The Sugar Quill
Author: Ara Kane (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Sounds Like A Breakfast Cereal  Chapter: Chapter Two - Epiphany
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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.

Chapter Two

All Hail the Intellectual Property Gods: (I'll need one of these for every chapter because of all the allusions I keep making!) I only own Hex, Hank and Tiny. JK "New Mama" Rowling owns Hagrid and Madame Maxime, their places of employment, the Leaky Cauldron and the Knight Bus Group of Companies. She also owns Stan the conductor, who deserves our heartiest congratulations on his promotion to the international Knight Bus. (He'll be able to brag about it to the next veela he meets.) Madame Maxime's Hand Sanitizing Spell was derived from the name of a product sold by the Bench Company, the smell of which permeated my last few months at college.

Technical Notes: I had two semesters of French in college and I worked really hard and did well, but that was quite a few years ago so please be kind regarding mistakes ;-) 

Hex's Notes: Many thanks as always to Seldes Katne for helping Ara with her commas (even though she wound up removing one in the interest of ecumenism), and to all those who read and left the most encouraging reviews ever in the history of the Sugar Quill! 

Chapter Two — Epiphany

“It happens that the stage sets collapse.” — Albert Camus, Absurdity and Suicide

Hex didn’t know what time it was when Hank finally got tired of his game and went off to watch some TV. He didn’t know how much more time passed before his foster father’s snores began to rattle the walls of the apartment, before he could finally drag himself to his room.

Hex’s whole body hurt and his face was sticky in some places. There was a salty, metallic blood-taste in his mouth. In the dim light he could see the dark smears on his pillow, the latest chapter to the history told by the faded stains that were already there.

There was a burning, a throbbing over his right eye. Hex felt gently to see if his eyebrow piercing was still there, finding that it was and wincing from the stab of fire that lanced through his brain. Tonight he remembered to protect his head, so he still had all his teeth — a miracle, considering how many times Hank had hit him in the mouth in the past.

Also, he didn’t break any bones this time. Maybe the beatings were finally toughening him up.

A harsh sob escaped the boy, followed immediately by a gasp of pain from the effort it took to cry and try not to cry at the same time. He wasn’t sure he wanted to find out how long before he’d stop feeling any pain. Maybe you had to be dead first.

Hex wished he could get out of this place. But where could he go?

He heard a soft crackling sound when he tried to move his head. Hex frowned as much as he could without hurting himself, then reached under his pillow. There was a yellow envelope in his hand when he withdrew it.

* * *

The next day Hex felt dead inside. He lay in bed, thinking about how much he wanted to get out of here. He hoped he could.

It was already really bright outside. Hex guessed it was already noon or even later than that, but it hurt to move, much less get up and call in sick. He wasn’t worried about that, though. Tiny would understand why he didn’t show up at work today.

He could hear his foster father moving around outside. What was he doing home? Hex wondered, then remembered he’d gotten fired…He pulled the blanket over his head and went back to sleep, wishing he would never see Hank again.

* * *

It was evening when Hex woke up again and could get out of bed. It still hurt to move, but not as much as it did before.

Hank was out. The check from Social Services had probably come and he had gone to spend it. Hex walked slowly to the bathroom and washed his face, ignoring the sting from the soap and cold water.

His letters were still scattered on the floor. He swept them aside with his foot on the way to the refrigerator, which gave him nothing but a single slimy slice of bologna for dinner. Tomorrow, Hex promised himself, he was buying two Egg McMuffins.

He jumped when the lock turned and Hank stalked into the apartment. "About time you got up," his foster father said shortly. "Didn’t go to work today, did you?"

"No," Hex replied coldly. His grip tightened on the week-old newspaper beside him.

"You should have." Hank tossed his jacket on a nearby chair. "I’m not paying for that busted car window."

"I didn’t break it."

"Like hell you didn’t. If you don’t pay, I get sued."

"Tough." Hex had no idea why he was trying to provoke his foster father. Maybe his brains were still scrambled from last night.

"Dammit!" Hank growled, unbuckling his belt. "Do I have to teach you another lesson?"

"I think I’ve learned enough from you." All kinds of thoughts were running through Hex’s head when his foster father grabbed him by a handful of his T-shirt. Foremost in the jumble in his brain was the thought of just getting out of here.

Hex whacked his stepfather with the newspaper, which of course didn’t do anything but make Hank angrier. The belt buckle hit him, sending fresh explosions through his still-sore body, but Hex managed to land a few punches of his own to his foster father’s greasy, rubbery face.

He was getting out of here. Why was he so sure? Was that the kind of feeling you got when you knew you were going to die?

The boy poked Hank in the eye with the rolled-up newspaper and his foster father, bellowing in exaggerated pain, wrapped his belt around Hex’s neck and squeezed.

His body hurt and he couldn’t breathe, but all he could think about was getting out of here.

There was a loud BAM and they both froze. There was another and Hank glared furiously at Hex. "You called the cops, didn’t you?" he hissed, and began to squeeze again.

The loudest BAM of all echoed throughout the apartment. There was a sound of splintering wood and a feminine gasp of horror.

"Let ‘im go, yeh stupid great oaf!" a man roared right after, and the next thing Hex knew he could breathe again.

When the spots had cleared from his eyes, he saw the biggest people he had ever seen standing inside the apartment. A very tall, very big woman stood just inside what was left of the door, an appalled expression on her face, and an even larger man had a terrified Hank dangling by the seat of his pants a few feet off the ground. "Try pickin’ on someone yer own size," he growled, giving Hank a hard shake after every word. When all his foster father could do was whimper in terror, the man tossed him aside impatiently.

Hex watched Hank scramble away and out through the pulverized front door, then found himself looking into kindly beetle-black eyes set deep into a hairy face. "Yeh all righ’, son?" the man asked gently.

He nodded dumbly and unwound the belt from around his neck, staring in disbelief at the huge man.

His enormous hand could have easily crushed Hex’s whole head, but it was gentle as it turned the boy’s face this way and that, inspecting the damage. "Looks like we got here jus’ in time, Olympe."

The woman called Olympe strode over to have a look. "Pauvre chér." She opened an enormous handbag and, after rummaging for a while, took out a blue-glass bottle. She dabbed its contents on a bedsheet-sized handkerchief and set about attending to his face.

At first, Hex jerked away (she pressed a tender spot a bit too hard), but learned to stay still when a delicious, healing coolness spread from where the medicated handkerchief touched him. "Wh-who are you?" he finally asked.

"The lady is Madame Olympe Maxime, Headmistress o’ Beauxbatons Academy in France," the man replied, lifting him easily to his feet. "And I’m Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper o’ the Keys at Hogwarts." He grinned affably. "But yeh can jus’ call me Hagrid."

Hogwarts? "Hogwarts is real?" Hex demanded, hope beginning to burn again inside him.

"’Course it’s real!" Hagrid waved his enormous hand at the letters beside the refrigerator. "Yeh got yer letters, didn’t yeh?"

His blue eyes went saucer-wide. His face didn’t hurt as much as it had a while ago. "I-I thought they were just a joke…"

"They’re no joke, son!"

"Oui," Madame Maxime put in, smiling at the hopeful expression on Hex’s face. "’Eadmaster Dumbly-dorr zent us ‘ere to fetch you."

"He figgered yeh didn’t know how ter get ter Hogwarts," Hagrid explained. "Great man, Dumbledore, always thinks of everythin’…" A twinkle came into his eye. "’Course he told me ter ask if yeh wanted ter come…thought maybe yeh wanted ter stay here…"

"No way, man!" Hex shook his head vehemently and the huge man chuckled. "If it’s real, I’m going with you!" He stopped short as a new worry assailed him. "But, uh, I don’t think I can afford to go to Hogwarts…and I don’t know a single thing about magic."

"Don’ worry abou’ the money, son," the huge man told him firmly. "Didn’ I jus’ tell yeh Dumbledore thinks of everythin’? An’ don’ worry about bein’ behind…I bet yeh’ll catch up fast enough."

Hex grinned, ignoring the slight pain that still lingered, so happy he could just bust. "Wait ‘til Tiny hears this! When do we leave?"

* * *

"Tiny! Tiny!" Hex called as he burst through the door of the repair shop.

"Back here, boy," his boss replied, emerging from the stock room, scratching his big belly. "You’re on time today."

Tiny’s wry observation was lost on the boy. "Hey, Tiny, you know all those weird letters I’ve been getting?"

Tiny frowned. "That’s a nasty cut," he observed. The stuff Madame Maxime put on Hex obviously hadn’t cured everything. "‘Your old man been beating—"

"They’re real." Hex laughed. "Can you believe it?"

"Are you all right, Chris?"

"I’m fine. The letters are real!" the boy repeated. "Hogwarts is real. I’m going to a new school!"

"What?"

"Chreestophair?" came Madame Maxime’s voice.

She and Hagrid appeared in the doorway. "Yeh done in there ye’, son?" Hagrid asked.

Tiny goggled at the huge new arrivals. "Who are they?"

"That’s Madame Maxime," Hex told him, "and that’s Hagrid. They’re taking me to Hogwarts."

"You mean Hogwarts is real?"

"’Course it’s real," Hagrid said, exasperated. "You Muggles are too suspicious."

"Us what?"

"Muggles. Unmagical people," the huge man explained briefly. He reached in through the doorway to shake Tiny’s hand. "Rubeus Hagrid."

"Tiny Thompson," the shop owner replied, dazed at the appearance of a man even larger than he was. He nodded politely to Madame Maxime, and then turned back to Hagrid. "Are you really taking Chris to this Hogwarts?"

"Yep. Best school fer witchcraft and wizardry in the world."

"One of ze best," Madame Maxime corrected with a regal smile.

"One o’ the best," Hagrid repeated, then turned back to Tiny. "The boy said he wanted ter say goodbye ter yeh firs’."

"We’re leaving in a while," Hex explained.

"How will you get there?" Tiny wanted to know.

"Don’ yeh worry," Hagrid said before Hex could start stammering for an answer. "He’ll get there. An’ he’ll be jus’ fine."

"’E will be undair adult zoopairvision at all times," Madame Maxime promised.

Tiny still looked unconvinced. "I’ve never heard of this Hogwarts," he said finally, "but I think going away to school would be the best thing for Chris right now." He shot Hex a narrow stare. "Someone gave you a chance, boy. Better not let them down."

"He’ll stay in line," Hagrid assured him.

"Good."

"I’ll write you," Hex said to his boss.

Tiny nodded curtly. "Do that." Finally, he gave the boy a brief hug. "You take care of yourself. Maybe you can come stay with me in the summer."

* * *

"Where is Hogwarts, anyway?" Hex asked as he followed the two enormous adults down a deserted alley. Slung on his back was a bulging, battered knapsack that held all his possessions.

"Eet ees een Eengland," Madame Maxime told him.

"England?!" Hex yelped. "Are you nuts? How’d you get here from there? How do we get there from here?"

"Yeh’ll find out." Hagrid stopped in the middle of the alley and stuck out the flowery pink umbrella he was carrying, waving it around a bit.

The boy looked confused. "Uh, Hagrid, if you want a cab, you have to be standing on the str—whoa!!!"

There was a loud BANG and a gigantic purple bus materialized right in front of them. On the side, in swirling gold letters, were the words The Knight Bus: International Edition.

The door slid open and a gangling young man with bad skin, wearing some kind of uniform, appeared. "Welcome to the International Edition Knight Bus, servicing witches and wizards stranded abroad—"

"Hello, Stan," Hagrid said. "Can we come in now?"

"’Course you can," the guy named Stan said, crestfallen because he couldn’t deliver his little speech. He goggled at Madame Maxime and murmured a greeting when she got on the bus, then looked curiously at Hex when it was his turn to board. "New ‘Ogwarts student?"

"Yep," Hagrid replied. "Dumbledore sent me ter fetch him."

"’E looks kind of old to be new," Stan said dubiously as the huge man gave him some silver coins.

"He’s enterin’ as a fifth year."

"I guess that explains it, then." The young man guided them down the center aisle of the bus. On either side of them, instead of the usual rows of seats, were beds. Their occupants snored peacefully as they passed by. "’E must be real important for Dumbledore to send you to get ‘im."

"Dumbledore wanted us ter make sure he knew how ter get ter Hogwarts," Hagrid said lightly.

"I ‘eard the only other student Dumbledore sent you to fetch was ‘Arry Potter," Stan persisted. At Hagrid’s dark look, he paled and changed the subject. "All right, then," he said as they stopped at three beds near the back of the bus. "’Ere you are. Enjoy your trip. If you need anything, I’ll be in front with the driver."

"Thanks."

Stan made his way back down the aisle and Madame Maxime picked the bed nearest the front. She shook out the pillow and blankets before sitting down. "Mon Dieu, I am trés fatiguée," she said, sighing when she finally did sit. "My feet, zey are keeleeng me!"

Hex eyed the boat-sized high heels she was removing and was not surprised.

Hagrid took the bed nearest the back. "Yeh better get in bed, too, son," he told Hex, gesturing toward the bed between his and Madame Maxime’s.

"But I’m not—" Presently there was another loud BANG and Hex was thrown backward, almost falling onto Hagrid, as the bus began to move at a breakneck speed. He scrambled into his bed and sat up against the pillow, looking out the window as they left Brooklyn behind.

"Yeh better get some sleep," Hagrid advised sleepily, bundling himself into his blankets. "It’s a long way ter England."

"Yes, I know," Hex replied as someone — he wasn’t sure whether it was Hagrid or Madame Maxime — began to snore.

* * *

"Chreestophair?" a female voice asked.

"Wake up, son," a rough voice said in the darkness.

Hex jolted awake as he felt someone prodding his shoulder. However, the face looking down at him didn’t belong to his foster father, but to Hagrid. "We’re here," the huge man announced brightly.

"At the airport?" the boy asked, stretching sleepily.

"Non, non, mon chér," Madame Maxime laughed. "Een London."

"London?!" Hex sat up in bed and looked around wildly. "The bus took us all the way to London?!"

"’Course it did," Hagrid said. "That’s what we paid for."

Something tells me I’m not in Kansas anymore, Hex thought as he hauled up his knapsack and followed the two enormous adults out of the bus and onto the street. For a while it looked like they were standing in the middle of any city in the world, until a large red double-decker bus drove by. It was on the wrong side of the road.

"Whoa," he whispered. He was really in London. It was hard to comprehend the idea that a bus had taken them there, but he was sure he could get used to it. The Knight Bus was easier and definitely much quicker than traveling by plane, and he didn’t have to worry about plane crashes and stuff like that. That last one was a tremendous relief, especially since he was traveling with Hagrid and Madame Maxime.

"Come on, son," Hagrid said, ignoring the loud BANG and disappearance of the Knight Bus, "let’s go into the Leaky Cauldron."

* * *

From the outside, the Leaky Cauldron seemed to be little more than a hole in the wall, but it was much bigger inside, and crowded with people wearing robes, cloaks and pointy hats the way witches and wizards did in storybooks.

Hagrid went up to the bar. "Some dinner, Tom," he told the wizened, balding man behind the counter, "an’ the boy will be takin’ a room fer the night."

"I told you I don’t have any money," Hex said. Tiny had slipped him fifty dollars before he left, but the boy had no idea what that could buy, let alone where to change it into the kind of money Hagrid had used to pay for the bus fare.

Madame Maxime shushed him, while Hagrid ignored him. "Hogwarts will take care of it," the huge man said to Tom.

Tom nodded. "This way, then."

They were led to a table in a small, private dining area. Hex’s stomach growled loudly when bowls of soup and a platter of sandwiches were brought in. He hadn’t eaten anything for the entire day.

Hagrid motioned for him to dig in, but Madame Maxime held up a hand before the boy could reach for anything. Hex wisely froze before she could rap (and perhaps break) his knuckles. "Tut, tut, tut! Not zo fast!"

The large woman drew her wand from her huge handbag. "Alcogelius!" A milky cloud smelling strongly of antiseptic issued from the wand tip and Madame Maxime bade Hex to pass his hands through it. "You must always clean your ‘ands before you eat!" she reminded him as she passed her own hands through the cloud.

Hex grinned sheepishly. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Hagrid conjure up his own cloud and clean his own huge hands. "Right. Sorry."

"Alors, you may proceed."

In between bites of sandwich and spoonfuls of soup, Hagrid and Madame Maxime filled him in on the wizarding world. Hagrid also told Hex that he would be shopping for school supplies the next day, but that someone else would be on hand to help him do it. "Me’n Olympe have ter rush off ternight," he explained. "Got other business ter do fer Dumbledore."

"Where will you go?" Hex asked as a slight panic seized him. He was sort of used to fending for himself, but he was now being dropped into a very strange, very different new situation, and he definitely didn’t know enough to get by.

"Zat is zumsing you do not ‘ave to worry about," Madame Maxime replied, patting his hand reassuringly. "And worry not, mon chér, zumone will come to ‘elp you."

"Yeah," Hagrid agreed. "Dumbledore won’ leave yeh alone. He really wants yeh ter come ter Hogwarts."

//
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