Petunia Evans - formerly Dursley - paid the bus fare and perched carefully on one of the unoccupied seats as the bus started moving. She did not slump, or lean against the window, or even close her eyes, though she was sorely tempted, because one simply Did Not show weariness in a public setting. Not even when it was one's final bus connection of the day. Though, she thought, a trace bitterly, I'm doing quite a lot of things lately that I never imagined I would. Still, she was acutely aware of the other bus passengers, and whether or not they actually registered her presence, she had an image to maintain. So, instead of getting comfortable, she drew a compact from her purse and examined her image in the mirror. Pursing her lips, Petunia reached up and patted her slightly windswept hair into something more orderly, then tucked the compact away again, back ramrod straight.
The past year had not been easy. It had been horrifying when the boys got their letters the previous summer. Nightmarish, even. Everything had been going so well, and then two little envelopes had destroyed all of it. She had known, the minute she saw the hope on her son's face, that she was going to support him no matter what. She could have continued to hate magic if it were just Harry, but how could she hate something that was now part of her son?
Vernon, of course, hadn't seen it the same way, and it had been difficult, fighting him. They'd been a united front for years, after all, and sometimes it had felt impossible. Even now, some small part of Petunia was screaming at her to run back to him, to hide from magic again. The divorce had drained her, made all the worse by how he didn't fight, how he had absolutely no interest in Dudley...
And now she was living in an apartment, surrounded by witches and wizards and squibs. Lily would have laughed herself sick.
Petunia's thoughts turned to wondering what to make for dinner and, inevitably, towards the boys. If she was honest with herself, she wasn't really sure how to act around them now that everything had gotten so complicated. Whenever she looked at Harry, she was torn between simmering hate and overwhelming guilt, and Dudley, well. It hadn't escaped her notice that he'd been... different... since his eleventh birthday. It had seemed harmless enough, at first. He's growing up, she'd told herself then, he's more considerate and polite, and isn't it wonderful? But then he'd gone to Hogwarts, and Petunia was getting letters about panic attacks and magical allergies and some kind of battle under the school, and all she could think was that she should've done something. Should have put a stop to it, because then maybe, maybe he wouldn't have been accepted, and he could've gone on to Smeltings and everything would have been normal.
But despite how strange and serious he had become, Dudley seemed so - happy. Genuinely happy. And some days, when Petunia came home and heard him talking to Harry in their room about Hogwarts and magic and this or that potion, she wondered if she couldn't have had something similar if she hadn't let jealousy take control of her as a child. If she'd just loved her sister that little bit more.
"Hatherford Street!" the bus driver called, startling Petunia from her thoughts, and eased the bus to a stop. She regained her composure with a slight toss of her hair, then got up and exited the bus with her head held high.
She slowly made her way down Hatherford before turning right onto Wether Lane. A sunny spot surrounded by the shade of taller buildings, the Thissledon Commons apartment complex was like a leafy little oasis. It was a drab, faded yellow W-shaped building, with flower beds squeezed into every free corner, and in both of the narrow courtyards was a decrepit old fountain. The whole thing was enclosed by a decorative, waist-high metal fence that looked like it couldn't keep out a stray dog, let alone burglars. Fortunately, the landlady's nephew was a deft hand at wards.
As usual, Ms. Blomgren was out front, puttering around in the flower beds. As Petunia drew near, the older woman straightened and waved at her, beaming, her short grey hair floating around her round cheeks in gentle puffs, like little rainclouds. "Good afternoon, dear!" she cried. "You've a visitor!"
"Good afternoon," Petunia replied, then, "A visitor? Who?"
"Molly Weasley," said Ms. Blomgren cheerfully, dusting her gloved hands off on her flowery overalls. "She came by about ten minutes ago, said she wanted to talk to you about something." Petunia must have made a face, because her landlady hastened to reassure her. "Don't fret, dear, she was quite in high spirits! Now, you go on up - if I know Molly, and I do, she's got tea waiting, and I suspect you need a good strong cup!" And she gently shooed Petunia to the stairs.
As it turned out, Molly had made tea. She'd also thrown together some cheese and cucumber sandwiches, and laid out some fresh apple slices to go with it. Petunia toed off her shoes and sank gratefully onto the sofa, a plate and mug floating gently to settle on the coffee table in front of her. "Molly," she sighed, "you are a dream. How've you been?"
"Oh, you know me, I'm always busy," said Mrs. Weasley, transfiguring one of the kitchen chairs into a more comfortable armchair. Unobserved - the boys were in the kitchen, chatting about broomsticks - Petunia finally allowed herself to relax, and picked up her mug. "Petunia, you look exhausted, if you don't mind me saying."
She sipped her tea, which was strong and black and had fresh mint mixed in, and replied, "I feel exhausted. I've always hated working as a secretary. But I'm looking for better."
Molly considered her, eyes sympathetic, and sipped her own tea before saying, "Not to mention you've been cut off from Jean and I all summer."
Petunia's head jerked up, her tea sloshing dangerously in its mug. "What?"
"Oh, yes," said the witch, and told her the whole story, as she understood it, stopping only to briefly explain what house elves were. By the end, Petunia almost wished that Molly hadn't said anything at all.
Her hands tightened on the mug. "What do we do?" she asked, hating how her voice trembled. "Molly, if that - that thing shows up at my work-!"
"Hush, now," said Molly, gently taking the mug from her before it could break. "Take a deep breath, that's it. I believe that this house elf will be more interested in following Harry - he didn't seem the least bit interested in Dudley, after all."
"But it was stopping our mail!" Petunia cried, clutching at her companion's hands.
"Only to keep anyone from realizing what was happening, I should think," came the calm reply. "And it ought to stop soon as the boys are out of the house. Now, I know it's a little while until September still, but it's been a quiet summer, and I thought perhaps I could bring them to the Burrow. Get them away from the city, and let them play with children their own age a while, and give you a little less to worry about." Molly leveled a knowing look at her. "Petunia, you are wound up so tight I'm half worried you'll burst!"
Petunia sagged. "I feel that way," she murmured, withdrawing her hands to rub at her face. For a moment, her mind was peacefully blank - then she straightened up, feeling surprisingly refreshed. All was not lost. There were plans to make. "Well, if you're willing to take them, Molly, I think they'd love it. They've been cooped up here with all these old ladies for quite long enough."
The older woman threw back her head and laughed, delighted, and Petunia smiled.
There was a flurry of activity as Harry and Dudley rushed to get everything packed into their trunks. There were quills to dig out from under their beds, books, scraps of parchment, robes, socks. The owls, Hedwig and Altheda, watched with intense interest, knowing that they, too, would be going on vacation to the countryside.
"Dudley, would you like me to call your instructor and let him know you're going away for a bit?" Dudley looked up at the doorway, where his mother was hovering anxiously. She looked pale and washed out, and he wished she could come with them.
"It's fine, mum," he said, cramming another book into his trunk, "I can do it. He won't mind anyway, especially if I tell him I'll keep exercising."
"Instructor?" Mrs. Weasley asked as Dudley turned back to packing. "What for?"
"Boxing," he heard Petunia say. There was a touch of pride in her voice. "A - Muggle sport. It's all about throwing punches at each other." They moved away from the door.
"I still say Quidditch is better," Harry murmured, and threw a smirk at Dudley, who grinned back.
"Boxing," he said loftily, "is a noble, ancient sport, which probably predates your fancy twigs by quite a bit, considering you don't need anything for it."
Harry rolled his eyes and replied, "I don't think a couple of cavemen slapping each other counts as boxing, Dud."
They finished packing and picked up the owl cages before going to the window and opening it. After a quick glance to make sure no one else was around, they opened the cages and let the birds out. "Meet us at the Burrow," Harry told them. "You don't have to rush, but don't take too long, okay?" Hedwig perched on him long enough to affectionately nibble his ear, then took off. Altheda merely gave Dudley a haughty look before following.
The cages were packed into trunks, and to their delight, Mrs. Weasley spelled the trunks so small that they could fit in a pocket. Dudley called his boxing instructor while Harry went back upstairs to let Giulia know they were leaving. When he returned, Mrs. Weasley hugged Petunia, murmuring something they couldn't hear and making her chuckle. When she moved away, Dudley stepped up and gave his mother a hug himself. He realized with a shock that she seemed thinner than usual, and more... delicate, as if she were barely there at all. He squeezed gently, then pulled back and looked up at her.
"Mum," he said quietly, brows furrowing in concern, "please take care of yourself while we're gone, okay?" She stared down at him as if she wasn't sure who he was, and though Dudley couldn't blame her - since, technically, he was a different person - he still couldn't help feeling a little hurt. Was I really so terrible before? he thought, but even before the thought had finished, sheepishly added, Well, yeah.
Finally, she reached up and smoothed his hair. "I'll be fine, Dudders," Petunia said with faux cheer. "You boys behave yourselves." She glanced at Harry, who nodded, and Dudley followed Mrs. Weasley out of the apartment.
They walked out to the street, stopping only to say goodbye to Ms. Blomgren, and Mrs. Weasley put out her hand for the Knight Bus again. Dudley watched with great amusement as Harry's eyes got huge the minute the bus showed up. He'd told Harry some vague details about it as soon as he'd got home, of course, but he felt that his cousin needed the full experience. He followed the smaller boy on board the bus, watching him stare around in bewilderment, and said, "Better find a place to sit!"
No sooner had he said this than the bus pitched forward, and the boys only just managed to throw themselves into seats before they could go flying. Not that it helped - the seats were various types of chair, none of them secured to the floor, and they skidded around as the bus moved. Mrs. Weasley was, of course, already sitting in one of the armchairs, knitting with gusto. Harry made a face at Dudley as they skidded into the far wall. "A little warning might've been nice," he said dryly.
"You got more than I did," Dudley said brightly, and they both turned to watch as the bus threaded its way through traffic, clutching the arms of their chairs tightly.
It wasn't long til they reached their destination, and only Mrs. Weasley was unaffected by the nauseating ride. She ushered them into the Leaky, waving cheerily to Tom, before guiding them to the fireplace she and Dudley had used before. "Have either of you traveled by Floo?" she asked, holding the powder out to them. "No? Don't worry, it's simple enough! Just step in and say, very clearly, the name of the location you're traveling to - the Burrow, in this case. Now, it can be disorienting the first time, so just remember to stay calm. You'll be fine. Dudley, why don't you go first?"
Grimacing, Dudley took a handful of Floo powder and threw it into the fire, then stepped in and shouted, "The Burrow!"
Traveling by Floo was... unpleasant, to put it kindly. It was like getting pulled underwater by a strong current, or maybe sucked down a giant drain, and there was a great deal more spinning than there had any right to be. Dudley kept his eyes open, but only a little, because the spinning green flames were definitely not helping his roiling stomach. He kept his arms tucked in close, and grimaced as a strangely cold... something slapped against his face.
He passed a blurred stream of fireplaces, catching glimpses of the rooms beyond, and began to relax as he did, straining for more detail at each one he passed. And then, through one, he saw a figure wearing a red cloak.
Before he could think about it, however, he found himself toppling out into the Weasleys' living room, falling at the feet of several very surprised redheads. A heartbeat later, Harry fell out on top of him with a yelp. Mrs. Weasley stepped primly out after him, and beamed at her family.
"We're having guests," she said merrily, "for the rest of summer."
The story was told over dinner by Harry, and in return, the Weasley children explained that they had all been out in town with their father when Dudley had called. "You gave us a fright, mum!" said George, shoveling potatoes onto his plate. "If you hadn't left a note, we'd have called the Aurors!"
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Weasley amiably. "The clock would've told you exactly what I was up to."
The clock in question, which was located in the living room and could just be seen from the dinner table, looked perfectly normal. That is, until you noticed that there were multiple hands, all of them adorned with the names of Weasleys, and instead of numbers there were things like, "Traveling" or "Mortal Peril" or "Home". Dudley wondered if he could get a wristwatch version. Probably, he thought wryly, I'd need several different versions of "Mortal Peril" for Harry.
"So are you really living in Thisseldon with Ms. Blomgren?" Ron asked Harry, who was sandwiched between him and Percy. "With all the Squibs?"
There was a touch of a snicker to his voice, which earned him a sharp, "Ronald!" from his mother. Harry looked faintly puzzled, clearly not getting the joke.
"Er, yeah," he said, brow furrowing as he worked it out. "Everyone's really nice, and there're a lot of older students there. I didn't know there was a university for wizards!"
"There're loads," Ron assured him. "Bill went, got in on scholarship. But apprenticeships are still pretty common."
"Charlie, for example, apprenticed in Romania," said Percy, warming to the subject. "There's the London University, as you know, but there's also a school in Wales, can't remember the name. And there's some scattered through Europe and Asia, but I don't know if America has one yet. Ours are the best, of course-"
"D'you think you could get a degree and become a career prefect, Percy?" Fred wondered, tapping his chin in mock thought. "What would a prefect course be like anyway?"
George mimicked the gesture and said, "Well, obviously, there's Prefect 101-"
"- How to Scowl Professionally -"
"- with a whole segment dedicated to the exact angle one's nose should be held at, and then of course there'd be Badge Polishing, three whole classes of it -"
Dudley, unable to resist, despite how red in the face Percy was getting, cut in with, "How about Primping for Prefects?"
"Naturally!" agreed George, grinning at him. "With a follow-up class on Etiquette for the Professional Prat-"
"George," said Mrs. Weasley warningly. Mr. Weasley was looking desperately at his plate, bright pink with smothered laughter. Everyone else was doing much the same, staring at foreheads and ceilings to keep from making eye contact.
"But let's not forget the class on Taking Points from One's Dearest, Darlingest Brothers Who've Never Done Anything Wr- oop!" At just that moment, when Percy seemed most likely to explode, a gray, feathery bundle walloped the back of Fred's head, sending him face-first into his plate. It skidded across the table, knocking into mugs and plates, until it skidded gently to a stop in front of a rather alarmed Harry. Fred lifted his face, which was covered in bits of potato, gravy, and a single pea, to stare in astonishment at the bedraggled owl. It made eye contact with him, and weakly lifted its leg. Someone sniggered.
The dam broke, and everyone began to laugh uproariously, George leaning helplessly on his twin and clutching his ribs. Mrs. Weasley, giggling despite herself, passed Fred a paper napkin, and Percy, chuckling, gently picked up the owl and carried it away. By the time he returned, everyone had calmed down, so as he sat and handed the letter to Harry, he said apologetically, "That's Errol, our owl. He's a little old."
"Who's it from?" Fred asked, mopping the last of the gravy from his chin. He cheerfully flicked the pea at George, who yelped, then shot him a mock-affronted look.
Harry said, "Hermione." at the same time as Ron, who added, "I wrote her just this morning. We've been really worried, the twins and I were nearly ready to come... find... you..." He carefully looked down at his plate as his mother stared intensely at him, and cleared his throat. "Er, what does she say?"
Pushing his slipping glasses up the bridge of his nose, Harry skimmed the letter, then said, "She says she hopes you don't do anything illegal and she'll be in Diagon Alley the Wednesday after our letters arrive, if you - I mean, we - would like to have lunch. That would be next Wednesday, wouldn't it?" Harry looked hopefully up at the elder Weasleys, who shared a fond glance.
"I think we can manage Wednesday," said Mrs. Weasley, and held up a dish. "More peas, dear?"
After dinner, Harry and Dudley followed Ron up an uneven, zigzagging staircase to his room, which was located at the very top of the house. The Burrow had once been a small stone structure of some kind, but over the years, room after room had been added to it until it was tall and uneven enough to be leaning rather dangerously to several sides at once. Dudley was pretty sure that magic was the only thing holding it all together, and was doing his level best not to think about it the higher they climbed.
Eventually, they reached a door with peeling paint and a small plaque that said RONALD'S ROOM in blocky lettering. Heads almost touching the sloping ceiling, Harry and Dudley stepped blinking into something rather like a furnace. Nearly everything in Ron's room seemed to be a violent shade of orange - not even the window was safe, because the latch was rigged with a bit of orange ribbon to keep it shut.
Harry, recovering more quickly than his cousin, realized what the walls and ceiling were covered with; "Posters!" he blurted, and moved to inspect the nearest one. "Your Quidditch team, wotsit, the Chudley Cannons?" The orange-clad figures on the poster waved at him, and, with a small grin, he waved back.
"Yeah," said Ron, sounding pleased that his friend had remembered. For his part, Dudley didn't mention that the name was plastered on everything. "They're ninth in the league."
"Aren't the Holyhead Harpies seventh?" Dudley wondered aloud, mostly to needle Ron. In truth, he had no idea - while he'd been privy to most of Ron and Hannah's Quidditch debates, he'd generally blocked them out in self defense. To be fair, most everyone did, unless they had their own opinions to contribute.
The redhead groaned in disgust and flopped down on his bed. The bedspread, which was also aggressively orange, sported two black Cs and a blazing cannonball. "You sound like Hannah and Ginny."
Moving further into the room to poke at a stack of comics starring someone named Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle, Harry said, "Your sister likes Quidditch?"
"I think the only one of us who doesn't is Mum," Ron said, flapping a hand dismissively, "and even she gets excited about it sometimes." He sat up, watching them a bit nervously. "So, er, this is it. Not much, I know."
"It's brilliant," Harry said, grinning over at him as Dudley nodded his agreement. "The best house I've ever been in." Ron's ears went pink, and Dudley very politely kept his amusement to himself.
Hedwig and Altheda turned up later, as the boys were going to bed, and in the morning, after breakfast, Dudley and Harry scribbled quick notes for them to take to Hermione, Neville, and Hannah. Then, Harry, Ron, and the twins headed up the hill to the little paddock the Weasleys owned to play a bit of Quidditch. It was surrounded by trees that blocked it from the view of the village below, which meant they could do whatever they liked, so long as they didn't fly too high. Dudley and Ginny tagged along, having been assigned the roles of apple throwers - they couldn't risk using real Quidditch balls, because they would have been a bit hard to explain if they escaped and flew over the village.
Ginny had a good arm and better aim, and while she snickered at Dudley's throws, she was also nice enough to give him pointers. They chatted as they threw, and the subject turned to the village around the same time as an apple passed dangerously close to Ron's head.
"We go down sometimes," Ginny said, ignoring her brother's squawk of alarm. "Us kids. Mum doesn't like it, it makes her feel awkward, and Dad's usually too busy. The Muggles are really nice, Mrs. Rutherford has grandkids our age. Polly and Diggory - after book characters, I think she said."
"That's the Chronicles of Narnia, I think," said Dudley slowly. The Magician's Nephew had been Ariana's favorite book - she'd learned to read on it, which had been tremendously frustrating for everyone involved, and they'd bought her a brand new copy to take to Hogwarts.
"We'll probably visit while you're here," Ginny was saying, and he refocused on her with an effort. "I will, anyway. They're going to teach me football." She sounded a little skeptical, but there was a thread of excitement, too.
Dudley was pretty sure she'd have fun, even if she didn't grow to love it as much as she did Quidditch. He opened his mouth to say as much, chucking an apple as he did, only to find the fruit coming right back at him. He ducked instinctively, and heard the apple hit the tree behind him with a loud thock.
"Dudley!" said George amiably, descending from on high with a suspiciously cheery grin. "Dudders, old buddy, we've heard from a reliable source -"
"Ron," Fred confided in a stage whisper as he landed nearby. "And Percy, and most of Hufflepuff, come to that -"
"- that you'd had a bit of trouble in flying class this year." The first twin clucked his tongue sadly. "Bad business, a shame really, having to take a remedial class this year." At Dudley's puzzled look, he added, "We heard that one from a portrait."
"So we'd thought -"
"- out of the kindness of our hearts and a healthy appreciation for your joining in on our ribbing good old Percy -"
"- that we'd help you with your flying so you could test out of it?"
They beamed at him. Dudley, stomach twisting itself into a knot, looked rather desperately at Ginny. She ignored him, a look of serene benevolence on her face as she lobbed apples at Ron and Harry with deadly accuracy. With some hesitation, the Hufflepuff looked back at the twins. "Er, I don't know," he began, rather less firmly than he'd wanted. "Is it really that important? And, well, I don't have the best track record here."
"'Is it that important?' he says. Merlin." George covered his eyes, a tortured expression upon his face.
Fred, on the other hand, looked at him with a seriousness and clarity that was very, very unnerving. "No, but you haven't had so many panic attacks recently, have you?"
He blinked. "Well, no, but -"
"Nor are you currently experiencing magical allergies," George cut in, just as alarmingly solemn. "Or under any stress, and you haven't got a grade depending on it. You'll be fine. And if you aren't, we'll help you."
Dudley, completely unable to come up with an argument, studied them a moment. The twins were both excellent flyers, and he knew that while they could and would tease him without mercy, they were much more considerate than they let on. And, well, Dudley had recently found that it was extremely difficult to deny George Weasley anything when one remembered the tired, unnaturally quiet war survivor who, for years after, still looked utterly broken when he reached for his twin and realized he wasn't there.
"Fine," said Dudley's mouth, and he sighed. "But if you prank me, I'm going to recruit Ginny to take you down."
The girl in question looked over in surprise, matching her brothers raised eyebrow for raised eyebrow. Fred looked warily at George. "He learns quickly, this one," he said.
"That's self preservation kicking in," said George wisely, tapping his nose. "He's figured out the only way to keep himself safe is to forge an alliance early." And he ducked to avoid an apple.
In fairly short order, Dudley found himself perched on Fred's broom, gripping it tightly as he hovered a few feet off the ground. George had a hand on the back of the broom to keep it steady as his brother ran Dudley through the basics of steering in case he'd forgotten. Above their heads, Ron and Harry were tossing apples to each other, having quickly lost interest when they realized the twins were actually going to be helpful. Ginny had ceased throwing for the time being, watching quietly from a log.
"Loosen your grip," she said unexpectedly, waving a leafy twig at them. "The only time you should need to hold on that tight is in an emergency. Just relax." She sounded strangely grown up for an eleven year old, and Dudley peered suspiciously at her for a moment before obeying. Fred, catching on, helped him adjust, then corrected his posture.
Finally, when the twins deemed him unlikely to fall off, George gave the broom a gentle shove forward. Dudley wobbled dangerously, and worried for a moment that his sweating hands would slip and he'd go crashing to the ground. It didn't happen, though, and he flew a couple jerky laps around the clearing as he tried to figure out how to control the speed. There was a perilous moment where he almost hit a tree, but George was at his side in a flash, talking him down from the flare of tree-induced panic, and guided him round once before letting him fly on his own again.
But there were no other incidents, so when he grew confident enough to gain a little more height, Ron gently tossed him an apple, drawing him into the little game of catch. He missed more than he caught, but he didn't fall, and fairly soon he was zipping around with his cousin and friend, the twins watching carefully from the ground.
Glancing down after a particularly bad miss on his part, Dudley noticed Ginny, who still hadn't flown, and abruptly came back to himself. He said, a bit sheepishly, "I think I'm done for now - why don't we trade off, Ginny?"
Fred grumbled good-naturedly, but when Dudley landed clumsily, took the broom from him and passed it to his sister with a grin. "Go give Harry a run for his money," he suggested. With a brilliant smile, Ginny was off, George flying up to join her as she gained altitude.
"You are playing a dangerous game, Dudders," said the grounded twin, dropping an arm over the younger boy's shoulders. "Mum doesn't like her precious babby flying around like a hellion."
"I won't tell if you won't," said Dudley, scratching his nose and grinning.
Harry, of course, was delighted to have another Seeker to play with. Maybe she wasn't as good yet, but he was rusty from lack of playing over the summer anyway, so they found themselves pretty evenly matched. Ron and George played Beaters, and the game went on until it was time to go back to the Burrow for lunch. Ginny chattered excitedly on the way down the hill, discussing techniques with an equally enthusiastic Harry without a trace of her former shyness.
Lunch was cold roast beef sandwiches and colder lemonade, which they ate sitting outside on the grass, and after that, they set to de-gnoming the garden. It was something the cousins had never done before - Harry because he was still new to everything magic, and Dudley because Padma took a vicious pleasure in hexing them. He had, at least, seen it done the traditional way, because once Ariana and the twins were old enough, it became their chore.
When Harry expressed concern about the gnomes, the youngest Weasley brother took it upon himself to enlighten him. "These," said Ron, with a touch of pride, holding a struggling, potato-esque gnome up by its bony ankles, "are Devon gnomes. Country bred, so they're more like rocks than anything. You just have to make them dizzy so they can't find their way back to their holes." Ron swung the it over his head and let go, and the gnome swore at them as it arced through the air, stopping only when it hit the field with a solid thud.
"Pitiful," said Fred with a sniff. "I bet I can get mine beyond that stump."
Many fingers were bitten and wrists kicked, but in the end, the boys and Ginny stood triumphant, watching a the last of the gnomes disappear into the hedge on the far side of the field, hunched in defeat.
Mrs. Weasley inspected their handiwork with an air of skepticism, and finally declared the garden de-gnomed, though she did sigh, "I wish you'd use Gilderoy Lockhart's method, he's really much more... efficient."
Her children made a valiant but vain attempt not to roll their eyes, and Harry asked, "Who's Gilderoy Lockhart?"
"A brilliant wizard," said Mrs. Weasley, and drew from a pocket a book. Fancy gilt letters on the front declared it to be Gilderoy Lockhart's Guide of Household Pests. Beneath that was a large photograph of a grinning, movie star attractive wizard. He winked cheekily at everyone, and Mrs. Weasley beamed down at him. Harry looked like he rather regretted asking.
"He knows his household pests, all right," she said dreamily. "Absolutely marvelous."
"Mum fancies him," George stage-whispered, and his mother went a bit pink.
"Don't be so ridiculous," she said, and put the book away. "In any case, boys, Altheda and Hedwig are back, and they've letters for you. You may all go down the village til dinner is ready, if you like - it's at six."
Fred let out an exaggerated gasp. "Mum! You're a peach!" He kissed her cheek, his twin doing the same on the other side, and she batted them away, scoffing.
Two letters were from Neville and Hannah, who were both very relieved to hear from them, and wrote to say that they'd be meeting with Hermione in Diagon Alley too. The third letter was from Hermione herself, just a quick note to let them know she'd got their reply. They decided to send notes later, and returned to the company of the Weasley children.
A curious thing about wizards was that their casual wear was actually mostly the same as a Muggle's, though most of it looked very 1970s, or, in some of the more extreme cases, the 1870s. Despite this, there was always a great fuss over 'dressing Muggle' for going into Muggle-populated areas, and somehow, the results were always... exciting. Even the Weasley children, who were much more up to date than their parents, were not entirely immune.
There was nothing for it, though, and soon, Harry and Dudley set out with a group of redheads wearing mismatched and brightly colored clothing. Despite their misgivings, no one in the village so much as batted an eyelash, though one woman did roll her eyes fondly at her friend. They stopped at one of the shops to get a snack, the twins handling the money, and they continued on until they reached a little cottage at the end of a quiet, shady lane.
When the door opened, a plump, pretty black girl of about thirteen stepped out and grinned at them. Her thick hair was in hundreds of tiny braids with beads on, and her fingernails were painted pink - a quick glance at her bare feet revealed that her toenails matched. Despite the nail polish, she wore old, comfortable jeans and a tank top, and there was a football in her arms.
"Hi, Weasleys," she said brightly. "And friends. I was hoping we'd see you today." She stuck one hand out to Harry and Dudley, who took turns shaking it. "I'm Polly."
"Harry, and this is Dudley," said Harry. "We go to the same school."
Polly shoved her feet into the beat-up tennis shoes that were beside the door, saying, "The fancy one up in Scotland? I bet that's exciting. C'mon, Diggory's out in the field with the others."
Diggory was Ginny's age, and he was about the same size as Dudley, if a little shorter. There were a handful of other children of varying ages with him, and they all greeted the Weasleys with warmth. It seemed that as eccentric as the Weasley's must've seemed, they were the village's eccentrics, and in fact, Harry and Dudley's normalcy seemed to disappoint them.
To his complete lack of surprise, Dudley was pants at football. He made a valiant effort all the same, but it was with some relief that he retired to the sidelines to act as a ref. He'd never had much skill at sports, save boxing, and even that had been more brute force than skill, as he'd so recently discovered during class. But the Weasleys mostly took to football like ducks to water, and Harry was quick enough to make up for any mishaps, so it was all in all a very exciting game, though the villagers won in the end. Everyone sprawled out on the grass and someone passed around water bottles, and Dudley found himself sitting with Polly a little away from everyone else.
This, he discovered, was on purpose. "They think," she said in a low voice with a meaningful look at the Weasleys, "that none of us know they're magic. But the Weasleys have been around for ages and none of us is that blind." She rolled her eyes affectionately, unknowing of how Dudley's stomach had turned to ice. "But we can't say anything because their dad is in government, and they don't want us non-magic folks to know. I'm only saying because you seem more like us."
"Does, er - does the whole village know?" Dudley asked, and it didn't ease his mind when she nodded.
Catching on to his concern, she hastened to reassure him. "Listen, no one's telling any secrets, I just wanted you to know because I think magic folks shouldn't have to hide. If someone who's a little of both worlds can, I dunno, get the word out, then maybe there's a chance."
Dudley stared at her for a long moment, brows furrowed. "Are you sure you're a kid?" Polly blinked, then snorted a laugh, and the tension eased. "I think you're right, though. I've been thinking about it too, honestly - would it be all right to write you? When I learn more, I mean."
"Sure, that'd be fine," she said amiably. "I can give you our address. So, how does magic mail arrive? D'you have postmen on broomsticks?"
"No," Dudley admitted, a little wistfully. "Although I think large packages can come that way. Mostly, letters and things are delivered by owls."
"No ravens or anything? Seems a shame, that. Missing an opportunity."
They chatted quietly, Dudley revealing tiny pieces of information he was pretty sure wouldn't violate the Statute of Secrecy, and by the time they had to part ways, were already fast friends. They exchanged addresses written on a bit of spare paper Dudley had in his pocket, and promises were made to meet up again for video games before summer's end.
Tucking the address into his pocket as they made their way back to the Burrow, Dudley thought, for the first time, that maybe his trip to the past could be good for something other than protecting Harry.