ran downstairs, moving more easily now. As he rounded the last step and headed through to the back kitchen, he passed the open door of the formal dining room, where his grandmother only laid out breakfast on ‘special’ days. “For heaven’s sake, Neville, where are you off to now?” she called. Her voice was sharp and strained. “We have exactly thirty minutes before we need to leave.”

“Just got to feed Trevor! Back in a bit.” Neville opened the back door and made his way across the lawn. Neville’s grandfather had given him a small corner of one of the raised beds when he was just five years old – ‘somewhere the lad can play and stay out of trouble’. Over the years, Neville had gradually taken on more and more responsibility for the large garden, but his favourite area was still his original plot, where he tested out every summer holiday what he’d learned at Hogwarts the previous year. His grandmother now refused to let it expand any further. The last gardener had refused to come back following a nasty encounter with a Fanged Geranium.

Neville crouched to collect Trevor’s breakfast. He reached for a jam jar sunk into the earth next to a rotten log, its opening level with the ground. It was baited with a small piece of raw meat. Neville raised the board covering the mouth of the jar, propped up with a small stone. There had been rain the night before and the beetles had been active. There were six in total.

Looking slightly more cheerful, or at least resigned to the day ahead, Neville went back up to his room and transferred the beetles to Trevor’s tank. His damp towel had fallen onto the floor. He picked it up and thought about walking along the landing to the airing cupboard. No time – better hurry. He replaced the towel on the hook behind the door, ran back downstairs and slipped into the chair opposite his grandmother, grabbing a slice of toast and buttering it half-heartedly. He didn’t seem to have much of an appetite at the moment. Instead, he poured himself a cup of strong tea from the rapidly cooling pot. As he did so, a plump tawny owl swooped in through the open sash window.

“Gran – she’s here!”

“Yes, I can see that, young man.” Augusta Longbottom’s voice softened. “Hebe – my angel. Where have you been all this time?” She held out her hand for the owl to alight. Instead, the bird settled on Neville’s shoulder and extended her leg. With trembling fingers, he unfastened the small roll of parchment and carefully spread it on the table, tea and toast forgotten.

Dear Neville,

Thank you for your last letter. It was good to hear from you, even with such awful news. I know I’ve said it before but if it hadn’t been for you and my other friends keeping in touch, the last few months would have been unbearable. Although, it’s funny because I got the strangest note from Professor Sprout the other day. It was so sweet of her to write. I miss her. In answer to your question, there’s no chance I’ll be able to go back to school next year. I’ll explain when I see you. Yes, that’s my answer to your second question, but I’ll come onto that.

Neville put the letter down for a second and took a noisy gulp of his tea. Augusta held back a retort about table manners with difficulty. Her grandson was looking more cheerful than she’d seen him since he arrived home for the holidays. For the first few days, he’d done little except limp around the garden, looking frustrated at all the work that needed doing. This week, he’d recovered sufficiently to start pulling his weight again, but he’d been going about his chores with less than his usual gusto. Although longing to, she hadn’t quizzed him about the events of the end of term, taking Poppy’s and Minerva’s advice for once. Across the table, Neville slammed his mug down with a thump, spattering the tablecloth, before starting to read eagerly again.

I haven’t heard from Susan since the start of the holidays – she said she wouldn’t be able to write once she left Hogwarts. They have to be so careful. But I’d give anything to know that she’s safe.

Death everywhere. I have to keep telling myself not to be gloomy. Life goes on. For some people, anyway.

I’m so sorry you got hurt. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been. Thank goodness you’re getting better now. You are being careful, I hope? Being hit with a Blasting Curse, even indirectly, is no joke.

I had a feeling something must have happened. I had my Galleon in my pocket, I like to keep it with me to remind me of last year when Mum before all these horrible things started happening. I was lying on my bed in the dark, talking to my cat. Reading seems pointless and I can’t seem to concentrate on my knitting, so it makes no difference. Zophy’s a real comfort though, she hardly leaves my side. Anyway, I felt the Galleon starting to get hot straight away.

I switched on the light and all I could do was sit there and look at it, and wonder what was going on, wishing I could have been there. I’m not brave like you but at least I could have done something. I can’t believe Ernie let you all down. I told him never to stop checking, but he’s always been a heavy sleeper, or so I’ve heard. I could bash him, I really could.

I can’t wait to see you and ask the millions of questions buzzing round my head. I feel like we’re just walking around in ignorance, not knowing when the next bolt from the blue is going to strike. I’ve had a lot of time to think over these last months and talking to Dad and everything he’s going through

Then again – maybe I’m better off not knowing, stuck here.

Gosh, this is a long one. I’ll get to the point. I can meet you tomorrow – well, today by the time you’re reading this. I'm coming down to London with Dad, he says he’s been promised a meeting with someone about Mum. I can’t imagine who – all our letter-writing must have paid off. He even got me to send a owl to the Ministry a few weeks ago, although I told him it was useless.

So, I’ll meet you outside St. Mungo’s at 12.30, like you suggested. The Physic Garden sounds lovely. I do hope it’s a nice day. I could do with some sunshine, and a bit of fun.

Can’t wait to see you!

Hannah

xxx

Neville folded the letter, smiling to himself. She was coming. He could hardly believe it. He was meeting a girl. For a whole afternoon. Something he’d arranged and she’d said yes to. That meant he actually had … a date. Neville found that his mouth had gone very dry. He stopped smiling.

“Come along, Neville, it’s time for us to go.”  Augusta was consumed with curiosity, but she wasn’t going to question her grandson about the first thing that had put a smile on his face in days. It turned out she didn’t have to.

“Right. Um, Gran, is it OK if I don’t come back with you this afternoon? I – I’ve arranged to meet a – a friend, in London. I won’t be late.”

“And how will you get back, if not from St. Mungo’s? Floo regulations are so strict these days. And it’s not as if you can Apparate yet – your test isn’t until the end of the month.”

“I can get back through the connection at the Leaky Cauldron. It’s open ’til last orders. I’ve done it before.”

“Things are different now. It’s not safe. I have to forbid it.” Augusta looked at the young man standing in front of her. His face was pale but perfectly composed. She remembered, with a pang of surprise, that her days of forbidding Neville to do things were drawing to an end. Still, she wasn’t going to let him defy her on this, not after what he’d put her through recently. “I’m sorry, Neville, the answer is no.”

“Gran, you do realise, don’t you?” His voice was solemn, but determined. “We can’t hide all the time. That’d just be letting them win. And Hannah, the g – girl I’m meeting, her mum was killed last year. For no reason. She was a Muggle, Gran. And Hannah’s been stuck at her Dad’s house, for the last ten months, with no news. Nothing. Her Dad’s a Muggle too. Can you imagine what it’s like for them? I have to see her. I can’t let her down.”

Augusta sank back into her chair, feeling all of her seventy-two years. With an effort, she summoned her customary brisk and commanding air for a final protest. “Don’t you understand, you foolish boy? You could be a target. You must realise that.”

For a moment, Neville went perfectly still. Augusta was used to her grandson fading out mid-conversation, but this was different. The set expression on his face gave him a look of Frank. It was unexpected. She was used to Neville’s remarkable resemblance to his mother. It had become, over the years, a part of him, a part that didn’t bring his parents to mind automatically. Now, the sudden reminder of her son, strangely, put Augusta in mind of poor Alice; the soft curve of her mouth and gentle laugh. For the thousandth time, Augusta felt a familiar sinking around her heart. Her beloved Frank – and little Alice, the almost-daughter she’d known for only a short time. Had she ever seen a young couple more in love, with more to look forward to? How she missed them both. Augusta sighed and pushed the memories away.

Then Neville seemed to emerge from whatever place he’d gone to, in that dreamy, exasperating inner world of his. “Oh, they’ve got bigger fish to fry than me, Gran.”

She shrugged impatiently. “I give up. You’ll do what you want anyway. You’re becoming more like your father with every passing year. He was stubborn as a mule too.”

He blinked. This was the first time Gran had ever compared him to his Dad in terms that didn’t leave Neville sadly wanting – in brains, talent, strength. Stubborn almost ranked as a compliment. Daringly, he went up to his grandmother and put his arm around her shoulders. She felt smaller than usual, and frail somehow.

“It’ll be fine, Gran. I’m not going anywhere. I never wanted to be an Auror, even if I had got the grades. Come on, let’s go and see Mum and Dad.”

//
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