The Sugar Quill
Author: Rhetor (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Counting to Five Thousand  Chapter: Prologue: Before a Storm
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This story is for Christine.

Prologue: Before a Storm

Ron looked across the field at the lone figure silhouetted against the darkening horizon. The hair, clearly visible and messy as ever, was beginning to stir in the gathering breeze. Ron’s skin and nose and eardrums, long accustomed to the countryside and its habits, recognized that a real tiger of a storm was awakening. The clouds in the west looked like flat stone; the temperature had dropped suddenly and the world was a bit moister; there was a tension in the thick air that Ron could almost caress with his hand.

He walked across the field in long, slow strides, compensating for the uneven ground under the grass without realizing he was doing it. The grass hissed around his legs and began to ripple and wave with the coming weather. As he approached his friend he could tell that Harry heard him, but he did not turn around or otherwise react. Ron stopped when he was at Harry’s side.

“It’s usually considered a bit thick to stand out in the middle of a field during a thunderstorm,” Ron observed. “Lightning, you know, likes to strike the highest thing it can find. At the moment that’s you.”

“Actually,” Harry said without turning, “at the moment it’s you. Thanks.”

Ron snorted. The two of them watched the dark grey clouds creep higher and felt the wind begin to fuss and squirm.

“Harry,” Ron finally said, “are you sure about this?”

Harry didn’t answer, but kept looking at the horizon.

“There was nothing wrong with the plan the way it was yesterday,” Ron continued doggedly. “The three of us can handle the search just fine.”

“There was nothing wrong with the plan when it was going to be just me, either,” said Harry. “But here we are.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, mate. ‘You alone’ is probably the worst team roster. When you’re alone is when you get yourself in the worst messes, innit? There was no way we were letting you go by yourself.”

“Well, neither is she.”

“It’s different,” Ron insisted.

“Yes,” Harry agreed.

Occasionally the wind made a moaning sound. The darkening sky ahead of them was starting to darken the land around them.

Ron went on, “It’s different for two reasons: First, Hermione and I have been through this sort of thing before with you – ”

“Not this sort of thing; not by half.”

“You know what I mean. We know how you think; you know how we think; we can count on each other in a pinch.”

“Ginny knows me pretty well, too,” said Harry.

“Not in the same way. Look, I’m not running her down. At the Ministry she was like a whole pile of angry cats, and last month she probably saved a dozen lives.”

“So she’d be a good addition, yeah?”

“No. She hasn’t had time to begin to act like part of the team.”

“C’mon, Ron, she played Chaser to your Keeper and my Seeker all last season; tell me she’s not part of a team.”

“Different sort of a team. Then there’s the other problem.”

“What’s that?”

Ron took a deep breath. “The problem that you’re in love with her.”

There was a very long silence between them. The slate-colored clouds were now halfway up the sky, and very distant rumblings could be heard. The wind began to crack the grass like a carpet of whips.

Finally Harry said, “All right.”

Ron continued, “It’s not as if it’s not obvious from the way you look at her – ”

“I said ‘all right,’” Harry interrupted. “And this is a problem exactly how?”

“It spoils your judgment. It makes you vulnerable.”

“Ron,” said Harry impatiently. “You’re in love with Hermione, and that’s obvious to anyone who’s been in that house for more than three minutes in the last week. How come that doesn’t affect your judgment?”

“It probably does,” Ron allowed. “But I’m not the Seeker; I’m just the Keeper. You’re the one who has to do this, right? That’s what you keep telling us – that when it comes right down to it, you’re the only one who can finish – ” he took another deep breath and some of the color drained out of his face. “Voldemort. You have to be absolutely clear about what you’re doing.”

The storm clouds were now almost overhead. The thunder was noticeably louder and there were faint flashes of lightning. From long habit, Ron counted out the seconds between the flashes and the booms – one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve – there; twelve divided by five; the edge of the storm was about two and half miles away. And another: One, two, three –

“Tell me that this isn’t about protecting your little sister,” said Harry.

“Can’t be,” said Ron easily, “because Ginny’s right about that part of it. She’s not safe here; she’s not safe at Hogwarts; she’s probably a tad safer with the three of us than without us. And anyway, I know that you’re at least as eager to protect her as I am.” Harry smiled at him warmly, but Ron continued, “That’s the problem.”

“It’s a problem that I want to protect her?” Harry’s voice was brittle.

“Yes, and you already knew that.”

There was a much louder, much closer crack of thunder and large drops of rain began to fall on them. Neither of the two – too old to be boys, too young to be men – neither of them moved.

Ron said, “All it takes is the wrong moment, you being worried about her instead of focused on what you have to do, you distracted from the target, and we’re sunk.”

“That’s a good reason,” said Harry, beginning to raise his voice over the rain and thunder, “not to take you or Hermione either. Don’t you think I love the two of you? Don’t you think I’d do anything to protect you?”

“Yeah, mate. You love us. But you know, we’re your mates, not your Mate, if you know what I mean.”

“Ron,” said Harry, clearly uncomfortable, and not just because of his soaking-wet shirt, “you don’t think we’ve – ”

“No, no, no! I don’t think that, and I don’t want to hear what you have and haven’t done, thank you very much. All I’m saying is that you’re, well, attached to her in ways that you’re not attached to us, and I think there are instincts that take over.”

“Yeah, and I think that she and I will be better fighters, braver and more determined, if we’re fighting side-by-side.”

A purple-white lightning bolt hit the ground where they both could see it. Ron was able to count only to three when the thud of thunder shook them; Ron could feel it in his chest.

“That sounds like Ginny talking,” he said.

“So what if it is? I think she’s right. She makes me stronger.” Harry grinned. “I take one look at that fierce face and I know I’m stronger. We need her.”

The rain was now falling in sheets. There was another flash and another crash.

“Look, let’s go back to the Burrow,” said Ron. “This is ridiculous. We can’t go chasing Horcruxes, Ginny no Ginny, if we’ve been marinated and flame-broiled first.” Harry nodded and they started to walk back.

After about a minute, Ron said to Harry, “So you’re sure.”

“Yeah,” said Harry.

Ron slowed his pace on the way back to the Burrow and let Harry walk a bit ahead. With his shirt clinging to him from the rain and his unruly hair finally plastered down to his scalp, Harry looked thinner, frailer, more like a child than Ron remembered. He was suddenly reminded of the baby who lost his parents at the age of one. He had an urge to wrap the baby up in a blanket and protect it from the storm.

The thunder crashed magnificently, the door of the Burrow opened, and Ron’s mother pulled the two friends into her house, shaking her head and calling for the girls to bring towels.

***

Author’s Notes:

This is a three-chapter story -- a central story with a Prologue and an Epilogue. The three parts are very different, but are designed to create a coherent whole. My sincere thanks go out to my valued, valiant beta, Frelling, whose suggestions make a world of difference.

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