Chapter 1: 1985

Introductions

It was a drizzly late April day and the woods were cold and silent. Annie wandered around, bending over occasionally to pick a pretty flower or unusual rock that caught her eye. After wandering for most of the morning, she had been startled to hear voices arguing above her….

"This is the wrong tree, I'm telling you!" a voice cried.

"No, it's not. See the bark?" another, slightly different voice argued with the first.

"I didn't say it wasn't an oak, I just said it's the wrong tree."

Annie looked up just in time to see a boy start to slip and barely catch himself on another branch.

"Careful!" a second boy shouted from a little higher up in the tree. "You'll scare them off!"

"What are you looking for?" she called up to them. She had never seen another living soul in the forest before, and was surprised to find other children here today. They did not look familiar to her – she decided she had not seen them before at school.

Stunned, both boys looked down at her open-mouthed. After several moments, one of them answered her with a question of his own.

"Who are you?"

"I'm Annie. Who are you?"

The boy who had spoken paused and looked cautiously around. The other one continued to stare at her, dumbfounded. After a few more moments, satisfied that the three of them were alone, the cautious boy answered her.

"I'm Fred. That's George," he added, nodding his head toward his still mute companion. "Where did you come from?" he demanded.

"I live in the village. Just beyond the woods," she replied. George, the mute one, gasped at this revelation, for some reason.

"Oh. What are you doing here?" Fred further demanded to know, sounding officious.

Annie shrugged. She had no real purpose for being in the woods, other than to entertain herself with whatever she found. The children stared at each other for a few moments longer then Fred turned back to the tree and began to climb higher.

"What are you looking for?" Annie repeated. The tree climbing looked like fun, and she hoped they would invite her to join them.

"Bowtruckles," answered the other boy, George, speaking for the first time. Fred had paused in his climbing and shot him a glaring look.

"What are bowtruckles?" she asked. She had never heard of them. "Are they birds?"

Fred continued to climb up the tree, ignoring the exchange. George glanced up at him once before hopping down from the low branch he had been perched on. Now that he was on the ground, Annie could see that he was a good bit taller than she was. But then, that was not surprising, as almost everyone was taller than she was except for little babies, it seemed.

"Bowtruckles are like little stick-men. We're trying to catch one. They hide in old trees. But not this one," he said. The last bit he called upwards into the tree, for his brother's benefit.

"Oh," Annie replied. She hadn't really understood what he meant, but appreciated his friendly explanation. "Can I help?" she asked.

George pondered her offer for a moment then shrugged an assent. "You look really small. Are you sure you can climb this big tree?" he asked with a curious look on his face.

"I think I can, if you give me a boost up to the first branch," Annie replied after examining the tree for a few seconds.

"Okay," said George. He then knit his fingers together and bent down for her to reach. Annie put one foot into his hands while bracing her own hands on his shoulders. Then she vaulted herself into the air. Her tiny legs were incongruously strong and she caught the lowest branch with her body bent at the hips, then quickly swung her legs up and onto the branch in a swift and graceful movement.

"Ooohf," was George's only comment. He didn't seem surprised by Annie's gymnastic feat. He paused just long enough to verify that she wouldn't be falling back down, then took a couple of steps backward himself. With a running leap, he had caught the branch in his hands then swung his body up with his arms. It had taken him only slightly longer than Annie to mount the branch and start climbing up after her.

It took the other two children a few minutes to catch up with Fred, who was perched about two-thirds of the way up the tree. Breathing only slightly harder than normal, Annie asked him, "Did you find one yet?"

Fred had been quietly scanning the branches. "No, not yet," he said absently. He froze suddenly, squinted hard at something in the distance for a few seconds, then relaxed with a disappointed sigh.

"I told you this was the wrong tree," George said a few minutes later.

"Shut it!" Fred replied dismissively.

The three of them sat quietly scanning the tree's branches for a long time. Since Annie wasn't exactly sure what she was looking for, she was getting bored quickly. She decided to examine the unfamiliar boys instead. They both had identical flaming red hair, trimmed short but a bit shaggy and messy with leaves and spider webs encountered while climbing the tree. They had warm brown eyes and lightly freckled cheeks that were rosy from the activity and cold. George had a smudge of dirt on one cheek. Fred was chewing on his lip while scanning the treetop. They were dressed identically as well in blue trousers and blue and green striped jumpers.

"You lot look the same," she commented quietly, not wishing to disturb any unseen Bowtruckles.

"Yeah. We're twins," George answered.

Fred scowled at them both for interrupting his silent hunt. He started to creep carefully up a little higher in the tree, muttering something about this branch becoming too crowded. George and Annie watched him as he moved off.

"Where do you live?" she asked, hoping it was nearby.

"Here. These are our woods," he answered off-hand.

Annie's eyes widened. "In the trees?" she asked incredulously, wondering if these strange boys lived like the family in the book Gran had read to her earlier in the year. She began scanning nearby treetops for an elaborate tree house.

George snorted. "No, silly. In a house, like everyone else." He rolled his eyes at her ridiculous assumption.

"Oh," she answered in a disappointed voice. Perhaps five more minutes then passed by silently. "How much longer are you going to look?" she whispered.

George blinked, then sighed. He had been looking up at the sky now that the drizzle had stopped. He turned to face Annie, then pressed his lips together in a line and shrugged.

Annie responded by raising her eyebrows quizzically, then looked down at her swinging feet.

George was getting bored as well. He began to casually examine the mysterious little muggle girl sitting next to him on the branch. He had understood that he was tall for seven years old, but this girl seemed tiny to him; perhaps even smaller than his little brother Ron. Maybe she's younger than we are? he wondered. If so, she didn't act like a baby, he thought, unlike his whiney little brother. She was a good tree climber; that was evident. Maybe all muggles were smaller than wizards? He had never met one before, after all.

Her dark brown hair was damp from the mist and curly but cut short, just below the ears. Her skin was almost golden in color, but her nose and cheeks were rosy. Just then she sniffed and gazed at a bird that had caught her attention when it landed on a branch just to his right. His brow furrowed as he tried to decide what color her eyes were. Blue? Grey? No… violet, he concluded with small surprise.

Annie leaned back against the trunk of the tree and started to absentmindedly snap tiny twigs off a branch within reach. She tossed the first one toward the bird, who flew off in response. Then she tossed the next two at George, who smirked as each of them fell short of their intended target, but did not respond any further. Another one, flicked harder this time, she sent toward the tiny rill of a stream below them.

She reached out again toward a larger, dead-looking stick and pulled. But instead of snapping off in her hand, it seemed to twist in her grasp.

It had moved!

Smaller side-branching twigs then began to claw her wrist, leaving behind little red scrapes on her skin. She released her grip and gave out a startled cry, but the stick didn't obey gravity and drop to the ground as it should have. Instead, it crept nimbly all the way up to her elbow. To her surprise, she could see two tiny, angry-looking eyes glaring up at her from a cleft in the stick.

She shook her arm, attempting to fling the frightening thing away from her. At the same moment, the creature launched itself toward her face. She ducked, turning her head away to hide her face from the attack. Annie cried out again, in pain this time; it was now stuck in her curls and pulling on her hair!

George instantly began creeping along the branch toward her. "Fred!" he cried, summoning help from above.

Fred had seen the disturbance as well and identified the culprit. "Hold still!" he shouted. "I'm coming! Try to grab it, George! Don't let it get away!"

George buried his hands in Annie's hair, attempting to tug the thing out. She held as still as she could, hoping the thing wouldn't bite her. Her eyes stung with tears, but she bit her lip to keep from crying out again. She hated showing what she considered girlish weakness like that, especially in front of these boys she had so wanted to impress. But the pain of her tender scalp was intense.

"Argh!" George grunted. He had gotten a good grip on the creature now, but it was clinging to Annie's hair too tightly to come out. At that moment, Fred reached their branch. "It won't let go!" George cried in frustration.

"Here!" Fred said excitedly. He then fished into his pockets and pulled out a fistful of woodlice. He offered it to what he assumed was the head-end of the creature.

Annie felt the thing stop struggling on her head. Then, slowly the pressure on her scalp began to release. She exhaled in relief, swallowed her hurt, then quickly wiped the traitorous tears from her cheeks and turned around to face the boys.

Fred's attention was completely absorbed with the wriggling creature in George's hands. "Don't squeeze it so hard!" he barked at him.

"Do you want it to get away?" George shot back.

"Give it to me then," he snapped and wrenched the thing out of George's grasp.

Annie peered at the squirming thing. "What is it?" she whispered, not wanting to provoke another attack.

"A bowtruckle," Fred replied, like he was speaking to an idiot.

Annie scowled at him, but then her expression quickly turned to wonder. It was just like George had described earlier: a little stick-man. The angry look in its eyes was gone, but she could tell it didn't want to be trapped in Fred's hands. It had finished with the woodlice he had brought, and was now digging at Fred's hands with his tiny twiggy fingers, attempting to squirm out of his captor's hold. Unlike her own oozing wrists, there were no scrapes resulting on Fred's hands.

"Get the bag out of my pocket," Fred commanded. George obeyed instantly, holding it open. Fred plunged his hands inside, and George held onto the bowtruckle from outside the bag while Fred extricated his hands then tied the bag shut. The bag twitched around once George released his hold on it.

"Think it will hold?" George looked at the bag doubtfully.

Fred shrugged. The bag jerked violently then, seemingly in response to the question. "We'd better hurry, just in case," he said.

Fred tossed the bag over his back and pulled a strap over each arm. He grasped the tree trunk and began making his way back down to the ground.

George finally tore his eyes away from the bag and looked at the girl. He could see a smudge on each of her cheekbones now, and then glanced down at her wrist, taking in the slightly bleeding marks. "Are you hurt?" he asked.

Annie was mortified he would dare ask such a thing! She stuck out her chin and replied with a scathing, "No!"

George shrugged. He didn't believe her, but said, "All right then," anyway and turned away from her. They both began to pick their way back down the tree.

Fred reached the ground first. "Ha! Ha!" Fred exclaimed triumphantly. "I can't wait to see the look on Percy's fat face when he sees this! Ha!"

George beamed in agreement. Then, as if another thought suddenly occurred to him, he glanced back up at Annie seated on the lowest branch. "Need any help?"

Annie's first reaction was to take offense again, but then reconsidered, judging the distance to the ground to be a bit too much for her confidence. "Well, maybe," she admitted grudgingly. George held his arms up, and she took both his hands, then bumped herself off the branch. With George to brace her, she landed lightly on her feet. "Thanks," she whispered.

"Come on, let's go," Fred ordered his brother as he turned his back and marched off.

George watched Fred begin to leave. As much as he was looking forward to showing up his brother Percy, he hated to leave the only muggle he had ever met so soon. He had a million questions he wanted to ask her. Turning back to the girl, he spoke: "Well, thanks for helping us. Pleasure to meet you, Annie," he said quietly.

"Likewise, George," Annie replied. "See you around?" she asked, sounding hopeful.

"Yeah, probably," he replied, sounding enthusiastic as well. George was thrilled by the prospect of spending more time with the little muggle girl. "We might be down by the river tomorrow. Maybe we'll see you there?" he asked, jogging backward to catch up with his brother.

"Okay, see you," she called, as she watched the curiously friendly boy follow after his twin.

And she had met them again, countless times over the summer months. Almost daily her new friends had shown her so many amazing things she had never seen before; not in any of the books she had ever read, nor in the zoo her grandmother had taken her to. They hadn't always hunted for creatures – sometimes they had played slay the dragon, or hide and seek, or some other game. Once they had even stripped down to their underwear and swam in the stream on a scorching hot day. But these last few weeks had been spent on a secret project of vital importance.

On one of their exploratory expeditions, they had come across an ancient willow tree with graceful limbs trailing over a stream. Of course, they had to climb it immediately. And to their delight they had discovered two perfectly level branches that spread parallel to the ground just a few feet apart, well over ten feet up.

George and Fred had looked excitedly at each other. "Tree fort!" they had exclaimed in the same instant.

From that day on, it had become an obsession for the three children. Every day, first thing in the morning, they would set off to meet at the tree. For a whole week, Fred and George would arrive, dragging contraband timber filched from home to use as floorboards. Annie had discovered she could braid and weave the willow's long, flexible branches together to make a frame of sorts for the tent-shaped sides and roof. After a morning's worth of work, they would sit on the bank of the stream, bare feet dangling in the slow current, munching on sandwiches and cookies brought from home. The afternoon would be spent exploring the surrounding area, remarking on excellent ambush spots and escape routes.

*

Annie danced on her feet, shifting quickly from left to right. The small kitchen was bright with mid-morning light and smelled of still-warm cookies. She looked at them lying on a thin towel, then up at her grandmother, then back to the cookies.

Her grandmother saw everything. She chuckled and muttered "Go on with you then," with a smile.

Annie joyfully snatched a fistful of the soft cookies and then bolted out the back door. She skipped through the tidy little garden, burst out of the wooden gate and flew across the open field toward the forest.

Meredith beamed with loving pride after her granddaughter: so full of energy, of life. She had no idea what Annie really spent her days doing in the woods, but she always came home for supper happy, filthy and tired. Since the day earlier this spring when Meredith first allowed seven-year-old Annie to play in the woods alone, she would always come home filled with fantastic stories about fairies, mythical creatures, and a pair of magical playmates. What an imagination that child has,Meredith thought. She chuckled again and began kneading the bread dough with her gnarled fingers.

Meanwhile, Annie arrived at the edge of the forest. She wondered if her friends be there yet. She slowed her pace a bit, weaving around the trees, careful not to follow the same path as yesterday. It would not do to leave a trail in the forest, she cautioned herself. A magical hideout must stay secret forever.

Today she reached the tree fort with all but one of the cookies she had left the house with. The boys weren't there yet, but she wasn't too disappointed – it was still early in the late summer day. She decided to fill the time spent waiting by pulling out one of the books they had stashed in the fort. It was a thin, beaten-up book with red binding and barely-readable gold lettering on the cover. She loved reading about the creatures inside, but wished it had pictures. There was another book in the fort that had pictures of people in flowing clothes. The text wasn't very interesting, but the pictures were fascinating because they moved!

She opened the red book and turned to the page about bowtruckles, smiling as she was reminded once again about the first time she saw one. A folded piece of paper was tucked into the book; it held her attempt to sketch one of the creatures. It wasn't half bad, but not great either. She wished she could make it move as well. She smiled again, imagining her drawing squirming on the page.

She turned to the page with the clabbert description. They had captured one of the froggy-looking creatures yesterday in a nearby tree, and Fred had leashed it to a branch just outside their tree fort. She peered out a tiny window in the branch-wall to see if it was still there. Sure enough, there it was. It peered back at her, and the bump on its head began to turn slightly red. She reached for a red pencil and started to add the red spot to her latest drawing.

Annie and the captured clabbert heard footsteps coming through the forest at the same time. The spot on its head now turned an angry red in response, and Annie turned to face the entrance in the floor of the fort.

"Oh… hey Annie!" Fred smiled as his head popped into view.

"Hi Fred, hi George," she replied as they both pulled themselves into the fort. "I brought some cookies," she added, holding a stack of them out in her open hand.

"Mmm," hummed George as he reached out for the treats. He reluctantly passed a few to his brother. Both boys gobbled the cookies instantly.

"Thanks," mumbled Fred, spewing crumbs.

Annie smirked at his boyish manners.

George headed over to the rudimentary window in the woven wall. "Is it still there?" he asked no one in particular.

"Mmhmm," Annie informed him. "What are we going to do with it?" she asked.

"I caught this on the way here," explained Fred. He pulled a small lizard out of his pocket, showing her. She took it from him gently, examining it closely with interest. "I'll see if I can get him to eat it," Fred continued.

Annie responded by wrinkling her nose. "Eww," she said quietly, and handed the doomed creature back.

Fred rolled his eyes at her delicate reaction and climbed back down out of the fort. Rather than dropping down to the ground, he shimmied along a lower branch to the other side of the willow that hung over the water. George and Annie could feel the vibrations of his movement through the tree as Fred edged toward the clabbert. George looked out the window again to watch his progress.

"That red spot is really raging now," he commented for Annie's benefit. "Watch out for those teeth!" he called out to his brother. "They're not venomous, are they?" he asked Annie, nodding toward the book in her lap.

She shook her head with confidence, having just reread the clabbert entry this morning, and George turned back to observe his brother. Annie went back to work on her drawing. She wasn't sure what else to add to it. She uttered a deep sigh instead.

"I'm going to miss you two," she said quietly, mostly to herself.

"What do you mean?" asked George. "We're not going anywhere."

"School starts next week," she explained. Once school started, she wouldn't be able to spend all day with the boys – only see them in the evenings and on weekends. Nothing could possibly appeal less to Annie than the prospect of sitting still at a desk doing lessons all day long. And none of the children she went to school were a fraction as interesting, or as friendly, as her forest mates were.

"Why don't you go to school in the village?" she asked, surprised the thought had only now occurred to her.

"Our mum teaches us school stuff at home," replied Fred, just climbing back into the fort.

"Oh, okay," said Annie. After a few moments of thought, she added, "Don't you miss playing with other kids at school?" Not that I would….

Fred shrugged. "We still have Percy and Ron to hang out with, though Charlie and Bill are both going away this year. Sure will miss Charlie," he said thoughtfully.

"And we hang out here with you," George added.

Annie was confused. "Wait… going? Where are your brothers going?"

An alarmed, guilty look spread across Fred's face. "Away… to school," he said reluctantly, after a long pause. He glanced a warning to George.

"Huh?" quizzed Annie. "I thought you just said your mum taught you?"

"Hogwarts!" George interrupted in an excited whisper. "They're going to Hogwarts!" Fred hissed at him to stop, but George looked back with a smirk and shook him off with his head.

"Oh, come on. It's Annie. She won't tell anyone." Then he turned to look at her earnestly. "Right?" he asked her. Well, actually, it sounded more like a command than a request to Annie.

"Of course not," she assured him. Other than the two of them, and her Gran, she rarely spoke to another living soul. Secrets were always safe with her. She was an expert at keeping them.

"What's Hogwarts?" she asked, stumbling over the unfamiliar and strange-sounding word.

"A school. Our school. For wizards," George said in a hushed voice.

Annie's eyes grew round as what George said began to register. She had always known there was something different about George and Fred. Something special. They were certainly not like her, or anyone she had ever met before. Had she guessed that they were… wizards?

"George!" Fred barked in a whisper. "Shut it! She's a muggle!"

Annie whipped her head back around to face Fred. "What did you just call me?" she asked in a snarl of her own, glaring at him. She could feel a fury building quickly inside, tightening in her chest. Her fists clenched and she took a step toward Fred.

"Cool it, Annie," George replied, his hands raised in a gesture of conciliation.

"It doesn't mean anything bad," Fred answered her at the same time. "It just means people like you. Non-magical people." His left arm was slightly raised in self defense, just in case Annie decided to throw one of those fists his way despite the explanation. Over the summer, both boys learned that Annie's temper flared in surprisingly painful ways, for a girl so tiny.

"You're not supposed to know," George added.

"Oh." Annie took a deep breath and dropped her shoulders. Her body quickly released the angry tension of her muscles, as rapidly as it had built up. "Sorry," she added, feeling pleased that they trusted her with such an enormous secret.

Then a disturbing thought crossed her mind. "Will you go then… to Hogwarts, some day?" she asked, afraid of the answer but unable to resist asking anyway.

Fred nodded. "When we turn eleven."

Eleven, Annie thought. That was four years away. Loads of time till then. Ages, even. She sighed in relief, surprised at how upset she had felt at the idea that her new friends would be leaving her soon.

"Where is it?" she continued.

"Nobody really knows exactly for sure. Somewhere in Scotland, probably," George answered.

"Oh." Annie felt a small twinge in her heart at the thought. "That's far away."

"Yeah. It's an old castle," Fred explained.

As curious as she was about a school in a castle, Annie didn't feel like continuing this conversation for the moment. She wanted a chance to digest this new information first. She glanced around the fort, and saw the little red book again. That reminded her of the creature outside.

"Did he eat it?" she asked to change the subject and walked over to the window.

"Oh, yeah, he did," replied Fred, sounding relieved to talk about something else. "Once I fed him, the spot turned brown again. I bet if we feed him a few more times, we can take off the leash and he'll stay put."

"Maybe," George conceded, moving on, like the rest of them, as if the preceding conversation hadn't occurred.

After a several minutes of silently reviewing the facts that her playmates were wizards who in a few years would be leaving Devon to go to school in a castle in Scotland, and unable to think of anything else, she decided to ask what was becoming a burning question.

"Can anyone go, to the castle school, and learn magic?" Perhaps she could convince her Gran to send her to Hogwarts with her new friends?

"Nah. You get a letter, the summer you're eleven, if you get to go," explained Fred.

"How do you know you'll go, then?" she wondered aloud.

"I suppose some kids don't, until they get the letter," he mused. "The ones whose parents are muggles, well, there's no way for them to know about Hogwarts before the letter. The rest of us – the ones with magical parents – we've known since forever."

"But even muggle-borns already know they can do magic by then – all the odd things they can make happen," George continued where his brother left off. "It sort of busts out of you sometimes, when you're mad or upset, usually. You can't always control it, like we do."

"So you can do magic, like that?" she exclaimed. "Why don't you ever show me?"

"We can, but we're not supposed to," explained George.

"See, it's a bit different for us, being born into a magical family," added Fred.

"We've got the Trace on us. Whenever we do any magic – on purpose that is – some great Ministry muckety-muck might come and we'd all get in trouble," George said. "Most people don't get a Trace until they start school, though," he lamented.

Fred chuckled. "We got ours early. Mum insisted."

"Everyone in your family can do magic?" she asked, trying to downplay the tone of jealousy in her voice.

Both boys nodded casually, as if it was no big deal.

"When did you know… that you could… I mean, how did you…?" she said softly, unsure of how to phrase this crucial question.

"Mum tells the story like this: she was trying to get us to eat a plate of vegetables one day when we were about two," began Fred, understanding what Annie was asking.

"Yeah, but we were having none of it," added George. "Probably turnips or some rubbish."

"And suddenly, the plate flew across the kitchen, smashed into the wall…"

"She says we started laughin' so hard…"

"And then, one by one, all the plates on the table started flyin'…"

"And smashin'…"

"And us laughin'…"

"And she knew exactly what to expect of us from that day on!" Both boys began to chuckle.

"Mess…" George said, indicating himself with his finger.

"And Mayhem," Fred added, bowing formally.

"Sort of our family nicknames, really…" George said with a smile.

Annie smiled as she pictured the scene in her mind of her friends as babies. But something more important was nagging at her brain. The most important question she would ever ask….

"Could I… I mean, can you… teach me any?"

The smiles on both boys' faces fell then. Fred slowly shook his head and turned away.

Annie's heart sunk. What had been her dearest ambition for only the last few minutes, ever since she had learned the truth about her magical friends, had now been shot out of the sky for good. She could never be like them, ever.

George was looking at her with… no, it wasn't pity, but… concern. He seemed genuinely sorry that her feelings were hurt. He put his hand out, patted her shoulder. "Sorry, mate. You have to be born with it. Dunno how it works, but there it is," he explained with a shrug.

Fred turned back to them, and continued. "Bein' a muggle isn't so bad, is it? I mean, you've got cool stuff like airplanes, and eccleristy…."

"Electricity? You mean you don't have electricity in your house?!" Annie exclaimed. The whole thing was becoming more unbelievable by the moment.

"Can't… Dad says the magic messes it up," George answered, sounding somewhat dejected.

"You're joking," Annie cried, incredulous.

Both boys shook their heads in unison. "Nope."

"How do you cook, or have lights, or do anything?" she asked, unable to imagine such a primitive existence. She and her Gran didn't have many of the modern toys her schoolmates talked about, but they certainly had electricity, for crying out loud!

Fred looked at her as if she was missing something very obvious.

"Oh, right." As hard as it was to imagine living without electricity, Annie was sure that she would be able to give it up, and happily, to be like her friends. To do magic. She didn't know what else to say. Her eyes fell to the floor in disappointment.

George glanced at his brother, silently asking him what they should do next. Fred chewed his cheek as he thought. He decided they needed to distract their friend.

"Hey, let's head down to the river today, see if we can catch another imp," he offered, remembering how that had entertained Annie once before. A slow smile began to spread on their little friend's face as she recalled the silly antics of the imp they had found a couple weeks ago.

"Race you," she offered as she launched herself out the trapdoor.

*

Chaos and mayhem were in the ascendant. No less than three glasses of milk had been spilled in the ten minutes since lunch began. George and Percy had had to be physically separated to prevent further injuries. They were currently glaring daggers at each other from opposite ends of the table. Bill and Charlie were shouting at one another about something, quidditch most likely. Ron was currently in tears, protesting the fact that he didn't get the portion he had wanted. Ginny was jumping up and down in her lap, refusing to eat altogether.

Molly was at her wit's end.

Fred was the only quiet one, at the moment. That fact alone made Molly extremely nervous. He was dreamily gazing out the window, she assumed at the spectacular vista: a once-in-a-decade blizzard had hit Southern England yesterday, and two feet of pristine snow sparkled in the sun. The December morning had dawned bitterly cold, which was why Molly was now clinging desperately to her last scrap of sanity – all seven of her children had been cooped up together in the house for well over a day. But since the sun had been shining all morning long, surely it would be warm enough now….

"Mum, can I go outside and play?" Fred asked excitedly, interrupting her thoughts which had been rather similar in their vein.

"Yes!" she cried with relief. "All you lot – out! Dress warmly… Bill and Charlie, enough with the brooms, you two. Stay on the ground today – you're in charge of Ron and Ginny. I don't want to see any of you for the rest of the afternoon!"

Noise rivaling that of an earthquake shook the cramped kitchen as seven bodies jostled each other to be the first dressed and out the door. Ron was in tears again, unable to find his hat. George had nearly strangled Percy with his own muffler, and they were wrestling with each other once again, crashing heedlessly into the other children. Ginny got knocked over and began to cry.

"OUT!" Molly screamed, stabbing her finger at the door.

All seven children were momentarily stunned into paralyzed silence. Then they slowly turned as one and filed out the door quietly.

Blessed peace descended on the kitchen.

The Weasley children began trekking toward the orchard paddock. Bill and Charlie had snuck their brooms out with them, and were planning on flying despite what their mother had told them. All the other children followed them except for Fred, who struck out toward one of the hills in the distance.

"Where're you off to?" yelled his twin. When Fred didn't answer, George jogged after him.

"Look, out there…" Fred indicated with a whisper and a subtle nod when George caught up with him.

George gazed toward the distant hill. A small figure stood at the top, jumping up and down and waving at them. It took a seat on something, and then started sliding down the hill, picking up a great deal of speed by the time it reached the bottom.

"Let's go!" George cried excitedly as they made their way through the drifts as quickly as they could.

"Where did you get it?" Fred cried when they arrived at the crest of the hill.

"It was my Gran's, when she was a girl in Wales. She told me it snows a lot more there than it does here. It's really old, but it still works. Want to have a go?" Annie offered.

Fred nodded enthusiastically and sat down upon the toboggan.

"Look, put your feet on this bit here. You can steer it a little bit, but not much. Don't aim it at a tree, for crying out loud," she instructed.

"All right, all right. I've got it. George, gimme a shove," he ordered. With his brother's push, Fred sped down the hill, whooping in delight.

"Bring it back up, hurry!" shouted George, eager for his turn.

"That your house?" Annie asked, pointing in the distance toward the oddest building she had ever seen. It looked almost imbalanced, like it should be toppling over. Smoke was lazily curling up out of several chimneys, and icicles dangled from every horizontal edge. Strange-looking, but also somehow cozy and inviting.

"Yeah," George answered. "I'm sick of being stuck in it with that lot, that's for sure."

"Who were all those people, who came out with you?" she asked.

"Hurry up, Fred!" he shouted then turned back to Annie. "My brothers and sister."

"All of them?" she asked, incredulous.

George shrugged and looked at her as if it was a stupid question.

Annie pondered this revelation. She hadn't quite realized that her friends had had so many siblings all at home. They usually only ever talked about their older brothers, who were away at school this year. She guessed they must be home for the holidays. It was such a completely foreign concept to her: the idea of sharing a home with children her own age. And there were so many of them; how did they all fit? Could there be even more in there, too little to come outside? she wondered.

Fred had reached the top now and handed the sled off to George. "That was brilliant!" he cried.

George, not satisfied with merely copying his brother, tried lying down on the sled, plowing headfirst down the hill at breakneck speed, roaring all the way.

"Your brothers were carrying big stick things. What were they?" she asked Fred while they waited for George to return.

"Brooms," he answered simply.

"What for?" she asked. What good could two scrawny little brooms do to clear all this snow?

"Flying," he answered her distractedly. "Move it!" he called to his brother, who had paused half-way back up the hill to catch his breath.

"What?" she cried, her eyes bugged out.

Fred turned to her with a smile, pleased at her reaction. He always liked the way she was amazed by all their everyday magical stuff, no matter that it was all second-hand or second-best. "You ride them. They fly."

"Witches really fly on brooms?" she cried softly in amazement, revealing a common muggle misconception.

"If girls can do it, boys can do it better, I assure you," he snapped quite defensively, misunderstanding her ignorance. "Come on, do you want your turn or not?" he asked testily as George held out the tow rope to her.

"Oh, yeah. Push me, you two – I want to go as fast as you this time!" she commanded.

Both boys put their hands on her shoulders and gave a shove. She flew down the slope, tumbling off the sled into the snow when she tried to steer away from a rock. The boys roared with laughter from the top of the hill.

A few minutes later, she was back at the top herself, beaming with pleasure. "Brilliant!" she cried. "Did you see me catch air?"

"We saw you eat a face full of snow, if that's what you're referring to," laughed Fred. He bent over the sled and began to run; pushing it from behind, then throwing his body on it once he reached cruising speed.

"Can you fly on a broom, George?" she asked.

George sighed wistfully. "Not a real one. Not till we're older – after we get our wands."

Oh right. They had talked about that before, she remembered. How they were not allowed to do magic until they were eleven, when they each got a wand and went away to school.

She wondered sometimes if maybe the whole wizard story was just that: a story. She had begged, cajoled, teased and attempted to trick her way into catching them doing magic. And after all that, they had never showed her a trick, had they? Never uttered a single magic word.

But then, if they weren't magical, how else could she explain all the rest of it? The creatures in the forest that no one else she knew had ever seen? The books with the pictures that moved? The astonishing house they lived in?

"You know, you never follow any other rules. Why that one?" she asked. She knew Fred and George spent a good deal of their lives being punished by their parents.

"The rules we break aren't serious ones. Fred and I are the only ones who get in trouble," he explained.

"And me, don't forget," she added. She had gotten into plenty of trouble with Gran, usually for coming home too dirty, too late or both.

"That's your own fault. You don't have to follow along, if you don't like it. Anyway, we can't do magic because of the Trace, remember? Mum and Dad would get in trouble, as well. Especially if anyone knew a muggle had seen it," he said with a nudge to her shoulder.

There was that word again: the one that made her feel like something less. She knew he didn't mean anything hurtful by it. It was no different than calling her a girl, or a human; just simply what she was. But it was different than what they were, and that caused her pain.

"Cheer up. We like it when you get in trouble with us!" he teased, misinterpreting the cause of her glum expression. "Here – it's my last, but I'll split it with you," he said as he dug into a pocket and pulled out a small colorful package, handing it to her.

She turned it over in her hands. The label read "Chocolate Frog."

"Let me open it – they can get away from you if you're not careful." George took it back from her, carefully ripped open the package and caught something as it attempted to jump away. It struggled in his hand as he lifted it to his mouth and bit down. A long pair of squirming legs stuck out from between his smiling lips.

Annie's mouth hung open in shock.

George pinched the still-moving portion of the treat in his fingers, pulled it away from his own mouth, and shoved the wriggling thing in hers.

She tasted creamy chocolate as she closed her mouth, trapping the morsel. The treat slowly stopped moving as it melted on her tongue.

"Ooh, Godric Gryffindor," he said as he pulled a card out of the package. "That's a good one. Here, I've already got it – you take it."

Annie looked at the small card in her hand. A dashingly heroic man was holding a sword as the wind billowed his cape behind him. His hands were resting on top of a glittering sword for a moment, then he abruptly swung it round his head and pointed it directly at her, as if he could see her, then rested the point back on the ground in front of him. She stared at it the entire time it took Fred and George to ride down the hill together on the sled then climb back up to the top.

"You mean I can keep this?" she asked incredulously when George was back.

"Sure. I've got at least two more of him at home. Fred's probably got even more. Your turn."

"You go ahead. I'll go in a minute," she said, mesmerized by the man on the card. He was winking and smiling at her now. She wondered what he might do next, and didn't want to miss it.

"You sure?" he asked, already climbing on the sled.

Annie nodded, never taking her eyes from the card. She slowly turned it over and read the details about this wild-looking man who was a wizard nearly a thousand years ago! Could any of this be true? she wondered.

"Fred! Is this stuff for real?" she asked him.

"What's that? Oh, Famous Wizard card. Yeah, it's true. Which one have you got there?"

"Some bloke named Godric Gryffindor," she answered her tongue tripping slightly over the outlandish name.

"Some bloke? He's only one of the founders of Hogwarts! One of the greatest wizards ever lived! Some bloke, indeed," he sniffed, sounding put out by her lack of proper respect for one of his heroes. "Where'd you get that, anyway?" he asked suspiciously.

"George gave it to me," she answered defensively, snatching it away as Fred reached out for it. She carefully tucked it inside her jacket pocket.

Fred looked at George, who shrugged from his seat on the sled. "Let Annie go this time, George," his brother ordered. George rose reluctantly from his seat on the sled. Annie was happy to comply. She didn't appreciate the tone of Fred's voice, or his grabby hands at the moment.

Annie took her turn but with far less enthusiasm than before. As she slowly walked back up the hill, she watched as her friends were arguing amongst themselves at the top. Was it about the card? She'd rather give it up than have them be upset with her. She caught a few snippets of the conversation drifting down the hill from above.

"… not even supposed to know…"

"… don't be so paranoid…"

"What if somebody sees it?" argued Fred.

"I trust Annie… why don't you?" asked George.

The boys stopped talking as she reached the top of the hill. She dug into her pocket, and pulled out the magical card. "Here. You can have it back. Don't be mad at him, Fred… he was just being polite, anyway." She held out the card in her hand, waiting for Fred to take it.

Fred narrowed his eyes, looking carefully at her face, while chewing on the inside of his cheek. Then he scowled. "Don't be thick. I've got six of him," he growled and waved away the card.

Annie burst into a smile. She could keep it, after all! "I promise I won't show it to anyone," she assured him.

"I know you won't, Annie," he said with a sigh, punching her shoulder as he took the sled's tow rope from her hand.