The Sugar Quill
Author: Kellie (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Harry Potter and the Carnelian Key  Chapter: Chapter Two
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The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Harry Potter and the Carnelian Key (2/

The next few weeks rushed by in a blur of Weasley family dinners, makeshift backyard Quidditch matches, and chess games of unjustly mismatched talent. On one particularly hot evening, four days before they were to catch the Hogwarts Express, Harry, Ron, Fred, George, and Ginny were flying recklessly through the air. Completely ignoring the makeshift goal posts Fred and George had set up, the five teenagers madly chucked the quaffle at each other, awarding themselves ten points each time the ball struck a body.

"I am the Quidditch Queen!" Ginny shouted, as the quaffle she had just thrown bounced off Georgeís head.

George caught the ball and grimaced, rubbing his head. "Maybe, if this was how the game was actually played," he said sarcastically.

Ginny stuck her tongue out at him as he hurled the quaffle at Ron. Ron dodged it expertly, caught it as it zoomed by, and flung it at Harry, who was hit squarely in the chest.

Gasping for air from both laughter and the blow, Harry dove lazily to the ground and collapsed on his back. "I surrender!" he managed.

Ron landed securely on his feet next to him. "The famous seeker is now a quitter?"

"Uh-huh," Harry panted, unashamed.

"Come on," Fred said, "Itís getting dark. Weíd better go in before mum has a hemorrhage."

Harry was first to the third floor shower, and when he came out, blissfully clean and wearing fresh clothes, he made his way downstairs to look for Ron.

As he passed by the door to the den on the second floor, Harry glanced in and saw Mr. Weasley at his desk. He was leaning way back in his chair, glasses perched on his nose, examining some documents. Harry didnít want to interrupt, but he had been trying to catch a word with Mr. Weasley alone for days, and had so far been unsuccessful. He stood outside the room for a moment, deciding whether to go in, but it ended up that he didnít have to choose. Mr. Weasley had seen him.

"Harry?"

Harry entered the room. "Yeah...sorry, I didnít want to bother you."

"Nonsense! Come in," Mr. Weasley said cheerfully, motioning Harry forward. "We havenít really had a good chance to talk, have we?"

"No," Harry replied, taking a seat in a battered but comfortably fluffy armchair next to the desk. "Are you working?"

"Nah," said Mr. Weasley, swiveling his chair around to face Harry and tossing the papers onto the desk. "Just some boring Ministry paperwork. How are you Harry? You doing all right here?"

"I love being here, Mr. Weasley. You have no idea how grateful I am that you keep rescuing me from the Dursleys."

Mr. Weasley turned serious. "Itís bad there, Harry, is it?"

Harry immediately regretted bringing up the Dursleys. He hadnít meant to worry Mr. Weasley, not when he had so much to worry about already.

"Well, itís not really that bad," he said, attempting some quick damage control. "Itís actually better than it used to be. Theyíre a little scared of me now, and Sirius. I think theyíre worried they might wake up as toads some morning if theyíre not careful."

Mr. Weasley chuckled. "You hear from Sirius much?"

"Yeah, we owl pretty regularly."

"Good, I think thatís good."

"Mr. Weasley, thereís something Iíve been meaning to ask you about," Harry said hesitantly.

"Shoot, Harry."

"Well, I havenít had a lot of exposure to the wizarding world the last few months, and, well, Iím just wondering...how are things? I mean, how worried are people?"

"You mean because of...what happened."

"Yes."

"Well, Harry, I wish I could give you a straight answer to that." Mr. Weasley sighed, removing his glasses and unconsciously fidgeting with them in his lap. "Some people are panicked. Others think itís a hoax -"

"A hoax?" asked Harry incredulously.

"Yes, indeed, Harry," he said, nodding. "You give some people bad news and theyíll do anything to convince themselves itís not true."

There was a pause.

"So everyone knows, then."

"Basically. Fudge tried to keep it quiet, to keep it under wraps for a while, but Dumbledore sort of thwarted that effort when he told all the students that You-Know-Who was back. Word travels fast." He paused, then quickly added, "I support Dumbledore, one hundred percent, of course. Itís best that people are forewarned."

Harry nodded, biting his lip, then thought of something. "Stan Shunpike didnít seem to know."

Mr. Weasley looked mildly surprised. "Really?"

"Yeah, he congratulated me on winning the Triwizard Tournament."

Mr. Weasley smiled ruefully. "Not exactly a shining example of tact, is he?"

Harry smiled back. "I guess not."

"Well, I wouldnít worry about that," Mr. Weasley said with a dismissive wave of his hand, "Most people donít know all the details, and besides, Shunpike is so scatterbrained, he wouldnít know whether to scratch his watch or wind his butt."

Harry burst out laughing.

Mr. Weasley blushed slightly. "Donít tell Mrs. Weasley I said that," he said sheepishly.

Harry shook his head in mock seriousness. "No, of course not." Then in real seriousness, he asked, "So what is the ministry doing about...the situation?"

"Iím sorry to say, nothing at the moment. I reckon theyíre just waiting for him to show himself."

"What? Theyíre just going to sit by and wait for him to attack?"

"Theyíre scared, Harry. They donít know what to do so theyíre doing nothing."

"Thatís ridiculous."

"I agree. But thereís a real difference of opinion at the top, you see. Fudge wants to sit back, Dumbledore wants to take action. Fudge is the one with the authority, and since heís the one telling people they donít have to do anything, no one is challenging him. They may know deep down that itís not the best solution, but no one really wants to put themselves in danger, do they? So Fudge says wait, and they wait."

Harry was silent for a minute, while he considered this information. "So, there havenít been any attacks or anything? He hasnít been seen?"

Mr. Weasley shook his head. "Biding his time I suppose."

ĎYeah,í Harry thought, ĎComing up with a new plan to wreak destruction and despair.í "Thanks, Mr. Weasley," Harry said, looking thoughtful as he rose from his chair.

"Sure thing, Harry," he replied as Harry headed towards the door. Then, "Harry?"

"Yeah?" Harry turned back.

Mr. Weasley smiled kindly. "Try not to worry too much, eh? Voldemort isnít your responsibility. Let the people in charge worry, all right? Itís their job."

"Right," Harry said with a smile and a nod. "Thanks again," and he left the room.

********************

"I thought you said we were supposed to meet her at half past," Harry said to Ron as they hurried down Diagon Alley.

Ron shook his head. "One oíclock."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, come on. Weíre late. You know how she hates that. Do you really want to be scolded for ten minutes when we first see her?"

"Right," Harry said, struggling to keep up with Ronís longer-legged strides. Harry was terribly sore from their game of hit-your-friends-with-the-quaffle-as-hard-as-you-can the previous evening, not to mention the fact that he was still distracted by the conversation heíd had with Mr. Weasley afterwards. But he was trying to hurry; he was anxious to see Hermione too.

"I told you!" said Ron, pointing to a bench next to the entrance to Flourish and Blotts. "There she is!"

Harry followed Ronís finger and saw Hermione sitting on the bench with her parents. She saw them too.

She waved. "Harry! Ron!"

She hurried towards them and reached Harry first. Feeling emotional, he dropped his bags and scooped her into a hug.

"Are you all right, Harry? Iíve missed you."

"Iím fine and I missed you too." He let her go and then it was Ronís turn. Harry tried not to smile when Ron held onto her a little longer than necessary. Hermione either didnít notice or pretended not to, for whatever reason.

"Ron, Iíve missed you so much," she said happily.

"Me too," he said, releasing her.

"Well, come on," she said, pulling them by the hands, "My parents want to say hello."

They walked over to where Mr. and Mrs. Granger were standing looking nervous, which was how they always looked when they were around magical people and places. Harry didnít blame them in the least. The last time they had been in Diagon Alley they had witnessed two full grown wizards, one of whom was Ronís father, beat each other up like schoolboys.

Mr. Granger stepped forward and offered his hand to Harry, and then to Ron. "Hello, boys. Itís good to see you again."

"You too," said Harry.

"Hello, Mr. Granger," said Ron.

"You remember my wife?" he asked, stepping aside so she could shake their hands too.

"Of course," said Ron.

"Nice to see you again, Mrs. Granger," said Harry.

"Have you boys gotten all of your things for school?" Mrs. Granger asked, indicating the packages Harry and Ron were carrying.

"Yes, finally," said Ron. "It took forever. Itís so crowded everywhere. It seems like everyone from Hogwarts is here today."

"And itís hot," said Hermione. "Letís go cool off in the Leaky Cauldron," she suggested. "We can get some cold drinks."

Everyone agreed that this was a fabulous idea, and after they had made their way inside, and acquired some drinks, they all sank gratefully into a large booth.

"Iíve gotten all of my things too," said Hermione as they sat down, indicating the bags she and her parents had deposited on the floor beneath the table.

"Weíve just come from that robe shop," said Mr. Granger.

"Madam Malkinís," Hermione reminded her father.

"Right," he said, patting her forearm where it rested on the table. "Madam Malkinís. Had to get Hermione all new robes, sheís grown so much in the last year. I guess you boys have too, huh? Youíre all at that age."

"Well, isnít that the truth," came a voice from behind them. It was Mrs. Weasley. She and Mr. Weasley and Ginny were hauling a dozen bags with them as they approached breathlessly.

Everyone shifted over to make room for them, and after all of the pleasantries were exchanged, and they had all become pleasantly cool, the teenagers became bored with the conversation. Mr. Granger seemed very interested in hearing about magic-Muggle relations and Mr. Weasley, like always, was eager to learn about various Muggle devices.

"So this contraption, this lawnmower," Mr. Weasley was saying, "It actually cuts the grass?"

Ron rolled his eyes.

"Hey!" Ginny exclaimed. "Thereís Paisley Kingston and Belinda Ballantine. Iím going to say hello." She scooted quickly out of the booth and was gone.

"Yeah, weíre out of here," Ron whispered to Harry. And then, to the adults, he said, "Um, weíre going back outside. Weíll meet you back here at - " he glanced at his watch, "three."

The adults nodded their consent.

"Thatís fine," said Mrs. Weasley, "Thatís what time we told George and Fred to meet us here, too."

"Great." Ron, Harry, and Hermione escaped quickly, before the adults could change their minds.

"Come on," said Ron once they were walking back down Diagon Alley, "Letís go over to Quality Quidditch Supplies. We havenít been in there yet."

"Oh, that will be fun," Hermione said sarcastically.

"And where would you rather go?" Ron asked, smirking playfully, "Back to Flourish and Blotts? Donít have enough books to last you the year?"

Hermione scowled and opened her mouth to reply, but Harry cut her off.

"Come on, Herm, be a sport," he said imploringly. "We wonít stay long."

Her face didnít change, but she replied, "Fine."

They pushed their way inside through the throngs of people and maneuvered through the aisles, stopping here and there to chat with a student or two that they recognized. Once Hermione looked thoroughly miserable, and they realized they hadnít been able to get close enough to any of the shelves or racks to actually see anything, they decided to head back outside to see what was in the window displays.

"Ooh, look at that," Ron gushed, pointing at a shiny broomstick on display in the front window.

"Wow," Harry breathed, crossing back and forth in front of the glass, trying to examine the broomstick from all sides, which was, of course, impossible. "Itís the new Firebolt XL. Look at how itís just itching to fly." The broomstick was hovering several inches above the display stand and was vibrating slightly.

"Brilliant," Ron whispered, shaking his head and staring open-mouthed at the broomstick, no doubt imagining himself flying it around a Quidditch pitch while wearing bright orange robes of the Chudley Cannons persuasion.

"Well, well, well," came a familiar drawling voice, "If it isnít the hero and his pauper and his mudblood."

Harry felt Ron and Hermione whirl around next to him. Harry closed his eyes and exhaled heavily before doing the same.

"Shove off, Malfoy," Ron was saying. He had already turned beet red with anger.

Draco Malfoy stood directly across from them, arms folded, platinum hair shining brightly in the sun. His two cronies, Crabbe and Goyle, lurked on either side of him, looking more like brainless trolls than ever. "Itís good to see some things never change," Malfoy said silkily. "The holy triumvirate. Still joined at the proverbial hip, I see."

"Still using the big words to make up for your midget dick, I see," Ron retorted.

Draco raised an eyebrow. "Touchť. You kiss your mother with that mouth, Weasley?"

Harry moved forward. "Go away, Malfoy," he said sharply.

Draco ignored him. "What are you doing, Weasley? Hmm? Trying to figure up how many years of your fatherís salary youíd need to pay for that broom? Iím not sure you can add that high..."

Hands on her hips, Hermione calmly took three steps forward so that she was only inches away from Malfoy. She lifted her chin slightly so that she could glare right into his eyes.

"Hermioneeee . . ." Ron warned through his teeth, reaching out to pull her back by the arm, while Harry attempted to step between her and the platinum-haired Slytherin. She shook them both off.

"Iíve hit you once before, Malfoy," she hissed, "and Iíll do it again, I swear I will."

Malfoy grinned wickedly. "Threatened by a mudblood. How positively paradoxical. So smart, and yet you know nothing of the natural order of the world."

He stepped forward until they were practically touching and glared right back into her eyes. Hermione was visibly shaking, but she kept her composure.

"Your threats mean nothing," he hissed. "You are nothing," and he turned his head and spat on the ground at her feet.

Ron started to lunge forward and Harry quickly flung out an arm to hold him back. Struggling against Ronís weight, Harry pushed his other arm between Hermione and Draco and shoved Draco hard in the chest.

"Get out of here, Malfoy," he growled in a quiet but deadly voice.

Draco stepped back, laughing, and, snapping his fingers at Crabbe and Goyle, they all turned and walked away. "See you soon," he called back over his shoulder.

Harry spun Hermione around and grabbed her by the top of her arms with both hands. He could feel her trembling. "Are you okay?" he asked, and when she nodded, he continued, "Are you mad?" his voice was harsh, but a small smile betrayed the fact that he was rather impressed.

"That bastard!" Ron exclaimed. "Why didnít you let me at him, Harry?" he demanded angrily.

"Because you would have killed him and I donít want to have to come visit you in Azkaban," Harry replied shortly.

"Let go of me," Hermione said, exasperated, twisting out of Harryís grip and straightening her blouse impatiently. "Iím not afraid of Malfoy. Heís all talk. Anyway, heís just still angry about how we humiliated him with all those curses on the Hogwarts Express at the end of last term."

"Still, Hermione," Ron, who was beginning to calm down, said worriedly, "You shouldnít have done that."

"Why not? I told you, Iím not afraid of him."

"Youíre not afraid of a lot of things, Hermione, and sometimes I wish you would be," said Harry dejectedly.

"Whatís that supposed to mean?" she asked.

"Nothing," he replied, "Come on."

He led the way through the crowds and back into the Leaky Cauldron. The adults were still chatting, and hadnít even seen them come in. Harry was about to take a seat at a vacant table when Ron put a hand on his shoulder.

"Letís go out there," he said, grinning, and pointing out the door to the Muggle street.

Harry shook his head and chuckled dryly. "I donít think your mother would like that, Ron."

"Oh, come on, weíve only got fifteen minutes anyway. Weíll come right back."

"What if they see us come back in?" Harry pointed out. "Weíll get in trouble."

"Hermioneís parents wonít care if she goes out there, they came in from out there. And my mum canít punish you. Iím the only one who stands to get in trouble here, and Iím okay with that. Come on. Live a little." Ronís eyes were gleaming with mischief. Harry knew that Ron had spent very little time in his life in Muggle streets, and he must have been dying of curiosity. Besides, they would only be gone for a few minutes.

"All right, letís go."

"Ron, I donít know," Hermione spoke up, shaking her head a little. "I donít want you to get into trouble."

Ron rolled his eyes, and dragged her out the door by her wrist. Harry followed.

"Wow!" Ron exclaimed. "Look at all the cars!"

A few passersby shot strange looks Ronís way.

"Shhh, Ron, people will hear you," whispered Harry.

"Look, weíll not cross the street, okay?" said Hermione. "And weíll just stay in this block."

"Whatever," Ron mumbled, starting off to the right.

The first storefront they came to was a Muggle bookstore. Hermione wanted to go in, but Ron, in an exasperated sort of voice, said that it really couldnít be that different from a "regular" (which, to Ron, meant "magical") bookstore. Thinking of "The Monster Book of Monsters", Harry doubted that were true, but they passed the bookstore anyway. They came to a bank branch next. Ron really wanted to go in, but Harry pointed out that there wasnít much to do in a bank that didnít involve exchanging money, and so they might look a little suspicious just standing there, watching.

"Fine," he said annoyed. "Can we go in here?" It was a small electronics store.

"Yes," said Harry, grinning widely. "Your dad would be so jealous," he said as he pulled the door open.

They entered the store and Ronís jaw dropped. Harry quickly nudged him in the ribs and Ron closed his mouth.

"Just follow me and donít say anything," Harry whispered.

The three of them walked up and down the short aisles, Harry and Hermione pointing out certain devices and explaining them to Ron in hushed voices.

"Thatís a VCR," Hermione said, pointing. "You can buy Muggle films on videotape and then hook this machine up to the telly to watch them."

"What?" asked Ron, screwing his face up in confusion. He had no idea what she had just said.

Hermione giggled. "Okay, something simpler, something he can see," she muttered to herself, glancing around.

"Here," she said pulling him further down the aisle. They stood before a television set which had a video game displayed on the screen. "Here," she said again, pushing one of the controllers into Ronís hand and passing the other to Harry. "Itís a game. Show him, Harry."

Ron watched, dumbfounded, as Harry made the figures move across the screen by pushing buttons on the controller.

"Wow. That is cool. How do you know how to do that?"

"Dudley has this one," Harry said with a scowl.

"He lets you play it?" Ron asked him with a sideways glance.

"I didnít ask. I used to sneak downstairs in the middle of the night and play it."

"Fantastic!" Ron pushed some of the buttons on his controller, and in seconds, all of his players were dead.

Hermione glanced at her watch. "Come on, we should go."

"Awww," Ron protested, but he followed her and Harry out of the store.

Harry and Hermione started back down the sidewalk towards the Leaky Cauldron, but Ron grabbed them both by the arms.

"Just one more," he said, pulling them, protesting, back past the electronics store.

They came before an antique shop, and there were hundreds of little gadgets and trinkets displayed in the window.

"We are not going in there," said Harry. "Weíd never come out again. You can just look at this stuff in the window for a minute."

Ronís eyes scanned the display eagerly, trying to take it all in. Ron asked Harry what a lot of things were, but many of them were so old that even Harry wasnít sure.

"Maybe Hermione knows," Ron said, turning around. "Hermione?"

She was standing about five feet away, at the other end of the window, gazing in. She didnít seem to hear him.

"Hermione?" he asked again, louder. After a moment, she pulled her attention away from the glass.

"Huh?"

Ron lost interest in whatever he had been looking at and walked over to where she stood.

"What were you looking at?" he asked, peering in. There was a large display of antique jewelry behind the glass.

"Oh, nothing. Just that...that necklace," she said breathlessly. "Itís beautiful."

Harry raised an eyebrow. It wasnít like Hermione to be so taken in by a piece of jewelry. But as soon as he leaned over her shoulder to see it, he could see why she was. The chain was simple enough, he thought, but the pendant really was quite pretty. It had a large, round, deep red garnet set into the middle, encircled by tiny diamonds and an ornately decorative gold setting. It looked more like a small brooch than a necklace pendant, Harry thought. He glanced at the price tag, which was just visible sticking out from under the velvet platform on which the necklace was displayed, and laughed out loud.

"I hope that glass is shatterproof," he said, "It costs 700 pounds."

"How many galleons is that?" Ron asked.

"About a hundred and fifty," he replied.

Ron let out a low whistle. "Come on, Hermione," he said, steering her away from the window by her elbow. She stumbled a little as her feet moved before her eyes followed. Ron rolled his eyes. "Girls," he mouthed to Harry.

Hermione quickly regained her focus on reality, though. "Letís hurry," she said. "We donít want them looking around for us when we enter."

When they entered The Leaky Cauldron, the crowd between the door and the table where the adults sat was thick enough to allow them to slip in unnoticed. When they reached the table, everyone else was there. They seemed to be waiting on Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Judging from the number of empty butterbeer bottles on the table, the Weasleys and the Grangers had gotten on smashingly.

"Well, I guess this is goodbye," Hermioneís mother said to her, sniffing.

Hermione nodded, biting her lip and looking suddenly teary.

Mrs. Granger placed an arm around her daughterís shoulders and turned to Mrs. Weasley.

"Molly, we canít thank you enough for keeping Hermione and seeing her off to school. Itís very kind of you."

"Itís nothing, dear," she replied, reaching out and brushing Hermioneís arm with her hand. "We love having her. Youíve raised a lovely daughter."

"Thank you," she replied, her voice catching.

She turned back to her daughter. "You have a good year, now. You write to us often, and let us know whatís happening at Hogwarts." Hermione nodded. "Weíll miss you." She hugged Hermione tightly, and when she pulled away, Harry saw a tear roll down her cheek.

Hermione sniffed, and hastily swiped at her own eyes. Harryís heart ached and he wanted to reach out and hug her.A glance at Ronís pained face told him that he was thinking the same thing.

Mr. Granger stepped forward and hugged his daughter too, kissing the top of her head. "Chin up, Buttercup," he said gently. Hermione sniffled into his chest. He pulled back and cupped her face in his hands. "You be good now. Mind your manners and keep making you old dad proud. I love you." He kissed her on the forehead and put an arm around her as they all walked towards the door the three teenagers had come through minutes before.

"You boys take care of my little girl," Mr. Granger said to Harry and Ron, shaking their hands and smiling. "Sheís the only one Iíve got."

Ron and Harry nodded fervently.

"We will," Ron said seriously.

To his great surprise - and chagrin - Harry felt a lump rising in his own throat, as he watched the Grangers share their final farewells, thinking about what it might be like to hug parents good-byeÖHe quickly swallowed hard several times.

The Weasleys bid the Grangers farewell, and they all watched Hermioneís parents leave the Leaky Cauldron. When Hermione turned around, her eyes were damp. Harry smiled and winked at her, and she smiled back weakly. Ron and Harry each linked an arm through hers as they all headed towards the stairs to the guest room where they had stashed their things. They would be leaving from the fireplace in that room via floo powder.

As they ascended the stairs, Mr. Grangerís words echoed in Harryís head. Take care of my little girl.

ĎYouíve asked the wrong guy,í Harry thought, ĎI canít protect anyone.í

********************

Hermione seemed to cheer up considerably after they reached the Burrow. She was obviously eager to get back to school and start cramming more knowledge into her brain. Harry thought she could probably do with Dumbledoreís pensieve.

"Have you two looked at our new Transfiguration text yet?" she asked as she flipped through it. She was sitting sideways in the window seat of the Weasleyís living room. The window was open and the night had cooled off considerably. A light, pleasant breeze was wafting through the room, rustling her hair.

"When, Hermione?" asked Ron sarcastically from the floor. "Check mate, Harry. Youíre getting loads better, though."

Harry just grunted.

"We just got the books today," Ron said, addressing Hermione again, "and have you seen us look at them yet?"

Hermione ignored his tone. "Were learning advanced cross-species transfiguration this term!" she announced enthusiastically.

"Goody," said Harry.

"I would have thought youíd be more excited, Harry," she admonished. "Itís exactly the kind of stuff your dad and Sirius must have learned to become Animagi."

"Oh, right. Well, Iíll be excited when the time comes, but right now," he said, leaning over to snatch the book out of her hands, "Weíre still on holiday."

"Hey!" she exclaimed as Harry grabbed the book and tossed it aside.She reached over immediately to reclaim it, spluttering angrily.

"Hey, Ron," Harry said, loudly shifting the subject away from schoolwork, "You know there are two openings on the Gryffindor Quidditch team this year. You going to try out?"

"You really should, you know," said Fred, who had just entered the room carrying an enormous sandwich. "You were really good at dodging and catching that quaffle last night. I reckon youíd make a pretty good keeper."

"Really?" asked Ron, beaming.

Fred nodded as he took a bite of his sandwich and a piece of ham stuck to his chin.

"Fredís right," said Harry, "I think youíd be great."

"Well, yeah! Iíll definitely try out!"

"Ron, I donít know," Hermione said, looking tense. "I go out of my mind enough watching Harry fly around like a daredevil; I donít think I could take it if you were up there too."

"Donít worry so much, Hermione," Ron replied, chucking a sofa pillow at her. "Itís bad for your health."

********************

Hermione lay awake on her cot that night, long after the sounds of Ginnyís deep breathing had filled the room. Despite Ronís words, she was worried. Harryís behavior had seemed a little...mixed up that day. On the one hand, he had seemed desperately happy to be back with his friends, as though he never wanted to take another moment for granted. His smile had been the same as always, sweet and soothing, but mischievous all at the same time. His voice had been as elastic as ever, kind and concerned one minute ("Are you okay?"), wondrous the next ("Itís the new Firebolt XL."), then deadly ("Get out of here, Malfoy."), and even playful, ("Weíre still on vacation."). But his eyes . . . his eyes had left Hermione deeply troubled. They made his face look like he had aged ten years in the two months that had passed since the third task of the Triwizard Tournament. Things that no eyes should see in an entire lifetime, his had seen before the age of even fifteen, and it was like a brilliant light behind his green irises had been suddenly and irreversibly switched off. Harryís eyes had used to be like the key to seeing into his soul. His face wasnít usually easy to read. Not at all like Ronís, which endearingly betrayed his every feeling as though someone had written the words across it with magic marker: "Ron is currently feeling rather frustrated and a bit tired," for example. No, Harryís face wasnít that easy - not unless you knew his eyes. But today they had been dull, unchanging, the same emptiness in every moment. Perhaps they were still the key to his soul, even now. Maybe a light had gone out there as well. Hermione shuddered, pulling the blanket tighter around her. She wished Harry and Ron werenít sharing a room right now. She longed to talk to Ron about this, and if he had been alone in his room, she would have snuck off and woken him up, just to hear his reassuring voice of reason. Instead, she tried to imagine what he might say.

ĎHeís been through a lot, Hermione, just give him time,í or ĎHeís growing up, you know, of course heís going to look different,í or even, ĎYouíre imagining things, he looks the same to me,í would have cheered her up.

Hermione sighed and rolled over, trying to think about something else. After a few minutes, her mind defaulted. Ď ...I wonder if Flitwick will be teaching power amplification charms this term...í

********************

In a room two floors up, dull green eyes darted back and forth behind closed eyelids.

Harry was swimming through dark and murky waters, straining his ears to follow the sound of the merpeopleís song. He could barely hear it, and it seemed to be coming at him from all sides. Furiously twisting his head from left to right, he willed his ears to pick up the direction of the sound. Instead, he heard Ďtick-tick, tick-tickí. The ticking was getting louder and louder, drowning out the sound that he was so desperately trying to follow. He tilted his head back to look in the direction of the sky. There, on the underside of the lakeís surface, looking as though they were painted on, were bright red numbers, wavering and shimmering with the movement of the water. 00:04:22, they read.

ĎOnly four more minutes,í Harry thought, frantic, ĎIíve got to move - but which direction?í

Deciding that any direction was better than none, Harry sped straight ahead. The merpeopleís song was getting steadily louder, but so was the ticking. Harry couldnít think, it was so loud. He looked up again. 00:02:07. He fought against every muscle fiber in his body, all were burning with exhaustion, and he swum harder and faster, kicking with his whole legs.

Tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick.

He looked up. 00:00:32.

Oh, God.

Now the merpeopleís song was deafening, though he couldnít see anyone or anything, and he fought the urge to stop stroking with his arms and clap his hands over his ears.

"Past an hour the prospectís black, too late, theyíre gone, they wonít come back."

00:00:07. He could see only blackness. He swum on.

TICK-TICK, TICK-TICK, TICK-TICK.

"Too late, theyíre gone, they wonít come back."

A horrendous sound split through the water, and the ticking and the singing stopped instantaneously. 00:00:00. The buzzer had sounded. It was too late. Noooooo.

Pain suddenly exploded in Harryís head and he sucked in a sharp breath, pulling up his knees and clapping his hands to his scar. And then heard it - the high-pitched laughter coming from just behind him. Pushing away the pain, he straightened and spun around and Voldemort was there, floating in the spot Harry had swum through just seconds before. His laughter got louder and louder, his red eyes gleaming like fireballs, and then he floated aside. Behind him were hundreds of merpeople, the entire village, and in the center, the giant merperson statue. Two people were bound to it with lengths of rope. He could see only the backs of their heads - one brown, and one red. Slowly, they floated around to face him, and Harry let out a horrible, savage, gut-wrenching cry, which emerged from his mouth only as silent bubbles. The bodies of his beloved friends were rotting and mangled, blood oozing from their very skin, which was discolored and hanging off in places and flapping in the water. And their faces - lifeless eyes in sockets too big - staring into his - and on their fleshless foreheads shone two identical, blood-red lightning-bolt shaped scars.

"Harry! HARRY!"

Harry jumped violently, and when he opened his eyes, he realized that he was somehow on his knees, amidst a pile of tangled bed sheets. Ron was gripping him hard by the shoulders, looking terrified in the moonlit semi-darkness. In an instant, Harry realized that there was no lake in Ronís room to prevent his anguished cry from escaping his throat in full force.

"My God, Harry!"

Both boys were breathing in deep, shuddering gasps.

"What on earth were you dreaming?"

Harry tried to speak, but all that came out was an unintelligible string of sounds. He collapsed in Ronís grip, and Ron had to maneuver himself out from under Harryís weight. He knelt on the floor next to Harryís cot, holding his friend up by his shaking shoulders, while Harryís breathing gradually slowed to only rapid.

"You...and...too late..," Harry muttered in a strangled voice.

Harryís head was spinning and he felt as though he might be sick. His face was soaked with sweat and cold tears. He squeezed his eyes shut.

"I think youíre hyperventilating," Ron said anxiously.

"No...no," Harry gasped, "Iím all right."

The door to Ronís room flew open, and both twins burst in.

"What the hell?" one asked.

"We heard...well, we thought someone was in here killing you!" said the other, looking frantic.

"Harry was dreaming," Ron told them quietly.

Harry, still gasping slightly, glanced at them.

"Harry -" one started forward upon seeing his face.

But Harry held up a hand to stop him. "Iím fine," he said, and then again, more firmly, "Iím fine." He took a deep breath. "Did I wake anyone else up?"

The twins shook their heads. "I donít think so," one said.

"Good. Iím sorry...go back to sleep."

They looked at Ron, bewildered. He nodded at them, and they turned and walked out, closing the door behind them.

"Harry...what the -"

But he was shaking his head. "No, Ron. Donít...just go back to sleep."

Realizing that he was still holding his best friend by the shoulders, Ron slowly let go, hesitating to see if Harry would hold himself up. He did.

"Just go back to sleep," he said again, turning away and falling back into bed. He rolled over onto his side, facing the wall.

Ron didnít move for a long moment. Then he slowly got up and crawled back into his own bed.

And neither slept.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

//
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