The Sugar Quill
Author: Morgead (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: In the Bleak Midwinter  Chapter: Chapter Two
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A/N : The second part of this extremely Ron-oriented story; thanks to all the reviewers for the wonderful feedback. I'll keep on writing based on the reviews I get. Still feeling slightly stiff and unused to all this, forgive me. I know this part isn't the greatest, but please tell me what you thought anyway... (Hermione L. Granger, it's nice to see someone who loves Ron so much, although I don't know if I can get used to sharing him... ;) and the rest of you, a thousand thanks...)

Disclaimer : All the characters mentioned belong to the great J. K. Rowling.


PART TWO

A sea of tangled faces, of soft breath on his forehead (did he have a forehead any more?), of worried, high voices and low sweet whispers just by his ear. Fingertips like coins of warmth on the sides of his head. Familiar scents, sounds, and always the whistle of the cold in his ear.

‘…is he going to be all right, do you think…’ A sleep-heavy voice, weighted with worry as well as lethargy, and a hand that pressed his firmly under the covers.

‘…of course he’ll be all right, he has to be…’ Another voice, a low, windy, soft voice, and a tiny sob that crawled its way into his subconscious. He wanted to stop it.

‘…but…’ This voice seemed to be at a loss for words. ‘…but I can’t. It’s not my – I mean…’ It stopped, paused, mutinous. ‘…he’s not one of us, and they are going to kill him…’

For a timeless interval that was no more than the flicker of a nerve, Ron felt a screaming fear, unreasonable but unshakable, of the voice. That voice, which seemed to have everything in common with icicles and rain and the freezing snow and wind outside. Footsteps, dashing away from where he lay prone.

What am I doing here?

There was something like ice on his eyelids, something that while feeling light and cold and beautiful pinned them down like darts. He struggled weakly, fighting it off. Something warm held his hand – a source of freedom, something he could hold on to. He gripped it as tightly as he could. There was a muffled gasp from somewhere on his right, and then a voice, calling. He ignored it, tugging towards the warmth, forcing open his eyelids.

He saw white, endless white, sheets and beds and walls, and cringed.

‘Ron – Ron!’

Something was holding him by the neck, and emitting odd strangled gasps.

He opened his eyes again, and squinted at the strangely familiar brown curls that hung down the back of the person in front of him. It was Hermione. As he looked around he saw a boy in glasses standing by the bed. Harry. He was safe. A warm sense of security flooded through Ron, and he tried to sit up, although this was almost impossible with Hermione clinging to him.

His throat wouldn’t say ‘Hello’. It said something totally incomprehensible, although the closest phonetic sound seemed to be ‘Eurgh’.

‘Hey, Ron,’ said Harry, with something that would have been a grin if not for the stress that broke it on his face.

Hermione drew back, her eyes dry but large. ‘Oh, Ron. We thought –’

‘What happened?’ This came out satisfactorily, if a little hoarsely. ‘Why am I here?’

‘We found you in the dormitory, on the floor, almost frozen,’ said Harry. ‘I thought you were dead. Neville almost went hysterical – he thought you’d been cursed.’

‘What happened?’ burst out Hermione, one hand flying reflexively to her mouth.

Ron frowned, blinking. ‘I think I’m – missing something.’ He vaguely remembered seeing something out of the dormitory window before the feeling of cold that drove into the bone that he remembered so clearly. ‘I know I saw something.’

‘Can you remember what you saw?’ Hermione asked, face tense.

‘Actually, no,’ said Ron, looking rather surprised. ‘I just know I saw something. I know it was something bad.’ A flash of memory crossed the corner of his thoughts; the fierce, cold glint of steel in the moonlight, like the light that glinted off ice…

Harry looked concerned. ‘Maybe we should let him rest,’ he said to Hermione. ‘He’s just come ‘round, after all… You shouldn’t push yourself,’ he added to Ron. ‘Do you want us to leave you alone?’

‘Don’t leave,’ Ron protested, but Madam Pomfrey came up behind him with a large mug in her hand and he knew there was no hope.

‘Out, both of you,’ she ordered sternly. ‘We’re very glad he’s woken up now, aren’t we, and we want to keep him healthy.’ Giving him one last look, Harry slipped through the half-open door, leaving Hermione to trail after him. She smiled at Ron as she went, her eyes crinkling, and as she closed the door he let out a sigh that did not escape Madam Pomfrey.

‘Drink up,’ she said firmly.

‘Medicine?’ he asked, the feeble, toneless whisper of a child who is too weary to protest. ‘I hate medicine.’ Then, as an afterthought: ‘Couldn’t I have chocolate instead?’

‘Nonsense, it’s good for you,’ insisted Madam Pomfrey, shoving the mug into his hand. ‘You can have chocolate later.’ She stood over the bed, her figure black against the light, and Ron lifted the mug to his lips and drank reluctantly, eyeing her. He was surprised to feel tiny fronds of warmth escape into his parched mouth as soon as the first drops went down his throat, spreading throughout his entire body, turning into wildfire; and it did taste of chocolate, after all. And with the warmth came a kind of comfortable drowsiness that made him want to lay his head on the pillow like a small child.

Madam Pomfrey watched him approvingly, then took the mug from him and pushed him gently back onto the pillow. He fell backwards lightly, red hair like a new bloodstain on the white sheets, eyes drifting closed and head turning slightly to the side. Madam Pomfrey pulled the covers up around him and left quietly, for a moment forgetting that Ron was a boy who stood almost a foot taller than her.

Ron found himself walking through the corridors, footsteps echoing on the stone, throwing open the double doors and walking out into the courtyard of Hogwarts. The sharp, stale winter air blew in his face, but somehow it wasn’t terrible any more. He wasn’t cold. The air was almost invigorating, a sign telling him that he was in his true element.

He walked aimlessly through the grounds, watching as the snow began to fall all around him, coating his eyelashes and his nose and shoulders and most probably his hair. The frost-capped trees stood like frozen sentinels as he wandered by, kicking the snow off the grass.

He came to the patch of trees by the lake that he, Harry and Hermione went to when they wanted to think alone. These, too, were dusted with snow, looking like something out of a Christmas snow-globe, complete with lake. The middle of the lake was frozen, and tiny waves lapped the sides where the water wasn’t frozen yet and the rushes had died. The snow was falling into the water and the ice. The whole world was white, a swirling of tiny snowflake-feathers as though someone in the sky had been having a giant pillow fight.

Looking around, he thought to himself that winter had its own beauty; not the sleepy, heavy flowering of summer, but a kind of tired, bruised delicateness that was fragile and manifested itself in the frost and the snowflakes that were never identical – someone’s twisted idea of creativity. It was not something he would usually think, but he was not surprised at himself.

Walking down to the lake, he dipped a hand in the water and let the tiny, freezing waves lap at his hands and glove his fingertips; the snow came down, covering his hair. He felt strangely at home and in his element. He had never thought of winter as a favourable season, instead praying that it would end as fast as it possibly could. Now he was almost one with the driving wind that blew around a corner out of nowhere and ruffled his hair.

There was something wrong with his reflection. Slowly he drew his hand out of the water, letting the ripples stop, and stared at his reflection past the shallow waters where the waves lapped. There was no sign of red in the water.

A pale face looked back at him, with silver-blonde hair marking the sharp cheeks and corners of the eyes, which were the colour of silver dust over grey, what Ron knew in an instant to be the colour of winter. It wasn’t his face. He was looking through someone else’s eyes.

The eyes were Draco Malfoy’s.

Hermione came alone to visit him later the next night, after he had awoken from the strangest dream of his life and had three less-than-comfortable meals with Madam Pomfrey watching him like a hawk. Harry was serving a detention for Professor Snape in the dungeons. Watching her sit down at the edge of the bed, endearingly awkward in her held-back curiosity and her treatment of him as though he were a china doll, not to be broken, a whole new wash of Strange Feelings swept over Ron, leaving him dizzy again, trying not to look at her.

‘So,’ she said, ‘how are you feeling?’

‘Much better,’ he answered, trying to sound nonchalant, but failing miserably.

‘You’ve missed out on a lot of schoolwork,’ she said. ‘You were – frozen – for a week and a half. Nearly two. Professor Flitwick covered the entire fourth chapter of our Charms textbook while you were asleep.’

A week and a half? Ron was incredulous, yet amused at the inevitable work-discussion. ‘Do you want me to give you some notes?’ she offered. ‘I’ll help you catch up, if you want.’ Ron, remembering the first of the strange feelings over Astronomy homework in the library, was about to hastily shake his head no, but she looked so timid, so eager to help, that he couldn’t refuse.

‘All right, thanks,’ he said, grinning at her. ‘When I get out of this bed.’ She looked down at him then, at the red hair on the white sheets and the tall body that seemed so out of place on the infirmary bed.

She paused for a moment, still gazing down at him. He looked up at her with a puzzled expression on his face. ‘Hermione, what’s wrong?’

One hand flew up to cover her eyes as she let out a choked gasp.

‘Hermione?’ He struggled to sit up, finding it slightly harder than normal, and feeling rather ill at ease as he patted her on the shoulder. ‘What’s wrong? Are you all right?’

She sniffed. ‘Yes, I’m fine. It’s just…’ Her hand came down after a gentle tug on her arm, and Ron saw that her eyes were red-rimmed. ‘Oh, Ron, I thought you were going to die.’

Awkwardly he brought his arms up around her. ‘It’s all right. I’m not dead, right? It’s all right now.’

They thought I was going to die…

She sniffled. ‘It’s not all right, seeing you in that bed. You’re supposed to be taller than me and looking down at me, and annoying me no end like usual. You’re not supposed to be lying down like that.’

He grinned over the top of her head. ‘You want me to annoy you now? Since that seems to be my allotted job and all…’

Hermione managed a grin. ‘No, right now you’re being perfectly sweet.’ She blushed. ‘Don’t take that the way it sounds…’

He held her close for a moment, horribly afraid that she might hear or feel his heart, which seemed to want to get right out of his ribcage. When she spoke again it vibrated through his shoulder, seeming to go straight to his disobedient heart, making it beat even faster. ‘Thanks, Ron. I must seem rather an idiot, mustn’t I?’

‘No, you don’t,’ he said, idly running his fingers along her shoulder blade.

‘You’re the one who’s ill,’ she said, detaching herself gently, and smiling. ‘I should be comforting you – I’m sorry…’

‘Don’t be,’ he said, as she pushed him back down onto the pillows just like Madam Pomfrey had. ‘Tell me about something. About school. About Snape. About Harry’s act of… whatever he did to get detention.’

And she sat down at the edge of his bed and talked to him for a good half-hour about Harry and Snape and how the Astronomy was getting along. He listened quietly, laughing at intervals, and watching the way the light fell on the side of her face.

Ron stayed five more days in the infirmary steadily getting warmer, and by the time he was out there were many tokens from the Hogwarts students on the table next to his bed wishing him well. He was pleasantly surprised, although most of the students had left for home as the term had ended and the Christmas holidays had begun. He was spared much comment and questioning because of the absence of the other Gryffindor boys. Harry and Hermione never pressured him. There were no classes to attend, just homework to finish and catching up to be done with Hermione.

‘Dumbledore wants to see you,’ Harry said to Ron as they sat in the common room after dinner.

‘Are you two coming?’ asked Ron, looking at Hermione, who nodded.

‘If you want us to,’ said Harry, standing up and pushing the thick Potions textbook aside. ‘He said when you were up, so perhaps we’d better go now.’

‘All right,’ agreed Ron reluctantly, setting aside Flying With The Cannons and standing next to Harry. Hermione stood up as well, stretching her arms to the side, and all three of them climbed out of the portrait hole, walking down the corridors to Albus Dumbledore’s office.

Harry knocked tentatively.

The door swung open and they walked into the office.

Ron looked around, seeing a spacious circular room, with numerous portraits of sleeping witches and wizards hung on the walls. The room was filled with objects and the occasional mahogany chest, and a claw-footed desk held numerous pieces of parchment. Behind it and around it, on shelves and spindle-legged tables, various silver objects spun and twisted like miniature snakes. Dumbledore sat at the desk, smiling at them as he put down a quill.

‘You wanted to see me, sir?’ asked Ron, trying not to look as ill at ease as he felt.

‘Yes, I did indeed, Mr. Weasley,’ Dumbledore said, standing up. ‘About nineteen days ago you were found in the Gryffindor common room by Mr. Potter and the other sixth-year boys, am I right?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Ron.

‘I am curious as to what caused this situation, Mr. Weasley,’ said Dumbledore, taking one of the spinning silver objects off the shelf. ‘You were found in a critical condition, believed to be dead, and it was only through the ministrations of Madam Pomfrey that you managed at all to hang on. Can you remember anything of what caused this collapse?’

‘No, sir,’ said Ron, his throat dry. ‘I can only remember the cold.’

‘The cold?’ asked Dumbledore, the light of interest in his eyes. He had not ceased to look friendly, but Ron discerned a light in his eye that showed more than that. Dumbledore was concerned – and, if it was possible for Dumbledore to show this emotion – afraid. Or something close, like worry, or fear on someone else’s behalf.

Ron told the story as he remembered it, adding the flash of the moonlight on steel and the driving, harrying cold. Dumbledore nodded, frowning, one hand toying with the silver object that was spinning and twisting in his fingers.

‘That is all you remember?’

‘Yes, sir.’

Dumbledore nodded thoughtfully. ‘I have asked those who found you about this already, and they could give no better information. To them, you were simply frozen.’

‘But, sir,’ Ron found his voice. ‘What could make me freeze like that?’

‘I don’t know, Mr. Weasley,’ said Dumbledore, casting a vague look at Harry and Hermione, who were standing behind Ron with expressions of dismay and concern. ‘We shall indeed try to find out.’

‘It had something to do with the Forbidden Forest,’ said Ron, struck by a sudden flash of memory. ‘The bad thing came out of there.’

Dumbledore looked even more thoughtful. ‘For now I want you to be very careful, Mr. Weasley. I will have one of the teachers stay on guard at a tower tonight, just in case we see anything.’

Ron nodded, his mouth suddenly dry. This is crazy.

This is true, remember? the other voice told him.

‘Thank you, Mr. Weasley, Mr. Potter, Miss Granger,’ said Dumbledore. ‘You may go now.’

They hurried back through the echoing corridor, full of unsaid questions that brimmed over into startled, puzzled expressions.

***

‘I’ll never understand this,’ Ron groaned, looking over the notes Hermione had handed him. ‘It’s all theory, Hermione. You know my brain wasn’t made to understand theory.’

‘Nonsense,’ Hermione said decidedly. ‘You’ll understand once you read this.’ She passed him another wad of notes. ‘It’s really easy, turning a chair into a cat, especially because you don’t need to enlarge it, it gets smaller. Or do you want to work on Charms now?’

Ron nodded fervently. They had been at it for hours in the common room, Ron not feeling too comfortable under the eye of Madam Pince. The atmosphere of the common room was slightly friendlier than the library; the fire, stoked down, glowed pleasantly like the brim of the setting sun just before darkness, and the warmth that Ron had learnt to appreciate flooded the room. Under glowing firelight Hermione’s hair became odd again, became soft and foamy and strange, and her features sharpened by shadow. He felt strange, too, the kind of strange he had felt when she had fallen asleep on his shoulder in the library. His own hair was highlighted by the glowing embers, his milky skin stained with a glowing reddish-orange when he turned too close to the fire.

She pulled a matchbox from her pocket. ‘The fourth chapter was on animating inanimate objects, and the first and simplest task was to make the matches dance. It’s more difficult because matches are so small, there’s barely room to hold a spell… Try it.’ She showed him his notes. He looked at the spell and the complicated diagrams, shaking his head.

Waving his wand at the matches, he muttered the spell under his breath, managing only to split the matches in half completely.

Hermione shook her head. ‘No, watch me, Ron,’ she said, and set two matches on the table in front of her. She pointed her wand at them, and they began to dance, one end bouncing on the table, then the other. Ron laughed.

‘What?’ She looked slightly hurt.

‘Nothing, it’s just that I don’t think I’ll ever be as apt as you when it comes to these things.’ He shook his head again. ‘Hermione, how do you do that?’

She blushed, and he noticed that her eyes were shadowed again.. ‘I don’t know, it just… comes. Do you want to go over the essay on –’

‘Wait. Stop.’ Ron looked at the matches that were still dancing in place on the table, the spell within twisting the thin sticks of wood. ‘Hermione, that’s enough for the night. You look properly done in. Let’s turn in and go to bed. Thanks very much for tutoring me.’ He put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Let me clear up.’

‘No, it’s all right,’ and she bent to retrieve the notes, gathering them into one neat pile, her curls falling into her face, streaming about her ears as she folded everything up and placed them in another neat pile. This utterly Hermione-like action made him feel even stranger. Why was it he had never noticed all these things about her before?

You shouldn’t be noticing these things now!

Why not?

He reached out then to pull a strand of her hair behind her ear, and let his hand slide down the hair that ran down her back. She pulled back from the table and looked at him in a way that made him slightly afraid.

‘Ron,’ she asked, ‘are you all right?’

‘No,’ he half-whispered.

She looked at him, brows darting together, as he looked back at her with blue eyes that seemed very far away. Slowly he brought a hand up to her cheek and she was startled at its warmth, after he had been frozen so long… He felt comfortingly warm, in fact, as his hand cupped her cheek, drawing her closer.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked, her voice slightly higher-pitched than usual. His face suddenly seemed so close.

Ron had never imagined that kissing anyone could be like this. He had never imagined anything about things like this anyway, not giving much thought to sentimentality, never imagined that anything could be so familiar yet so new, so reassuring yet so frightening. He felt her leaning into him and knew her eyes were closed and the firelight was throwing shadows onto her eyelids. She started as he slid his hand down to her shoulder, and pulled away, her large brown eyes frightened.

‘Ron,’ she whispered, ‘I think we’re going crazy,’ and then she fled, leaving him with the pile of notes on the table and the matches, still dancing, and the fire that was slowly burning itself to nothing.

 

//
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