The Sugar Quill
Author: Stubefied (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: The Muggles of Ottery St. Catchpole Part I: Muggles and a Mystery  Chapter: Chapter 3: Peaks and Valleys
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A million thanks to NightZephyr for betaing when she could have been catching up on about 100 hours of missed sleep. That is dedication and I am grateful.

Peaks and Valleys

Ten minutes after wishing Benjamin a happy weekend and locking his classroom door, Arthur was in the Diggory carport, ready to go. His plan was to Apparate directly from there to the wooded area abutting the irritatingly observant Widow Wall's side fields and hope he could get across the road before she noticed there was a trespasser within one hundred feet of her property. The widow had put a damper on too many of Arthur's boyhood excursions for him to relax before he was a good quarter of the way up the hill to the rock. Then he would slow to a leisurely amble, aiming the camera here and there as though engaged in bird-watching or some other innocuous pass-time. It would have been easier to Apparate directly to the rock, but he couldn't risk a passing motorist catching him as he appeared out of thin air. That would be counter-productive to his objective of preserving wizarding secrecy.

He knew the plan. He'd practiced his Obliviate. He'd even borrowed a Muggle bird guide from the closet that served as the school's library. He was almost bouncing in his seat. It was mainly the safety belt that was preventing that. He calmed himself and concentrated on the tree behind which he intended to appear.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

The climb, even at a "leisurely pace," was breathtaking, but the view it awarded him was even more so. Devon really was lovely country, all soft colors and sharp rocks and today, bitingly bright sunshine. Even after seven years at Hogwarts, Devon was still his home, and he supposed it always would be. And he didn't really mind. Being saddled with a teetering old place like the Burrow wouldn't entirely suit him, but he had to admit there was nowhere with better location.

He reflected on this as he rested at the base of the rock he was about to scramble upon like a child. He looked up the road and down the road and listened carefully for the rumble of a Muggle internal combustion engine, which sounded to him like a mighty dangerous thing; but there was nothing to disturb the peace of the hilltop or the quiet conversation of the birds among the whispering grasses. The wind carried off the noise of the harvesting machinery he could see in the distance creeping across the Wall farm. So, feeling only a little foolish, he clambered up, hugging and hoisting and putting his fingers into something dark and slimy in a hand-hold cranny.

The view atop the rock wasn't really so very different. It only raised the viewer a few meters, but it was the fact that he was the only thing at all that few meters up that utterly changed the experience and made him feel like the King of the World. For a moment, he even forgot why he was up there. When did remember, he marveled that a girl like Margaret would have the presence of mind to notice such a minor detail as the fact that the extra elevation just allowed him to see over the elm and evergreen copse to a bit of the field sloping away beyond.

More remarkable still, she had noticed that in that bit of field the grass did not simply sway freely as it did elsewhere. Instead, quite a lot of it was neither knee- nor waist-high, but very close to the ground, in patterns of occasionally over-lapping circles. It looked a bit like a giant toddler had been playing with a round stamp on the countryside.

It wasn't in the exact pattern of any mooncalf-clearings Arthur had seen in books, and he wasn't an expert, but he felt confident that he was seeing the work of magical creatures.

He took quite a few pictures. He'd send the best to the Ministry, but he wanted some to keep for himself, and a couple to send to Molly, and maybe an extra to show Ned Lovegood if it turned out he had to confront him about Muggles seeing onto his land.

He would very likely have thought of still more people who needed copies of the view if he hadn't finally heard the growl of an approaching car. He Disapparated home to find another owl from Molly Prewett waiting with not only a letter, but a pamphlet on getting the best results when developing magical film.

*^*^*^*^*^*

Arthur passed a quiet weekend working on his reports for the Ministry and playing wizard's chess with his father, who was quite impressed that his son had earned the loan of valuable Ministry equipment.

That was the camera, not the car. The car, he said, was a heap of useless rubbish.

"It doesn't do anything," he complained.

"It makes noise and smoke very effectively," his wife said. She'd kindly been out to the Diggorys' to see it. "And it's such a lovely color. I think I'd like robes like that for when we visit the Mediterranean."

That caught Arthur's attention.

"We're going on vacation? When? Where? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Don't get so excited, dear," his mother soothed. "We're not going until November. And, well, the 'we' is your father and I only. It's not a family vacation. You'll be busy with work-oh, don't look like that. You're not a child anymore, Arthur."

Even so, every time he remembered that announcement it was with a strange, empty feeling, and it upset him so much that he wrote to tell Molly so even before she'd replied to his owl with the mooncalf photos.

Actually, he wrote to Sy Goldstein first and then Jem Miller. They were just striking out on their own in the world and he thought they might understand, and he had been neglecting correspondence with them since school started. But those letters didn't make him feel any better, so he wrote to Molly.

But Molly's response didn't come until very late Sunday night, and was less than satisfying: Arthur-I'll have to look at your pictures later. Big Advanced Charms project-it's one thing getting Venetian blinds to talk, but quite another to make them speak English!

About your "family vacation," Arthur, you don't even like beaches. You're too shy to take off your robes and then they get full of sand and seaweed. You complained about it extensively after that Christmas in Barbados incident last year. How old are you now? (As he read this, he said aloud, "Twenty-three!" because that was what Quamble had spend a good half hour training him to say if asked by any Muggle attached to the school.) You have to trade something in for all the fun and firewhiskey that comes with your age and you're lucky it's just family vacations and not home-cooked meals and free laundry. I can try to owl you something from the kitchens that week, if it will help-I'm so sorry, but I'm a little distracted. I think I'm being sworn at in Italian. Uppity European window treatments.

The week went by quietly, too, largely due to the absence of Margaret and her imagination. Julia came in Monday morning with a short note explaining that her cousin was sick in bed. Arthur was inclined to respond with sympathy, but Julia dismissed it with a wave of her hand.

"It's her own fault. She always does this. Her brothers come home to help out and she makes herself sick trying to keep up with them. Unless she breaks something first."

Arthur still felt badly, but he was also relieved because, without Margaret around, the others had gladly dropped all plans of an after-school excursion to Queen Mary Road and were decidedly uninterested in anything magical, extraterrestrial, or "spooky." The room finally seemed to relax into a routine, and to almost resemble what Arthur had envisioned things were supposed to be like in a Muggle primary school. On Friday morning, with some trepidation, he set them a test in Spelling, and was so elated when they all actually did well, that he let them play guessing games again for a whole half hour in the afternoon.

He began a celebratory letter to Molly as soon as he had Apparated home that afternoon. I'm not a failure! he wrote. They've learned something! The Ministry's more than pleased with my strides, the school hasn't noticed I'm a fraud-I'm succeeding!

I'm a teacher!

Molly. I'm a teacher.

He put his quill down and panicked a bit then.

And even when Molly's reply came, again late Sunday night, with the reassuring reminder that the Ministry would take care of the educational futures of these children as they had taken care of every class of Muggles that had had a witch or wizard for Year Four, he still didn't feel much better.

One of his students had said nothing ever came out of Ottery St. Catchpole. Maybe it was because they had useless Year 4 teachers who were content just to teach them spelling and not look like frauds. He clearly wasn't the best teacher. No one, not even Benjamin, who impressed Arthur more and more each afternoon that they chatted, had scored perfectly on the test. And, even though he had never set out to be anything more than a passable imitation of a teacher, the fact that passable was all he was began to weigh on Arthur's conscience.

The week after the quiet week was an unhappy week. Margaret, who had been unable to eat most of the time she was ill, was back in school, but still weak and tentative. She joined Timothy in staring out the window and, although she didn't mention why she was doing it, Arthur noted that she favored the window that faced north, to Queen Mary Road.

He himself was a bundle of nerves and Julia commented that he looked worse than Mrs. Prior had just before the Avery triplets had been kicked out. The triplets, it transpired, were a truly rotten trio of boys who'd set the class apart from all others that had come through Lord Muggle School, terrorizing student and teacher alike.

"It's a wonder we learned anything the past three years at all," Ezra commented, "other than when to duck. Teachers were always too busy worrying about the triplets to really teach us much." That made Arthur feel better and worse at once. He began formulating ways of working out if he was really teaching them anything and preparing them for more tests, along with worrying about Margaret.

The next Wednesday afternoon he found himself on his hands and knees under her desk, sweeping up an enormous pile of pencil shavings.

"What is this?" he growled in exasperation, "An entire pencil?"

"A pencil and a half," Benjamin answered from where he was cleaning the blackboard. "If you'll look closer, you'll see one was yellow and one was blue."

Feeling rather old and stiff as he backed out of his spot, Arthur kept grousing, more to himself than to Benjamin. "I know she's been sick, but illness is no reason to be messy and wasteful!" Especially when there's no using Scourgify!

"She's not sick anymore," Benjamin said a little less matter-of-factly.

"Oh! Then she's always like this?" Arthur asked, throwing up his hands, and spraying the shavings back over the floor. He really, really wanted to ask his helper to leave the room a minute so he could just tidy up with a spell-

"No."

Arthur waited. Benjamin stopped washing and scratched the heart-shaped freckle on his neck. "It does go back to her brothers, though. The middle one, William. He's joined the Navy. She misses him and she's worried sick."

Arthur sank into Margaret's seat and let himself stare out her window. She'd never be able to see the ocean.

*^*

On Friday, she admitted as much and more.

They had been having a maths test and Arthur had approached Timothy to gently ask why he was staring out the window instead of doing his addition. But Timothy, instead of whispering an apology sheepishly as usual, had said aloud, "Because I'm looking at Margaret's aliens."

The whole class had jumped to look, too, and the formerly listless Margaret had been the first there, her eyes shining as clearly and hair floating as ethereally behind her as any of them had ever seen. And she had stared, and they all had stared, hopefully, crammed and craning, until she had made her pronouncement.

"All I see is a herd of sheep crossing the road. We're not high enough up to see more than the next hill. No one will ever see anything out that window. There's no point looking. Nothing out there." She said it flatly, collected her things, and left the room in shocked silence for the last fifteen minutes of the afternoon.

Arthur couldn't remember having ever felt so awful. He found himself actually wishing that Timothy had really seen something other than the cloud formation it turned out he'd been watching, even if it caused the Ministry a week's worth of headaches, because then at least Margaret wouldn't be so depressingly disenchanted. He wrote and told Molly so and, although she was still up to her ears in N.E.W.T. classes (and, apparently, Italian-speaking salamanders that were infesting her common room), she did manage to sneak him a few of his favorite fruit pastries from Sunday breakfast in the Great Hall.

He was still dreading school when he arrived on Monday, and absolutely flabbergasted to hear happy chattering as all six of his students piled into the classroom more than a little bit late, in a grabbing and reaching cluster.

One of the students hadn't just wished that Timothy had seen something. They'd gone out and done it themselves. And come back with proof. He could every now and then glimpse it, on Julia's desk in the front row: pictures taken from Queen Mary Road of the mooncalf patterns.

Arthur felt a bit ill. His stomach was flip-flopping between extremes: soaring with joy at how animatedly Margaret was moving and speaking, and plummeting with vague dread and foreboding. He gripped his desk for support and the girl they called C.C. noticed.

"Are you okay, sir?"

"Fine," he said faintly. "What's that everyone's all excited about?" He was hoping against hope-

"Pictures! Pictures of what Margaret saw." She was so proud of herself that her eyes were sapphires of satisfaction. "I took them from the rock on Queen Mary Road yesterday."

"You went out there all by yourself?"

She shook her head. "We were taking Trixie home from visiting the veterinarian and, well, it was a long trip and she really needed a walk. And I told my parents I'd heard that was a really lovely spot, which it is, really. Absolutely lovely." She looked over, not at the photos, but at Margaret when she said this.

Benjamin was standing apart from the group, too. Arthur asked him why.

"I've already seen them. It was dinner hour by the time C.C. got home. Too late to ride out to Margaret's, and everyone was eating anyway, so she brought them by the store to share before she exploded."

"She didn't mind interrupting your dinner hour?" Arthur asked.

Benjamin shrugged. "It's not so formal with me and my dad."

After a few more minutes, Ezra and Timothy lost interest and began having thumb wars, and Arthur reluctantly asked for the pictures to be handed over so the day could properly begin. He dreaded having to "accidentally" destroy them later.

"You know what the best part is?" he heard Margaret stage-whispering to Julia as they got out their readers. "They've changed! That means the aliens have been back! And they might come back again and I can catch them and get on the six o'clock news!"

Arthur didn't hear much past, "They've changed," though. He was staring at the pictures now himself, in disbelief, because the grass patterns, although small and a bit fuzzy, had clearly done just what Margaret said since he'd seen them Friday. They had changed.

Margaret hopped up, skipped across the room, and swept C.C. into a giddy hug. "You're the best thing that ever came to Ottery St. C," she whispered, and then scampered back to her own desk while Arthur remained staring at the pictures.

*^*^*^*

Just before the lunch bell, he handed C.C.'s pictures back to Margaret, who stowed them, as he had hoped, in a notebook in her desk.

He exited with the class, waited until they were all out of sight, and snuck back into the room. He had about twenty minutes before Benjamin, who apparently ate the most quickly, usually returned to the grounds.

There were four photographs in Margaret's desk. Arthur picked the one with the least clarity and shredded it quickly, tossing the pieces like confetti. He trotted (inconspicuously, he hoped) with the other three out to his car and hid them under the passenger seat.

Back in the classroom, he tore up some unimportant papers, threw about a few books, and knocked over the wastebasket before opening one of the windows and sprinkling the counter below it with a handful of dirt he'd scooped up while outside. He also took some of the meat from his own lunch, tore it up, and deposited handfuls around the room. After a quick glance out at the school grounds, and a peek into the hall, he let his wand slip down his sleeve and into his hand, pointed it at one of the blackboard erasers, and concentrated very hard until it sprouted legs, a tail, a head, and finally, a furry back.

The temporary weasel stared up at him in confusion and, as it did, he darted in close and gave its tail a good yank. It angrily leapt down from the rail below the blackboard and Arthur leapt for the door, slamming it soundly behind him.

He attempted to enjoy the breezy autumn afternoon and his homemade picnic lunch, but too quickly the rush of having actually executed his plan waned and was replaced by a burdensome feeling of guilty apprehension. He'd done what he had to do, what his job entailed. He'd preserved magical secrecy. But he was eating his sandwich less and less and being eaten more and more by worry about how Margaret, in such a tenuous emotional state, would take exactly how he'd accomplished that job. C.C. had given her hope with those photographs and he'd shredded it with his very own hands. He couldn't finish his sandwich.

Arthur trailed his six students back into the school building apprehensively. He closed his eyes when Julia opened the classroom door, allowing the others to survey the destruction. While Ezra chased the weasel out the window, C.C. ran to Margaret's desk, retrieving the notebook that had held the photographs from the floor. She held it so they all could see its destroyed pages. Julia gasped and joined her, kneeling to sift through the debris and collect photograph bits. She held a handful towards Margaret in apologetic offering. Arthur expected that he was about to have to see a student cry, and had no idea what he was going to do about it.

"That's okay," Margaret surprised them all by saying brightly. "We'll just have to take more."

//
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