The Sugar Quill
Author: Winky and Dobby (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: As Strong As We Are United  Chapter: Chapter 3: At Diagon Alley
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CHAPTER THREE: AT DIAGON ALLEY

It was early the next morning when Bill came knocking on Ron's door, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "Everybody up," he called, tugging his hair into its customary ponytail. "Breakfast is waiting."

"Mmm, I smell bangers!" Charlie appeared in the doorway behind Bill with a shirt midway over his head, and Harry wondered if Norbert was responsible for the long burn he glimpsed across one freckled shoulder. Fred stifled a yawn and leaped out of bed. "Come on, you two." He yanked the covers off Ron and Harry's beds. "There won't be anything left if Charlie gets down there first."

As usual Harry hadn't slept very well, but he got up and started rummaging in his trunk for a change of clothes. A few moments later he was hurrying down the stairs with Ron and the twins, still trying to match his buttons properly while flattening his hair with one hand. The four of them could hear muffled laughter coming from the kitchen, where they crowded triumphantly just seconds ahead of Bill and Charlie.

Mrs. Weasley, who was already seated at one end of the table with Ginny and Hermione, greeted them brightly. "Good morning, boys." Her eyes were twinkling, and she shared a mysterious smile with the girls before the three of them burst into laughter again. Harry couldn't see what they found so amusing, but he got the sinking feeling he and the other boys were the source of their merriment.

Ron shrugged and rolled his eyes at Harry. "Completely nutters," he muttered, shaking his head and sitting down across from Hermione.

Harry had just finished pouring himself a glass of pumpkin juice and nearly dropped the jug when Percy popped up suddenly by his elbow, and Ron made a face across the table. Apparently Percy had not lost the habit of Apparating downstairs every morning.

"Morning, all," said the older boy in his usual stiff manner, taking a seat next to George and serving himself briskly. "Fred, could you pass the mash?

I'm afraid I'm in a bit of a rush-called in to the office early again, you know."

Harry knew that if he met Ron's eyes they would both start laughing, so he focused instead on the plate of potatoes Charlie handed him. He nearly choked when he saw what Fred had hidden in the middle of the platter and passed it quickly to George, who pushed it towards Percy without batting an eye.

"Here you go, Perce," he smiled sweetly.

"Thanks," Percy nodded, oblivious to the juicy slug he had just scooped onto his own plate. Harry was now gripping his chair in a desperate attempt to contain his mirth, so it came as a welcome distraction when Mr. Weasley entered the kitchen and stooped to drop a kiss on his wife's forehead.

"Good morning, everyone." Mr. Weasley's voice was cheerful, but Harry didn't miss the lines of worry that creased his brow as he sat down with a cup of coffee, tucking the day's issue of The Daily Prophet into his robes. Harry opened his mouth to ask if there was any news, but Hermione fixed him with a warning look and he hastily took a bite of toast instead.

Further down the table Bill was admiring Ginny's hair, which she wore pulled back like Hermione's had been the day before. "You girls look nice today," he complimented them. "Got something special planned?"

Ginny blushed as Bill elbowed her teasingly. "No, we're just going shopping at Diagon Alley. Mum's taking us to get our school things."

"Oh, Molly, that reminds me," said Mr. Weasley. "Would you mind running an errand for me while you're there? I have a message to deliver." His face was carefully neutral, but Harry exchanged a quick glance with Ron and Hermione. All three of them noticed the strain in Mrs. Weasley's voice as she agreed to the request, which obviously had something to do with Dumbledore's plan. Nothing else was said on the subject, however, and Harry contented himself with hoping they could find out more once they reached Diagon Alley.

After breakfast Mr. Weasley, Percy, Bill, and Charlie said their farewells and Apparated to the Ministry, leaving Mrs. Weasley in charge of conjuring the fire for the others' journey by Floo powder. Before long Harry found himself standing with Hermione and the five Weasleys on the sunny cobblestones of Diagon Alley.

"All right," said Mrs. Weasley as she looked at her watch, "it's half past nine. If I leave you lot alone for a little while can I trust you to meet me back here at noon? I have some things to take care of."

"Sure, Mum," Ron nodded. "We won't get into trouble, we promise."

Mrs. Weasley eyed them all beadily for a moment. "Very well," she said at last. "But that goes for you two especially." She wagged a finger at Fred and George. "And I don't want any of you wandering off by yourselves, is that understood?" Everyone nodded. "All right then. Stay together, be careful, and"-Mrs. Weasley smiled fondly-"have fun. I'll see you in a few hours."

Once she was gone Harry and the others consulted their lists to determine where to go first. Fred and George quickly excused themselves, claiming they had "business" to take care of and promising to meet the others later.

Hermione needed to exchange some Muggle money, so they decided to start at Gringotts. As they walked towards the impressive marble building Harry kept his gaze moving, scanning the other passersby for any familiar faces. After the tragic events of the year before he didn't know how his schoolmates would react to him, and he had actually begun to feel a bit nervous about returning to Hogwarts at the end of the week. Harry didn't really expect to see many other students at Diagon Alley that early in the week, though, and was both relieved and disappointed when they reached the bank without encountering anyone they knew.

When Hermione rejoined them at the top of the stairs with a bag of wizard coins Harry suggested that they head for Flourish and Blotts next to get their books. Ginny, it turned out, already had hers, but she remembered what her mother had said and agreed to go with the others.

"You mean those were the books you had in your trunk?" Ron asked Hermione as they entered the musty bookstore. "You brought your old ones for Ginny?"

"Obviously, Ron," said Ginny impatiently. "What else did you think they were?" She smiled mischievously at Harry as she passed, remarking in a casual tone to Ron, "Hermione is very thoughtful, isn't she?"

Ron stared after the two girls as they disappeared behind a bookshelf, a look of utter bewilderment on his face. "Well that's just-I didn't think-" he sputtered, trailing off lamely. Harry had enough sense not to try to offer his friend an explanation, so he quickly pulled out his list and started searching for the required texts.

"Okay," said Ginny cheerfully when the four of them had gathered outside the store, "where should we go next?"

"How about Quality Quidditch Supplies?" suggested Ron hopefully. He had been eyeing the shop's display window ever since they arrived at Diagon Alley.

"Sure," said Hermione with rare interest. "Viktor said there's a new broom model out-the Quicksilver 500, I think."

Ron's jaw dropped. "Oh, so you've developed a taste for Quidditch now, have you?" he asked stiffly, his voice rising slightly. Harry glanced at Ginny, who was watching the exchange with avid attention.

"No," said Hermione patiently, "I was simply trying to pass on some news I thought you'd be interested in."

"Well of course if Viktor knows about it then it must be important," said Ron, shouldering his bag. "Let's go and see right now."

Hermione's eyebrows knitted together. "There's no need for you to take that tone," she said coldly. "I don't care if you dislike Viktor, but he's been a good friend to me and I won't have you making fun of him." Her eyes flashed dangerously as she glared up at the tall redhead. "Honestly, Ron, if you could stop being a prat long enough you'd see that you and Viktor have a lot in common."

"Yeah?" scoffed Ron. "Like what?"

"Well," Hermione began, flushing a little, "for starters, you're both very good at Quidditch, and secondly-" She broke off and looked at Ron, who was staring at her with his mouth hanging open. Hermione sighed. "Oh, never mind. I need to go buy some treats for Crookshanks," she grumbled irritably. "Who wants to come with me?"

"I'll go." Ron's voice sounded quite subdued. He looked at Harry and shrugged. "I have to get some owl pellets for Pig, anyway."

"Right," said Harry, sharing a furtive smile with Ginny. "Why don't I go with Ginny to get her potions supplies, then, and we'll meet you at Florean Fortescue's in fifteen minutes. It'll be my treat, since you were nice enough to write me all summer to keep me from going insane at the Dursleys," he grinned.

Ron's lopsided smile returned. "You mean the Harry Potter Muggle Relief Front?" he joked. "Don't mention it."

He and Hermione set off for the Magical Menagerie, while Harry and Ginny headed in the opposite direction. As they rounded the corner they heard Ron's hesitant voice drifting away in the distance ("Do you really think I'm good at Quidditch?"), and Ginny looked up at Harry with twinkling eyes.

"Your brother isn't doing too well today, is he?" Harry observed with a smirk.

Ginny laughed. "No, he isn't," she agreed. "Poor thing. Too bad he doesn't realize that Hermione and Viktor are just friends."

"Maybe we should tell him," said Harry lightly, and Ginny stopped walking to face him, eyebrows raised. Harry cracked a wicked grin. "Nah! It's too much fun watching him figure it out." They were both still laughing by the time they reached the apothecary's, where it only took Ginny a moment to buy her ingredients. Since they had a few extra minutes before they were supposed to meet Ron and Hermione, Harry asked her if she would mind walking by Quality Quidditch Supplies to see the new broom.

"Of course not!" she told him. "I'd like to see it, too." They made their way over to the popular store and stood outside the window, where the Quicksilver 500 rested atop a fancy display touting its "innovative and superior craftsmanship!" Harry pressed his face up to the glass to get a better view, and Ginny cocked her head at him. "Are you thinking of buying one?" she asked.

Harry stepped back and smiled. "No," he shook his head. "I already have an excellent broom. There isn't much point in getting a new one."

"Your Firebolt really means a lot to you, doesn't it?" Ginny remarked quietly, and something in her voice told Harry that she understood why. She couldn't have known that Sirius had given it to him, of course, but it seemed to Harry that she might have guessed that the broom was connected to his parents. He frowned thoughtfully, studying Ginny's profile in the window.

"Well, well, if it isn't Potty and the Weasel girl."

Another face had appeared suddenly in the glass next to Ginny's reflection, wearing a sour, mocking expression that Harry knew could only belong to Draco Malfoy. He whirled to face the sneering Slytherin, just in time to see Lucius Malfoy step into a shop a few doors down.

"Buying a broomstick for your impoverished girlfriend, Potter?"

Harry didn't answer. His head was pounding with the echo of Malfoy's comment about Cedric at the beginning of the summer, and he could feel a kind of heat building in the pit of his stomach. Inside his pocket, Harry's fingers tightened around his wand.

"Go away, Malfoy." Ginny's voice was quiet but firm. She stepped forward to stand beside Harry and he could feel her holding her breath.

"Ooh, touching." Malfoy curled his lip at Ginny. "Is he paying you to be this devoted, or are you just that pathetic?"

"Leave her alone!" Harry growled as Ginny went scarlet, clutching his wand so tightly his fingernails dug into his palm.

"Why don't you make me?" Malfoy's voice dropped to a low hiss and he took a step closer to Harry. "Come on, Potter," he wheedled. "Or are you too scared of getting in trouble for using magic during the summer?" His gray eyes glinted coldly as his mouth snaked into a sickening smile. "It's a lot harder to break the rules when you don't have your stupid fan club to back you up, isn't it, Potter?" he drawled smugly. "What's the matter-did your friends abandon you because you got that prat Diggory killed?"

Something erupted in Harry's chest. In a flash he had whipped out his wand and aimed it at Malfoy, a curse on his lips, but he had already missed his chance. There was a loud CRACK, and the tall blonde staggered backwards with blood streaming from his nose.

"How dare you say that about Harry, you evil, disgusting coward!" Ginny swung her fist back again, her brown eyes blazing with fury. "He risked his life for Cedric!" she cried fiercely. Stunned, Harry tried to grab her arm to prevent her striking Malfoy a second time, but she shook free and leaped forward menacingly. Malfoy stumbled out of the way, wide-eyed and holding his bloody nose with one hand, then hastily retreated without another word.

"Ginny?" Harry reached hesitantly towards her, and she turned slowly to face him. His shock turned to concern when he saw that she was trembling, and that there were tears in her eyes. "Are you okay?"

Ginny nodded and took a ragged breath. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that. It's just-" She paused to give her cheeks an impatient swipe. "He had no right to say that about you-or Cedric." Ginny looked up at Harry with a feeble smile, and suddenly her eyes filled with tears again. "Oh, no!" she gasped, "What will Mum do when she finds out?"

"Ginny, don't cry," Harry pleaded. "Your mum doesn't have to know. Malfoy won't be too keen on anyone finding out how he got a bloody nose," he pointed out with a smirk, "so there's no chance she'll hear about it if we don't tell her. Besides, it would have been a lot worse if you hadn't punched him. I was about to hex the pants off him."

"I wish you had!" Ginny scowled. "He deserved it." She glanced up at Harry sharply, her expression softening with worry as she searched his face. "You know what he said isn't true, don't you?" she asked earnestly. "Nobody blames you for what happened."

Harry nodded, managing a small smile. "I know. It's nice to be reminded, though." Ginny's face brightened, and Harry bent to collect their shopping bags. "Come on. We better get to Fortescue's before the others start worrying."

Ron and Hermione were already waiting at a table when Harry and Ginny reached the ice cream shop. "You'll never guess who we just saw," Ron greeted them as they stashed their purchases under a chair.

"Really?" Harry tried to sound curious. "Why don't we get our ice creams and then you can tell us," he suggested, exchanging a quick look with Ginny.

A few minutes later they were all seated at the table again, happily digging into four of Florean Fortescue's famous giant sundaes. "So," Ron began around a mouthful of peppermint, "don't you want to know who we saw?"

Harry kept his tone casual. "The Malfoys?" he guessed, taking another bite of his sundae.

Ron's face fell. "How did you know?"

Hermione stopped eating and looked from Harry to Ginny. "Did you two see them?" she asked.

Harry glanced at Ginny, who was staunchly spooning away at her chocolate topping, avoiding her brother's eyes. "Er, you could say that," he answered slowly.

Hermione's gaze met Ron's briefly before she turned to Harry with eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What does that mean?"

"Did something happen?" demanded Ron, peering dubiously at his friend and sister.

Harry shifted in his seat. "We-had a difficulty," he said finally. "Ginny gave him a bloody nose."

"WHAT?!" Ron and Hermione dropped their spoons and wheeled to stare at Ginny.

"You would've, too!" she protested quickly. "He deserved it."

"I'll say," Harry nodded. Ron and Hermione listened intently while he related what had happened at the Quidditch shop, but when he told them what Malfoy had said they both gasped in outrage.

"That slimy, good-for-nothing ferret!" cried Ron furiously, slamming his fist against the table and narrowly avoiding his ice cream.

"How could he have said that?" Hermione shook her head in angry disbelief. "I'm surprised you didn't hex him, Harry!"

"Believe me, I wanted to," Harry admitted, "but it's a good thing Ginny beat me to it, or I'd have been expelled from Hogwarts and had to spend the rest of my life with the Dursleys. Ugh." He shuddered at that thought and smiled his gratitude at Ginny again. "By the way, that was a ruddy good right hook," he told her. "Where'd you learn to fight like that?"

Ginny raised her eyebrows. "I grew up with six older brothers," she reminded him. "I was bound to pick up a few things. I never thought I'd be using them on Draco Malfoy, though." She pulled a face, shaking her head incredulously, and it struck Harry then that the whole situation was actually quite humourous.

"Poor Malfoy!" he cried suddenly, causing the others to stare at him as he began to shake with uncontrollable laughter. "The look on his face when you hit him!" Harry wheezed, pointing at Ginny. "It was better than the Amazing Bouncing Ferret!" Ron and Hermione started to smile, too, and he turned to them and gasped between breaths, "You two-should have been-there. It was brilliant!"

Ginny was looking down at her hands, blushing all the way to the roots of her hair while the others joined Harry in laughter. "What is it with you girls and hitting Malfoy?" Ron sobered enough to ask her. "First Hermione slaps him, now you sock him in the nose-is this going to become a habit?

Because if it is I am ready to offer my full support."

"Nonsense, Ron," Hermione admonished him. "I'm sure neither of us has any intention of picking fights with Malfoy." Her voice lacked its usual sternness, though, and Harry suspected that she was secretly proud of having once hit the hateful Slytherin.

"That's too bad," sighed Ron, shaking his head. "I bet you two could make him cry if you really wanted to," he speculated, eyes gleaming with enthusiasm for this idea.

"Oh, Ron," tutted Ginny, but she looked rather pleased with the compliment.

When they had finished their ice creams it was getting close to twelve o'clock, and the four of them collected their shopping and headed back towards the place where Mrs. Weasley had left them that morning. "Where do you reckon the twins got off to?" Harry asked Ron as they reached the street corner with no sign of the older boys.

"Probably went to find someone to invest in their joke shop," Ron shrugged. "They've been planning it all summer."

"What about your mum?" asked Hermione curiously. "What do you suppose was in that message from your dad, and who was it for?"

None of them could think of an answer to that, and they spent the next few minutes speculating about it until Ginny spotted her mother coming down the street with the twins in tow. "Remember," she begged them anxiously, "not a word to Mum about what happened or I'll never be able to leave the house again."

Harry nodded and turned to wave at Mrs. Weasley, who joined them a bit breathlessly and greeted them with a smile. "Did you have a good time, dears?" she asked. "Get everything you need? Good." Mrs. Weasley pulled out a bag of Floo powder. "Into the fireplace with you all, then. Lunch is waiting."

Hermione tugged on Harry's sleeve as the twins disappeared first into the green flames. "Look," she whispered urgently, pointing to Mrs. Weasley's bag. A flap of parchment was poking out over the lip of the satchel, and Harry could just make out the initials A.F. scrawled upside-down in one corner like a signature. He turned back to Hermione and knew she was thinking the same thing: Mrs. Weasley might have been visiting with none other than the mysterious Arabella Figg herself! As Harry stepped into the sooty fireplace he told himself he would find out the truth before the week was through.

//
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