Actions

Work Header

The Eleventh Birthdays

Work Text:

The day the daughter of the Drs. Granger and Granger turned eleven, she received her acceptance letter to the Benedict Ethelton East School in Dulwich. It was a relief. She was a gifted child (tremendously gifted, said the acceptance letter, and of course the first child we wanted for our senior school for next year, and wasn’t it so kind of you to agree to wait this year out just because the numbers weren’t quite even, because of course there was no hesitation on our part, because of course we didn’t think she wouldn’t suit, because of course we wanted her all along), but she’d spent all last year being very firmly rejected, which had left the Grangers quite stunned. The woman from Swarmington had pronounced her socially stunted, and the fellow at Pollins had said it was very strange how she could produce so many large books from such a small bag when he’d known the bag to be empty just a few moments before, and the Droneford High School people had said that she needed to stop finishing their sentences so exactly and correctly before they’d even known themselves what they were going to say, and the gentleman at South Propolis had said he was quite sure she’d managed to open that window from across the room and he didn’t know how she’d done it but it was impertinent of her just the same, and the Honeycombe Abbey woman had only found her a very odd little girl – far too odd for us!

Which she was. All of her interviewers knew it, and all of her classmates knew it (which made it something of a relief to be able to leave after this year; not that it was bullying, exactly, but the Grangers’ daughter didn’t make friends easily, and perhaps a fresh start would help her in this regard), and her parents, buzzing from the office to the clinic to the latest conference to dinner with like-minded practitioners in the noble calling of dental hygiene, knew it somewhere in the back of their minds, as well, although they didn’t think about it very much because she was such a good child and so helpfully occupied herself in quiet ways while they went about all their buzzing.

For the Grangers were of the buzzing set, the sort of people with fuzzy quantities of hair that seemed to transmit electric currents of tooth-related intelligence from their active, buzzing minds, and half-open dentistry tunics that flew behind them like sets of wings as they buzzed in and out of the Granger household in constant pursuit of the next crumb of hygienic knowledge. The Grangers’ daughter was nothing like this. In this she was like them: she had inherited the fuzzy hair (though hers was more bushy than fuzzy; it called to mind more the sort of intelligence that was unconcerned with the importance of making oneself attractive like the other girls, and less the sort that seemed to point to embryonic genius lying dormant beneath all the fuzz). Also, she cared a great deal for knowledge, and went about collecting it in her own way, but this way did not always involve buzzing and it was not limited to the great art of dentistry. Dentistry, having refused to make her teeth less prominent because any concerns in this regard were only base and cosmetic and not at all nobly medical and hygienic, had let her down in a large way, and indeed she had already washed her hands of it.

But the knowledge of history, chemistry, botany, logic, macroeconomics, neuroscience, semiotics, calculus, theology, rhetoric, physics, music theory, comparative politics, climatology, social policy, ethnology, genetics, psychology, architecture, metaphysics, statistics, phonology, conflict theory, mythology, bibliometrics, criminal law, oceanography, microeconomics, speleology, continued fractions, epistemology, public finance, forensic science, cartography, theoretical physics, morphology, planetary science, psephology, game theory, telegraphy, quantum theory, edaphology, labor economics, endocrinology, animal husbandry, cryptography, sports medicine, toxicology, and civil procedure? All this and more she gladly pursued, though her parents (had they ceased buzzing for a few moments and taken note of just what their daughter was reading) would have said that much of it was useless and that she was far too young for the rest. But this would have been silly of them, because she was as clever as she was odd, which was to say very clever indeed. Knowledge adhered to her as surely as it did to her parents, though she had the rather unfortunate habit of inhaling it without thinking and then sneezing it all out in a rush, so that her teachers scowled at her for the disruption and her classmates turned to each other and sing-songed, “Granger, granger, she’s the one to call, if you want a stranger, and bushy know-it-all!” which was a funny joke the whole school shared, although Hermione didn’t think it was funny at all, perhaps because she had not yet collected the knowledge of how to understand her peers.

That was her name: Hermione Granger.

And that was what was printed on top of the letter, although she had to read it over several times just to be sure, because by now she’d been quite certain that no place would want her and that she would have to go on educating herself, which was what she’d been planning to do in any case. But it was not to be.

The Drs. Granger and Granger, buzzing to the telephone and back to the letter and out to the hall and back to the letter and around mouthfuls of birthday cake and back to the letter and into the study and back to the letter, were elated. Of course she was accepted. Wasn’t Dr. Granger the elder herself a BEE alumna? And hadn’t Dr. Granger the younger impressed the headmistress with that engaging witticism about the heedless young woman and the shark (‘Polly! Fie! Oh, don’t!’ which was an old dentists’ joke and easily understood if one knew enough about teeth)? Oh, this was a happy day in the Granger residence! They would be sure to pencil in some congratulatory time with Hermione, perhaps over the Christmas break, perhaps in Switzerland because of course the Winter Dental Conference was held there every year, and of course Hermione would be given a great many books about the Alps and left to her own devices as a reward, which was the sort of reward all three Grangers found appropriate.

“I think I’ll go to the bookshop,” Hermione said, midway through all the buzzing, and excused herself.

The Drs. Granger and Granger permitted this. Of course, it was a bit silly of them, given how dangerous things could be these days, and how all other intelligent buzzers were inclined to keep their children at home, but Hermione had been walking herself to the bookshop for years now and no harm had ever come to her – sometimes it seemed as though she was quite indestructible, for she never got sick and was never seriously hurt and had never seemed to be in the slightest bit of danger, except for once when a gas main had exploded a few streets over and killed two old people and six middle-aged people and one very young person, but of course Hermione, who’d been in the epicenter of the explosion, had emerged with her jacket destroyed and her shoes ruined but her body quite intact. Because she was an odd child, but she was also very lucky.

So they let her go, for they had to transmit the news to Gran and to cousin Hugo and to their many like-minded colleagues, and, besides, it was only more appropriateness to them: the bookshop was generally where Hermione went when she had reason to be happy, and also where she went when she had reason to be sad, and also where she went when she had reason to feel nothing at all because emotions were hard to grasp when there had been so much buzzing in her general vicinity. And this was evidently one of those latter times, because Hermione, walking down the street, did not know what to think of the Benedict Ethelton East School in Dulwich, though of course it was a very good school and of course she was very flattered and of course she’d seen the rankings and of course she was terribly excited and of course –

Of course this was only so much buzzing, which she indulged in occasionally because it was the chief form of communication in her home. Psychologically speaking, of course she would have picked it up at some point, of course she would be in some respects a buzzer of the highest order. But the problem with this buzzing was that it was not sincere, and Hermione generally preferred sincerity, not because she had buzzed her way through several ethical and social disciplines and in so doing learned that sincerity was best, but because she was by and large a very good child who did not like to lie to others or to herself. And it would have been a lie to say that she was happy with the letter. Something about the letter seemed wrong. She was certain that she should not attend the Benedict Ethelton East School. She did not quite know why, but she was very certain all the same, as certain as she was that – that that tabby cat balanced on windowsill of the bookshop was watching her!

Oh. But this was silliness. Because she’d read a great many books about cats, and they were surprisingly clever in some respects but they did not have the cognitive capacity to spy on someone, even though it did look very much like the tabby cat was following her furtively with its intelligent green eyes. Intelligent? More silliness. Anthropomorphic silliness. Like that time she thought she’d made her old stuffed otter dance about the room, only Dad had said she must have thrown it and it must have bounced off of the furniture in an odd pattern caused perhaps by the movement of the ceiling fan or perhaps it was only a trick of the light or perhaps he’d better pack them both off to Mum’s old friend Dr. such-and-such who specialized in collective hysteria because he thought he’d seen it as well only, Hermione, darling, of course otters – particularly stuffed ones – don’t do that.

So she passed the cat by, and buzzed a greeting to the shop owner (who knew her well by now and privately felt that she was a good but very odd child), and went directly to the books on important and useful topics because those were the ones she was most comfortable with, being buzzer books of the sort the Grangers kept around the house. Only no sooner was she about to select a suitable book on differential algebra than she heard a soft purr and there was the tabby cat, twining itself about her feet. She attempted to shoo it away, only perhaps the shop owner had purchased the cat and installed it there to haunt that side of the shop, because the cat seemed convinced that it belonged before the shelf on complex mathematics, in precisely that very spot where Hermione happened to be standing. So Hermione stepped to the left. And so the cat followed. And so Hermione stepped again to the left, and again there was the cat. And so Hermione attempted to step to the right, but the cat would not let her, and of course she liked cats a great deal, usually, but this cat seemed very pushy, it seemed determined to herd her to the left and –

But no. More silliness. Cats did not herd. They were not sheepdogs or anything like sheepdogs; knowledge of the two was rarely found on the same shelf. Felines and canines of course, Hermione, darling, generally 42 canid teeth as compared to 30 felid teeth, so very different of course, and we must not mix up our cataloging in this respect, because of course that would not do. Buzz, buzz, buzz. But still the cat herded her, and still she felt, in some silly place inside of her, that this was not a normal cat, until suddenly the cat stopped and there she was before a great many books that were not buzzer books at all.

Some were books on Translated Poetry, only poetry in general could be too wishy-washy for her taste, except for all the devices and meter, which she rather liked. Hermione picked a few of these up and looked at them and looked at the cat, and the cat seemed to agree that this was often a very wooly subject indeed, although of course that was probably just Hermione projecting her own emotions onto the cat. But when she put them down she could not shake the notion that she was doing so less because of any aversion to poetry on her part and more because this was not what the cat had brought her here to see. So then she turned to the Great British Authors, which she had already collected, being reared in the buzzer way of beginning at A for Austen and then progressing along all the way to W for Wells, inhaling each letter in its proper turn. She did not know why the cat had brought her here; truly, she’d been over this side of the bookshop a thousand times and there was nothing new, nothing exciting, nothing worth abandoning the buzzer books for, only—

There! Between D for Dryden and D for Durrell. Something she must have missed before. She was certain it was new, only some careless browsing patron must have misplaced it because this was not where the new books went. And it was a strange book to be newly arrived in the bookshop, because it did not look new at all, it looked quite old, bound in leather and with pages that seemed to be made of parchment. But when she picked it up the cat returned to purring, and looked at her as though she’d found what she’d been brought here for. So Hermione opened the book (because there was nothing printed on the binding except for the rather peculiar word DUMBLEDORE, which she knew only to be an ancient term for bees and this she knew only because she was very obviously a specialist on that topic, being herself raised among those human bees in the buzzer colony of the Granger residence), and there on the inner flap was printed:

THE TREMENDOUS GIFT OF THE MUGGLE-BORNS

which did not seem to be a proper title at all. And when she read the first page she thought that perhaps it was some kind of experimental fiction because of all of the made-up words, only in tone it appeared to be a social treatise. And in that tone there was also a sort of non-buzzing humor that had nothing to do with teeth, a gentle humor that wasn’t at anyone’s expense, and this was something Hermione had never once encountered until this very moment.

She liked it very much. True, she could not understand what he (he? Yes, she knew it was a he, as surely as she knew that the cat at her feet was a she) was saying, but clearly all she needed was to read along some more and in time she would understand. Because this was the wonderful thing about books: they functioned as answer keys that could help you comprehend the very knowledge they themselves imparted. They would not buzz half-answers at you and leave you to sort out the rest; they would not sing-song at you if you could not grasp something immediately. You could take them apart at your own pace and find knowledge nestled there in quiet peace, and Hermione could tell that there was knowledge for her in this book, even in those words that this Dumbledore had obviously made up.

So she thanked the tabby cat (odd, but then she was an odd girl), and took the book to the till, where the shop owner said, “I can’t sell this.” And then the cat jumped up to the counter and yowled at him, and he drew back, affronted, and added, “And you shouldn’t bring your pets inside, Hermione! I ought to tell your parents!” which was ridiculous because Hermione’s parents did not know very much about her but they certainly knew that she had no pets.

“It isn’t my cat. I thought it was yours. I’ve only just met it,” she said, “And the book was on the shelf. I don’t think you should have put it on the shelf if you didn’t mean to sell it. If something is on the shelf, then generally it tells the customer that—“

“Hasn’t been cataloged yet,” said the shop owner, which was a perfectly rational explanation, which Hermione ought to have accepted because of course one had to catalog the books before one could sell them, because this was the only sensible way to do things, of course, because one didn’t need to be a know-it-all to understand that. Buzz buzz buzz. “Don’t remember seeing it until just now; must have overlooked it; must catalog it; come back in a week, maybe.”

But Hermione could not accept this, because she knew, somewhere in that silly place that seemed very serious and very honest all of a sudden, that this book was hers; it was meant for her, and she would take it home today, and there was nothing the shop owner could do about that.

“That book is mine,” she said, and she felt something strange come out of her with the words, and the cat felt it too, or it would not have jumped down and begun to purr approvingly at her, and even the shop owner felt it, because he blinked once and said, “Oh, hello, Hermione. Yes, of course it’s yours. But you ought to know by now that we don’t buy secondhand until Saturday, and even then only the ones in good condition. You had better take it back home again.”

Then he handed it back. She felt a rush of elation and also the sense that perhaps she had done something just now that was not quite fair, but she brushed that off and ran all the way home. She was quite sure that the cat was following her, but when she reached the Granger residence she could not see it anywhere; it seemed to have disappeared, and maybe it was like her dancing stuffed otter and had only been a trick in her mind and not a real cat at all, for at times it had seemed more like a person than a cat. Or maybe it had been a real cat, but a strangely sensible cat that knew better than to go where there was so much endless buzzing.

Only as she opened the door and stepped inside, she was surprised to find that there was no buzzing at all. The colony was quiet, and the dental tunics were very listlessly draped over the fuzzy-haired geniuses, who were themselves very uncharacteristically still and silent. They’d welcomed a guest, apparently just now, for the woman still had on her coat and tartan scarf, but they were not buzzing about her with tooth jokes and dental wisdom. They were only staring at her in shock, as though they’d could not understand where she’d come from: as though she had popped into existence without warning or explanation, quite out of thin air.

“Here she is,” said the woman, turning to greet Hermione. She had exactly the same intelligent green eyes as the cat, Hermione thought, but then that was silliness, wasn’t it? “Hello, my dear. I am Headmistress Minerva McGonagall.”

“Of Benedict Ethelton East?” said Hermione, though of course she was certain that the Headmistress there hadn’t been named Minerva McGonagall at all, and though of course this made the cat, that is, the woman, look at her very severely. Because of course Hermione was capable of being a great deal smarter than this. Because of course there was nothing about the woman that suggested Benedict Ethelton anything, because of course she was quite an odd woman, with long skirts and a strange hat and a stick in her hand like some kind of talisman to ward off the bee colony, and, oh, time to stop this buzzing!

This woman was like her.

“Of your new school,” the woman said.

“We thought she would begin next year,” offered Dr. Granger the younger, almost timidly, “It said so in the letter.”

“We no longer do letters,” said the woman, “We now do books. And she’s received the book.”

At this Hermione looked at THE TREMENDOUS GIFT OF THE MUGGLE-BORNS again, with that peculiar name on the binding as though it were specifically reserved for an odd child reared in a bee colony, and suddenly she knew that it was right in the same way the letter had been wrong. Because she would not attend Benedict Ethelton East School in Dulwich, because what could they possibly offer her that she could not teach herself? But here was new knowledge, knowledge that didn’t belong and couldn’t normally be found in the bookshop up the road, and it was meant for her. She was meant to receive it.

“Do you mean a textbook?” said Dr. Granger the elder, “Because I understood that we were to pay for those ourselves. Biology and maths and literature and such.”

The Headmistress turned her severe green eyes to the buzzer couple. “I expect,” she said, sniffing a bit, “That she has already taught herself biology and maths and literature. We have a new form of knowledge for her.” And here she looked at Hermione very keenly, but Hermione did not know what to say because she hadn’t studied the book yet, and she was almost embarrassed by this because of course this never happened to her.

“Magic, Ms. Granger,” the Headmistress said, seeming to comprehend her embarrassment, “I of course mean magic.”

-

When the sixth Weasel of the Burrow turned eleven, it was very cold and wintry and the third Weasel contemplated that this winter would go on forever until it ran into summer, when it would get so hot outside that your clothes would stick to you and you would sweat horribly the way you did at school when they called you in for punishment, and so the younger ones would miss spring again this year, which did not seem fair because all they had known was this hot and this cold and never a bit of rest in between. But he did not say these things out loud because they were not helpful, and he was expected to be helpful. Bill and Charlie needed him to mind the youngest Weasel and the twin Weasels and to not make things any worse than necessary today.

When he had turned eleven, it had been Aunt Muriel who’d taken him in, because she was a Prewett and had a cousin by marriage who’d been a Black, and they took those things into account down at the registry office. It had not been so bad for him. But Muriel was dead now; she’d contracted dragon pox and been brought in by Bill, who everyone knew was only the first Weasel of the Burrow and therefore the spawn of blood-traitors, no matter how many cousins by marriage he might have, and they took those things into account down at St. Mungo’s. So the Healers hadn’t bothered as much as they should have, and in the end it had been very bad for Muriel, and it would probably be very bad for Ron, which was not fair, but there was hardly anything a bunch of Weasels in a Burrow could do about it.

He’d tried to tell the twins this, but they had not listened. They couldn’t remember what had happened with Mum and Dad. They weren’t old enough; neither were Ron and Ginny. It seemed to the third Weasel (Percy, though perhaps the numbering system would make it easier to keep track of all of them; Aunt Muriel had certainly reverted to it often enough, when they were being especially tiresome) that this meant the younger ones should have been more obedient and more accustomed to the great loss of spring that stretched over the Burrow as soon as another one turned eleven; but, if anything, the not-remembering only made the younger ones more defiant, as though they could sense that they’d been cheated out of a gentle, eccentric Dad and a humble, fierce Mum, and as though the only thing that could ever make it alright would be to resist, resist, resist! In every way possible. Even if it made things worse.

“Resist it!” said Fred, “Takes strength of will, Ronniekins. You have it, don’t you?”

Ron, quite straight and tall in his very dingy and patched robes (because why waste the good set on this, said Charlie, why not resist a bit, if they’re going to insist on this every single time?), stood at attention in the center of the kitchen and nodded.

“And when they say those lies about Mum and Dad,” said George, “Don’t you let them, you understand? Resist!”

“They’ll be harsh,” said Fred, “But its good practice for Hogwarts, isn’t it?”

“They were harsh with us,” said George, “But a few scars never hurt anybody.”

“Scars never hurt anybody! Resist!” echoed Ginny from the scullery, which was her room now because the fourth and fifth stories of the Burrow weren’t quite habitable with no Mum or Muriel to keep them up properly, and Charlie reasoned that they had to use all the space they had left, and Bill reckoned that it had been Mum’s spot anyway so that was alright, that was proper.

“It’s easier if you just play along, if you just say yes,” Percy said, because he felt he had to. Ron was his brother, and not the strongest or the cleverest Weasel in the Burrow, and he ought to know that he had a choice, that he could choose the easy way. But then they all knew that the easy way wasn’t the right way, and maybe the younger ones couldn’t remember, but Percy could remember and from this he knew that Mum and Dad would have been proud of their defiance, would have wanted them all to be fearless, and so he added, “But it’s better if you resist.”

Bill, from the doorway leading into the living room, cleared his throat then and said, “It’s time, Ron,” and Ron’s shoulders slumped just a bit, and they all pretended they hadn’t noticed.

“Resist!” said Ginny from the scullery. And that was the last word Ron heard before Bill tossed some floo powder into the fireplace, and then a moment later he, Charlie, and Ron were all in the Administrative Registration Department’s offices of Youth Testing, Discipline, and Wand Assignment.

They’d been told to get there directly; this was the only place they were licensed to appear on this day, and the Undersecretary’s Owl had been very clear on what might happen if they were late, or if they stopped somewhere they were not supposed to be. Though the Weasels had a general policy of resistance when it came to things like this, today was different. Today things would be bad enough, Bill had said, without the rest of us making it worse on Ron, understand? So we all do as we’re told and the resistance is up to him today. And the Weasels tended to vaguely and eventually fall in line when the eldest of them was very firm on something in this manner, because usually he was quite easygoing with them and would not press them and would in fact encourage them if they wanted to stand up for themselves because everything that was terrible had happened already and the worst they could do was kill you, which they probably would not do because they would rather see you live and suffer, understand?

Living and suffering was what it was all about if you left out the resisting, and naturally this was clearest on the eleventh birthday, when the Undersecretary looked disparagingly on one’s robes (not that robes mattered on the eleventh birthday), and said, in a sickly-sweet voice, “I had nearly forgotten. Today we have the sixth Weasel of the pigpen.”

“The Burrow, Ma’am,” said her assistant, coming in with Weasel’s papers and a Quick-Quotes Quill. “The file says the Burrow. Ottery St. Catchpole. Bulstrode’s division.”

“Does it?” said the Undersecretary, taking the papers and tapping the Quill twice with her wand, “It also says blood-traitor, as I can see quite clearly, in red right here, right below the re-designation. That’s quite a bit worse than a half-blood, if we must be honest about these things. If we are to be truly honest, and of course I don’t mean to be critical, but honesty demands it: that’s nearly as bad as a Muggle.”

“I can see that she’s starting in top form this year,” muttered Charlie. But then he quieted because, as Bill said, it was not his turn to be resistant. It was Ron’s.

“Do you suppose you are nearly as bad as a Muggle, Weasel?” said the Undersecretary, “I suppose you are. I must make note of those robes, which surely any decent child would not be caught wearing, and which are filthy, and which seem to say that you are filthy. And the filthy types, Weasel, betray their race. Do you have it in you to betray your race to Muggles, Weasel?”

“Might just,” said Ron, though his hands were trembling a bit, “You never know.”

And the Quill noted that Weasel said the magical race is lacking. Weasel said he despises his people. Weasel has perversity written all over his filthy, freckled face. Weasel is a bad sort. Weasel is like his parents. Black mark on Weasel’s papers.

“You are planning, then,” said the Undersecretary, “To take after your parents?”

“Reckon so,” said the boy, “I couldn’t forgive myself otherwise.”

And the Quill recorded that Weasel said he honors the memory of those who plotted against the Ministry and against our Lord. Weasel is like his brothers; Weasel is so much jealous, foolish rubbish. Second black mark for Weasel.

“But I suppose no one has told you the truth about them? That they were traitorous, ugly, weak sorts?”

“They weren’t!”

Weasel turned as red as his hair. Weasel revealed himself to be as weak as his fathers. The Weasel blood is very bad blood, very bad indeed. Third black mark for Weasel.

“They were,” said the Undersecretary, a satisfied look on her toad-like face, “Your mother, Weasel, and I say this in all honesty with no intent to hurt and only because it is the very letter of the truth, was filthy and fat and worthless—“

“She was worth more than you!”

Weasel spat on the Ministry that was trying so hard to help him. Weasel would not acknowledge that his parents were of no value, were cowardly. Two more black marks to Weasel.

“—And your father, it pains me to say, was a deviant and a pathetic half-breed sympathizer who consorted with the basest types, Weasel, the very basest—“

“Good! Better a Weasley to the end than a Ministry toad today!”

Weasel dared to use the name that is forbidden to him! Two more black marks to Weasel. Seven black marks total in less than two minutes. The last two Weasels managed in one, but they were working in tandem. This latest Weasel is the worst, most resistant Weasel yet.

“You’ve reached the seven tally, Weasel,” said the Underscretary, her voice as gleefully sickly-sweet as she could make it, “This means that you will be put down for work group if you do not agree to change your ways. I would regret it so very much if you were put down for work group. But then decent children are not put down for work group. Decent children promise to change when they reach Hogwarts. Decent children have taken the Unbreakable Vow and have made a remarkable turn around, have shown great promise, have even known the honor of being acknowledged by our Lord. Shouldn’t you like that honor, Weasel?”

She waited. Her assistant waited. Bill and Charlie waited. The Quick-Quotes Quill waited. Would the sixth Weasel say it? The first five Weasels had.

For this was how the first five Weasels had condemned themselves to work group, and this was why the first Weasel had only nine fingers and the second a bad leg and the third a horrible scar beneath his eye and the fourth and fifth between them only two-and-a-half ears. Because work group did not have use of the infirmary, you know, or for that matter use of the house elves or the owlery or the Quidditch pitch or the library or the classrooms or the Sorting Hat. Work group did not even have a proper name – not like Slytherin or Gryffindor or Ravenclaw or even Hufflepuff, which were all reserved only for decent wizards and witches who showed they were worthy of their magic, and not for those filthy sorts that failed Testing. And, what’s more, work group was worked very hard indeed, and punished more often than everyone else, and it could cause all sorts of permanent damage even to a member of their hardy, superior race to be condemned to work group; and everyone would know for the rest of your life that you were damaged in that way, that you were worthless, that you’d been stupid on your eleventh birthday and you hadn’t just taken the Vow and then the Mark like a normal person.

So surely Weasel would answer correctly this time.

“No,” said Ron, “It’s not an honor. I don’t want it! And no decent person would, and no Weasley ever will!”

Perverse Weasel, scribbled the Undersecretary’s Quill! Utterly failed Testing! Put him down for work group, and two more black marks (which meant two more minutes under the Cruciatus than the usual), and let the record show that Weasel has brought this on himself!

So then the elder Weasels were instructed to wait outside for nine minutes with the Undersecretary’s assistant, because experience had revealed that many witches and wizards were terribly weak and would try to interfere with Discipline, even though Discipline was for the best because how else were the children to learn the tremendous importance of obedience? Obedience was a prized skill in a magical child. And withstanding punishment would be good practice for a child who was to go to work group. But now the elder Weasels were resistant.

“Nine minutes?” said the first Weasel, quite forgetting his own instructions, “No. You can’t!”

“No one gets nine,” said the second Weasel, “Even the twins only got seven!”

And both Weasel wands were out, but then this was silly of them because the wands given to work group were not particularly good wands, were only the ones recycled from dead blood-traitors and half-breeds and Muggle-borns and the like, and their uses were highly tracked and very limited – the Reassignment Committee took care of that – so it wasn’t even like they could do anything to defend Ron, and in fact the despairing look Ron gave his brothers was more at their own foolishness than at any real dread. He did not feel dread anymore.

He felt as though he’d just done something terribly stupid and incredibly brave, which was essentially the same thing, and in doing it he’d seen himself not as the sixth Weasel of the Burrow but as Ronald Weasley, son of Arthur and Molly, who would have been very proud of him. And Bill had said it would be so, and Charlie had said it would be so, and Percy had said it would be so, and Fred and George had said it would be so, but he hadn’t really believed them until he felt it for himself. So the thought of nine minutes did not bother him very much; he was still wondering at himself, that he could ruin things so terribly and fix them so perfectly all with a few words, and none of those words the least bit magical.

Then the Undersecretary’s assistant very easily disarmed his brothers and marched them outside and Ron wasn’t to know it, but Bill was to stand outside the door and pound on it and scream and threaten to do horrific things to the Undersecretary because Bill in fact took these things very hard, no matter what he said and no matter how easygoing he seemed. The assistant was to let him do this because many wizards and witches reacted in the same manner during their children’s Discipline sessions, though they’d all received the owl from the Undersecretary and ought to have known better, ought to have prepared themselves. But people very rarely did, and even he had taken it hard, when their Marietta had her seven minutes just a few years ago. So it was alright for the eldest Weasel to resist, just this once.

It was over in nine minutes, because the Undersecretary was a busy woman and she would not go over time even for a Weasel, not when she had better things to do. But naturally by then Ron was shaking and his throat was hoarse and the wonderment was very much dulled; indeed, it was difficult for him to remember with any clarity the events of the morning, and he supposed somewhat despairingly that he would never get that brave feeling back. He was the sixth Weasel of the Burrow, that pigpen for blood-traitors, once more. And this made it very hard to resist the Wand Assignment bit, which was when she used the Imperius on him (good for the children to see what it was like before they went to Hogwarts. Good for them to see it’s not so bad as long as they submit peacefully); and marched him to where she’d had all those horrible bloodstained wands sent up by the Reassignment Committee; and told him to pick the first one, and to get out.

Which he did, stumbling out of the door and right into Bill, who for the briefest moment looked much more shaken than Ron had ever seen him, but who recovered as soon as he saw that Ron was alright, that Ron had not gone mad, that Ron was only dulled a bit, with the terrible experience of grasping the wonderment and then losing it again.

But that had happened to all of them.

“Alright there, Ron?” said Charlie.

Ron nodded, and accepted a handkerchief from the Undersecretary’s assistant to wipe the sweat on his brow away, and felt Bill’s hand on one shoulder and Charlie’s on the other, keeping him steady, and thought that he would not regret it – no, he never would! Because if he’d chosen differently then he’d never have felt the wonderment at all, and he certainly wouldn’t have been worthy of it, never mind how disloyal it would have been to his brothers and to Ginny and to Mum and Dad and even Muriel. And after this he didn’t need to see the Undersecretary again for another seven years if he was lucky, so there was that. Only naturally he was not lucky – the eleventh was the unluckiest birthday, everyone knew that – for no sooner had he stopped shaking than there was the Undersecretary coming out into the hall and snapping at her assistant to bring her her cloak, and then leveling her wand at Ron with a very sweet look on her toad-like face.

“You seem determined to waste the Ministry’s time, Weasel. I believe Bulstrode only licensed your entry here for the session. The session is over. But then,” she said, still in that sugary tone, “Perhaps nine minutes of Discipline were not enough for you, perhaps—“

But here something on the other side of the hall caught her attention, and the false sweetness dropped for a moment to reveal pure shock, and she called out, “Hold on, there! Hold on there, sir!” to a hooded figure some way off. Next to Ron, Bill stiffened, and said in a low voice, “No resisting just now, not even from you, Ron,” which was a strange statement to come from Bill, and on today of all days.

The hooded figure paused and turned around, and it was a man, older than Bill but perhaps not as old as the Undersecretary’s assistant, and very ugly. He was not the sort of person who was ugly because he seemed cruel (although he did seem cruel) or unpleasant (although he seemed to be that, too). He was ugly because he was ugly; he was an ill-assembled, bony, sallow sort of person, and that was the end of it. If he’d been very good-natured and kind, he still would have been ugly, although it was made worse by how unkempt he appeared, even in an Unspeakable’s well-pressed robes and hood. He was holding an assortment of parchment, which seemed to signify something to the Undersecretary, something bad.

“What on earth does the Department of Mysteries need with that?” she said. “I was quite sure I heard McLaggen declare it would be Banished!”

The ugly man gave a sneer, looked at the Undersecretary as though she were a bad smell flitting about beneath his not-inconsiderable nose, looked at her in exactly the manner she’d looked at the Weasels of the Burrow, and said, in a very silky and menacing way, “I am quite sure I never question you about your Department, Dolores. Indeed, I have no desire to hear about wands or work group or Weasleys. And yet if I did, you would have to tell me. Whereas I am under no such orders, and so you will have to content yourself with knowing nothing, which at least seems to be your natural state.”

The Undersecretary flushed as pink as her cardigan, and snapped, “I believe you refer to the Weasels! Even you must not violate the Decree for the Re-Designation of Blood-Traitors, you know!”

The man’s sneer only deepened. For a moment, Ron thought that he did not seem to care very much for the Decree for the Re-Designation of Blood-Traitors, but then that was silly. It was a very important Decree; it was necessary for the continued safety of the wizarding world; it was only fitting, and only just, and only the Decree that could ruin you and your brothers and your sister and your aunt, and make it so that all you knew was cold living and hot suffering and never a bit of rest in between.

“And besides,” added the Undersecretary, “You never returned that pair of Reassignment Committee wands we sent to your Department, which I expect will be a pretty bit of news to spread about the canteen—“

“Will it?” said the man, “Does the canteen find it noteworthy to discover the Department of Mysteries engaging in mysterious behavior? Thank Merlin I never go to the canteen, then; presumably everyone there is as slow-witted and dunderheaded as you are.”

Then the Undersecretary’s toad-like chin quivered furiously, and she snapped at her assistant to hurry along, and they both disappeared into her office again, leaving the Weasels alone with the strange hooded man. Ron thought for a moment that he would do terrible things to them, would hex them or put them under the Imperius or perhaps just say something awful, the way Ministry people always did when they saw the Weasels of the Burrow. But he only nodded at them once and said, “Weasleys,” in a bored, silky way, and then progressed back down the hall, as though deciding to ridicule the Undersecretary and not a group of known blood-traitors was a choice one made every day, and not the slightest bit unusual or foolhardy.

“Let’s go home,” Bill said after a moment, and so they found the nearest floo and did exactly that.

At the Burrow, Charlie explained everything: how Ron had resisted brilliantly, how quickly he’d reached the seven tally during Testing, and how he’d taken nine minutes of Discipline without flinching. Really he had flinched quite a lot and Charlie hadn’t even been there to see it, and Percy and Fred and George, at least, had to know this. But no one remarked on it because there was something gloriously reckless about those extra two minutes, and so Ron deserved to be treated like a hero for today. And then Ginny and Percy produced cake, which was a bit soggy in the middle because neither of them was a very good cook, not like the older ones said Mum had been, but which still tasted wonderful to Ron because he couldn’t really remember Mum’s cooking anyway.

“That was strange of Snape, though,” Bill said, once the cake was gone, “Wasn’t it?”

“Who’s Snape?” said Ron, and then Bill and Charlie and Percy all looked at him as though he’d grown an extra head. Ron shrugged. Fred and George and Ginny didn’t seem to know either, so he wasn’t going to be embarrassed.

“He’s Head Unspeakable,” said Percy, “He’s in the Dark Lord’s inner circle. The only half-blood in it. They say he did something terrible to earn his place. He wasn’t there today, was he? Why would he show up for that?”

“He wasn’t at Ron’s session, no,” said Charlie, “But we saw him afterwards in the hall. He’s as ugly as they say, you know. Worse close up.”

“But he knew who we were, and he used our name,” said Bill. “Our real one. Said it twice. It’s strange. It’s very strange.”

“Do you think he knew Mum and Dad? Really knew them?” Ginny asked softly.

But that was just silly. Everyone who’d really known Mum and Dad was, like them, a blood-traitor and therefore dead.

-

Number 4, Privet Drive served no birthday cake on the last day of the seventh month. This made sense. As far as the children of that residence knew, no one turned eleven on that day, and so no cake or streamers or presents or other uncommon bits of birthday magic were required, although, to be fair to their parents, an uncommon sort of magic was often present at Privet Drive even when it was not required, because Dursley and the Mrs. felt that they could not live without it.

This was an extraordinary attitude, not at all a Privet Drive attitude, and certainly the last sort of attitude you would have expected from the residents of Number 4, which from a long way off looked almost exactly like all the other houses on Privet Drive: a boxy two-level, ordinary in the extreme, with a perfectly humdrum front garden that quite respectably echoed its fellows in its straight, modest beds of pansies and agapanthuses. But when you reached number 4 and stood before it directly, it began to seem as though the front garden had nothing so normal as the noble agapanthus; it seemed instead to burst at you with a riot of sunflowers and tiger lilies and roses and hydrangeas and a great many other flowers of genuses that could not be native to Surrey, flowers that waved impertinently at you with their dark blue-ish petals like the hands of stars, and flowers that made soft snickers and coos at you as you hurried past and told yourself, “This is beyond the pale! Dursley has done it this time! They’ve ruined the whole street! I really must take this up with the neighborhood committee!”

Only then you would pass the hedge that blocked off number 4 from number 5, or perhaps from number 3, and you would forget that you’d seen anything odd there at all.

If you were so unfortunate as to live at number 3 or number 5, why, then you would undergo this queer transformation very often, and not just when looking at the front garden, either. For if you were a spying sort, a sort who liked to peer over other people’s garden fences, you might have seen the smaller Dursley boy darting about in the rear garden on a broom, several feet above the ground, or Mrs. Dursley transporting a plant with a screaming baby at the root from the greenhouse to the shed, or Mr. Dursley in a sort of dress perched in the highest branch of the Dursleys’ very tall tree, almost certainly ready to plummet to his death and yet not the slightest bit afraid of it. And then you would say, “I knew it! I knew they were weird, those people! I knew they were freaks!” only when you looked away you would have forgotten it all, and the only thing you’d know about the people at number 4 was that they were oddballs, but that you’d never heard of anything truly bizarre from that quarter, and in fact you weren’t even sure you knew what they looked like, so probably they were alright.

But they were not alright. They were exceptional, although no one seemed to know it but the Dursley children. Of these there were two, both eleven; both born, or so they believed, on seventh-to-last day of sixth month (which was when number 4 had last served cake); and quite as different from each other as night and day. The elder by an hour or so was Dudley, and he was a decent boy from the neighborhood perspective, though of course a bit slow, but otherwise very normal and blue-eyed and blond and big for his age, the lucky little chap. A bit horsey about the lower half of the face, and Privet Drive thought, whenever it laid eyes on his mother, that he must have gotten that from her.

Then there was the younger boy. Skinny and bright-eyed and dark-haired, with a habit of staring around at Privet Drive as though perfectly aware that what he saw was not real, perfectly aware that the houses with their modest and orderly agapanthus gardens were all lying about what went on inside, lying as surely as number 4 lied to the people who saw it from very far away. Because the man at number 11 would kick his dog from time-to-time, and that didn’t seem to be the right order of things at all; and the woman at number 6 lived to say malicious things to people in a very immodest fashion indeed; and the couple at number 21 were always telling their daughter that she was not pretty enough, not clever enough, not good enough for them, and that was neither right nor modest. So he was not fooled by all those gardens, and Privet Drive thought that this was very troublesome of him. But then he was an unsettling boy; he was perhaps cleverer than Dudley, but it was a great deal harder to like him. And he was far too lucky, for he seemed to never get hurt or sick like a normal child, and several times he or his brother had nearly been run over by a respectably gleaming Privet Drive car being maneuvered by a respectably careless Privet Drive adolescent, and it had seemed to all onlookers as though he’d done something to make the car swerve into a neat agapanthus bed instead. Only everyone knew that could not have happened. The adolescent was very careless, that was all, and the Dursley boy very quick when it came to pulling himself and his brother out of harm’s way.

The quickness came from his father. For Dursley was a slippery fellow; if you knew anything about him, you knew that. Perhaps you would forget the wild dark hair, so like the younger son’s; or the pale, knobbly knees, also so like the younger son’s; or how he could never seem to pronounce perfectly normal words like ‘telephone’ or ‘refrigerator’ or ‘insurance deductible’; or the peculiar habit he had of wandering around in shorts when it was too cold, and full long underwear when it was too warm, and something like a buttoned dressing gown or a vicar’s vestments the rest of the time, as though he had no idea what to make of modern clothing. But you could never forget how he seemed to have a superior laugh hidden in a corner of his mouth; and how he would bring forth that laugh at the slightest provocation; and how very often that slightest provocation was you, as though he with all his freakishness had the right way of things, but you with your agapanthuses and your gleaming car were somehow wrong and hollow – you were the strange ones. The cheek of that Dursley!

Privet Drive did not like Dursley very much. And the feeling was entirely mutual.

But Privet Drive would tolerate him, and also the boys, because Mrs. Dursley was not a woman to cross in this respect. You could not tell this immediately upon meeting her, because she was very kind and friendly – and pretty! My word, very pretty, even with that hair that was a bit too red and those eyes that were unnaturally green and bright and also that horsiness about the face. Even with all that, she was nice to look at; it was a wonder to see her with Dursley because Privet Drive women, even the ugly ones, would not be caught dead with a slippery man in a dress, and yet she seemed to understand and not mind his quick, superior laugh and his oddities. This was because she was not really a Privet Drive woman, and never was this clearer than when you managed to grab hold of something odd that Dursley or the younger boy had done, managed to fix it in your memory with great strength of will so that it did not slip away, and you marched up to number 4 and noticed for the first time all those flowers, and you became so enraged that you pounded on the door and demanded that these Dursleys explain what they were about, if they pleased, because what they were about was certainly not Privet Drive!

Well, then Mrs. Dursley would open the door and you would look into her bright eyes and you would see something very determined and strong there, something that told you to go away and not come back, something that told you that she did not like people trampling through her star-flowers and carelessly driving into her sons and that this was not the half of what she’d faced in her life, so if you could take yourself off to wherever you belonged, if you please, that would be best for everyone involved.

And you would. You’d stop grasping at the memory, and you’d back away from the bright garden until you were no longer aware it even existed, and number 4 would be at peace again, with only the children inside to know that it was a strange house, not at all a proper Privet Drive house.

Dudley, who woke up around noon because Mum was arguing very loudly with her mirror across the hall, saw this a bit more clearly than his brother, for all that Harry was the clever one. Because of course Dudley was almost a proper Privet Drive boy, and Harry was not, and so Harry often thought it was the neighborhood that was odd and not Mum and Dad. Dudley knew that the neighborhood was normal, and that he could be normal, but that Mum and Dad and Harry never would be, although he would never tell them this because he thought hearing it might hurt their feelings. And yelling at Mum over the mirror might hurt her feelings, so he did not do this either, although he wanted to very much because it was a wonderful summer day and therefore a day for a normal boy to waste away in bed.

Instead he went out into the hall, ignoring the way Mum said, “Oh, I don’t care that I ought not to wear pink; I like pink!” to the mirror, and the way the mirror seemed to reply, “It’s on your clashing red head, then, dearie!” to Mum, and made his way down into the kitchen, where Harry and Dad were already sitting and having sandwiches and a spat on the topic of football. Because Harry liked football a lot, which was only natural, as he was good at it, only Dad said it was a stupid sport, a slow sport, and that Harry knew perfectly well flying was better. But Harry did not know this because he was not allowed to fly far; he was not even allowed to fly up into the tallest branches of the tree the way Dad did. He could only fly around and around the rear garden (which was more than Dudley could fly, to be sure, but then Dudley was normal and normal boys did not fly around on broomsticks) in the same endless loop, and that football was at least as exciting as this, so he didn’t see why Dad was so dead-set against it.

“Hello, Dabney-Dudley,” said Dad. This was a peculiar joke he had, which Dad thought was funny for reasons unknown (you were a runny baby, and I had to dab at you an awful lot to keep you from sniffling over everything and I really could not understand it, he’d told Dudley offhandedly once, but this was only the sort of roundabout, unclear explanation that Dad was given to, the sort of explanation that only made everyone more confused). Dudley and Harry thought it was funny because of the way it would sometimes make the objects in Mum’s knitting basket or Mum’s picture frames on the wall fly at his head in retaliation. Mum’s things often took flight and rearranged themselves at whim and sometimes launched full-scale assaults when she was displeased, but they never truly caused any harm, because Mum was not really a harm-causing sort of person. Just a strange one.

And here came this strange person now, looking quite normal because Mum, at least, could put normal on in the morning in just the same way she put on her pink sundress, although anyone who knew her well would of course see that this was a bit of make-believe on her part, rather like the front garden.

“What’s the topic of today’s argument, then?” she said to Dad, as though she herself had not been fighting with the mirror only minutes ago. She said it not unkindly but with a bit of a check in her tone, and this was because if Mum did not check him from time to time then Dad was likely to never be checked at all. Dad felt that he was not of the type to be checked; Dad was always very surprised and very merry and a bit dangerous when the neighborhood would try to check him with an, “I say, Dursley! What is the meaning of you out on the street in broad daylight in a dressing gown?” That was always an opportunity for Dad to show that he’d supposed his was to be a life without many checks in it; that he was not accustomed to checks and certainly not from them; and that, if he had to admit that all of us must be checked sometimes, well, then he would admit it alright, but only with the caveat that a Privet Drive sort would never accomplish the task with him, because that was a victory he allowed only to those few persons hidden behind number 4’s false agapanthus front.

Mum, Dudley, and Harry could check him with impunity. Dad had come around, in his own strange way, to the notion that really loving someone meant not caring about your type or theirs, not caring whether you were of the normal sort and they were of the strange sort, not caring whether they were determined to check you and you were used to to never being checked at all. Really loving someone meant lowering yourself to be checked every once in a while (even if you did not like it and you were not born to it and, quite frankly, you were of the sort that normally did the checking) because that was what they needed you to do. And Dad really loved those persons at number 4, and so sometimes they could check him, even if no one else ever could.

So today all he said was, “Oh, it’s the old flying versus football row again. It’s only that, and I expect Harry is right because he ought to make some friends and we ought to be nice to him today, anyway.”

This last observation was more of Dad’s strangeness leaking through, Dudley and Harry thought, because there was no reason why today should be special in this regard, and so Harry took the opportunity to say, “What? Nice to me today and not on the other days? That explains a lot,” which made Dad look a bit cross but also a bit proud.

“No cheek from that corner, please,” said Mum, “Though he really should play football with the other children. It’s time they included him. Included both of them, I mean.”

But she did not mean both of them, because everybody knew that Dudley was always included and Harry very rarely was, because Harry was weird. Piers Polkiss said so, and his father ran the Surrey Summer League, which all the boys on Privet Drive belonged to except for the Dursleys because Piers Polkiss’s opinion counted for a great deal. Piers Polkiss had told Dudley, confidentially, “You’re a good sort, D. You’re normal, I mean. So it’s nothing personal ‘cause you’re welcome to join as long as you leave your brother at home. Malcolm and Gordon and Dennis all like you well enough, but he’s a freak.”

Dudley really should have twisted Polkiss’s arm at that because it was not right to say that about Harry, even if it was true. Only it was true, and Harry couldn’t seem to see it, and, anyway, Harry fit in better at home with Mum and Dad, who were as weird as him, really, and so wasn’t it okay if Dudley fit in better outside? That seemed to make things fair, anyway, especially since Harry got to be the smart one and the magical one and the one Mum and Dad always seemed so proud of. Oh, Dudley was good at some things too, but only at normal things and that wasn’t quite the same. They’d look at how Harry could change the color of his shirt when he didn’t like it (Pink, Mum? Really?), or how he could make the best bits of bacon fly onto his plate before Mum had even set them down on the table, or how quick and talented he was on the broomstick even if he was only permitted to fly in the back garden, and their eyes would become very bright and happy as though here was finally something that made Privet Drive worthwhile. Only then they would notice Dudley and say, “Oh, but you’re very talented in your own way as well, darling, in such a lovely regular way” or “Oh, Dabney-Duds, you mustn’t feel left out; just think of how good you are at using the toaster!” as though Dudley’s normalcy was unfortunate, very unfortunate, and they needed to compensate for it somehow.

But Dudley liked being normal. He liked that Piers and Dennis and Gordon and Malcolm thought he was a good sort. It certainly made things easier at school, where Dudley was always allowed to sit at people’s tables if he wanted to and to borrow people’s things if he wanted to and to take part in games during recess if he wanted to. Harry was usually not allowed to, and he told Dudley that that was alright, he didn’t want to anyway, and he’d just as soon go sit under the tree and read if it was all the same to him, but even Dudley could tell he was lying.

So he’d tried for a sort of compromise, and said, “Well, my folks won’t let me join up if you don’t at least give Harry a tryout. They’re awfully big on fairness, you know.”

Piers Polkiss came around to this, believing that Harry would only be as strange as he always was at the tryout. Harry had instead been amazing, because Harry was strange, but part of that strangeness was how he was so much quicker than all the other boys on Privet Drive, and so it seemed like they would both get to join the League and at last Harry would be included in something. Only then Dudley had to go and ruin it by being stupid and saying, “Yeah, they’re finally letting us join the Little Whinging team this year.”

To which Mum replied, “Team?”

And Dad said, “You didn’t say anything about a team, Harry.”

And Mum said, “No, a team would draw too much attention to you. Playing now and then is alright, but I don’t think you should go joining a team.”

Dudley had forgotten: Harry was not to go trying to draw attention to himself. It was alright if Dudley did it; Dudley was normal. But Harry was like the star-flower garden; people became upset enough when they noticed that he didn’t belong, but just imagine what might happen if they were faced with him every day! They might bring him up before the neighborhood committee and then word would get out and then just imagine what might happen to Harry! Because even though Harry never got sick and never got hurt and never seemed to be in harm’s way, Mum and Dad were convinced that something out there could hurt Harry very dreadfully if ever it learned of Harry’s existence. Presumably this something did not target normal children, because they acted as though Dudley was in no such danger, but then maybe that was the price of being extraordinary all the time. Maybe it wasn’t that Harry couldn’t be hurt, but only that normal things couldn’t hurt him: only the very strange and unexpected and astonishing things could.

So on the final day of the seventh month the Dursley boys were told to find that Polkiss fellow and to very politely excuse Harry from playing, because who knew what strange and unexpected and astonishing things Harry could do in front of a crowd of Junior League football fans, and who knew what strange and unexpected and astonishing and terrible things might follow? And Dad was rueful as he herded them to the door and said that maybe he would go up in the tree to clear his head because he didn’t like hiding either, Harry, but this was how it had to be. And Mum was firm as she waved them off and said that she would go in the shed and bring out her silver cauldron to make some potions and maybe Harry could help with that this summer, and wouldn’t he like that?

Harry would have preferred to be included for once. He refused to talk to Dudley all the way to the Polkiss residence, and when they arrived he only stared without speaking at the Polkiss house, so very like theirs but also nothing like it. Theirs was messier and more colorful, with a talking mirror instead of a television propped up on the credenza, and theirs did not have a great beige carpet and great beige walls and so much beige furniture and the very beige Mr. and Mrs. Polkiss offering beige tea for these dear Dursleys and perhaps some beige conversation because, boys, they were welcome to wait but Piers was not in; Piers was very popular, quite the most popular and normal boy in all of Privet Drive, and so he had been invited to Dennis’s house, or possibly to Malcolm’s or to Gordon’s, but definitely to somebody’s. This was insulting because Piers, aside from his League connections, was an awful sort of person and most assuredly a bad houseguest and yet naturally he was invited to all those places the Dursley boys never were, perhaps because his mother’s hair was beige instead of red and because his father wore not dresses but trousers of a very respectable beige.

Dudley explained that they hadn’t come to talk to Piers, they had only come to say that Harry would not be taking part in the League. Oh, this was just awful, said Mr. Polkiss, in a beige and not very convincing way, and young Harold (it was Harold, wasn’t it? Hadley? Haversham? Funny how he could never remember Harvey’s name the way he could Dudley’s) was very talented and the League would miss him but of course they would all have to make do. And the Dursley boys could see a kind of beige relief come over him as he said this, because he’d been impressed by Harry but not so impressed that he couldn’t see that Harry was out of place among the other boys.

Dear, dear, tutted the beige Mrs. Polkiss, dear, dear, dear, dear, dear! Dear, this was such a disappointment. Dear Piers was so looking forward to playing with Dudley and possibly also with young Henry or Hickory or – oh, the other one, yes dear, you, and possibly your mother never told you how rude it is to stare like that – only everybody knows those Dursley boys do everything together so probably Dudley cannot play in the League either which must be such a trial for dear Dudley. Oh dear, dear, dear.

Well, this did not seem quite fair to Dudley because those Dursley boys did not do everything together. Not at number 4, anyway. Because at number 4 it was only Harry who got to fly around the rear garden and it was only Harry who got to help pot the Mandrakes in the greenhouse and it was only Harry who ever got to hold those sticks Mum and Dad had, those wands, because it was only Harry who was magical. Dudley never complained. Dudley was quite fine with it, only Harry would get so sullen and prickly whenever it seemed like Dudley was to go off with the cool, normal Privet Drive boys, maybe because part of being magical meant you had to be skinny and freakish with poor social skills so that nobody liked you very much, but how was this Dudley’s fault?

“Actually,” Dudley said, and perhaps it was stupid of him to say this, but then he was not the clever one and he didn’t particularly want to be, either, with the way Harry’s cleverness only seemed to make him more freakish and therefore more unhappy, “I can still play. It’s only Harry that can’t.”

And that’s when the Polkiss family television exploded.

It was horrible.

It was Harry. Naturally.

Even the Polkisses (now not beige at all; now very red) seemed to sense that it was his fault, even if they couldn’t say how he’d done it. But everyone in the room knew who was responsible for the rain of glass and wires and beige plastic, particularly since it was only the Polkisses who were hurt, particularly since the Dursley boys were quite unharmed and wasn’t that always the way with the youngest Dursley? And so they would summon these Dursleys on the beige telephone, yes they would: what is the number, Dudley dear? No, Harcourt, we will not just go to your house. We do not like going to your house. We are not sure what it is about your house but every time we go there we cannot remember what went on, and besides, Huxley, your parents should see the mess you’ve made. Of course it was him, Dudley Dursley, even you can’t be so stupid as to think it could be anyone else. We don’t know how it was him, but we know it was him.

Then the Dursleys arrived, and they were not respectably beige at all, which made things worse. Mr. Dursley was wearing a purple waistcoat over an orange anorak and had leaves in that horrible rat’s nest he called hair, and Mrs. Dursley had hands stained with some kind of green juice, and a pink sundress that clashed with her already-offensive coloring. The Polkisses demanded to know what these Dursleys were about, if you please, what these Dursleys thought they were doing sending that horrible little Helmut into people’s dear boxy houses to blow up their dear beige televisions, why these Dursleys were always so freakish (and they could not remember exactly what the Dursleys always did that was so freakish, but they knew that the Dursleys were always doing it), and what these Dursleys thought gave them the right to disrupt Privet Drive in this fashion?

But Dad brought out his hidden superior laugh, and Mum brought up her powerful magic stick, and – obliviate after reparo and also after episkey, episkey, episkey – the matter was soon resolved. For the Polkisses, at least.

For Harry, it was only just beginning.

“Oh, Harry, how could you?” said Mum, when they were back at number 4. They could see that she was crying a bit, which was terrible because Mum said crying never solved anything. Mum hated crying with a passion, and yet Mum’s eyes were wet, though the rest of her was firm and furious. “And on today, Harry, of all days!”

This made no sense, but then a lot of what Mum and Dad said never made sense. They were not sense-making people; you would not be, either, if you were like them, if you could make needles from matchsticks and water from nothing, and if you could fold common sense up like so much origami paper to produce something different, something wonderfully new. It was of course very exciting, but it was also sometimes very difficult and very tiresome for the children of number 4, because they could not share this wonderment with anyone but each other, and because Mum and Dad seemed to know that other parents were not like this, that no one on Privet Drive was like this, and that the little family at number 4 was very much alone in this respect: a hidden magical island in the great ocean of Privet Drive respectability. And this knowledge that they were alone, that they were all that was left of wherever Mum and Dad really came from (because it couldn’t be Privet Drive), would make Mum’s eyes wet and would make Dad fold his lips up very thin and white with anger, like he was doing now.

“I know you didn’t mean it,” he said, in a low and clipped tone, “And you probably felt you couldn’t control it. But it takes malice to do something like that, Harry. It takes a great deal of anger, and—and darkness—and just because one has that in them does not mean one should act on it.”

“I couldn’t help it! And what about the darkness in Dudley, then?” said Harry, looking directly at his brother. Dudley looked away. Harry had eyes like Mum’s, which were very good at making you feel when you’d done something hurtful. “Why don’t you ever ask him about that?”

“Harry, Dudley is a very different sort of person and you know that,” said Dad. “Dudley is not capable of blowing up telly-vizz-ewans in people’s houses when he is upset. Dudley’s misbehaving could never have the consequences that yours has.”

“Well, that doesn’t mean he should get to run off and abandon us for Piers Polkiss and his little friends!”

“I wasn’t abandoning you,” said Dudley, exasperated and yet still not quite able to meet Harry’s eyes, “It isn’t my fault you haven’t got any other friends.”

“Oh, you think Piers and Malcolm and Gordon and Dennis are such good friends? Even though they push the younger kids around and they show off their stupid football trophies and they—“

“At least they don’t sit under the tree at recess and refuse to talk to anybody! At least they don’t act like they’re—they’re smarter and better and—“

“Come up behind you when it’s four against one because they’re bullies—“

“Enough,” said Dad, who was beginning to look not white but green, like he’d stumbled upon something just now that made him feel very sick, very sick indeed. “I think you’d better go upstairs, Harry, and spend the rest of the day in your room.”

“You too, Dudley,” said Mum.

“Well, I suppose,” Dad said, “But I don’t think Dud’s done anything wrong, exactly—“

“Not standing up for his brother is wrong,” said Mum.

“Well, one of them’s got to have friends!” said Dad, “One of us ought to be happy and it may as well be Dudley because the poor boy hasn’t even got any—“

It went on for some time in this vein, although Harry and Dudley could not make out the words once they were upstairs in their rooms, each staring quite sullenly at the wall that separated them and feeling like perhaps they’d done something wrong and perhaps they hadn’t been quite fair, but neither was he, you know! And he’s always treated so much better; everything’s easier for him. If you could see the way people fawn over him, really, if you could see how wonderful everyone thinks he is, then you’d know that he wasn’t being fair today – he wasn’t being fair at all! And after a while the unfairness of it made them both so cross that they curled up and went to sleep and had vague dreams (Dudley) and perplexing dreams (Harry) until it was dark on Privet Drive and it turned out that they’d wasted almost all of the last day of the seventh month.

“Sorry,” Harry said, shaking Dudley awake. “Sorry, alright? But you were stupid to mention the team to them; you know that.”

“Sorry,” Dudley said, because Harry always said it first and so he always made a point to say it as well, “But you blew up a television.”

There wasn’t much Harry could say in rebuttal, and so he turned to a completely different topic, in fact the topic he’d come to Dudley’s room to discuss in the first place.

“Someone’s downstairs,” he said.

Dudley only blinked at him, because there was usually someone downstairs: either Dad amusing himself by turning the sofa into a manatee, or Mum chopping up roots in the kitchen because one could never have enough Pepper-Up Potion, boys, really one couldn’t.

“Someone new,” Harry said.

“Impossible,” Dudley said, and it was. Because only four people could ever get inside number 4, Privet Drive: Mum and Dad and Harry and him. Number 4 was closed to everyone else; the children had never seen anyone outside their family enter it ever, and probably if someone did then that someone would have to be magical, only the only magical people they knew were Harry and Mum and Dad and they already had access to the house, so Harry must have been mistaken. But, just to be sure, Dudley added, “Tell Mum and Dad.”

“They’re gone,” Harry said. “I saw them go walking down the street from my window, and then I went up on the roof to think a bit, only it seemed like someone was moving around downstairs as soon as they’d left.”

Dudley was not inclined to go investigating this strange someone, but Harry was. Harry would be, because part of having magic was always wanting to nearly get yourself killed, which was why Dad was only comfortable when almost plunging to his death from the tree and why Mum was only comfortable when almost blowing up the ground floor with one of her potions experiments. So Harry would investigate and Dudley had to follow because you couldn’t just let your brother come to almost-harm, could you? Only when they got downstairs there was no one there, which was odd because Harry was almost never wrong about strange or mysterious happenings; he had an innate sense of when things were going wrong and a strong drive to get to the bottom of them whenever possible, but nothing seemed to have gone wrong at number 4. Oh, Dad had evidently turned the sofa into a small pirate ship, and Mum seemed to have gotten bored with the pink walls and charmed them mint green instead, and one of them had left the chessmen out but apparently misplaced the chessboard, and so now the credenza was converted into a terrifying battleground for tiny wooden berserkers. But these things were only wrong if you were a Privet Drive sort of person.

Still, they searched the living room and the kitchen and Mum’s lab, with the walls dripping the results of some strange experiment she must have begun after her fight with Dad, and yet even this was not anything gone wrong; even this was normal for number 4. Dudley was quite ready to give up and go upstairs again, only Harry stopped just before the cupboard under the stairs and said, “Look, this is what he left. This is what he came here to do,” and stuck to the cupboard door there was a bit of thin papery material like in all those scrolls Dad kept in the upstairs study. Both boys were sure it hadn’t been there earlier in the day. The writing on it – miniscule and cramped and very hard to read, as though someone had scrawled it out in a rush – said, for H. P., J. P., & Lily Evans, with a P. tacked on rather half-heartedly after the Evans.

This was puzzling because they knew no one named Lily Evans with a P. on the end, or even anyone named Lily Evans without a P., although Evans was Mum’s maiden name, but then it was a common enough name. What’s more, the only H. in the house was Harry, who was an H.D., not an H.P., and the J.P. could not have referred to anyone because no J.P.s resided anywhere on Privet Drive, as even the Polkisses were all P.P.s of the highest and most respectable order. Dudley thought it must have been some prank of Dad’s. Harry did not think so. For Harry believed that whenever Mum and Dad addressed each other it was not by their names, but as “Lily” and “James.” He swore he could hear it very clearly every time they spoke to each other, and indeed when the boys were younger he would toddle about addressing the Dursleys as “Lily” and “James” and Mum and Dad would look at him despairingly and say, “No, Harry. No. You mustn’t call us that. You must call us Petunia and Vernon.”

Petunia and Vernon were of course their names. That was what everyone called them, and they’d even shown the boys Dudley’s birth certificate once (they hadn’t been able to find Harry’s. They said it must have been misplaced), and there were printed the names of his parents: Vernon Dursley and Petunia Dursley née Evans of number 4, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey. So eventually even Harry had come around, although he insisted on only ever using Mum and Dad to refer to them; and when asked his parents’ names he would say Mum and Dad Dursley, which left everyone convinced that he was being smart with them; and even now he refused to admit that “Lily” and “James” weren’t at least their parents’ secret names. Secret magical names that apparently could only be heard by magical people, for Dudley always heard Mum use Vernon to refer to Dad and Dad use Petunia to refer to Mum, and in fact it was a bit stuck-up of Harry to suppose that Mum and Dad would want to keep their names a secret from him just because he was not magical.

Dudley did not want to fight about this because he and Harry had already fought today and he still felt rather bad about it (although of course Harry had not been fair either), but Harry kept saying, “It’s for me and Mum and Dad. It must be. He has terrible handwriting; that’s all. That’s why the Ds look like Ps.”

They were very obviously Ps. They were Ps scrawled out quite fiercely and deliberately, as though the writer were offended by the very sight of the letter and very much hated to have to mark it down and intended to cause it as much pain as possible in the process. Dudley was not convinced that anything a person like this left behind could be trusted.

“Don’t think we should be snooping around until Mum and Dad come back,” he said, “Because maybe it’s just something we ought to leave alone; maybe it’s not even for us because if it was the initials would be different.”

“Maybe if it wasn’t for us it wouldn’t be in our cupboard under the stairs,” retorted Harry, and wrenched the cupboard door open. The interior was strange and mysterious, which was surprising, which was remarkable because Harry and Dudley had grown quite used to strange and mysterious things and were very rarely surprised by them. Only the cupboard under the stairs was not supposed to be strange and mysterious; usually it was not the slightest bit interesting. It was the only part of number 4 that was Privet Drive-ish. It was where Mum and Dad kept all the things that were normal and therefore not of any use to the Dursleys: boxes of starched men’s shirts too large to fit anyone and necklaces for some woman with bad taste and a very long neck and a set of three ugly taupe vases and an old television and some tennis rackets and what Dad called the refresherinator. Mum and Dad never needed to use it; it was only an old fridge and their magic kept the food from spoiling anyway, so into the cupboard it went.

Generally the refresherinator door was locked with magic, because Mum had thought when they were younger that maybe Dudley would get trapped inside (not Harry; Harry was magical and magical people did not stay trapped for long; Harry never got trapped anywhere that he couldn’t get himself out of) and Dad had agreed because he always thought of Dudley in frail terms, as Dudley had been such a very runny baby, but neither of them had wanted to throw the refresherinator out because Dad said that it had belonged to Mum’s family, who’d all been entirely normal and that explained Dudley, and so it was a family heirloom and Dudley was to have it someday. This was only fair, as Harry would get all the books and the chess set and the cauldrons and the mandrakes and the broomstick and Dad’s dresses and the mirrors and even the credenza, which was now proudly sentient and had a tail from a spell that Dad had forgotten to undo in time. But the cupboard things were normal and boring, and so the cupboard things all belonged to Dudley.

Only their visitor must not have known this, because he’d left the refresherinator door ajar and inside he had stacked innumerable boxes, long and thin, and on the door handle was another note which only read, H. is to try these.

This was strange and senseless and like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Dudley very much hoped that H. would not try these, whatever these were, because H. was likely to grow so tall that he’d break through the roof and frighten all of Privet Drive, or so small that Dudley would step on him by accident, which was no sort of thing to do to one’s brother; or possibly H. would sprout wings or turn green with mustard spots, which was not so bad but still Mum and Dad would demand an explanation and Dudley had none to offer. But H. was of course determined to try these, and so he drew out the first box, and inside was a stick like Mum’s and Dad’s – a wand.

H. did not know how he was to try the wand – this one seemed alright, it made a sort of sparkle in the air when he tried to reparo a crack in one of the ugly taupe vases, but beyond that it wasn’t much use. He put it back in its box and took another one. And another. And another and another and another and another, until he was almost a bit sore because he did not know when he was to stop, and when he looked over at his brother Dudley was sitting on the floor, resigned and nearly asleep again. So Harry kept on trying the wands, and whoever had left them must have done something to the refresherinator, something magical, because there were at least a hundred long, thin boxes with wands inside and the refresherinator was only a boring, normal appliance and should not have been able to hold them all. But somehow it did, and from somewhere in its depths he drew out one last wand, and this one released a shower of red and gold sparks that jolted Dudley upright, and this was how Harry knew that it was to be his.

“Look!” he said to Dudley, and then he made sparks dance across the mint green walls.

“You’ve chosen that one, then?” Dudley said.

This was not right. Harry felt that it had chosen him. But he did not know how to explain this to Dudley.

He did not have to, because just then Mum and Dad returned—at the worst possible moment, Dudley thought, with the refresherinator door ajar and Harry sitting there guiltily emitting sparks. Mum and Dad were not upset, though; they were instead wide-eyed and very emotional. Even Dad seemed to have wet eyes, and that was not normal for Dad. Harry, this is first-rate! Where did you find it, Harry? Oh, show us the sparks! Harry, do you know what this is? It’s very hard to get one these days, Harry. Oh, let Dad have a look at it; he can tell you what it’s made of. Holly, Harry! And a genuine phoenix feather in the core. No one in our family has had a phoenix feather for generations. Do the sparks again, Harry, there’s a love. Red and gold! I made red when I got mine, and Mum made gold when she got hers, so it’s to be expected. Oh, but this is a very good sign Harry, very good indeed.

Dudley figured this was a magical moment for the three of them, even if it was sort-of taking place in his cupboard, and so he thought he’d go upstairs and leave them to it. But he couldn’t help but notice that their visitor had left two more gifts. One was a rather dirty rucksack quite hastily stuffed in the butter tray: for (the mysterious) J.P. Another was wrapped in fine green paper and ribbons and given pride of place in the center of the vegetable drawer: to Lily, with my love. Obviously their visitor was a weirdo, but then so were the rest of Dudley’s family, and they were alright.

Dudley took the rucksack and the fancy green package and offered them to Dad, who only said when he saw the rucksack, “Now this is unexpected, Dabney-Dudley. This is astonishing indeed,” and then, rather more sourly when he saw the package with all the ribbons, “But then maybe it’s not so astonishing after all.” He passed Mum the package and set about inspecting the refresherinator and the ugly vases and even the note on the door, which made his lips go thin as he unstuck it and offered it to Mum with, “Of course it’s Evans P. to him; don’t know why I’m surprised,” and Mum said, “Let it go, Vernon. Just let it go. He’s brought Harry a wand and he didn’t have to, you know.”

“Who’s he?” said Harry.

“No one you know,” said Dad, at the same time that Mum said, “A very old friend.”

“You’ve got a friend?” said Dudley, because as far as he knew his parents were like Harry and were not very popular and never got invited anywhere by anyone, which generally meant no one liked you because you were an oddball.

“A magical friend?” said Harry. “There are other magical people?”

“Well,” said Dad, “As you know, magical persons make it inside number 4—“ Although naturally at least one normal person could too, or Dudley would not be here, “—and that means you and me and Mum, and, yes, Harry, one other person. And I’m not at all surprised that he crept in like a thief while we were out instead of coming in and introducing himself properly to you, because he’s rude and that’s why you’re so lucky that you’ve never met him.”

“You open your present,” Mum said, “And don’t listen to him, Harry. He’s brought you your wand, and that should tell you all you need to know.” She carefully unwrapped her green package, but it wasn’t anything special. Just more of that thin papery material, bound in a book of green leather with THE TREMENDOUS GIFT OF THE MUGGLE-BORNS stamped on the cover in large silver letters. Because Mum was odd, this made her cry.

Dad opened the rucksack then, but it was only two more wands, and these quite a bit more battered than the ones Harry had received. One of the wands had stains on it that looked like blood, and Dudley thought their visitor could have cleaned it off at least because that was a horrible thing to go around giving someone. Dad did not shove them back in the rucksack, though, which is what Dudley would have done. He only turned them over and over in his hands and muttered something peculiar about moons and padded feet. Dad was strange like that. He seemed to recognize the wands, and they made his face very still and white and somber, and Dudley and Harry both began to feel that Dad had received a check somehow, quite without expecting it. For a moment, it even looked as though the laugh in the corner of his mouth had evaporated entirely.

“Well, whoever your friend is, he doesn’t give good presents,” Dudley said.

“I think he’s brilliant,” Harry shot back, which made Dad wince a bit and say, “Well, he could’ve brought something for Duds. Like a toaster or something,” because Dad was convinced that not having magic was a terrible trial and that the only way to ease this burden Dudley bore was for him to see how very gifted he was with appliances.

“That’s alright,” said Dudley. “I don’t really need another toaster. The one you got me for my birthday was just great.”

“And Dudley’s got football,” Harry said, rather apologetically, which was of course all Dudley really wanted, and meant that now the Dursley boys were officially no longer fighting.

Mum seemed to sense that this was the case and that nothing could improve the night beyond this, and so she packed them both off to bed (or, rather, to practice their football and their spark-making in the upstairs bedrooms while she and Dad talked quietly and intently in the study, for this was what passed for bedtime at number 4), and in the morning she told Harry that he could stay home from school and learn magic this year, which was probably for the best. Harry and Dudley were both very relieved and they decided that they would celebrate by trying out all those other wands, but by then the wands had disappeared and the refresherinator was quite normal again. Even Mum and Dad were mystified.

Dad seemed also to be peeved, because, as he said, it was incredibly discourteous of this person to be coming in and out of their house without bothering to even say hello, but then he’d always known that this was an uncivil person they were dealing with. This was a ill-mannered person, boys, this was a very odd person even from an oddball perspective and maybe he was as good as Mum seemed to believe he could be, but really even with that he would always be a slimy, sneaky git. And Dad rather hoped he was listening and Dad rather hoped he would know that that’s what Dad thought of him, and that Dad would think this until the day he died, though hopefully before then Dad would be able to give him a rucksack gift, a gift that was both first-rate and horrible, thoroughly horrible. "Only that kind of gift could suit this first-rate, horrible person," Dad said, with the laugh returning to the corner of his mouth. "Who knows? That kind of gift might even check him a bit. This person always did need a good check: a first-rate, horrible check."

Mum’s picture frames knocked Dad’s glasses off of his head. Mum did not think their mysterious visitor was so bad. Mum would only give the roundabout explanation that sometimes people could be first-rate and horrible at the same time, both freakish and exceptional; and if you thought you got to have the good without the bad then you were probably wrong; and the good in someone could be very, very good indeed sometimes, good enough to surprise you if all you’d thought was that maybe you would have to give up on them; and people were not objects you could just toss in the mud; and the sooner you learned this about them and they learned this about you the happier everyone would be. To which Dad retorted that of course he was a tremendously exceptional friend, Petunia, but then he would have to be to make up for all his other qualities, wouldn’t he? Because, boys, aside from his secretive nature (why this was good Dudley did not know) and his habit of giving Mum green and silver packages and making her cry, he was only an ugly and bony and freakish sort with poor social skills.

So Dudley concluded that the visitor would fit in well at number 4. Only Mum and Dad would not tell them anything else, and Dudley thought this was unfair of them. It wasn’t like Harry ever got to meet anyone like him, anyone who was first-rate and yet horrible at the same time, freakish and yet exceptional. Harry could use a friend like that, and what had they been doing keeping him secret all this time? But Harry didn’t seem to mind.

“Don’t you see?” he said, “There were hundreds and hundreds of wands, and I bet all of them were waiting for people like me. They wouldn’t be doing that if more magic people didn’t exist, so there must be more of us. At least a few hundred.”

Dudley thought Harry’s logic was flawed, and maybe it was, but that didn’t mean Harry wasn’t right. Because there were people like him, trapped in bee colonies and in Burrows and in other such strange and out of the way places, in just the same way he and Mum and Dad were trapped on Privet Drive.

But magical people did not stay trapped for long.