The Sugar Quill
Author: Red Monster  Story: Stronger Than They Look  Chapter: 2-Tell Me About Her Children
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Stronger Than They Look: Chapter 2 A shout-out to my betareader, Ada Kensington! She's the best.

Chapter 2

"What Harry found most unusual about life at Ron's, however, wasn't the talking mirror or the clanking ghoul: It was the fact that everybody there seemed to like him." CoS, Chapter 4

She was folding the letter up to place it in an envelope, when Harry said, "It'll be a lot easier for her to carry if you just roll it up and tie it to her leg."

"How am I supposed to tie it?" she asked.

"There's a ball of string on the other side of her cage."

Petunia found the string next to a small knife, which she used to cut off a length to tie around the roll of paper. She was rather nervous about tying anything to the owl's leg, but when she opened the cage door, the bird held out a leg obligingly.

"How will your owl know where to take the letter?" she asked as she tied the scroll to the bird's leg. The only times she'd ever used owl post had been to send Christmas notes (she knew they couldn't be considered presents) to Harry, whom the owl knew was at school at the time.

"Just tell her who it's for. Hedwig's really good at finding people, and she knows the Weasleys."

"All right, then. Hedwig, this is for Mrs. Weasley."

Hedwig flew out of her cage with the letter, landed next to Harry's head to nip at his ear, then flew out of the open window. Harry didn't seem the least bit bothered; in fact, he had a little smile on his face.

"Why did she just bite you?" asked Petunia. Did he let his animal peck at him often?

"She didn't bite me, she just sort of nibbled."

"And that doesn't hurt?"

"No, it doesn't hurt at all. She's just being friendly."


After Aunt Petunia left, Harry started to think about Lupin. How could Harry possibly have forgotten about him? Sirius had been his best friend, his only friend in the sense of being equals, and Lupin's life didn't have much to offer him except for his friends. Harry had been so consumed by his own grief the past two weeks, he hadn't thought much about what his former teacher must have been going through. Of course, thinking about him wouldn't have done either of them much good; they both had to do without Sirius. Lupin, too, could have visited with them if they'd gotten Sirius's name cleared back when they caught Wormtail. It would have given him something fun to do after being pushed out the door from his teaching position.

Harry greatly hoped Hedwig would come back soon with Mrs. Weasley's reply. If he was really lucky, it would say, "Hang in there, Harry, we'll be over to get you tonight," but regardless of her reply, he wanted Hedwig's company. Anything to stop him thinking of what might have been.


Petunia spotted Harry's owl flying back in through his bedroom window at around three o'clock that afternoon. She thought it was very smart of the bird to deliver the response straight into Harry's room rather than to her in some other part of the house...unless that Weasley woman had simply decided to write back to Harry directly, rather than bother to correspond with her. In a moment she would find out.

She went back into Harry's room to find him fumbling with the ties on the oddly-shaped package attached to the bird's legs.

"I saw your owl fly back in your window," she said. "What did that Weasley woman send?" She eyed the package as she drew closer, but she couldn't make sense of it. What had that woman sent? Knowing their kind, something bizarre; dangerous to Petunia but benign to them. But, of course, Petunia knew she'd opened herself up to that danger when she'd asked her nephew if he knew someone who'd have advice for her, rather than just call Dr. Barclay.

"I don't know," said Harry, turning his head to look at her but stopping at a point on the wall above her head. "I tried to open it, but Hedwig didn't like that. Then I promised to just take this off her, and she let me do that. But I'm not allowed to open it."

He was having trouble with the package, that much she could see. That he wasn't wearing his glasses surely didn't help his dexterity, but it was mostly the illness. He hadn't spoken so freely or explained so much to her since he was a very little boy, in fact he'd hardly spoken two words strung together to any of them since he'd come home that summer, and now he was getting to sound slightly incoherent, which had to be the fever and the dehydration.

"Will she let me open it, then?" she asked tentatively. The owl looked calm enough now, and she'd been very cooperative in accepting the first letter, but Petunia didn't want to bring her hands any closer to that beak without permission.

"I don't see why not. The package must be for you, or else Hedwig wouldn't be here with it."

She reached toward the package strings to see the owl doing nothing more than looking up at her, so she untied the knots until there were no strings on the package or Hedwig's legs (where the boy came up with a name like that for his animal, Petunia couldn't fathom). The owl hooted and hopped over to Harry's arm. Petunia took the package off of its spot on Harry's stomach to see that it did, in fact, have her name on it, in neat, curly handwriting. It was a lumpy, loose, lopsided array of brown paper with a greeting card-sized envelope taped to the bigger side.

"Aunt Petunia, where are you going?" asked Harry as she headed out of the room with the package in her hands.

"I'm going to read this in the guest room." Something told her the letter was best read alone.

The lumpy package yielded a sizeable bottle of Stomach-Settling Solution, which looked like gluey, grape-flavored cough syrup, and a zippered pouch that looked like a change purse. Then she opened the letter. Sitting down on the guest bed, and noting that the room was due for a vacuuming, she read it.

"Dear Mrs. Dursley,

"Thank you for writing. I'm most distressed to hear Harry is ill, but appreciate your telling us so promptly. He'll be easy enough to treat if you know how to approach it, and you seem to be well aware of the problem.

"The first thing you'll want to do is give him a dose of the potion I've sent along. That will stop him vomiting long enough to get some fluids in him, which will help to bring down his fever. The bag that you'll find next to it holds a No-Worries Wipe. If you wipe it over your face once a day, before you go into Harry's room, it'll keep you from catching his bug. I'm sure you've already been in his room today, but it will still help if you use it before you go in there again. Harry tells me you manage all the housekeeping in your home, so I'm sure you know the last thing your family needs is for you to get sick, too.

"Getting Harry through his illness means more than just giving him medicine and making sure he drinks enough fluids, though that is the best place to start. If you were willing to write to me, or anyone else who knows Harry, to ask for advice, which you have, then surely you must care about him. That being the case, the most useful thing I can advise you to do is to show him how important he is to you. It will do him much more good than you may think.

"He may not have told you this, but the last year at Hogwarts was unusually difficult for all the children, most especially Harry, but the worst part came when his godfather, Sirius Black, died at the end of June. He was not a murderer, despite what you may have heard, he was wrongfully accused, and he and Harry had grown very close. He was killed right in front of your nephew on a very dangerous and confusing night, and his death has been a terrible loss for Harry. I suspect this has much to do with his being sick. People become more susceptible to illness when they're depressed or under stress, and that's why I'm asking you to try being nice to him.

"Once he's taken his potion and is starting to take fluids again, keep him company and talk to him, let him talk to you. He's very lonely in your house, and your being there with him is sure to do him a lot of good. You're also the only person Harry knows who knew his mother before she was well into her teens, and I'm sure he'd love to learn about her, so some stories about your sister from your youth together will come in useful. He'll need to get plenty of rest if he's to recover quickly, and he'll sleep much better if he has something to dream about other than watching his godfather die. Don't be afraid to hold his hand while you talk with him; touch is a powerful thing. My children always appreciated that when they were under the weather (though they'll never admit it now). It may sound absurd to you, as Harry is nearly sixteen and you must know how independent he is, but people do feel differently when they're sick or hurt. A happier child is a healthier one, remember that.

"Please write back to tell me how Harry is recovering, and send him my love.

"Sincerely yours,
Molly Weasley"

To say Petunia was flabbergasted would have been an insufficient description. She had no objection to the supplies; she'd gotten the impression from Lily that potions were nothing if not effective, and she didn't like to be reminded of anything she'd learned from her sister, but then again she had a living reminder of her sister, running a high fever in the next room, so she'd just have to cope for now. The No-Worries Wipe was, even Petunia had to admit, a very good idea. She wondered if it wasn't formulated for use by the non-magical and would do something dreadful to her face, but she opened the pouch and found a thin, damp washcloth that smelled like cherries and vanilla, so she went ahead and touched it, and it was fine. No, the problem was that when Petunia had asked for advice, she had not been expecting that diatribe about how she should be nice to her nephew.

When were these people going to stop telling her how to deal with the boy? It was bad enough that Vernon's sister, Marge, did it, but coming from this lot it was simply ridiculous. This woman had to be the worst of them all, using Petunia's request for advice in looking after a sick boy as an excuse to lecture her about how she acted towards him! "He's very lonely in your house," indeed. Did she fancy herself a mind-reader, or did Harry like to complain about her and Vernon to these people? As if that wasn't enough, then she had the audacity to bring up Petunia's sister. It was enough that she had to cope with being reminded of Lily every time she looked at Harry, but to sit there and tell him stories about her was madness. What was that Weasley woman, drunk? Perhaps she had to drink to put up with being married to that man who blew up fireplaces as a way of getting around, but that was no excuse to go suggesting that Petunia start doing unfathomable things like telling her nephew about his mother.

But that wasn't the worst of it. Oh no, the pinnacle of that fascinating letter was the news that Sirius Black was an innocent man. "Despite what you may have heard," a likely story. "Despite what Harry made you believe for two years" was more like it. Just why had Harry let them think his godfather was a deranged murderer all that time? To scare them into submission, that was why. What an underhanded, manipulative, dishonest thing to do, and here this Weasley woman was telling her to spend all day coddling him, just like Vernon was afraid would happen.

Just who did the Weasley woman think she was, and what gave her the right to tell Petunia how to deal with the boy? What was that rubbish about "touch is a powerful thing"? What did she want Petunia to do, take all five-foot-eight of the boy in her arms and cuddle him like a nine-stone baby? Molly Weasley might find that adorable, but Petunia thought it lunacy. She was going to go back into that room, give the boy his potion, and then give him a piece of her mind about his using his godfather's criminal record to scare her and Vernon. This much she knew as she marched down the hall back to Harry's room. Then she was going to get an answer about where Molly Weasley got off telling her how to raise him. Petunia wanted him to get well, yes, but not get any crazy ideas about her. She was going to make it very clear to him that lying about his magical friends to get his way in her house was not going to fly and he'd better not try it again. The image of her hitting him over the head with the potion bottle flitted into her mind; the bottle was made of heavy glass and was likely to knock him out. Or maybe she'd just hold the bottle over his head while she demanded an explanation for his dishonesty and Molly Weasley's presumption. She was going to...

She couldn't do it. Petunia opened Harry's bedroom door, looked at him, and her plan evaporated. He lay on the bed as limp as a damp towel and almost as thin; even his usually defiant hair looked defeated and helpless. He turned his head to the side to face her with those glassy, heavy-lidded eyes, and that prickly red flush on his face, and asked, "What'd she send you?" in a dry, hoarse voice. Hedwig was still perched on his arm to let him pet her. The boy's godfather wasn't a murderer at all; he'd spent years in wizard prison for no good reason, and then Harry had watched him die. As if that wasn't enough, now he was too sick to hold his head up. She could berate him later for misleading her. For now, she would merely get her answer about the Weasley woman.


Harry looked toward his bedroom door as it opened, and the figure that appeared was too small to be anyone except Aunt Petunia. He couldn't make out her face without his glasses, but there was something angry about her posture; he'd seen it too many times throughout his life to miss it, but then she sort of slumped as she looked at him. She was holding something dark in her hand. He paused from stroking Hedwig to ask, "What'd she send you?"

"She sent this potion to settle your stomach," she began, coming farther into the room, "in fact that's what it's called, Stomach-Settling Solution," she muttered, reading the label. "And she sent something for me, so I won't catch what you've got. Let's see what the instructions say. Yes, there they are. Fill the cup to upper line. Wait three minutes after taking before eating or drinking anything else. Sounds straightforward enough. Let's get some in you, then." She opened the bottle, which reminded Harry of the Skele-Gro he'd taken in his second year, and poured a quantity into the accompanying beaker, which was much bigger than the cup to go with the bottle of that Muggle stuff she'd given him earlier that day. Hedwig flew off his arm to perch on the headboard as Aunt Petunia approached the bed. She had an awkward time holding the cup in one hand and getting her other arm under Harry's back, but she managed to help him up to a sitting position soon enough. He took the cup and leaned back on her arm to gulp the potion down. It tasted sour. Once he'd swallowed it all, Aunt Petunia eased him back into bed.

"Thanks," he said as she put the cap back on the potion bottle.

"You're welcome," she said, and then did something very odd, even odder than writing to Mrs. Weasley and administering a wizard-made concoction as medicine in her own house. She picked up Harry's desk chair, placed it next to the bed, and sat down. "Now. Why don't you tell me about Mrs. Weasley?"

"What do you want to know about her?" asked Harry, trying not to look too astonished at the sight of his usually magic-hating aunt sitting next to him with her hands folded in her lap.

"Well, I'm wondering what makes her qualified to tell other people how to take care of their sick family members."

It was at this point that Hedwig gave a firm hoot and flew out the window. Harry had to bite his lower lip to keep from blurting out, "When did I become a part of your family?!" but he managed to restrain himself. After all, it wasn't as if she'd called him her child. More importantly, he had to wonder why she hadn't asked this question before she'd handed him a beaker full of potion. He was in no state to argue with his aunt, however, and her wanting to learn more about someone from the Wizarding world other than Lord Voldemort was quite intriguing and he wasn't about to waste it.

"I don't know what you mean, Aunt Petunia."

"I mean, has she ever worked in healthcare? What's her expertise on this?"

"I don't know about working in healthcare, but she's raised seven children and they're all really healthy."

"Seven?" she said, looking quite startled by the number. "Well, that's quite a family."

"She and Mr. Weasley manage all right," said Harry, and found that he couldn't keep a slightly defensive edge out of his voice.

"I'm--I'm very sure they do," Aunt Petunia stammered. "Do you spend a lot of time with them?"

"Yeah, I spent the last part of..." he counted on his fingers, "three of the last four summers with them, and I also went to their house last Christmas." This was, of course, not exactly true, as he'd gone to Grimmauld Place the previous Christmas, but it was where the Weasleys stayed at the time, and he wasn't ready to invite Aunt Petunia to start talking about Sirius just yet, so he decided it was a harmless manipulation of the truth.

"So you enjoy staying with them, I suppose?"

Harry nodded. "Yeah, they're a lot of fun."

"Tell me about them, then. What are her children like?"

"Well, they're all different. There's Ron, he's my best friend, he's the youngest except for Ginny..."

Harry had a lot to talk about, he knew, but he let himself ramble on, taking occasional pauses to drink from the sports bottle of watered-down juice, which he could now hold down with no trouble. The whole time, Aunt Petunia showed no signs of impatience, which Harry thought was only appropriate, as she'd gotten herself into this mess when she picked up his desk chair. Nonetheless, Harry sometimes found himself editing his descriptions for her sake.

"...and Percy's the odd one. He works for the Ministry, and he takes his job really seriously but he's got no sense of humor. He was Head Boy at Hogwarts and I'm sure he still keeps his badge polished..." He decided not to tell her about Percy's estrangement from the family, because that might have given Aunt Petunia the entirely mistaken impression that she could criticize Mrs. Weasley's parenting skills, which would surely make Harry vomit again no matter how much Stomach-Settling Solution he took. Besides, it was a moot point because he'd heard from Ron that Percy was back on speaking terms with the family, much to the twins' chagrin.

The twins, too, presented a challenge in describing them to Aunt Petunia. He decided to emphasize their creativity, loyalty, and informally mentoring their little sister and downplay their love of pranks, because he didn't want her to get hung up on the Ton-Tongue Toffee incident again. "...and when I came back from the hearing at the Ministry, they got together with Ginny and went dancing around the kitchen shouting 'He got off, he got off...'" Harry made it sound like they set off the Whiz-Bangs outside, where they couldn't hurt anyone, and that they were strictly for celebratory and decorative purposes, rather than for troublemaking. He didn't say anything about the Skiving Snackboxes or the Portable Swamp.

"...Bill's the oldest, and he works for Gringotts. They used to have him in Egypt, but he moved back to London last year to help Professor Dumbledore out now that Voldemort's come back, and he likes being closer to his family again, too. Mrs. Weasley's always trying to get him to cut his hair, but that doesn't seem to bother him..." Mentioning Voldemort make Aunt Petunia's eyes open to the size of saucers, but it also caused Harry a pang of anxiety and he thought it best not to go there again.

Ginny and Charlie were difficult to describe in that Harry didn't know Charlie very well and Ginny had taken him by surprise that year, so he didn't say very much about either of them. He told her Charlie used to be a Hogwarts prefect and Quidditch Captain and now worked with dragons in Romania and that it was a very dangerous, demanding job but he loved it anyway. Ginny's name came up in relation to several of her brothers, but Harry couldn't help but feel like that didn't do her justice, so he came up with random tidbits, like her joining the Quidditch team that year. He made it sound like Ginny had played alongside Harry rather than replaced him, because he'd rather not have to go into how that happened.

"...and then Neville said 'I'm nobody,' and Ginny said 'No, you're not,' and introduced Luna to him."

Even after he was finished with the character sketches of all the Weasley siblings, there were still more stories to be told of life at the Burrow, camping at the Quidditch World Cup, and meeting up in Diagon Alley. It was a wonderfully relaxing activity, talking about his favorite family, and while he had to wonder why she was letting him tell her so much about them, he wasn't about to complain. Her hand settled down on his upper arm somewhere between getting started on Bill and relating Mr. Weasley's excitement at meeting the Grangers, and while such contact wasn't expected, he had to admit it was soothing, all warm and steady. For the first time in months, he had a chance to just focus on things that he liked to remember. For the first time in two weeks, he had occasion to smile. Even though he was still flat on his back with a nasty bug, Harry could honestly say he was having a good time.


As much as Harry seemed to have enough stories to tell to keep them occupied until the next morning, Petunia knew she had to take her leave at some point. While his voice sounded stronger and clearer the more he spoke, he started to sound like he was winding down later that afternoon, so she took the opportunity.

"Listen, your uncle will be home soon, and I need to make dinner, so can we leave it here for tonight?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

"All right, then. Wait, before I go, there's just one more thing I want to ask you."

"What is it?"

"Can I see one of your Christmas jumpers?"

"Sure. The last one's in my trunk."

She went over to the trunk and opened it up to find an unsettlingly chaotic jumble of robes, spellbooks, parchment, assorted strange items, and a jumper, which she took out to examine. It was a dignified shade of dark blue, in a coarse breed of wool, with a gigantic letter H knitted into the front. Not something she imagined a fifteen-year-old boy would like to wear, but then, knowing some of the clothes she saw on young people these days, it was an improvement. She noticed it was also rather big for Harry, but she pictured him wearing it...and it would surely fit him better than Dudley's old things. It was a bit lumpy, with the occasional knitting error, which meant it was most definitely hand-made. By the looks of them in the train station, those Weasleys couldn't afford to buy something hand-made by someone else. Molly must have knit it herself.

"How did you sleep last night?" she asked as she folded up the jumper and put it back in the trunk.

"I didn't."

"You didn't sleep at all?"

"No, I was up all night trying to not to get sick. Looks like it didn't work so well."

"How have you been sleeping since you got back from school?"

"More than I did last night...but not very much. Why do you ask?"

Petunia walked slowly back to his bedside to find Harry looking curiously up at her. "Because you'll need to get a lot of sleep to get better. You should try to get in a nap this evening."

"Okay."

She put his chair back in its place at the desk, and got as far as the door before she remembered something else. "One more thing," she said.

"Yeah?"

"Mrs. Weasley sends her love."

Harry smiled again. "Thanks."

She did not remember very much of that evening, she later found. She served broiled chicken breasts on rice with steamed spinach and somehow managed to cook and serve everything in the right vessels, but she was distracted all through the meal. The stories she'd just heard from Harry held her attention much better than did her husband and son that night. She had never thought of the Weasley family as anything except a nuisance; some crazy weirdoes who liked to take Harry away from them in as messy and inconvenient a fashion as possible. They were still all of those things, but now, although she would rather slit her wrists with a potato peeler than admit it to anyone, she could also see it wasn't so simple as that.

Harry's portrayal of them was not what she had expected him to tell her about a prominent Wizarding family. When she was a child, and Lily told her and their parents about her education at Hogwarts, Lily focused on, and their parents were perpetually fascinated by, what made the magical world different from their own, and therefore made their own world look dull and unimaginative by comparison. Listening to her nephew gave her a very different feeling. He seemed to enjoy staying with the Weasleys for reasons that had very little to do with magic. He found such joy in the most ordinary activities. No normal boys would ever play Quidditch, but Harry made it sound like going up the hill with some other boys to enjoy a spot of football. Sleeping on a camp bed in his best friend's room, enjoying a hearty dinner in the garden, and that garden sounded a fright, but they lived out in the countryside where no one could see much of their home, so no harm done, really. Splitting into groups to do their school shopping, seeing Mr. Weasley be so friendly to his friend Hermione's non-magical parents (it was difficult to imagine that was the same man who'd made a wreck of her living room), enjoying an ice cream cone and his best friends' company, getting a new jumper every Christmas, having snowball fights with the twins, playing chess with Ron. The chessmen were alive, which alarmed her, but it was played the same way as normal chess and was far less hazardous and unpredictable than many other wizard games she'd heard about, and there was something to be said for that.

She wasn't about to forget about their piloting Ford Anglias, opening up fireplaces, distributing tongue-enlarging candy, and helping to coordinate consensual kidnappings, but when placed against the backdrop of all those other activities, even the troublemaking seemed that much more forgivable. She could even picture her own family, the one she was born into, going to visit one like the Weasleys when she was a little girl, before they learned about magic. There was a disquieting dissonance between what she'd experienced from them before, and what she had just learned about them, and it was likely to stay disquieting. Still, it was clear that they had Harry's best interests at heart. They had nothing but the best of intentions where he was concerned.

"Mum." She was brought back to reality by her son's voice and his hand jiggling her elbow. She looked up to see Dudley watching her.

"Sorry, darling, Mummy was distracted. What's the matter?"

"Nothing, but Dad's trying to ask you about Potter."

"Oh, I'm sorry, Vernon, what is it?"

"I said," Vernon began through gritted teeth, "has the boy been troubling you today?"

Petunia took a moment to think about this. "He hasn't asked a single thing of me all day." It was true; all the care she'd given him that day had been what she had offered, not what he'd asked for.

Vernon made a "hmph" sort of noise. "Good. Is he getting over this nonsense?"

"Well, he got worse this morning, but he seems to be getting better now."

"I should hope so," he responded.

Petunia didn't say anything to that. Was Vernon expressing concern over Harry's health, or over her ability to go about her housework uninterrupted? The one seemed to be fused to the other in Vernon's mind, and until that morning, Petunia had thought she felt the same way.

Now, she was struck by how easy her nephew was to listen to, and wondered if he was also so easy to talk to. Regardless, she had never, in the boy's whole life, been prepared to see him so weakened. That Molly Weasley, presumptuous though she was, appeared to be very good at making him feel better, and from the sound of it, she knew what she was doing with her own family. Her advice, though unexpected, was sound enough. Petunia decided that she would try it.


Meanwhile, Harry was asleep upstairs, dreaming about playing Quidditch in the orchard with Ron, Fred, George and Ginny, with a handsome chocolate egg as the Snitch, and Hermione keeping score on the ground with her wand, until Mrs. Weasley called them all inside for lunch.

A/N: For the benefit of my fellow Americans, the conversion of Fahrenheit to Celsius follows some mathematical formula that I don't remember right now, but normal body temperature is 37 degrees on the Celsius scale. Harry's peak of 40 converts to 104 in Fahrenheit. Nine stone is 126 pounds. My thanks goes out to those amazing people over at the Britpickers forum at Fiction Alley Park, for providing me with this valuable information. I hope that's a reasonable estimate for the weight of a skinny 16-year-old boy.

//
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