The Sugar Quill
Author: Honeychurch & Lallybroch (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Aquae Sulis  Chapter: Part Three
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Part Three

He was surrounded in inky blackness, and he felt himself starting to float. It felt wonderful. His limbs were loose and relaxed, and he felt himself falling deeper into delicious darkness.

That wouldn’t do at all. Ron wrenched his eyelids open and stared up into the canopy of his bed. It was scarcely less dark with his eyes open.

He groaned and turned over in bed. It was getting harder and harder not to fall asleep. He sat up, pulled his wand out from under his pillow and lit it. He might as well start going through that stack of books Hermione had handed him. They’d been reduced to pulling books off the shelf that looked even remotely related to the subject of proxy spells, and he had a good half dozen to look through. He crawled to the end of his bed and opened the curtains enough to grab them off his trunk. Spreading the books out of front of him, he glanced quickly from cover to cover. Vampire-Tipping, Troll-Baiting, and Things You Should Never Ever Try, Spells Gone Horribly Awry, and, So You’ve Attempted a Spell and Lost Both Your Arms…he wasn’t sure why Hermione had even chosen these, because none of them seemed particularly promising. He sighed, and picked up Spells Gone Horribly Awry.

Why did it seem that every bout of rule breaking involved massive amounts of studying? He flipped idly to the index at the back of the book. Hermione thought he didn’t know anything about "proper studying". It was a lot of rubbish, actually. He knew quite a bit more than she gave him credit for. He had, after all, learned at the feet of a master. Ron scanned the lists of words and numbers, searching for anything that sounded remotely familiar. His eyelids were getting heavy and he was seriously considering just going to sleep and trying not to enjoy whatever he dreamed, when several words jumped out at him. ‘Successful completion of proxy spells, page 347’. He sat bolt upright in the bed. Trying not to get overly excited, he turned quickly to the page. His excitement mounted as he skimmed down through the paragraphs. It was exactly what they had been looking for!

His only thought was to tell Hermione. He threw back the curtains and jumped out of the bed. The cold wood of the floor snapped him back to reality. It was the middle of the night. A glance at his watch confirmed 3:25 a.m., in fact. Ron sat back on the bed with a thud. He couldn’t just go waltzing through the girl’s dorm in the middle of the night. Everyone would be asleep, including Hermione. He had a brief vision of himself sneaking into her dormitory and finding her in her nightgown. He’d never seen her in a nightgown without a dressing gown over it. Ron let out a grunt of annoyance and fell backwards across his bed. What was the point of all this sleep deprivation if he was awake and still thinking about her like this?

***

Hermione had her doubts about the logistics of this plan, but she had to admit Neville's rendition of Flitwick's signature was flawless. Not that it had been easy to get Neville to do it. Ron had had to stand behind him, with a reassuring and firm grip on his shoulder. She glanced down at the piece of parchment clutched in her hand and her stomach responded with an unpleasant lurch. They had been standing in the stacks for almost ten minutes, waiting for a group of Slytherins to stop loitering in front of Madam Pince’s desk. As the minutes passed, Hermione grew more and more nervous. She knew this was important-it could really help Harry. If they didn’t get expelled first. And she didn’t even want to think about performing the actual spell. The description Ron had found seemed simple, albeit a little icky, but she knew that for a spell this powerful to work, there had to be a catch. Mostly, she wished that they didn’t have to be so deceitful to achieve the means. Her stomach twisted again, and she had to say something. Turning to the tall boy standing next to her she whispered, "Ron. I’ve got a bad feeling about-"

He whirled toward her, index finger raised in warning.

"Uh-huh."

"I just-"

"No."

"Hones-"

"Shush." Their fevered whispered exchange was cut short as a flash of movement caught their eyes. Ron peered through the shelves as the Slytherins passed by and disappeared down the row of shelves.

"Oh, you shush. " Hermione muttered. He turned back to her, rubbing his palms together. His eyes had the glint that always seemed to appear when they were about to break a very important rule. It was usually directed at Harry, who would answer back with a glint to match. This time, however, it was all for her. She felt a traitorous thrill run up her spine.

"Right. You ready then? Just try and act normal. If it looks like things are heading south, then I’ll find some way to distract her. Alright?"

"Alright." She brushed past him and walked resolutely toward Madam Pince’s desk. She straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat politely. The wizened librarian raised her head, and fixed her gaze upon Hermione.

"Miss Granger. I believe I told you yesterday that I will let you know when the book you’ve ordered comes in."

"Um, yes, I know, Madam Pince but this is something else entirely. I’ve got a note from Professor Flitwick giving me permission to go into the Restricted Section." She gave what she hoped was a calm and reassuring smile. Madam Pince returned the smile with a piercing look, and opened her hand to accept the note. Taking the piece of parchment, she raised it to the light and peered intently at the signature. She seemed to be studying every loop and swirl of the signature and suddenly and Hermione had a sinking feeling that this plan was not going to work. Then, suddenly, Ron appeared from behind her and raced toward the desk.

"Madam Pince! I think I just saw a group of Slytherins tearing pages out of some books!" He pointed toward the back of the library, waving his hand frantically.

The librarian’s eyes narrowed. Hermione was suddenly fervently glad that she was not in the group of Slytherins they had just falsely accused. Madam Pince threw the parchment back at Hermione and marched down the rows, calling over her shoulder, "Yes, dear. Fine, fine." Ron jerked his head toward the Restricted Section, all the while keeping his eyes on the back of the retreating librarian.

Hermione dashed down the rows, frantically skimming the titles. Finally, her eyes landed on the small red book, with gold lettering down the spine. She pulled it off the shelf, and stuffed it into her bag. She ran back out and saw Ron, who was nervously drumming his fingers on the desk. He gave her a questioning look and she nodded, patting the bag. The voices of Madam Pince and the protesting Slytherins were growing closer and it seemed that she was dragging one of them back toward the desk. Ron reached out and grabbed her hand, pulling her across the room and out the door. They ran through the halls, and up the steps to Gryffindor Tower.

"Dragonfly," gasped Ron, and the portrait of the Fat Lady swung open. They burst through the hole, startling a group of first years sitting in the common room. Hermione was holding the stitch in her side, trying to force air back into her lungs. Ron collapsed onto one of the chairs, with Hermione following suit into the other. It was a moment before either of them could speak.

When Hermione could finally draw a breath, she started to laugh. "Ron? Why did we run?"

He paused for a moment before responding. "Honestly? I haven’t a clue. Just seemed the best idea at the time." He grinned at her, and she laughed again. He looked around the room. "I wonder where Harry is…Oi!" He called out to the group of first year girls sitting at the nearby table. They looked up, somewhat apprehensively. "D’you know where Harry went?" Giggling, they each shook their heads. Just then, the portrait hole swung open and Ginny stepped through, followed by Harry. They were deep in conversation, and practically across the room before even noticing Ron and Hermione sitting by the fire. Harry stopped next to Hermione’s chair, and leaned against it, while Ginny perched on the arm of Ron’s chair.

"Where have you two been?" He asked, casually. Ron and Hermione exchanged a glance.

Ron cleared his throat. "We were in the library."

Harry raised an eyebrow. "Again? That’s five nights in a row, Ron. I’m beginning to wonder what you find so fascinating in there."

Ron flushed scarlet.

Hermione watched as Ginny bit her lip trying not to laugh. She knew she’d been neglecting Ginny these past few weeks, and felt guilty for keeping secrets from her. On the other hand…Ginny didn’t seem to be suffering. In fact, her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were sparkling. She couldn’t resist. " And you two? Where have you been?"

Ginny pursed her lips slightly. "Went for a walk."

Harry grinned. "It’s a nice night for walking."

Ginny hopped off the arm of the chair, ruffling Ron’s hair as she went. "G’night." She turned and walked toward the girl’s dorm, waving her hand over her shoulder. Ron muttered a grumpy ‘good night’ after her.

Harry yawned. "I’m off too. I’ll just leave you both to your…studying." And chuckling to himself, he disappeared up the steps to the boys dormitory.

She glanced over at Ron, who was glaring after Harry. The fire was casting shadows across his face, obscuring the patch of freckles that Hermione found particularly endearing. She felt a surge of annoyance with herself. With everything going on, his freckles distracted her? Forcing those thoughts from her mind, she pulled her chair closer to Ron’s. He seemed to snap out his reverie finally, and reached over to help her with the chair. Pulling the small book from her bag, she settled it across her knees. The book was obviously very old. The leather binding was cracked and wrinkled, and it creaked as she opened it. Hermione immediately turned to the back, and grimaced. "Humph. No index." Ron snorted indelicately, which she promptly ignored. The book seemed to consist solely of names of villages and their connecting Portkeys. It was also entirely hand-written in spidery scrawls. It took almost forty minutes of searching, but Hermione finally came across a page with a familiar word scrawled across the top: Aquae Sulis.

"Ron! Here!" She pointed at the page. He leaned over, peering intently. Hermione read aloud down the list of names. "Inverness, Skye…Well they won’t work, obviously. Salisbury, Glastonbury, Hogsmeade…Hogsmeade?" They exchanged wide-eyed glances. Hermione checked again. Yes, it definitely read Hogsmeade. "Oh Ron! It’s such luck! Halloween is in two days, so we’ll have to use that time to familiarize ourselves with the spell." Relief was flooding through her. They were almost out of time, and she’d begun to worry…but it didn’t matter now. They were going to be able to do this for Harry. She bent closer to the page- the loopy handwriting was difficult to read, but there were directions for locating the Portkey in Hogsmeade.

"I can’t believe this is actually going to work," said Ron with amazement. "D’you suppose Dumbledore knew about it all along?"

"Hmm," said Hermione absently. "I knew that Hogsmeade was really old, but it doesn’t seem like it’s changed at all in the last…" Her voice trailed off, and bemusement replaced concentration on her face. "Ron!"

"What?" he asked with trepidation.

"I think- I mean, I’m pretty sure…that the Portkey is behind the Three Broomsticks. It’s a stationary Portkey, so it always returns to the same locations on both ends." She handed him the book. "Look for yourself- wouldn’t those directions take us right there?"

Ron tilted the book toward the light and tried to decipher the writing. Hermione pulled her feet up underneath her in the chair and waited. Two days. Two days to perfect the spell, and then she and Ron would go to Hogsmeade, and…

"Ron," said Hermione suddenly. "What are we going to tell Harry? We’ve always gone around Hogsmeade together."

He grimaced. "I guess I can talk to him." A thought seemed to occur to him, and his ears went pink.

 

***

Ron had already decided that if Harry gave him that knowing look one more time, he was going to punch him in the face. "Listen," he tried again. "It’s not like that at all. It’s just- Hermione and I have some things to do in Hogsmeade, and…Don’t look at me like that!" Harry looked back down at his book, and a small smile played at the corners of his mouth. 'Damn it', thought Ron, 'the git’s smirking at me.'

"It’s all right, Ron. You and Hermione run off and have…fun." He didn’t look up from his Transfiguration homework, but the smirk blossomed into a full-blown grin.

Ron swore under his breath. "Look. I just told you because I didn’t want you to have to go around by yourself. You’ll go with Dean or Seamus, right?"

Harry waved his hand noncommittally, adding, "I’m sure I’ll find somebody, Ron. Don’t worry about me, just enjoy yourself. Really." He smirked down into his book again.

Ron stood up. "Ok. Right then, I’ll just be going. See you." Harry waved goodbye and Ron turned and ran down the stairs to the common room. Things were going smoothly. Embarrassingly, but smoothly. So far, Harry didn’t suspect anything besides…he blushed. Hermione was standing by the fire. She turned to him, a nervous smile on her face.

"What did you say? Is he suspicious?"

"Uh, no. He’s fine. He…doesn’t…he’s fine," Ron stammered. "Let’s go."

***

The sun was high, but there was a chill in the air as Ron and Hermione walked into Hogsmeade. There was no doubt what day of the year this was- the decor announced it. There were great pumpkins everywhere, and enchanted skeletons danced in the shop windows. Hermione wished that they had time to wander and browse the shops, but they walked past them swiftly. Ron cast a longing look at Honeydukes as they passed.

She stole a look at the tall boy walking beside her. His battered Chudley Cannons hat was pulled low on his forehead, and his hands were in his pockets.

"Ron?"

"Yeah?"

"What if the Portkey isn’t there anymore? I’ve been thinking about it all week, and the publishing date on that book was 80 years ago. Maybe the Ministry’s gone and taken it out- and if they have, that’s it, isn’t it?" She stopped walking. "We’re finished. Even if we got on a train, somehow, or tried for the Knight Bus, we’d never make it."

"Hermione-"

"What’s wrong with us? Why didn’t we come up with a back-up plan? We can’t wait another whole year to do this, Ron. We might not even have-" Rising panic closed her throat. She tried to take several deep breaths, and to her horror she found she was fighting tears. This last week and a half her focus was entirely on getting them to this point, and now that she was here, she was frightened, and she was babbling.

"Even if it is there, what if doesn’t work properly anymore? What if-" she suddenly found her words muffled by a large, warm hand. She could feel the texture of his palm with her lips, and a frisson of warmth shot down her spine.

"Hermione." His tone was an entreaty to look at him, but she found that she couldn’t. He moved his hand from her mouth, and she barely registered disappointment before she felt it on her cheek. He gently nudged her face up so he could look her in the eyes. Her face felt hot under his hand, and she knew she was blushing. "Hermione." She forced her eyes up to meet his. It was a shock- it was as if she’d been plunged into very cold water and come out feeling warm and tingly. His eyes were a mirror of her own; all the same conflicted emotions, and…awareness. He looked very much as if he was as affected by her touch as she was by his. Something cracked open inside her- she wanted him to know, she wanted to make it real. But something held her back from leaning forward and kissing him. Not here, not on the street in the middle of Hogsmeade. Instead, she gave into the impulse she had been resisting since she had first felt his hand on her cheek. She closed her eyes and leaned into his palm.

***

Ron sucked in a sharp breath, and felt his stomach twist. His hand felt electrically connected to her cheek, and he couldn’t stop himself from moving closer to her. Well, this was it. He was done for. There was no pretending anymore that this was nothing; he couldn’t rationalize this away. But it was too much right now. This wasn’t the time. It took a monumental effort, but he dropped his hand and stepped back.

Her eyes opened, and he smiled into them. "Er-" But he couldn’t think of anything to say that would mean what it should, or sound right to his ears, so he just reached out his hand. There was the tiniest hesitation, and then her hand was in his and they were walking back down the street, heading for the Three Broomsticks. Somehow, this added to his sense of purpose about their job today; it made him feel as united as they should be to attempt what might be impossible.

It was early for any of the students to show up at the little pub; usually they wandered the shops before stopping in to warm up, but there were a few people loitering around the entrance waiting to meet friends. Ron and Hermione skirted them neatly, and headed around the building toward the back. The passage between the pub and the shop next to it was narrow and dark- the sun overhead was completely blocked by the jutting eaves.

When they came into the light of the back garden, they were surprised to find it looked nothing like the front. This was an ancient place; Ron could tell at a glance, and he would be the first to admit he knew very little about it. The garden wall was constructed of roughly cut stone bricks, and it was obvious that magic was involved in its continued existence as a wall. It looked as if it would crumble at a touch. Large paving stones covered the ground. The cracks between the irregular chunks were filled with moss that looked impossibly green. And incongruously, all of this butted up against the timbers of the Three Broomsticks’ back wall. Two large dustbins straddled the back door.

Ron let out a long breath. "Okay…we’re here. What next?"

Hermione let go of his hand and walked closer to the garden wall. "It’s supposed to be the seventh brick up and the seventh brick over from the left. She crouched down on by the corner of the wall and motioned him over. "This should be it."

He squatted beside her. His hands were clammy, and he was having trouble swallowing. "All right. Let’s do it." His voice cracked a bit on the last sentence. Hermione gave him a quavering smile; she was frightened, and she looked almost relieved that he was as unsteady as she was.

"Take my hand, then?" She put her left hand up, palm up, and he placed his right hand in it. The same pleasant shock coursed through him when his skin touched hers, and he unconsciously tightened his hand around hers.

"On the count of three- ready?" Hermione nodded. "One…two…three." They both reached out and touched the brick at the same instant, and…nothing happened. Ron felt his heart plummet.

"Well, that’s that, then." He said bitterly. He started to stand up.

"No, wait!" She pulled him back down beside her. "Wait." She was staring at the bottom of the wall intently. She dropped to her knees and began to dig around the base of the wall.

"What are you doing?"

"The wall isn’t at the same level as it probably was before- maybe we’ve just got the wrong brick."

God, she was smart. He felt a wave of pride swell in his chest. She sat back on her heels and caught a glimpse of the look on his face. "What?" she asked, in a slightly defensive tone.

"Nothing." He grinned. "I’m just really glad you’re a know-it-all."

A smile broke over her face as she leaned over and started to dig again.

"Here! Look, Ron! I was right-see, here? It’s another row of bricks." She cleared more dirt away, and he could see a row of bricks turned brown by the years of coverage. He dropped to his knees next to her. She turned to look at him, her brown eyes clear and alert. "Ready?" He nodded and laced his fingers through hers. Together they reached out again, pressing their fingers against a brick two bricks below the one they had originally tried.

For a moment, Ron thought it hadn’t worked. Then he noticed a whirring in the distance, as if something had clicked on. The noise was gaining momentum like an engine and a fierce wind was churning the air around them. The air was crackling with electricity and it suddenly occurred to him that they’d never considered the possibility of this ancient Portkey’s reliability, let alone safety. He tried to say Hermione’s name, but no sound came from his lips. The wind screamed around them, reaching a fever pitch of energy. Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the frenzy ceased. For a moment there was perfect silence. And then the world went dark.

***

Author’s Notes: Happy are we who are done with this installment. The next bit will be the last, and we’ll try to hurry, but Lallybroch is moving to the same city as Honeychurch. This is cause for much rejoicing, but also actual moving.

//
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