The Sugar Quill
Author: Seaspray  Story: 99 Red Balloons  Chapter: Default
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“99 dreams I have had In every one a red balloon

A/N: It’s amazing that I owe so much thanks to so many people just for one little one shot. But I do. To Songbird, for being my original pre reader, and for telling me more about this song (originally a German song), to Solika for doing a second beta read, and to my official SQ beta Lone Astronomer, and last but not least to all the 87 Rolls of Parchment people who originally reviewed this. You are all WONDERFUL. That is all.

 

 

 

 

 “99 dreams I have had

In every one a red balloon

It's all over and I'm standing pretty

In this dust that was a city

If I could find a souvenir

Just to prove the world was here

And here is a red balloon

I think of you, and let it go…”

~ From 99 Red Balloons by Nena

 

 

Luna didn’t realise until years afterwards what had made the balloon burst. It remained an unexplained mystery, never questioned but always present, waiting for her to turn her thoughts to it. And like all mysteries, the explanation was in fact ludicrously simple. It had been on a visit to Diagon Alley (still pocked and bruised with the remains of the last battle) that the solution had come to her. And she had laughed. And laughed.

 

The day before her mother died was the ninth anniversary of the founding of the Quibbler magazine. They were all there, the Printing Press crowd; even the people who had only come to the Collation once before had turned up today. Mummy had been in the middle of them, her long golden hair shining in the sun and her fingers still inky from the press. She had swung Luna up off the ground and said to her, smiling, “Shall we bring out the balloons now?”

 

There had been more balloons that day than Luna had seen in her life before, all tied with black ribbon and bearing the legend, “Celebrate nine years of The Quibbler.”

 

“There must be ninety- nine balloons there!” Luna had told her neighbour excitedly. Ninety- nine was the biggest number Luna knew. The man had smiled and patted her on the head. People did that a lot, then.

 

Not all the balloons had been red, Luna was sure, although in memory red was all Luna could see. Ninety- nine round red balls bumping against one another, ribbons slithering through the sky.

 

They had been supposed to release them on the count of three, but Luna had let go of hers too early. She remembered how they had all laughed and sighed, even the grown-ups, to see that bright circle burst up into the sky, followed by a cloud of other ones, sailing up higher and higher into the sky, until they became mere pinpricks of black against the blue, and disappeared. Luna remembered thinking that it was almost like flying yourself to see your own balloon rushing up so high, only better because you didn’t have to worry that you would fall. Mummy laid a hand on her shoulder just as the last speck of balloon glimmered into nothing and the sky was empty.

 

“Don’t be sad,” she’d said. “Your balloon is still up there, still flying, even if you can’t see it. Perhaps it will land in some other little girl’s garden, and think how happy this will make her.”

 

There must have been something magical about Mummy for her to always know when Luna was sad even before she did, and be there drying her tears before Luna had even thought of crying.

 

She must have put some sort of Preserving Charm on the balloons for that red one to still be there a week later. How strange. The balloon was still there and Mummy was not.

 

No one came at all to the Collation next Saturday. Out of respect, Daddy had said, although Luna hadn’t known what that meant. She thought perhaps it meant that they were afraid, even though the potion had all gone now, cleaned away by Ministry officials wearing masks. When they heard that Luna had been in the room at the time the explosion had happened, they had taken her off to St Mungo’s, but they had found nothing wrong with her. Mummy had pushed Luna behind her at the last minute.

 

They walked into the Printing Room together that day, and had put the Copying Charms into operation. Words appeared on the blank paper, perfectly formed under Daddy’s wand. The Collating was the only part that had to be done by hand, the pages sorted into their correct order and folded before being sent out to the Owlery for delivery. That had been Luna’s job, trundling her little cart between tables, picking up newspapers and taking them out to the Owlery.

 

Usually the Printing Room was full of noise on Saturdays. All sorts of people came to help Luna’s parents get the newspaper together: writers, pleased to see all those pages filled with their writing; retired people, who liked to have somewhere to go on Saturdays to meet people and talk to Luna’s parents; fans of Daddy, who felt that bringing the newspaper together was “a public service”. Luna never knew who was going to be there from one week to the next, except for the three people who were always there: Mummy, Daddy and herself. And of course they were the only ones that really mattered. Daddy was the best at Printing Charms of anyone in the world, and Mummy was a whiz at Collating. Her fingers flew like quick silver, so fast that Luna could hardly make out the individual movements. A lick of the finger, page, page, page and fold. It was better than magic, better than anything to watch those fluid movements perfectly rhythmic and then the satisfying rasp of paper at the end as she tossed the paper into Luna’s trolley.

 

One day, when her hands were bigger, Luna would be that fast. Daddy had said once that when they were richer, they would employ some house elves to do the collating for them, just like the Prophet did, but Mummy shouted him down. She liked Collating, she said. It was restful.

 

It wasn’t restful, Luna thought, struggling to piece the pages together without dropping them and to fold them straight. Her hands were aching, but when Daddy asked if she wanted to go and play, she just shook her head and went stolidly on, biting her tongue. She would be good at this. She would be good enough. One day.

 

Luna was so absorbed she didn’t notice at first that her father had stopped working. It was only when she got up to take her pile of newspapers into the Owlery that she noticed the quiet. All she could hear was the soft sliding of paper onto paper, and her father’s breath, juddering through his teeth. He wasn’t working.

 

“Daddy?” she had said. Her voice couldn’t have echoed as much as Luna remembered it doing. “Daddy, aren’t you going to finish your paper?”

 

There was a choked noise, and her father looked up at her blindly.

 

“I- can’t,” he said at last. “I’m sorry, Luna.” And, getting up suddenly, he left the room.

 

Swish, swish, swish, the paper fell into piles under Daddy’s suspended wand. There was nothing else to do. Her mother had gone away and her father was too sad. It was all up to Luna, she could see that. She’d do it by herself. It had to be done, otherwise no one would get their newspapers and then they would be angry with her Daddy. Mummy would have made everything right for Daddy, and so would Luna.

 

And so Luna worked, ordering and folding the pages until her whole body ached and the text swam before her eyes. Her palms were smudged with ink, and her throat was thick with the parching taste of paper. She had nearly finished the entire first bench load of pages now. Luna didn’t look behind her at the three other tables, all piled high with paper.

 

Another page. And another. Luna’s hand slipped and the paper cut across her palm, leaving a stripe of bright blood. Luna cried out and shot to her feet. She backed away, knocking into a table, and an avalanche of paper bore down upon her. Paper covered her face, sharp edges jabbing in to her skin. The whole room was angry with her for trying to take her mother’s place, and suddenly Luna was too frightened to stay. She ran.

 

Outside it was already dusk. Luna ran through the garden until she reached the rose trellis. That was when she saw it, the limp remains of the balloon dangling down towards the floor.

 

Oh, Mummy, Mummy, oh, my Mummy.” Luna’s knees gave way and she sank to the ground.

 

And then the balloon lifted her face to look at her.

 

It was blowing out before her eyes, expanding as if an invisible mouth was blowing the life back into it.

 

“Mummy?” Luna crawled forward to touch it gently with her fingertips. The rubber skin was filling out beneath her fingers, the red colour growing steadily less concentrated. It was coming alive again and Luna wanted to laugh. If a balloon could come alive again, so could a person!

 

That was when the balloon burst in her face.

 

Over the years Luna had developed various theories to explain this incident: a Wrackspurt had been lurking in the bushes and had taken the balloon for a human head; the balloon was really a shape shifting demon in disguise; it was a Ministry created spying device. It was a message from her mother beyond the veil, telling her how angry she was Luna hadn’t finished the magazine.

 

After a while Luna had accepted she’d never know.

 

Until she had watched the children playing in Diagon Alley, the little girl with the pitch dark hair, just the age she had been when her mother died. Just the age when magic begins to become apparent.

 

It had been her. She’d been scared and upset and she’d burst the balloon without even knowing it.

 

“Oh, Priya, you’ve spoiled it now!” The shout went up from behind the children.

 

“Come back! Come back!” The little girl called, racing after the balloon drifting lazily heavenward through the summer sky. “Come back!”

 

Luna felt a lump in her throat as she looked at the child’s tear streaked face and, without thinking about it, she ran towards her. It would be all right. She’d tell the girl what her mother had told her.

 

Don’t be sad. Your balloon is still up there, still flying, even if you can’t see it. Perhaps it will land in some other little girl’s garden, and think how happy this will make her.

 

Sometimes balloons burst, and sometimes they have to be let go.

 

//
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