Harry Potter opened the door to his aunt and uncle's home at Number Four, Privet Drive. His long dark hair flopped around as if he hadn't bothered to comb it in weeks. In truth, he'd run a comb through it five minutes earlier. His hair never did behave itself.
"Mione," he said to his bushy haired friend, Hermione Granger, "please step right in." Harry smiled at his friend Ronald Weasley who was standing behind Hermione. "Ron, you're on time."
Harry looked happy. His face showed none of the cares that the Boy-Who-Lived should be showing right about now. He was a day from his seventeenth birthday, from assuming his majority in the wizarding world. He was also one day from setting off on his quest to avenge the death of his father, mother, his friend Cedric, his godfather Sirius, and his former mentor Albus Dumbledore. Harry Potter was nearing his final confrontation with Tom Riddle, the dark wizard calling himself Lord Voldemort. He rather looked like he'd just boiled his relatives, the Dursleys, in a large cauldron.
Ron and Hermione couldn't bring themselves to step into the house.
"Mate?" Ron said.
They were both expecting the resolute, determined Harry they'd left at the end of Albus Dumbledore's funeral.
"More Polyjuice," Hermione said to herself, not quite under her breath. She had brewed the concoction herself during their second year at Hogwarts, the school for wizards and witches. Then they'd been subjected to its use against them: a Death Eater had masqueraded for a full year as one of their teachers and last year Draco Malfoy had convinced his goons to stand as lookouts while under its influence. No one needed Polyjuice any more.
Harry threw the door open wider. "It's really me," he said. "No more Polyjuice. I'll explain everything, but not on the front stoop."
Ron was the first to walk inside. But he stopped only three steps in. Hermione bumped into his back.
"Harry, this place looks different," Ron said.
If any of his friends would know, it was Ron. He and his brothers had broken Harry out of a makeshift prison created by the Dursleys in the summer before his second year at Hogwarts. He'd seen just a touch of the home then.
Hermione let out a gasp when she surveyed the room she was seeing.
"Hmm," he said with a dreamy calm.
"Why is every flat surface in this house covered in books," she asked.
Harry shut the opened door to the outside world. He turned around and gave a quick turn of his head to the room.
"And why haven't your aunt and uncle done anything about it, mate?" Ron asked. "You said they were neat freaks."
"Hmm," Harry said. "I guess I should have told you I got a library card."
Hermione, with two Muggle dentists for parents, couldn't see how any library would let Harry take this many books out. Ron, whose father loved and misunderstood Muggle inventions of every kind, was just confused.
"No library would let you take out this many books," she said, stepping over to one precarious pile. "History of the American Revolutionary War, a biography of Winston Churchill…"
"We will never surrender," Harry muttered in a thick, low pitched growl. He still had the smile plastered over his thin, pale face.
Hermione was thoroughly into the towering precipices of books. "…Contemporary Issues with Islamic Terror Groups, Guerilla Warfare Tactics. Muggle movies, stacks of them. And these are books of Muggle fairy tales, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel…"
"Baking a witch in the oven," Harry muttered.
"Gruesome," Ron said, catching every word. Harry liked that his friend was so excitable.
Harry reached out and pulled Hermione away from the stack of books. "Come and take a seat. The parlor is just over here," he said.
When Harry led them to the sofa, Ron let out his second gasp of the evening.
"What're you lot doing here," he almost shouted out to his older twin brothers, George and Fred Weasley. They were leaning against the far wall of the room.
"Well," George said, "we've been coming…"
"…to see poor Harry here since the summer started," Fred continued. It was like a convention of red heads had come into the house. Their wild hair color clashed against the very normal, thank you very much, colors of the sofa and furnishings in the room.
"And you didn't tell me," Ron almost shouted. "He's my friend and mom wouldn't even let me owl him a short note. 'He's in mourning,' she said."
The twins smirked and shrugged their shoulders.
"Ron, I asked them here," Harry said. "They've been a great help so far."
Ron went into an instant sulk and then came out of it. He had always been wired a little tight.
Harry walked over to a thin stack of paper that was lying in between columns of books. He plucked it up and then nodded at the twins. They conjured up a pair of chairs and then levitated them near the sofa. Neither had spoken a single spell.
"I think we're almost ready," Harry said.
"We came to help you pack," Hermione said. "And to help you," Ron added. "We're going to the Burrow tomorrow."
"Before the blood protection ends," Hermione added, "on the house, you know, because of you living here with your aunt." Albus Dumbledore had long posited that it was an old form of magic, blood magic, that kept Harry safe as long as he spent at least some part of the year with his last living relatives. It would end after he reached his seventeenth birthday.
Harry sat down on the very proper and middle class coffee table the Dursleys had purchased less than a year ago. It was one of the only flat surfaces in the room.
"We're not going to the Burrow," Harry said. "Except for the day of Bill," who was Ron's oldest brother, "and Fleur's wedding. We have too much to do. That is, if you want to help."
This wasn't a Harry either of them had seen before. Serious and bemused, content while living under his aunt and uncle's roof.
"Where are the Muggles," Ron asked.
"They're around," Harry said.
"Are they alive," Hermione asked. "You look far too happy, Harry."
The Chosen One just laughed. He hadn't done much of that since the day his godfather died, since the day he had been told the full terms of the prophecy cast months before he'd even been born. Serious Harry wasn't sitting in front of them.
"They're all just fine," Harry said, his voice almost squeaking in happiness.
Ron looked at him. "You're not allowed to do magic yet, Harry," he said. He almost sounded like Hermione when the words came out of his mouth.
"That's right," George said, breaking the intense stare between Ron and Harry. The younger brother looked over to the new speaker. George and Fred looked positively gleeful.
"Harry can't," Fred said. "But we can. We followed him back after he got off the train. Had a right row going with the Muggles."
"Then we took things in hand," George said. "We're known for our excellent charms, but we're also pretty darn good at transfiguration."
Ron's eyes widened almost to the point of overwhelming his own face. Hermione bit back a laugh and then became serious again. "That's Muggle baiting," she said.
"They graciously allowed us the use of their home as a temporary headquarters," Harry said. "You can thank them later, if you want. I'll introduce you."
"Headquarters," Ron interrupted.
Harry nodded. "Welcome to the headquarters of the Committee of Marauders."
Ron and Hermione both knew the history of the original Marauders, four Gryffindor friends who had pulled some of the greatest pranks of all time at Hogwarts.
"I'm totally confused," Hermione said. "It looks like a library got nicked and you brought it here."
"Planning," Harry said.
"Research and development," George said.
"Are they in this with you," Ron asked, eyeing his older brothers.
Harry nodded. "Let me start from the beginning?"
Hermione snorted out her relief. "Yes, please."
Ron nodded. "I was beginning to think you'd gone mental, Harry."
Harry leaned forward. "Perhaps I have, Ron. Let's see what you think when I'm done." Harry's eyes twinkled in the afternoon light and the smile never left his face.
"I guess you expected to see me a bit different, huh?" Neither responded. It was a rhetorical question. "Blaming myself again like I did for Sirius' death, for Cedric. Well, I did, for the first week. I thought, if only Dumbledore hadn't stunned me. If only he'd let me help him. If only I'd been more forceful warning him about Snape and Malfoy. But then I realized I was living in the past. I will always treasure Sirius, my parents, Dumbledore. But I had the target on the wrong person."
"Voldemort," Hermione said.
"And the Death Eaters," Harry added. "They've been doing their work in various forms for nearly fifty years and I'm not even seventeen. They've had spies on us, like the fake Moody in our fourth year. They've used the Ministry of Magic against us and the Daily Prophet. They've had people thinking me unstable, a liar, unworthy of being believed. They've got better spies than we do – they had Snape all this time. They've got money, tons of it, and influence about everywhere. They don't care about using the Unforgivables."
Hermione's hand shot out.
"No," Harry said, stopping her, "I don't envy them that advantage. I don't think anyone should copy them in that. But they do plan ahead. They know what they want and they use every resource they have available. I rely on luck and a little bit of skill. I was an infant the first time I faced him; my mother's protections saved me. Eleven the next time I faced him and the same protections saved me again. At twelve, I killed the memory Tom Riddle through luck and Fawkes, the biggest deus ex machine ever conceived, dropping me the sword of Gryffindor. At fourteen, my wand, brother to Voldemort's, caused a malfunction in his killing magic, giving me time to escape. At fifteen, Sirius had to die and Dumbledore had to appear to save us all from my stupidly falling for Voldemort's implanted lies, his using our mental connection against me. Then just a few weeks ago, Dumbledore sacrificed himself, while I watched, helpless as a child, as Malfoy and Snape disarmed and killed him. Their plans don't always work, but they work far too often."
The equanimity was still present on Harry's face, but his voice was thick with barely restrained anger.
"So, our side has luck. We respond fast and we bring Gryffindor courage to the battle. But they have overwhelming hatred to offset their small numbers. They love the Dark Arts and have persuaded giants and werewolves to help them. They use Inferi and other dark machinations. They'll not worry about stealing our better ideas to suit themselves. Malfoy even stole the idea of the enchanted coin so he could control Rosmerta; he stole Hermione's idea from the DA. They're good, but evil. They'll never stop."
Harry dropped a few sheets of paper to the floor.
"I spent days and days thinking about why we keep losing. The Order of the Phoenix has some great witches and wizards in it. Powerful, creative. But they always lay around waiting for something to happen. That inactivity might have helped drive Sirius a but insane our fifth year. Nothing happened. They kept most of their Aurors on guard duty for me the last couple of summers. We've been wasting resources, just passively reacting whenever something happens."
Ron tried to interrupt. "But they saved Hogwarts. They saved us in the Ministery."
Harry nodded. "They saved us from what the Death Eaters planned out. From their plots. But where are our plots? Why hasn't the Order of the Phoenix ever worked against them directly, proactively?"
"Dumbledore didn't let us in on what he knew," Hermione said.
Harry nodded and looked over to the twins. They seemed to have heard this sales pitch before.
"Dumbledore was focused on the big picture, the very end goal," Harry said. "He was a visionary, a powerful wizard, but he wasn't a leader."
Ron looked like he'd just been strangled.
"Don't take that the wrong way," Harry said. "I loved him like a grandfather, but I can see his faults for what they are. He said it himself, he was a brilliant man and his miscalculations were correspondingly enormous. No. Someone like Moody or Remus should have been in charge of the tactics. But all Dumbledore wanted was more information." Harry's voice turned cold here. "Information from Snape." His placid face and his dark voice made for a startling combination.
"Dumbledore was right and wrong about a lot of things. For one, he said there was a magic that Riddle knew not. He kept telling me it was my ability to love. My love for my friends, for my dead parents. Compassion, caring, all that. I'm willing to give him that. But that isn't all of it. I can laugh, I can enjoy the world even when I'm facing the effects of this prophecy. I should hate my Muggle roots as much as Voldemort did, but I don't. I am willing to embrace them."
"Laughter and Muggles are going to take down the Death Eaters?" Ron asked.
Harry smiled. "Something like that."
Hermione had been quiet longer than Harry thought possible. "Who are you, Harry? You sound like you're channeling a Slytherin right now."
Harry's laughter filled the house. "I never mentioned it, Hermione, but the Sorting Hat wanted to put me in Slytherin. I finally acknowledged I needed to borrow some cunning."
"And these books," Hermione said. "Where are the wizarding books? The spells and jinxes you need to learn?"
"Everything in a book, Hermione, in a wizarding book, they already know. They've had years to practice them, to learn the counters. All the tactics we've used up until now have failed us. It's time for something a bit newer. We have to use the avenues that they would never think to use, never deign to touch. Muggles are below them, hated. Fine, we'll use Muggle ideas. House elves are worthy of beatings, fine. We'll work with the house elves, we'll work with any magical creature that the Death Eaters scowl at. They're so hopped up on hatred and pain that they would never think of a Rictusempra being a deadly weapon. But it could be."
Ron was shaking his head. Harry just smiled more broadly and turned to the twins. "Could you fetch us some drinks, boys?"
George started to laugh. "Right away, sir…"
"…Mr. Harry Potter, sir," Fred finished. They sounded like a tall pair of house elves.
As they left the room, Harry leaned forward. "They've never forgiven themselves that Draco used their Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder when the Death Eaters stormed Hogwarts. They're as committed to this as I am."
Hermione turned to look at where the twins had disappeared to. In just a second, the smiling young men carried a tray back into the room. There were two plain glasses filled with water and three of the ugliest tea cups ever imagined.
"Need to do the dishes, Harry…" Fred said.
"…this is all the better we could do," George finished the thought.
Ron looked at his brothers like they were fit for a room next to Gilderoy Lockhart in St. Mungo's.
Harry reached for the tray and plucked off the largest tea cup. It was short, but very stout. For some reason, it just seemed angry.
Hermione cautiously reached out her hand and took a tall pale yellow cup. It had horses and small flowers painted on it.
Ron accepted, grudgingly, the third tea cup. It was taller than Harry's but not quite as stout. It seemed extremely heavy in Ron's hand, like he was holding up a Muggle bowling ball.
"Drink up," George cackled.
Hermione and Ron immediately set the cups near Harry on the coffee table. Neither of them would ever forget that the twins and Harry had founded a joke shop, Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes.
"What did you do to them," Ron asked.
Harry lifted up his cup and took a large swallow. "Not what you think, Ron."
Harry set the teacup down on the coffee table and spent a few moments arranging the other two. He'd lined them up.
He looked to the twins and sighed. "They don't get the joke, do they?"
Fred laughed. "No. But it's a good one. George and I have been working on a new wheeze. The research we did discovered how…"
George butted in. "…to transfigure a person into a teacup. We've made a joke version that lasts for thirty minutes."
Harry looked at his friends on the sofa. "What they did to the Dursleys for me doesn't have an expiration date. They added a silencing charm to keep them from squawking. This one," Harry touched the biggest cup, "I call Vernon. This one is Aunt Petunia and that last one I call Dudders."
"We're calling them Talking Teacups. They will be our biggest seller in a few months, I think," Fred said.
Ron and Hermione were unable to look away from the cups, the people who had tortured Harry Potter off and on for nearly sixteen years of his life. Ron was the first one to start laughing.
"Jokes and Muggles, huh?"
Harry smiled back. "Something like that, Ron. Something very like that."