The Sugar Quill
Author: Aragog (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Harry Potter and the Staff of Serpents  Chapter: Chapter 1: Maladjusting At The Dursleys
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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.

6   Welcome to yet another entry in the endless stream of HP themes and variations on SQ. Although I would like it if 250 million people were to buy and read my story, in the end I am, like many of you, merely borrowing J.K. Rowling's world. Whatever she writes next is certain to blow up everything you read here, and the only remuneration I can hope to get from this project is the satisfaction of a job well done. And perhaps a handful of favorable reviews. ;-)





Chapter One
Maladjusting At The Dursleys



It was a stifling day in Little Whinging, Surrey near the end of July. The late afternoon was languidly drifting along into early evening, much in the same manner as a gangly teenager approaching his 16th birthday was languidly strolling to the end of Cudsworth Lane, one of the village's few tree-lined streets. He was keeping mostly to the shade, a sensible precaution under the circumstances, but was otherwise occupied with his unofficial summer project: coming to grips with everything that had happened to him in the weeks preceeding his return to his aunt and uncle's house on 4 Privet Drive. Suspicious observers --of which there were more than a few, for the rumor was still going around he was a ward of St. Brutus' Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys-- were ready to accept the tousled black hair, cheap round glasses, and comically oversized clothing as unmistakable signs of deviance. Careful observers --of which there were very few-- wondered why this lad's sinister green eyes looked so haunted.

The object of their scrutiny was unbeknownst to them a wizard, and a right famous one at that despite his ungainly appearance. Harry Potter, the boy who lived uneasily among Muggles one month out of twelve when he wasn't attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, certainly had to admit this summer was considerably different from last summer. True, he was currently stuck with his awful relatives the Dursleys, and true, he was for the most part cut off from events in the wizarding world, but now he understood the necessity of both even if he wasn't necessarily happy about it. Fifteen years ago Albus Dumbledore, his headmaster, mentor, protector, and, he had to acknowledge, friend, had invoked an ancient form of blood magic to shield him from dark wizards while he was growing up and unable to defend himself from them. It was a powerful spell whose only drawback in Harry's eyes, and for that matter the Dursley's too, was that he had to renew it by spending a period of time in the company of Aunt Petunia, his mother's magic-loathing sister, as well as his Uncle Vernon and cousin Dudley. The latter two weren't essential to the perpetuation of the spell, but he couldn't have the one without the other two. Not that any one of them alone was much more tolerable than all of them together.

In the same way Harry understood why no one was filing him in on much while he was thus confined. The return of Voldemort and the outbreak of war made sending informative letters via owl post too risky. Especially letters to him or from him. He had to be content with gleaning what he could from The Daily Prophet, the official wizard newspaper, and The Quibbler, a tabloid that got right to the heart of unspoken truths... if you were hopelessly credulous. If you weren't, it was good for a laugh most of the time. Harry wouldn't have even bothered with The Quibbler if it hadn't done him a huge favor months ago, if it wasn't owned by the father of his friend Luna Lovegood, and if The Daily Prophet hadn't done so much to earn his mistrust acting as a propaganda arm for Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge. Between the two publications he got the sense very little had been done to defeat Voldemort.

In fact, reading between the lines of Ministry bombast about all the malefactors brought in by their Aurors he had every reason to suspect things were not going well at all. A few days ago both papers had prominently reported the escape of several notorious Death Eaters from Azkaban prison, all of whom Harry recognized as combatants captured in the battle at the Department of Mysteries. "Great," he thought, "Lucius Malfoy is back out in the world again with Bellatrix Lestrange and Voldemort." Lestrange and Malfoy together or separately were almost as bad as Voldemort. In subsequent editions the story had followed a strange trajectory in which it disappeared and then reappeared, which suggested the Ministry's ability to keep embarrassing news out of the press was not as strong as it had been. Whether that was because The Prophet wanted to regain some lost credibility by distancing itself from Fudge, or Fudge's grip on the Ministry was slipping, Harry couldn't tell. He'd have to remember to ask Mr. Weasley about it. At least Fudge had publicly acknowledged Voldemort's return, and The Prophet wasn't taking jokey little swipes at Harry implying he'd gone around the bend. The paper wasn't saying much of anything at all about him come to think of it, a small mercy for which he was grateful.

Then there was the Muggle TV news. Harry had tacit permission from the Dursleys to watch with them as long as he stood quietly in a corner of the living room out of their sight. While this wasn't much fun, it occasionally did pay off with new information. An item yesterday, for instance, as much as told him dementors were running loose. The report concerned a younger man in prime mental and physical health who for no explicable reason had mysteriously fallen into a catatonic trance. His eyes were open and he could move, but it was as if there wasn't anyone in his body anymore. Harry groaned involuntarily when he saw it, to the mute irritation of his aunt and uncle. Nevertheless, the importance of the war situation must have sunk in with them somehow or other, because during the commercial break Uncle Vernon grunted "Well, out with it. What was that about?"

"The condition that man is in is very similar to what happens to someone after they've been kissed by a dementor," Harry replied tonelessly.

A moment of uncomfortable silence had followed that revelation.

"The things that tried to attack Dudley last year," Vernon finally offered in his worst approximation of a noncommital voice. He was trembling slightly.

"The things that attacked ME last year, Dudley just happened to be in the way," Harry thought but chose not to say.

"Yes," said Harry.

So Harry wasn't quite as bothered as he might have been about staying at Privet Drive this summer. No, there were more pressing matters on his mind. One of them was still Voldemort's mind. That curious connection they had, the one enabling Harry to experience the Dark Lord's emotions, was not getting any weaker. On the contrary. Despite what appeared to be Voldemort's shaky efforts to Occluman himself from Harry, he could count on at least one intrusion of some kind every day now. Often as not what these conveyed were feelings of rage and frustration that there was only so much he could do to stop Harry from sensing him at any given moment. Dreams in which the Dark Lord coldly berated his minions were semi-frequent occurrences as well. He was particularly incensed they hadn't brought him the prophesy. To Harry that was very encouraging; it meant Voldemort didn't know he'd seen Dumbledore's copy, or possibly even that a copy existed.

But their connection could be frustrating for Harry as well. In recent days Voldemort had been deliriously, insanely happy, and nothing good could come from that. As best Harry could tell, the Dark Lord had deciphered something important, something he thought could give him an advantage. There were also... less savory things concerning ulterior motives toward Bellatrix Lestrange.

In a way Harry was better informed than anyone, even the senior most members of the Order of the Phoenix. Although he had yet to gain any specific piece of strategically important information --on three occasions Voldemort had written down instructions for his inner circle with his gaze carefully averted from his parchment, thus preventing Harry from learning anything important-- chances were it would deliver at some point.

What remained unresolved was whether he should continue to learn Occlumancy himself. There was no pressing need; he knew now that Voldemort could not bear to possess him for long. More important, Voldemort knew it too. And yet Harry suspected there could be benefits to getting a handle on the subject. The Dark Lord might still attempt a Legilimency attack, or even try to possess him just long enough to make him perform some sort of harmful act at a critical moment. The one time he'd experienced possession by Voldemort in the lobby at the Ministry of Magic convinced Harry he didn't want it to happen again.

Although there didn't seem to be much he could do on his own, a week after his return to Privet Drive he'd given Mrs Figg a note to pass along to Dumbledore asking what he could do to continue "his remedial Potions studies." Days later Mundungus Fletcher, his cloak lumpy with merchandise of questionable origins, had dragged Harry into a hollyhock bush to hand him a letter and a small book. The letter said "if you will study this, arrangements are being made for your lessons to continue in August."

At first glance the book appeared to be Secrets of the Seekers: Strategies and Techniques Used by the Best to Catch the Snitch First by Balcolm Munch, but when Harry opened the cover a funny thing happened: the air around the tome shimmered, and then he was holding The Art Of Occlumancy: How to Clear Your Mind And Conceal Those Deepest Secrets Of Your Soul Which Others Would Try To Discover Through Fair Means or Foul by Opliss Opacitera. It was a wonder the title fit in one place. Harry worked out pretty quickly Dumbledore must have put a charm on the real book that could only be broken by the intended recipient.

When Voldemort wasn't directly bothering him his thoughts invariably turned to Sirius. And the Prophesy. And the battle at the Department of Mysteries. The three chased each other around and around in his head like fighting cats.

My parents and my godfather are gone... My parents died protecting me from Voldemort... My godfather died protecting me from Voldemort's Death Eaters... He fell through the veil... There were whispers coming from behind the veil...and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not... How am I supposed to vanquish the Dark Lord?... Sirius died a fugitive... died with everyone thinking he betrayed his friends... died with everyone thinking he was a Dark Wizard... died without anyone knowing he did everything he could to save me... Everyone is dying so that I can live to kill Voldemort... Voldemort possessed me... Voldemort couldn't possess me because... I welcomed death to see Sirius again... If only I'd unwrapped the mirror and read the instructions, I could have contacted Sirius safely... I'd have known the dream that brought me to the Department of Mysteries was a deception...."

And so on and so on and so on. Sometimes he merely felt heartsick. Other times he was as wound up as he had been the last time he was in Dumbledore's office: he wanted to explode with howls, roar curses at the skies for the unfairness of it all, break things, even let out retching, wracking sobs of agony. And then he would want to just make it all end somehow. But he didn't and he couldn't, at least not yet.

Often as not the downward spiral these obsessions brought on would be interrupted if he started thinking about the people who'd been with him at the Department of Mysteries --such as Ron and Hermione. They'd been apart only a few weeks and already he missed them. There wasn't a single significant thing they hadn't been through together... and she'd correctly sensed something was amiss when he thought Sirius was being tortured. They were being set up... Neville Longbottom... in his own way he'd suffered as much as Harry ever had: not orphaned, but his parents didn't even know him. Not stuck with Dursleys, but raised by a relative who thought him inferior. Held in either pity or contempt by many of his peers... and yet even when his nose was broken and he couldn't cast a spell, he'd refused to stay behind with the others and let Harry face the Death Eaters alone... Luna Lovegood... whatever the Sorting Hat thought, underneath all that bizarre stuff in her head she had the heart of a lion... Ginny... he felt a little guilty about her. For so many years he'd barely noticed the youngest Weasley, and then suddenly it was as if she'd sprung up whole out of the ground... she'd saved Gryffindor in Quidditch when Umbridge wouldn't let him play, and she'd brought back down to earth a couple times when his emotions were getting out of hand, and she'd come up with "Dumbledore's Army" as the unofficial name for their secret defense class, and she'd insisted on covering his back during their rescue mission even after he'd made it plain he didn't want her to come along... Come to think of it, except for Ron and Hermione he'd underestimated the lot of them....

Once out of the maelstrom he could devote attention to slightly more mundane affairs or even detach a little and consider his situation as though standing outside himself. Such as his O.W.L. results. They hadn't come in yet, and he wondered if he'd done well enough to continue on with the classes he needed to become an Auror. Or Cho, she popped up once or twice. It was strange to realize how wanting her had been better than having her. Or the rueful observation he'd been beating around that he'd been livid about not knowing what was going on, and now he did know, and it didn't make anything easier. As much as he preferred knowing, he would be well advised to be careful what he wished for....

Sometimes, like right now, nothing more than tepid numbness would come over him, and he'd walk along tuning out everything but the squares of pavement on the path ahead. What a busy three and a half weeks it had been for a young man who did nothing more than eat, sleep, wander about town, and occasionally study.

A look at his watch told him it was time to start heading to the Dursleys. He would have dinner, watch the news, then perhaps write some letters or read his Occlumancy manual or look at the scrapbook photos of his mother and father and... Sirius.

Cudsworth Lane came to an end at Hotchkiss Parkway in a sort of T-shaped intersection. If he went straight up the road it would take him to Terpischore Terrace, which would wind its way to Magnolia Crescent, which would lead him to Privet Drive. Alternatively, he could cut across the commons to Bindlesap Boulevard, take a jaunt through Wattleway Park, sneak onto the grounds of a private manor that abutted Fernwood Road, which had an alley shooting off at a diagonal that came to a dead end at a wooden fence with a loose board. On the other side of this fence was Sycamore Crossing, which ran parallel to Privet Drive for a little way before hooking into it.

Harry decided that he preferred the less direct route today and turned north toward the commons, where he saw something that stopped him. Running all out in his direction was an 11 year-old boy he recognized as Mark Evans, and hard on his heels was Dudley's gang of bullies. Harry ducked to his left behind a tree to watch. It was a perfect spot. The trunk was wide enough to conceal him, yet forked apart at about neck height so he could look between the branches with an unobstructed view. If the boy got away --and there seemed to be a chance of it, because Evans was almost unnaturally quick-- Harry might or might not do anything, but if they did catch him....

Piers Polkiss got up enough speed on his bicycle to pull alongside and dragged Mark down by the neck, settling the issue. The others caught up and soon gripped the still struggling boy by his arms and legs. Dudley was leaning over, hands on knees, fully winded, but clearly intent on giving his fists a workout too. When he straightened up Harry stepped out of his hiding place and began stalking toward the group.

Dudley, whose girth still would have won him first prize at a farm show if he'd entered one walking on all fours, didn't see Harry at first. He was too busy grunting and squealing at his intended victim. The other three stooges holding Evans had their backs turned. It was time to find out if Diddle Dudykins would go through with it when the cousin he feared was standing right there in front of his cronies. Harry was about to call out but instead pulled up short 15 paces away when Dudley finally made eye contact.

The pride of the Smeltings boxing club stuttered for half a second, and struggled to keep the leer on his face before continuing his line of verbal abuse. Meanwhile Harry was casually reaching into his back pocket for his wand, an act which ended Dudley's tough guy talk with a choked-off cough. Harry twiddled it idly between the fingers of his right hand and scratched behind his ear with his left, waiting for "Big D" to get back on track. It took a moment, but when intelligible and passably hostile English escaped his mouth Harry gave the wand a vigorous thrust-flick-and-flourish that sent out an impressive shower of red and gold sparks. "Let's see if Mafalda Hopkirk gets her knickers in a twist about that one" he thought with satisfaction; he hadn't performed an actual spell after all. Dudley however must have believed something more was coming because his lips were quivering, a facial tick which ruined the effect of his leer.

"So you better watch yourself or you're really gonna get it!" he offered at last with a squeaking bellow, then put his meaty hand on Evans' face and pushed him to the ground.

"Come on guys, I forgot I wanted to buy another pack of cigarettes." Dudley turned and walked back the way he'd come, expecting them to follow. They didn't right away. They were still staring dumbfounded and bewildered at the boy on the ground. What with all the effort they put into catching him it seemed he should have at least picked up several bruises if not some broken bones. Eventually they did look away with some disappointment, and that was when they caught sight of Harry. He was still standing at the same distance, now with his arms folded and wearing a very thin smile. "Well, this is what you wanted wasn't it?" he thought to himself, watching Polkiss, Gordon, and Malcolm watch him. Years ago Harry would have been running away from these boys as frantically as little Mark Evans did today.

No doubt that had something to do with their dull, gaping expressions. They were trying to figure out if it really was him, and if it was him why he just stood there smirking at them. Harry could almost see the big knobby gears grinding painfully inside their skulls. In a way it was cruel to make their brains function like that for so long. Flashing a rude gesture at them could reasonably be considered an act of kindness because then they'd know exactly what to do....

"Guys, I said I was going for cigarettes. Are you coming or not?" said Dudley, pretending Harry wasn't there. The intervention of their leader seemed to resolve their dilemma, for their faces cleared and they turned around to join him. Harry waited until they were a ways off, then went up to Evans, who was still sitting on the ground stunned by his good fortune at having escaped injury after all.

"Are you OK?" asked Harry.

The boy turned around, recognized who was inquiring after his health, and nearly jumped out of his socks.

"Y-y-y-you're P-Potter!"

"Yes, I am," replied Harry, feeling a little despondent that Evans seemed to fear him as much as Dudley.

"Y-y-you g-go to th-that school f-f-f-for criminals!?"

Harry crouched down on his haunches so that they could see eye to eye.

"Listen mate, don't believe everything you hear about me, OK?" He stood up, started to walk away, then stopped again. "Oh, and sorry about my cousin Dudley. He's a real git, but I suppose you already knew that."

Harry began his long trek to the Dursleys and thought no more about Evans, who starred at his receding back, thunderstruck.

~~*~~

Back up in his room, Harry made a mental list of letters he needed to write. First and foremost, but only because he'd been putting it off so long, was a letter to Fred and George. Two weeks ago they'd sent him a new Wheeze to try that resembled nothing more unusual than Drooble's Blowing Gum. An embroidered card tied to the package with a little silver cord read:

Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes Presents:

Bodacious Burgeoning Big Ball Bubble Blasters!

In spite of their profuse assurances that it would not turn him into a canary or a mouse or a newt Harry was understandably reluctant to put any of it in his mouth. Finally after much drumming of fingers and fidgeting with the wrapper he made a face, mustered up the courage to insert a stick... and was delighted with the results. The range of things he could do with the twins' creation far surpassed Droobles. If anything the name was a slight misnomer. He could produce everything from teeny tiny spheres that looked like violet ocean foam when they clustered together to some real monster-sized purple bladders, and until the magic ran out it didn't matter how many he blew, because the original piece didn't seem to get any smaller.

The most amazing thing, though, was that they floated, and if he concentrated he could direct them to a specific target. Harry had amused himself for part of an evening making bubbles fly around his room and burst with a satisfying Pop! when they hit something. The only problem, apart from cleaning up the mess it left without using magic, was that after chewing the first piece he'd lost track of the rest. Maybe the twins charmed it to turn invisible for some reason.

But whether they had or not, Harry felt he had an obligation to them, so he pulled out a piece of parchment and got started.

Dear Gred and Forge

I apologize for taking so long to get to this. The Bubble Blaster gum was GREAT! You have a winner on your hands with that one, I'm sure of it. Umbridge (well, maybe not Umbridge, but definitely Filch) would have gone batty if you'd come up with it at school. Speaking of which, Peeves went beyond the call of duty to follow your instructions. He was beating her on the head with McGonagall's walking stick when she tried to sneak away from the castle at the end of term. But back to your product. Like I said, I thought it was brilliant, but did you do something to make it disappear? I barely had any and now the package is gone. It isn't under my desk, under my bed, in my bureau, or in my trunk. If you haven't charmed it I suppose it must be somewhere in my room I haven't looked yet. Well anyway, keep up the good work, and I hope I get a chance to visit your shop before the summer ends.

Your friend and principal investor,

Harry


That done, he turned to the other piece of correspondence that absolutely had to get out. Moody and Lupin had instructed him to send The Order regular updates about how his relatives were treating him, and Harry had willingly complied; the threat of being visited by fully qualified adult wizards was forcing the Durselys to behave with something almost resembling decency for once, even if it did seem to give them gas pains.

Not that Uncle Vernon wasn't above trying to needle him. At dinner the other night he'd gruffly asked, "So, have you written those fre-- friends of yours?"

"Mad-Eye Moody? Yeah, sent him a letter yesterday," said Harry.

"Mad-Eye!? Hrmph! What kind of name is that? Sounds like some nutter," said Uncle Vernon.

"Well, his real name is Alastor Moody," said Harry.

"He still sounds like a nutter," said Uncle Vernon.

"You talked to him you know. He was wearing a bowler hat," said Harry.

Then Harry decided to volunteer a little extra information.

"He used to capture dark wizards (Dursley's eyes bulged at the word) for the Ministry of Magic" (Dursley's face purpled).

"Fellow 's a bit bunged up isn't he? And didn't he have a wooden leg? Can't imagine he was very good at his job if he got hit that many times," said Uncle Vernon, rallying in spite of his discomfort.

"You should have seen what he did to the guys he caught," said Harry.

Vernon Dursley didn't have an answer for that.

Ordinarily the task didn't require much time or attention. He simply scrawled "everything is as good as could be expected" or some variant thereof and had done with it. Harry now realized his choice of words may have been a little careless, because Moody sent a note back asking him to explain what "good as could be expected" meant. Something slapdash wouldn't do this time. He needed to compose a thought out response conveying that the Dursley's were as unpleasant as ever while at the same time making it clear they were doing their best to avoid anything that would really provoke him.

Dear Professor Moody

I get the idea you think maybe there is more going on here than I'm letting on. Well there is, kind of. First let me say all the big things that matter are fine. I eat as much as I want. I'm not asked to do more than one or two chores a day. I get to sleep in if I want. These are huge improvements compared to what I've put up with other summers, not to mention every year I lived here before Hogwarts. The Dursleys have even persuaded Aunt Marge to delay a family visit until the middle of August when they're pretty sure I'm going to be somewhere else. I'd call you in immediately if SHE was showing up, and they know it.

The thing is, their hatred of me hasn't gone away. I didn't really expect it to. They've just found other ways of showing it. At breakfast for example if I ask Uncle Vernon to please pass the butter, he doesn't pick it up and hand it to me, he pushes it an inch or two in my direction so that I still have to reach for it. Or Aunt Petunia will decide to vacuum the upstairs or clean the attic when I'm trying to study. (A vacuum is a machine powered by electricity that is supposed to suck dirt out of a carpet and is very noisy about it. Mr. Weasley could probably tell you more than you want to know about them). If I'm given a chore to trim the shrubbery or sweep the kitchen, I'll find the clippers disassembled or the broom missing from its usual spot.

I've almost told you these things before, but this is really petty stuff isn't it? What with everything else keeping your hands full right now it didn't seem like I should be bothering you to come rushing over whenever Dudley takes his sweet time in the bathroom and uses up all the hot water. The Dursley are, and I'll bet always will be, gits. The way they're behaving now is the best anybody can expect from them. I can put up with it for another week or however much longer I have to stay here.

Hope everything is well where you are.

Sincerely,

Harry


For the most part this was an honest letter. Harry had left out just one thing: he wanted his trousers back. His own trousers, a pair of denim jeans he bought with his own money that were comfortable and fit him perfectly. The problem was, he'd splashed mud all over them running for cover during a thunderstorm, and now Aunt Petunia insisted they had to be washed first before he could wear them again. Then she kept neglecting to put them in when she did laundry, and wouldn't let Harry wash them himself. Which meant he was as usual stuck with Dudley's voluminous, clown-worthy, make-a-good-den-for-a-badger-if-you-held-them-open bloomers. It was really annoying him, but as with the other slights it wasn't something he could quite justify complaining about to The Order

*

Having attended to his most pressing obligations, Harry had a choice between practicing Occlumancy exercises from his book, writing to Ron and Hermione, or looking at the scrapbook Hagrid had given him at the end of first year. The latter of the three was the one he longed for most, and also the one he knew he most needed to resist; the page with the photo of Sirius with his father and mother on their wedding day might as well have been the Mirror of Erised.

Reluctantly, he pushed the book aside and took out some parchment. This evening would be devoted to letters. Besides, there was something he needed to settle for himself: should he tell his two best friends the prophesy or not? They had earned the right after all; while their foray into the Department of Mysteries may have started as an attempt to rescue Sirius, it had ended as a battle to keep the prophesy egg from Voldemort. More important than rescuing Sirius, they wouldn't want him to face his destiny alone, and wouldn't let him whatever he said to warn them off. On the other hand, the more people who knew the prophesy, the greater the chance Voldemort would get hold of it, even if he wasn't looking for it anymore.

Harry wasn't going to reveal anything that sensitive in a letter of course, not in the present climate. But the issue was there front and center when he thought about them and tended to impede the writing process. At least it had in two previous missives. The upshot was he'd gone with "I'm thinking about Sirius a lot," and how many times could he say that even if it was true?

'Til the end of time he reckoned. Still, the way to start was always the same

Dear Ron

went on one sheet, and

Dear Hermione

went on the other. (Unlike last summer she was spending more time with her parents, a development he sensed she found frustrating). That was as far as he got before he heard something whoosh! into his room through the open window. It was a Ministry owl carrying a big envelope, and inside were his O.W.L. results.





//
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