The Sugar Quill
Author: Red Monster  Story: Stronger Than They Look  Chapter: Indifference and Neglect
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Stronger Than They Look: Chapter 1

Stronger Than They Look
By Red Monster

Chapter 1

"Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike..." -Dumbledore, OotP, Chapter 37

In the summer after Harry Potter's fifth year at Hogwarts, less than 24 hours passed before the emptiness set in again.

He went back to Number 4 in buoyant spirits with the Dursleys, and stayed in a good mood until lunchtime the next day. By then, the warm afterglow he'd felt after seeing his reception committee threaten his Muggle relatives had started to wear off, and the sense that he'd rather be anywhere else, including in Madam Puddifoot's Tea Shop with a weeping Cho Chang, began to set in. Even with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon scared into good behavior (or at least a lack of bad behavior), there was no getting around the fact that their house was about the worst possible place to be when he'd just lost Sirius.

Harry missed his godfather terribly. There had never been anyone else in his life in whom he could confide as much, who looked out for him as much as Sirius. Ron and Hermione were wonderful, but they weren't quite the same. He couldn't expect them to ease his pain; he had caused them too much of it. If he'd taken Hermione's advice seriously, rather than been so eager to go flying into battle with his wand blazing, Sirius would still be alive and Ron and Hermione wouldn't have been injured. Neville wouldn't have been tortured. Luna and Ginny wouldn't have been put in harm's way. If he'd tried harder with Occlumency, Voldemort couldn't have gotten to him in the first place. Tonks and Moody wouldn't have been hurt. On the other hand, Voldemort wouldn't have been exposed, and the Wizarding world wouldn't be preparing itself for the new war. Harry would rather have still had Sirius with him.

His life had been so difficult for such a long time, and then he'd died before it could improve. Harry had known Sirius for just two years, and Sirius had been out of prison for three, all of it spent either on the run or in hiding. It was difficult to decide which part had been harder on him. Perhaps the Order would be able to clear his name now that the Ministry knew that Voldemort was active again, but it was too late to do Sirius any good. Harry was all alone with his grief and guilt at the Dursleys' house, where the best treatment he could expect was to be ignored, and the best he could hope to feel was numb.

Ron and Hermione helped. They wrote to him frequently, and now that Professor Dumbledore no longer insisted that they keep him in the dark, their owls contained proper news; Ron from the midst of the Order, Hermione from the Muggle world. They had so far told him nothing conclusive, but it was good to know he was no longer having secrets kept from him. He had their company to look forward to when he got out of Privet Drive, and their news reminded him to go downstairs and watch the evening news on the living room television. If not for that, he might not have left his room at all. He shut himself in there for most of a day before Aunt Petunia stormed in and told him, "If you don't come downstairs, you're not going to eat! I'm not trying to make you go hungry, but I'm not going to wait on you, either! I think I'm perfectly reasonable in saying that!" In that regard, Harry knew she had a point. What was he going to do, write to Mad-Eye Moody and tell him, "My aunt refuses to bring food up to my room"? So most days, he went downstairs and joined the Dursleys at the kitchen table, and other days, he didn't eat.

Most of his time was spent shut in his room, curled up in bed. Sometimes he let himself cry, but he never made any noise. If he made a sound, then Dudley might taunt him, and then Harry would have to jinx the living daylights out of him, and then the Improper Use of Magic Office would have to fight with the Dursleys over who got to kill Harry first, and even the Order wouldn't be able to save him. He had nightmares of seeing Sirius go through the veil nearly every night, so he tried to stay awake longer to avoid them. He always fell asleep eventually, though, and if he made any noise in his sleep, the Dursleys didn't mention it. They hardly spoke to him at all this summer; they took the Order's warning seriously. Harry supposed it was better this way than the old abuse. He didn't have the energy to fight back against their usual mistreatment of him. Even though he had almost no physical activity, Harry was exhausted all the time.

This went on for two weeks before something other than his fear of nightmares kept him up one night. He had a twisting, unsettled feeling in his stomach that was unlike any emotion he'd ever felt. Harry tried sleeping in several positions and tried a number of breathing techniques, trying to make the twisting go away so he could get a full night's sleep for once, but he might as well have tried catching a Snitch while blindfolded, for all the good it did. Harry kept up his struggle until he stumbled out of his room at seven-thirty the next morning, wove his way to the bathroom, fell to his knees in front of the toilet, and vomited more than he thought any human stomach could hold.

When Harry was sure he'd thoroughly emptied himself out, he tried to stand up, but that didn't work. His balance ceased to exist, the bathroom spun around him, and he fell backward into the wall. He fell forward onto his hands and knees and struggled his way to the sink. There, he groped around until he found a paper cup, found the tap while swaying back and forth, filled the cup and rinsed his mouth out. Harry then pulled himself to his feet using the sink for support and took two steps out of the bathroom before his vision blurred even with his glasses on and the horrible swaying sensation magnified to a violent shaking and everything went black.

The next thing he knew, he was waking up in the hallway facing the wall across from the staircase, but he didn't much feel like getting up. Then he heard a door open and decided he'd best get back to his room, so he got his hands and knees up under him and started to crawl. A pair of hands rolled him onto his back and lifted him up. Harry did not enjoy this situation; he moaned something in protest and tried to push away, but the massive chest looming over his prone form didn't respond. He was lowered onto his bed, the door closed, and Harry was alone.

As the footsteps left his room and thumped down the stairs, Harry realized that he was the sickest he'd ever been in his life, including that one time in primary school when he lost his lunch all over the classroom floor, his teacher had to ask Clarissa Carroll to half-carry him to the nurse's office, and the nurse had to call Uncle Vernon at work and nearly threaten him with legal intervention if he didn't come to take Harry home. At least then, he could see straight and the room hadn't moved to topple him. This time, he was in very bad shape and he knew, with every molecule in his body, that the Dursleys were going to leave him there to rot. Aunt Petunia had never exactly been one to rival Madam Pomfrey where Harry was concerned. Her idea of taking care of him had always been to give him a bit of medicine and some clear liquids to sip on, supply him with a bucket or tissues where appropriate, and shut him in the cupboard so he wouldn't infect Dudley, and that had been before he was accepted to Hogwarts. This time, he would simply be locked in his room until he either recovered or died, and he couldn't say which outcome was more likely. It wasn't really that he resented her for not taking very good care of him; normally he would much rather look after himself, but just then...he was at their mercy. If he had to be horribly ill, he wanted to be at the mercy of someone who gave a damn about him, and such a person would not be found on Privet Drive.

"Good morning, Diddy," said Petunia Dursley as her son, Dudley, stumped into the kitchen. "Sleep well?"

"Yeah, sure," Dudley muttered. It was only seven-thirty and he was still groggy.

"Of course he did, Petunia, do you think something's wrong with him?" said Vernon from his spot at the table. "You're fine, right, son?"

Dudley shrugged apathetically as he turned to the breakfast laid out on the counter. It was whole-grain cereal and skim milk, which was far from what Petunia would have liked to serve her family, but with Dudley on his diet, it was the richest breakfast she was allowed to provide him. "Potter's sick," he said, pouring himself a bowl of corn flakes.

Vernon made a surprised noise through his mouthful of cereal. "What's that, Dudley?"

"Potter," Dudley repeated, turning to face them. "He's sick. I heard him throwing up just a minute or two ago. Then I found him crawling down the hall."

"Crawling?!" Vernon questioned. "What does that boy mean by it?"

"He looked like he couldn't walk," Dudley offered, starting to look uncomfortable.

"Probably faking it. Begging for our attention, I expect," Vernon muttered.

"I don't think so, Dad. He's not making any sense."

Petunia paused with her toast in midair. Harry hadn't been sick, at least not in her house, for a very long time. When he was a child, he hadn't fallen ill very often, but he'd taken longer to recover than most other children. Come to think of it, she hadn't seen much of him this summer; how long had he been feeling under the weather before he got this bad? She'd certainly never seen him so badly off he couldn't walk. How much longer would he be like this?

"Where is he now, Diddy?" she asked.

"I put him back in bed," said Dudley with a shrug.

"Well, that was very sweet of you, darling," she beamed. "You didn't have to do that."

"You shouldn't have done that, son," said Vernon. "What if you catch what he's got?"

"I was only around him for a few seconds," said Dudley to his father, then turned to speak to Petunia. "I just didn't like to see him crawling around like that."

"Well, you'd best stay clear of him until he's over this nonsense," Vernon advised him.

"Okay."

"I'm going up to check on him," said Petunia, standing up from her seat and leaving her breakfast of toast and jam partly eaten.

"What?" Vernon spluttered, his eyes popping. "Petunia, surely you're not serious!"

"Why wouldn't I be? I want to see what's wrong with him."

"But you're not going to spend all day coddling him!"

"No, I'm not going to 'spend all day,' but I can't just ignore him, either," she retorted while opening up the cupboard under the sink.

"Why not?" Vernon wanted to know.

"You heard those...those friends of his back at King's Cross. Do you want them over here, accusing us of neglecting our nephew while he's sick?" She emptied all the cleaning products out of a bucket and pulled it out.

"They said we couldn't mistreat him, and we haven't! We never did, actually, but we've been nothing but polite to the boy ever since we brought him home for the summer, and those weirdos didn't say anything about us taking care of him!"

"Do you honestly think they'll make that distinction? Do you want to take the chance of them showing up here?"

For a second, Vernon looked as though outraged at the very fact that such a possibility could exist, but then he closed his mouth and went back to his cereal.

"Right," said Petunia. "If the boy really is sick, and he's not looked after, those people will have something to say about it, and I, for one, don't want to hear it."

As she headed for the stairs, she heard Vernon mutter, "second time in less than a year, look at what that boy's doing to us."

Harry did not hear the argument downstairs, nor did he hear his aunt coming up the steps with a bucket slapping against her leg. Instead, he decided that he was more likely to die there in Number 4 than recover, and that this was a sign that, bond of blood or none, this house was not nearly as safe a place for him as Professor Dumbledore thought. There was only one thing to be done. He would have to write a letter. The words formed as if produced by a Quick-Quotes Quill as he got out of bed:

"Dear Ron,
I've just gotten horribly sick and the Dursleys aren't going to take care of me. Please come get me out of here? I'm not asking you to punish the Dursleys, just please don't make me stay here any longer. I'll do anything you all want if you'll just help me now." Yes, that would work. The Weasleys would arrive in a heartbeat to take him away, and Mrs. Weasley would take excellent care of him until he was all better. It was a horribly exploitative thing for him to do, taking advantage of her motherly nature and protectiveness of him, and he usually balked at her fussing over him, but this was an exceptional situation, and he would make it up to her once he recovered. Unfortunately, the violent shaking took over halfway to his desk, and he fell over to rest on his back.

Petunia marched up the stairs, inwardly cursing the whole lot of them. How dare those people threaten them at the station! Did they think it amusing that they could do magic and had her and Vernon hopelessly outnumbered? Did they even bother to count the unfair advantages they had? Just what did Harry tell them, anyway? What business of theirs was it how she and Vernon raised him? Easy enough for those people to tell her how to raise her nephew; they weren't in her position. Let them try raising a "Muggle" (how she hated that word) alongside a wizard or witch, and if they could get both children through childhood happy and unhurt, then they could criticize her and Vernon's parenting skills, but she had yet to see anyone do that. Her own parents tried, and it didn't work.

And then, Harry had to go and get sick while he was home with them. Did he think that was funny? Why couldn't he have gotten that out of the way at That School of his? Her boarding school study schedule had sometimes made her sick, but there had never been any delay; she'd always gotten it over with and gone home healthy. He was laughing about this, she just knew it. He was laughing because he was sick, and she had no choice but to make sure he was looked after, and he would laugh even harder once he found out she'd just had a disagreement with Vernon over him for the second time in less than a year.

She opened the door to his room to find him wobbling around on the floor, and there was one thing she knew: he didn't find this the least bit amusing.

Harry heard his door open, and there was Aunt Petunia framed in the doorway. She held the handle of a bucket in one hand, which reminded him of the times in his childhood when she shut him in the cupboard with whatever props his illness required, and she looked more than a little shocked to see him. Was she there to take care of him?

"What are you doing on the floor?!" she demanded with the kind of desperation she only showed when he did accidental magic.

"Sorry," he rasped. "I get really dizzy whenever I stand up."

"So why didn't you stay in bed?!"

What was he supposed to say? "I was trying to write a letter to the Weasleys to ask them to get me out of here before I die of my illness and your neglect"? Somehow, that didn't seem the right thing to tell her at the moment.

"I was trying to put my glasses away," he said instead.

"Give them to me." She held out her hand. He complied, and he blurrily saw her replace his glasses on the desk, then set her bucket on the floor. "Now up you get."

She held out her hands, which he rather shakily took, and she hoisted him up to a crouch with surprising strength for such a thin woman. A few more seconds, and she got him back in bed.

"You feel hot," she said, feeling his forehead. "If you're going to be sick again, do it in here." She indicated the bucket, which she placed by the head of his bed. "I'll be right back."

She returned with a bottle of medicine and a thermometer. "Sit up and I'll give you some of this for your stomach," she instructed, indicating the bottle in her right hand.

Harry started to sit up, but then the room started rotating again and he felt like the bed was sliding out from under him. He fell back on his elbows and dropped his head backward, and the room stabilized.

"Do you get dizzy just sitting up, too?" Aunt Petunia snapped.

"Yes," he answered.

"Then just stay there," she sighed, opening the bottle. "Relax your neck, close your eyes."

Harry's neck was already plenty relaxed, but he closed his eyes and soon felt her hand grip the back of his head and lift it up over his shoulders. "Open your mouth," he heard her say. He did so, and felt the rim of a tiny plastic cup pressed to his lower lip. She tilted the cup; the medicine poured into his mouth. "Make sure you swallow," she said. On any other day, Harry would have wanted to know why she thought him so stupid, but in his current state, he had to admit it was sound advice.

"You can lie down now," she said once he'd swallowed. Harry gratefully fell back on his pillow and didn't bother to open his eyes. Then he felt his aunt's hand pull the neckline of his pajama top down below his shoulder, which was not difficult, as the pajamas used to be Dudley's, but why was she doing that?

"What's going on?" he asked, opening his eyes.

"I've got to take your temperature," she said, and stuck the business end of the thermometer in his armpit.

When it beeped, she looked at the readout and her eyes popped.

"What's it say?" Harry asked?

"39.4," she answered, talking to the thermometer more than to him. "You must be awfully dehydrated. I'll be back up with some juice for you," she said, leaving the room.

Harry let his brain spin around in place of the room as he tried to get comfortable in bed. Aunt Petunia was one step away from being nice to him. He must have had a raging fever, or else she did.

"So," said Vernon when Petunia came back into the kitchen, without looking up from his breakfast. "What's the boy playing at?"

"He's not faking it," said Petunia wearily. She took a sports bottle, filled it halfway up with orange juice, and filled it to the top with water. "He's really ill."

"A likely story," Vernon muttered.

"Vernon, he has a fever of over 39 degrees!" Petunia insisted. "He's not pretending!"

"Fine!" Vernon snarled. "Weakling that he is."

Petunia didn't know how to respond to that. She headed back up the stairs, knowing she could finish her toast after he left for work. She found Harry where she'd left him in bed.

"You can drink from this," she said, handing him the sports bottle. "Just take small sips at first." And she left him alone again.

Just as he thought she was about to be nice to him, away she went. It was just like he'd been locked in the cupboard again. Harry knew that Aunt Petunia wasn't about to come back in any time soon. She'd given him what he needed, or so she thought, and from there, he was on his own. As with all aspects of his care, she did the bare minimum necessary and nothing more. Uncle Vernon did even less. How did Harry get stuck with such a woefully inadequate set of parent-figures for the bulk of his childhood? He tried to think of how Sirius would have handled him being sick. Perhaps he wouldn't have known what to do quite as well as, say, the Weasleys, but he certainly wouldn't have left Harry there to stew in his own fever-heated juices. Sirius would have made a real effort to make Harry feel better, and that was what mattered.

For a short bit of one night, two years before, Harry had been assured he would get to move into Sirius's home and never have to set foot on Privet Drive again, and then the full moon and Wormtail's Animagus power converged to ruin Sirius's chance at freedom. Harry now knew that even if they'd been able to clear Sirius's name back then, he wouldn't have gotten to leave the Dursleys. He still would have had to spend at least part of the summer with them, but then he could have gone to Sirius's house. Harry took a sip of the watered-down juice. It felt good going down. Yes, he could have spent the latter half of each summer with Sirius, who would have been genuinely happy, much like he was during the last Christmas holiday, and maybe he could have invited Ron and Hermione over to stay with them for part of that time. Sirius liked Ron and Hermione, so he would have been happy to let Harry have them over. Maybe he could have taken them to King's Cross on September 1st, and Harry wouldn't have to spend every Christmas holiday at Hogwarts, because he would have had a reason to go home. And perhaps the Weasleys would have invited them over to dinner at the Burrow occasionally. Mrs. Weasley didn't get along very well with Sirius, true, but if they hadn't been forced to spend so much time together in that horrible house on Grimmauld Place...Harry rolled over in bed, reached for the bucket, and threw up again.

Harry kept on vomiting throughout the morning. He also crawled to the bathroom several times with a related, but different complaint. He often sipped out of the sports bottle, but he might as well have slurped drain cleaner, for all the time it stayed in him. When Aunt Petunia came in to check on him at noon, the bottom half of the bucket was covered in an inch of orange juice and gastric fluid, he was as listless as ever, and his temperature was,

"40 degrees!" she exclaimed at the thermometer. "You're parched. That medicine I gave you this morning hasn't helped a bit."

"Guess not," Harry muttered.

"This is not good at all," said Aunt Petunia, pacing the room and not looking at Harry. "You're only getting worse. If you keep going like this I'll have no choice but to take you to the hospital." Harry wished she'd look at him. "And I don't know what else to do. You couldn't write a letter, could you?"

Harry shook his head. "I can't even sit at my desk." But why in the name of Merlin would she want him to write a letter?

"Then I suppose I'll write one," said Petunia. Ignoring the look of delirious confusion on her nephew's face, she checked his desk for paper and pen. He only had quills, ink and parchment. She should have expected as much. She could deal with the parchment in a pinch, but the quill was out of the question. "I'll be back shortly," she said, and left the room. After picking out a legal pad and pen, she went back to Harry's room and sat down at his desk, setting the pad of paper down next to the cage holding the sleeping owl.

This was not something she'd ever hoped to do, but she remembered what that creepy-eyed man said to Harry about if they didn't hear from him for three days. She didn't want any of those weirdos thinking they'd locked Harry in the cupboard, or done something unspeakable to his owl. "Which one of your friends should I write to?

Harry was silent at first. "What?" he croaked finally.

"I'm going to write a letter to one of your friends," she said impatiently, turning around in the chair to face him. "One of those people at King's Cross, who threatened me and your uncle," she explained. "If you can't write to them yourself, they should know why. Which one of them should get the letter?"

Harry appeared to be taken off-guard. "I don't know...Professor Lupin, maybe? He'd want to know what's wrong."

"And would Professor Lupin have any ideas on how to treat your illness?" she asked.

His face opened up, like the proverbial light bulb had just gone off above his head. "No. You'd want to write to Mrs. Weasley about that."

"Weasley," repeated Petunia, pinching her angular face together at the sound of the name. "Is she the wife of that man who blew up our fireplace two years ago?"

"He didn't mean to do that. He just didn't know you had it boarded up."

"But she is his wife?" she repeated, brushing aside Harry's explanation that having her living room turned into a disaster area was all a big misunderstanding. Harry nodded.

"She was next to him in the station."

"I see," she said, and turned back toward the desk.

She supposed Harry must have been talking about that fat, red-haired woman who couldn't stop throwing her arms around him. Lupin was the shabby-looking man with them in the station; although he was aging much faster than she expected, she recognized him from when he came to her house with all those other boys to help Lily pack after they graduated from That School. He was also the one who'd left her and Vernon the note on the kitchen table the previous August, explaining where they'd taken Harry...after they'd lured her, Vernon and Dudley out of the house with that phony Suburban Lawn Contest. She was willing to bet all her mother's jewelry that the Weasleys were somehow involved in that little stunt as well. If Mrs. Weasley cared about Harry so much, then she would want to know if he was sick. Would she know what to do about persistent vomiting that was unaffected by medication and accompanied by a raging fever?

"Dear Mrs. Weasley,

The reason I am writing to you, and Harry is not, is that Harry has taken very ill. He came down with a terrible stomach virus this morning and has been vomiting all day. He has a fever of 40 C and cannot hold any liquids down. I gave him medicine this morning and it has not helped."

It was at this moment that the owl woke up, hooted at Harry, and began to watch Petunia write. She supposed it was a good thing the bird woke up on its own.

"Hey there, Hedwig," Harry said weakly.

Petunia went on writing.

"He is badly dehydrated and his balance is so bad he cannot stand or sit up. That is why he is not writing to you today; he cannot stay at his desk long enough to write a l etter. He is safe in our house and is receiving no ill treatment.

"Additionally, if you can offer any advice on getting Harry through his illness, I'd be willing to try it, because nothing I've done so far is any good, and if he stays like this for much longer he'll be in serious trouble.

"Sincerely,
Petunia Dursley"

A/N: Harry's illness is basically just a nasty stomach virus; I've had it a couple of times myself, though not quite to that extent. Harry's immune system is in the pits.

//
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